I have spent the summer absorbed, on and off, in the fictional world of Port William, Kentucky, created by Wendell Berry and populated by the variety of farmers, workers, lawyers, more farmers, drunkards and yet more farmers that occupy and farm the ridgeland, forests and “bottomland” along the Kentucky River. The countryside and the folk who live in it over a period of 100 years are described with deep affection and care – a set of stories (That Distant Land) that deliberately seeks the good and creative in people whilst not sparing their faults but treating them with compassion, rather than (as is the modern way) focusing on the perversities of human nature and blaming someone else for how they got that way. Freud does not get much of a look in in Berry’s stories. A godly view of people being created for good for the blessing of their community seems to prevail.
One of the earliest stories concerns Minnie Quinch, a young teacher, and much in the affections of one Ptolemy Proudfoot, a large farmer of whom it was said that no two hairs of his head ever consented to point in the same direction. Of Minnie Quinch, it was said that
she loved books, and she loved children, and taught children by introducing the one to the other.
This harks back to such an old world of our profession – the story was set before the First World War – but it raised in me a real sadness that somehow this part of our profession is less and less paid attention to, at least in English education.
As a teaching student, I remember hearing one of my tutors saying that she spent every summer reading at least 5 children’s books. I took her at her word (to begin with) and started reading Rosemary Sutcliffe, Leon Garfield, Walter de la Mare, Allan Ahlberg etc., but it did not last long. I was too interested in reading about all sorts of other things. But we had fun and we read books together at the end of the day. Who remembers Meindert deJong’s wonderful “The Wheel on the School”? This was our favourite for a whole term at my first school in Penrhos, with different children identifying with the characters as they ranged around a Dutch village hunting for a wagon wheel to put on the school so the storks could nest. Listening to children both read and reflect on their reading was one of the great joys of teaching them.
Then in 1998, the National Literacy Strategy arrived, allegedly “new” but not, and (sort of) rooted in some of the fantastic work of Marie Clay in New Zealand and New South Wales, where children would love literature together, reading together and giving confidence to a class that all could progress in reading. Except that last bit never seemed to get off the ground and because of it, some brave schools rejected the National Literacy Strategy completely. It turned into a skills-based, literacy-by-numbers (there’s a joke in there somewhere) approach – if it’s Thursday we must be on Word Level 3.4 – that sort of thing. Books were photocopied, cut up, rearranged and the love of them, somewhere, lost for a long time. All was about skill, little about love. It is hard to imagine now the loss of love for reading in the teaching profession at that time. We felt that if we were doing an hour a day of literacy, plus 20 minutes “guided reading” (with or without guidance) or phonics, it was an unacceptable luxury to add to the existing allocation of 7 hours a week literacy, a chance to sit around a book and listen, as much as our children clearly needed it.
Miss Minnie Quinch introduced her love of books to the children she loved. That’s all. Think of Laurie Lee’s awakening to the world of books in Cider with Rosie – an amazing revelation that transformed the world he lived in.
This week, I ordered a hardback copy of a book that the government produced the year I was born, 1959. It has the snappy title of Primary Education – suggestions for the consideration of teachers and others concerned with the work of Primary Schools. Despite this, it is one of the most important books written by the profession and those who love it, and contains riches of all sorts. I love the title of the final chapter – The Special Problems of Wales. You can see from this that it is very anglocentric, but nevertheless contains enormous wisdom and value, and the whole thing has been put online by the History of Education in England group. The section on reading and writing is particularly worth a look, but the best bit in the chapter on language is about what is called “The Arts of Language”, by which is meant story, poetry and drama – all expounded with a clarity unimaginable today. Here is the beginning of the section on story.
In all that has been said so far, much emphasis has been placed on children’s need to have something to talk and to write about. This material is to be found no less at second hand than at first hand, and great stories will not only enlarge experience but will also illumine and interpret it. The contribution of story and other literature is so often taken for granted that it is worth pausing to consider in some detail its value for children, for only if teachers know why they tell stories will they choose wisely and afford them sufficient emphasis. In stories, the youngest children seek an opportunity to learn about themselves, to explore their own situation without the strain of personal entanglement and to reconcile themselves to it. This is the justification for the homely story, for stories about children and their parents and the routine of the day. For all but the very youngest children, such a story needs detail if it is to be convincing. It is even more important that the world of childhood that is portrayed should be authentic and its dark places neither shunned nor falsified. The child is fortunate who discovers in a story his own problems of self-control and who first meets the sorrows of separation and death in the setting of a story rather than face to face. And if in story children explore themselves and their relationships, they can also find in story a respite and relief from present strains. The lonely child forgets his isolation in stories of friendship, and most children need from time to time to escape from the pressure and frustration of the moment into the fantasies of the fairy and animal worlds. Sometimes indeed children may flee too far into fantasy but often they are only escaping from themselves, as they are, to the characters they may become. In the religious story and heroic story they can see the possibilities that are open to them: they can see the weak triumph by faith and persistence and they can see failure redeemed by heroism; and as children identify themselves, now with one hero, now with another, suggestion can help to form – yet not constrain – the self which will finally emerge. From the interchange of roles which story offers to children, the beginnings of sympathy can grow – the ability to put oneself in another’s place and to appreciate new relationships and an unfamiliar material background. This is one way in which detachment can be fostered, the detachment without which imagination and perception will be distorted. It is moreover from stories and from example that the abstractions are bodied forth in children’s minds: good and evil become more than actions prescribed or forbidden; gentleness, truth and justice become ideals which can help to create the virtues they represent. Many of the greatest stories told in school are a world heritage, and others are the common property and bond of unity of those countries whose culture stems from Greece and Rome and Christian Europe. But we have a special obligation to transmit to children the stories of our own country, from which we derive much of our sense of community and national values, and which carry, in addition to their original meaning, the significance which the centuries have given them.
Of course skills are mentioned in this work, and of course there is (a small) reference to “standards”, but the overwhelming impression from this 360 pages of closely argued work is that of an urgent desire to bless and build young children within the community they are growing up. The role of parents in talking, reading and children’s education and development is fully acknowledged and the purpose of schooling given plenty of reasoned thought. There is a sense of transmission of value here, of developed and imaginative character, not just an equipping with skills, of a communal life contributed to, not a factory for adding apps to children.