What Happens When You Graduate?

I’ve written about this before, both passing on the wisdom of others talking to graduands/graduates (such as Bill Watterson, here) or briefly when five years ago I discussed what the ritual of graduation does.

I asked “What about the ritual? What is conferred, what is received? Is there a quasi-sacramental element here?” It is this that I want to return to, the grey Monday after the Brookes Graduation ceremonies.

Oxford Brookes (and other Universities) talk about graduands, people who will be given a new status. In the ancient University “down the hill” (I am writing in Brookes library), the ceremony has something of its ancient power and regulation,  with candidates arriving dressed for one status and leaving dressed for another: ego admitto te /vos: I admit you, says the VC, and for the MA at Oxford this is the authorisation to teach, to lecture and dispute:

do vobis licentiam incipiendi in Facultate Artium… legendi, disputandi, et caetera omnia faciendi, quae ad statum Magistri in eadem facultate pertinent…

I give you licence to incept [begin to teach] in the Faculty of Arts …to lecture,
to dispute and to do all the other things that pertain to the rank of Master…

In another, Cambridge, the visual emphasis is oath/belonging but again is about admission – admitto te; in the third I’ve seen, St Andrews,  the conferment of the hood is a key element – back to dress and status. The elements have their roots in the regulation of the Schools such as Paris and Oxford and in turn draw on clothing and ordination ceremonies in the Western Christian tradition.   These have all drawn criticism of the ceremonial as based in intrinsically masculine symbolism, and while University leaders are often men there is an element that cannot be overlooked here. It is really compounded by the idea that the ritual does something: you come in without a degree and you go out with one; you come in without a license to teach, and leave able to do so.

Able.

Yes, this is where the ceremony stumbles, even in its ancient forms. What can you do today you couldn’t do on Friday? We have largely gone away from the ceremony as imparting some character, a sort of sacrament, or even a license, although some qualifications still have those elements when linked, as here, to professional standards.

I wonder if it’s time to rethink what a graduation ceremony does? If we think honestly about it, it seems to me to be about

  • belonging
  • standing
  • celebration

If (and I have cited Brookes’ own vision before) this is about “academic, professional and social engagement to enhance our reputation as a university” how does the graduation fit in? It fits in because, although we are (sc. Brookes is) not a University that uses the ceremony as a rite of confirmation – in other words, if you don’t turn up, you still have your BA or whatever – what a graduation does is celebrate the belonging and the success-at-belonging in the University.  The organisation – represented hierarchically by serious grown-ups such as the Vice-Chancellor and by tutors and other staff – shows how even when a course has finished, you still belong.    That belonging means that our reputation is mutually enhanced: “we” are happy to call you a graduate member of the family, hoping that “you” are happy to be recognised as one. The day celebrates – in its oldest meaning the organisation gets its members to congregate for a ritual purpose, and in this case in a more modern meaning, to come together with joy – the successful conclusion of part of the relationship. Perhaps the studying and results are the most intense part of the relationship, but it is a relationship that continues

The work the student has done allows their standing to be recognised. The academic exercises, successfully completed, bring about a recognition that this person or that has done the job they set out to do. The professionals that helped them to do it recognise that publicly (and ceremonially?) in a way that a message over the internet or by post does not do. Whether this actually needs marking by dress and processional is an interesting point – but maybe that debate is a different one. What might a graduation look like that was overtly inclusive? Specifically not rooted in Christian ritual or at least ecclesiastical history? Smaller? Bigger? Gownless (I don’t mean naked)? Started from the student, not the institution? How much might be gained or lost in the sentiments of belonging and standing? What might be gained?

I think that we would have to recognise that in a society where dress codes are less and less important, they do still have significance; where hierarchy is more about management of power than the more instant getting up when someone comes into a room, physical aspects of respect still impact on our understanding. And where ceremony has its place in weddings, funerals, birthdays (yes they do have forms and formulae) and physicality continues to be part of what it means to be human, maybe the graduation day is not ready to be ignored.

I hope not: I had fun.

