You might not know, but I have another, more directly teaching blog ( http://www.classteachingtips.wordpress.com ) and I have toyed with the idea of writing this post for that blog, as it is about a debate on knowledge and the organisation of it, that rumbles on through the teacher summer holidays, but as I want to approach it through the lens of motherhood, I thought, what they heck, I’ll put it here.
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Something that took me by surprise, when my boys were babies, was their language development. I knew that it was likely that Sam was going to have some sort of language/communication difficulty as part of his disability, and, while part of me was happy to let him develop at his own pace, another, bigger part of me was not prepared to let him carry on growing up in his own sweet way without some direction. Like many mothers of babies with Down’s syndrome, I learned to sign, and I took him to bi-weekly speech therapy classes from an early age. I was fascinated and committed – I find language development interesting anyway, and therapeutic techniques easy to do – and, love his little cotton socks, Sam was signing before he was two years old. (I remember his second Christmas vividly in this regard. It was in the quiet week between the festivals of Christmas and New Year, and we were in hospital, pneumonia having paid him a visit, when we first noticed.) When baby A came along, speech therapy was in full swing, and, funnily enough, he was making meaningful utterances by the time he was about 17 months old. (I like to put it down to the signing, his adoring grandmamas like to put it down to giftedness, as is their right.)
Even now, thanks to his speech difficulties, it is difficult to tell what Sam is thinking, but, thanks to a vociferous younger brother, a precocious chatterbox, I had a burbling window into the mind of the very young thanks to my middle child.
Sometimes, I think that we forget how little young children actually know. As adults – and teachers – we make huge assumptions, forgetting that, when they are young, they are like unwritten pages. Not empty vessels, the fashionable description among some teaching circles, they are full up with all sorts of things (rage, mostly), but pages, the story of which they have yet to write for themselves.
When he was around two years old, and Sam was about four, we went camping with friends. Unlike his peers, A had reached the stage of talking in sentences and, up late thanks to the camping, had never seen the early evening summer moon.
“Look mummy,” he said, his little voice piping and his little finger pointing, “there’s a bubble in the sky.”
We adults breathed a collective aww as I explained that it was, in fact, the moon – tucking away the dawning realisation that he didn’t know what the moon was either. He’d only just noticed it, after all, and, even if he had seen the silver crescent hanging in the midnight sky, he’d hardly think that the bubble in the twilight was the same thing. He just didn’t know enough about life, the universe and everything.
It was the same the first time he fell in the sea. Not living close to the coast, as I did when I was a little girl, he had little experience to go by, in all things oceanic. Seaweed, pebbles, gravel-rough sand, waves; all these things were ideas gleaned from CBeebies (he tells me that most of his wide knowledge of wildlife is down to It’s Our Planet and Spring/Autumn Watch, the CBeebies versions) and bedtime stories. The day he was knocked over in the surf was the day he bounced up, gasping, “It tastes of salt! I didn’t think it would taste of salt!” I never thought to tell him; I assumed he knew.
Maybe, though, looking back, it wasn’t all down to the speech therapy. Maybe my habit of giving a running commentary wherever we went and whatever we did had something to do with his constant chatter (you will know if you do this if you find yourself pointing out items of interest – trains, diggers, tractors, solar farms etc – to either your empty car or your adult travelling companions). The conversation between A and I, as we travel about our surroundings has always been a joy, as we leapfrog from subject to subject, inspired by what we see on our journeyings.
Apart from hedgehogs. Hedgehogs, to me, were an animal of great interest. Rare and shy, you’d be lucky to see one in the wild, even luckier if you had one come to stay in your garden. We’d pass a tangle of trees and brambles on the way to pick Sam up from nursery, and I’d thought aloud that it would be a great place for hedgehogs to live. When A burst into tears and begged to be rushed past, rather than stopping to look, it took me a while to realise that he, only ever encountering them close up via the television screen, had conceptualised them rather differently to reality. Not for him the quiet sniffler, instead, the spiked danger of hogs the size of bears (who also live in woods).
I don’t know, but whenever I see teachers talking of knowledge organised on pieces of paper and tested (sorry, quizzed) on a Friday morning, like a spelling or a times table, I remember the bubble in the sky and the hedgehog in the woods, and I know that there are many different ways of knowing and that, like spellings, it takes more than a sheet and a test to ensure meaningful learning.