Wednesday, 20 September 2017

"Want your kids to read?" asks Andy Seed.

The writer, Andy Seed, asks on twitter, 'Want your kids to read?'

He answers his question with:

1. Take 'em to library (or bookshop)

2. Let 'em choose


4. Read yourself

5. Read to 'em

6. Enthuse about books.

7. Have books around

8. Share/lend & give books

9. Match books to interests

10. Exercise the power of stories

11. Kids like fun: supply humour bks

12. Create quiet/avoid distraction

Friday, 8 September 2017

Statement from Minister for Telling Everyone That Things Are OK Really.

As Minister for Telling Everyone That Things Are OK Really, I'd like to repeat that inequality is not really a problem. Apart from anything else, it's clear that income inequality is coming down. This means that we don't take into consideration such things as tax avoidance, wealth acquired through rent, sale of assets and dividends from shares which has enabled people to become extraordinarily wealthy. But then we don't want people to focus on that sort of thing because it breeds envy. In the meantime I'm going to keep going on about how inequality is coming down, and life is getting better for all. Thank you.

My tour dates for 'So They Call You Pisher! A Memoir'

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Thinking about helping students to write?

Thinking about helping kids to write? 
(If you already do this, know this, just ignore what follows!) 

Hollywood have just produced a 'Lord of the Flies' with girls instead of boys. Forget whether it might be good/bad or not. It's a great way to get school students of all ages to write: just 'flip' or 'switch' an element of a story: e.g. one character/some characters/ all of the characters/one aspect of the setting/the whole setting...switch from animals to humans/vice versa - switch setting from e.g. earth to space, from one country to another....

This way you keep the 'syntax' of the story, while changing one or more of the 'paradigms'. You are doing the equivalent of changing 'The cat sat on the mat' to e.g. 'The dog sat on the mat' or e.g. 'The cat sat on the cat'....and seeing what happens.

It relieves kids from 'plotting' a story, it takes them into the idea that writing is partly about 'play', playing with the ideas, thoughts and texts that already exist and when you switch or flip, new thoughts, ideas and texts come to mind. They may well create new plots without even knowing they are, as they play with the paradigms.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Nick Gibb is going to stamp out verbal homophobic bullying

Nick Gibb says in the Mail that he's going to stamp out homophobic bullying including the discriminatory use of the word 'gay'. He wants to do that in schools. To do that he'll need to enlist the support of teachers.

1. This assumes that teachers don't do their best to discuss and eliminate discriminatory language.
2. It overlooks the fact that Labour councils and the NUT have over the years tried to take up issues of discriminatory language across the board. For this they got abuse and mockery from the Tory press and Tory MPs. This was part of the Equal Opportunities programme which was in the end ditched, I believe, thanks to the attacks.
3. Why has Gibb picked out one word 'gay' from the raft of discriminatory language? There are many words which are used to hurt and abuse and help construct a hierarchy of power of the so-called 'normal' over others e.g. 'lame' and many racist words.
4. I suspect another agenda here: cosmetic work by the Tories on their 'image' in the face of Corbyn.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Imagine a government commission on writing...

Imagine a government setting up a commission to discuss 'writing in primary schools'. 

Surveying the scene at present it would see that a key factor in writing were the SATs and in particular the GPS (formerly the SPaG tests at KS1 and KS2). (Translating the jargon here: the spelling, punctuation and grammar tests  for 6/7 year olds and for 10/11 year olds.)

These are a key factor because teachers have to prove that children reach 'expected levels'. These expected levels require teachers to teach aspects of the spelling, punctuation and grammar as part of what equals 'good writing'. To take some examples: teachers have to show that good writing includes using 'expanded noun phrases', 'fronted adverbials' and embedded 'relative clauses'. 

To be quite clear: anyone using these features is not necessarily a good writer. Practising how to use them doesn't necessarily lead to good writing.  

There is a long reason why we have reached this point and it has very little to do with grammar or 'good writing'. It stems from the fact that the government wanted to have what they thought was a foolproof system of assessing teachers and schools. To do that, they wanted a test which only had 'right/wrong answers'. The teachers would teach to the test. The teachers who succeeded in getting their children to pass that test would be 'good'. Those who didn't would be 'bad'. On that basis a school would be marked as not good enough (depending on the jargon of the moment) and could be turned from being a Local Authority school to an academy , or from an academy academy.

All this was put into writing between April and June of the year that Lord Bew chaired the production of the Bew Report on Assessment. Note it was 'assessment' not on writing! That tells all. It was that report which implemented the present regime of testing grammar which has led to these requirements in children's writing.

