Teach your Children Well

Years ago, when I was a proper working person and not a layabout pensioner, I was a teacher. I worked in primary schools, beginning with the oldest children, in a tenement style school in Stockwell, London and finishing with the tiny tots in the reception class in a seaside village.

During the first, pre-career break time there was room for some experimentation in the classroom. There was the freedom to implement such ideas as ‘bay-working’, where the room was split into areas or ‘bays’, each bay being set up for some independent work in a specific curriculum subject.

When I returned to reaching after a ten year career break [having my own children] there was still a culture of freedom and the school where I taught implemented a system called ‘integrated day’, the idea being that a topic was chosen and the learning arose from delving into curriculum areas around that topic.

During the years I worked in the integrated day system I can never remember any of us, children included, feeling stressed, bored or exhausted [although, to be fair I was still relatively young]. The children, no matter what age, were responsible for their own day’s achievements and became independent from not being ‘spoon-fed’ every skill and piece of knowledge. We considered ourselves providers or facilitators and all of us attended school each day with a buzzy feeling of enthusiasm for what the day would bring.

Within the system we used ‘real’ books for reading. We’d quietly withdraw a specific ability group to teach a skill in Maths or English or hear individuals read then filter them back in to practise what they’d learned. Art, science, story writing, technology or play would all be going on simultaneously.

There were many opportunities for children to help each other and enjoy roles and responsibilities. Everyone could say what they were doing and why. The behaviour was mature and sensible, even though sixty or seventy children would be sharing a [large] area.

Within three or four years of this halcyon period the ‘national curriculum’ was introduced. Nine curriculum subjects were identified and separated. There was no more linking up areas into topics. The concept of targets crept in. Appraisal and the beginning of scrutiny began. Some bright, government ambition-seeker invented OFSTED. Fear became a feature of every day teaching life.

There was no more opportunity for integrated day, for children to feel empowered by their independence. The parents no longer trusted us. Testing, in the form of SATS was thought up, a system the parents fixated on and became obsessed with, their children’s ‘level’ being the only thing that mattered-more than motivation, achievement, self-esteem or happiness.

I believe that parents, teachers and anyone who is involved with children’s development should aim to foster a spirit of independence in thought and action, maintain the natural desire to learn and encourage kindness, respect and support of each other, just as we used to. That way we may have a hope of growing and nurturing a kind, caring and intelligent society and not the grasping, selfish and ignorant culture we are stuck with today.

The Good the Bad and the Unreadable

It would not be an exaggeration to say that writing has spoiled reading for me. This is not to say that I no longer read. I do. In fact I consider that reading-widely and variedly-is essential for anyone hoping to produce any written work of their own. But the sheer hedonistic escapism that ensues when you are engrossed in a rip-roaring, breath-taking story is rare nowadays.

I became a voracious reader as a child, devouring the written word as soon as I could read; beginning with fairy stories and developing an appetite for fantasy in the form of the Narnia books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and the Alan Garner novels. A friend with a penchant for Enid Blyton led me to flirt briefly with The Famous Five but I was soon disenchanted by the formula aspect of the plots [although I was keen to replicate the ‘gang’ aspect by forming a club and pursuing some vague exploits].

Later I flogged my way through Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, indulged in an Ian Fleming phase with some gentile porn thrown in [a furtive, febrile partaking of Lady Chatterley plus a few dismembered sections of Frank Harris’s ‘My Life and Loves’ undertaken during geography lessons and passed around partly opened desks-little wonder I was not invited to pursue my geographical studies].

Later, during my hippy phase I spent every spare moment during one week reading The Lord of the Rings and became sucked in to the extent that when Gandalf disappeared down the chasm I was devastated to the point of despair and felt my own life to be at an end. Such is the susceptibility of youth-and Tolkien’s writing of course.

As a student I was influenced to read more widely and began to enjoy modern classics like Catcher in the Rye or Sylvia Plath’s fascinating and darkly comic The Bell Jar. I became aware that there were differences between good and poor writing.

