Have you texted any good novels recently?

 

The modern art of conversation!

The modern art of conversation!

I was standing on Birmingham’s New Street station a couple of days ago on my way home from a teaching session with research colleagues at the University in that city. I have to say that the platforms at New Street are about as dingy and uninspiring as those of any railway station I have experienced anywhere in the world. I enjoy travelling by train; it usually provides an opportunity to catch up with reading or marking, and generally makes few demands upon the traveller. However, this journey was a little frustrating as the only announcements being made were informing passengers of delayed trains and late arrivals and departures.

As I stood on the crowded platform I became aware that my behaviour probably stood out from almost everyone around me. It did so not because of what I was doing, simply standing patiently in anticipation that I might, with any luck get home before dark, but rather for what I was not doing. As I looked around me I noticed that the six individuals in closest proximity were all engaged in sending messages over their mobile phones. So this, I thought, is what we mean by the digital age; an era in which our digits are used for communication more often than our voices.

Of course, I too send text messages via a mobile phone, but after ten minutes or more had elapsed I was surprised to note that, with still no sign of the much anticipated train, all but one of my fellow passengers was still busily tapping the tiny key board and seemingly oblivious to their immediate surroundings. Perhaps, I speculated, this is the way in which students write their essays today; maybe one of these highly focused individuals is writing a novel or some major work of history or philosophy. Can it be that the great magnum opus will in future be written on a mobile phone? Would it possibly necessitate major surgery to separate these individuals from their phones? These thoughts, I reflected are probably the result of two conditions, the first the effects of a simple ennui brought upon from this unappreciated period of waiting in the bowels of the world’s worst railway station, and the second could well be a Luddite tendency possibly related to my age!

At last the train arrived and slumping wearily, but with some relief into a seat I removed a book (an old fashioned object constructed from paper and board containing sheaves of paper called pages filled with text) from my bag, and settled down to enjoy forty five minutes of reading. Taking her seat beside me, a young lady still connected as if by an umbilicus to her smart phone, continued to exercise her fingers deftly across a tiny screen, a dextrous act that she maintained even whilst leaving the train twenty five minutes later in Coventry. Looking around the carriage I noted that her performance was mirrored with commendable concentration by several other passengers, whilst others listened through headphones, presumably to music or possibly stories, again through their phones, and others switched on electronic tablets to play games or even watch movies.

But then I spotted something reassuring. Having begun to think that I had become an endangered species, possibly at risk of attracting the attention of a passing anthropologist, or even David Attenborough in search of a new epic television programme opportunity, there sat quietly across the corridor of the train I noted was a young lady, possibly sixteen years old, certainly no more than eighteen with her gaze fixed intently upon the pages of a book. My curiosity was immediately raised, could this be the last of the dinosaurs or possibly the missing link? What could it be about this ancient technology that held her concentration so fixedly? My curiosity was soon followed by a feeling of unalloyed joy as she turned a page revealing the cover of her book. Women in Love, a D.H. Lawrence classic no less, I wanted to shout for joy, but being British and reserved restrained myself from so doing and returned to my own text with renewed enthusiasm, and an assured feeling that all was well with the world.

Just in case you may be thinking by now that I am resisting entry into the twenty first century, I will confess that I too occasionally listen to music from my phone. Furthermore, when travelling long distances, particularly by bicycle, I often make use of a digital reading device and celebrate the convenience that this brings (not actually whilst riding of course – but usually seated beside a tent in the evening!) And yes, you can download a copy of Women in Love, along with countless other Lawrence novels onto this wonderful machine at a very reasonable price, I’ve just checked. But I still think that from time to time when standing on a railway platform as uninspiring as that in Birmingham, it can be a pleasant, if somewhat arcane experience to engage in conversation with a fellow traveller. And whilst acknowledging the undoubted virtues  of the digital reader, there is something comfortably reassuring about the feel, the weight and even the smell of a good old fashioned book!

A bibliographic dilemma shelved!

Christopher Hitchens - I never knew you could bring me such relief!

Christopher Hitchens – I never dreamed you could bring me such relief!

Newspapers in England used to refer to this, with some justification, as the silly season. Parliament is in recess, the schools have begun their summer holidays, the sun is shining and the “British public” have fled to the beaches for the annual ritual of pretence that a dip in the cold and murky North Sea on the Norfolk coast, can be likened to frolicking in the Mediterranean. The spirit is one of holiday optimism and I love it. Before long I too will be enjoying a break away from the oppression of e-mails and meetings, freed from a desk and indulging in those leisurely pastimes that I look forward to all year, but recognise as an artificial interlude in the realities of earning a daily living. Yes, the British holiday with its familiarity and orderliness gives us a brief respite, during which it is possible to become immersed in the self-delusion that life could be for ever strawberries and clotted cream.

There is, however, a slightly sinister aspect of the summer break that has troubled me over many years. Whilst others make New Year’s resolutions I always find myself, in the run up to August, making false promises of tasks to be achieved at home whilst away from the university.  For the past couple of years the same impending mission has occupied my mind and has left me with the merest soupcon of personal reproach as I have returned to my work after a couple of weeks of self-indulgence and a failure to accomplish my assignment. But early this morning my mind was eased and I now feel that I can spend a couple of weeks guilt free in the knowledge that I am not alone in my failures.

