Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Our old houses

I doubt if this will be of any interest except to family and Bradfordians -- if them.

From birth to moving away to university I lived in three houses in Bradford (and in a flat for the first month or two – I think the address is on my birth certificate but I’ve never looked for the place).

The first was 314 Poplar Grove. The postal address was Great Horton, Bradford, but that title was dubious because we were on a hill in a new (1920s or 1930s) development on a hill above Great Horton, a village which Bradford swallowed in the 19th century. We were probably more like Wibsey, though that was less respectable.

There’s no way of making this a good picture. I took it on a dull day in 2002.

The house cost, I think, £700 in 1941 or 42. I'm sure that when I lived there it was even uglier. The pebbledash -- always an unpleasant material -- was a drab grey. There was a garage but it was wood or asbestos, across a passageway from the side door. It housed our Hillman Minx (1937?) which sat on four piles of bricks (‘laid up’) during the war. I remember my dad (back from the army) reinstating it, a process that I must be mistaken in remembering involved removing from the engine nuts or bolts that somehow attached themselves during the years of abandonment.

The front room window has clearly been replaced and the paintwork was brown, with a graining effect worked in the varnish by Mr Livesey. (In those days there was no such thing as white paint -- and I'm not sure it wasn't better that way. Houses were brown, maroon, dark green or dark blue.) The back garden was great: it had an Anderson shelter (I don’t remember going in it except after it was abandoned – Bradford wasn’t bombed), a lawn, a bird bath and black current bushes, and at the far end a gate into the snicket which gave access to the back gardens of a variety of interesting and mainly friendly neighbours. Next door lived the Hatches, and a few doors away Muriel Sagar, a teenage girl who used to look after me.

We had evacuees from London. I don’t remember their names (but have a vague sense that I do know and that they might come back to me) or how the arrangements worked, but they were a mother and a boy.

In the larder (separate from the ‘scullery’ – no such thing as a ‘kitchen’ in such houses) a blue enamel bucket contained eggs preserved in something called Isinglass). Our front room furniture was, I think, ‘utility’ – under-upholstered armchairs and sofas covered with some textile that was rough on the legs and with angular (cardboard?) arms. (The buses had ‘utility’ wooden seats.)

There were no houses at the other side of the road (which wasn’t made up -- I used to find interesting shiny stones on it) but a stone wall over which there was a sheer drop into a quarry. Later, in my next house, when I was 7 or 8, I learned to fear the Quarry Gang who lived below the quarry in the ‘slums’ and the Canterbury Avenue council estate.

For the next house, 12 Haycliffe Drive, perhaps half a mile away, I have no picture so will perhaps return to it another time. It was a similar semi, perhaps slightly bigger, but had the advantage of being two doors away from my grandparents (at no. 9, with Mr Grant in between and, during the war, Colonel Moholski) and having a field at the back with horses and sometimes pigs and the farm at the top end, above us. In my memory that was the best house. There was grey wallpaper with a white grid pattern.

When I was about 12 my grandma, now a widow, sold her house and joined us in buying a large Victorian end terrace down in the valley, in Manningham, off the road running out from the centre of Bradford to Saltaire. We were now three children, two of us at the grammar school which, with the move, was a short walk instead of two bus rides away. Devonshire Terrace (we were no. 5) was a gated, shabby-genteel cul-de-sac. We were the bottom house on the left.

The gates are long gone.

Next door was the elderly, confused, rouged, tipsy and unhygienic Miss Briggs, and two doors away the genial Geoghegan family with four boys – Patrick, Anthony, Philip and Ricky – and one girl, the youngest, Simone. Their mother was French and glamorous. The boys went to the (reputedly rough) Catholic grammar school, St Bede’s, and all did well. Patrick ended up in the Foreign Office, Anthony in the wool trade (Bradford’s thing), Philip became an architect and I don’t know about Ricky, or Simone. They were a smashing family.

On the other side lived another nice family, the Denisons.

We also had a back lane at the bottom of which was our garage and, behind that, a drop down to some allotments.

Like much of Bradford, these houses have been cleaned. In our time all stonework was black with soot -- as were the stone walls and sheep on the surrounding moors. Stone looked better like that, especially on the magnificent Victorian mills, warehouses and public buildings.

