Thursday, 30 March 2017

How do we respond to literature? What do we do as we're reacting to it?

All literature offers us possibilities for thought and action. It engages us in ideas through feeling attached to beings we care about.

When we read we engage and respond in many different ways and at different times - through browsing before hand, through scanning, through reading, through reflecting, through recollecting.

As we read, we engage with thought, action and feeling towards the beings (human, animal, imagined etc) we recognise and who we come to care about - caring may be because we feel warm towards them or quite the opposite - or, as is most likely, with changing feelings.

The protagonists in a story 'take us' through the action and thought. Some people call this identification, meaning that we hope that we are like the protagonists, but it could also be described as a matter of a reader accompanying the protagonist, choosing to go with them on their mental or physical journey(s) in the book.

This part of the process can involve different kinds of wishes, hopes, dreads, envies and the like: emotional one to one feelings as if they are people we know.

In order to do this we have to be able to do several other things: 'recognise' the text - that is see that it is like another text. This is 'intertextual'. We have already seen or heard something like it, and so we can see and hear things in this that we can recognise and understand or compare with another text.

We will also need to make comparisons with our own life experiences, emotional, rational and the rest. 

We will engage in a process of persistent questioning of what's going on in a text: around such things as 'would this happen?' 'would I think this?' 'Why is this person doing that?' 'is this person doing that because...?' 

These questions are based on 'harvesting' (as well as the intertextual and experiential approaches). This is 'intratextual' - going on inside the text, harvesting up what has happened before so that we can make sense of what we're reading at that very moment and then wondering about what might happen next - ie predictions.

It's usual to talk about 'character' and our responses to character. I think that's misleading as the characters are always interacting with something - other characters, or physical events: landscape, weather. So, what we're reacting to really are interactions and outcomes. It's always dynamic between people or between people and things. We wonder about the significance of these, sometimes at a moral level, sometimes emotional, sometimes rational, thought-out conclusions e.g. 'that was fair', 'that was unfair'.

Much of the above involves us in making 'analogies' between what is going on in the book, and what we know from real life and/or from other texts. From the very  youngest children to adults we are able to do this highly sophisticated, and ultimately 'abstract' thing: we select from what we read and we select from our experience (or our experience of another text) and we compare our selections with each other. 'That's like when...' The moment we make selections and comparisons we are engaged in a form of abstract thought: we are creating 'sets' or 'series' or 'schemas'. Much of what goes for 'comprehension' in schools prevents us from making our own schemas. We have to do 'retrieval', 'inference' and 'chronology' and there isn't time or space to let us (the students) make these schemas. And yet they are at the heart of 'response'. 

We carry our reading experiences with us forward from what we have read. They are mental libraries - but more dynamic than that, more fluid. Scenes, feelings, characters, outcomes, interactions stay with us into life, into further reading , into our interactions with other people or with other art forms. We make comparisons, and we make evaluations, and assessments of what these things 'mean' or why they are 'significant' or 'important to us'.

At any point we can surround any of this, or 'inform' it with 'extra-textual' material about authors, social circumstances of the writing, history, and inform ourselves in relation to the question 'why was this written?' 'What were the intentions?' 'how did it relate to the audience(s) of the time of its writing?' 'What significance did it have then?' These kinds of questions will inevitably affect how we respond to what we read, either at the time or later. It's as if we make the text more 3-dimensional, we get round behind it. We don't have to do this, but it's possible and enjoyable. 

We can also compare 'reception' - consider how the book I'm reading now, was read last year, ten years ago, five hundred years ago by others. And this might tell me something about the story, the telling, or the times in which the book has played a part in people's lives.

'Stealing Home: looting, restitution and reconstructing Jewish lives in France, 1942-1947'

I've just bought a book called 'Stealing Home: looting, restitution and reconstructing Jewish lives in France, 1942-1947'. I've been scanning through it, and one thing that immediately strikes me is how quickly people at all levels of society engaged in the 'banal' business of looting the property of Jews who had been rounded up and either put in local camps or deported. However, this wasn't random thieving. This was by statute. This was legal looting. As organised by the state. And it was carefully gathered together in depots, ready for it to be shipped out to Germany. Flats and houses were stripped in their entirety.

At the end of the war, some of it hadn't been completely sent off, so it was sitting in warehouses waiting to be sent off. Thousands and thousands and thousands of items packed away into containers, ready to be shipped off.

There was even a separate store for pianos.

Friday, 24 March 2017

What happens when the unemployed can't buy the goods that robots make?

