Many English teachers are unhappy that the terrain in which their creativity used to flourish has been reduced by a chronic interventionism that is not, they believe, legitimised by any recognisable educational philosophy or pedagogy.
Can it be that there is an intellectual vacuum at the heart of the National Curriculum and the Literacy Strategy? Robert Hull discusses.
In the September 2005 issue of Books for Keeps Michael Rosen speaks of ‘Year 5 and 6 classrooms where whole books are not being read’. In Waiting for a Jamie Oliver, Michael Morpurgo suggests that ‘books have become marginalised’.
Many of us – most? – would respond to such claims with a – hold on: how can that possibly be? How possibly, in schools, can books not be read? By what process of tortuous self-contradiction can anything that’s central to learning, the essence of it, be pushed to the fringes?
One could almost have believed, or at least hoped, that the Clackmannanshire research – where for ‘a few months’ in their first school-year, ‘before children are introduced to books, they are taught letter-sounds’ – had been elaborate satire; not a case of ruthless tunnel-visionaries snatching books out of children’s hands, but an ironic project of Aristophanic scope, with consummate piss-takers dressing up as ‘researchers’.
Sadly, it wasn’t. It was a triumph of peripheralism, a project devoted to pushing the central to the edge and installing the peripheral at the centre. One imagines Clackmannanshire-like schemes in Cloud-cuckoo-land – young children learning to swim without water, lying on a bench and waving arms in the air. ‘Water can be a distraction,’ says a researcher.
So it’s at least conceivable that Rosen and Morpurgo – and others writing in Waiting for a Jamie Oliver – are right about books. And if such a thing could happen, if it has, could a similar muscling in of the peripheral start to extrude other ‘basics’ – such as the writing of stories, the reading and writing of poems?
One answer might be that it already has. That it has, moreover, despite the fact that one hears that the National Curriculum and the National Literacy Strategy are benign providers of ‘structure’. That SATs don’t impinge as dysfunctionally as many believe. That teachers and children can be creative inside such frameworks or despite them, that there is a wonderful creativity abroad here and there. That Procrustes was much misunderstood.
From others comes the message that there isn’t time for things there should be time for; that the combined effects of SATs and league-tables are mainly lethal; that teachers, especially the less confident, are reduced to ‘ticking boxes’; that creative teaching is accomplished only at full throttle against the flow.
How does it happen?
Any attempt to understand how central concerns become marginal – how poetry becomes acrostics, cinquains and calligrams – has to try to fathom the key notions, the mainly implicit, taken-for-granted notions, that inform the huge amount of documentation in existence relating to Literacy and the National Curriculum for English.
Fundamental is the belief – unargued for in the documents, but continuously assumed, asserted and inflicted – that children learn to write by studying language and assembling techniques, rather than by – writing. This belief is endorsed in the recent Qualifications and Curriculum Authority booklet, English 21. Summarising the judgements of ‘respondents’, it suggests (p 26) that they are ‘enthusiastic about language study’.
The lynch-pin of this regressive project is the celebration of grammar. Grammar for Writing, a DfEE publication weighing in at over a kilo, suggests (p 7) that ‘the study of grammar’ will ‘improve children’s writing’, that ‘the purpose of teaching grammar…’ is… ‘to increase the range of choices open to them when they write.’ And – less than coherently – that ‘the use of formal styles, the purposes and characteristics of non-fiction text-types and the direction of narrative also depend on the writer’s awareness and control of grammar.’ (p 9)
That writers ‘choose’ metaphors, for example, or any other form of literary expression, and that they ‘use’ a particular tone of voice, say, are turns of phrase that occur passim in this text, as in National Curriculum and Literacy Strategy documents in general. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ Shakespeare wonders to himself, scrutinising the shelf of similes in the poetry warehouse: summer’s day, sumptuous day, super day, surreal day… ‘I’ll use that one, sounds classic, significant.’
To ‘choose’ implies ‘from amongst’, so that metaphors already exist, in the present. The writer chooses from his or her wardrobe of figures what metaphor the poem will wear. That metaphor is not created, brought in from the mind’s unknown, but lifted like a chocolate from a box – and ‘used’. The creative act, the struggle, is effaced by the usage. Time is saved. No wonder it’s possible, in this linguistic world, to do so much.
Identify, analyse, stay cerebral
The causal link assumed in the title of Grammar for Writing is drawn on on every page of this expensively attired compendium of brisk lessons. To take pages almost at random, in Term 1 of Year 4 (p 78-9) it’s suggested that children use ’powerful verbs’ to ‘improve a dull text’. A series of sentences is provided with ‘weak’ verbs in. In ‘The king went across the room’ the verb ‘went’ is ‘weak’ because it ‘doesn’t tell you about the king’s character or mood.’ (It could be he’s a little washed out after a night with Grammar for Writing.) ‘Suitable powerful verbs’ would be ‘stormed’ or ‘clattered’.