Clearly, if you create some key features in writing, which could be seen as crucial, then these can be ticked and marked and aggregated as marks of quality or failure. That's what all this talk of fronted adverbials, expanded noun phrases and embedded relative clauses is all about. It's simply about grabbing a bit of supposedly 'robust' or 'fixed' knowledge, applying it, so that it can be marked as right/wrong. 

But...the key thing here is that this 'knowledge' - grammar - is nowhere near as fixed as GPS testing makes out. You only have to read the last few pages of David Crystal's latest book, 'Making Sense, The Glamorous Story of English Grammar' to see how un-fixed a good deal of it is. And if Crystal had had the time to widen his perspective even more, he could have, say, incorporated the work of M.A.K. Halliday which poses even more problems for the definition of 'grammar' being applied with the GPS. (Halliday was keen to come up with a system of grammar that tried to explain why we say or write things and so wanted to include the 'social function' of language-use with his use of 'field', 'tenor' and 'mode'. It doesn't matter immediately here whether it was successful or not. What matters is that he raised the question of grammar being a result of social function and not, as some suggest simply and purely a system of rules and structures, in some kind of self-governing, self-ruling system.) 

So back to my imagined situation of a commission on writing. And let's say that it could be freed from any considerations of summative assessment but could and should include considerations of formative assessment. 

If it was truly open it would include experienced classroom teachers who were themselves still in a position to research classroom practice; teacher-trainers; people engaged in 'action research' either as teachers of teachers (declared self-interest here, that's me!), or as the researchers themselves; linguists, applied linguists, literary theorists, writing theorists...and writers (!) both for children and for adults. 

Over the last 40 years I've been engaged in several ways in these various fields and seen people from all these fields getting involved in how to help children write well. There's been hardly a week of school terms in that time I  haven't been involved in it myself, whether through trying to find ways of writing or performing for children, running writing workshops with children, writing about writing, writing about teaching writing, working with teachers getting them to write, running workshops with them on their teaching of writing, supervising students researching their own teaching to write/respond to writing...and so on. On the side, I've tried to keep up with trends in linguistics partly through the programme I present on radio 'Word of Mouth' and/or through reading books and research. 

This represents, then,  a mix of practical and theoretical approaches none of which I would claim as final or definitive or require applying universally. The teaching of writing has to take into considerations the strengths, experience and cultures of those participating in that moment - in short the teacher(s) and the children in that moment. 

That said, one immediate thing strikes me. There is a body of theory which hardly gets any mention when it comes to talking about teaching writing, and yet to my mind and in my experience can, if broken down into usable methods, contribute greatly. The areas go by the awkward terms like 'narratology',  'intertextuality', 'rhetoric', 'structuralism', 'figuration', 'pragmatics'  and the like. 

Narratology is the study of how writing is narrated or 'told'. It suggests that every piece of writing is not simply telling a 'what' but  has hundreds of strategies for telling it 'how'. If I use a term like 'flashback', that is 'narratological' as it describes that there is a moment in the writing where we go back to collect some information which the writer thought necessary or desirable. If I make a comment about the introduction of 'direct speech', 'indirect speech', what the protagonist was thinking at this point' - again that would be 'narratological'. If I draw attention to a 'digression' or a 'red herring', or how the introduction of a detail both 'reveals and conceals' at the same time, or whether there is 'first person' or 'third person' narration; whether I talk about the 'focaliser' of any given moment (ie through whose eyes do we see this event?) and so on and so on, these are all narratological questions.  Though the theorists of narratology have a gamut of terms to explain what is going on, nearly all of them can be explained by specific example, modelling and imitation. 

Intertextuality is the process by which what we say and write is based on, derived from and grows from previous texts. In the worlds of Roland Barthes, we write with the 'already written'. Again, this isn't just the 'what', it's also the 'how'. Everything we write derives from bits of what has already been written, we assemble writing out of the 'already-written'. It flows from this that learning how to write can indeed involve the enjoyment and close observation of the 'already written' - the jokes, the motifs, the openings, the closings, the narratology, the grammar - anything and everything. For this to be productive, I would suggest that it calls for an open-ended critical approach, inspired by trigger questions and themes as suggested in my earlier blogs here and by writers such as Aidan Chambers in his 'Tell Me' book. 

Rhetoric is the ancient study of phrases and figures of speech which are deemed to have a certain 'effect'. Whether they definitely do have that effect is much open to debate and indeed the teaching of rhetoric is best done where that debate is part of the process. There are books of rhetoric going back to classical times and there have been attempts to update them. One is by Sam Leith who is a journalist. The great fun with rhetoric is that it is very good for revealing the invisible intertextual nature of a good deal of public writing and speaking. 

