Never Neat

I had a conversation the other day with one of the leaders, to my mind, of Early Years philosophy and practice, a man who describes himself as “Theorist by instinct, Pracademic by experience,” Jan Dubiel. We were thinking about how the transition into training, writing, Higher Education, &c., from Early Years is tricky because our first instinct is to think first of the wellbeing of the children in our care.  This isn’t really a high-minded and self-sacrifical statement, just that the practice of day-long working with young children is so all-engossing, it is hard to look up and see the other things looming.

I was talking to him while I was down at the allotment in the sunshine – that is, I was at my allotment in the sunshine; I don’t know where he was, but we were talking on the ‘phone, and when we had finished I watered, and netted, watered some more and picked courgettes, and I thought and thought about the lack of neatness of the professional world of what he calls the “pracademic.”   I think we crave neatness, sometimes, and whether we achieve it or not, it says something to many of us about how much we can control our thoughts, or professional lives. Maybe the single-minded, plan-ahead hunter caught the gazelle aeons ago and it stuck. I don’t know: if so, I expect my ancestors were scavengers…

But this neatness has down sides. It suggests, for example, that orthodoxy is linear, or internally consistent and somehow wins because of this. This in turn might suggest that the monolith of an educational theory or practice is valid because it is massy and impassive; those who oppose it are dashed against the rock of its certainty. I am very wary of it: life is too complicated, families are too messy; what general theory might suggest does not mean that it can be reduced to “all children must,” still less “unless you do this as a teacher, the children will fail.”

Life is not neat. If I were to extend the idea from this previous blog post I might suggest that the lived experience of the professional educator is a task not unlike the complex task of literary criticism: we might, as Margaret Meek says,

…take the simplicity of the words for granted…but each double-page spread with its three words of text is full of possibilities.

How Texts Teach what Readers Learn, p12

I worked this morning with marvellous people from Home Start, a charity working with “families who are having difficulties managing parenting for a variety of different reasons:” we read Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park, and (thanks to the complexity of the book, I rather think) they got my point at once.  These are people – often volunteers – who understand that all children are not the same; all families are complex, full, like a picture book, of possibilities beyond the simple statement, half-quotes from past lives, chances missed or taken.  The task of working with children and families requires a skill beyond the monolith, or beyond the first glance. This allows practitioners and practice-focused academics and trainers an interesting leeway: we are not joining a church, but enhancing the lives of children and families. Disagreement in one thing (or even a raft of things) does not make heretics, but can make thoughtful practitioners.

I did say “can…”

 

 

The Great Events?

55BCE, 597CE, 793CE, 1066CE, 1282CE, 1534CE, 1588CE, 1649CE, 1707CE, 1714CE, 1922CE…  pick your date for an event or series of events that define England, or Britain. There are others, and the ones I have chosen may say more about my poor historical knowledge or prejudice than anything. There are also occurrences which pass without comment at the time or which we cannot date certainly because no record exists: when really does Britain cease to be Roman? Or when did the last wolf die? Why does one date matter? Will the referendum on 23rd June 2016 be eclipsed by a final unequivocal date or will that be the one history picks as the The Date We Left Europe? The Date Things Changed?

We cannot dictate, and maybe can’t predict with certainty. Perhaps something else will intervene to take precedence – the failure of electricity, a catastrophic event such as the melting of the polar ice? What does strike me is that this simplistic history suggests that one date was important, and that the messiness before or after are somehow lesser occurrences that don’t matter. And that the massive changes were not contested, opposed, or that those who did contest were ridiculed, sacked, sidelined, imprisoned, killed. I feel as if I signed the Terms and Conditions for C21st without reading them, and I think of Tom Holland’s brilliant book on the Millennium, where in effect Western Europe did try and sign particular Ts&Cs only to find a new millennium just as complex and hard. A single date just doesn’t work. 1066 is one date: do we (and I need to exclude historians here, of course) consider the harrying of the North?

The counsellors in the decades/centuries of Christian consolidation; subjugated  Saxons after the death of Harold in 1066; recusant Catholics – all these people would attest that these great events are never simple. These “events that shaped Britain” were the cause of pain and unquiet: families divided, economic disturbance… and we are seeing the same in our time, in ways I never thought to see, never wanted to see. “Project Fear,” in which the UK suffers terrible upheaval, may not come to pass, or it may – but this evening I am wondering quite what will come. I suspect it’s going to be big, and an unpleasant change. I am gloomy, and predict a rowing back from liberties won, well-being improved. I feel the sharp tug of solastalgia.