This Damascene moment came to me from the most unexpected quarter, when having woken early I was enjoying a quiet half hour reading in bed prior to rising for another working day. (Why is it incidentally that as I get older I seem to wake ever earlier?). When I say that relief from my annual summer anxiety came from an unexpected source, I suppose I should not really have been surprised, because my reading this morning involved what I always like to think of as a silent conversation with a writer who has at once the ability to amuse, infuriate, challenge and both confirm and deny my interpretation of the world. The late Christopher Hitchens, man of letters, humanist, scourge of the media, debunker of cant and thoughtful contrarian viewed the world both on a wide screen and through the lens of a microscope. I find myself agreeing with much of what he says and feeling offended by his opinionated arguments in equal measure, which is probably an indication of his genius as an essayist and social commentator.  Yet, never before today has he brought me much relief.

In order to understand the nature of this experience I must return to my afore-mentioned annual mission and its predestined anticipated failure. We live in a house full of books and I would have it no other way. Some visitors (often those who never return actually) suggest that there are too many books. Why, they ask, don’t you have a cull and take some to a local charity shop? After all this would make so much more room in the house. My response is usually brief, some may even say curt or brusque. Would you expel your brother or your best friend from your home? These books are after all, not merely pages between covers, nor are they simply the tools of my trade – though I know I could not make my living without them. Each volume, even that which may be oft neglected and shelved barely within reach, is a respected and much needed friend. Many have been lovingly caressed, some bear a beautiful patina of age and others a distinctive fusty smell acquired from others on the shelves of a second hand bookshop, where they sat long neglected, until I arrived to rescue them and give them a caring home. Many have been with me since my youth and some purchased in far off places during my travels. The very thought that I could now release a single volume to a distant source where it might suffer the potential abuse of dog-eared pages, scrawlings in margins, or heaven forbid, that most heinous crime of the folded back spine, makes me shiver and could give me sleepless nights!

I do accept that having  thousands of books around the house does require occasional management and this brings me back to the annual, never to be achieved summer challenge. As May gives way to June each year and then June fades to July my thoughts turn  to a master plan involving a re-arrangement of the shelves. The noble mission of bringing a certain order to what is seen by the casual observer as a degree of chaos takes over, and I invariably begin the mental gymnastics of considering how a realignment of  tomes might be achieved. When I say that this has been the fruitless agenda now for probably the past fifteen years, you will see that I am nothing more than an abject failure.

So returning to Christopher Hitchens, a man who I would never have thought could have eased my mind. Sprawled comfortably in bed this morning with a copy of his collection of essays “Arguably” on my lap, I read a piece originally published in the City Journal in 2008 with the title “Prisoner of Shelves”. Here was Hitchens (Hitch to his friends – amongst whom I would I am sure never have been numbered) describing exactly my dilemma. Would he, I wondered be able to proffer advice to see me through this annual conundrum? Could he present a solution to how I might embark upon, if not eventually complete this task? You cannot imagine my relief when he, a man of far greater intellect than most, reaches the conclusion that the problem is insoluble. Hitchens accepts that living amongst his disorderly library brings comfort, and that any interference with the status quo would fail to improve significantly upon either his lifestyle or his working patterns. If this predicament thwarted the intellectual Hitchens, then why should I ever believe that I am up to the challenge? – there we are, problem solved!

Thank you Christopher Hitchens. I can now move forward into the summer, much relieved in the knowledge that for all these years those pangs of guilt have been a false indicator of a chaos in need of control. The re-organisation of books is no longer a priority, after all, when friends come to stay I don’t tell them where to rest, who to sit next to or that they should tidy their appearance. One more week of work to go before I can enjoy a holiday free from the angst that comes with a failure to rearrange my books!

 

Thanks for the memories.

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One of the interesting by-products of writing I find, is that whilst contemplating a topic or issue it causes some interesting idea or memory to come to mind that might otherwise have passed by. This serendipitous phenomenon is I suppose, a little like a Freudian word association test, delving into the subconscious in order to retrieve some long lost snippet of information. I have found, to my cost, that these fleeting windows into the past fade as quickly as they arrive, unless I take the time to write them down.

One such occurrence of this strange associative thinking happened yesterday when writing the piece about library closures and the protests by children from a Devonshire primary school. Whilst contemplating how important books have always been to myself, I recalled a number of influential teachers who had shaped my whole approach to reading. That is, reading for pleasure as much as for learning or information. I mentioned three of these in the text – Mrs Evans, who as Miss Kearsley had previously taught both my parents, Mr Passey, who had been a contemporary of my father at the same Gloucester boy’s school, and Mr Needham, a much loved and respected history teacher. Bringing these three to mind evoked fond memories of their approach to teaching and their personal philosophies which, whilst having subtle differences, were all founded on a belief that effective learning was a shared experience between the teacher and the pupil, rather than simply a process of knowledge transmission.

I remember a few years ago when there was a shortage of teachers, the UK Government ran an advertising campaign under the slogan “everybody remembers a good teacher”. As part of the campaign, various individuals would appear on the television fondly recalling an inspirational teacher who had shaped and  influenced their lives and inspired them to change or to achieve. Of course there were many cynics during this time who responded by saying “yes, and most of us can remember a bad teacher too!” Generally speaking however, it was good to see teachers gaining such good publicity.

So what is it about teachers that make them good? I suspect that there is no one particular factor that can be applied to all, but after naming three teachers in yesterday’s blog (two of whom are sadly no longer with us, and I have no idea where Mr Eric Needham is, but hope he is alive, well and enjoying a well-earned retirement), I began thinking about what it was I liked about them.