1. Capitalists are in competition with each other.
2. One way they try to resolve this is to cut production costs.
3. One way they do this is to automate.
4. Automation and robotics are expensive. This threatens 'profitability' ie how much profit per invested pound they can make per worker.
5. But they have to do it.
6. But this means laying off workers. ('efficiency')
7. Unemployed or under-employed (zero hours and 'self-employed) workers earn less, which means they buy less.
8. In other words they can't buy what the robots make.
9. This is a crisis.
10. Solution 1 - capitalists invest in speculative rubbish instead of 'production' - this leads to 'bubbles' like bank crash of 2008.
11. Solution 2 - roam round the world looking for labour, markets and raw materials to seize.
12. Snag: this can lead to war.
13. Shouting 'America First' and getting allies to agree on the grounds of 'freedom' or 'smashing the bad guys' etc is very useful.
14. Further snag for human beings: death, destruction, mayhem, endless attacks, terror, tragedy.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Poetry is the migrant: it travels - poem poster?

Poetry is the migrant: it travels.
Poetry is the witness: it notices.
Poetry is the survivor: it lasts.

[Feel free to copy this and use it as a poster in your school or library. It would be nice if you credit me if you do!]

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Curriculum-free zones - let's do it!

In the last two or three years I've heard from teachers more and more bitter criticisms of the straitjacket put on reading comprehension, writing, grammar, punctuation and spelling. The 'expected levels' in all this - particularly at Key Stage 2 have gone beyond 'difficult' or 'annoying' to 'crazy' and 'disastrous'.

Several key areas have emerged:
1. Artificial criteria for what makes 'good writing' - that is, having to insert structures such as 'fronted adverbials' or 'embedded relative clauses' as if this is what constitutes 'good writing'.
2. Grammar taken out of context, with questions asked of the children based on artificial sentences that no really writes or speaks.
3. Comprehension questions based on putting together formula answers to do with what supposedly makes a word or phrase 'effective', invented ideas about what the author 'intends'.

I know that teachers are doing their best to teach all this. I know that several people in advisory, consultative and training roles are doing their best to alleviate some of the most rigid and narrow aspects of this - particularly those demonstrated by the kinds of booklets that are turning up everywhere full of exercises and worksheets.

As far as I'm personally concerned, I feel that what's being required has got beyond anything that I could 'help' or alleviate anymore. When I think about writing stories or poems, or if I think about how to run a workshop on stories or poems, I don't want to being with trying to fulfil the criteria of what supposedly makes good writing according to requirements. When I think about reading, I don't want to think of the narrow questioning involved with 'retrieval', 'inference', 'sequence/chronology'. When I think about grammar, I think it's beyond absurd to not consider language in use, language in context, and to reject the idea that we use language in variety of ways, not just one fixed way.

I fully realise that I'm extremely lucky and privileged to be able to think about writing, reading, language and children without having to knuckle under this yoke that the government have imposed.

What positive can I offer or propose, if I think it has all got beyond the point of what I'm calling here 'alleviating' the curriculum requirements? My focus has turned to those moments in a day, a week, a month, a term or the school year when teachers can create curriculum-free zones in writing, reading, and language-use in general.

Teachers will know better than me that there are these pockets of time across a year - in particular in the time after SATs, when the immediate requirements to teach to the test, or to teach to these criteria are less pressing. In these moments - and of course, sometimes this has involved me - where teachers can say to children, 'We don't have to follow the usual rules and requirements' - and we can do something else altogether.


1. My first proposition is organisational. (This is lifted from a school I've visited.) Why not do whole staff planning for the time after SATs, when you can suspend the curriculum and plan whole school language-based activities - drama, poetry, book-writing, poster-making, blogging, book festivals etc - involving the whole school community: teachers, TAs, parents, carers, governors, etc?

2. More specifically, why not consider using a whole-school text? I saw in one school (Ranelagh in Newham, London) they took Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' and made it work across the whole school using themes and motifs from the play for every year from Nursery to Year 6. This involved every teacher in planning and sharing ideas to do with the play and what kinds of language and arts work. The themes of the play include islands, storms, magicians, revenge, colonisation, slavery, rebellion, utopias, morality of parents arranging marriage and so on. There's tremendous scope for using language as poetry, story, recount, non-fiction, film scripts, powerpoint and much more along with art, dance, photography, video, drama and so on.

3. Why not consider turning the school over into a publishing-performing house?  So, suspending the curriculum is replaced by producing writing for a purpose and only for a purpose. Instead of writing ending up in exercise books, it goes into books, pamphlets, chap books, booklets, autobiographies, blogs, the school bulletin, newspapers, magazines, drama performances, performance poetry, posters, wall displays etc etc. So, this isn't just 'anything goes' (as we are often caricatured for saying). Quite the opposite, all the criteria for the writing is 'audience' and 'purpose'. Every piece of writing has an intended audience, at a particular time and place and this is what will determine what's said and how it's said. 'Correctness' will be determined by how we think the audience will be able to read what's written - in other words real-life criteria.