Once real life had set in with the onset of work, marriage and babies there was a hiatus in my reading while I dipped into Dr Spock and Penelope Leach whilst wringing out the nappies. Still later, teaching left no time or energy for reading outside of holiday periods, when I’m sad to say pure escapism took over in the shape of thrillers. There was a Stephen King period, a Ruth Rendell/P D James/Minette Walters period and even a Lee Child stage before, short of a book I stumbled upon a dog-eared paperback in a hotel in The Gambia. It was The Blind Assassin. The title grabbed my attention then I was gripped, following up by reading more Margaret Attwood. I discovered Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and began to read Sebastian Faulkes, Ian McEwan etc

At last the work of good writers lured me into having a bash myself-a foolish notion. The work of such writers only serves to underline how futile my own attempts are. Worse than this-the [still published] work of poor writers induces a powerful frustration. I wasted a lot of time last year trying to read ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’, which won the Booker Prize!

Onwards and upwards…

The Death of the Pen

Who writes in longhand these days? Well-according to Google [such that it must be true] many famous writers prefer to apply themselves via pen and paper rather than keyboard and screen. In my ignorance I should confess to not having heard of all of these acclaimed authors but some I know of and some I’ve read, even. Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, J K Rowling and Danielle Steele are some, as is Quentin Tarantino. Those who do prefer hand writing cite more romantic or abstract reasons for wanting to do it this way over practical concerns.

Since letter writing is a dying art, postcards are no longer sent and email and social networking are taking the place of paper communication the skill of making squiggly marks is slowly becoming redundant. How much longer will handwriting be taught in schools? When I began my teaching career in what was then a somewhat tempestuous area of Lambeth, London I learned that I could more or less guarantee a period of peace and calm by chalking something on the blackboard to be copied by all as ‘handwriting practise’.

As a young child in the 1950s I loved the act of writing. I adored all aspects of written work presentation. At school we entered competitions run by the Osmiroid fountain pen company, when a beautiful fountain pen would be the prize for copying a poem in curly cursive script and presenting it without blots or mistakes and surrounded by a hand-designed frame in coloured pencil.

At secondary school they cared little for coloured borders around the writing, wanting only swift note taking into a scruffy ‘rough’ book.

Later I learned calligraphy and produced a number of works as part of my A level art course using a calligraphy pen with a slanting nib and illuminating the first letter of each piece-the entire activity a satisfying kind of escapism that I’ve subsequently forgotten all about.

I am sorry to say that my handwriting, rather than improving with age has deteriorated due to lack of practice. Young members of my family are unlikely to receive cards and letters written in immaculate copperplate as I did from maiden aunts or grandparents on birthdays and at Christmas. Handwriting can be an indicator of age, becoming more wobbly and spidery with the writer’s advancing years so that you can imagine the knobbly, liver spotted, arthritic fingers that laboured over it.

Something strange and magical does happen though, when pen is put to paper. There have been occasions while away and deprived of internet when I’ve been obliged to take to scribbling in a notebook rather than tapping on a keyboard and it has had the wondrous effect of dragging me from the quicksand of writer’s block. Of course I’ve had to decipher the weird and incomprehensible scrawl once returned to the civilised environment of connectivity, but still…

The Age of Ignorance

I’ve written about regrets [https://gracelessageing.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/ive-had-a-few-but-then-again-too-few-to-mention/]. They are a negative bunch of thoughts to keep. But once you are older there is nothing to stop you feeling wistful about events, experiences or omissions in your life. I notice more, nowadays the extent of the knowledge I do not have, will never have.

Nothing emphasises this monstrous continent of ignorance more than TV quiz programmes. We’re not talking about ‘Family Fortunes’ or pointless ‘Pointless’ here. By TV quiz I mean ‘University Challenge’. Husband [a science PhD], rattles out answers like bullets. Who invented the stratospheric isolator? What is meant by the term paleoncentesis? What is the symbol for symbium axide? [you get my drift].

I can do some of the contemporary literature questions, but I’m pathetic on Shakespeare, having a sketchy familiarity only with the plays I was given to study at school, in the dark ages. Hence I can attempt questions on Hamlet and The Scottish Play [see what I did there?], although a failure to be mesmerised by the plot of Henry 1Vth [part 2] at the time has resulted in no memory of the details of the play whatsoever.

Chemistry; for me, this is the pinnacle [or rather, nadir] of ignorance. As a small child it started well, with a natural desire to make mud pies, perfume from garden flowers or interesting concoctions fabricated from kitchen substances. The problems really began at secondary school, where we sat in rows at benches housing fascinating apparatus; bulbous-shaped containers and complicated, glass instruments and occasionally we got to watch a substance smoking or bubbling from having been mixed with something else by the teacher. This experiment would be viewed from afar, though never undertaken by ourselves.