Mrs Margaret Evans, was affectionately known by us irreverent teenagers as “Faggy Maggie” because as soon as breaktimes came she reached for her packet of cigarettes. She was my first form teacher and English teacher at secondary school and I remember that one of the first books we read with her was John Buchan’s Greenmantle. Whilst I am sure that not everyone in the class enthused about this book, she recognised that I did and before I had reached the final page I was being given a copy of The Thirty Nine Steps to take home and read, as she put it “if you can find the time.”  This was not activity by command, but rather through encouragement. Find the time I certainly did, and for the remainder of that formative year Mrs Evans fed my new found habit, leaving me addicted and creating a long-term dependency upon literature. Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen and several other denizens of literature followed. Not once did she test me on any of these, other than as each was returned asking me if I had enjoyed the book, and if so why? She made time to talk about these texts and more importantly, she valued my opinion.

John Passey was a completely different character. At times he could be stern and even slightly intimidating. It was in his English class that we studied Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. We had read a little of the great bard before, but Mr Passey brought each character and every scene to life. Not only were we introduced to Elizabethan England but also challenged to see the relevance of the play to today. “Had we ever treated anyone so cruelly as Malvolio had been dealt with by the debauched Sir Toby Belch and Maria?” “Even though he was a pompous and irritating buffoon, could we really say that what befell him was justice?” These and other questions enabled us to live through Shakespeare where I’m sure that others simply followed the text to pass examinations. It also helped us to develop some kind of moral compass.

Eric Needham taught me to love history. For A level examinations we studied eighteenth and nineteenth century English social and economic history. He again had the ability to enable us to see how every aspect of the period affected our own lives. But what I remember most was that he refused to be constrained by the examination syllabus. About once a fortnight he would take a lesson in which he went completely off task. During these sessions I remember he taught us about a vast range of topics, including the rise of the Chartists, the D-Day landings, Simon Bolivar and the 1949 Chinese revolution. I remember some of my school mates feeling that this was a distraction from getting us through the examination, possibly even putting us at risk of failure, but Mr Needham’s response was, “I’m here to teach you history, not simply to jump through examination hoops. That involves a broader understanding than that imposed by the examination.” Well certainly it worked for me, leaving me with a strong  and continuing historical curiosity – and incidentally I passed the A level examination as did all others in Mr Needham’s class.

What brings these three teachers together as influential individuals in my life is the ability that each had to think beyond the conventional approaches to teaching and also to recognise my individuality. Each encouraged me to read and interpret the world way beyond the set text and in so doing to derive pleasure from my learning.

These teachers, whilst unique for me, may well have prompted your own memories of influential teachers. If so, I would love to hear about them. We should be celebrating such unsung heroes more often than we seem to want to do today.

 

Children are revolting! (with just cause)

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” ―  attributed to Cicero

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
― attributed to Cicero

The children of Braunton in Devon are revolting! Media sources report that children from the village primary school have been seen wielding banners demanding the retention of the village library. Petitions have been signed and the young revolutionaries are said to have the full support of their teachers. Will the authorities be quaking? I doubt it, but maybe they should.

I love books and have done so since I was a child. I was fortunate in having a number of inspiring teachers – (thank you Mrs Evans, Mr Passey, Mr Needham and others) – who pointed me in the direction of books that inspired, informed and challenged my thinking. So was a passion born that has remained with me and continues to excite. Sara and I live in a house full of books, we never travel anywhere without carrying something to read and whilst shopping is my bête noire I can browse a book shop for hours. As a teacher I have always seen books as the tools of my trade, but they are so much more than this. They are a source of pleasure, relaxation, knowledge and stimulation par excellence. I spend far more money on books than I do on clothes (some would say that this is a noticeable failing), but I like to think that in years to come my grandchildren may be reading my books, though I suspect they will not want my old socks!

Whilst buying books is a great pleasure, I am aware that for many people, and especially children, this may be seen as a luxury that they can’t afford. I would actually always dispute the notion that books are a luxury, but we must accept that there are many families who do not have the financial ability to build a library. This then is one reason why libraries play such a critical role in the educational health of a nation.

There has been considerable investment in libraries in England in recent years. Last year I visited the newly opened Birmingham City library, a wonderful repository of information and knowledge that will undoubtedly serve the people of that location very well. Whenever I visit London I arrive at St Pancras station only a brief stroll away from the magnificent British library, and I will often take an early train in order to make time to visit and enjoy some of the treasures within those hallowed portals. But the truth is that investment has been made into libraries in our large urban conurbations, whilst those serving rural communities are being at best neglected and often closed. Nationally  146 libraries, mainly in rural areas closed between 2010 and 2011, and in 2012 this figure was surpassed with the demise of a further 201.

It is then hardly surprising that the children of Braunton have instigated their protest. They are angry that a facility that has offered not only books, but so much more is to be taken from them. As one of the protesting pupils Izzy Nicholson states:-

“If it were to close then lots of children would be left with nothing to do as there’s lots of stuff going on in the library after school. If it shut then they’d do less healthy things like staring at a screen”.

Braunton library, like so many others these days provides a range of activities for children and families. School holiday events encourage children to get involved in community activities and instil in them a sense of belonging and social responsibility. They have access to all of the world’s literature through a library loan service and information through both paper and digital technology. And all of this free of charge.

Michael Rosen, the fifth British Children’s Laureate (2007 – 2009) in campaigning for the retention of libraries argues that:-

“Books are portable, durable packages where we can read slowly, toing and froing across the pages at a tempo that suits ourselves. Libraries are the treasure-houses that store these ‘packages’ and it’s here that we can browse for free, to find the books that we want or need to support our lives and interests”.

He expresses concerns that reading is being seen by education policy makers as a technocratic process and that they have failed to understand the immense value that books can offer to every individual:-

It’s clear that they [education policy makers] think ‘reading’ is about ‘doing literacy’ ie learning how to ‘decode’ print. What they don’t seem to understand is that literature is one of the main ways in which we can engage with difficult and important ideas in an accessible way”.

