Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Teacher power; children power; language power

I had a great day today working with teachers in Richmond, London. We had two hours thinking and talking about poetry in schools.

If I'm not careful (and install my shuttup button in my brain) I could easily gas on for two hours about poetry in schools. The net gain for the teachers, their children and education as a whole would be about minus 23%. So, instead, what I try to do is convene a discussion where teachers pool their best practice. With some 50 teachers in the room, they proceeded to produce what was in effect a magnificent outline for a poetry curriculum in primary schools, much better than any document, or plan or outline I've ever seen issued from central government or for that matter in a book. It came directly out of classroom practice, related by classroom teachers, full of observations about how it actually worked in their classes.

So, for example, at least three teachers talked about reading a poem a day to or with the children, with a developing pattern of the children introducing poems that they read (or asked to be read) coming from books in the class, from home, or from poems that the children themselves wrote. One of the teachers said that poems were sometimes the way the children moved from one activity to another and she gave the example of her reciting Allen Ahlberg's poem about the scissors getting lost. This was how the children got the signal that it was  time to come to the carpet.

Two teachers talked about ways in which they've made places where the children collect language - phrases they've heard or read, headlines, lines from poems or songs, odd words; one of them had a 'Magpie Wall' and the other had a big notebook for the children. We talked about how this can be a great starting point for poems. You go to the Wall or the book when you're stumped or looking for ideas.

One teacher talked about how the momentum of children choosing poems also involved the children going off and preparing performances of poems in their spare time, in the playground. Sometimes this would be group of them, working up a performance piece together, splitting up the lines, building in choral speaking and the like. This was coming from them, she pointed out.

One teacher talked about watching Attenborough's Frozen Planet and the children becoming collectors of language, picking out phrases they liked and then constructing a poem out of these 'found' phrases.

One teacher talked about having a special store or box under her chair, where the children knew she kept special books which she would read from. These include poetry books but she had discovered that the children were slipping books of their own into the special box, so that the teacher would read those out too.

I chipped in with the idea that if you want children to be interested in poetry, you can simply write poems out and stick them on the wall - and then change them every so often. If it's possible, the children can then write comments on post-its and stick them to the poem.

All this is informed by a notion of language and literature which works on the idea that what we're trying to do in schools is enable children to take up language and become owners and controllers of it. This is hard to do in schools where the curriculum is dominated by exercises which suggest that the examiner/tester who wrote the exercises and questions knows more than you, the child. That invisible questioner appears to own and control language and knowledge about it. You can only be right if that questioner says you are, and the rest of the time you're wrong and inadequate.

Poetry doesn't of itself break this down. It can repeat the pattern if poems are only chosen by the curriculum, if the pattern of work is always the same and predictable, if the work is dominated by questions which have right and wrong answers or 'right' ways of writing. What was interesting and exciting for me - and I hope the teachers too - was that a lot of the practice they were talking about seemed to be about children taking power to themselves as inspired and modelled and 'scaffolded' by the teachers.

This seems to be new. A few years ago, deep in the heart of the now-junked Literacy Strategy - teachers were inevitably talking about how to use poetry to implement the Strategy, following the requirements of that trivial and insulting matrix.Here though was a group of teachers who were talking about children discovering poems and poetry and making it their own.

In the second half I talked about some starting points for asking questions about poems and also writing them - again informed by the idea that what really matters is children taking ownership of the words, the language, the form  and finding out new things about all that and themselves in the process.

Exciting day.