Starting out

Just a quick thought for the students on two of the three modules I’m teaching this semester, based on the relationship between the cat and the rabbit in the wonderful Up The Mountain. My comments here might be something to follow up, but are in no way important for what follows here. I hope this works for the three modules* but maybe in different ways: I have to say that from the outset I’m writing this really for the first years: for “my” Ed Studies students, and then for the first year Outdoor Learning people in Early Childhood.

img_9968The model that the book Up The Mountain explores is one of friendship and apprenticeship. The author wrote it in memory of her grandmother “who loved nature and books” – and that pretty much sums up my attitude to this semester’s teaching: warmth, love of Nature, love of books. 

However, if this were all, I think I would be wondering if this was worth a degree. Just as sometimes I look at CPD that people report as inspirational and think “that was a day’s worth?” I worry that coming out of the undergraduate process thinking that one or two tutors were nice people and that being outside is lovely is just too weak. Of course, in the CDP example and the undergraduate one, this précis is too wishy-washy to be a decent overview of what anyone has learn, but what do I want students to do when starting out in  Higher Education?  I find myself as old Mrs Badger, watching the little cat explore, and grow – and pass on his delight to the (even littler) rabbit who joins his journey.  Perhaps the imagery doesn’t extend too far, a delight though the book is.

But to move away from metaphor, let’s take Doodles, the therapy dog whose work is described in Cheryl Drabble’s book and her blog. Why use a book like this in the Introduction to Education Studies? Well, because it describes and uses the disciplines of Education Studies in a compassionate and engaged context. Real children and young people, along with their educators, have encountered and appear to benefit from a different way of working. How do we know this works?  Do we define curriculum in such a way that the experience of education has room for “cute, fluffy, handsome, pretty and furry”?**

We will, of course, read about the uses and abuses of cherrypicking educational practices and about the ways theory can and can’t be used – from Developmentally Appropriate Practice to looking at models of (dis)advantage – but Cheryl Drabbles’ dog allows us to ask big questions through a practical lens.  For example:

  • Should schools be therapeutic spaces – or should the task of learning itself be enough to raise self-esteem and motivate? How does “belonging” fit with one’s identity as a learner – or an educator (thanks, Jon, for the timely reminder on this last point as I prepare a class on the Sociology of Education)?
  • If a dog is right for one school, should all schools get one? How might  practice in a school where pupils have significant needs for physical and/or cognitive support be different from other schools? Should they be seen as different?
  • What is the role of the professional as an autonomous worker? How do educational institutions work as teams – and (see above) how does belonging and having a voice in a team look in practice?
  • What does the documentation of a National Curriculum have to say about what society might aspire for? Does this aspiration close doors or open them?

All this from a small dog?

We might, by moving beyond the text itself into exploring what we mean by distinguishing between research and news media, ask

  • What makes an argument valid?
  • Does “it works for us” clinch an argument, validate a practice?
  • How does research work in a messy world of so many variables?

All this in twelve weeks?

No, and no. We (the students and I) are beginning to pose these questions, just as we are beginning to put together the skills the students will need for the next few years and beyond.  And of course it’s not Doodles – or even Cheryl Drabble’s book about him and his impact on her school – that gives us these things. We are using the idea of a therapy dog, and what people have said about therapy dogs (and mutatis mutandis the experiences we are having outdoors in the other modules and what people write about being outdoors) as ways of starting to explore the Big Questions both in the abstract and the concrete. We are also starting to look at the conventions that Higher Education (sort of) seeks to impose on its neophytes.  So – to end with practical questions – if we are using (as many students are) the e-version of the book, how are you going to reference a quotation from it? How might you summarise some of Drabble’s conclusions?

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*The three modules are: the first year module Introduction to the Study of Education and the first and second/third year modules Young Children’s Outdoor Learning. Doodles makes his appearance especially in the first of these.

**Drabble, C (2019) Introducing a School Dog: a practical guide. London: Jessica Kingsley.  Drabble (2019:98)

Robin

It’s National Poetry Day and I’m clearing old woody clippings from an allotment that is, thanks to Rosa, coming back to life like something in Frances Hodgson Burnett. As with yesterday’s digging, I am accompanied by a robin. It is friendly enough to allow me to photograph it from close up. I love its jet-jewel eye and the way its chest moves as a bubbling song comes from somewhere in its tiny body. I love its daring proximity – it flies so close at one point, a wing brushes my leg.

