Primary Musings

thoughts of an every day teacher


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Telling Stories

‘Since it is so likely children will meet cruel enemies,
let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.’  C.S. Lewis

*****

On my kitchen windowsill sits a little plant. It was given to me two summers ago by a kind parent whose child I taught. I am terrible with plants. I neglect them or over-water them and they dry up or drown. I can’t quite believe this one has survived so far. After all, I am teacher, not gardener.

*****

This year, my class have felt, at times, like a tiny microcosm of the world. They don’t gel as a group. They fight and argue, unable to see another’s point of view. Some are in desperate need; life has not provided them the right conditions to blossom. Some are trying to navigate their way around a world that seems so alien to them. Some are highly anxious. There have been bright spots, to be sure, but there has also been selfishness and a lack of empathy towards each other.

It is my task to shepherd and tend, to nurture and teach them. It is up to me to create cohesion and community. So I have gathered this disparate little band of children around some carefully chosen stories.

According to theologian, Walter Brueggemann, stories provide us with a ‘fund for the imagination.’ They offer a shared experience from which communities can be shaped and created. Stories let us renegotiate the world, reimagine what it could be like, and hold a mirror up to the consequences of our choices. They create common ground through powerful shared emotions. You can see this in faith communities who  gather round sacred texts, retelling their defining stories, year after year, to remember who they are and why they are here. You can hear it in families who tell their stories over and over, until people have recast them as their own memories, even though the events happened when they were too little to remember. You can notice it in young children who want the same book or film over and over again as they internalise the story and use it as another building block to develop their understanding of the world. You can find it at concerts, where thousands of fans unite around singing their favourite stories; those words, that music become part of the fabric of who they are, joining them to something bigger than their own lives.

You can find it in my classroom, too. We’ve laughed together at The Twits, begged justice for Fantastic Mr Fox, learned how to build a Dragon Machine, been awed by On Angel’s Wings and now we have landed in Narnia. Father Christmas has been and left us gifts to do battle with our enemies, gifts that show us how to call for help and how to heal. And we are coming back after the holidays to find out if spring and Aslan really are returning to defeat the White Witch. It seems we have never needed out stories more.

*****

Meanwhile, back on the windowsill, my little plant has burst into life, blooming unexpectedly, right in the middle of winter.

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Becoming readers

Reader, we finished it.

If you read my last post you’ll know I was reading The Island with my class and had stopped at a crucial point in the narrative. It wasn’t a happy ending and we talked about how nobody had really won; not the islanders, with their huge walls, insulating them from the outside world; certainly not the main character, shipped back out to sea to face his fate.

It led into all sorts of conversations about how we blame an entire people group for the actions of one member. My class of majority Muslim children needed to talk about why people blame Muslims for terrorism. They needed to discuss preconceived ideas they might have about other people from different faiths or no faith. They needed to find similarities between us all, and how we’ve all been judged by people who don’t really know us. They wanted to talk about how that would feel and times they might have been doing the judging themselves. We talked about how the myths and lies grew up about the man in the story and how you can’t always trust what you read in the papers or online. It felt like we were discussing the weighty things of the world that actually matter, because we were.

Then we closed the book and left it there. Interestingly, I had borrowed it from a colleague and the children were upset when it had to go back. From my perspective, it was hard to leave the story without doing any follow up work, but it felt right. Because at the end of the year they have become children who can be entrusted with a great text. They can be trusted to do the work of finding their own meanings, and making their own connections with it. They have become children who are responsive and thoughtful, willing to think about how a text might shape their own lives.

They have become readers.

 


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Reading at the coal face

It’s been a roller-coaster, this penultimate week before the holidays. The children and I have been full of emotions, some joyous and some more frustrating. Mostly we are all plain exhausted!

One of the more noteworthy moments came at story time. The referendum has revealed some interesting attitudes in our children and wider community and so I had been looking for a way to tackle these. A colleague recommended two books, The Journey, by Francesca Sanna, and The Island, by Armin Greder.

The Journey

The Journey is a beautifully told tale of a family whose life is engulfed by war, so they have to leave and go to another country. We talked about what that might feel like, linking it to our own experiences of journeys and migration. Most of my children have family born somewhere else, or were born in a different country themselves, so it was easy for them to relate to. At the end of the book, there’s a lovely connection made between birds and people who migrate, and we are left hoping the little girl and her family find a better life in their new country.

