The Voice of the People

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The dreadful news from Iraq, overtaking in its monstrousness even the deepening horror of Syria, has rightly recalled that moment eleven years ago when two million British people – one in thirty of the population – marched in London to protest against Blair’s leading the UK into joining the US to invade Iraq. The official rationale for this was to defeat terrorism! At the time, I wrote this poem addressed to Blair:

The voice of the people is heard in the land

We don’t want your ancient enmities

Your new crusade

Bin Saddam

We don’t want your paranoid scaring

Terrorism on a flying carpet bomb

You have to get them first

Before they square the Circle Line

We don’t want your puerile patronage

Head teacher of the universe

Calling out the naughty boy

To put away his catapult

We don’t want your ecclesiastical certainties

Giving the Pope an audience

Knowing God is on your side

We don’t want your gunboat diplomacy

Dealing with the other

As in the nineteenth century –

The time for that is past.

The people are ahead of you.

We are beyond

Final solutions.

March 2003

As always, Robert Fisk gives a good analysis of the inner dynamics of the latest conflict, especially its financing.   As he says, “Apart from Saudi Arabia’s role in this catastrophe, what other stories are to be hidden from us in the coming days and weeks?”

Feminism

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Why make a case for feminism?

It’s a banal assertion.

A special dispensation

For half the population?

Patriarchal culture

Makes inequity seem nature.

There shouldn’t be an issue.

Different, perhaps, but equal.

 

I couldn’t make my writing group this week, but the topic on which I should have written was Feminism.  I promised I’d write something for my blog, so here it is.   It didn’t take long, and I’m not really satisfied with it, but I don’t know how far my reticence in posting has to do with my fear of being misunderstood.  In saying that this issue is (or should be) a non-issue, I’m not denying the horrific “naturalness” of patriarchal culture, of which the young women recently gang-raped and then hanged in India are one recent instance.

 

The Male Line

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My father grew runner beans every year

in our suburban garden. Twenty plants saluted

each other, regularly apart. Too bright

for army green, their densely orange flowers

heralded dangling pods of seeded sustenance.

 

Today I grow beans in my urban garden.

The parade is shorter, but the line

stretches across the earth. Young green soldiers

stand waiting to climb their way to planthood.

A mundane approach to writing poetry

William Stafford is the author of one of my favourite poems, Traveling through the Dark.  According to his daughter, and to his own account, he used to begin his daily writing process by making notes about everyday matters: shopping lists and so on.  He sat alone in the early morning and wrote down whatever occurred to him, following his impulses. “If I am to keep writing,” he explained, “I cannot bother to insist on high standards…. I am following a process that leads so wildly and originally into new territory that no judgment can at the moment be made about values, significance, and so on…. I am headlong to discover.” 
We tried this recently in my writers’ group.  Lena had brought in some scrap paper with advertisements for lawn mowers on the reverse. Looking at these, she made a note that her husband “mowed the lawn yesterday.  He managed to get it finished between showers of rain, largely because he didn’t use the bag to collect the cuttings but just let them lie where they fell in clumps and streaks”.  I picked up the theme and after a bit of thought wrote a poem that is partly fictional (I don’t possess a lawn mower, or indeed a lawn) but develops the theme …

 

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Mowing

 

My father used to mow the lawn

With the Suffolk manual mower.

The blades rotated in their welded cage

As the grass flew into the cover.

 

He pulled it off the machine

And walked to the top of the garden,

To feed the cuttings to compost.

Each time he had to walk farther

 

As the mower progressed in its lateral course

Traversing the daisy-free turf.

When he finally reached the foot of the lawn

There was no more to mow. Only earth

 

Remained, to be fertilised

With the dregs of the compost bin

Filled with months of mowings

My father had thrown in.

 

My power mower returns the cuttings

To the earth in a fertile mulch.

No lifting or carrying needed.

I finish the job before lunch.

 

 

 

 

Children’s graves

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Recently, a dear friend visited for a few days.   During our first evening, when we were discussing what to do during her visit, she mentioned St George, a suburb of Bristol nearby. I asked her what her connection with this area was. After a brief pause, she told me that her first child, who had died at birth, had been interred in the Avonview Cemetery. At the time (fifty-two years previously), the hospital usually made arrangements, and the boy’s ashes had been scattered on open ground within the cemetery, overlooking the city.   My friend had been back to the spot many years before, but she felt that it would be fitting to return again.

