Daniel Pennac worked as a secondary school teacher for 25 years in the French banlieues, those anonymous and sometimes restless tracts of high rise flats which lie beyond the urban ring-roads. The context is sufficiently different from our own that the excellent translator of his book felt she must provide brief notes on the French education system – this is not, then, a teacher’s guidebook offering directly transferable advice for classroom practice.
Pennac is much concerned with those students for whom the system seems irrelevant – including himself, for he sees his schooldays self, in the term which echoes through these reflections, as a ‘dunce’. School Blues is not a sequentially ordered autobiography, but it does draw with intensity upon Pennac’s own journey, his gradual sense of becoming (a key notion for him). He writes, for example, about two or three teachers who saw in him what he could not see himself – people who refused to let him drift by; and about the shaping influence of a love relationship in early manhood upon himself as a learner. He is committed to processes – and not only the processes of classroom interaction, for he will step aside from his explorations of adolescents and their schooling to examine his own processes – his honesty, his motives – now, at this moment, in the writing of this present book. When he writes of the content of his lessons with his students – students he sometimes calls ‘remedial’ – we might well be surprised by his use of rigorous grammatical ‘parsing’, dictation, and rote learning of passages of literature. These are not exercises from text books, however, for they are devised from the circumstances of the dynamic moment – right now, as it were – in the classroom; and they are means to ends. Pennac is a constant watcher, learning and speculating about his students. He is looking, in the long run, for his hesitant, often confused and angry students to know themselves better as learners. It is not the parsing which is of final importance, for ‘you are the subject matter of all subject matters’ (he is given to aphorisms, often in rhetorical conversations with his students). It is in his musings upon students and classrooms that British readers might find reassurance, inspiration and provocation.
When things get harsh, not to say devoid of sense, we teachers have always needed to be reminded of the values which Pennac affirms. In the exploratory 60s and 70s, we found them in books like John Holt’s How Children Fail or Paddy Creber’s Lost for Words. They were hard to glimpse during the worst impositions of the National Curriculum in the late 80s and the 90s, more the fault of lunacies such as the Literacy Hour than the documents themselves. Now, no sooner had our departing government discovered ‘creativity’ than we are faced with an Education Minister determined to make his mark by throwing money at schools already deemed ‘Outstanding’ while reneging on well-advanced building programmes for special schools with no access for wheelchairs. If we are heading into an even Madder World, My Masters, Pennac’s book could well help teachers to remember why they joined in the first place.