The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Monday, June 21, 2004

In the absence of most of my students (exam season), and inspiration (exam season), I've been reading the introductions to some of our set texts. Last Saturday I saw Willy Russell giving readings from his work, and wanted to see if I could read his introduction to 'Educating Rita' in an approximation of his broad liverpudlian accent, when I was struck by an aside of his about how 'silent reading' lessons in his 'poxy state comp' gave him a weekly hour of refuge from the jeers of a peer group who did not do books, and therefore saved him from a future in the local warehouse.

You see, we've outlawed 'silent reading' here. We're to teach a range of reading skills, which seems to involve exclusively reading extracts from photocopied sheets, from projector screens, and from comprehension books (which were a dirty word when I trained to teach, indicating an impoverished, partisan, abridged experience of great truths.) It's thought that 'silent reading' isn't really teaching, that few staff take seriously their responsibility to keep up with children's literature, or to offer tailored recommendations to children.
I miss the days, though, of enjoying books with classes. The accusations about teaching are valid - but school is not in this case about teaching. It's about learning.

Being myself from a 'poxy state comp' with an anti-boffin culture, and also having escaped via adult education and realising almost too late the living death sentence of the unchallenging job, here are some of the books that changed everything for me before I hit eighteen:

Diana Wynne Jones - Drowned Ammet - taught me that the balance of power is not always what it seems, that reality as perceived may not be reality as lived. Important and empowering message for a teenager.

Shakespeare - Macbeth
- where I first found out about pathetic fallacy, and to look for clues about the nature of things in nature. This play showed me there are patterns in everything, if you can be bothered to look hard enough for them.

Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird - taught me it's possible to love something you hate, just for its familiarity. It also taught me tolerance of others is its own reward. Which greatly aided my fast burgeoning teenage solipsism.

Thomas Hardy - late poems - taught me that the shape of things is sometimes the message. I recall basing a theory on the fact that the layout of a poem reminded me of the Titanic's iceberg. And therefore showed me how the study of literature is a great, bona fide way of legitimising silliness.

Kurt Vonnegut - Breakfast of Champions - the first book I'd read with a truly associative narrator. Taught me the distance you can gain by looking at your own culture as if it were a hive of insects, and analysing it as if you're an anthropologist. Gave me distance, at an age where everything seems a little too important.

William Faulkner - As I Lay Dying
- switched me on properly to how American writers were quite literally exploding the novel form in the mid twentieth century, and revealed to me ways in which literature can suggest the heart of the human experience - (here revealed in Addie's sublimation of a life lived for others through a grim and steely selfishness in death.)

I couldn't honestly describe to you a single lesson I sat in prior to age thirteen and three quarters. Yet these books remain with me.
Obviously, regarding all educational experiences as parallel to one's own is a blind alley that prevents us from seeing alternatives. And I can't speak for the lesson plans of the teachers who allowed me the space to develop this love of words, but I can tell you that, in those lessons, through those books, reading those words, I learnt.