Category Archives: Teaching

The Roman Bath

The first time we visited the Roman Bath, it was snowing. Newly married, we had booked a City Break; it snowed, R had the flu and I…well, I convinced him (through some sort of Early Marriage Force) to ignore both the weather and his internal temperature. It was not the most successful weekend away there has ever been. We squashed ourselves against an 18th Century window, I failed to convince him of the exciting ness of Jane Austen and it was some years before we attempted to take the waters again.

The next time we visited, taking a young S and an even younger A, it wasn’t so much an Austen influence as Arthurian. As we explored the complex, instead of ladies in their dampened muslin gowns, I imagined the soaring roof and the steady decline and fading out of a Roman era, the smoke of tallow torches drifting upwards into the gloom, mingling with the faintly sulphurous steam rising from the green water. I’m not sure it was the start of my mission to take my children to sites of historical and cultural significance (I’ve always been a bit of a visitor to such places), but, wherever it sits in the chronology, it was certainly one of the earliest.

Over the years, I have taken them (not dragged, I hasten to point out, despite L’s latest protestation – half term is coming up and she is fighting a rear guard against being forced away from the computer game) to castle, cathedral, ruin; anywhere, in fact, that looks like it has an interesting story to tell (or features in one or other of the novels which form a part of my internal world). Our local church, an abbey saved by the townsfolk from the dissolution of Henry VIII, was always good for a wander about should we feel the need to get out of the house. I enjoyed the appearance of historical characters, firmly lodged in my imagination, they the quirks of architecture: angels playing harps and drums and weird pipes with, no doubt, even stranger names, chests with unimaginable locks, or the size of grand pianos. Or even grand pianos. The odd rehearsal of a visiting orchestra or choral society.

Museums are always tempting, but I don’t know…apart from the entrance fee, there is something ‘managed’ about them that I just don’t like. Someone else’s interpretation. Someone else’s idea of what we should know. So little left to the imagination. Millions may have been spent on a visitor’s centre, but give me real over plastic reconstruction any day. And definitely don’t give me one of those hand held, silence inducing guides either, you know, the ones that force you to stop and crowd around the same points as everyone else, while you listen to the prescribed story and haven’t got any time to look around you and ask, I wonder?

I did it once. I hired the handsets at the Roman Bath, convinced, for once, to give the conventional a try. They didn’t last. It wasn’t long before I was carrying them all, chatting our way round, seemingly inconsequential, quirky questions flowing from my knowledge of my children and the place we were exploring. They couldn’t access someone else’s explanation, someone else’s idea of what a child should know. They were too young; they didn’t know enough about yesterday – they didn’t have enough yesterdays – let alone two thousand years worth of them to make sense of it all. They needed to experience the place, to follow their interest (channels and watercourses and throwing coins into water, bubbles and steam and funny smells, lions in the rock and golden treasure), to be given the opportunity to return, again and again if need be, at their own level, at their own pace, until they were ready to meet me at mine.

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Yes, Prime Minister

I don’t know about you, but I am constantly distracted. Not, I hasten to point out, in the sense of Mrs Bennett, making declarations of distraction and waving my arms about to attract the attention of anyone who might be in the vicinity, not that sort of distraction, no. No, I mean the sort of distraction where I set out to do one thing, and end up getting sucked into doing another. It’s why tidying the house is such a trial – and also why I seem to be on a constant journey of surprise.

The other day it was diaries. I can’t remember why it was that I was digging through the drawers in my desk (it belonged to my grandma who got it from my great-uncle and has excellently capacious drawers in which to keep all manner of randomly stuffed in stuff) (I think it had something to do with maps) and I came across a small stack of my teenaged diaries.

Unlike me, my mum is a committed diarist. She has years worth of them, and I, as a young teen, was impressed by this fact and decided that I would do the same. I have several years of them (well, three) and they all end in about March – the time when I got bored and gave up writing them (I know, I know, it can’t possibly be because I had little to say, I hear you cry). What remains are fragments, glimpses of my former self, snatches of my inner world, preserved and forgotten until that moment when I stumble upon them and find myself remembering that book (but definitely not that test or that argument that I didn’t want to write about, the pages crossed out and blank) or that item of clothing I seemed so obsessed by (but not the blue gloves; what the blue gloves were I have no idea).

