Sunday, 12 November 2017

Why Tell Stories on YouTube?

Just in case anyone was wondering, there is a logic and rationale to what I do, even in cases where I seem to be 'just' telling jokes, or 'just' telling stories. 

For example, my son Joe has filmed me telling the stories of 'Till Owlyglass' (Till Eulenspiegel). These originate as short tales first written down in a cycle of tales in 1515 probably authored by someone called Herman Bote. I had an English adaptation of these when I was a child, loved them, and wrote my own adaptation of them as 'The Wicked Tricks of Till Owlyglass' published by Walker Books, illustrated by Fritz Wegener. 

I believe the stories are powerful, funny, subversive tales which defy the 'natural' social order, in much the same way as the Robin Hood tales. When he is a child, he defies adults, when he's a peasant, he defies the artisans, and when he's a full adult on the move across central Europe, he defies Lords, Dukes, university professors and, in his own way, ends up defying death. Though the great Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin doesn't refer to him, Eulenspiegel is the perfect fit for what Bakhtin called the 'carnivalesque' and one who produces 'subversive laughter', often through turning the world upside down, and indeed turning the human body upside down, making it 'talk' through its backside. Bakhtin's prototype was the works of the French writer, Rabelais.

In telling the stories direct to camera, I wanted to do several things: use the popular medium of the day, the internet, to show that story-telling still works, is still a great way to give people events, scenes, the interaction of characters through the use of our faces and bodies. It's what we all do every day telling each other about things that have happened to us. Story-telling is like a distilled or concentrated way of doing something that belongs to nearly every single one of us. 

I also wanted to do something else. In truth, it may look from the videos as if I'm telling the stories, but I am in fact reading an autocue. I am reading word for word what I wrote in my book. Of course, I wrote it with an ear to the sound, so that parents, teachers and children reading the book would get a sense of that oral storytelling world. In the present day world, then, I am offering what I hope is a 'bridge' between the oral and the written, via new technology. As part of that, we're putting the stories up 'day by day',  just as I've written the book, each chapter representing a 'day' when my brother and I (according to the book) hear the stories. 

It's the job of us adults - whether as parents, carers, teachers - to help children become familiar with the written way of saying things. It's a bit like learning another dialect or even another language: familiarity is crucial for getting the flow of sentences, plots, events, consequences, imagined possibilities. It's hard to do this if you're not familiar with the written way of doing this. I think of these stories (and indeed my own poems and stories) as half-way houses between the oral and the written. As I say, they are in a way 'bridges'. 

These re-tellings, then, as I see them bring together several interests of mine: the history of stories, the 'carnivalesque' and 'subversive laughter', and the role of the 'bridge' in language, literacy and learning. 

Here's the wiki entry on Till Eulenspiegel

Here's the wiki entry on Bakhtin

Here's our video channel on YouTube

Friday, 10 November 2017

Applying media methods of talking about Russian Revolution to Luther and the Reformation

Media analysis of the Russian Revolution is hardly getting beyond the idea that
a) it happened
b) some bad stuff happened later
c) QED the RR was bad.
d) PS Lenin had bad breath. And shaved his beard off.

I think we should apply this method to some other areas of history. How about Luther and the Reformation?
a) it happened
b) some bad stuff happened later (wars, famine, persecution, tyrannical regimes)
c)QED it was bad.
d) sorted.
e) PS Luther talked a lot about farting.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Unethical TV programme: Channel 4 'Secret Life of 4,5 and 6 year olds

I watched episode 1 of this series of the 'Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds' on Channel 4 and since seeing it have become increasingly disturbed.

Some context: when our students (most of whom are teachers), doing the MA in Children's Literature at Goldsmiths, conduct research with a class of children they have to fill in a rigorous ethics form, which is intended to ensure that children are not in any way endangered or distressed by the research. The guidelines are in 'Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research' published by the British Educational Research Association.

The programme claimed from its title that it was revealing the 'secret life'. In fact, it was a series of experiments on the children, in which situations were set up, sometimes putting the children in conflict with each other and on one occasion creating a situation in which it was likely that some of the children would be scared.