During my teenage years thousands of Pakistanis came to Bradford to work in the woollen mills. These families at first lived close to the centre of town but over the years spread out into areas with larger houses like ours. When I went past in November the occupants of Devonshire Terrace and the road it is off, St Mary’s Road, seemed to be entirely Asian.

Devonshire Terrace/Manningham never meant that much to me. My Wordsworthian Eden was Wibsey/Great Horton with its waste land, curving roads of pre-war semis, snickets, 18th century stone cottages, fields with black walls, hills, bad-tempered farmers in filthy raincoats taking rusty buckets to soaking horses in rotten wooden sheds, mills smelling of sheep’s grease, sinister mill dams, trams, the Cosy picture house – and above all Moor Fields, of which I've written here on other occasions.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Why stories are important

The importance of stories in education usually isn’t well explained. It's just this:

Stories give us practice in creating imagined worlds from words.

By ‘imagined’ I don’t necessarily mean fantastic. Imagining includes simply entertaining in consciousness scenes, situations, states of affairs, people, things etc. that aren’t immediately present to our senses in the surroundings we’re in at the moment. Bringing these ideas into consciousness is a creative mental activity, though not a deliberate one.

We don’t have to try to learn to do this; it comes with language. Once language has developed to a certain point, words arranged in narrative – stories – make imagined worlds appear to us without our having to try. So, presumably, what regular and developing experience of stories does is teach us to get meaning from, first, less familiar linguistic elements (language different from that we experience in everyday speech, in vocabulary and syntactical structures, for instance); second, differences of register and style (to ‘place’ one style you need to know many) and, third, more complex narrative structures.

In this respect – getting good at using words as instigators, props and organisers of imaginative work -- it’s equally beneficial to be read to as to read for oneself, or indeed to listen to oral stories.

(One of the inadequacies of educational theory – at least at the level it’s usually taught at – is the failure to distinguish what we get by virtue of simply being human (which we are by virtue of a particular biology and living in human society) from what can develop in us as a result of particular sorts of cultivation. For example: everyone (almost) can talk; it seems good in school to provide for the plentiful exercise of this capability; but what can school specifically add, by attentive and directed regimes of experience and activity, to the talk we can all do anyway?)

The essential is to develop the capability that we gain with language itself to have language induce imaginative work.

What this in turn depends on – the prior step, as the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky explained in the 1920s and 30s -- is an ability to attach our other-world-making to ‘signs’ in general. It’s our ability to find meaning in signs that enables us to find meaning in one sort of sign, words. Signs, in this special semiotic sense, are simply things outside us that we treat as signs – the smoke, for instance, that we see not just as smoke but as meaning the presence of fire. Signs are things that are there (in the real world outside us) that we use to bring into existence in the mind things that aren’t there, such as the idea of fire. Meaning is that relation between the thing outside that acts as sign and an idea inside us. The thing outside us can be a visual or auditory thing, such as the sound of a spoken word or the appearance of a written one.

Sign-use (‘symbolic activity') may start in play, as Vygotsky suggests, when a stick becomes a sign that supports the holding in consciousness of the meaning ‘horse’; or, more obviously in our society, with television images and picture books. Such signs are crucially different from the smoke/fire one in that their ‘outside’ or material component is made, not found (a distinction that St Augustine had already formulated).

For Lucy at age 1 a picture of a lion was more than one more item in the visual environment; it already had a meaning and provoked imaginative activity, giving rise to the meaning ‘lion’, which must have comprised primarily some sort of mental image. Already the picture was functioning as a sign, inducing her to imagine a lion – indeed to create the concept of a lion, since she had not seen one in a zoo and probably had no other basis to go on than the image.

Hence the importance of picture books in developing children’s capacity to use signs, whether visual or verbal, as instigators and organisers of mental activity – of imagining and thinking.

And later on stories – in words -- teach us not just to enter into more and more sophisticated narratives but, more fundamentally, to live in the sorts of world that are made possible when we know how to exploit the meanings that words can get us into. (In education we surely just have to trust that they just in general do this; it's nonsense to specify a 'learning outcome' for a single experience of a story.)

