Like Mud, Not Fireworks
The Place Of Passion In The Development Of Literacy
What has passion to do with literacy? What has hairdressing to do with literacy? What has literacy to do with ironing? Can a three year old begin to learn to read in fifteen minutes? Do the Beatles have a message for teachers of reading? Are these questions sensible? Are they a joke? All will be revealed.
When, as teachers of literacy, we stand at the crossroads of conflicting pedagogies and ask ourselves which road we should travel on, it seems to me that we always look in the same direction for the answers. We focus on the road of texts by asking which texts are the best; and we focus on the road of methodology by asking which methods are the best, as if the signpost at the crossroads offered only these two choices; as if texts and methods were the be all and end all of literacy instruction. But there is another road, less travelled by, which we don’t notice because we aren’t making the right inquiries. I’m reminded of the story quoted in Judith Newman’s book: Finding our own way. (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1990.) Sue Curtis, an Australian teacher, tells how she had been grocery shopping when she became aware of a young boy apparently on the verge of panic, rushing up and down the aisles of the supermarket.
“I stopped him” [she said] “and asked him if he was lost. He said he was. I took his hand and told him I was good at finding mums.
“Tell me when you see your mum,” I said to him. Together we walked up and down the aisles. However, after about ten minutes we still hadn’t found his mother. So I took the child to a nearby checkout counter and then asked him to take a look around and tell me when he could see his mother. No response. I finally asked, “Can’t you see your mother?”
“No,” the child replied. “I can only see my Daddy.”‘
For me, that story is a perfect illustration of someone not taking the road less travelled by. We tend to focus on the predictable, forgetting that a different line of questioning about the matter in hand, such as the development of literacy, might reveal more interesting answers.
A vast amount of research has occurred in the teaching of reading and the wider development of literacy. Much of it has been excellent; some of it idiotic. Major battles have been fought over the years between phonics and the look-and-say method; similar battles now rage between phonics and the devotees of whole language. There is such a vehemence of belief, by the adherents to the various methods in the rightness and truth of their own particular approach, that to be bold enough to ask critical questions of any of them requires a fair degree of courage. Being on the receiving end of their invective is not a comfortable experience.
The odd thing about all the apparently different methods I’ve mentioned is that they all share the same foundation: a cognitive, that is brain-orientated, view of learning to be literate. For example, (to simplify complex arguments) the Phonics Followers believe that little bits of words have to be taught before whole words can be grasped, let alone whole texts. The Whole-Word or Look-and-Say Apostles believe that it’s easier to read words than bits of words and that the reading of words must precede the reading of whole texts. The Whole Language Enthusiasts believe it’s easier to start with meaningful whole texts, then to work backwards to individual words and then back even further to bits of words and individual letters.
All the above methods focus on the page, not on the child or its teacher. All isolate themselves from the environment in which a particular child finds itself. All ignore the relationship between the child and the person teaching that child to read. All presume that the cognitive text and the cognitive method supersede the affective, that is the heart-orientated circumstances which surround the act of learning to read. The reason is obvious.
In the current (if changing) climate, in which quantitative educational research rates more highly than qualitative research, it’s not surprising that the affective is virtually forgotten. Matters affecting the heart are far more elusive than those affecting the mind. There’s no simple way to measure the role of the affective in teaching children to read. It can’t be recorded in numbers. It can’t be caught in a statistical net. It can’t be pre-tested or post-tested. Its subjects can’t be divided into control groups because the affective aspects of any given situation are unique to the situation at the moment of its happening and cannot be replicated. Measuring such indefinables as the effects of expectations, happiness, eagerness, fondness, laughter, admiration, hope, humiliation, abuse, tiredness, racism, hunger, loneliness and love on the development of literacy is so difficult, even within ethnographic research, that to my knowledge it is attempted rarely.
But the affective won’t go away. It’s always there, whether researchers admit it or not. The plain fact of the matter is that teachers and children have hearts, and those hearts play an enormous part in the teaching/learning process. Take abook like this for instance: Wombat Divine. . [Read it.]
