Can we still use fairytales?

National storytelling week was last week, but I still had more to say on stories so I thought I’d make this the second part of my thoughts on stories. This time, I’d like to look at fairytales and why we’ve stopped telling them.

You might think, if you look at Young Adult literature or the fantasy book market, that fairytales have never been more popular. There are new retellings and stories that incorporate fairytale elements each year.

But that’s not the same as telling fairytales. Fairy and folk tales come from a time before every community had access to literacy, and as such I think they’re still incredibly important when we look at literacy today.

Following the story of a fairy or folk tale handed down orally through generations and then remembering it to pass on to others practices some of the skills that we find are often underdeveloped in our students – listening and remembering.

Before we even get to the act of writing a story down, just the receiving of the story has benefits on literature.

But they have an impact on emotional literacy too, on learning how to identify with characters who have both positive and negative traits, of when to be wary of strangers and how it’s still important to try to help them. This is something I think we’ve lost. Everything is suddenly real, concrete examples when, actually, sometimes a little imagination can go a long way.

What do you think? Can fairy tales have a place in modern literacy?

We all need stories.

I saw this quote from the late, great Ursula Le Guin this week, and I thought it made a great starting point for this blog.

I’ve spoken about why reading matters outside of being an important life skill, but I’ve never spoken about stories.

I’m really lucky that in the setting I teach in we have small groups. My biggest class size is ten and all of my students will get on with their work quickly again if we take a short break. Lessons are long, so often we do take a quick brain break and we just chat about what’s happened that week or something we’ve seen in the news. We tell each other stories.

We focus in Functional Skills on all communication having a purpose, a goal that, once achieved, marks that act of communication as satisfactory. But we don’t often think about communication as satisfactory in itself.

We use language only because we live in a society. Without the presence of other people, there would be no need to communicate. Sometimes being able to summarise the T.V programme you watched last night or explain why your bus journey was long are conclusions, and skills, in and of themselves.

I’ll talk more about stories in the sense of folk tales next week, but, for this week, try to give weight to those lulls in your class where students just talk.

I’m not being funny but…

Students always want their lessons to be fun. Most of my students, when they talk to each other about non-English related things make great jokes, use puns and offer sarcastic takes on each other’s lives.

As soon as we turn to work, the fun stops and they start to concentrate. But what if comedy was a part of learning?

This recent article made me think even more about all the skills students practice when they’re being funny. I’ve often told students that if they could replicate the manipulation of language they achieve when talking in their written work it would make great reading.

I’ve started to think of some ways comedy can be used in classrooms.

1. Trading insults. As long as the boundaries are established clearly before the exercise, and students know that profanity is banned, getting students to come up with the most creative insult can be a great exercise. If you’re teaching Shakespeare, even better, as you can see if anyone can top the Bard himself at turning a great insult.

2. A funny story. Experimenting with slapstick, students can collaboratively – using the whiteboard or large pieces of paper – create the funniest story of what happened to a character walking home. The best thing about this idea is that it allows all senses of humour a chance to shine.

3. Knock knock! An oldie but a goodie, knock knock jokes allow students to experiment with vocabulary, and offer insight in to implicit meaning which can be tricky to teach on its own.

I hope you try some of these out and, more importantly, I hope they’re fun.

Why reading matters.

When I started this blog, I mainly wanted to talk about literacy, reading, and how both of these things can affect social justice. I still want to talk about those things, but I’m aware that I spend a lot of time talking about needed reading – the skills you need to read a gas bill, recognise a fake news story, even pass an exam.

What I haven’t given as much time to is the reading that doesn’t “mean” anything. I can do all of the three things I’ve just listed, but I can’t remember the last time I did any of them for fun.

Reading, however, I do every day. I think as teachers we often give up on the idea that our students – apart from the ones doing it already – will ever find reading fun. We settle for giving them the essential skills they need. And that’s great.

But I want to get back to talking about reading as a no-pressure, fun activity. Something you do in the bath, on the bus, before bed. Something that brings you joy or sadness or takes you in to anther world.

I read every morning before I go in to work in my car. A lot of my students have noticed this and started asking me what I’m reading. We don’t talk about the author’s great use of metaphor or the descriptive language techniques. We talk about the story.

Some of them have even asked to borrow the book.

I know that’s not what helps pass exams, but it’s one of my biggest successes to date.

Are hubs what we need to improve literacy?

Last week, Education Secretary Justine Greening announced plans to open over 400 literacy hubs around the country to help improve literacy and social mobility. These are to operate similar to “maths hubs” and will be lead by outstanding schools.

Justine and I are in agreement on one thing, here. Literacy and social mobility are linked closely together in my view, and pupils that have high reading levels at younger ages are often the ones that go on to Higher Education and employment in greater numbers.

But where I differ from Greening is the idea that these hubs should be attached to schools, or that struggling levels are literacy are a problem experienced exclusively by those below school age.

We used to have this wonderful service in this country where people of all ages could go and read, take books out and even take classes in things like reading. It was free, and open at times that people could actually attend rather than for an elusive two hours in the middle of the day.

It was called a public library, and it was wonderful.

Adults who were in the library could ask for help with reading discreetly. Librarians ran storytelling and reading events to engage toddlers and young children. Parents who desperately wanted their children to read but who couldn’t afford full price books could make sure they read something new every week.

But the same government that are now astounded that we have a literacy problem in this country closed most of our libraries because they were too expensive. Services that are for underprivileged and, let’s actually say the word, poor people often are expensive to run. But what libraries contributed to the literacy levels of the UK was invaluable.