Marks Hold Meaning

I have my review copy of Sue Cowley’s Ultimate Guide to Mark Making in the Early Years with me, its new-print smell still strong. 124F0083-02B4-4930-AEEE-3EA73BAD0FEE
Thank you, Sue, and thank you Macmillan/
Bloomsbury/Featherstone for the copy: I hope I do this book justice.

Sue is engaging here with a number of the subjects she is well known for on Twitter. She is not unprepared, I suspect, for the to-and-fro tussles around the issues she discusses such as self-regulation and phonological awareness. We might debate quite how we have come to such spasms of controversy that I am mentally listing people who will engage with the ideas she presents (and how professionally they will do so), from secondary mansplainers to single-issue advocates. Nick Gibb was in prophetic mode when he foresaw this debate when arguing about power and curriculum with David Blunkett: what he either didn’t see or chose not to discuss was the potentially poisonous nature of such debate. Sue enters into these times of trial more willingly than I – and she doesn’t shy away from them in the Ultimate Guide, either, so these reflections will attempt to look seriously at Sue’s book, but without drawing down on her the πειρασμός of the curriculum wars.

To the book.

One of the things Sue states in the introduction is that this book is not about getting children to ‘meet targets,’ nor is it about how to please OfSTED inspectors, local authority advisers or the DfE.  Given how hard it is to discern the mind of any of these – and certainly impossible to discern a hive mind for all three together – this is an important point. She is aiming directly at effective practice, at people who will read it, in her words, so that it will help you trust in your professional judgement. This means that, for example, the fine motor activities for eye/hand coordination are not a scheme of work, a set of practices that the disempowered practitioner must follow, but things that might be of use; similarly, a Reception class might typically (her word) spend  20 minutes on literacy/phonics per day – but key to effective practice might also be having an eye to children who are absent. There is a fluidity to the suggestions in the book, which is both a guide a resource bank. Ideas that are simple and straightfoward – like developing dexterity by playing with hole punches and paper, or thinking about regulatng noise even in nursery areas – can sometimes be overlooked. This is a rich book of ideas.  Some people might like this; for others, either hesitant or hard-line (or both: not all rigorous practice stems from confidence) this will mean they might want to ponder: What works, and why? Why is this section before that in this book?

This is no bad thing.

However, I wouldn’t want to give the impression of a wish-washy book. I don’t think Sue does wishy-washy. When I was a new-ish teacher, the Bright Ideas books were a big thing: landscape format double-pages with time saving ideas, things to dig you out of a hole, some things you hadn’t thought of to make a display really shine. They fell from favour a little because they were scattergram ideas, rather than anything systematic. Because the ideas were good, I used them as a teacher and head teacher – just with the proviso that you can’t start on page 1 and move through to the end.  To give a sense of direction in a book like this is absolutely vital, and one strength of this book is that it moves between the might-and-could-and-trust-your-judgment approach and a structure rooted in an understanding of how children learn. Not everything works for everybody, despite what some people in education want to say, and a Ten Top Tips approach would have been destructive of the need for genuine professional reflection.

Starting from a discussion on who leads the learning (her quick response around what child-centred pedagogy is immediately followed by a page of coloured boxed on Finding a Balance), Sue takes us through developing talk, the physicality of starting to make marks (some great ideas here) through self-regulation (see below) as far as moving from letters to words and words to sentences. This (to my mind) really sensible structure not only gives shape to the text, but also allows Sue and her practitioner-readers to focus on particular practices or pinch points: I love (and will be pointing my students next semester towards) the motor skills section and then the glorious Mucky Activities; the genuine attempts at involvement of parents/carers likewise are deserving of attention.  There are basic ideas, quirky ideas, points to stop and think, thinks to love, to debate  – yes, always the challenge to reflect.

So the Ultimate Guide isn’t an all-or-nothing Programme, but a series of practice-based discussions around some areas that need serious consideration. This gives me a bit of leeway to question some things. Edite, a child whose writing of her name we see all through the Early Years in the section on marks holding meaning gives us a brilliant display of handwriting that develops, but given the lovely section that follows (the graffiti wall – which reminds me of the boy I taught who learned to write his name on the shed wall in letters taller than he was), I might have wanted more of Edite’s Story. More links between the discussion on motivations and Edite’s reasons for her name writing might have been illuminating- but perhaps that would have been another book?