Despite my inability to keep a written record of my life, I find it hard to chuck them out. I’ve always loved at least the idea of diaries; during my teenage years my parents bought me several, one of which I loved so much it never made its way into the capacious drawer. Even today, it sits proudly on the bookshelf, partnering my other Books from That Era (or, in other words, Books I Can’t Quite Bear to Throw Away). It is a diary from the TV series ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, and I keep it on the shelf (having given up writing in it in about March) because there is so much in it to read, and, if you like that sort of thing (which I did, aged 14), to amuse.

I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan, but I loved ‘Yes, Prime Minster’, back in the day. I enjoyed the verbal repartee, the long, convoluted speeches from Sir Humphrey and above all, the polite warfare between the Civil Service and their political masters. Margaret Thatcher, if legend be true, was known for loving it too (I hasten to point out that I share Very Little with the late ex-Prime Minister), for its realism, despite its comedy. A politer, less frenetic Thick of It for a different age.

It’s this little story, though, the tale of Thatcher and her love for the series and its forerunner, Yes Minister, that makes me pause. Could this comedy, with its depiction of the battle between an older, post-war consensual age and a newer, brasher, why-not, infant neo-liberalism, be more influential, more on the money than we might like to think?

Now, again, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been doing some edu-reading lately, in preparation for writing my submission to the latest in educational enquiries, and I had a bit of a moment. I’ve been going on about it for a while, this business of Accountability As We Know it being damaging to education in this country, damaging to teachers and certainly damaging to the principles of inclusion and children in general, and in my mind I made a connection.

I remember the Education Reform Act. Not the Act itself, I was only 16 and way more interested in INXS at the time, but I was in the first cohort of children to sit the GCSE. I carried the first National Curriculum home to my student room when I started my PGCE. I sat with my new boss, when I started to teach properly, and chatted about Local Management of Schools, and what this might mean. I saw what happened to my old village school when the fashion changed, and everyone decided to send their kids to the other side of the valley because reasons.

It all sounded terribly familiar. When you watch it, it sounds so funny, so light, so fresh, so reasonable. The tragedy would be that it was a joke made flesh.

What happened to all the children?

One of the things that is nice – although nice is far too bland a word – about  teaching in a primary school is the sense of hope that infects the place. Nothing is fixed. The future is far, far away; a different land, universe, even. As an example, despite the fact that some of them have seen things that trouble them greatly (you know this, because they return to the same events again and again in conversation), despite the fact that they have so little and they play the sort of games that involve chopping up little bits of rubber with a ruler and folding them into little paper squares, (you know this, because they invite you to play) there is an innocence about them; they still believe in Father Christmas and are excited in an uncomplicated and present way about December. At this stage of their lives, there is tremendous hope, for you and for them. They are learning at such a rate and you, as their teacher, are a powerful influence in their lives. An influence for good, one hopes. Their dealings with social care, their entry on registers as a Child in Need are, by the nature of their being young, few.

But things change. I think it could be a valid criticism of primary schools and the teachers who work in them that not enough time is spent by us on thinking and planning for the adult lives of our charges. We get them to the end of Year 6 and through the SATs and then we send them off with a sigh of relief. We wipe our hands of them and get on with the next lot, giving those who have left us little thought and consideration. We, like them, are living in the eternal now. I know why this is, though. To think about them, as they are, as they must be now, rather than during that magical moment when they were ten years old, hurts; and after reading the statistics, it hurts even more.

Because if they didn’t have a special educational need in the area of mental health when they left us, they certainly do now. If they were male, working class, had anything like a traveller or Roma heritage…despite all that potential, despite the joy of Christmas and all that learning, to please their primary teachers, they aren’t making it to the end of their education. Something is going wrong for them and they are ending up on a scrapheap built from rage and violence, ready to visit it all over again on children of their own – and we seem powerless to do anything about it.

I remember the first time I wrote about exclusions. It was for TES, back in 2015. I had been chatting to my editor (the lovely Jon Severs), I remember the conversation vividly, sitting in the car on my drive, ranting on (and on) into the telephone about the state of it, about how my school, with its fluid population and league table position at the bottom of the bottom was one of the few schools in the area who would take anyone, regardless and I ended up with a commission for a feature. Mine was a school that was morally driven to serve the disadvantaged, and we were paying the price. I remember that feature well, too; all the best bits from the bit I wrote to get started got chopped, leaving me with one, lonely sentence: ‘Something strange is happening in education; children are disappearing.’ I’m glad I wrote it, even though since then, the landscape has changed, and the rates of exclusion are accelerating.

