In his final log as Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen reflects on the state of anxiety in schools that condemns some of our children to ‘Worksheet Hell’ rather than ‘Bookland’. And from the many activities and initiatives that have characterised his time in office, he comments on those that will continue to help children find their way to enjoying books.
After two years of this laureateship, I think I can see that schools are divided between each other, divided between classes within individual schools and even divided within single classrooms. This division is between the children who live in what I’ll call Worksheet Hell, and those who live in Bookland. The last ten years or so have put state primary schools into a state of anxiety: how will we look when the league tables are published in the local newspaper? The route that many schools have taken to deal with this worry is to spend hours and hours with the children who are seen as ‘slower’ doing what are, in effect, rehearsal papers for the SATs. So, where a school thinks most of the children are ‘slower’, then this is what most of the children will be doing. Where a teacher sees a ‘slow’ group, this is what those children will be doing.
And what are these worksheets? They are imitations of reading. They are extracts from stories, they are (I quote from one of them) ‘part of a myth’. And the questions that the worksheets ask are about the supposed ‘facts’ of a story, its logic and its chronology. This distorts and wrecks the purpose of reading. It deprives the children of a chance to use their own language to engage with the feelings and ideas that lie in literature.
This is going on quite knowingly. I was quoted in my local newspaper for saying these things. This was the reply from a spokesman at the local education authority: ‘…if a class of mixed ability studied lengthy stories in full, many of the children would lose concentration. There is a strong logic to the national curriculum.’ Indeed, there is a ‘strong logic’ and it’s consigning ‘many of the children’ to a life of extracts from stories and worksheets full of dull, pointless questions. And that ‘strong logic’ says that ‘many’ children just aren’t good enough for whole stories. Is this where we’ve got to? Is this the level of understanding that people who run education have reached? In the name of ‘entitlement’ they’ve created a regime of segregation and discrimination. And it is discrimination, because if you deprive children of the chance to learn to love reading and books, you deprive them of access to the easiest and most pleasurable way of getting hold of complex ideas.
I think being the Laureate has brought all this into much sharper focus for me, whether that’s been through school visits, meeting Ed Balls and Jim Knight, attending conferences on reading or making a TV programme for BBC Four on trying to create a book-loving school.
A lasting legacy
In terms of ideas, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the four previous Laureates and leave some things that could help more and more children find their way to enjoying books. I did a series of performances around the country with other poets and out of that has come an anthology, Michael Rosen’s A-Z of poetry – from Agard to Zephaniah, which will be launched at the Edinburgh Festival in August. Most of the poets who perform their poems in schools are in there. Alongside that, it’s been a treat to create with Morag Styles an exhibition at the British Library – ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat!’ – that celebrates the history of children’s poetry. As part of the exhibition there was a conference on Poetry and Childhood (with a book to follow!) and a series of performances and workshops for the public.
On another front, we’ve got the Roald Dahl Funny Prize up and running so that parents, librarians, teachers and children can find their way to the 12 comic books on the shortlist including the two winners.
The last bits of the jigsaw are the things I am trying to put in place to encourage teachers to help children enjoy poetry. There’s the ‘Poetry Friendly Classroom’ webpage at Booktrust’s website (www.childrenslaureate.org.uk/poetry-friendly-classroom), which is where teachers can pick up and exchange ideas, and in the autumn there’ll be a new website hosted by the London Grid for Learning called ‘Perform-a-poem’, where children will be able to post their poetry performances.
I think the Children’s Laureateship is working. We’ve all brought to it something different. We’ve each found ways to stimulate different parts of the children’s literature process and I’m sure this will go on. It seems to me that we’re in a new phase in the history of literacy. The artefact of the book and all the different ways of putting things into a book are in a state of flux. Each time a school closes a library to make room for an ITC suite, it represents a moment of change in this history. Each time an education spokesperson says that there are children who can’t cope with whole stories, that too represents a moment of change. If we believe in the value and power of books, stories, poems and plays, we also have to remember that it will never be enough simply to publish good stuff. We have to be committed, ingenious, flexible and experimental in coming up with ways of making all that literature come alive for every single child – no exceptions allowed.
Thanks for having me!
Visit the Booktrust website (www.childrenslaureate.org.uk) for information and details of forthcoming Laureate events.