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?
  • 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? What does the documentation of a National Curriculum have to say about what society 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?


*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)

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.


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…”



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…



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.

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.