I’m not a person who is overly given to reading government statistical releases, I have to admit, but they tell a tale, and one that depresses me deeply. Because although exclusion rates are rising and the numbers of children and young people being educated in alternative provisions (that’s places of education that aren’t schools, like virtual schools, home education with tutors visiting once a week – a friend of mine does this – Pupil Referral Units and hospital schools) are increasing, this isn’t the end of the story. Oh, it’s easy to get all hot under the collar and rant and rail because it looks so bad on the surface (the large numbers of children and young people in that population who turn out to have a special educational need or a disability for starters: what kind of people throw disabled children out of school I hear you cry?), but there is complexity in them there statistics and it makes me pause and ask what I believe is a serious question: what happens to all the children?

In one sense I am glad that alternative provision is getting the attention it deserves, that the teachers who work there are getting the recognition they deserve. This is good. But it seems to me that what we are looking at is the symptom of the problem, not the cause. We are fiddling round the edges with our talk of finding ‘what works’ (with the explicit undertone that if one – exceptional – child can lift themselves out of poverty and distress by the Power of Education then so can everyone and thus save the state a fortune) and failing to address what is really the matter.

What happens to all the children? What happens to them?

You can read the statistics here.

You can read the plan for Alternative Provision here.

Cookery Club

My bookshelves are having a bit of an identity crisis. In the usual way of things (as in, when I have had the time to play Librarians), they are orderly places. Books are grouped, according to size, theme and author, and they happily sit together, enabling me to find the one I am looking for by pointing, in a funny kind of way, to their neighbours. This week though, as last week, they are not happy. Poetry is muddled up with DIY. Sailing with science fiction. And the cookery books; they are scattered.

I have what one might call a weakness for cookery books. I used to stand looking through them for ages in my local supermarket, embarrassing myself into purchases. I the photographs, the explanations, the suggestions of a life you might grasp for yourself, be that low fat, high fibre, fully organic, home-made and home-grown, if only you weren’t more busy gazing at the pages; occasionally, I even love eating the results of my reading. Mind you, you can tell the ones I use regularly. They are spattered tomes, pages stuck together and falling open at favourite recipes – or the ones that everyone is prepared to eat, anyway.

Despite my attraction to the new and the shiny though, there are a couple of old favourites. Books I regularly return to, again and again, either for ideas for meals I have forgotten or for fail-safe recipes I know will work. I don’t know though. My two favourites are so different that I sometimes wonder if I have a split personality. As a cook, that is..

In one corner, we have Delia (commonly known as Saint Delia in my house). A gift from my friend A when I was in my early twenties and had never baked a thing, it took me a while to learn that if you want a Delia recipe to work you have to follow it to the letter, even down to measuring the tins. In the other we have Naked Jamie (remember that, when he was all young and thin and slid down banisters?) ‘taking cooking to first principles’; a bit of this, a bit of that, a glug of olive oil and tadah!

The thing is you see, that while I quite like the results of a Delia recipe, and it’s good to have her there, just in case I’ve forgotten how to make a sponge or pancakes, or something else equally basic, I must admit that I’m much more of a mix it up from first principles kind of girl. I wouldn’t say that I was all into choices, but I do like to make decisions, and cooking is no exception. If (as is usual) I haven’t got the exact ingredients or utensil in my cupboard, I like to feel that I have learned enough to make a meal work nevertheless. If I know the general principles of what goes with what, I can conjure something out of whatever I’ve got in the cupboards. Pretty much.

And then, of course, there is the thing about following a recipe. The number of times I have inadvertently missed a step, in between trips between the book and the hob. Or the times I have witnessed a recipe misinterpreted (jelly in the kettle, anyone?). Or a misprint. Curries taste very odd with a tablespoon rather than a teaspoon of lemon juice. Without the knowledge that underpins the theory, the recipe is just a rule book, and one I am unable to step away from, should the need arise.

In life as in cooking, I suppose. After all, if I never understood how it was supposed to work, if I was only ever instructed to follow the rule, no matter how well-intentioned that rule was, how kind or how much everyone I liked seemed to like it, how would I ever know, when I was baking a cake, or even if I was teaching a class or leading a school, how to deal with an excessively large egg (or, you know, a child who broke the mould)?