The sections on motivation and self-regulation are interesting, and worth some discussion on their own. Sue takes a light-touch approach to a difficult topic that is currently quite controversial, and a different book would have had more room to discuss the issues she presents – but again, this would have been a different book, and with a different audience.  Her advice is solidly part of the “nursery inheritance,” emphasising that the dance of inculturation is slow, and suggesting that our own impulse control may need some time for reflection. Nevertheless, she is quite firm: Success at writing is inextricably linked to behaviour… And where a child cannot use language effectively, school becomes a daily trial by literacy.  Trial by literacy. Ouch: that is an uncomfortable phrase, and well worth pondering.   In this context I might also have wanted Sue to present the developmental continua of writing with a bit more of a health warning for nervous practitioners wedded to their milestones – but actually any misgivings about atypical development are set aside time after time by real-life considerations of children with a range of additional needs.

Any quibbles I have are minor. I know Sue will be prepared for the battles that purists, only-one-way merchants and the secondary mansplainers will want to join with her. There are a good number of reasons why this is a book to be proud of, Sue – and why I shall be suggesting a range of people I talk to should buy it.

(Semi)retired

In 2018, on 11th June, after much humming and hawing (to the point where I must’ve bored Maggie and my work friends to pieces) and a memorable walk with Roger (my manager at the time) to talk it all through, I sent off the paperwork to apply for Voluntary Severance from my post as Programme Lead/Principal Lecturer in the School of Education at Oxford Brookes.

The back story is that I had been thinking about it for some time, pondering back in the January on this blog  “whether vocation and profession are coterminous.” Then it crashed in on me a year ago, at a time when (as the still rather raw-to-read blog posts such as this and this or the more comfortable this attest), I had had enough. Doctor; Occupational Health; Counselling: VS came at the point where I was (as those compassionate or foolish enough to get caught in the flood)  everything from tetchy to sleepless or weepy . I thought about it, thought about the other possibilities, and metaphorically signed the papers (e-documents). I am tempted to give an Oscar-like list of thanks to all those people who let or helped me let go of all those things I felt increasingly unable to do well, or who gave me sage advice. But I  won’t –  except that it’s now my turn. Here are some thoughts about the last year or so.  I won’t advise on how anyone not yet at pension stage should check their payments and lump sums &c regularly – although to have done so earlier would have saved me literally days on the ‘phone. This is a bit more personal. Well, a lot more personal really.

I wrote in January ‘18 that it came as “something of a surprise at this end of my working life to find I have friends deeply woven into my appreciation of a working day.” I was right when I said I enjoy people’s company.  It is still a good day that has coffee with Mat, or with Elise,  Chris or  Helena, or tea or something more refreshing with Jon. It is still a good day when coffee in the Weston means meeting Catharine, Carol, Georgina or Susannah. I still feel guilty about leaving when colleagues asked me not to.   It can be a bad day when I have to remind myself that not everyone is as flexible as I can be…  I wouldn’t describe this as loneliness, but as a realisation that I was right: life at Brookes can go on, does go on. Gloomily, I likened my going to a stone dropped into a pool: a splash, and then the calm waters close over. I had seen colleagues leave before and know that organisations and systems fill the voids very quickly.  That this is true is inexplicably sad. Nobody told me how big a part of this would be regret.

So the first message was that I wasn’t going to leave behind some of these gloomier things. I thought I might; I said to my counsellor I understood I wouldn’t; I really didn’t think it would be as big a deal as it is.  While Elise had advised it would take a year, I didn’t realise it would be a hard year. 

Other things have stayed, too. I feel like the reinvention of Nick has been like a second go on the adolescence rollercoaster, but with some knowledge of the track.  I sleep badly still – but then,  I always have. I spend too much time on social media and modern tech. Too much telly, too much iPad or ‘phone. A worry last week about a student’s programme meant I saw the dawn, heard the dawn chorus. Avoidance strategies to make things that are hurtful seem smaller. But with that has come running.

