It's true that some teachers may have been cautious of privileging certain 'knowledge' because of its associated attitudes and values; they may have been anxious not to erode children's confidence in their home cultures; they may have helped children question what knowledge was most important for a modern, international society, and asked them to think how that knowledge might be applied for the increase in social justice. But it's false to say that skills have been fostered in a vacuum or that children have been deprived of any cultural perspective other than that with which they came to school.
As E.D.HIrsch says in his book, 'The Schools We Need' (2010), polar extremes and dichotomies are common in education, but not always that helpful. We all know that some people find it politically useful to exaggerate and portray as 'enemies' those who hold different views. It's not an educated or open-minded position, but if you're playing to the gallery, it can be usefully divisive - for a time. However, the truth about human beings - and teachers are a very good kind of human being - is that their behaviours are usually more complicated than such simplistic caricatures would suggest. 'The truth is rarely pure and never simple.' (The Importance of Being Earnest: Oscar Wilde)
Similarly, although I have written of the benefits of freedom, and NWP groups have listened to and grown their own cultures, the project also values research (Digested Reads) and recognises the value of responding to ideas from elsewhere (see Writing ideas). Indeed, our fourth principle is that writing approaches should be 'free AND STRUCTURED' (Background and principles). There is much to be said for getting to know how others have shaped texts for different purposes. And there are many ways of doing that. Here are some writing exercises to explore different voices, cultures and structures in the work of variously canonised authors:
- write 'tongue-in-cheek' or rant in the style of others (Swift's Modest Proposal)
- focus on grammatical word-classes (remove adjectives and adverbs and tighten the verbs and nouns; write a story in ten nouns; expand nominalisation until it breaks e.g. the Birmingham traveller education conference delegate pack and pencil)
- explore the contexts and connotations of colloquial phrases : 'What am I like?' 'I can't be doing with that.' 'That's neither here nor there' (cf Seamus Heaney's 'Postscript')
- tauten the formality of prose for effect by deliberately employing Latinate vocabulary ('circumlocutory diction' rather than 'waffle')
- employ the empowering rhetorical devices of Cicero and Quintilian - divisio, confirmatio, rogatio (all much favoured by politicians); or Richard Sherry's 'isocolon', the symmetrical phrase; or the extra weighting of the teleuton - the last word in the line (as pointed out to me at Arvon by Don Paterson in 2012)
- construct maxims in the style of Dryden (someone's favourite): 'Short is the date of all immoderate fame.' (now there's an apposite quotation!)
- try choosing Anglo-Saxon when you want to speak straight to the heart (Kevin Crossley-Holland)
- experiment with voices and register in the style of Donna Tartt (see below)
- attempt pastiches and parodies - from Chaucer to Plath through Shakespeare and Austen
- create new texts by responding to Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress'/Jenny Joseph's 'When I am Old'
Indeed, the writing workshops at the LATE/NWP conference at Goldsmith's on May 10th 2014 will use 'knowledge' of the words of other authors - both those within the 'canon' and without. (Please come along and take part - there are still a few more places for teachers - and it's free! Book online at LATE.)
I was interested to read in the recent Ofsted report on Toby Young's West London Free School that, although the school is judged good, it would be even better if teachers marked children's books more frequently and attentively. Things are seldom entirely good or entirely bad - or, Toby, malum quidem nullum esse sine aliquo bono if you prefer; but it's generally a good thing, whatever 'cultural capital' you share with children, to connect and listen to children's own cultures. They'll be more engaged that way and not alienated as Sissy Jupe was in 'Hard Times' (Dickens) by Gradgrind's fact-bombing. And one of the benefits of being open-minded to what children bring, is that you might learn something new! Gradgrind wasn't the only one who would have benefited from listening, Toby. Or, to put it another way: Qui habet aures audiendi audiat.
Of course it's useful for teachers to introduce children to facts, but, as we know from NWP groups, when teachers re-position themselves as learners, and acknowledge the complexities of themselves and the difficulties of writing, their teaching becomes more responsive - and the children make more progress. That means that standards rise, Toby; standards rise.(That's anaphora or repetition.)
Finally, please listen to Jeff Wilhelm from the US NWP. He explains the many benefits of teachers gathering together to reflect on their practice and to write. Simply click on this link.
It would be so good if we could strengthen the teaching of writing in the UK in a similar way - and strengthen ourselves at the same time. If you're a teacher of writing, please think about joining us.
NWP outreach director
from 'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt
This is the moment in chapter 10, part 4 (p.526), when Theo is being introduced to the social set of Kitsey, his bride-to-be. I like the way the prose gives a sense of Theo's detachment as it drifts between Theo's narration and the voices of Kitsey's friends:
"... The constant invitations and gatherings were wearing me down: brightly-shifting whirlwinds of her friends, crowded evenings and hectic weekends that I weathered with my eyes squeezed shut and clutching on for dear life: Linsey? no, Lolly? sorry ... and this is - ? Frieda? Hi, Frieda, and ... Trev? Trav? nice to see you! Politely I stood around their antique farm tables, drinking myself into a stupor as they chatted about their country houses, their co-op boards, their school districts, their gym routines - that's right, seamless transition from breast feeding although we've had some big changes in the nap schedule lately, our oldest just starting pre-K and the fall color in Connecticut is stunning, oh yes, of course, we all have our annual trip with the girls but you know these boys' trips we do twice a year, out to Vail, down to the Caribbean, last year we went fly-fishing in Scotland and we hit some really outstanding golf courses - that's right, Theo, you don't golf, you don't ski, you don't sail, do you?"