Although I’m a passionate advocate of whole language I believe it’s perfectly possible for whole language to fail in the hands of a rude, thoroughly nasty teacher who hates children. Similarly, although I feel that the teaching of phonics outside meaningful texts is the least efficient way to teach reading, I believe absolutely that a joyful, enthusiastic, experienced teacher who uses phonics and only phonics, will nevertheless have a large measure of success in teaching her students to read. That’s the influence of the affective.
It’s a brand new discussion we have here. Which has the greater effect on literacy: the method-and-the-text, or the affective quality of the relationship between the teacher and the taught? My hunch is the latter: that the emotional interplay between teacher and taught may one day prove to be the most important factor in the teaching of reading and writing. Needless to say, I have no quantitative research to back my claims, only stories. Many stories.
In November 1993 I was involved in the filming of a television program on the benefits of reading aloud to pre-schoolers. It was suggested that I should speak, on camera, to the mother and father of a pre-school child about why parents should read to their children. These particular parents were keen to do their very best for their little boy but they had rarely read to him and had not realised the importance of doing so. He couldn’t read or write a word.
On the day in question I was startled to find that a chat to the parents wasn’t to happen, after all. Instead the director wanted me to read to the child, to demonstrate as if by instant magic, the loving, riotous atmosphere I had been advocating earlier in the program.
‘You stupid television director!’ I felt like screaming. ‘I don’t know the child! I’ve never met him in my life! I’ll terrify him with my overwhelming personality. He’s only three years old. How can he and I be friends, and learn to read happily together, just like that, with a snap of the fingers and no prior relationship? Are you nuts? Don’t you understand little kids?’
So much hung on the outcome of the program, however, that I found myself agreeing to engage in their crazy circus act. We were all a little edgy and pressured by lack of time. I did manage to extricate Ben from the cameras and the lights for a secret minute so we could walk out to my car together, hand in hand, to share in private the special gifts I had brought him: a poster from my new book, Time for Bed, and the book itself.
A few moments later, lying on the floor of his sitting room, with the cameras rolling, I read to him. And then I read with him. And then he read to me. All this happened in fifteen minutes.
The night before it was due to be televised nationally the promo for the program almost caused me to have a seizure. It was something to this effect: ‘THIS WOMAN CLAIMS SHE CAN TEACH YOUR BABY TO READ IN FIFTEEN MINUTES!’ I hadn’t claimed any such thing of course. To have done so would have been preposterous. But it is true that within fifteen minutes of my reading aloud to Ben he put his fingers under the correct words and grinned a cheeky grin and said, ‘It’s time for bed.’ The cameraman gasped audibly. The sound man leaned forward involuntarily for a closer look. The director did a little dance. The parents were so stunned they could hardly believe it had happened.
Even I thought it might have been an accident so I turned over to another page and said, ‘And what do we have on this page?’ Once again Ben put his podgy little finger under the words and—laughing his head off —said, ‘It’s time for bed.’ And when I turned to another page he did the same thing again. It was all recorded on camera. He had begun to learn to read in fifteen minutes—this ordinary child of ordinary parents, none of whom I had met before. Hence the over-the-top declaration: ‘THIS WOMAN CLAIMS SHE CAN TEACH YOUR BABY TO READ IN FIFTEEN MINUTES!’
Now, of course, you will ask me which method I used and which books I read, but in this context—and I believe in any context in which children are learning to read—those are not the pertinent questions. I could say that I was using whole language method, combined with the look-and-say method, and that if I had stayed longer I would have used phonics also. And that would be the truth. I could say that I used over and over again three Australian books: Time for Bed, Who Sank the Boat? and Hattie and the Fox because each one had rhyme, rhythm or repetition. And that also would be the truth.
But what kind of truth? A thin truth about the twin superficialities of the situation: the text and the method. The important question, I believe, is: what happened between me and the child?
What happened was a frenzy of silliness and excited game playing, with me shouting and laughing and saying: ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ in higher and higher tones, and hugging Ben who was laughing and grinning as if this reading thing were the just about the best fun he’d ever had. We were rolling around the floor literally, and banging the book with our hands at each new revelation of: ‘It’s time for bed,’ shrieking in triumph as the words were revealed on each page.