I am not a good runner. I am not like some of my extended family who moan about the Trench Foot or broken toes their umpteenth Marathon has brought them. BAA6F010-890B-422D-8483-6C7981D1D1EBI am a tubby jogger who is proud to be able to cover 6.5k without collapsing. Nevertheless, I look forward to it, enjoy it (mostly), really appreciate the contact with the natural environment of suburban Oxford, and of course boast of it when I can (like here).

Therefore the second message: new things may arise. I keep seeing jobs that I think “Ooh, I could apply,” only to realise that those opportunities are closed to me. But there are new chances, new possibilities, and I now know that vocation and profession is not the right dyad: it is much more like profession and full-time paid employment are not coterminous, and the new things arising can’t always be seen in terms of money.  Being not-entirley-retired has a lot of plus points: it allows me above all to ponder what I really want and need from my profession as an educator (yes, I know that’s ponderous and full of windbaggery).  

And as for the rest? Well, the new opportunties may not be what was expected, they are smaller, but they make the shape of a day feel different.  It’s such a joy to share stories and books with school children; a challenge to learn from pottery; a grace to go to Mass more often – and who is this person that writes household To Do lists? Tomorrow I will be reminded by various bits of music that it’s a day for running. This piece of Nina Simone from the music of Billy Taylor has been key, a life saver in the darkest times, and if it is an anthem for the liberation of oppressed minorities in the States, I don’t mean to equate my desires with the plight of African Americans in the 50s and 60s, but this came on as I went for my first run, and has stayed with me.

…I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say ’em loud say ’em clear
For the whole ’round world to hear.
 
I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the doubts
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free…
 
It’s powerful stuff, all that wishing, all that desire for freedom.
 
And it’s reflecting on this that will bring this rambling to a close. I knew I would lose a lot when I left, some good, some bad – or maybe some immediately pleasant and some stressful: avoiding a judgment of good and evil – and I dimly realised there would be some things I would take or leave that would be in my power. I hadn’t expected that a lot would be outside my immediate control, and again some of that has made me really happy, and some has taken me to very miserable places.  I suppose one way of thinking about this is a Detox, but of course not everything was toxic in my job, not by a long chalk –  although I think one of things that I became addicted to was the stress…  and bang: work stress is gone.  
 
And that’s perversely one of the things that make leaving feel like a sentence that has been interrupted, a me that no  longer is me. The fish who escape the Aquarium at the end of Finding Nemo are free – but what do they do now? What will Caliban find when he has no more dams to make for fish? Another “language learnt but nothing understood,” perhaps? Freedom is also freedom to be caught by squalls of depression or aimlessness. Maybe these are the very spurs that send me out trotting round the meadow.  Like Caliban we all create who we are with what we have….
 
The poignant lyrics (and very James Taylor harmonies) of Before This World and The Jolly Spring Time have some useful thoughts:
 
Give up the love that takes and breaks your heart
Let go the weight of all that holds you here
 
and
 
Let the resin risin’ up in the tree
Make the green leaf bud…
 
Yes the winter was bitter and long
So the spring’ll be sweet
Come along with a rhythm and a song
Watch creation repeat.
 
Thin thin the moment is thin
Ever so narrow the now
Everybody say got to live in today
Don’t nobody know how
I know that the lyrics alone don’t cut it. For some people these are threadbare sentiments except, maybe, to a sixty-something who smiles when he’s running through the meadow and James Taylor’s singing comes on the lighten the last few minutes of a run. But they stop me running away from something: they make me think I’m running in something, which feels very different.  Running in the now. 
 
Maybe the third message is that I think this is my new job.    
 
 
 
 
 
 

Pontificating

Social Media seems to have exploded with vitriol over the last few days. Educationalists (or soi-disant educationalists) know The Way to teach poetry; Bishops know The Way – or at least a way important enough to splurge it out on Twitter – to avoid harming children; another voice (on the right) wants to resort to shaking an autistic child for her daring not to know her place; Politicos from the US are eyeing up the NHS and meeting with sharp put-downs; opposers of Trump look at our current establishment activity in anger and despair, and apparently one at least of the Brexit crew is looking to science for a cure for homosexuality. I’m not glorifying any of this with a link, and while I think my own irritation with some of this is probably all too apparent,23AE611B-71B5-49B9-9C19-6F30B6B7F6A8 I am not joining in bashing Twitter Education, Bishops, or anything. Not this day, anyway. Here’s a photo that might give a clue as to my stance, and that’s enough.  Inclusion is a radically compassionate act – and of course sometimes it requires a stance, a line that cannot be crossed.