It will, of course be argued that the children of Braunton could travel to nearby Barnstaple to use the library there that is (currently) not under threat of closure. But of course, in order to do this they will need to be taken there by an adult who can make the time and has the interest to make the journey. So, I am all in favour of revolting children, those who are standing up for their own education and who value an opportunity for learning, social participation and community engagement of which they may well be deprived. Long live the reading revolution!

Don’t just take my word for it. Click on the link below to hear the views of some real experts. (With thanks to the children from St Oswalds Roman Catholic Primary school.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNBv8O5Cw1c

 

Books behind bars

TIRAN(i)A, Barcelona 2002

TIRAN(i)A, Barcelona 2002

In 2002 Sara and I visited an exhibition at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona in Spain. The exhibition was called Tiran(i)a, a clever play on words that combined the name of the Albanian capital city (Tirana) and the Catalan word for tyranny. The exhibition in part celebrated the life and work of the Albanian writer Bashkim Shehu, who had been exiled to Barcelona in 1997. Shehu is a fine novelist and has also translated the works of a number of European intellectuals including the philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the historian Eric Hobsbawm into his native language. However, as the name of the exhibition implies its main purpose was to recall the tyrannical dictatorship of Enver Hohxa the communist leader of Albania and to present a powerful challenge to the oppression of peoples living under such regimes.

The exhibition used a range of media to convey the miseries of living under a dictatorship, where to stand up for human rights was likely to lead to imprisonment and in many instances death. Audio-visual displays and paintings were interposed with chilling black and white photographs demonstrating the brutality of life under Hoxha’s ghastly and terrifying rule. But it was one particular exhibit, which whilst not depicting the brutality so evident in many of the artefacts, remained in my mind long after we had left the gallery.

Sealed behind the thick wire mesh of several cages was a collection of books. There were probably several hundreds and possibly thousands in total, mostly arranged in neatly presented lines or stacks just inches away from the viewer, but totally out of reach. These were books that had been banned under the Hoxha regime and to have been found in possession of any of these would have resulted in the severest punishment. I remember at the time of the exhibition being completely bemused by the range of titles on display, including children’s books and well known classics of world literature. The majority appeared to have no political significance and I struggled to understand what was to be gained by imposing such a ban, other than conveying a message through the exertion of power.

There are some who appear to believe that keeping books away from others will enable them to demonstrate their power. Exactly the opposite of what teachers know to be true.

There are some who appear to believe that keeping books away from others will enable them to demonstrate their power. Exactly the opposite of what teachers know to be true. Exhibit of imprisoned books at the Tiran(i)a exhibition in Barcelona 2002

I brought a postcard back from that exhibition. It shows a picture of the dictator Hoxha smiling benignly at a young girl, perhaps three years old, wearing an Albanian military uniform complete with a cap bearing a red star. Behind the child is a picture of a statue of an actual Albanian soldier, and with a touch of irony next to Hoxha at the edge of the postcard is a bookcase holding several volumes, though it is impossible to make out the titles on their spines. The card is disturbing not only because of its blatant propaganda message, but also for the exploitation of an innocent child to fulfil a far from benign purpose.

Since bringing this postcard back from Spain I have had few occasions to examine it in any detail, yet over the past few days I have found myself returning to it with some regularity. The prompting of this renewed interest has been a recent declaration by one of our UK government ministers that there should be a restriction on permitting books to be sent to individuals serving sentences in British prisons. The Ministry of Justice, claiming that there may be security issues attached to the sending of parcels to prisoners, appear to have taken the decision to deprive those who are  incarcerated, of the opportunity to find solace or learning from the pages of books.

At a protest outside Pentonville prison in London this weekend a number of distinguished writers, performers and artists voiced their concerns for the mean spirited actions taken. Others have written to national newspapers or gone onto the radio and television to express their disbelief at such a disturbing action. The Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy stated that

“These values which distinguish our country – imagination, sympathy and tolerance and compassion – are in danger of being lost … those with nothing are now being told by this government that they now have less than nothing.”

Why as a teacher should I feel such disquiet at this act by a government department? Well, for a start it has been evident throughout history that the banning, or in some instances burning of books, often precedes even more draconian actions. But as a teacher I am equally aware that a significant proportion of prisoners have learning difficulties, including problems with reading, and in many instances have fallen through the education system without having gained more than the most rudimentary learning. Surely if there was ever a population that needed and could benefit from books, it is that which is housed within our prisons.

The opportunities that have come with education have been a source of liberation for many of us. Books have been the means through which many have come to gain a greater understanding of the world, insights into the lives of others and an appreciation of the consequences of actions in a range of historical and contemporary circumstances. All factors that can contribute to the moral choices that we make. I feel sure that many of us as teachers would recognise the ways in which our lives would be cheapened and devalued through a denial of access to literature. It is to be hoped that common decency prevails and that those prisoners who wish to improve their lives and gain an education have the opportunity to access those books that may help them so to do. There is a bitter irony that Hoxha put books behind bars to keep them away from people, whilst we now apparently put people behind bars and deny them books.

 

“We know not whether laws be right

Or whether laws be wrong

All we know who lie in gaol

Is that the walls are strong

And each day is like a year

A year whose days are long.”

― Oscar Wilde, The Ballad Of Reading Gaol

Testing times.

 

At least the dog doesn't have a test in the morning.

At least the dog doesn’t have a test in the morning.