We were never tense. We were never quiet. Even when we were looking for and finding the same farm animals in each book, we were noisy and wild in our discoveries.
‘There’s ANOTHER pig! Oh no! ANOTHER horse! And look, there’s a cow in this book, and a cow in this book and another cow in THIS book!!! Can you believe it? Cows, cows, everywhere!’
Ben’s face was alight. I could have eaten him, he was so adorable and so smart; and of course he thought I was pretty special too, every time I lifted him off the floor in a giant hug, and said: ‘, you’re so CLEVER!’ We could have played with books for hours. We didn’t want to stop. Good grief! How happy we were.
Is it any wonder that three year old Ben was relaxed enough to begin to learn to read in fifteen minutes, and to want to go on learning? For him the rewards were manifold. He had fun with a new friend: me. He loved the game we played because I made sure he was always ‘winning.’ And in addition there were, for him, the delicious intrinsic pleasures of the books themselves with all their rowdy, rhythmic fun and their crazily repetitive words reappearing page after page.
A week after my visit the. crew went back to Ben’s place to see how he was doing. His mother told them Ben had gone to bed at 5 one afternoon so he could read his books. He hadn’t yet realised that books could be read anywhere, at any time!
‘He just loves his books,’ she said. ‘They’ve become prized possessions. And his kindergarten teacher says he’s a different child. He’s as quiet as a mouse as soon as she gets out a book and starts reading to the children. He ’s sort of drinking in the stories and the words.’
I’ll extrapolate theory from Ben’s story later, but let’s hear about Sally next. She and her mother, Helen, were also featured in the t.v. program on early reading. Helen is an ordinary mother and Sally is an ordinary child, yet at the age of three she is reading entire books. She’s also pecking out on an old typewriter words like dog, cat, fruit and vegetables, as well as her own name and the names of other family members. The kitchen in her house is a mass of labels: they’re on the stove, on the fridge, on the cupboards. She goes to the library regularly and has books of her own. Her mother, who does my ironing but is otherwise unemployed, has read to Sally every day since she was a baby. Helen has never been to college and knows nothing, formally, about the teaching of reading.
Whole Language Enthusiasts will, of course, recognise Sally’s home as the ideal whole language learning environment. Whole Language Enthusiasts won’t be surprised to learn that Sally is already an independent reader. After all, the conditions in which she has learnt to read are those which whole language teachers aspire to in their own classrooms. They will claim that she learnt to read as quickly as she did because she and her mother were (and are) in a one-to-one situation and that if only they had fewer children in their classes all their students would learn just as quickly.
But once again I’d like to suggest that the method, the text and even the one-to-oneness were relative superficialities in that particular situation. As I watched the t.v. program the feature that struck me most about the segment on Sally and Helen was the joy they experienced just from being together. As the tape rolled it became clear that the foundation of Sally’s learning was and continues to be the stable, comfortable, very loving relationship she has with her mother.
I feel certain that no amount of labels on fridges, no amount of available typewriters or books or read alouds or visits to the library could have taught Sally to read had she been stressed, ignored, hungry, unhappy, unloved or unrewarded for her progress. If she had regarded books negatively—as she might have, had her parents read to her with a grumpy attitude, or had she been pushed to read by parents tense with the desire for success, who had lost their tempers when she didn’t catch on, there’s no doubt she would have resisted learning.
But of course she didn’t. She associated books with cuddles on the rocking chair on her mother’s lap, sweetly learning to read first words, then pages, then whole stories in the happy relaxed knowledge that she was the centre of her mother’s focus and pride. Her emerging literacy was greeted with so much encouragement and praise, with so many and hugs and kisses, that she learnt to read fast, without a moment of strain or tension, doing her best to please her mother because it was so obvious that her mother adored her and was excited by her progress.
Helen may claim she knows nothing about teaching children to read, let alone anything about the role of passion in the development of literacy but she does know that she loves Sally to bits and likes being with her and interacting with her, through books and words, in a lively, relaxed, playful manner. There are lessons to be learnt from this but let’s have another literacy story.