But this morning I want instead to think about a different way.

Chris Winson’s 365 Days of Compassion Review was kind enough to link to an earlier blog post of mine from here in which I look briefly educators “at the edge of this difficult world where a desire to be empathetic meets real children.” And this is my problem. I don’t know if it’s a problem with social media – I am minded to see a disjuncture between a US Bishop telling Catholics not to attend LGBTQ+ events and the Pope’s own meeting and discussion with Stephen K Amos; longer meetings, face to face meetings are much more productive of effective communication and at the heart of that, of understanding – or just that the world, in current uncertainties, has become a boxing ring of ideas, where putting people down is the only way to argue.   Who’s in, who’s out? Whom can I trust, whom can I demonise?  Philip Sheldrake (whom I quoted here in a blog post, again linking to 365 Days) warns

The pages of Christian history are strewn with marginalized people and traditions as well as forgotten or disparaged ideas…

and what has struck me has been the singular failure to enter into dialogue. One pundit is wrong because she is old and ugly; another because of his (admittedly pretty awful) track record on safeguarding…  No progress is possible under these circumstances. The compassionate response, the revolutionary response is, in general, to listen rather than disparage – and from the point of view of classic roots of Christian Spirituality, to avoid judging…

…and if you can’t avoid judging (I know I can’t, so often), to remember St Benedict who warns that

the spirit of silence ought to lead us at times to refrain even from good speech.

And this blog post (which has gone on long enough) is sufficient evidence of how hard I find that. I may not be a Bishop, but I can pontificate.

Doing the Tudors

It was interesting to talk to some teachers about the work I’ve been preparing around traditional tales for Outdoor Classroom Day, and something of a challenge to find a set of stories that linked with “Doing the Tudors” and “Doing the Romans” to then tell the children. Given the school I was working in, the Romans proved easier than I’d thought: with Akeman Street on the doorstep of Combe village, we pondered what Roman life was like off the roads, away from the imposed civilisation of the invaders. Yes, there were wolves.
For the Tudors, I went for a story that had a version known in the time of Elizabeth I: The Three Heads of the Well. I started from this version, and cut and reshaped and simplified. It helped that the school had a real well…and the three heads that provided me with their magic (‘weirded me” as the language of one version goes) through the day were maybe Katharine Briggs, Terry Jones and Alastair Daniel.  Actually there were more: Adrienne Duggan, the ever-at-my shoulder Mat, the inspirational Neil Phillip… and more – see below…

But back to Doing the Tudors, the point of this post. The “Doing” of topics is always an uneasy business, with that sense of finality, of completion, a dusting of hands and a walking away. I fell into this language myself (I don’t  think I noticed the children or staff using it), and was conscious of how it brought with it another meaning: finished but maybe superficially, as in “We did Oxford yesterday; is this Stonehenge?” Layers of detail and meaning lost.  Having just gone back to my first postgrad research in Tudor history through reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell, I was well aware of the complexities of “doing” and “finishing off” the Tudors. I know Year 6 had not been discussing the gaps in extant correspondence in this archive or that, of course, but if I thought my “doing” laid bare a “been there, done that” assumption, I need not have worried.

I had chickened out of telling the story with the death of the Queen at the end of The Three Heads, and softened the part about the King’s bribe to the cobbler to take the horrid step-sister away. Some of this was about brevity and tellability, and some of my choices, I reckoned, were about taste.  The children were not to be fooled, and although they enjoyed the story, I was soon in a discussion about what a “real Tudor” would make of the way it concluded. They wanted – in their words – a (they said “the“) “cruel ending.” Beheadings or divorce would have been in order. They appreciated the cruel (step)sister going off with the cobbler – but didn’t see that there was a bad ending somehow in her having to work for a living. Such is the power of storytelling and literature in the curriculum – but note to self: a Roald Dahl ending with blood and shame would have been truer to the earlier versions and maybe pleased my young audience more. Those children had Done the Tudors well.