 

A few days ago, having been moved to comment following to a couple of blogs that I had written around World Book Day, a young respondent posted a reply in which he expressed his own love of reading and bemoaning the fact that doing so for pleasure was not given sufficient value. Adithya told me of his love of Dickens, Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde but felt that at present in his life reading has been reduced to an unrewarding task. I would like to reassure Adithya that his passion for literature will serve him well throughout his life, and hopefully he can grit his teeth and get through his current frustrations with the demands of his current situation.

Adithya had written:-

“The fact that we read to pass tests is absolutely true. I am currently writing my 12th grade board exams that so many parents make a hue and cry about. I sit with the textbook and read through for nearly 6 hours just to score an 80% on that test”.

It isn’t so much the fact that Adithya is having to spend so much time reading to pass a test, that interested me in this statement. Though I do feel that six hours cramming from a text book may not be a terribly effective way to learn; at least not if your definition of learning, like mine extends beyond simply being able to regurgitate facts. My interest was drawn much more towards the concerns expressed about parental responses to the test.

All parents are understandably concerned that their children achieve well at school, and quite rightly take a pride in their achievements. Testing is an inevitable part of the education assessment process, but we must recognise that for many children this is accompanied by a high degree of stress and anxiety. Parents can play an important role in either alleviating or exacerbating the stressful experiences of their children at this time. When I read the comment from Adithya I was suddenly taken back to my own school days and recalled the experiences of a school mate for whom examination time was a period of excruciating anxiety.

Robert (not his real name) was well known as one of the brightest boys in the school. His course work was outstanding, particularly in mathematics and the sciences and in his early teenage years he had aspirations to go to university to study medicine. I remember in mathematics classes, never one of my favourite subjects, Robert always found the work so easy whilst I had to labour hard to keep up. Everyone assumed that he would sail through the final examinations and advance towards his ambitions of being a doctor. We all knew that his parents were already planning for his departure to university a few years hence. But sadly this was never to be. As the examinations loomed near Robert became increasingly stressed and started to doubt his ability to pass the examinations. The more his anxieties took over, the harder he revised, spending hours over his books and occupying every waking hour attempting to cram his brain with information.

I would like to report a happy ending to Robert’s endeavours but sadly this was not the case. As he himself had predicted his results fell well short of what either he, or his parents had desired. Whilst he may well have continued his studies and retaken his examinations he opted to leave school for a less stressful life and the last time I saw him he was managing a book shop in Cheltenham. His parents blamed the school for failing to push him harder to ensure he got the results they wanted, but I suspect that his teachers, just like his friends in school, knew that the problem was not with the school but far more with the pressures created from outside.

The expectations we place upon learners are probably more influential than we realise. Reading Adithya’s posting brought back these memories of Robert and started me wondering what he is doing now. Perhaps he is still managing the bookshop in Cheltenham, if so I have no doubt that he will be making a great contribution to his community and serving his customers well. Maybe he overcame his anxieties, returned to education and is now working somewhere as a doctor. Whatever the situation I hope that he is now happy and experiencing a lot less anxiety than he did during those last few years of school.

Everyone has their own way of approaching examinations and tests. I am sure that for some, late nights cramming from textbooks will be the answer. For others a steady approach over a prolonged period and maybe a quiet evening with a novel or some favoured music the night before the test is just as likely to gain results. Of one thing I am sure, the effort to ensure that learning is seen as a pleasure and not a chore is more likely to achieve a positive attitude towards study.

So,I’ve been working hard all day, it’s now ten o’clock at night and I’m going to settle down for a good read.

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde

 

This child takes me into her world - both real and imaginary when she reads me a story

This child takes me into her world – both real and imaginary when she reads me a story

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Groucho Marx

 

The intention of my piece for World Book Day – “The time has come the Walrus said, to talk of many things” (6th March 2014) was to celebrate the joy of being a child (anywhere from the ages of 0 – 100 and beyond) and to remind us all of how easy and joyful it can be to become immersed in a book. As I had hoped the piece provoked some tremendous and often amusing responses. A couple of students and a colleague from the university dropped into my office to tell me about their favourite children’s books and there were some great postings on the blog. Neha chose to simply post William Blake’s mysterious depiction of the Tyger with its religious symbolism and wonderful rhythm, Barbara had clearly woven some kind of magic and had turned into Harry Potter and Maitrayee entered fully into the spirit of the Mad Hatter with her passionate celebration of eccentricity. Others gave me accounts of their favourite books and shared ideas for further reading. I must say that reading all of these responses made my day and left me smiling for much of the time.

Books and words have always been important to me. When I was a child I loved making up stories and writing these down on any available scrap of paper. Through my teenage years I read any novel, collection of poetry or work of history that came my way and then I was privileged to study literature as a student. The reading obsession has never gone away and I cannot imagine travelling anywhere without at least one book in my hand luggage. The height of decadence for Sara and I is Sunday morning, with no need to dash to work, sitting in bed accompanied usually by our cat, reading for an hour or so, simply for pleasure. (the cat incidentally remains indifferent to books, despite my best efforts!). What a great way to start the day.

It was therefore a tremendous delight to read of the enthusiasm expressed by others in response to my simple blog. But this was also tempered by the sad reflection posted by Mary with her report that in China reading for pleasure appears to be almost discouraged by the education system. Mary suggested that:-

“here in China, very few people read what you have listed for pleasure any more or ever. If people are actually reading those, they must be university students reading to pass their tests”.

What message, I wonder, are we giving to children about books if their only purpose in reading is to pass tests? This does seem to me to be more likely to deter children from learning than to encourage them to explore the riches of the world through the written word. Furthermore, I believe that the children placed at greatest disadvantage from this approach are those from poorer communities who have less opportunity to explore and learn about the world than those from more advantaged situations.

