Saturday, 26 January 2013

Find a Voice Not Read a Script: Looking for the Heart of English

I attended a fascinating debate at the RSA last week about what the priorities should be for a new English curriculum. The main speakers are all involved with Looking for the Heart of English. Before we heard from them, school student Kemal graphically demonstrated the power of English teaching in nurturing talent with two wonderful poems. Creative writing has changed Kemal’s life, he told us. And creativity emerged as the major theme of the evening. Everyone on the panel sees it as fundamental to good English teaching. English teaching helps young people find their voice, said chair Sue Horner, citing Kemal as proof.

David Reedy, President of the UK Literacy Association, discussed the need to develop independent and creative thinking. He said literature can and should be used to widen horizons, that good English teaching explores issues that matter and links explicitly to real-life purposes and contexts, that outcomes must seem worthwhile. An over-emphasis on phonics can lead to children not understanding the reasons for reading. Pupil participation, independence and choice are crucial. Reading for pleasure must be foregrounded. The whole school must value reading, writing and, vitally, talk. I so agree with all this.

Michael Boyd, former artistic director of the RSC, gave a passionate and compelling rallying cry for drama in schools and for arts education generally. He laid into Michael Gove’s EBACC proposals. ‘We are in danger of producing a generation who will be able to analyse everything but not know why’ he said. Cultural activities need to be mandated. The arts and creative opportunities must be available to all young people, not just those from privileged backgrounds.

We heard next from Chris Meade, co-director of the If:book, whose theme was the power of the digital word. ‘It’s not the paper, but the words we love’ he told us. ‘The word has been set free by the media.’ Libraries have outlived their usefulness, he implied, now that we all use new media to find information. (Most certainly not something I agree with.) But he warned that too much weight is given to the ‘bits and pieces’ of technology, rather than its potential, especially its potential for creative collaboration.

Roger Billing, head of Abbots Langley Primary School, spoke about the some of the ways his school promotes oracy, reading and writing. Children need a context for learning and literacy, and they need outcomes. Pupil choice and pupil engagement must be priorities. Billing is a big advocate of outdoor learning and literacy, and of e-technology. There were gasps when he mentioned the double-decker bus currently being fitted out as a non-fiction learning zone. (I was invited to the opening of the wonderful story bus, pictured here, at The Wroxham School, where he used to be deputy head, so this ws less of a surprise to me.)

The Head of English at Hayes School, Jenny Lubuska, outlined lots of wonderful strategies at her school to make English teaching creative, challenging and inspiring. There is a strong focus on independent learning and reading for pleasure. The Hayes Book Slam sounds great. Extra-curricular activities like debating clubs, poetry workshops, a journalism group and theatre trips complement the work in the English classrooms. I was particularly pleased to hear about the strong links between the English department and the library, and the value placed on student librarians.

Questions and points from the floor that elicited hot debate included grammar (important, in the eyes of the panel, but not at the expense of creativity, and must be taught in real contexts), and the opportunities for English teaching provided in multi-lingual classrooms.

What an great evening. Loads that was extremely pertinent to me as a trainer who specialises in children’s and young people’s reading.