Comic strips, of course, are a terrific in-between form, though not just that. They provide a medium for the transition from pictures to words at the same time as teaching us to follow narrative structure. But they're also capable of creating worlds and realities that are particular to them and continue to exercise a special power even on adult readers.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Fragments shored up etc

Just to confirm I'm still here, more or less. No new photos.

What I have to say is just:

1. London beautiful in December, winter light. The best building in London, since cleaning and restoration, is the Festival Hall. Pure modernism: long horizontal windows, piloti, clean shape, not nervous about big expanses of flat surface. The back is the best view, now that the surrounds have been made lovely with paving and the masonry is pristine.

Much depends on the beauty of Portland stone. Contrast the concrete on the rest of the South Bank, which looks good at fewer times – and most of all when lit at night. The RFH cries out for photographs. I'll try and oblige.

2. I'm all for bikes in cities but they have one feature that can make them dangerous. I saw how today, off Chancery Lane (going to King's College library, the former Public Records Office, and another magnificent building, at least on the inside where it’s been restored and repurposed with flair and sensitivity – the finest library building I know, besides the British Museum Reading Room, Leeds University Brotherton Library (another rotunda) and the 17th century libraries of Oxford and Cambridge). Yes, bikes. One came out of side street into a more major road, causing a van to swerve to give him room – as the cyclist counted on him doing. The problem rarely spoken of is that cyclists don’t like to lose momentum: they value their stored energy and are reluctant to slow down because they’ll have to work hard to get their speed back again. Fit bikes with huge flywheels that could give them a starting boost in such situations.

3. I joined SofaCinema and ordered The World at War without quite realising that the DVDs would come one after the other, using up my whole monthly allocation so I'd be unable to watch anything else until I'd got through the whole series.

It’s great though. From the last episode I watched: a fed-up soldier waiting in a landing craft off the English coast ready to be towed in the next few hours to Normandy and D-Day. He comments cynically on the fatuous messages of cheer issuing from the top brass. Monty, brilliant but a fool: ‘God speed, and good hunting in the fields of Europe!’ Prat. One can appreciate how that went down with the fox-hunters of Wigan and the Gorbals.

One gain from the series: the name and music of Carl Davis, who I hadn’t heard of. The music you get at the start and end of each episode is haunting: thrillingly modernist and discordant with that tragic Central European note one gets in Bartok and Martinu, one to which I always mentally attach the phrase ‘the dark days of 1942’. But not without, too, a suggestion of the ‘broad sunlit uplands’.

I wish I could put a link so you could hear it, but of course it’s copyright. It’s at times like this, when a piece of music affects me profoundly, that I wish I had the musical knowledge to identify the features causing the impact.

I can’t get enough of World War II, while my inclination is to avoid anything about WWI. Is that because WWII’s in living memory – even mine, just; I remember my dad being in the army? Or because it isn’t done to death in school history, poetry anthologies, novels etc?

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Personal and positional authority

In interviewing former teachers about what English teaching was like in schools in the period from the end of the war to 1965 we’ve heard that in the 60s, if not earlier, there was a divide in approaches to teaching working class children.

This isn’t news, of course; it’s the divide to which the terms ‘traditional[ist]’ and ‘progressive’ have often been applied. It seems to have been real: while the first group favoured strict control over classroom behaviour, silence from pupils except when answering questions or reading aloud, the explicit teaching of grammar and, perhaps above all, an emphasis on correctness in written English (grammar, punctuation, spelling), the second believed that above all pupils should be encouraged to put their thoughts, observations and experiences into words, and thus become confident and articulate in speaking and writing; the best way to get language working in a motivated way (self-motivation -- i.e. interest -- was crucial) was to encourage discussion and writing about topics that engaged them; that often indicated topics from their own real lives.

The latter is the line that was promoted to graduate trainees on PGCE courses, first at the London Institute of Education (Britton, Rosen, Martin) and eventually nearly everywhere. But the argument put to us in some interviews is that it was middle class Institute graduates who as English teachers carried their respect for the language and culture of their working class pupils to the point where it placed in jeopardy the pupils’ chances of passing O Level and meeting employers’ expectations. Those who made this argument were non-graduate teachers of working class origin who had won their education and qualification the hard way and who wanted to give their own pupils what they needed to get on.