The next day, we went to the cemetery.   As she remembered, it was very large and quite elevated. The taxi driver left us at the main entrance, and we walked up the long drive. Graves addressed us on all sides, mostly neglected and overgrown, some with broken memorials or paving. Some of the headstones had been laid flat on the ground for reasons of safety.

We turned left along a higher path.   I didn’t know whether my companion had any sense of the right direction, but after a while she turned through a gate into a small area behind a wall. This was the children’s graveyard.   The area was less than an acre in size, full of small graves, mostly stone and gravel, with vases containing flowers or colourful windmills. Children’s toys – usually figures of animals – were placed on many of the graves. The inscriptions on the graves revealed that in nearly every case the child’s life had lasted less than one day. Every one was maintained, most of them immaculately. A young couple were tending a grave not far from where we stood.

I found the sight almost unbearably moving, and stayed in the children’s graveyard while my friend continued to search for the spot where her child’s remains had been scattered. Why, I wondered, do we take such care with the memory of children whose lives ended almost before they began? It must be to do with the sense of lost potential, of unfairness. The adults commemorated by the broken graves in the main area had lived their lives. But these children had died before their parents. They had never had the chance to contribute to life, to receive love from others and to give their joy. Continuity was possible only symbolically. Their memorials would be maintained as freshly as the day they were created.

I understood, as I waited in the children’s graveyard, why the loss of a younger person is so devastating.   It is against the order of nature.   It represents the loss of the youthful virtue that refreshes and renews. Whether the loss is of one’s own child, a younger partner, or perhaps a young friend or relative, its poignancy is different from that of a deceased older than oneself who has lived out their life span.

My friend returned to tell me that she had found the place. It was, as she remembered, an open, grassy, gently-sloping hillside. It was the common ground, unmarked. There was no broken, neglected stone. A carpet of daisies formed a wide path down the hill.  Buttercups burst their deep yellow out of the long grass. Bright flowers had been tied to a young tree, in remembrance.

She stood in the field.

Afterwards, we walked to the main road, shared a lunch in a wholefood café, and caught the local train home.

A new dynamic in education research

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On a Saturday in May 2014, an educational research conference in a York secondary school was attended by well over a hundred people, the great majority of whom were practising teachers.   The conference organisers, researchED and the National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN), want to use research evidence to improve the quality of teaching and learning. More than twenty-five speakers addressed delegates in a programme that offered a wide choice of topics from ‘the learning brain’ through ‘classrooms as complex systems’ to ‘evidence-based teaching: making the prize a reality’.  All the presentations I attended were engaging and thoughtful, and I thoroughly enjoyed Debra Kidd’s drama-inspired way of demonstrating the complex systemics of the classroom (with respect to the teaching of reading, a particular interest of mine).

The means of communication and debate that united most of the delegates at the conference was neither membership of a professional association such as the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), nor an academic affiliation.   Whether or not they had met before, many of the delegates knew each other virtually through Twitter and shared blogs. Indeed, several used their Twitter hashtag to identify them on their name badge.   Most importantly, they were united by a commitment to learning how to become better teachers through grounded educational research. Prompt questions offered in the programme included: What is the evidence-base behind this speaker’s presentation? Is their point of view contested?   What further research do you need to undertake to ensure you have a balanced picture?

This is a world of virtual connection and debate by enthusiastic practitioners with a shared commitment to the well-being of their students. Existing networks need to consider how they can work with this new dynamic. Recently I have been working with Sarah Wilkin on the English in Education archive. The journal is 50 years old this year, and NATE has commissioned work to make the archive more readily accessible to members and others. Like the delegates at the York conference, the teachers and researchers who have written for English in Education over the last fifty years share a commitment to education as a means of supporting, developing and enhancing the lives of their students. The purpose of the journal is evident from its name: it is about language in education (not only the teaching of English), and many of the papers and debates have enduring relevance to the classroom. We shall shortly publish an account of the first fifty years of the journal and intend to supplement this by a new thematic database. We hope that this work will provide a source of ideas and evidence for teachers whose attachments may be less to traditional research and teacher networks than to the blogosphere.

Reunion

REUNION

I’ve never been very keen on reunions. I haven’t been to very many. I’ve often been invited to school and university anniversary events, but the longer I’ve been away from the institution, the less I usually want to return. The feeling of alienation that I had when I was a student only strengthens as time passes. And yet – recently, I went to a reunion that was very pleasurable.