My hairdresser, Luke, has a two year old boy, Adrian who’s had a fixation with Hattie and the Fox for over a year. He calls it “The Chicken Book” and won’t go to sleep unless it’s been read to him at least once if not several times over. When visitors come to the house he hands them his “Chicken” book and asks them to read it to him also. And they have to. For a long time Luke and his wife cursed the day I had written it. Luke joked that one day he’d slit my throat not cut my hair. To give them a break I presented them with Time for Bed but that didn’t work. It made matters worse. Adrian had to have both books read to him every night. I contemplated changing hairdressers.
Early in December ‘93 with some trepidation I made an appointment for a haircut and colour. Luke greeted me with ecstasy.
‘I think Adrian’s reading!’ he said. ‘He puts his finger under all the words of “The Chicken Book” in the right places and he knows exactly when to turn the page. He’s reading to us instead of us reading to him. My God, you know he’s only two and half. It’s incredible.’
From behind his back, with a flourish of Italian gallantry, Luke gave me a dozen divinely wrapped gourmet chocolates.
‘I can’t thank you enough,’ he said.
We discussed the reading process and agreed that Adrian was well on his way. I suggested that pencils and paper might be the next step so Adrian could try to read and write some of the key words in “The Chicken Book” out of context. I also suggested that Luke should make labelled pictures of a goose, a cow and a sheep to adorn the walls of Adrian’s room since those words also occurred in Time for Bed and could be reinforced as a silly game before bedtime, running from book to label to book to label, shouting a lot and having fun. I made this last suggestion because I think I know why Adrian is almost reading at two and a half.
His parents both work long hours. He spends the days with his grandparents and often doesn’t get home until 6:30 or 7:00 p.m.. His parents idolise him and he loves them but they all have such a short time together each day that I suspect Adrian will do anything to keep their attention, to make them focus on him, to keep them with him for as long as possible at bedtime. He has realised that reading a book keeps a parent close. Reading two books keeps a parent closer for longer. Reading a book to your parents, all by yourself, keeps TWO parents much closer for much longer.
So I can’t help thinking that the foundation for Adrian’s staggering progress as a reader has been not the texts, necessarily, nor the method, but the relationship between him and his parents. And won’t he love my game with the labels! He’ll have a parent in his room playing games for ages every night. And Luke, adoring his son and wild about his progress, will soon have labels half way up the street, I bet, and every one of his clients will hear how his kid can read although he’s only two and a half. Is Luke excited or is Luke excited? There’s a lot of passion in his house right now and it’s helping his little son to learn to read in leaps and bounds.
While Luke and I were raving about reading we were being listened to by the hair colourist, Heidi, who did not join in our conversation. In fact she seemed a bit down and much more withdrawn than she usually is.
When we were alone she said, ‘I hated reading as a little kid because I couldn’t read, not even at the end of my first year at school. And the longer I couldn’t read the more difficult I found it. Very early on, I was put in a special group for reading. I was humiliated. We were all humiliated in that group. Everyone knew we were in the special group. No kid likes being in the special group. You feel so bad about yourself you can’t concentrate. It gets harder and harder the more you want to learn because your nerves stop you from relaxing. You can’t take in the information. You get so tense, your insides get so screwed up, you can hardly even hear what the teacher’s saying. You sit there just sweating and failing. And failing and sweating. It’s so horrible. In the end my parents had to teach me at home and I learnt but I was eight by then. I’ve never forgotten that terrible feeling of loneliness, of being out of it because I wasn’t able to be with the others, because I couldn’t read.’
Heidi didn’t say that she missed what books had to offer. It wasn’t the cognitive aspect of literacy that bothered her, but the social, the affective. As she spoke I saw in my mind that all too familiar picture in corridor after corridor of all the schools I visit around the world: one tense quiet child withdrawn from the class, struggling to read (without any noticeable reward) to one tense quiet adult, usually a parent volunteer who’s come in to help with reading. The bent-over concentration between the child and the adult lacks any aura of joy, any noise, any wildness, any ecstasy. The halting words, the prevailing sense of imminent failure and the coldness of the corridor environment with its public humiliation break my heart every time.