Structuralism when applied to writing is the study of how different kinds of writing follow structural patterns. One of the most famous of these was by Propp who studied the structure of folktales. Another is Christopher Booker's book on the world's favourite plot structures and motifs. These become in effect a study of story 'syntax'. Given that 'syntax' is used almost in the same way as people use the word 'grammar', it's quite ironic that we've had the last few years been stuffed full of grammar at the sentence and paragraph level but people are rather reluctant to apply grammar or syntax to story, speechifying, argument, advertising, texting, tweeting and so on. What is clear is that every piece of writing has some structure or structures and/or syntax. These come from the 'already written'. When we write we use these structures, sometimes very rigidly (e.g. when writing up a scientific experiment) sometimes much more loosely (e.g. when writing an investigative feature for a newspaper where we might mix 'genres' of personal testimony, dialogue, imaginative invocations of the 'future', polemic, political reportage and so on). 

Figuration is the production of 'figurative language' - that is metaphor, simile, symbol, representative figures. This spans nearly all writing and is something we do as part of our daily use of idioms, cliches, proverbs and hidden metaphors. We can also do it as a studied way to make writing interesting, exciting, appealing, tense, disturbing...etc. Or we might do it as part of an ideological way of influencing people by invoking images from bodies of ideology from e.g. sacred or political texts of the past. 

Pragmatics includes the study of why we say things. This crucially involves questions of audience. This piece of writing you're reading now (this blog) is written in a particular kind of way because I'm anticipating that you're someone who is interested in the teaching of writing. That's because I've invented you in my mind as a teacher, a teacher-trainer, an ex-teacher, a teacher of writing in higher education, a writer who runs workshops in writing for adults or children. I have met hundreds, perhaps thousands of  you! You have been my company on and off for the last 40 years. As I'm writing this, I'm imagining you into my text. I'm imagining you reading this. This is causing me to make choices about the kinds of words I'm using, the kinds of sentences I'm constructing, the kinds of themes I'm raising and how I'm talking about them. We all do this kind of 'internalising' of the audience every minute of our lives when we're in the company of others, but also when we imagine how we might talk or write. In fact it's impossible to think of language without an audience because - this is crucial - the 'audience' (sometimes called the 'implied reader') is 'inscribed' on every word, phrase, sequence of words that we use or are going to use. This is, as I say, crucial. One of the farcical, nonsensical bits of writing-teaching that goes on implies that there is 'writing' which exists as a kind of stand-alone phenomenon, bearing no signs of audience. Pragmatics theory maintains that no such thing exists: the signs of audience are part of every thing we say and write. Some of this is historical in that virtually every word and expression we use, comes from a tradition which has had thousands of audiences' responses written into it. Some of it is directly of the moment in that it's about who is being borne in mind by the speaker or writer and who is envisaged by the speaker or writer as being of a particular psychological or social type. 

Taking these bodies of theory together, we can see that they are at least as important as 'grammar'. They can each be broken down into usable methods and questions and suggestions that teachers of writing and speaking can use. Many of us do exactly that. When a three year old asks me about the bear on the last page of 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' I often say, what do you think it's thinking?' Mostly they answer in the third person: 'he' or 'she' or 'it'. I will sometimes say (if I'm in a school), 'let's pretend to be the bear and come up with things it's thinking...' Then we start to speak with 'I'. With no mention of 'first' and 'third' person we enact right there and then a crucial bit of narratology: what's the difference between first and third person narration. Even with three year olds we can talk about how doing that pretending was fun or interesting. And once tried, it can be done again and again. Narratology as 'writing/talking' for three year olds. (I'm not pretending that this anything new. Teachers usually call it 'hot-seating' and I've learned from teachers how effective this is as a way of generating e.g. 'dramatic monologues' as a way of writing poetry or mini-dramas. )

Anyway, back to my imagined writing commission. If I was there, I would put these various ideas forwards as ways of helping us all help children write in interesting and effective ways. 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Imaginary TV programme to explain the hoax of money, deficit and low wages.

This is an imaginary TV programme.

First of all, they show national economics and financing as politicians and commentators describe it:
'balancing the books'; 'not spending beyond our means' and all that.

Perhaps this could be done with person sitting in a room doing his or her accounts and then going off to the shops and saying, "Oh no, I can't afford that...' 

Then it would show the 'Exchequer' - also as a room - and the Chancellor doing the nation's accounts. 

Now this would be quite different. 