Needless to say, the contests or competitions were presented to the children as fixed and rule-bound according to the rules set by the adults - a mixture of the people running the nursery and the academics who watched what happened on video, making comments. Remember - the claim being made here is that these contests showed the 'secret life' of these children. In fact, it showed the children responding to fixed rule contests devised by adults in order to show that one or more children would be distressed by losing. In fact, it emerged that the child in question was probably more distressed that he didn't win the prize than actually losing. Educationally speaking, what is a TV programme doing telling children that if you answer some questions right, you win chocolates? Or, worse, if you answer them wrong, you don't get chocolates! In the aftermath of the contest, the child in question cried and seemed to be uncomforted for a while. Then we watched while the experts discussed why and how the child was distressed without any commentary on the fact that the whole situation had been engineered - unethically - by the researchers. 

Later in the programme, they set up another experiment which caused the same child distress. They showed that the boy knew a lot about dinosaurs. They asked him if he was scared of dinosaurs. No he wasn't. Then a man dressed as a 'keeper' brought in on a leash, a 6-7 foot tyrannosaurus rex (with someone inside). The boy was clearly scared. This was presented to us as revealing that in some way or another the boy was dishonest about his real state of fear. This again was clearly unethical and at the same time absurd. The more we know about T-Rex the more scared we should be, especially if grown-ups surround us with nonsense of notions that dinosaurs co-existed or still co-exist with humans! So the little boy cowered and - again - was distressed.  

What was all this for? What did it prove? Who benefitted from this 'research'? All it did was assert the right of adults to limit the choices of children, set up situations in which it could be predicted that one or more children would be distressed. This was done for our entertainment, showing us...what precisely? That grown-up researchers are clever people who know how to make 4 year olds cry? 

Of course there are programmes that can be made about the 'secret life' of young children. All you have to do is set up situations in which young children can discuss things, make things, play with things, plan things. To be fair to the programme, we did see scenes where children played in the home corner a couple of times, but these seemed to be interludes between the real 'knowledge' of the programme in these adult-led experiments, with predictable outcomes of conflict and distress. 

What is particularly worrying is that two academics were involved in this, sitting as it were to one side, commenting on and laughing at what the children were doing. 

Excuse me while I say something extreme. On many occasions in the history of psychological testing over the last 120 years there have been experiments conducted on children and adults. Some of these have been unethical and at a distance, we can easily see how monstrous they've been, with terrible consequences for the participants. Sometimes we scratch our heads and wonder how could people calling themselves psychologists have done such things? I think the answer to that question lies precisely in the way this programme was set up and carried out: the children were treated as if they were fodder for experiments, with no volition, sanctity of the person, no sense of their potential, no sense that an experiment could open up new possibilities, new educational insights. In fact, the educational value of the dinosaur experiment was precisely the opposite: it was educational rubbish from several perspectives at the same time.

If anyone reading this runs an education or psychology course, could I please recommend using this 'documentary' as a perfect example of how not to run educational or psychological research? 

Sunday, 22 October 2017

"Common sense" or how we learn what they want us to learn

1. British diplomat comes on the radio and talks about countries in the middle east and complains that some of them show what he calls 'bad behaviour'. The interviewer accepts the terms of this conversation that someone representing a country that has meddled in the middle east for 200 years, setting up countries, knocking others down, siding with this or that group and then switch allegiances, leading up to the final and most terrible intervention of all, the Iraq War - all this is 'below the line', out of view, apparently not part of the equation in which this diplomat talks 'reasonably' about other people behaving badly!

2. In another interview, Lord 'Two brains' Willetts, now a supposedly important person in some quango or other 'explains' on the radio how perhaps it's OK for 'older workers' to subsidise 'younger workers' pay. The terms of this discussion are that the only money in the kitty of a country is that earned by workers. Profits, inherited wealth, the trillions sitting in tax havens - it's all out of view, not in the equation, not 'relevant'. Again, totally unchallenged by the interviewer. What Willetts was suggesting is apparently one reasonable 'solution' on the table.

Capitalism discovers something about low wages...

Capitalism discovers that low wages don't buy the stuff that capitalism sells. So capitalism lends money so that people can buy stuff that capitalism sells. Capitalism discovers that high debt is fine so long as people can afford to pay the interest on the debt. Capitalism finds that things might get tricky if people can't afford to pay the interest....

FCA boss expresses fears over growing debt burden of young people saying more and more are being forced to borrow simply to pay day-to-day expenses

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Ed Balls on 'This Week'.

Just been watching This Week. Ed Balls has become an endangered species - not because he’s been hunted down but because the climate’s changed. He sits in the corner like a rhino that can’t stand up and issues long plaintive mutters that no one understands or even tries to understand. There must be a comfortable but useless stable for him somewhere: like becoming the chair of a small charity that deals with people who wish they were cats.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Talk today about poetry for National Poetry Day

Talk for Leicestershire head teachers

It’s National Poetry Day...

so I’ve taken it upon myself to do something for poetry with you today.