The lesson builds up, not surprisingly, to an exemplary paragraph of hyperkinetic frenzy, with charging, glowering, spinning round and so on displacing more laid-back activities. A pupil’s marked exercise (p 171), in which ‘powerful’ verbs have to replace ‘weak’ ones in discrete, decontextualised sentences, shows how the pupil is rewarded – and how much ‘learning’ has really taken place. In ‘The thief looked in the window’, ‘looked’ is crossed out and ‘peeped’ substituted. ‘Ate’ in ‘The Queen ate the cream bun’ becomes ‘nibbled’. The teacher writes: ‘Well done – excellent choices!’ Perhaps this is creative, and the pupil has sensed a fictive advantage in having her burglar disabled by diffidence, her Queen dysfunctionally stressed out. And yet…
It becomes appropriate to consider the expressive value of one verb rather than another only when some sort of narrative meaning has gathered. Inviting pupils to enact a preference in the absence of gathered meaning is likely, persisted in, to be destructive of felt response. It sets up a model of language where ‘powerful’ is elevated from a kind of thesaurus category – words making reference to vigorous action or movement – to an aesthetic one – such language is better by virtue of containing such words, the way a bun is better by containing currants.
In such ‘sentence-level’ work, ‘identifying’ has a key place. Page 172, for instance, is about ‘identifying features in a suspense paragraph’, and ‘analysing with a partner the different techniques that the writer has used to create suspense’. Next comes ‘drafting a suspense paragraph using identified features’. ‘Identified features’ include ‘adverb before comma’, ‘simple sentence for impact’, ‘one word’ (as sentence), etc. Learning the game quickly, the pupils write: ‘Simon dropped his lemonade. A twig snapped. Jo stood perplexed and still. What was it? Who was it? Simon’s muscles tensed. He was petrified.’ One shudders.
In other words, the basic assumption of the text is that a child develops as a writer in consequence of a regimen of cerebral activities such as identifying, analysing and collecting. Writing is the outcome of preliminary study and scrutiny. Page 146 – and, agreeably ungrammatically: ‘When we read, we should read as a writer… We should pick out the techniques which writers use, and store them up.’ Writing an adventure story for instance (p152-3) entails ground-preparing activities such as: reflecting on the adventure story’s ‘purpose’; studying its ‘generic text structure’; noting a dozen or so typical or necessary ‘sentence level features’ including ‘connectives’, ‘use of stereotypes’ and, charmingly, ‘language effects’; and under ‘writer’s knowledge’ listing 14 items of advice necessary to success, imperatives all: ‘give your main character some sort of flaw’, ‘use exclamations for impact’, and so on. Several weeks later, one imagines, the child writes.
This section of Grammar for Writing culminates (p152-3) in a breathtaking ‘Summary of organisation and language features: fiction and poetry’. The literary world of KS2 reduces to ‘Retelling traditional tales’, ‘Adventure’, ‘Free verse’ and ‘Haiku’. For the latter minimalist three-line form the book fires off 19 bullet points, including nine bits of advice: amongst them, ‘try to use words to help the reader to see something familiar in a new light’ – if only – and seven ‘possible use of’s, such as ‘careful use of punctuation to add meaning’. Add meaning and serve.
Strangling the poem
Where poetry is concerned, the outcome of putting the analytic cart before the inspirational horse is a species of ‘poetry’ as sadly meretricious as the theory that imposes it on children and drags it out of them. This is the close of a pupil’s ‘Final Draft’ of ‘Autumn’ (p 173):
The hungry crops soaked up the running water left by the ferocious flood.
The sly mist weaved in and out through the lively houses, leaving them cold.
The bitter frost freezed the ground, but the savage sun freed the garden and field.
Repressive, anti-creative. But: ‘Very good personification, and quite a lot of effective alliteration’, the teacher writes, giving the pupil a star, proving that Miss Groby is alive and well, hunting for Transitional Sentences and Figures of Speech ‘the way little girls hunt for white violets in springtime’.
The (anti-)creative process that puts definitions first and builds ‘writing’ from there produces a remorseless reifying of ideas that are only valuable when they are kept moving and open. It invites the creation of new ‘specialist’ concepts and pseudo-concepts and entities – like ‘recount’ (as noun), ‘suspense paragraph’, ‘persuasive text’, ‘chronological writing’, ‘scaffolding’, ‘frames’ and so on – not to mention ‘synthetic phonics’ – rather than summoning ‘ordinary’ language to articulate what is intended. ‘Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity’, William of Ockham warns, appropriately enough.
When new pseudo-entities themselves become the (reified) subject of the lesson, any number of them can be devised and proposed for learning. The subject ‘English’ then becomes not a spacious, democratically open and relatively common-sensible world, the language for entering which is rooted in everyday speech – speech which includes words like ‘poem’, ‘story’, ‘novel’, ‘ballad’, ‘rhythm’, and so on though not alas ‘calligram’ and ‘cinquain’ – but a precious terrain guarded by an ‘in’ list of ephemeral state-sponsored specialist terms.
