I’ve got something to say by Gail Loane with Sally Muir

This book review encompasses just about everything that needs to be known about children’s writing and makes a mockery of the grotesque Wow! national standards-Hattie culture of today. As I go through the review, readers will come across small matters of difference between me and the authors; my preference being slightly less structure and even more emphasis on expressive writing. But if you based your writing programme on the tenets set out you would be doing famously.

This book by Gail Loane with Sally Muir, and design and layout by Pennie Brownlee, is a work of love.

It is a beautifully crafted book, spaciously set out, replete with lyrical photographs, and altogether pleasing to the eye. Here we have the three friends, also a huge supporting cast of teachers, inspired by Gail and Sally’s message over the years, contributing to what has been produced here.

A work of love by all concerned and then, of course, there are the children.

Any teacher worth his or her salt knows the feeling: a child says something beautiful, and your eyes water as you see beyond the child to an expression of the marvellous potential of the human spirit. The book is full of children being lifted to moments like this.

Laura Ranger (7 years) concludes a wonderful poem about Kapiti with: ‘The wind is writing/ what it knows/ in lines along the water.”

Then there are the children whose writing provokes a slightly different response – a deep inward breath of surprise: Margo Baars (y. 12) describes a teacher’s manner in class, the subtleties and changes of tone in Margo’s writing are immaculate – a student picks up the courage to pose a challenging question; Margo describes the tension as the teacher struggles for a reply – the account concludes with her writing:

‘But the pause has taken the edge off Mr Ashford’s statement. In a way he has been beaten. He coughs and then resumes his stream of words and numbers. One by one students relax again; they pick up pens and re-check watches. I proceed to retrace the lines and curves of the inscription: “Mr Ashford sux”.’

The children are the quiet heroes of this book. Having written, they have moved away from us, just out of reach, but their words stay to echo in our minds – we thank them, and wish them well.

Yes – a work of love, reaching back to the years of the education golden weather, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Elwyn Richardson, Clarence Beeby, and that generation of majestic stjcs.

The book is a work of love – a gift – to teachers who believe in the possibility of the transformational, in other words, in children being taken somewhere to see the world in a different way.

This book should by your bedside and hanging around every staff room, even every classroom.

Stan Boyle, that eternally mischievous and questioning former principal of Hillcrest Normal, storyteller par excellence, and someone who knew Elwyn, writes in the Foreword:  ‘ “I’ve got something to say” is more than just another book on the teaching of writing and reading. It embodies a vibrant philosophy of education.’

Exactly – and for that reason, on a down note, the message in this book is in for a hard passage. The compounding problem in propagating the message is not its reception and acceptance by teachers, but the generally hostile forces to deep learning that prevails in today’s education climate, manifested more particularly in the case of writing in the unavailability of sufficient time for true thoughtfulness and creativity to occur. Without that thoughtfulness, the message, and the philosophy from which it is drawn, when enacted in classrooms, will be just another recipe, a decidedly superior one admittedly, but a recipe nevertheless.

This book is Gail’s testament to her life as a teacher and, as Stan Boyle says, not just about reading and writing but education as a whole.

I visited Gail in 1993 for an article for Developmental Network Magazine when she was a teaching principal of a three teacher school near Thames.

Her reputation had, of course, preceded her, which is why I was there. It was instantly evident that her performance was up to the high reputation she gained. She had an assured grasp of the central idea of expressive writing – that of getting children to write with particularity, with an eye for detail, whether describing objects, or their own or others’ feelings. And the way she did this was to come at the children from various directions, providing them with new sources of stimulus, and new ways to reflect on experience.

And here we are two decades later with a book that spells that out in engaging detail.

There follows commentary on matters in the book that particularly interested me, with some of the comments based on my predilections.

My key predilection as an ideal for the teaching of writing has a slightly different emphasis from that set out in the book – Gail, probably influenced by the American part of her inspiration, and by the current concerns of teachers and the system, sets a fair degree of structure in the way children are stimulated and the way examples and teaching points are put forward. My predilection (as an ideal) is, yes, for the inspiring literature to be discussed with children and the children’s ideas and models to be shared, but done with a shade lighter touch. I favour giving children more time to work things out for themselves, to pick things up from the rich environment made available, to discover and come across things, and the teacher being hesitant, even nervous about decisions to be made to do with the timing and the nature of individual  interventions. Will it be a discovery opportunity taken from the child?

The important matter, though, is that teachers absorb the outstanding message in this book then to express it in a way that seems natural to them – with some of those ways certain to encompass many of the practical ways set out in the book. There’s no great issue.

If the book’s message and philosophy is thought of as a circle of modelling, sharing of ideas, of expressing, self-correcting, and intervening, my thought goes immediately to the intervening, the individual intervening (what sort, and whether or not to?).  I still follow the circle, but it’s where my interest immediately takes me, and that is to individual interventions. A point about this book I acknowledge, however, is that any teacher who reads it will be wonderfully well set up to make expert, well-judged individual interventions. So the point of difference being discussed is fine. With all that in mind, the following are ideas in the book that especially took my interest.