I was one of the Institute-trained graduate teachers to whom such criticisms might have applied. There is truth in them in that we did believe that an ability to express oneself in language -- to generate discourse, written and spoken, that used linguistic resources to good effect -- was more important initially than Standard English grammar and correct orthography. And if ‘initially’ meant ‘until they could express themselves effectively in language apart from the written conventions, that period might well not end until after the age (16) at which the public exams were sat.

According to linguistics, we maintained, no variety (dialect) of English is inherently better than another but only looks that way because of what it is used for and by whom -- for the communications of those who run things. We therefore regarded the imposition of standard grammar on non-standard-speaking working class pupils as, ultimately, class oppression, and O Level’s stress on grammar and spelling as an unjustified barrier to working class advancement into higher education and professional careers. (Hence we championed the proposed CSE -- Certificate of Secondary Education – which we saw as both more permissive in respect of conventional requirements and more reliable in terms of sampling candidates’ general written abilities.) Maintaining these beliefs was, I still think, more or less right in principle: if English teachers weren’t going to oppose the stupidity of the old O Level -- which had to be seen to be believed -- who would? We may, though, have put them into practice without enough thought for the consequences.

Some brilliant English teaching was achieved by both camps, and teachers from both retain to this day the respect and gratitude of former pupils, as we’re also finding in our study. The practices of each were sometimes caricatured by the others; good teachers from both sides got good exam results. The traditionalists made reluctant and lazy kids work; the progressives sometimes got them interested enough to choose to work under their own steam; both sides failed with many kids who just didn’t want any of it. It’s also true, though, that students who were engaged by each type of teaching got a different education out of it – but that’s a story for another time.

Was it caricature when they said we were experimenting with working class kids, in a way we couldn’t have got away with in middle class grammar schools? Perhaps; but experiment was badly needed. The men and women who trained us at the Institute had themselves been pioneers in drawing attention to the resources and often the poetic beauty of working class speech and the qualities of children’s writing, and, a bit later (Rosen in particular) the way that it often fulfils functions of abstracting and theorising within its familiar frames of narrative and enactment. English teaching had never hitherto attempted to treat the qualities of vernacular language as a resource on which to build, and we needed to work out how to. Our experiments were about creating new possibilities for students to put their native intelligence and linguistic capacity to productive use, to the end of getting into both more analytic and more literary forms of discourse, and of coming to grips with school knowledge. We were pioneering forms of learning that were viable alternatives to just ‘being told’, and made to work, by a strict – if sometimes charismatic -- teacher.

But if we ask how many of our pupils in a working class school with hardly any ‘grammar school’ intake we got into that ‘more analytic and more literary forms of discourse’, we have to say, not many. But did the others do any better?

We Institute graduates, I believe, knew more about language. We saw more in the children’s language than those without that training, who often missed the qualities on which one could build, seeing only correctness or its absence, and perhaps a good word (‘Nice adjective!) or turn of phrase here or there. We got excited about what the kids were able to achieve in relatively informal genres of writing and in discussion -- perhaps so excited that we were apt to forget the huge gap that remained to be bridged between those achievements and the level and type of linguistic virtuosity, as well as conventional competence, that were demanded for higher education and professional employment.

But there was something else behind this split, and it went deeper. At some point on the PGCE I learned (from a Bernstein lecture?) a distinction between two types of authority, positional and personal. Positional authority derived from a person’s position, such as mother, grandmother, teacher, police officer – or, in relation to children, adult. Personal authority was accorded to a person on the basis of personal qualities. The working class non-graduate traditionalists I've been referring to tended to exercise positional authority: they may have cared for the students and liked them, but they expected the outward forms of respect and formal modes of address, and maintained a distance. This form of authority was held to be consistent with that found in typical working class families.

Some teachers like me had come from homes where authority was often more personal and, as we saw it, more humane and less demeaning. For my university-educated generation it went against the grain to make demands by right rather than negotiate and reason; we wanted pupils to go along with our regime because it was clearly reasonable. In our own grammar schools we’d experienced plenty of traditional authority exercised in a curriculum and pedagogy that often made little sense, and we’d had enough of it. We weren’t going to treat kids like that and didn’t want positional adult authority, though of course we often had to fall back on it. Culturally, too, we often felt closer to the kids than to our older colleagues – and in those days a high proportion of the teachers was a lot older.

