Tuesday 7 June 2016

Trust the book, trust the writer, trust the reader

In workshops with teachers and children, I make a point about literature. I say that poems, plays and stories have 'great big hooks in them'. Writers are people who put an enormous amount of effort into ways of hooking their audiences in. Hooks might be things to do with how to create a scene in which there is conflict, love, achievement, hate, jealousy, fear or much else. It might be to do with the structure of that part of the piece - a cliffhanger, a distraction, a moment of suspense, a moment of tension, curiosity, puzzlement. It might be to do with the sound of the language, the way the sentences vary in length, the way the images ('figurative language') transforms something existing in one sphere of existence into another. It might be to do with how the story is 'narrated' - first person intimate? Distant omniscient? Multiple? Unreliable? Maybe we hear how everyone thinks? Maybe we feel strangely distanced from what is going on - yet this intrigues us?

As writers, teachers or children, we know when these hooks - or any other hundreds of small or big ones - work. We feel the effect of them.  We are drawn in to wanting to know more, to read more, to get to the end, to know the outcome. As a result we've been taken into a world of feelings and ideas - ideas about possible human action, how to face danger, how to have hope, what despair, fear, love, anger, danger and the rest feel like and much more.

Out of this comes wisdom. Literature of all kinds is about what human consciousness is capable of. By reading literature we confront our own consciousness with the ones on display. This requires us to interpret what's going on. This interpretation goes on at many levels - interpreting sounds, words, sequences of words, patterns of images, patterns of narration, human motive, evaluations of behaviour and thought, comparisons between life and what we're reading, comparisons between one 'text' and another - whether the texts being compared are other books, films, TV programmes, or the story that someone told us about their life yesterday.

 In some senses, this is all obvious. So why go on about it? Because the big push coming from the assessment and accountability people squeezes out a good deal of this stuff and suggests that wisdom is best acquired through the material dished up by mock tests and pre-tests. Or, even if this isn't an intended outcome, it happens all the same. I mean, the reading of poems, plays and stories in a space and time that let's the 'hooks' do their work, is eroded. Instead, hours and hours of time is taken up learning how to do comprehension questions in which the child has to retrieve stuff from the text, (what was A wearing?) or infer 'why A chased B' or repeat why z follows y follows x and so on. Far from enabling the child to 'get' the wisdom on offer, far from enabling the child to feel the power of the 'hooks', more often than not this kind of questioning dulls the child's response. I've felt it myself. I've seen it at work with my own children.

It's almost as if those who run education don't believe that literature offers wisdom and/or doesn't have these hooks. So, another alternative set of supposed wisdoms are on offer: retrieval, inference, sequence and the rest.

Another way of putting this is to say that education is in danger of moving towards a point in which it says, 'Don't trust the writer', 'Don't trust the book', 'Don't trust the reader', 'The only thing we can trust is the worksheet and the test - that's where the really important stuff is.'

The late great John Doona, who was a brilliant practitioner with Shakespeare and children, believed fundamentally in trusting Shakespeare. We did some workshops together around the first scenes in 'The Tempest': storms, shipwrecks, arriving on an island. The children or teachers explored fear, danger, relief, surprise, shock, mystery, curiosity. We experienced it through Shakespeare's words, our own actions and thoughts through improvisations, our own writing of songs, poems, speeches, dialogues.

I've done it with the story of Icarus and Daedalus which has two halves to it: the first part when the pair of them are imprisoned and are trying to find a way of escaping, and the second half when they fly towards the sun. In the exploring of these two halves, we can confront feelings and ideas about parent-child relationships, about the sources of knowledge, about what to do with wisdom, about overreaching ourselves, about transgression.

I've done it with the story of Hansel and Gretel and faced the question of fear of abandonment, actual abandonment and survival.  One one memorable occasion, a child improvised being Hansel or Gretel and voiced the thought 'What have we done?' - a profound insight into the introjected guilt that children can feel at the very moment in which they are on the receiving end of unjust punishment or mishap.

Again, I've seen it happen through open-ended questioning of Langston Hughes's profound poem 'I too sing America' where a group of white school students, unprompted by me, moved from viewing the poem as an indictment on how parents treat teenagers when guests come over to the house, to seeing a link between the poem and Martin Luther King's 'I had a dream' speech.

These interpretations, re-enactments, improvisations tell me to trust the story, trust the play, trust the poem. It has hooks. Given space and time, the children or students will be hooked, and their interpretations will be a form of wisdom.