1. To borrow money, the Chancellor would be seen to 'issue bonds' which people would come and buy off him. This appears on his accounts as 'debts' and 'deficit' (if it was the so-called gap between this year's expenditure and income). He needs to borrow money, he says, because a few years ago, the banks got in such difficulties issuing their bonds and lending money that they were all about to go bust. ( He purses his lips and tuts.) To help them out, the government agreed to take them over but this required him and his predecessor to 'issue bonds'. He doesn't like saying 'issue bonds'. He much prefers to say, 'borrow money' as this make him sound more like a household, and as we're all stupid, it's the only thing we can understand. 

2. In the next door room, the boss of the Bank of England would shout through to say that hey, good news, he was buying these bonds off the people who had bought them. We would hear that he was buying them for more than what the previous buyers spent, but hey, who cares? (Laughter all round.) We would see that he was buying them with money he was creating with his money-making machine (or by shaking the magic money tree, perhaps). He would announce that he's got the bonds now and this was great because there was now more money 'in circulation' which will really help people want to 'invest' in business. 'Win-win,' he shouts, though this particular part of his wish-list doesn't actually materialise. All that happens is that some extremely rich people get richer. In reality, the government is now in debt to itself. Really? Well, yes,  because the Bank of England isn't really as independent as people make out. They just juggle sums between them and 'the market' - the people 'out there' who are willing to buy bonds. If this looks like conjuring, that's because it is but we all like a good conjuring show. The TV show we are watching shows the Chancellor, the boss of the Bank of England and some people from 'business' juggling money, while the magic money making machine pumps more and more money into the juggling act. We love this. More, more, we shout, especially those of us carrying 'Vote Conservative' flags and Lord Mandelson. He likes this too.  

3. Some stern very rich people would now come in and tell the Chancellor that they needed two things from him: low wages and a small public sector, otherwise they won't be able to go on making business work.  It really doesn't matter if this is true or not. The point is, it's what these people always say. The Chancellor behaves as if these people are the Krays. In fact they are people like Sir Greville de Greville Greville from Greville, Greville and Greville, which owns Africa. 

4. The Chancellor would say 'And this will bring down the deficit?' Yes, say the stern, rich people but in truth they don't give a damn and anyway, the deficit is just a projection or invention or both. It's a bit like the Cheshire Cat in reverse. The Cat Cheshire, in fact.  It's there but not there. When it's supposedly there, people come on TV and say it's there. But when the Chancellor looks, it's not there yet. In a few years time, people look back and say, 'it was there' even though it wasn't really there then. The people on  radio, TV and in the papers, though pretend they are very afraid of the Cat Cheshire. They treat it as if it's real and that if we don't all treat it as real, Sir Greville de Greville Greville will come in and we will all be ruined, especially poor people. This is not about rich people saving their own skins. Oh no oh no. This is about poor people who need rich people to give them jobs. Otherwise they wouldn't know what to make. 

5. The Chancellor now goes on TV and says that he's been 'balancing the books' and 'we can't spend more than we earn' so people on low incomes must be on lower incomes. More flag waving from the flag-wavers and Lord Mandelson who seems to spend a lot of time in TV studios these days.  If people on low incomes don't go to lower incomes, there would be chaos and hell and armageddon. A lot of radio and TV and newspaper journalists write down, 'hell and chaos and armageddon' and promise to keep saying this, whenever the word 'government deficit' is mentioned. They get pay rises and offers of a seat in parliament or jobs as the Prime Minister's press secretary. Some revolving doors start to revolve. 

6. In the background the stern rich men nod and give thumbs up and go back to Africa where several countries are on the verge of bankruptcy whilst delivering $40 trillions-worth of precious metals, diamonds and oil to Greville, Greville and Greville.  

7. At the end of the TV programme, a grizzled bearded bloke and a keen woman from a think tank are asked to agree that this is all for the good. They don't agree with this at all. They try to say, (though they are interrupted with comments about the fact that the grizzled bloke is wearing an old jumper and why they are both in favour of violence) that if the government and the Bank of England can do this juggling to borrow money, why not spend that money on things that people need, like: wages, the NHS, schools, and the making of useful things like alternative energy systems? This would then not be 'lost' in the way that the bond issue and Bank of England magic money tree juggling system had done, but would increase the wealth and well-being of all. In fact, when people saw, say,  how these alternative energy systems were run with the people owning and controlling what was made (and how) people would start to ask questions about everything else...and how it's owned and controlled...and who for? Who do these systems of banking and manufacture benefit? And why?

8. Someone pulls the plug on the TV programme and normal service is resumed with a very experienced TV presenter explaining why running the economy is just the same as running a household  budget. Lord Mandelson agrees and says that the greatest danger facing this country today is the grizzled bearded bloke and the keen woman.