4.  At the heart of these ideas is a belief in the value of what we used to call 'language arts'. Practising any art involves the artist changing materials. When it's clay or paint, the material is obvious. But language involves material too. Whenever we use it, we have to use material - print, digital pulses, voice boxes, lungs. When we speak or write poems and stories, we shape the material which embodies language. Writing 'transforms sources' - that's to say, we never start from scratch. Yes, the Romantic poets talked of 'inspiration' as if what we write comes from some kind of magic place, but in reality, all writing and speaking starts with the 'sources' or 'materials' of previous writing. No matter how 'original' we are or hope to be, we work with what we know and what we have. We transform these into things (poems and stories etc) which we hope will be fresh and surprising and interesting. Rather than fight this, and always hope for 'inspiration', I think we help children the best when we say some of this quite openly. We can read a poem or a story and say, 'We can write like that.' What does that mean? It means we can borrow a 'voice', a 'pattern', a 'plot', a character, a setting, a 'motif', a theme from a piece of writing to make something new.

If you're working with very young children,  you can take something like our 'Bear Hunt' and change it into another kind of 'Hunt'. You can change the grass, river, mud, forest and snowstorm into other obstacles - ones that the children come up with. You can take something like my 'Chocolate Cake' and ask about the 'voice'. Who is this? This is a child telling what happened. It's and 'I' way of telling a story and this 'I' enacts a scene. Borrow that. Or you could say, in this story/poem, there are repeated noises. It's as if at each stage, there is a chorus, a repeated 'refrain'. What kind of story or poem could you make up which did something like that? Or you could 'notice' that a poem like that is about someone who 'loves a certain kind of food', or 'someone who is greedy', or 'someone who is naughty' and then invite the children to write something like that from their point of view. When it comes to more elaborate stories, look at my checklist again of voice, pattern, plot, character, setting, motif, theme. These are all aspects which you can 'pull out' of a story and change. You can start to tell the 'same story' but in completely different setting, for example. Famously, Hollywood does this all the time, adapting and changing ready-made stories like the Odyssey, Macbeth, Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice' etc etc.

Every poem and every story can be used and adapted like this. What's more, every poem and every story, can be 'used' to create prequels and sequels: 'what happened before?' 'what happened afterwards'. (What was going on in the lives of  Cinderella and Prince Charming ten years after the story?!) You can write poems, stories, skits, plays, based on those two questions. What's more in every story and in many poems too, there are moments (ideally key moments of change or of realisation by characters) when you can invite children to write from the point of view of that character: what is that character thinking or could say? (What did Goldilocks say to her Mum when she got home? a) if it was the 'truth' and b) if she made up something different?).

Of course plenty of these ideas can be used and adapted for within the curriculum. I'm not going to say anything against that. What I would say though, is that if you want to get the most out of them, the best way to do them is when you use them in curriculum-free moments, using the criteria of publishing and performing instead of SATs-readiness!

I'd say something else. By creating these curriculum-free zones, you offer children the chance to 'make literacy their own'. For as long as the criteria for good writing rest entirely with 'the system' - that is, SATs, exams, homework booklets, exercises, marks, grades etc, then literacy belongs to the system outside of the child. If you set up repeated situations where the children are sharing what they read and write based on their sense of audience then at least you fill those writing situations with the possibility that they sense that literacy belongs to them. When you know literacy belongs to you, you can handle language with a sense of your own power and ability. You sense that you can use it to create new possibilities and that as you do so, you change yourself. ('In changing nature [ie reality], we change ourselves.')

The ironic consequence of this is that by creating a rich curriculum-free zone, it will feed back into making the curriculum easier! Children playing with language, story, poetry and drama for a purpose will enable them to use it in all situations with more confidence and control.

Best of luck

Friday, 3 March 2017

Happening now: xenophobia and discrimination rule OK

An acquaintance from Facebook has just heard of:

"an account of a tribunal decision where the judge ruled it was fair to dismiss someone because the employer had been advised (privately) by the Home Office that her immigration status, currently perfectly in order, might, at some future stage, be changed. We are also seeing at least a fifth of people filling in the 85 page form being rejected, because they haven't got the right paperwork, have spent periods outside the country, have not been working all the time etc etc. People who blithely asserted before the referendum that EU migrants would be fine because the bosses needed them, might like to reconsider their opinions and join campaigns to defend their rights (and those of all migrants)."

Triumph of the Won't

The Mirror, Guardian line is a kind of anti-cuts, pro-living wage position but churning out daily anti-Corbyn/McDonnell articles. They must know that doing this Anti-Corbyn, McDonnell stuff makes the fightback harder.

The chorus (now joined by Owen Jones) slots in with the people who aren't anti-cuts, pro-living wage and never were, turning it all into a general and constant anti-Labour burble. It's a defeatist, triumph-of-pessimism way of going on.

Never mind Triumph of the Will. It's the Triumph of the Won't.