Its closeness and seeming trust mean I am able to photograph it – but miss the Mafiosi magpies who swoop and bicker close by, and am nowhere near fast enough for the dive of a sparrowhawk as it twists into the trees, after some luckless songbird. After the robin? My little friend?

The theme of this poetry day is truth, and I do wonder how truth exhibits itself – or is exhibited in Nature Writing. There are the monumental and disturbing images from Underland, and the small but detailed work of taxonomy and the science of magnifiers; there is the work from Peter Fiennes on woodland, and the research from Mat about language and landscape – and then there is this robin, and the magpies and the hawk. Guardian nature writing; CaedmonGilbert White; Edgelands and the Shell Country Alphabet: they all bring something to the kaleidoscape that seeks to explore and explain and act as advocate. There is a cloud of witnesses here.

But to think about truth in Nature Writing (why those upper case letters?) and a short poem I was brought back – by that killer robin, terror of the worms I was turning over, and by the sparrowhawk that set the wrens in ear-achingly shrill panic – to the ambiguity of our gaze. The robin as my friend – or as belligerent defender of her/his turf? Sparrowhawk as dangerous thief – or as a beautiful trajectory on an autumn day?

And that gave me the poem for today, a marvel in concise, painterly imagery from Anne Stevenson, and a sharp reminder of the way our truth, our human truth is only ours, not universal:

Gannets Diving

The sea is dark
by virtue of its white lips;
the gannets, white,
by virtue of their dark wings.

Gannet into sea.

Cross the white bolt
with the dark bride.

Act of your name, Lord,
though it does not appear so
to you in the speared fish.

 

 

The sparrowhawk didn’t get the robin, by the way.

Sing me…

Bede’s telling of the story of Cædmon’s miracle has a freshness in Old English that is as sharp on the mind as the iodine of seaweed is on the tongue and in the nose here in Whitby. We meet in this untutored farm worker a confrontation between lack of self confidence and grace, between establishment and creativity – and the birth of vernacular English poetry. Whatever the truth of this story, when even its location is in doubt, I just want to record my gratitude to this moment when the stress of politics and belief found some release in a moment of creativity.

In the well worn story, the unmusical, unpoetic Cædmon who has skulked off to avoid singing, is commanded to sing by the miraculous dream-visitor:

Eft he cwæð, se ðe wið hine sprecende wæs: ‘Hwæðre þu meaht singan.’ Þa cwæð he: ‘Hwæt sceal ic singan?’ Cwæð he: ‘Sing me frumsceaft.’ 

Sing to me of the beginning-making.

Sing of creation, sing of Nature: sing into English the glorious hymnody, the great Nature poets: sing John Clare, Rob MacFarlane, Wendell Berry, Ralph Emerson, sing Maya Angelou and Alice Oswald and Keats and Hopkins and Thomas and…

… and here I am in Whitby and conscious of all the ambiguity in this story, but nevertheless wanting to say thank you for the burgeoning of beauty that gave us the tale of the night-watchman who changed us for ever.

A Good Story

I commented on Richard Powers’ book when I was part-way through, making connections between Robert Macfarlane’s magisterial (for me almost scriptural) Underland and Powers’ rich and mind-expanding The Overstory. For what it’s worth, the link is here. This is just a codicil, really, trying to make sense of what I think eco-literature might be.

Powers’  narratives are rich and engrossing, and while I see Patricia Westerford as having the key storyline – another character towards the end of the book hearing one of her lectures suggests this might be the author’s intention – others will follow this disparate fellowship of artists and activists, cowards and heroes in different ways. It is Westerford, the lost-then-found scientist of forest and human interbeing, who has the message from an ecological perspective:

“A fluid changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other”

and

“Our brains evolved to solve the forest…to see green is to grasp the Earth’s intentions.”

However, there is more than just sermonising here. The deliberately rhizomatic storylines, in which characters reach out, connect, have meaning gives the novel a keep-your-wits-about-you edge: challenging  and yet engrossing. The endings for the human dramatis personae are ambigous at least. Dodging round the spoilers I can just say that one character, facing a Hellish future, nonetheless finds purpose in his life past and to come, gains the one crumb of comfort possible to him: that he knows what his purpose has been, and is: to give the moral purpose of his ecological insights the story they need.