If this is what happens to children who can’t read or won’t read is it any wonder they meander dazed into illiteracy, bored out of their brains and blocked out by fear?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with parent volunteers helping individual children with their reading: the idea has great promise and can be brilliant, as I hope to demonstrate with my next story. But the promise of learning dissipates, it seems to me, when the adult and the child lack a shared warmth and the hysterical excitement of discovery.
Dominic is five. He is being brought up by his grandmother because she believes his parents, who live in another state, are not taking care of him properly. He has been struggling to read for over nine months in a wonderful whole language classroom in which a majority of the other children are already reading independently. Towards the end of his first year at school he suddenly takes off. As if by magic he clicks into browsing, self-selection, reading for meaning, self-correction, phonemic awareness, motivation, and absorption. Barbara, his brilliant teacher, pleased with herself and with him, wonders what she has done to effect the change so she watches him and is humbled by her observations. It is not she who is making the difference, but Stan, one of her new parent volunteers.
Stan has changed his job and now works shifts so he’s able to come into the classroom every day for the first hour and a half of school. Dominic, lacking a father, strikes up a relationship with Stan. They are not perched on hard little seats in a cold public corridor, testing each other out. They’re hunched up together on cushions in a corner of the classroom with books scattered at their feet, and they’re talking man to man about the books they are reading. Dominic feels good. He’s relaxed. Sometimes they read silently, side by side, then Stan will say: ‘Hey, listen to this,’ and he’ll read for a while. Then Stan will ask Dominic what he’s reading and Dominic will read, knowing happily that this reading activity will keep Stan with him; knowing that Stan is really interested in the information but also really interested in him. Barbara smiles wryly to herself: So it’s male shift workers who make the literacy difference, not me, she thinks, and determines to try to have more fathers come into her classroom to create the jewelled relationships which gladden sad hearts and unlock exotic literacy secrets.
Marian, one of my neighbour’s children had just spent a year in a very different class. Asked to describe the year in one word Marian said: ‘Blah.’
‘Blah?’ I said. ‘Describe blah.’
‘Blah means all on one level. It means we had a steady, predictable routine. There were no dramas. There were no highs, no lows. We did lots of worksheets about nouns and adjectives and verbs and stuff and I guess we learnt it but we didn’t use it. We wrote very rarely—less than ten stories the whole year and when we did the teacher never got excited. She’d write: “This is a good story, Marian,” and you’d wonder what kind of good it was but she never said so you didn’t get excited about the next story. We wrote a lot of reports but they went nowhere, just sort of into the desk and you thought why make the effort? When we had to write she sat there eating and reading the paper. I guess she wasn’t a bad teacher it’s just the whole year was sort of grey and forgettable, like mud not fireworks.’
Let us recall the literacy events I have already mentioned and check them out on the scale of mud to fireworks and then try to define the quality of ‘fireworks’ and its consequences for our teaching.
The interaction between three year old Ben and me was certainly of the firework variety: a series of bangs and other loud noises and excited applause at each flash and whiz. But the bonfire underneath all those fireworks was our relationship. There was passion, at least but call it love, if you will, although we only met once.
Between my hairdresser Luke, and his son Adrian, there was definitely dynamite going off in all directions: a rowdy connection between father and son and two drive-you-crazy repetitive books. Underneath the noise however, keeping it going still, is the mutual desire for contact. Call it love.
Heidi, the colourist who took three years to learn to read, squelched around in a muddy stickiness of stress and failure. There was no lightness or brightness associated with her early attempts at learning to read, no connecting conversation, no happy, snappy sparkle of social interaction in which learning might occur incidentally. There was no passion. No love.
Between Helen, my ironing lady and Sally, her daughter there is less noise and more glow. The firework aspect may be a little quieter in their house but the heat is no less intense. They like to please each other. They like being together. There’s a constant, steady warmth. Call it passion. Call it love.
Between Stan, the shift worker, and his little mate Dominic, there is more the glow of bright embers in a bonfire rather than the dramatic explosions of a wild firework show. But the heat is there in their togetherness and in the often silent enjoyment of their social interaction through reading. Call it not love , necessarily, but at least passion.