Why is this part of this blog? Over the next few days I will have the pleasure of being outside with learners of various kinds. Some theory, lots of practice: a challenge for me, but a very welcome one. I will be making a plea – directly and indirectly – for the pleasure of being outside to be seen as a driver of a life well lived. Ecological wrongdoing in the Anthropocene will impact on people’s wellbeing; economic changes, greed and “austerity” planning may mean that parks and woodland will change. But I hope that people – maybe the young people I meet or the families they will work with – will still see the energy of plants and bugs and the movement of clouds and look for joy and delight and maybe transcendence.

Because all these things are transient, this Jeremiad included. And I think that with the little time I have, I want to help people find joy in the small things, and see our interconnectedness with bigger ones:

I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing.

Yes, Mary Oliver does it again, this time in her poem Rice.

Beard, Shorts, Tattoos, Strappy Tops

I grew my first beard aged 19 and was really stupidly proud of it, in a month I spent with some nuns in what these days might be called my “gap year.” The sisters’ reactions were varied: for some it was a real curiosity, having seen men with beards and men without but not a man actually starting one off; for one Dominican sister it was nothing she hadn’t seen before, and she would advise on itchiness, shampoo &c. quite happily. As a woman who had served in the WRNS, she explained, she had “seen plenty of boys [ouch] try out a first beard.”  I shaved it off when I got to University: other students used to ask me things like where the library was and I would tie myself in knots trying not to admit I was as lost as they were. But this was where I learned something about beards: they make you look like you know stuff. The history of beards suggests that they are markers of sagacity, in the west, certainly – but also of scruffiness and a lack of care.  A wobbly history of  disputed masculinities in the West? The attitudes change, of course (this is a great digested read, which points out great beards of the past as well as work-place “clean shave policies;” Margaret Thatcher was apparently deeply opposed to beards); it’s really quite an ephemeral thing.

It is clear that some school managers feel strongly that children have naturally fewer rights around what they wear, how they behave, and that these codes will reflect issues of belonging and compliance to a degree that means non-compliance is bad behaviour. Teachers will likewise dress “appropriately” or “professionally,” and while I would often advise trainees about to enter a placement in a general way, and sometimes have had to discuss dress codes with individual students (never a happy conversation),  dress as a teacher has always been something I’ve found hard to grasp. Early Years men, unless they are in an institution that has a uniform, can be a bit torn.  I was asked to wear a suit when teaching in Reception – but at the other end of the spectrum also not to wear shorts in one nursery. For women, shorts and the dread “strappy tops” seem to constitute some kind of marker in the same way. Shoulders are “inappropriate;” knees too. Jeans? Someone ( a resolute chino wearer) recently suggested I was “bold” to wear jeans in Higher Ed.  Sandals? Is a bow-tie appropriate or comic?  Kilt? Gown?  There seems to be no simple way to manage these routes to appearing like a professional.

Tattoos. The recent fashion for body art has reached employed and employable people in new ways over the last maybe ten or so years and teachers are sometimes asked not to show theirs. The Vox Pops (or should that be Voces Pops?) here in the Guardian give a good idea of the pros and cons from school leaders. I had an ear pierced as a trainee teacher (my first headteacher asked me not to wear a ring in my ear to church on Sundays); I had three ravens (from Thomas Ravenscroft’s song)IMG_0167-2 tattoed on my shoulder a few years ago, in my late fifties. I’m not hiding them; they are where I wanted them – occasionally on show, and something I can see and smile at.  They are there rather than my forehead because I don’t think my forehead would look very nice with a circular tattoo.  But of course this is where the trouble lies: what is “nice,” or “appropriate” or “professional”?  Fashions change, attitudes to fashion change, how fashions mark professions or “class” (or lack of these) change. Maybe, too, the placing and reason for the tattoo matter: a wedding ring finger tattoo is approved of, where a heart and anchor and “Mother” might not be. But an arm tattoo is OK as long as you keep it covered?  What about the educator with a usually covered tattoo who wears a short-sleeved shirt that reveals it? Dress codes are subtler than they first appear, and context is everything.

