Sunday, 8 February 2009

Yesterday’s LATE meeting

For reasons that are not greatly to my credit it’s many years since I went to a meeting of the London Association for the Teaching of English (LATE), but I turned up yesterday morning. In the old days LATE used to have the run of rooms in the Institute of Education for their Saturday meetings, or one or other poly. Now the institutions charge for rooms so LATE is dependent on the goodwill of school heads – which can actually be to the good: the school we were in yesterday, Netley Primary, was not just comfortable, with good rooms for workshops; it was also an uplifting example of education working well: the profusion of kids’ work on the walls and stairs, particularly art work, was inspiring. The main building was classic School Board for London, 1888 (I hope I've remembered it rightly), a type that in the original state could be scarily institutional, particularly the staircases (stone stairs, walls tiled below and painted above); but in Netley the stairs had been coated with a friendly reddish paint and the walls were white or cream and clean– and plentifully decorated.

It was a good meeting, I'd say 70 there. The theme was writing. Lots of good things in the opening and closing talks by S. I. Martin and Richard Andrews, but I want to comment here on some of the discussion in Sally Mitchell’s workshop. Sally was arguing for a view of writing as a way not just of showing understanding but of arriving at it: it should be generative, not just presentational. People in the group were sympathetic to that, but their interpretation of it seemed to be in terms of ‘thinking’ in essays -- understandably perhaps since Sally's examples were from university courses (Obviously, I'm just going by things that were said – I've no idea what most of us were thinking that never got said.) For instance, reading an essay one should have the feeling that by the end the writer was saying things that he or she hadn’t fully known on setting out on the essay.

Fair enough: I'd agree with that, of course, but I'd want to go much further and extend the notion of ‘thinking’ (or ‘learning’) through writing to include a wider range of mental processes such as making a memory sharper, imagining something more fully and getting a perspective on something. The sorts of writing from which we can emerge a bit changed include autobiographical narrative and description, stories and poetry, as well as essays. James Britton used to talk about writing and talking to ‘come to terms with experience’, which has an unfortunate suggestion of accepting some hard reality or compromising. Something like that, though, or ‘getting the measure’ of an incident or situation or state of affairs, really is what writing can do. Just getting something right, precise, ‘caught’ in words is of course also, because it’s so demanding, an effective way of getting more skilled in handling language.

In yesterday’s Guardian Review section Peter Porter, speaking of writing poems about his own life, said it was ‘a means [for the mind] of presenting the material to itself’. Just ‘getting it down’ right is ‘learning’ in itself; whatever the 'material' is has been brought into some sort of order, made to reveal its extent and shape. And this by no means applies only to distressing material – far from it: it can be getting the measure of how good something is and why. A lot of the best children’s writing of the 1960s (e.g. from the West Riding of Yorkshire – see Alec Clegg’s The Excitement of Writing) celebrated the pleasures of locality, family, friends, pets; or, with older children, worked out in imagination what it would have been like to be on a ship of the navy in 1805. (Cf Steve Martin’s exercises yesterday in looking at archives and imagining what it would have been like to be a South Asian sailor in the 19th century laid up in some God-forsaken London barracks.)

The essential thing that I'd want children to learn about writing is that it’s a means of exploration. And I'd like English teachers to be more aware that it’s in many sorts of writing and at all ages (or ‘Key Stages’ – hah! jargon! as opposed to Off-key ones?) that they can have a sense of discovery, realisation, having things get sharper.

I'd like to see a continuity, as well as the obvious leaps that have to be made, between the narrating and describing the kids do in Year 7 and the thinking and arguing they should be doing in their work on literature five and six years later.

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