One of the earliest questions I asked in this paper was: do the Beatles have a message for reading? Remember their song: All you need is love? I’ve been thinking about it for months in relation to the teaching of reading and writing. The more I thought about it the more ridiculous it appeared and I found myself embarrassed for having even contemplated it. What a mockery it was, after all! Of course it isn’t all we need. Love? Passion? How superficial. How sentimental. How inappropriate to even consider its role in an education system high—jacked from the beginning by a bitter Puritanism which declared if we were relaxed and engaged and having fun we couldn’t be learning anything. Of course, I decided grimly, of course we need great texts. Of course we need the latest, most effective and appropriate methods. Of course we need knowledgeable teachers. And then I wavered, all over again.
Adrian and Sally, aged two and a half and three respectively, can read. The texts were there, it’s true, in their cases. But the methods? None. And the knowledgeable teachers? A hairdresser and an ironing lady? Hardly! Whereas Heidi at eight couldn’t read even though she was taught by knowledgeable teachers whose methods were probably sound at the time. The texts she was using may have been basals, of course, the bane of any child and a great force for illiteracy, but my hunch is that what she needed as well as great texts and effective methods was love after all, or at least some element of passion in her teachers and in their interactions with her, not the cold loneliness of cruel corridors. Even Dominic, taught by an excellent whole language teacher, didn’t catch on until passion entered his learning life.
So I was teetering and tottering over the role of the affective as I wrote this paper, teasing myself for being an old hippie who was still wearing metaphorical flowers in her hair, until I heard Oliver Sacks speak in an hour long radio interview in early January. (ABC Radio National: ‘The Science Show”, Jan. 8th 1994.) Oliver Sacks, you may recall, is the pre-eminent, humane psychiatrist about whom the film Awakenings was made. In a discussion on the need for the insane or otherwise mentally unstable to be treated with great dignity he mentioned the basic necessity we all have, sane or insane, for love, in order to survive and learn and be human.
He told the story of ‘…an orphanage in Mexico where the children were fed and toiletted and given excellent, rather mechanical, sort of hygienic treatment but not love, and given no human affection. All these children were dead by the age of three.’
Lack of love literally meant death. Sacks went on to say: ‘I also think that love is essential for cognitive activities of one sort and another, and that one can’t do any thinking or follow p any enterprise unless there’s passion in it.’ Which led me to be able to believe in my own hunches once again. If the teaching of literacy lacks love, doesn’t it mean a kind of literacy death? Doesn’t it lead to a kind of brown muddiness that lets the life ooze out of classrooms? That makes reading and writing repugnant to young people because it lacks meaning and reality, vitality and passion?
Let me tighten my definitions of love and passion, lest I be misunderstood. I am not asking for the unreasonable from literacy teachers. I am not, for instance, asking that all the children in a class should be loved since love cannot be mandated and anyway not all children are lovable. I am asking rather for a loving atmosphere in which students and their interests are treated with dignity; an environment in which they are seen as exciting, fascinating beings who are alive with anticipation and longing for real communication that has great meaning in their current lives, not in some far-distant adult life; a system in which they never sit in corridors and suffer lovelessness; a classroom from which worksheets and basal readers have been withdrawn and burnt with ritual and ceremony in the schoolyard; in which there is a throbbing heart-beat of passion connecting the class to itself and the teacher to the class.
The passion I am asking for from teachers is a passion beyond the pay cheque. It’s a passion for children’s books, as well as for their own reading, for if teachers don’t love to read why on earth should children?
I am asking for a passion about books and writing because we know that children want to do—and want to enjoy—what they see adults doing and enjoying, and being enthusiastic about. It’s why children so often follow careers or interests similar to those of their parents’—they have osmosed the particular family passion throughout their childhood and seen it to be good.
So how, I ask myself, in the big-family-situation of the classroom, can children be expected to be hooked in and switched on to books without the electric example of a teacher’s passion for reading? I wondered, as I left the IRA convention in San Antonio in 1993, what would be happening to literacy in the dead classrooms of all the teachers who sat around me on that packed plane with nothing, not even a magazine to read during a two-and-a-half hour flight. We truly kid ourselves if we think we can teach reading effectively without being readers ourselves.