And so at length to professionalism.  NQTs or about-to-be-NQTs are concerned about this (I remember a poolside conversation on this in Greece [the marvellous Pension George, actually – but is this product placement?] once with three young people just about to start their NQT jobs), and while I can understand the punctuality and dress professionally stuff, of course I can, all I think I’m really saying is that there are ways of expressing authority and professional attitudes that go beyond outward markers.  We might consider what they are.  They probably need to be embedded in teacher training: the outwards signs of professionalism may change (hence the previous paragraphs) but the need to appear a member of a caring and well-educated profession sees to me to be a fixed point.

Planning is a good marker, and all those pedagogic behaviours sort of go without saying, although adjusting to different schools’ ways of and attitudes to planning/record keeping can be a shock for an NQT – or indeed for anyone moving school. The subtler things like how to sound professional face to face and in terms of address are not as hard as they look: a bit of distance but coupled with a warm greeting will top off the ways in which you convey your knowledge. Does it need a tie? Know the children, be clear about what the school has planned, be able to pull out the big words and big ideas when necessary – and be ready to talk plain and simple teaching-and-learning without waffle. This is basic.

But the ground is shifting. Sod the beard. the suit, the tattoo and all that stuff: how many followers have I got?   Social media seduces us – me –  into thinking that professional status is akin to celebrity.

A very thoughtful blog post came my way at the start of the month. Thoughtful, but painful, Twitter’s @MrHill34 is bemoaning how much of the inimical and confrontational material on social media “exhausts the energy needed to develop some meaningful actions/solutions to such issues. We solve nothing this way. All we do is hang our professional dirty linen up to dry within a giant online echo chamber.”  Great image.

It seems to me that we are in a time of such flux that Headteachers can go public with their political views, and when soi-disant leaders on Twitter can use all sorts of wolf-pack strategies and bullying that (one would hope) they would crack down on in the school they teach in (of course some don’t teach in schools, but that’s a distraction).  I would join him in my disquiet about pontificating (knowing I am guilty of it) and the ways in which seniors in the profession  – or at least self-professed leaders – bully, mock and indulge in name-calling without regard for the standards of the profession they aspire to influence. This can’t be the message we give to new teachers: shout as loudly as you can, be abrasive to people you will in all probability never meet, as long as you score the point or look brilliant on Twitter, or get your name in the paper.

There is a sense – and maybe it’s the uncertainty of the times that encourages it – that what we really need is coherence, compliance. Put-up-and-shut-up is part and parcel of the rise of the guru: not listening is endemic in our politicians.  And when we don’t get the compliance we want (I think that emphasis is important), we are entitled (somehow) to mirror the name-calling of our most infamous of current world leaders. We look far worse on social media than we do with a bit of scruff as the beard grows in, or with that tattoo about love that shows when you roll your sleeve up.  What this snarling does, of course, is to make us all look incompetent, losing our way, a squabbling bunch of people arguing about their seats in the lifeboat.   And that’s not professional.

Perhaps we should look at a different model of human interaction here. One that is fashioned around respect as well as passionately held beliefs, one that is founded on a genuine regard for others rather than point-scoring, one where arguments about behaviour are not a reductio ad absurdum, where phonics is not an excuse for ad hominem snapping.  My school is better than your school? My pedagogy is better than yours? Really?  We cannot have a system that is genuinely compassionate (and that can mean high standards for the marginalised just as much as it can an understanding of the out-of-school lives of the disruptive: I’m not making a point here) without this sense of respect for one another as colleagues, a real attempt to see what is at the heart of the educational project for these people who so readily object to others or do them down.

As Sue Cowley has said on Twitter:

I yearn to see more coverage of HTs quietly doing good, inclusive things in their schools without feeling a need to generate headlines or talk negatively about the work of their colleagues…

 

 

Underland Thoughts II

More selections and thoughts arising from them as I revisit Rob Macfarlane’s Underland. Again, quotations will dominate, with the uncomfortable balancing act of celebrating a great work and wanting to preserve its voice, yet not wanting simply to reproduce it. If you have got this far with me and haven’t bought the book, maybe you should. I am tempted to buy another copy and have it interleaved so I can take note after note.