When I was a child I never imagined the experiences that I would have as an adult travelling to many parts of the world, meeting so many wonderful people from diverse and fascinating cultures. People from my community and background simply didn’t do these things. Education has given me opportunities that were never available to my parents and indeed the only time my grandparents’ generation travelled outside of the UK was to be shot at and shoot at others in two dreadful World wars!

As a child I explored the wonders of the world through the pages of books never really believing that the world beyond the pages could open up to me. I read every one of R.K. Narayan’s novels about the fictional village of  Malgudi, and loved Anita Desai’s Village by the Sea, never believing that one day I would spend time living with a family in just such an Indian village. The thrill of visiting Lu Xun’s house in Shaoxing, years after reading his hilarious account of his eccentric character, Ah Q, and finding a blue plaque on the wall of a house where Lawrence Durrell wrote the autobiographical Bitter Lemons in Cyprus and realising that I was exploring in reality places, people and events that I had first encountered on the pages of books has been a great aspect of my adulthood.

Travel has come to me as a result of education. But appreciation of the cultures that I have visited, whilst being built around the friendships I have made in many countries, was prompted much earlier by my reading as a child and throughout my life. Through books I was able to gain insights and build respect for the art, literature, religions, and cultural traditions that were distant from me as a child. To deny a generation this opportunity to explore for themselves outside of an imposed school curriculum is surely to rob them of their rights to understand the world and to develop as tolerant and appreciative individuals.

Ah yes but, I hear some of you saying. The book is dead, this is the digital age and we get our information fast these days from our tablets and smart phones. Certainly I say, there is a place for these. But equally there is surely a need for the beauty of the language of Shakespeare, the incise wit of Robertson Davies, the empathy created by Kenzuburo Oe, the profound spiritualism of Dante or Milton? Through Naqib Mahfouz I have visited the winding alleys of old Cairo, Chekov has given me a sense of the Russian Steppe and my senses have been filled with the sounds, colours and smells of South America by Borges, Llosa and Marguez. All of these are places I have never visited but of which I have learned a little at least in my imagination. Maybe I am just old-fashioned, but I suspect that there are other children like me out there whose eyes can be opened to the world and whose thirst for learning will be stimulated by the written word.

Perhaps the saddest fact here is that we see the need to establish World Book Day. If every day became a celebration of books there may be many more happy children in all of our countries. So, wherever you are in the world enjoy your literary greats and give your children the lifelong gift of books.

 

“The time has come”, the Walrus said, “to talk of many things”

 

The Mad Hatter - will sanity in education ever be restored?

The Mad Hatter – will sanity in education ever be restored?

“And how many hours a day did you do lessons?’ said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.

Ten hours the first day,’ said the Mock Turtle: ‘nine the next, and so on.’

What a curious plan!’ exclaimed Alice.

That’s the reason they’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon remarked: ‘because they lessen from day to day.”

Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Sara went to school today dressed as the Mad Hatter. Now let me be quite clear, this is not a daily occurrence, neither am I questioning her sanity, she normally leaves home in the conventional garb that one would associate with primary school teachers anywhere in the country. But off she went today complete with bow tie, tail coat and top hat adorned with price label reading 10/6 (52 ½ pence in today’s decimal currency). I advised her to be careful about her speed on the way in to school. Can you imagine the scene? Sara pulled over by a police officer, “good morning sir/madam, are you aware of the speed limit on this road? Let’s start with your name shall we?” Could she resist answering “Hatter, M” I wonder? I do hope so, I really don’t have time for a dash to the police station to bail her out today!

There is, of course, a perfectly rational explanation for this seemingly bizarre behaviour. You see, today is World Book Day, a great celebration of books and reading, and Sara’s school, like many others is celebrating in style. All the children and staff have been invited to attend school today dressed as one of their favourite characters from fiction. I imagine dozens of little Harry Potters storming the gates excitedly, dashing into school to weave their magic spells. Ratty and Mole arm in arm straight from the riverbank sloshing their way into class 2 and Peter Pan along with Tinkerbell singing their way into a maths lesson. Ah, the joys of literature! During the day, for twenty minutes all of the children will take part in what is termed DEAR – drop everything and read. At this point everyone in school from the head teacher to the caretaker stops what they are doing and reads a book or a magazine, or anything they like, sitting, lying on cushions or slouched in a corner in comfort. What a great way to pass the time.

If you were at school today who might you have gone dressed as? For me it might be a difficult choice between Robinson Crusoe or Max from Maurice Sendack’s Where the Wild Things Are. Kipling’s Mowgli could be fun as could Roger from Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons or Mr Tumnus from The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe. The opportunities are endless, limited only by the imagination.

I did think about trying to convince my colleagues at the university that we should follow the example of our schools and join in with the fun. Sadly too many of my “academic” colleagues have forgotten the joys of childhood. Indeed I suspect that some (though hopefully not those in the School of Education) have made a conscious effort to distance themselves from their youth. This is a shame because I have a clear picture in my mind of the characters I might assign to some of them. I have no difficulty in attributing Mr Bumble, Peter Rabbit, Captain Hook, Scrooge, Mary Poppins and the Wicked Witch of the West, I can even see the Vice Chancellor dressed as… Well perhaps we had better not go there.

Of course, all this is just a bit of fun. But after all isn’t fun an important part of learning? I sometimes look at our schools and yes, even our universities today, and wonder what we have done to childhood. The increased pressure wrought by a competitive education system in which children are expected to jump perpetually and for increasingly long hours through educational hoops gives me cause for sadness. When I hear of five year old children coming home each evening to complete a couple of hours of homework and returning to school the following day fearful that they may have got something wrong, I worry about what these children may be like when they become adults. Will they grow up to have imagination, creativity and a sense of what it is to have fun?