I don’t expect a passion for writing per se since I find it a tedious task and try to avoid it whenever possible, surprising though that might seem coming from a ‘real’ writer such as myself. I do expect us as teachers to write something, however, when our students write, even if it’s only a daily journal for therapy or whatever, or a silly innovation on a song that the kids might find amusing, because I think we need to understand how hard writing is and why we do it: I mean, what is it for, this writing thing? If we write we will realise that what we crave most of all is a real response from real people, not: ‘This is a good story, Marian,’ scrawled at the end of a piece of work.
As writers, we want among other things to arouse an audience, touch emotions, cause laughter, record events, make statements, tell our lives, ask favours, and explore who we are socially and politically, and we ache for a response that has at least a dash of passion in it, as an indication that we have connected in a real way with our intended audience.
As well as a passion for books and an understanding of the need for passionate responses to real writing (as opposed to worksheets or comprehension-and-precis type activities) I’m pleading for a passion for effective lesson planning, away from the teacher guidelines and back to the kids and their needs. I’m asking teachers to plan their literacy events so well that their classes can run almost run by themselves, energised by the thrill of a kind of game, engaged in real social interaction and meaningful language.
I see the teacher at first preparing madly, helped by the children if she or he chooses, and then literally hanging loose as the plans proceed, cruising from group to group, listening to real conversations, reading and listening to real writing, and responding to the content of the children’s meaning-making with genuine care and interest as an equal not superior member of the class. I’m thinking of any events that will make the children awaken with interest, become engaged, and want to come to school:
• raising chickens in class, or even a snake
• saving the bilby
• making the room into a rain forest or a medieval castle
• putting on a play
• regularly visiting the mentally ill
• attending court once a week for a month before creating a court in class to try figures from history
• becoming a tribe with its own leaders and rules
• putting a recipe book together
• researching grandparents’ lives
• engaging in some necessary local civic action
• running a newspaper or radio program
• re-connecting through oral history the ethnic roots of the class and writing predictions for the lives of each student based on the realities of race and gender, and then dealing with the implications of those predictions.
• adopting and caring for an AIDS victim who might otherwise die alone.
The list is endless. A million similar ideas exist. Their inherent passions and the love that flows through them freshen up an often dry and meaningless education system, enabling it to become more affectively orientated and therefore also ultimately more effective, by capturing hearts so minds will follow; they make a school year like fireworks, not mud; they ignite an intensity of interest, a reality of purpose, an excited engagement and meaningful language development. They bring into the colder world of the classroom the same naturally warm and noisy energy that existed in Adrian’s and Sally’s families where learning to read and love books happened in spite of there being no phonics, no basals, no worksheets or spelling lists. They create a sense of community, like that of a family, with all its attendant realities of language use. They make teaching come alive and breathe passion on the windows of learning.
Finally I am asking teachers to be as human as parents. Parents, as we have seen in Helen and Luke, are such naturally good teachers that we need to copy what they do and how they behave. We need to emulate the affectionate attitudes and relationships of happy families since clearly kids learn to read in such situations more quickly than we can teach them to read at school.
We need to be real, in the way parents are real, not pretend that because we are teachers we never cry, howl with laughter, get furious, squeal with excitement or feel really depressed. Parents and children know about each other and share many different experiences. We should really know our students, not superficially know them. Similarly, our students should know us, I believe, and know about us, which includes knowing our first names even if they aren’t used. Loosening our passions to become more relaxed, to be more truly who we really are, can only enhance the environment in which we teach and in which our family of students learns.
I began with a series of questions and foolishly said that all would be revealed. But where are my answers? Can there be any firm answers? As thinkers about literacy don’t we always finish up with more questions than answers? My aim was not to answer questions but instead to readjust slightly the direction of our questioning, from cognitive to affective, away from the over-researched brain towards the unattended heart.
I know the Beatles said: ‘All you need is love.’ They were wrong, of course, but by now, I guess, you probably understand my drift.