To back track a little. The previous post left the author in a storm by the caves of ancient cave art, where his journey is remembered

…mostly as metals. Silver of the pass. Iron of the bay and its clouds. Rare gold of the sky. Zinc of the storm in its full fury. Bronze and copper of the sea to the south as I escape.   p254*

We are still, in ch 9, in Norway, now looking at the Maelstrom,

the underland of the sea   p291

and the complexities of the economics of oil and fishing. The pace changes, and human characters – never far from the narrative throughout most of Underland – are more important. Human geography – and our need to sanitise our use of resources:

Those industries [extracting oil] understand the market need for alienated labour, hidden infrastructure and the strategic concealment of both the slow violence of environmental degradation and the quick violence of accidents.   p311

I had not heard the term solastalgia, the “distress cause by environmental change,” so this is eye-opening:

the unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control… We might consider John Clare a solastalgic poet, witnessing his native Northamptonshire countryside disrupted by enclosure in the 1810s… a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognizable by climate change or corporate action: the home becomes unhomely around its inhabitants.   p317

and we walk a shoreline of human detritus.

Nature is no longer only a remote peak shining in the sun or a raptor hunting over birch woods – it is also tidelines thickened with drift plastic, or methane clathrates decomposing over millions of square miles of warming permafrost.   p321

Kulusk now, in Greenland, and the global melt releasing anthrax and revealing hidden military bases.

unweder – unweather  p334

and

uggianaqtuq – to behave strangely  p335

and because this section is about exploration of the underland of Greenland, Rob gives us a meditation on ice:

Ice has a memory. It remembers in detail and it remembers for a million years or more.

Ice remembers forest fires and rising sea. Ice remembers the chemical composition of the air around the start of the last Ice Age, 110,000 years ago. It remembers  how many days of sunshine fell upon it in a summer 50,000 years ago.  It remembers the temperature in the clouds at a moment of snowfall early in the Holocene… It remembers the smelting boom of the Romans…

Ice has a memory and the colour of this memory is blue.   p337-8

And then we are off into a glacial landscape where orange lichens and emerald leaves of dwarf willow stand out. The boom of breaking ice, and in the Northern Lights

The mountains shoot jade searchlights into space.     p346

Rob descends into a moulin, a meltwater shaft in a glacier,

a portal giving access to the blue underland of ice.   p369

and witnesses – with a vivid, almost Chthulhu-like horror a short quotation could not reproduce – the upsurge of a massive berg, ice broken from a glacier.

The penultimate section, ch 12, is no less shocking: our exploration of the “tomb” (RMc’s word) or deep storage facility for our nuclear waste:

The tombs that we have constructed to receive these remains are known as geological repositories, and they are the Cloaca Maxima – the Great Sewer – of our species.    p400

They are designed to outlast us, something I find appalling. And even though much of what we create will outlast the individual maker, this is legacy on an altogether different scale.  Death haunts so much of this book – echoing the human pattern of burial to preserve or to conceal – until we meet the challenge:

What legacies will we leave behind, not only for the generations that succeed us, but also for the epochs and species that will come after ours? Are we being good ancestors?     p410

How do we tell these people/these creatures of a time to come not to disturb the toxic giant we are interring?

Oh, Underland has so much more, even in my own reading, IMG_0149to highlight, to praise, to explore, to discuss, but this is a book to read slowly and then to return to. These notes are for me, really, and some of what I see or connect with seems nefas to share here.   As a final non-sharing, I will say that the last, short section, a return home like in The Wild Places, reduced me to tears.

________________

*Page references are to Macfarlane, R (2019). Underland: a deep time journey. London: Hamish Hamilton.

NB The Guardian has a resource of stuff they have produced around Robert Macfarlane, which includes his own very thoughtful illustrated essay arising out of Underland.

Underland Thoughts I

I’m not sure this isn’t really something for a Wild Spaces Wild Magic research page rather than a couple of blog posts, nor am I entirely sure what I can add to the massive work that is Rob Macfarlane’s Underland,  a moving, detailed, Bible Moralisée C66033DA-9011-4149-85C3-F6FC8F658B52that looks at landscape and souterane and human uses for and vision of the spaces we find or create.

Then don’t.

OK, instead I’m going to put together some of the images and lines that give me most to think about, whether in terms of the brilliance of their wordsmithing or because their message is worth pondering.