No, what we had to do was copy up copious, incomprehensible squiggly equations from the blackboard and make some sort of calculation from them. I am sorry to say that these unfathomable statements held no connection whatsoever in my mind to the exploding liquids in a glass bulb we’d witnessed from a great distance, away down the science lab.

We discovered early on that the chemistry teacher, Mr Prothuck was so deaf that we were able to overcome difficulties with our weekly, oral ‘test’ by being told the answers to his questions by the person we were sitting next to, who could simply refer to her exercise book where last week’s squiggly writings were recorded.

I was further hampered in my grasp of the subject by having to go each week, on Wednesday afternoons [our dose of double chemistry] for an entire term, to have the plaster checked on my broken arm-and for weeks after that, to have physiotherapy on said arm. I was delighted, of course to miss months of chemistry and I will never know what I missed in those many Wednesday afternoons, but it is also likely that if I’d been in attendance I would still be in ignorance about it.

Chemistry, reader is only the hair on the end of the elephant of ignorance’s tail. Motor mechanics, computer malfunctions, world economics, higher mathematics, Buddhism-and so much more. Personally, I blame the teachers…

 

 

Reading the Years

Janet and John

Janet and John

I learned to read with Janet and John; that is to say-I was taught using the reading scheme, Janet and John, not alongside 4 and 5 year olds with those names [although there may well have been Janets and Johns in my class]. The prose was simple, repetitive and tedious but did the trick. I recall that the satisfaction of achieving the decoding of the words was enough to motivate me. I believe the time taken to learn to read was very short, as I was very quickly moving on to the likes of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which I was soon able to quote long chunks of, so familiar did I become with its enchanting story line.

Janet and John was of its time, the 1950s. The family was standardised mother, father, boy, girl and dog. They were white and middle class. Janet was pictured helping mother in the kitchen while John and his father did manly chores involving the garden. These were not riveting tales. Most sentences ran along the lines of ‘Run, John, run’. He would not be running to avoid the attention of the police or to save the planet but in some vague notion of play.

By the time I was myself teaching children to read, the Ladybird scheme had arrived, although the cultural and socio-economic portrayal of the characters was not a jot different. This time the children were called Peter and Jane, the dog Pat. I feel I should apologise, here and now to the children in my class in Stockwell, London who had no option but to use these books with their white, middle class nuclear family. They must have seemed as alien as the bar in Star Wars for children whose cultural backgrounds were African, West Indian or Asian and who lived in tenement blocks in 1970s London.

Later still, my own children were given ‘One, Two, Three and Away’ books, which at least had story lines-albeit surreal. There were the beginnings of some kind of diversity, with deviant ‘Percy Green’ portrayed as a naughty boy-the character small children loved the most.

When I returned to teaching after an eight year child break there was a bright, shiny new scheme. Political correctness was burgeoning and the books went some way towards addressing it. There was still a white family with a dog [‘Floppy’] but there was the addition of Wilf and Wilma, Nadim and Aneena and their families. Everyone continued to be middle class, with no depictions of unemployment or single parents, but this is to be expected since nobody wants children to learn to read using material based on dispiriting circumstances.

Since the early 90s subsequent governments have meddled with increasingly heavy-handed interventions in the teaching of reading-each new education minister eager to make their mark and overturn the previous ‘big’ idea, regardless of what teachers know and have always known. Normal well supported children can learn to read from the back of a cereal packet but get their richest experiences from real, proper books. Those from homes with little language input and impoverished bookshelves cannot.

Who can resist the lure of children’s books these days? They get better every time I visit the book store!