The Mirror and the Window

One day I am going to write a book. Yes, I know, I know, I’ve already written one; what I mean is that one day I am going to write a work of fiction. I’ve had the idea batting around my mind for a while now. It keeps knocking on the door of my subconscious and this week, after designing a workshop on representations of disability in fiction and why this matters (or critical literacy aka asking awkward questions) I have re-decided that I’m going to write a book with a ‘real’ disabled character in it; one who is, just like S. I read this book, you see. It’s not about disability in a broad fashion; it’s about the narratives of intellectual disability, and how they influence stories more than you might think.

I’m not a literary theorist. I’m not even a critic. I found large parts of the book a difficult read (partly because I didn’t know the stories he used as case studies) and I’ve got a long way to go in understanding how understanding the role of disability in fiction can unlock insights into what we think of ourselves as human, but I made a start.

The obvious immediately sprang to mind. Auggie, star of Wonder, Will, from Me Before You (aka the disability snuff movie), Long John Silver and Richard III (the Shakespeare one). As I continued to read, and to mull it over, I remembered Albus Dumbledore’s sister (and other squibs); even Harry Potter himself could audition for the role. Look:

The Dursleys often spoke about Harry like this, as though he wasn’t there – or rather, as though he was something very nasty that couldn’t understand them, like a slug. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Bloomsbury, 1997

There are a host of characters and once you start looking,  you notice how writers use animal references to signify disability. Look:

[Lennie] flung himself down and drank […] with long gulps snorting into the water like a horse. J Steinback, Of Mice and Men, 1937

Or make out that they are seriously scary. Look:

Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom […] people said he went out at night when the moon was high and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

Or:

In the midst of them, the blackest and largest in that dark setting, reclined James Hook, or, as he wrote himself, Jas. Hook, of whom it is said he was the only man that the Sea-Cook feared. He lay at his ease in rough chariot drawn and propelled by his men, and instead of a right hand he had an iron hook which ever and anon he encouraged them to increase their pace. J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan and Wendy, 1911

It’s all a bit depressing.

On the other hand, some disabled characters are really quite saintly. Look:

He lived with his mother on the farm. Never was there […] a creature more popular with the young or old, a blither or more happy soul than Barnaby. C. Dickens, Barnaby Rudge,1841

Or you might want to use Tiny Tim as an illustration instead, or Beth from Little Women. Or even, as the ultimate in ‘positive about being different’: Elmer. Look:

It was Elmer who kept the elephants happy. Sometimes he joked with the other elephants. Sometimes they joked with him. But if there was even a smile, it was usually Elmer who started it. D McKee, Elmer, 1989

Mind you, you wouldn’t want to use Colin from The Secret Garden as an illustration of the saintly. If ever there’s a character who was a pain in the ass, it’s Colin. But look:

So long as Colin shut himself up in his room and thought only of his fears and weakness …he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac who knew nothing of the sunshine and the spring and also did not know that he could get well and could stand upon his feet if he tried to do it. When new beautiful thoughts began to push out the old hideous ones…strength poured into him like a flood. Frances Hodgeson Burnett, The Secret Garden, 1911

Seeing as I know and love someone who is disabled, and he is neither a demon or an angel, someone or something that has to be explained or cured with a dose of positive thinking and fresh air, he doesn’t exist to highlight how lucky we who are not intellectually disabled are and he most certainly is fully human, it all starts to feel a bit problematic. Given that most people don’t know and love someone disabled (or they think they don’t anyway) and how children, just like adults, use books to help them make sense of the world, it struck me that we might like to start asking some of those awkward questions and encourage children to do the same.

And this is why;

“the interpretive stakes are always high when the subject is intellectual disability, because the stakes are ultimately about who is and who is not determined to be ‘fully human,’ and what is to be done with those who (purportedly) fail to meet the prevailing performance criteria.” Michael Berube, The Secret Life of Stories, 2016

And this is why:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAXBOcv6AS4

And this is why:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6i97xnZCfU

“We read to know we are not alone” C.S. Lewis

The stories we read and tell are both a mirror and a window.

 

 

 

Read a book review of Wonder here.

You can find a useful booklist with ideas for primary aged children here.