That’s not to say loads more isn’t wonderful: just go read it and make your mind up yourself.  I’m not copying the book out or appropriating the ideas: mine is an idiosyncratic selection (a bit of commentary may sometimes set a context), a few lines from a massive work that deserves a good slow read.  I said in my initial review on Goodreads how this could be a scripture for our time; perhaps this is my Lectio Divina.

____________

There is a lot to ponder in the opening pages:

I have often noticed how claustrophobia – much more so than vertigo – retains its disturbing power even when being experienced indirectly as narrative or description. p12*

This is the point at which Rob caught me, by moving from this into Garner’s claustrophobic description of the Alderley tunnels in Weirdstone and then into Gilgamesh.

Our ‘flat perspectives’ feel increasingly inadequate to the deep worlds we inhabit, and to the deep time legacies we are leaving. p13

then

…to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making an unmaking. p15

The second chapter, Burial, is set in Britain.

We are often more tender to the dead than to the living, though it is the living who need our tenderness most. p27

It concerns cave-repository of the dead, but also the tragic death of Neil Moss, an early autumn descent in the Mendips to where

Language is crushed p49

Ch 3 moves to the intense research hidden from the noise of particles in Yorkshire, linked in the book to the network of (nearby and further afield, now ruined) Cistercian Abbeys

in which prayers were offered to a presence disinclined to disclose itself to the usual beseechings p67.

R S Thomas’s voice echoing quite literally de profundis, as Rob moves us past the Komodo Dragon-like mining machinery to a discussion of the term Anthropocene, and how we have reached here. This is one of my favourite passages, and will have to stand for so many:

We all carry trace fossils within us – the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes, in fact, all that is left behind by loss is trace – and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.  p 79

If someone finds this blog and is wondering what to read at my funeral, that’s the passage.

The wood-wide web, discussed as we explore Epping Forest in Ch 4 is an idea so powerful I am still digesting it. Some beautiful, tender images and amazing ideas. The wonderfully named Merlin Sheldrake, and Rob’s own meditation on roots and language where

The real underland of language is not the roots of single words, but rather the soil of grammar and syntax, where habits of speech and therefore also habits of thought settle and interact over long periods of time. p112

And so on to Paris and the catacombs, for me the most terrifying and claustrophobic exploration in the book. The cataphiles and Hell Well. The Salle du Drapeau. London, and in a slate mine in Wales

a carchive, a slewing slope of wrecks p166

cars dumped to save scrappage.

Death is never far away, and we travel past a not-quite deserted Mithraeum to swimming deep in a submerged system, where a tunnel beckons the author:

The pull of the mouth through that eerily clear water was huge. Just as standing on the edge of a tower one feels drawn to fall, so I experienced a powerful longing to swim into the mouth until my air ran beautifully out. p200

Beautifully. The challenge to find beauty is not always about death and danger: Ch 6 ends with a lyrical description of an Adriatic beach at night where a chill current recalls the snow-fed starless rivers Rob has visited; in ch 7 a near-naked Macfarlane negotiates

the snowmelt bite of the water  p232

But the travelogue is not always beautiful, either: there are executions commemorated in Slovenian valleys, and much later there are warnings of the waste storage the  Anthropocene demands…

Even in the most overtly spiritual section, where we travel to visit the cave paintings of Lofoten, we are not far from a curious sense of disaster and mystical experience. He ties together the discoveries of Lascaux with the emergence of the news of the Nazi Death Camps, and on leaving the red-painted dancers Rob has

a strong sense of being watched…

What did I see in the dark? A shadow-play of pasts, events refusing sequence, the fingertip drawing its lines through time far from the well-lit world, there in the unfathomable cave. This was a place that absorbed those visitors who crossed its threshold – as it had me, another in the long history of meaning-seekers and meaning-makers in its shadows.  p284

What happens next is so deep, and it feels to me so important, I can’t write it out: we see Rob in mourning, and the tutelary genius loci is at best an ambiguous figure. That “strong sense of being watched,” the sentient landscape, brings me from the northerly storms to the Peak District, to Thursbitch and Ludchurch, and since this post started with Garner, I thnk it right to end it here.


*page references are to the Hamish Hamilton hardback, London 2019

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.