Sunday, February 15, 2004

Yeah, Sounds a Lot Like One of the Ways Public School Attempted to Crush My Spirit.

Just read this really good article by Philip Pullman (author of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy and other kids' books) about how the way schools teach reading and writing is "creating a generation of children who might be able to make the right noises when they see print, but who hate reading and feel nothing but hostility for literature." I have issues with some of what I've read of Pullman's fiction, but I swear, absolutely every word he says in this essay is true. This paragraph in particular struck me:

There are no rules. Anything that's any good has to be discovered in the process of writing it. Furthermore, there must be a willing suspension of certainty - Keats' negative capability, "the capability of remaining in doubts, hesitations and mysteries, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason". We cannot require everything to take place under the bright glare of discussion and checking and testing and consultation: some things require to be private and tentative.

I'm reminded of an afterschool conference I one had with a high school English teacher about a paper I'd written. She pointed out a flaw in my thesis sentence and asked me how I'd fix it. "I don't know," I said. "I'd have to think about it."

"Well," came the reply, "I'm telling you to think about it!"

That, of course, wasn't what I meant. What I meant was that what I really needed was to pace around the room for a few minutes, maybe talk to myself a little, sit down in front of the word processor and play around with the possibilities... Not sit there at a table staring at the sentence while she stared at me. Even at that age, I knew how this writing thing worked, if only I were permitted to do it properly.

Eventually, I think, I managed to stammer out something acceptable. But it was a very long and uncomfortable few minutes, as witness the fact that I still remember it, some 14 or 15 years later.

And I'm not even going to comment on this bit, since if I do, it'll start me off on a rant I'll never finish, and I've got to go to work soon:
But this is what happens in schools now: a teacher wrote to me recently and complained that she'd been doing a book of mine called The Firework Maker's Daughter with her pupils, and she said she was finding the greatest difficulty preventing them from reading ahead to find out what was going to happen next. They had to stop, just when they got interested, and start predicting, or analysing, or evaluating, or something. They wanted to enjoy it, but she didn't feel she could let them.

I think she was paying me a compliment (see what exciting books you write), but her anxiety not to let a single verb in the literacy strategy go unticked, not a single box unfilled-in, was plain, and very dispiriting.

Grrrrr. Man, sometimes I am so glad I don't have kids so they don't have to be subjected to this stuff.

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