To the argument of the traditionalists that working class children needed positional authority (showing respect etc) because that was what they were used to at home, our answer would have been that our duty was to liberate young people from unthinking obedience and teach them to make their own minds up. If they were to become rational, autonomous learners they had to be treated as such. That implied our starting from a position of initial respect for what they brought to school with them by way of language and values, though we knew that in the end it wasn’t enough. Better to begin that way than to tell them theirs was not to reason why but only to get on with learning what they were told, the reasons for which they’d appreciate later.

Our intellectual position seemed and seems quite strong, though what lay behind it was as much a generation’s sense of itself and its role in progress as a rationally worked-out principle. But I think, too, of Mr Twelves’s teaching (see my earlier posting, 5 January 2008 ), and of all those European biographies of poor boys who got into gymnasium or lycée and thrived on the beauty of abstract disciplines and of language far removed from that normally experienced.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Signs along the Thames

I wrote this one before the world collapsed and wasn’t able to post it. It’s strikingly out of date now the season has truly changed, earth is hard as stone etc., but anyway here it is...

SURBITON, where I live, is boring but the river, ten minutes from the flat, compensates. Along this side a ‘promenade’ (wide asphalted path with seats bearing plaques naming dead Thames-lovers) goes down to Kingston-upon-Thames, 15 minutes away. If you cross Kingston bridge you can walk up the opposite side to Hampton Court.

This morning [a couple of weeks ago] I did this side, but it was cold, damp and uninviting. The other day, though, [even longer ago] late in the afternoon it was exhilarating. Most of the photos I took aren’t worth showing. The tall trees (poplars and horse chestnuts) the line the other bank are wonderful but I've never got a good shot of them. Against a winter sky they were magnificent, one with a single crow perched heraldically on the topmost branch.

The last good time along there was earlier in November, when autumnal mistiness reminded me of the smoky days around Plot Night (November 5th, Guy Fawkes night) when we kids were out gathering wood for the bonfire (chumping, it was called). This week it’s winter, the trees are bare and the skies and water dramatic.

My only sub-half-decent photos:

Whenever a scene in nature seems charged with significance (that crow was clearly a sign), a response learned no doubt from Romantic poetry (though what about ‘the crow makes wing to the rooky wood’…), I think of the poetry of Peter Huchel, translated by Michael Hamburger. I found it in the 1960s in, I think, a Carcanet anthology, East German Poetry in Translation, or perhaps in the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, and used it in teaching. One of my favourites (from the new Anvil Peter Huchel: The Garden of Theophrastus) is ‘Swans Rising’. I don’t read German but love reading it opposite Hamburger’s translation.

Out of the woods

New hard drive, new internet provider, new phone, the lot. I think I'm finally back in business, thanks to efficient help from both the public sector (Saif, the IT guy in our department at King's) and the private (Apple, Carphone Warehouse). In main Apple Stores you can book a session with an Apple Genius (yeah, I know). I don’t know if they’re geniuses but as well as being intelligent and knowledgeable they’re uncondescending, helpful and nice. In stores like the one at Kingston you can observe with hope the reversal of the usual education scene: at the long tables down the middle middle-aged and older people attend deferentially to the advice of young men and women in Apple t-shirts.

Carphone Warehouse (and the mobile phone companies generally, I gather) have terrible systems that make life difficult for their staff, but the people in the Surbiton branch, and one I've used earlier on Tottenham Court Road, are, like the Apple guys, smart, understanding, cool and friendly. It’s actually a good experience going into one of these places, unlike, say, Marks & Spencer or Ikea (no staff to be found).

If only what Apple and Carphone (and King's at times) knew about appointing the right people for customer (and employee) relations could be taught to all public and private organisations, how much pleasanter and easier modern life would be.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Blog problems

Sorry for the gap in service -- big computer problems at this end. I'm hoping my visit to the Apple Genius Bar in Kingston tomorrow will get me out of them.