Alongside what help I and my tutelary spirits could be for “doing the Tudors” or whatever, there were two other magic presences in this day’s work: Jackie Morris and Rob Macfarlane, artist and wordsmith of the great The Lost Words, whose work I shared with every group. It was wonderful to read the short acrostic for Ivy, (“the real high flyer… you call me ground-cover; I say sky wire”) and see the Reception class lap it up, and the “top Juniors” appreciate their understanding of an acrostic. Best of all, as the younger children went back to their room, one of them pointed to the ivy on the school wall, and another said “I say sky wire.” That really surpassed all the messages I could hope to give about links between language and literature and environment. We couldn’t have said we’d “done” language and the environment any more than I have “done” the Tudors, but that five year old knew a nature metaphor when he saw it.

Importance and Binary Opposites

The presentation on What Children Shouldn’t Read for the Reading Spree didn’t go too badly, and reflecting on what did (and didn’t) get heard has been interesting. A few messages went astray both from me and from other presenters, although the “reviews” to listen to are, of course, the people who were actually there, and caught nuances more than the powerpoint slides Twitterers want to argue with. Responses on social media have been thoughtful (and certainly less spittle-flecked) than they were following the first one, at least.  However, reading them does bring me back to Kieran Egan, whose Teaching as Storytelling was a key element of my 20 or so minute ramble. He asks

  • What is most important about the topic?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

and then  follows this with the challenge to find binary opposites/pairs:

  • What powerful binary opposites best catch the importance of the topic?

Big questions when we look at storytelling and curriculum.   I suggest that they are different for teachers than they are for children. In What Not to Read I suggested we might ask “How do we look at books when we are educators?” and the same is true of how we look at the whole phenomenon of the outdoor curriculum and outdoor storytelling in particular – and in many ways, looking at curriculum is closer than using Egan’s probing questions as being essentially about storytelling.

There are tensions, binaries around ecocriticism and curriculum. Am I storytelling outdoors as a part of the Green Agenda?  How do I deal with a tension around book sharing and how we might orally present traditional tales – there are, for example, practical issues around books and outdoors (as we discovered in a session last year when it poured with rain)?  Teachers’ binaries will be concerned with these curricular issues; children-as-audience will be concerned with, as Egan puts it “the human adventure that began in magic and myth…” and they might be concerned with good and evil, danger and escape (Roald Dahl’s Goldilocks is a wonderful skewing of these concerns with his “delinquent little tot” and her fate at the hands of Baby Bear) or with destruction and redemption (I think at once of a beautiful and politically charged book I have discussed before: Michael Foreman’s A Child’s Garden).

So many binaries to disentangle, when the challenge from Egan is to find the  “binary opposites” that “best catch the importance of the topic” (my emphasis).   This is no small task when selecting books or stories for an outdoor audience; a huge task for teacher or school when considering why they might want to do storytelling and the practical considerations that arise from this plan. Why do we teach how we do?  What prevents us from running on the free rein of professional expertise and creativity?

*

To end with an esprit d’escalier thought about presentations and co-presenters at the Reading Spree, I will take a wide-angle lens view, and ask another of Egan’s questions:

  • What content most dramatically embodies the primary opposites?

This Saturday it was for me testimony from Simon from Whitby – of children in his school who had never been to the beach – and Nicki – a librarian on a TA’s salary, buying library stock from her own pocket.

I went the next day (Sunday) to a panel discussion hosted by members of the Blackfriars congregation about the impacts of poverty and austerity on the educational experiences of children in Oxford. The feelings of the three speakers (and including my Maggie), all in various roles in education, around the squeezed budgets of public services suggests to me the final and most obvious binary: funding and austerity. Life chances are enhanced by things like decent libraries and book provision (and excellent library provision and staffing such as evidenced here) in towns and schools: refusing to answer calls for better staffing and book stock is an ideological choice, to cut public funding and cut taxation.

Cut after cut and cut as politicians tear one another apart and us along with them. There’s a binary for starters.