I was very conscious of this impetus – perhaps it is what has driven my reading of these final sections of The Overstory – when I was in the Lye Valley at the weekend. Lye Valley is a short walk from where I live, a SSSI, a small, very rare piece of fenland, only, really, kept up by strenuous conservation. I was impressed by the Friends of Lye Valley‘s efforts as much as I was concerned by the encroachment. IMG_0719Not the silly vandalism of arson, harsh though that is, but the more calculated threatened developments that will alter precious run-off and the way light touches some areas, of potential pollution and game-play from developers, Councils and Trusts. How small conscience-easing grants alone will not in the end preserve such a small piece of wetland in the suburbs of a land-needy city. Change is of course inevitable in so many ways: my copy of W G Hoskins Making of the English Landscape opens, I see, at the 1795 map of Middle Barton, and his comments about village development; my mind turns to the assarts of Leafield and the encroachments on and enclosures of the great forest.

I loved the Grass of Parnassus in among the wet grasses of the Lye Valley, and how its mention in a low countries herbal in the C16th might come from a visit to this very site; I loved the lousewort, the service tree  – but these are not enough to make a story, even in tiny England, let alone in a world of Amazonian fires, and in any case, what would our whingeing be to an aspiring farmer in the C18th or a family looking for land in the C14th? When as Jack Zipes says

To have a fairy tale published is like a symbolic public announcement, an intercession on behalf of oneself, of children, of civilization

I wonder if this also applies to a book as big as The Overstory or Underland?  An intercession (not a sermon) on behalf of civilization?  So is this really the purpose of ecoliterature? Not to persuade in itself – The Overstory doesn’t do that – but to give a story on which imagination and theory can come together?

[…]

I am – seriously – interrupted as I type by a blue tit fluttering and tapping the window frame, looking (I suspect) for spiders to eat. Spiders that are maybe here because of the little evening flies that I attract by having my light on.  Another little story.  I lose the thread, and have other work to do but will post this anyway, ending with half a parable. Maybe that’s all we have at the moment: collections of half-parables.

 

Lewis, Merlin and Our Most Perilous Time

My mention of Jane and the Pendragon in my earlier post suggested to me that some of the good things about C S Lewis’ problematic text That Hideous Strength come from the interplay between the modern world and the enigmatic emergence of Merlin, meeting with his leader, Elwin Ransom, the Pendragon, a Cambridge academic who by chance or design now holds the fate of an embattled world in his hand. In a comfortable country house in England the two men are in discussion about how to save Britain – the Arthurian Logres – from the grasp of its power-hungry and immoral leaders:

Suddenly the magician. smote his hand upon his knee.
“Mehercule!” he cried.“Are we not going too fast? if you are the Pendragon, I am the High Council of Logres and I will counsel you. If the Powers must tear me in pieces to break our enemies, God’s will be done. But is it yet come to that? This Saxon king of yours who sits at Windsor, now. Is there no help in him?”
“He has no power in this matter.”
“Then is he not weak enough to be overthrown?”
“I have no wish to overthrow him. He is the king. He was crowned and anointed by the Archbishop. In the order of Logres. I may be Pendragon, but in the order of Britain I am the King’s man.”
“Is it then his great men — the counts and legates and bishops — who do the evil and he does not know. of it?”
“It is — though they are not exactly the sort of great men you have in mind.”
“And are we not big enough to meet them in plain battle?”
“We are four men, some women, and a bear.”
“I saw the time when Logres was only myself and one man and two boys, and one of those was a churl.Yet we conquered.”
“It could not be done now.They have an engine called the Press whereby the people are deceived.We should die without even being heard of.”
“But what of the true clerks? Is there no help in them? It cannot be that all your priests and bishops are corrupted.”
“The Faith itself is torn in pieces since your day and speaks with a divided voice. Even if it were made whole, the Christians are but a tenth part of the people.There is no help there.”
“Then let us seek help from over sea. Is there no Christian prince in Neustria or Ireland or Benwick who would come in and cleanse Britain if he were called?”
“There is no Christian prince left. These other countries are even as Britain, or else sunk deeper still in the disease.”
“Then we must go higher.We must go to him whose office it is to put down tyrants and give life to dying kingdoms.We must call on the Emperor.”
“There is no Emperor.”
“No Emperor…” began Merlin, and then his voice died away. He sat still for some minutes wrestling with a world which he had never envisaged.