The National Literacy Strategy’s plan for poetry in Year 5, Term 1, pays unambiguous homage to the cerebral and anti-creative, with these suggestions for ‘text level work’ on poetry:
4. to read a number of poems by significant poets and identify what is distinctive about the style or content of their poems;
5. to analyse and compare poetic style, use of form and the themes of significant poets; to respond to shades of meaning; to explain and justify personal tastes; to consider the impact of full rhymes, half rhymes, internal rhymes and other sound patterns;
17. to write metaphors from original ideas or from similes;
How better than through such a regimen of febrile cerebration to peripheralise and diminish the reading and writing of the poem? How better during the autumn term to deny children the opportunity to write poems, or to read some they choose themselves, than by making sure they’re busy identifying, analysing, responding, explaining, justifying – and considering the impact of half-rhymes. On…? In ‘significant’ poets only. But I forget – they can ‘write a metaphor’.
It seems almost frivolous to suggest that the word ‘poem’ is itself infinitely complex, that to ‘learn’ its ‘meaning’ is a slow process – of empirical, exploratory discovery. Children come to see, through felt experience over time, that poetic language somehow behaves differently, says things differently. They are happy then to acknowledge the term ‘poem’. Other register words, like ‘personification’ and onomatopoeia’, become similarly helpful as means of allowing or eliciting talk about things that children have started, independently, to notice. And what is needed for them to notice such things is to listen to so many poems that they start to hear things. In short, the teacher’s job is to read poems, and more poems, and more poems.
Literacy v creativity
The National Literacy Strategy is the key file, the summum bonum of state pedagogy for English, which students study and photocopy from and as young teachers take their bearings from for ‘literacy work’. The assumptions it carries and spreads about how to ‘do’ poetry for children are devastatingly anti-creative in their implications. English 21 / Playback notes: ‘There are only isolated references’ – ie from respondents – ‘to poets and poetry… it is noticeable that secondary students’ views about poetry are somewhat negative…’ How surprising.
It seems appropriate, even just, that a state poetry curriculum whose horizons are delimited by vacuous conceptualisations like ‘classic poetry’ and ‘significant poets’, not just good poems by anyone from anywhere, should get a kind of come-uppance from the ‘national conversation’ ’s containing only ‘isolated references’ to poetry. Hardly surprising if ‘poetry’, defined (with fine disregard for meaning and grammar) as ‘a text which uses features such as rhythm, rhyme or syntax and vocabulary to convey ideas in an intense way’, seems primarily to connote a menu of peripheralisms – calligram, limerick, shape-poem, acrostic, haiku, renga, cinquain and so on. How tragic and unfair, that this nemesis is visited on school pupils.
However, given the official faith in their having ‘transformed the way reading is taught in the classroom’, it’s unlikely that this glitch in the national strategy for the poem can trouble anyone of spokesperson status. It may seem an irrelevance too, that major publishers are pulling out from children’s poetry, that none now publishes single-author collections, that retailers do not want to stock children’s poetry anyway. It will seem entirely nostalgic too that extinct anthologies like the Penguin ‘Junior Voices’ series seem now so challenging and creative.
What then has the QCA’s new pamphlet, Taking English Forward have to say about taking poetry forward, out of this? The anonymous authors suggest that ‘creativity may be developed by: experimenting with new (sic) poetic forms such as concrete poetry’; by ‘transforming rhymes into new words’ (?); by ‘mixing elements of different forms of texts such as poetry and prose’; and by ‘drawing illustrations for a poetry collection’. What is not envisaged is that creativity in language may be developed by writing poems and reading them – a leap too far, that.
So how can we do better? What does anyone interested in resurrecting creativity, attempting heretically to restore it to its fundamental place in English teaching, have to say that is constructively intended, remedially positive? I tackle this question in a follow-up article in the next issue of BfK.
Powling, C (Ed) (2005) Waiting for a Jamie Oliver: beyond bog-standard literacy, National Centre for Language and Literacy.
Johnston, Rhona S and Watson, Joyce E (2005) A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment, Edinburgh, Scottish Executive Education Department. (The Clackmannanshire research.)
English 21 / Playback, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (2005)
Taking English Forward, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (2005)
Grammar for Writing, DfEE (2000)
Robert Hull, a schoolteacher for 30 years, is the author of two collections of poems for children – Stargrazer (Hodder), short-listed for the Signal prize in 1998, and Everest and Chips (OUP, 2002). He has written much history for children and a dozen or so collections of folk tales, and edited as many poetry anthologies. His Behind the Poem (Routledge, 1988) is a detailed study of children writing poems. His second collection of poetry from Peterloo Poets is due out in spring 2007.
How can teachers reclaim creativity in the teaching of English in the classroom? In the July issue of BfK, Robert Hull argues the case for an approach that enables children’s writing capacities to spring from ‘a gathering of motivation’.