I hear teachers who express the same concerns as those that I feel. They too are anxious that our education systems are increasingly placing children upon treadmills of schooling from which some are destined to fall, whilst others will reach the end of this automated process as the finished item. How will this final product look I wonder?

But today at least the sanity of the Mad Hatter and his entourage prevails. – So go on then, what are you waiting for? DROP EVERYTHING AND READ!

“The time has come”, the Walrus said,

“to talk of many things:

of shoes and ships, and sealing wax,

of cabbages and kings.

and why the sea is boiling hot,

and whether pigs have wings”

from The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll

Sadly I have been informed that there are those amongst us who were deprived of the wisdom of Lewis Carroll in their childhood. I therefore leave you with the opportunity to hear a reading of The Walrus and the Carpenter by clicking on the link below. Happy World Book Day.

The Walrus and The Carpenter 

It’s my label and I’ll wear it if I want to!

A considered approach to teaching by a skilled and empathetic teacher can have a significant impact upon the confidence of the learner. But is this made easier by applying a label?

A considered approach to teaching by a skilled and empathetic teacher can have a significant impact upon the confidence of the learner. But is this made easier by applying a label?

Yesterday I wrote a piece “When in doubt apply a label” in which I discussed the controversy that surrounds the categorisation of children. Within the article I mentioned Julian Elliott’s recent work published in his book The Dyslexia Debate. A couple of respondents from Canada, Ireland and India posted comments on this blog but I also received an interesting observation from a friend here in the UK. She was unaware of the blog until her daughter, a local teacher, drew her attention to yesterday’s piece. Having read what I wrote she felt obliged to telephone me and give me her perspective.

She began the conversation by telling me she thought I had overlooked an important point. She wasn’t angry, at least not with me, but she was disappointed by an education system that had failed her at school. She went on to tell me that at the age of twenty two, she was assessed and diagnosed as dyslexic. This diagnosis, she related came after having been labelled as a complete failure at school by many of her teachers and also by her father. Alice (not her real name) had finished school at age sixteen with virtually no qualifications and left only with a feeling of relief that her school days were behind her. As far as she was concerned she was finished with education which she saw as having provided her with little more than misery. She left school with a negative view of teachers and very few friends. Even worse, her father who was a successful business man, accused her of being lazy and wasting her educational opportunities.

Having left school Alice had a succession of jobs, none of which she found particularly satisfying until an opportunity arrived for her to work for a national chain of florists delivering flowers to individual customers and floral displays for corporate events. She enjoyed this work and at last found some satisfaction in her life. At about the same time she married and all was going well for her. Then fate took a hand in her life. After two years in her delivery job her boss approached her one day and offered her a promotion to work in the office. Alice says that she immediately panicked, knowing that she would not be able to cope with the demands of office work. Her boss was surprised when she turned the job down, he knew she was newly married and would probably appreciate the increased salary that came with an office job and he believed she had the right personality for the position. He pushed her to take the post and with great apprehension Alice agreed to give it a try for three months on the condition that she could return to delivery work if it didn’t work out.

Alice told me how after a week in the office she was in a complete panic. She found herself adopting the very same strategies that she had used in school to avoid demonstrating the difficulties she had with reading and mathematics. She spent a restless weekend after her first week in the office post and on the following Monday had resolved that she had to see her boss and give him the full truth about why she couldn’t do the job. She described to me how much courage it took for her to sit in the office and tell her boss that she had difficulties performing the required level of reading tasks and that she didn’t want to continue in the post. However, she had not expected the reaction that she got from the man sitting opposite her.

Her boss asked her about her experiences at school and she told him about her struggles with learning. He immediately sympathised and told her that his experiences had been similar, but that the school which he attended rather than seeing him as lazy or stupid decided to provide him with extra support. With the cooperation of his parents he was given additional structured lessons to assist him in overcoming his reading difficulties. He described how a teacher had built an entire reading programme for him built around Leicester City Football Club match programmes and other related materials knowing that was his area of interest. With time his reading improved and he managed to leave school having done reasonably well in his final examinations, but more importantly feeling confident in his own abilities.

Alice’s boss told her that he would not let her give up the office job as he thought she had the personality to make a success of the post. He wanted her to stay on in the office and would give her an assistant to help with the things she found difficult, but on one condition. He would arrange for Alice to have an assessment of her learning needs and the company would then pay to provide any additional training that she needed. At this point Alice told me she had dreadful visions of returning to the classroom, but her boss was both insistent and kind.

I listened to Alice’s story over the phone recognising that it was probably a bold decision that she had made to call me and tell me her story. I attended to what she had to say without interruption as she then carried on to recount how she had gone for an assessment with a very sympathetic lady. The assessment lasted nearly two hours after which she was asked, “has nobody ever suggested to you that you might be dyslexic?” Alice says that she had never heard the term until that point. The specialist who had conducted the assessment explained how the word dyslexia was being used and that with the right kind of support many of Alice’s difficulties could be addressed.

From that day on, Alice told me, I realised that I was not stupid and that there was a reason why I struggled so badly at school. “I read your article on the blog”, she told me “and I thought someone should tell you the other side of the story.” Following the assessment Alice returned to reading lessons and quickly learned strategies that had never been made available in school. She retained the office post and was in fact promoted further a couple of years later. She remains bitter (her word) about her school experiences describing these as lost years. She is convinced that had the label of dyslexia been applied to her early in her schooling she would have been more likely to receive the support she requires.