I take this that my job today is to convince you that poetry is a great way for everyone in your school to find words to express who they are,

who they belong to,

where they are in the world,

their hopes, fears, loves, anxieties, prides, shames, half-formed thoughts, questions, puzzles, dreams,

sense of the special,

sense of the wonderful,

sense of the unsayable,

their feelings of loss, sadness, anger,

and by reading, writing, performing and talking about poetry, they come to get to feel in that moment that life is worth living,

that the school that they are in sees them, hears them, values them - and through all this, they discover that language is not something exclusively owned by the Oxford Dictionary, or the examiners of the English GCSE Exam, or Ofsted Inspectors nor indeed the poets who they come across, but that language belongs to all of us - them included.

It’s stuff that anyone can use, collect, play with in order to move others, persuade others, show others things that they might not have seen before. As I wrote once:

Words are ours.


But it’s all very well me saying these things to you but I’ve set myself the job of convincing you and if you’re a poet, you have a sense that you can talk as much as you like about how valuable and wonderful poetry is but until people engage with it, think about it, it’s just all a bit airy-fairy.

So, I would like you to listen to this

Maybe you know it:

‘I too’ or ‘I too sing America’ by Langston Hughes who was an African-American poet who lived from 1902-1967. This poem was first published in 1926.

I, Too

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”



They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

I’m reading it to you for several reasons. The first is that we and school students of course are seeing pictures on the TV every night of major sporting figures in the US not standing for the National Anthem. You know better than me that no school is an island and the outside ‘comes in’ just as much, just as fast as the students inside head off ‘out there’. I believe - and I guess that many of you too - think that part of the job of a school - not the whole job - is to help school students process what they hear and see ‘out there’.

I believe also that poetry is one of the great ways in which we can, if nothing else, begin a conversation about ‘out there’. It may or may not provide answers, but many more times than not, it is a great way to begin conversations.

I’ll read the poem again:

I, Too

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”



They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

A much-overlooked question about poems and poetry is ‘What shall we do with the poem?’; ‘What shall we do with the poem?’ The reason why it’s neglected because, in a school environment, we all know what to do with it: we study it. In fact, not only do we study it, but we have a set of fixed questions and procedures with which to study it.

But you’re head teachers. You don’t have to abide by any of those questions and procedures. You can do what you want with a poem.

You could stick it up on the outside of the door to your office. No questions asked. You could read it out in assembly. You could invite a school student who you think could read it in a moving way to read it in assembly. You could put it into the online bulletin for all students, staff and parents to read. You could ask Year 10 students to compose a way of singing it. You could ask your year 10 dance students to compose a dance to fit it. You could ask a group to make a power-point with pictures to fit it. You could invite students to write poems inspired by the poem. And then, when these poems came in, you could produce a booklet or magazine of Poems inspired by Langston Hughes, ‘I, too sing America’.

Let me be clear - I think that each of these things to do with such a poem would be as much, if not more, significant ways of interpreting the poem than what goes on in English Literature lessons.

But, let’s say, you think this is a poem worth talking about in a way that engages the students in the poem, the students’ lives, and the world they see on the news? This too is about interpretation and meaning and value.

But how? How can we have this conversation so that it isn’t about telling students what the poem means before they’ve had a chance to find out what it means for themselves? How can we have this conversation so that they can express thoughts and experiences they’ve had which are in a way a filter or prism through which they hear and read the poem? In fact, perhaps, at the end of the day, this filter or prism of our own thoughts and experiences is really how we all, young and old, read poems. It’s not as if we can ever really, leave our thoughts and experiences at the door. There is no part of our brain which can be chopped off, and literature as a whole, (poems included) seems to spend a lot of its energy trying to talk about experience, and to talk to the experiences of readers, listeners and watchers.

Well let’s do it.

Here’s the poem one more time:

I, Too

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”



They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

I’m going to ask you a question.

When you hear that poem is there anything in it that reminds you of anything that has ever happened to you or someone you know. Any part of the poem, any word, any image, any phrase? Turn to the person next to you and have a chat about that.

While you come up with things, do explain to the other person, why it reminds you, how it reminds you. Share that too please.


That, if you like, is what I’ll call the ‘experiential question’. What you’ve done is locate the moment or moments in the poem which overlap with moments in your life or in the lives of people you know.

