When teachers are having to use books to assess literacy rather than to instil a love of literature, many writers feel horrified but also powerless to intervene. Invited by a television company to devise a way of showcasing good practice, both in schools and elsewhere, Michael Rosen leapt at the chance to show imaginative teaching and other ways of bringing books and young readers together. Michael Rosen explains.
If, like me, you find yourself in fundamental disagreement with what teachers have been asked to do in language, literature and literacy lessons, then you have a choice in what you do with your feelings about the matter. As I’m not a teacher but only a visitor to schools, I’m something of a bystander, but of course I can’t resist telling people what I think, when asked. More practically, I like to think that my visits represent the kind of event that I would hope all schools might try to repeat with various kinds of writer and performer as a way of lifting words off the page, giving insights into what writing for a purpose feels like, and offering an opportunity for children and students to quiz authors about the book the children have read.
Recently, another kind of opportunity cropped up. I was asked by people at Teachers TV and by an independent film company to front a show about books that teachers use in the classroom along with books they like to read for themselves. It was irresistible. Here, surely, would be a chance to talk about books, schools and teachers without having to negotiate the matter of how the children were going to be assessed or whether this or that passage or word would be ideal for use on a worksheet or as an exercise. Instead, couldn’t we talk about ways in which whole books move us and get us thinking and imagining? But how?
Talking to teachers
Well, as a result of conversations between Teachers TV and the film company (Television Junction) we arrived at a format. I would be based in a real bookshop, not a studio, talking to imaginative teachers about how they had read books with their classes. We would capture on film what the classes had done, so that this could be cut into my conversation with the teacher. Alongside this we would have interviews with authors, ideally finding them in a live situation, like a book festival. The programmes would end with a panel talking together about any kind of book that teachers might think of as a good read for themselves. Somewhere in amongst all that I might have a quick spot where I put in my two pennyworth on something, like poetry or multi-culturalism.
As Television Junction are based in Birmingham, and it’s best not to waste time and money in travelling, the location for the bookshop and schools is the West Midlands, but literature festivals like Hay or Cheltenham give us a chance to grab a clutch of writers in one day and then the interviews can be spread out across a whole series.
To date we’ve made twelve programmes (another six in the pipeline) that are showing in the first part of 2006 and will probably be repeated later in the year. Authors who appear in person include Jacqueline Wilson, Frank Cottrell Boyce, William Nicholson, Babette Cole and Malorie Blackman. We’ve caught Eoin Colfer entertaining an audience and we’ve been on location at the Roald Dahl Museum and West Bromwich Albion Football Club for its literacy activities with secondary boys – a particularly painful experience for me as West Brom were fresh from having beaten Arsenal 3-1. I even had to sing the football chants from grounds other than Highbury.
The meat of the programme
What I think of as the meat of the programme comes when we see the teachers and kids at work. So, we’ve watched a whole school working on Sarah Stewart’s remarkable book The Gardener (Frances Lincoln), a picture book set in the USA telling the story of a girl from the country who comes from a family who’ve hit on hard times and who then travels to the city to stay with her apparently unemotional relatives. The book is told through letters between the girl and her parents back in the country and shows how, through the girl’s passion for gardening, she lights up their lives. We filmed the children reliving the scenes of growing the plants and flowers and the celebration that comes at the end. The book raises the question of how different people express love in different ways and reliving the events of the book allowed the children ways of discovering this.
One class of secondary students looked at Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy (Bloomsbury) and had a debate on asylum while Anthony Horowitz’s Stormbreaker (Walker) spurred one teacher into getting his class to make spy gizmos. We hope that the kids’ enthusiasm and observations will support teachers who already teach like this and inspire those who don’t, to have a go themselves. When I interview the teachers, they’ve been only too willing to fill me in on why they’ve taught like this – ample evidence to my mind that education would be better off if teachers had a major say in what should be taught and how.
Our discussion panels have been made up of a mix of teachers, advisers and critics and we’ve looked at such books as Andrea Levy’s Small Island (Headline), Handsworth Revolution by David Winkley (Giles de la Mare), a book about how an inner city school changed itself, thanks to the author’s leadership, the poetry anthology Staying Alive edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books) and Jackie Wullschlager’s biography of Hans Christian Andersen (Penguin). We try to talk about these books, firstly as human beings (!) and only secondly as people who work in education. The principle underlying this segment is that old adage: teachers are people too. That said, I know only too well from having been brought up by parents who were teachers that it’s a profession that gobbles up life experiences and turns them into next week’s lesson plan. But we have tried to avoid talking about the books as lesson-fodder. So, we had a good old ding-dong about Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (Basic Books) and D H Lawrence’s The Rainbow (Penguin) stimulated memories of what becoming a teacher feels like.
The trip to the Roald Dahl Museum, I found quite poignant. Dahl towers over the exhibition spaces and we followed a class of primary school children trying to find out what made Dahl tick. I was taken into the depths of the archive and we were given a glimpse of manuscripts of the famous novels as well as some unpublished ones too. Dahl’s widow, Felicity, was kind enough to give us an interview standing next to the famous Dahl writing hut on a beautiful sunny but frosty day in the garden. Then, in the evening, a group of us sat in the midst of the exhibits and photos and talked about Boy (Puffin) and Going Solo (Puffin) as we struggled to disentangle the novels, the stories Dahl told about himself and some notion of what all this has come to mean to millions of readers.
Making these programmes has felt like an exploration into how books can be read and taught without tests, examinations and Ofsted inspectors looming over you. And that’s been a relief and a delight. I hope that it’ll be like that for viewers too.
Mike Rosen is a writer, poet and broadcaster.
Reading Aloud with Michael Rosen
Series 2 starts on Wednesday 22 February and runs as follows:
Programme 1, 22 Feb 06, 12.30
Programme 2, 27 Feb 06, 19.15
Programme 3, 28 Feb 06, 19.00
Programme 4, 28 Feb 06, 19.15
Programme 5, 01 Mar 06, 19.00
Programme 6, 01 Mar 06, 19.15
W/c 27 February is TTV Reading Week (scheduled to coincide with World Book Day on Thursday 2 March). During this week, Reading Aloud with Michael Rosen will be shown Monday to Friday at 1900 and 1915 – double-billed. The whole of the second series is being shown, along with 4 episodes from series 1. These are repeated nightly at 0100 and 0115 for Freeview audience to record, and throughout the day on Saturday 4 March.
Teachers’ TV can be watched on the following channels:
Sky Guide – 592
ntl – 803
Telewest – 240
Homechoice – 845
KIT – 70
Freeview 88 (12-6am only)