It wasn’t a formal reunion: in fact it was the funeral of a friend’s mother. I’ve known David since I was nine, and it was Martin, whom I’ve known for longer (his house was opposite mine when were were growing up) who suggested I attend. He told me that two other school friends would be there. Neither of these I had seen for nearly fifty years. I had a particularly strong visual memory of T: tall and lean, with fair hair and a crewcut, he had been a runner and oarsman, and, like myself, good at English.

Martin and I stood outside the newly built crematorium chapel. We were early, but as people began to arrive, I noticed one crossing the grass from behind a line of cars: tall and lean, with fair hair and a crew cut. It is uncanny to recognise someone with complete surety after fifty years, but T’s athletic lope had also not changed.  I recognised J, the other former contemporary, but my memory of him was fuzzier.

After the funeral, conversation at the buffet was highly enjoyable. T’s partner joined in uninhibited discussion of life events of the last fifty years, and the conversation gave no quarter to the solemn occasion. T and I had both spent a number of years teaching secondary English, yet in very different schools. Martin, who had always been known for encyclopedic general knowledge, had reached the semi-final of the BBC Radio Brain of Britain competiton. David had reunited with a partner from whom had separated twenty years before, and she was there with him at the funeral.

It is not hard to say why I found this event so pleasurable. Despite my reticence about meeting again people I had known in the distant past, I have always loved the idea of reconciliation. The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are two of my favourite Shakespeare plays. Although my contemporaries and I had never formally parted, it was warming and strengthening to see them again.

Attachments formed during our formative years may sustain us in later times. Our identity is formed in relationship. To return to those relationships, with the wisdom and experience of fifty years of differing life trajectories, can be very nourishing.

And, yes, we are going to organise a formal year group reunion.

Playground Barbarism and Incessant Phonics

ImageWhat is it like to go to school for the first time in contemporary Britain?  Yesterday, the first episode of a CBeebies programme, Time for School, attempted to prepare young children for their experience of what the Guardian TV guide called “noise, glitter glue, playground barbarism and incessant phonics”.  For most of the programme, the camera stayed close to the ground to show the child’s perspective: the show was “a great way to ease tinies into their impending future,” according to the Guardian.  My reaction was that, if I were one of the young audience, any forebodings I might have had about the tedium and social control of the classroom would have been reinforced.

I’ve now watched the first three episodes of Time for School, and so far the children have been spared instruction in reading.  So why did the Guardian writer use the phrase “incessant phonics”?   It sounds as if they may have been extending their own child’s experience into that represented by the programme.   Certainly, recent years have seen incessant government promotion of “synthetic phonics” as the key to success in training young readers.   In April 2011, primary schools in the UK were offered government funding to match their own spending (up to £3000) on “materials which meet the Department of Education’s criteria for an effective phonics programme”, and, in September of the same year, the government announced that a new, statutory “phonics screening check” for all children in Year 1 would be introduced immediately, “to confirm that all children have learned phonic decoding to an age-appropriate standard”.   The overall aim is that children should learn phonics “first and fast”, and gain the ability to read even words they don’t recognise by decoding  grapheme/phoneme correspondences.

It would be interesting to know what such a programme of instruction feels like to youngsters – especially, perhaps, to those who start school with some acquired ability to read: an ability that is likely to be multi-faceted, involving contextual clues (such as pictures) as well as emerging grammatical understanding (such as recognising prefixes and suffixes).   I have recently been involved in running a survey of teachers’ experience of helping early readers.  About one in twelve of the survey respondents agrees with the assertion of the Department for Education that the ability to decode grapheme/phoneme correspondences is the first requirement for success in reading.  But the view of more than two-thirds of respondents is that, while phonic decoding is an important part of learning to read, other strategies are also vital. More than a quarter of respondents emphasise the importance of reading for meaning, and there is much concern that an overemphasis on phonics leads to an unbalanced reading curriculum in which other reading skills such as prediction and contextual information are not taken into account. In the view of many, a phonics approach leads to less able children “barking at print” while good readers lose motivation and fail to achieve appropriate assessment results. Some children, it is alleged, develop a style of “reading” that consists merely of phonic decoding. There is less time for reading stories and for listening to young readers, and more time is taken up by “teaching to the test”. In such classrooms, respondents argue, the overall quality of pupils’ literacy experience declines.

It sounds as if the Guardian feature writer might agree.

The full report is available on the website of the National Association for the Teaching of English: http://bit.ly/1eF7qhL