Here’s a second question.

Is there anything in the poem, any part of it, which reminds you of anything you’ve ever read, or seen on TV, or seen in a film, any song or lyrics an the like?. Again, say why and how.


That, if you like, is what we can all the ‘intertextual question’. Inside every one of us, we carry a ‘repertoire of texts: stories, films, songs, things our parents, friends, enemies said, TV programmes, movies and so on. This is in effect our processed body of words and genres that we have in our heads, a kind of personal linguistic cultural heritage. We can’t actually read anything without using this repertoire as a means of understanding and reflecting on what we’re reading. We need it and we use it and - indeed - you’ve just tapped into it to explore Langston Hughes’s poem

Now one more: maybe you’ve got some queries or questions you would like to ask of the person who talks of him or herself as ‘I’ in this poem. I haven’t called him ‘Langston Hughes’ because poets are rather cunning creatures who use ‘I’ rather loosely, at one moment appearing to be the ‘I’ of the poem and at another, using the ‘I’ as a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy. As if they say, it’s not me saying ‘I am the darker brother’, it’s the little chap sitting on my knee. So, if you’ve got something to ask or indeed tell that ‘I’, talk about that with the person next to you.


Again, this is a way of engaging directly with what the poem is about. All poems leave gaps and holes and moments which the poet leaves for us to explore. They don’t even say, ‘Gap coming up. Interpret!’ It’s just that in and around every poem there is playground in which we can play by asking questions, coming up with answers, discuss answers and a lot more besides.

Now let me tell you a story:

I gave this poem to a group of year 8 or Year 9s who I had never met before. They were from East London. As it happens, and unusually for east Londoners, they were all-white. I hadn’t known that before meeting them. I had just turned up with the poem in my bag, to run a poetry reading and writing workshop in a place I had never been before. Teachers hire us poets to do such things sometimes.

I did precisely what I’ve just asked you to do. Because, like you, I’m not an English teacher. I can do what I like with a poem so long as it engages and interests the students, and (if that’s what I’ve been asked to do) if it enables them to write something too.

After the first question - the experiential - the students started talking about their parents and how their parents frequently ask them to go to their rooms when visitors come over. The parents have a meal with the visitors and push their teenage kids off somewhere else. They felt resentful about this. They got quite indignant about it. it wasn’t fair. Please notice, I didn’t turn them away from this line of thinking because it felt to me like a legitimate avenue of thought in relation to the poem and them: indignation about unfair stuff. In a global sense, we could all sit here and say, ‘How trivial, how egotistical for a group of white teenagers in London in 2015 to sit and discuss this powerful poem about racism and the US and talk about how their parents wouldn’t let them sit with the visitors.’

But I didn’t.

Then I asked the intertextual question.

And at first, not a lot was forthcoming but they stuck with it and talked about various films until one student, jumped up and said, ‘I’ve got it. I’ve got it. I know what this is. This is Martin Luther King. This is ‘I have a dream’.’ He went on to explain to those who didn’t know what the speech was about and he remembered parts of it.

How interesting, I thought. This discussion - it didn’t last long - had arrived at a point which, I might think, with my experience of having lived through countless news items about the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s, the sit-ins and boycotts and indeed of the most recent events around Black Lives Matter, and Trump and the Footballers’ demonstrations that indeed this poem does address stuff that relates to Martin Luther King.

Now, if I had more contact with those students I might have asked the lad who spoke up about Luther King to bring in the I Have a Dream speech. I might ask them to bring in anything else that they think might connect with the poem. Perhaps they might think about doing a presentation to others - a whole assembly - around the poem and what they had found.

For my part, I wouldn’t leave myself out of it. After all, there’s stuff I know and come across. What might I bring to the table? Well I might bring this:

Leosia: p. 79, You Wait Till I’m Older than You

Or Today 120, 121 What is Poetry?

Or yet again, I might bring this, a poem that some say was the trigger for Langston Hughes to write his poem:

I Hear America Singing

Walt Whitman, 1819 - 1892

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe

and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off


The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the

deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing

as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the

morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at

work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young

fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

This puts into perspective something that we haven’t mentioned yet: that Langston Hughes’s poem ‘I too sing America’ is in its own way a reply to what was a very well-known poem but one in which the darker brother wasn’t mentioned. Poems are often conversations with each other, and this is part of how they open conversations with us.

Now let’s take a pause and bring together something I’ve mentioned but not drawn attention to.