So, do I agree with the idea of literacy hubs? I agree we need to do something. But I can’t help but feel that we had the right answer all along.

2018 goals

Happy New Year!

I love a new year. Any time is a good time to commit to making change, but the start of a new year feels even better. I thought I’d share my goals for this blog for 2018.

1. To continue to discuss literacy teaching in practice – successes, pitfalls, practical advice.

2. To discuss literacy and education news stories.

3. To engage more critically with literacy research. I want to discuss the current research climate around literacy and offer my own insight in to it.

4. To meet other literacy bloggers – I’d love to build professional relationships with some of you.

See you next week for my first real literacy post of the year.

Can reading really be fun?

The National Literacy Trust says children who own a book are 15 times more likely to read above the expected level for their age, but I guess what they mean is children who own a book and read it.

If children, young adults and adults are going to read, well, anything (debate between screen and books for another time), then they need to want to. Encouraging reading in the context of lessons can be difficult enough. But if we return to my age old metaphor of reading as swimming, if you thought you would drown, would you get in the pool and paddle just for the hell of it? Probably not.

A student of mine – who is motivated and determined and puts her all in to her English Lit work – once told me that she didn’t know what to do with the books on her course, but that she’d read Diary of a Wimpy Kid because it was funny. And I feel like we don’t put enough emphasis on the fun of stories, or the thrill of discovering new things. Mostly when I read, if you take out the tomes I get through for my research, I read to relax. I don’t read thinking about themes or language devices (although I am prone to the “that’s a really nice sentence” feeling). I read just because I’m interested in the characters, or the story.

So here’s a thought for Christmas homework, if you’re still setting it. Challenge everyone in your class to find something – a page in a magazine, the first few pages of a book snuck for free in a bookshop (because let’s not forget books are expensive and a luxury) – that they enjoy. Anything. Everything. And don’t ask them any questions that analyse it when they come book – except maybe, why they liked it. Maybe then, some of our scared swimmers might dip a toe in the water and find it’s nice and warm after all.

Thank you for sticking with me since I started writing this. Every time someone reads or likes a post it makes me so happy, so thank you.

Merry Christmas!

Helen x

What does “I can’t” really mean?

I teach a wide range of students. I cover Entry 3 to Level 2 Functional Skills in my day job and I tutor GCSE in my spare time. My students are all really different, but there are a select few who have something really common. At a certain point – some as soon as they see the activity, some at least after having a cursory glance at it – look at me and say “I can’t do it”.

We’re taught as teachers not to listen to can’t. There’s no such thing. If you try, you can. Does this sound familiar? I’ve used similar tricks with my groups. “Use a dictionary to look up the words you don’t understand and see if you can do it then”. Sometimes it works, but there are still those students that sit and stare at something you know they can do, because you’ve prepared it based on something they’ve already done well, and say “I can’t”.

I’m ashamed that this blog post has taken me so long to write, because it also means that the realisation behind it was far too long coming. I used to work in a mainstream secondary with SEN pupils, and now I work with students with far more diverse and complex needs. And what they’ve taught me is: I can’t means I don’t believe I can.

This has changed how I handle “can’ts” in my classroom. Instead of “try”, my first reaction is now “what can’t you do”, so that the students can break that initial fear in to smaller chunks. Then we can work on that small chunk and, in the end, they usually find they can.

Better approaches

I’ve been reading a lot over the past couple of weeks about Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach to social justice. At the heart of his idea is that, in topics such as economic development, we should consider human beings, not other, external, markers as the outcome. The concept of justice for Sen is one of every human being having the opportunity to be and do the things that are important to them.

Which of course made me think about education. Really, is there anything more core to what we do as teachers than wanting our students to have the opportunity to do what is important to them?

I’d argue most teachers want to encourage students to achieve this, but what we often find ourselves striving towards instead is a series of arduous – and sometimes arbitrary – academic targets.

In the UK, our system is driven by targets. Our schools are measured by league tables. Our teachers are judged on their classes’ exam results.

But maybe there is a better approach to target setting. For students with an EHC (Education, Health and Care) Plan, their targets per academic year are often set according to their long and medium term aspirations – in other words, according to the things they want to do or be.

Perhaps in the first term of meeting new students, if we found some time in our squeezed schedules to build a rapport and find the answer to those questions: what do you want to do? What do you want to be?, we could incorporate them in to students’ targets, in to lesson themes, maybe, God Forbid, in to the curriculum as a whole.

Now wouldn’t that be a better approach?

Why don’t we do more writing?

It’s a question I’ve been asked three times in the last week. Each time, by a student who, when given an exercise that combines reading and writing, usually complains.

I explained that we do writing and showed him the tasks he’s done over the last few weeks.

“Not that, creative writing. Like writing a story.”

I currently teach Functional Skills English, but before that I taught Creative Writing and I write novels. I was ecstatic that he wanted to do creative writing.

Now, my reason as to why we haven’t yet done creative writing is fairly easy. The class that student is in has only been running four weeks. It’s barely been time to get to know my students in terms of likes and dislikes. My other classes, running since September, all do creative writing exercises regularly.

But it made me think, when we teach functional English, do we abandon creativity? We focus a lot on reading, mainly because it is often the area of greatest difficulty for our students. But do we lose something by not practising Creative Writing?

The need to create is so purely human. Surely there is a lot to be said for allowing that to happen in English and then letting it drill down in to functional skills tasks. Creative phrasing can be deftly turned to a letter of complaint, after all.

I teach creative writing a lot because I love it and want to share that, but should all teachers strive to have it in their classrooms? I’d say it would make things a lot more interesting.