Alice may be right. There’s no way we can tell. I personally don’t believe that we should wait until a formal diagnosis has been given before we recognise that children need additional help with learning. I also believe that it should have been possible to provide the support Alice needs without applying the term dyslexia.

I sent this piece to Alice so that she could read it and give me consent to post it on this blog. She was happy to do this (as long as I changed her name) saying that maybe it would encourage others to think more about her experiences. We discussed my view that a label should not be necessary in order for a child to receive appropriate teaching. She tells me that she agrees but equally that she thinks me naïve and suspects that many more children will consider themselves to be failures and furthermore will believe it is their fault unless they are given the right messages. “For me,” she said, “knowing that I am dyslexic and not stupid or lazy, is important. It’s my right to wear this label if it helps me to feel better about myself ”.

Thank you Alice for sharing your story. I do hope that others might contribute to this discussion.

Thank you for the gift of reading

UNSUNG - reading for the soul from Anita Pratap and Mahesh Bhat

UNSUNG – reading for the soul from Anita Pratap and Mahesh Bhat

Over the years generous friends and family have often given me gifts. Those who know me well are aware that the giving and receiving of a book is always something that I treasure. The roots of this pleasure clearly go back to my childhood when caring teachers gave me the gift of reading. Like so much in childhood I suspect that at the time I was unaware of what a precious skill I was being given.

Whenever I visit India I carry books to give to my good friend Jayashree and her charming daughter Varsha. An exchange of books has become a token of our friendship. Over many years this has become a tradition. Our shared love of literature has encouraged us to explore ideas and discover new images through the written word. Through this friendly exchange I have been encouraged to read texts I would probably never have discovered and to gain insights that would otherwise have passed me by.

In May 2011 Jayashree gave me the gift of a book which provided great pleasure at the first time of reading, but to which I have returned regularly when looking for inspiration. Unsung, beautifully written by the journalist Anita Pratap and accompanied by a series of sensitive and thought provoking black and white photographs taken by Mahesh Bhat pays tribute to a number of extraordinary individuals who have made significant contributions to their communities in India. I use the word extraordinary deliberately here. The front cover of the book states that it is a tribute to “ordinary Indian citizens who have dedicated themselves to improving the lives of people around them”. I cannot believe that anyone reading the accounts of the remarkable people within this book could ever find the soubriquet “ordinary” appropriate when applied to these amazing individuals.

The book details the actions taken by this collection of committed activists to improve the lives of people in their localities. Some of the stories told, such of that of K.M.Chinnappa who has dedicated his life to the protection of wildlife in the area of the Nagarhole wildlife park and has faced dangers from poachers, including threats to his life, present pictures of heroism such as might have been found between the pages of a “Boy’s Own” magazine. Others such as the account of the lawyer George Pulikuthiyil who has given his services and utilised his professional skills to represent the rights of oppressed people in legal disputes, demonstrate the selfless commitment of an individual who could have been using his training to gain personal wealth but has accepted a responsibility to support those who have no riches.

As a teacher I could not fail to be inspired by the section of the book that details the achievements of Tulasi Munda. This chapter, appropriately titled, From Darkness to Light, provides an account of a remarkable woman described by Anita Pratap as a “victim of illiteracy” who has dedicated her life to the provision of education for children in one of the poorest regions of Orissa, one of the most deprived states of India. Tulasi Munda lives in an area where boys were expected to work by day and little value was placed upon the education of girls. She started a school on an open verandah for children who came to her for instruction in the evenings, often after a hard day’s work, to gain the rudimentary principles of reading. Eventually Tulasi acquired a shed on a piece of land at the edge of her village and moved her teaching activities to her school beneath the trees in this vicinity.  By demonstrating the impact of her work with children to the elders of her community she gradually increased the support given in the district and has since taken the lead in establishing 17 schools in the area. Since beginning her campaign to provide schooling in her district of Orissa in 1964 more than 20,000 children have been enabled to gain an education. Mahesh Bhat’s portrait of Tulasi Munda (shown below) shows a lady with a gentle but determined face staring boldly into the photographer’s lens. His photographs of children seated cross legged on the floor of a classroom, with attentive expressions indicating their eagerness to learn and of a little girl arriving to begin the day’s lessons, are full of joy and hope for the future of these young learners.

The book provides nine inspirational accounts of extraordinary individuals. In introducing the book Anita Pratap says of these remarkable people:-

“Their inner resources – vision, will, commitment, energy – compensate their lack of financial resources. They operate in the shadows, away from the glare and glitz of fame and fortune, to quietly fulfil their mission. Not for self-glorification, not for public adulation. Their stories are inspirational. They teach us how we can beat the odds if we harness and channel our inner resources. We can do good if we really care to. And each one of us should at least try, instead of blaming the system for all that is wrong.”

Unsung is a beautiful book about caring individuals. I am often moved by the devotion I see given by teachers to their students. When the going gets tough, as it often does when working with and for children, we all need sources of inspiration. This slim volume provides this for me, every time I open the pages.

So, thank you Jayashree for the gift of this book. Thank you Anita Pratap and Mahesh Bhat for your writing and photographs. Thank you Tulasi Munda for your inspiration and thank you to the patient teachers who gave me the transformative gift of reading.

 

Mahesh Bhat's portrait of Tulasi Munda. A profound picture of a beautiful lady

Mahesh Bhat’s portrait of Tulasi Munda. A profound picture of a beautiful lady

Unsung by Anita Pratap and Mahesh Bhat is published by Mahesh Bhat Publishing  111/1 and 111/2 Dickenson Road, Bangalore 560042 India. ISBN: 978-81-904535-0-9