Schools are places of study. Traditionally, most of the activity of the students is concerned with stuff that goes in as teaching and stuff that comes out as the students’ output. This is usually expressed in exercise books and exams.

Again, you’re head teachers, you can leave that to every one else. Your schools are full of capable teachers who know that that is their job.

What if, picking up from things that I’ve said already, you reconceived this output thing. What if, you considered that your school had another job, somewhat akin, say, to the BBC. I work at the BBC and I do a lot of homework for them, studying topics and subjects so that producers can engage me to broadcast things. The BBC is in that sense a commissioning and publishing house. It asks people to do things and then distributes what they say.

You could, if you chose, think of your schools this way. You could think that one way in which students could experience what it feels like to produce ideas, thoughts, work, is by producing pamphlets, blogs, plays, presentations, performances, bulletins, magazines, powerpoints, sketches, mixed media events, in a combination of live, printed and digital outputs.

I’m going to suggest that if a school does a fair amount of this - not just a token job once a term - any or all of the following will happen:

large numbers of students will discover ‘audience’ as a means of guiding them in what to write and how.

many students will gather a sense of editing - call it correctness if you like - on how to produce something so that readers and listeners can read and hear everything.

I can’t exaggerate how important these things are. What they bring into schools, the criteria of the outside, real world into why they write, how they write. Instead of the sole criteria being a teacher’s approval (or not) and the anonymous arbitration of the exam system, students collide with peers, parents, grandparents and a wide variety of people and the students discover what tickles them, what grabs them. This will act as a guide for them. It will help you establish a school community that is wider than the pupils themselves and expresses that community’s thoughts, feelings and hopes.

So, my plea to you today, is that you think of your schools as all the things you already think of them as, but you also consider them to be commissioning, publishing houses, talking to and with the outside world. As I’ve suggested poetry can have a great part to play in this. (I’m not suggesting that poetry is the only literary form that should be at heart of this: let it be anything: poems, plays, non-fiction in all its forms: write-ups of sport, biographies; and sketches, ghost stories, songs and so on.

Clearly you can’t do this on your own. It needs a sub-committee; one, I suggest, that could and would benefit from participation from parents. This would help the whole process look both in to the school AND out to the wider community, who in turn will find ways to join in.

Now let me return to poems. That’s my job. And, this is National Poetry Day. Maybe some of you feel hesitant or inexperienced with poetry.

Let me say this. Poetry is infectious. The reason why any poet has ever written or performed a poem is so that a person or some people will find something in it that sticks. Poets write poems covered in those sticky burrs that catch on to your clothes when you walk through the countryside.

Of course poems can be pulled apart in lessons. Some of you will remember the experience as a series of mild humiliations. Again, you’re head teachers, you don’t have to burden yourself with this. Your attitude to poems can be that they are like viruses or bacteria. If you introduce them into the right environment they will multiply. Poems are generative, not products. They don’t stop at the end of the poem. They begin conversations and they can engender more poems, more writing of any kind.

If you find the right poem for the right moment and you simply say to the readers and listeners, ‘We can write like that’, for many that will be sufficient. In that single phrase ‘like that’, there is a whole pedagogy. Think about it: ‘like that’ can mean, ‘sound like that’, ‘have that theme’, ‘pick up on a single word, or word-picture, or single topic in the poem and write something triggered off by it.’

Having put up ‘I too sing America’ you could perhaps ask students throughout the school to choose poems to turn into poem posters that can be put up around the school. You could arrange to change these once a term, say. After all, we think it’s a good idea to put art work up on the wall, why not poems? They don’t have to be taught. They can just go up there for people to look at and wonder about. Every so often, as part of the way the school is a publishing house, teachers or you could suggest that ‘We could write like that’ trigger off any of the poem posters up on the wall. This encourages students to think of poems as ways of opening a conversation which can carry on with poems in reply, and poems in reply to them, and so on and so on.

Before taking your questions, I thought I’d read you one or two other things I’ve written:

I’m Tired p.131 Big Book of Bad Things

They Don’t Love You p. 83-4 Big Book of Bad Things

National Health p.134 Don’t Mention the Children

Going Through the Old Photos p. 26 Quick Let’s Get Out of Here

Names p. 60 Jelly Boots Smelly Boots

Ships p. 41 Jelly Boots Smelly Boots

Whale p.13 Don’t Mention the Children

Survey: Euston p. 178 Don’t Mention the Children