51MfWj7HYfL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_Straight afterwards, we began The Island, a much darker story. A stranger is found washed up on the beach and the text explores how the islanders treat someone who is not like them. The children’s reactions were incredible.

“But he must be cold, with no clothes.”
“He’s just hungry, he’s trying to talk to them.”
“Why are they locking him up? He hasn’t done anything wrong!”
“Why are they telling bad stories about him?”
“They’re treating him like an animal!”
“Miss, that’s what some people say about the Romanians that live round here.”

 

We got to the point in the story where the islanders have tied the man up and are waving their pitchforks at him threateningly. How must he feel? Is he scared? What will happen next? Are they going to kill him?

At that moment, the bell rang for lunch, and the children sent up a great wail. “Noooo! Don’t stop! Don’t close the book!” But I did, and we are left on tenterhooks until Monday.

*****

A brilliant article by Frank Cottrell Boyce in The Guardian, makes this observation about reading:

Hockney gave him this astounding image. Think of it, he says, the sun pours down its energy onto the surface of the planet for millennia. The leaves soak up the energy. The trees fall and turn to coal. Coal is solid sunlight, the stored memory of millions of uninhabited summers. Then one day, in Coalbrookdale, someone opens a hole in the ground and all that stored energy comes pouring out and is consumed in furnaces, engines, motors.

When we – teachers, parents, carers, friends – read to our children, I believe that’s what we’re doing. Laying down strata of fuel, fuel studded with fossils and treasures.

This perfectly describes what I’ve been trying to achieve with my children all year. I have begged and cajoled my way into filling up our bookshelves with new, exciting reads. I have scoured Amazon for the best, most high quality texts I can find to stimulate our thinking, learning and enjoyment. I have worked really hard to find funny, interesting, engaging books to match the individual interests of my most reluctant readers.  We’ve laughed and cried and been impatient for the next chapter together as we’ve read. And it has paid off, big time. At the end of the year, when we are tired and frazzled, this little community of children gathered round me and found refuge, challenge and transformation in two stories. All I had to do was open the pages and read, and they were right there. Hooked. They were making connections with their world and the narrative world; noticing the difference between their values and the values of the characters; empathising and evaluating; reflecting on the attitudes and behaviours of their own community through the story.

We’ll finish the book next week. I was going to ask the children to create some pieces of work in response to the text, but I have been challenged by Cottrell Boyce’s idea that reading to children, laying down this strata of fuel for them, is an act of generosity. He argues that if we ask for anything back, we burn the fuel off too soon. It’s an interesting thought. In school, we don’t always have the luxury of just leaving the text to do it’s own work, and I’m not sure I would always want to. But this week, I can. We will read the rest of the story and discuss whatever comes up. Then I will leave it with them, another layer of ‘solid sunlight,’ stored energy, full of treasure and fossils, ready for when they need it most.

 


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Songs of Innocence and Experience

My Mum taught me to read,
She sowed that seed before I went to school.

Voraciously, I consumed
The Magic Faraway Tree, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven,
The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, The Silver Sword,
Anne of Green Gables, What Katy Did and all the other Little Women,
Bronte, Eliot, Austen.
I breathed in letters, psalms, gospels,
Grew roots, nurtured faith.

Then this:
What were a couple of books you read that destroyed your childhood innocence?
And I called to mind the teenage me,
For the first time, reading
Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Fay Weldon, Harper Lee.

These stories were acts of hospitality,
Inviting me into a community of women,
Whose fictional truth took some innocence,
(Once you know, you can’t unknow)
Replaced it with some experience,
(And maybe some small wisdom).

I have never been a black woman,
Never had my life turned upside down by prejudice, never lived in slavery,
I have had health care, a good education, the right to work, a functional family.
But I have been a woman.
I have been ridiculed, over-ruled, talked down to, touched inappropriately.

And these stories were acts of hospitality,
Inviting me into a community of women
Whose truthful fiction gave me somewhere to belong,
People who knew my song and sang it back to me.

*****

My Mum taught me to read.
Before I went to school, she sowed that seed.