No Emperor.  Lewis’ meditation on the collapse of morality and faith comes immediately after the Second World War, another episode in the devastation of Europe in the C20th.  It is a fantasy novel, of course, and has moments of comedy, insight – and a troubling theological sexism. It would make a wonderfully quirky film – with some very notable rewriting.  It is a harking-back to a golden age that Lewis tries explicitly in some of the Narnia books, and indeed the kings and queens and heroes who come to rescue Narnia are in some ways reimaginings of the Arthurian rescue: they do not sleep under a hill, but take another life in our mundane England.

It is this that Susan Cooper is answering in her charge when her Merlin tells the children that their task is to take up the Matter of Britain themselves, not as fantasy readers or antiquarian scholars but by engaging with the power that harms and grasps and mocks. Cooper’s Merlin is more worldly wise than Lewis’ when she has him say “ the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control.” I have discussed this hard lesson before – but it is a hard lesson. Arthur will not do it; no Archbishop or Monarch is going to save us: we have to do it. Lewis’ Merlin, under the guidance of his Pendragon, rises to the challenge, and the difference between Cooper and Lewis is that his Science Fiction does have rescuers, in the tutelary spirits of the solar system who endow Merlin with supernatural power. Lewis is playing with allegory here, and in the passage cited above shows how the disjunction can be an effective plot line. Cooper saves her message for the last pages of her sequence of books, and the message is clear: in times of crisis, of confrontation, a new post-War morality requires us to step up, to make choices and to act on them.

And the “Most perilous time”?  A line from a monk on the eve of the dissolution of his monastery, another period of question, of violence, manipulation and painful reemergence. Not always are these moments of crisis just the matter of fiction.

Corvid, my Corvid

So I was standing in a large auditorium reading the names of people who were being awarded doctorates. There were more than I expected – in fact more and more seem to appear on the sheaf of papers I was reading from. I dropped the papers, and picked them up in any order. The hall kept getting bigger, I kept seeing more people, and the titles of their theses were, over and over, relevant or interesting to me. I mugged my way through the ceremony, trying to make some sense of the papers in front of me. All those people with doctorates and I couldn’t manage to read their names clearly enough.

And then I woke up, woke up with a sense of failure – and remembered that last night I had agreed to sign my withdrawal form from my own doctoral/MPhil experience. I signed it this morning, and the should’ve, could’ve, might’ve shadows make my tasks today – reading more of Hawkes’ A Land in the Bodleian and setting up teaching for the next semester – seem at first glance empty of significance.

But – like all but one of the psalms – I cannot leave it there. The title of my research still holds good: A critical investigation of themes in the depiction of the outdoors environment in young children’s picture books and one of the things reading and reading and thinking Ludchurch duskand talking about this have brought me is a closer look at landscape and the ways people interact with it. It has brought me all sorts of authors and ideas: Macfarlane, Garner, Gawain, Ludchurch;  it continues to allow me to work with and learn from Mat and Roger, to read with joy and understanding, to think  about the pressing issues of our ecological failures, to take pleasure (as well as feel concern) as I look at the world I walk in.

So here is Mary Oliver (of course) in her poem

Landscape

Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.

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Spiritual patience, and the ambition of crows.

 

And thank you, Annie, for the raven linocut I’m finishing with. I might want to fly with the wings of eagles, but a keen eyed scavenger with a rude clarion cronk (thanks, Chris!) will do me just fine –

– and is probably just right. 

Geology and the Solar System

I use the Grandparental Reflections pages for occasional observations about my grandchildren. Maybe they are “incidents” rather than “ reflections;” Sleeping in the Bin and other such incidents are often funny and illustrate (a bit) the quirkinesses of children’s language. What follows is a reflection that came out of playing with my 6yo granddaughter, but is more a reflection than those short transcripts.  There isn’t a whole load of geology in here, or indeed the solar system – but they are part of the starting point.