Que Sera Sera [and era era]

This time last year I posted a rambling, meandering piece about regret. Once you get into what I shall call somewhat older age the achievements you have not made may have begun to assemble into a substantial and growing heap. They may even have become a mountain. Ambition and regret are linked together like health and sickness.
As children we might begin with some outlandish and bizarre ideas about what we would like to do as adults. I still remember the cruel taunts and guffaws of laughter from my family that met my announcement at the supper table that I would become a missionary. I would have been about six years old at this point. There followed a series of ambitious plans for my adult occupation: ballet dancer, show jumping champion, vet, model, make-up artist, graphic designer. These aspirations followed my childhood devotions, each being thwarted by the arrival of the next love-of-my-life. It seemed as if I went from worshipping Margot Fonteyn one week to reading every book penned by Josephine Pullein-Thompson the next. ‘Wish for a Pony’ was one of my favourites.
After we’d moved to the flat, bleak, backward countryside of the fens my mother was fond of saying I could have had a pony if we’d stayed within the environs of the New Forest, from whence we’d come. This was small comfort to my pining, desperate, pony-mad self. Four years later, once we’d moved again [to the horse-friendly environment of Kent], I was able to indulge my passion by saving up two weeks of pocket money to buy one hour of horse riding every fortnight. My mother advised that my ballet dancing legs would be ‘ruined’. During one thrilling ride involving leaping ditches and straddling an unreliable steed I was thrown, resulting in a broken arm and three months of being encased in plaster of Paris from finger to shoulder. During this enforced separation from the realms of horsedom I underwent a metamorphosis and became interested in the mysterious creatures that were boys.
In a simultaneous bid to influence my career choice, my father, frustrated musician that he was, foisted a clarinet upon me [plus an abusive teacher-but that is another story] in hopes that I, the last of his three children might become a maestro. Sometimes it is possible to influence or shape your child’s destiny. More often it is not. Tennis players often come from a fanatically tennis-mad background, but to me it seems a selfish and egocentric policy to expect your child to achieve what you could not; better to support them in whatever pursuit they show aptitude or interest in. For me, this was not the clarinet, or any other instrument.
Ultimately I did what the vast majority of people do and drifted into a career that would do. In fact teaching did serve very well. I was able to do it adequately, but to ‘job’ rather than career level. It allowed me to spend the holiday periods with my own children and eventually paid out a reasonable pension; therefore no complaints. Career options shrink with age. I shall not, now be winning Wimbledon, dancing the lead in Swan Lake or painting any masterpieces. Still-if dementia can hold off for a bit there is an outside chance I may get a novel published. Just published will do; it doesn’t have to top the Waterstone’s chart-don’t want to be too ambitious at my age!

How not to Succeed in the Job Market

                I was surprised when Offspring requested that I look through her application for temporary work. This is because I am the least qualified adult on the entire globe to be able to make a judgement on such matters, since my track record on achieving interviews, let alone the resulting positions, is virtually nil.

                I do remember my first, halting steps into the world of work. My first position, whilst still a schoolgirl was as a Saturday girl working as a shop assistant in a toy shop, obtained for me by a friend who was well established there. The manager, a small, bald, bespectacled man was at a loss to know what to do with us, as we were in a constant state of excited hilarity, creeping downstairs from our lunch breaks to wind things up and set them off across the floor, or executing hopeless addition and calculation of change, or attempting to distract each other whilst serving-all very puerile and immature [which we were]. Eventually I was sacked.

                I was able to obtain work easily as a college student, by being prepared to do [almost] anything at all, including cleaning the local hospital or packing soup powder, [a night shift, and more hilarity as we dysfunctional students were all put at machines together].

                When the serious task of snatching a teaching post came up I had to scrub up and set off looking eager, trudging first to Croydon, where I did my best to appear confident and succeeded only in provoking the interviewer into asking me if I ‘really wanted the job’. Then to County Hall, London, where a representative of the Inner London Education Authority’s only question was ‘are you staying on for a fourth year?’ When I responded in the negative he said, ‘Right, we’ll put you down for Lambeth’. Job done. I was employed.

                Later, as I moved through life and around the country my applications were never a resounding success and such interviews as I was able to get never went swimmingly.

                No, all the teaching jobs I ever had were got from doing them already. I would do a casual day or two then get asked to stay on, then on for the rest of the term, then would I consider becoming a permanent member of staff. When I needed to move on the entire process would begin again, with my useless applications and my boundless talent for failing at interviews. The only successful interview of the latter years was for a temporary job, for which I had been, not only the solitary applicant but the sole interviewee. Of course my self esteem might have been a little dented had I failed-and sure enough, once I was doing the job I was offered the permanency.

                So no, I am no expert on applications and interviews. But I comfort myself that I can’t be all that bad at working…can I?