 

What Not to Read

Kieran Egan in his book Teaching as Storytelling suggests that topics should be chosen according to a model that starts from Identifying Importance (he is using The Vikings as an example), and asks

  • What is most important about the topic?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

He is asking the teacher to question how does the topic impinge on the child learner as “they begin to understand that the conflicts they see in their families and neighbourhoods and schools, and the conflicts they feel within themselves, are analogous to those that have shaped history,” and how “that values of tolerance, self-restraint and so on are essential for all of us to practice as prerequisites to civilized life.”  Although Egan does take this a lot further (of course), there’s more than a bit of “if I were you I wouldn’t start from here” in this approach to the Vikings – but if we think about this in terms of choices of books to buy for/share with children, it makes an interesting set of questions:

  • What is most important about the themes in this book?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

What books might I put in a pile that if I wouldn’t ban them I would sigh and think “Do I have to?” I wonder if this set of questions makes me think beyond my usual repertoire, so to test it I reach behind me (with a brief look at the lovely sunset 998976B0-CB3F-4424-BD5A-EE770D074DBBand a quick compulsive posting of the evening skyline) to find a book. The first to hand is the battered (and ergo much loved) family copy of the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Since I won’t be exploring this Potter in my Reading Spree talk on Saturday, it will do very well.  It is not my favourite Beatrix Potter but maybe that’s to the good as well.  Let me use these three questions on it, and see what emerges.

What is most important about the themes in this book?

Beatrix Potter’s iconoclastic red squirrel uses riddles to annoy the owl Old Brown when Nutkin should be polite. The tensions are around respect and the consequences of crossing boundaries of politeness. It seems to me that what is most important is rule breaking; tasks are not completed, authority is insulted, danger is courted.

Why should it matter to children?

Naughtiness and rebellion against authority are important themes in the literature of childhood. The Dionysian child brings Carnival and chaos to the adult world: in the Topsy-Turvy of Lewis Carroll, the child Alice is wondering but quite prosaic in the face of the Wonderland Carnival of the Hatter and the shower of cards that tries to overpower her; George brings chaos and murder by poison to his nasty, controlling Granny with his marvellous medicine. Squirrel Nutkin is a jester D4B73E98-8D7D-4D5E-A143-A529F50EDE2F.jpeg with “no nice manners” who takes his jesting too far.  These characters and situations matter to children as they explore the “what ifs” of denying respect, especially in a literary landscape where being good is rewarded.   With Squirrel Nutkin (and many of Beatrix Potter’s male anti-heroes) we are looking into the same, magically enticing world (although in reverse) as the unfortunate Bertha in Saki’s The Storyteller in that what matters is what happens on the disputed land between riot and being “horribly good.”

What is affectively engaging about it?

The uncertain territory allows for an ambiguous outcome, and thus a real sympathy emerges not for the much-put-upon Old Brown, but for his relentless tormentor. The storytellers who go down this path look for affective engagement with chaos and anti-heroes. No wonder the children in Saki are entranced; no wonder the reader delights in collapse of school authority in Matilda or the downfall of George’s grandma, or the disruptions in lives when the wind blew umbrellas inside out and whirled the postman’s letters up… In Beatrix Potter Carnival delights, but the trespassing Benjamin Bunny and the stoner Flopsy Bunnies learn their lesson. What seems to me to be engaging is the piling of misdemeanour on misdemeanour. How naughty can this get before order, tedious and safe, is restored? How naughty can I be before I get into trouble and the “mastering pressure of wearisome necessary things” (Saki again) returns?

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So this use of Egan is part of my method for my talk at the Reading Spree. How do we look at books when we are educators?  What use is this book that I want to dismiss as anodyne, or creakily outdated? I want to explore ways we can look at children’s literature that allow a sideways glance – and particularly at stories and genres we may not like. This is not to say that any and every book is worth wasting precious story time in a pressured school day, but may be something of a recantation of my views on Blyton or Dahl or Walliams or Rowling, on the Rainbow Fairies and the Mister Men.

Or it may not. I have already Tweeted Joyce Grenfell’s devastating critique of the fake and formulaic Writer of Children’s Books who clearly has never been to Make-Believe Land, and I may have to rant. There is already a section marked NSFW.