6yo, staying with us, built a spaceship out of a box, wrote and drew all sorts of aliens on it, then in due course went to bed. The next morning, she and I went for walk though the local scrubby woods and out onto a disused car park. She was in her spaceship. We collected stones from the gravel, noted the Alien Squirrel, the Alien Magpies, &c., &c, then came back to my house.  What happened then was interesting, in that, with no prompting, 6yo asked for pens and paper “to make a book,” which turned out to be a catalogue of the stones and where we had found them: Hot Venus stones; Cold JupiterE9A68576-5A5E-42A6-AD82-BE280C2CBA9A stones; Cold Venus stones. She worked through all the ones we had collected, and, with the help of a “map” of the solar system, saw were we had been. She also checked them against pictures of rocks (see the photo), although not always with a great deal of success. All in all, the project took maybe 30 mins in the evening and 90 mins the next day. We had fun.

It reminded me very strongly of the kind of work I was lucky to do with children not so much younger when I worked in nursery, in the dear days when children could stay until they were five: enough time, and space and adult interest to follow a project through for a number of sessions, with purposeful writing and reading, and bags of talk from both adult and child, and curiosity and mathematical language and perseverance at a self-chosen task.

I’m not going to be so crass as to ask that every child gets these opportunities in school, because I know schools do provide children with all sorts of ways to learn and to practise what they have learned (although If I Ruled The World I would bring back 5yo into a nursery environment). But I was struck by how easily we (me included) look to Learning Goals rather than what makes for effective learning, in other words what we want rather than how children learn.  I remember when the first Foundation Stage curriculum guidance came out we had something of a battle to move it away from simple goals to paths towards those goals. It is heartening that some years later the current EYFS (para 1.9 in the Statutory Framework) suggests that effective learning can be thought of like this:

Playing and Exploring
Active Learning
Creating and Thinking Critically.

I don’t like the phrase Active Learning, but at least it can stand for the complex mix (muddle????) of hands-on activities, persistence, learning from mistakes… but do note that “Shhhh and listen” is not part of it, any more than it was in 2002 when REPEY stated that

every effective form of pedagogy must be instructive in some way

but that

learning is an interactive event, where the child actively constructs his/her own understandings within a social and physical environment.

Wouldn’t it be good to hear more EY practitioners – and I’d include KS1 teachers – using this language? What might a parent-teacher meeting be like if, in the kind of meeting that might happen, say, in the spring of Y1, a teacher reported primarily on how Child A or Child X approached their learning? If, in other words, we looked at how children learn with a greater seriousness, and if the formative experiences of early Primary School were described to parents and carers not by what the children have (and then by implication have not) achieved but by what has excited their learning?  Would this allow us to look again at discovery as being more than “look at what I want you to see,” as a teacher suggested to me recently?

This comes back to the heart of the current debates about the models of childhood we use, and the difficult questions they bring to the surface. Should adults so set up Early Childhood education as to prepare children for the responsibilities of later study, or work?  Is relationship simply a tool to make instruction easier? A red herring when our true role is instruction to make children able to overcome barriers of social exclusion? Or are children going to be allowed to rule in some innocent-but-not-innocent kingdom where their wills are supreme? How might adults boundary their time, their energy?  What is the role of parent well-being in the healthy family? Do children have to be the key agents of their learning, their behaviour, their relationships?

The title of this blog post was deliberately misleading: my granddaughter did not intend to learn about rock formation or the planets any more than I intended to teach her. What we intended was some nice time together, a rare occasion for just the two of us in a home environment, and specifically in outdoor and indoor play.

What come from it for me is reflection on the nature of the adult-child relationship, and not just at home, but in the educational processes outside the home too.  What is the child in the family? What is the child in the family in the school community?  We are at the heart of the argument Ruth Swailes and others have tried to engage Channel 4 in this week about a programme they plan to air tomorrow. In her blog, Ruth argues (and I agree with her) that co-regulation is the effective way for children to learn how to make appropriate responses – but the reason a programme about training your child using dog-training techniques is even considered is that questions such as the above are not seriously open to scrutiny.  There is still room for discussion in lots of these areas – but TV sensationalism will not help us.

I know that with the ways we are swinging and falling and dividing among ourselves there is little or no energy for this debate right now – but when might we get the time?  Because the dog clickers are ready, and TV companies want the viewers, and will court all sorts of insanities to get them: the discussions will not wait.