Gail writes: ‘I can recall my own memories from secondary school; if we are to write about the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, we must be guided to the position where we care about these characters.’

I like this idea because it is saying that the key to writing is to establish a strong affective connection with the topic, whatever the topic. And I like the example because Shakespeare can be challenging, but if the affective is aroused the example is telling us – that challenge can be easily overcome, as can other challenging topics.

‘It is generally well-meaning teachers who counter the dilemma by providing a starting point: a story starter … but this usually leads to unsatisfactory results …’

Yes – establish the affective interest, and then leave a fair amount of space for the children to discover a starting point for themselves.

Then there is exemplified the array of ideas that makes writing vivid and effective:

‘We are learning to show rather than tell.’

‘Strong verbs’ which reduce the need for continually searching for adverbs to say what you want to say.

‘Specific nouns’ which reduce the need for continually searching for adjectives to say what you want to say.

‘Selective use of adjectives.’

Gail quite correctly emphasises the importance of variety in sentence structure. I, of course, completely agree, but I prefer to emphasise the idea of children discovering the way to this through their striving to express their ideas and observations with sincerity and nuanced subtlety. The book emphasises the importance of oral language to writing, and I agree because if children are lead into complexity and subtlety in oral discussion, the intent to express that satisfactorily in writing will lead them naturally into sentence-structure variety which, when it occurs, can be used as a cause of class celebration. It’s a glorious circle.

In writing personal memoirs, Gail comments how these can be rather ‘dreary’. I like the way she advises on memoir conclusions: ‘In personal memoir, the writer is able to end a piece with some resolution or evaluative comment that assures the reader the moment or events described have been reflected upon, and the significance understood.’

And, of course, if there is something to be reflected on and significance to be understood in the conclusion, those elements will need to have been present preceding.

She includes in the book the powerful situation, which was reported in Developmental Magazine of children being asked to go outside then come back in with observations showing it was autumn. On their return, one girl reported on the leaves fluttering to the ground. Gail asked, ‘Did you actually see any leaves fluttering to the ground?’

‘Well, go back outside and this time report on what you actually see.’

Personal writing in a nutshell.

Then there is M. Applegate’s poem, ‘Be Specific’, both powerful and didactic which begins, ‘Don’t say you saw a bird; you saw a swallow …’

While frameworks for teaching can sometimes take away discovery opportunities and originality, I particularly liked the three-part one for character portraits: Physical description (show, don’t tell and be specific); behaviour – how this character speaks and acts; how the character affects other people (show don’t tell).

Gail then says that once clear on the ‘rules’ of the genre, these writers may go on to break the rules, combine, or invent forms and still come up with a piece of writing to suit their purpose.

Fair enough. Point taken Gail.

There is a most interesting paragraph commenting on writing on behaviour in character portraits: ‘Describing what someone looks like is an important part of the process of forming our observations into words, but we reveal more when we try to describe the way they behave. In an extended narrative, we have a need to get to know the sort of character this person is in order to predict the way they will respond to the situations as they arise.’
This is a sophisticated idea, being the equivalent of the sincerity called for in expressive writing being applied to narrative writing.

A particularly admirable characteristic of the book is the easy transition made from literacy techniques in expressive writing to transactional writing. Gail’s American influences (that country characteristically giving strong attention to transactional writing) are evident in the convincing transactional sections.

In a key paragraph she writes, ‘Expressive writing, leading to transactional or expository writing, can provide scope for self-discovery through exploration of the world around us, in  just the same way as expressive writing can lead to poetic forms, such as memoirs and descriptions.’

Chapter Eleven serves brilliantly as a summing up chapter.

‘We, as teachers, are striving to help our students find that personal voice that gives written text its sincerity and impact.’

The idea of personal voice is implicit and explicit throughout the book, but with all the advice and explanations out of the way – its expression here comes through starkly.

A list of indicators of a good piece of writing is provided, one we are told that should ‘apply to all writing regardless of the age and stage of the writer – from new entrant to published authors – and regardless of the type of writing’

Halleluiah!

The list is:

It is legible

It ‘hooks’ the reader in, making them want to read on

It conveys a message that can be understood

The form suits the purpose

There is sincerity of voice

It is constructed to read fluently

The vocabulary chosen is appropriate

(With the more mature writers) there is evidence of deliberate attempts to include specific language features which enhance the telling, a sense of audience.

As word processors becoming more common, I suppose the legibility one could be dropped off the list. I would have liked the idea of the writing evoking an affective response (as against the use of the hooking in expression).  My major quibble is with the idea of ‘convey[ing] a message that can be understood’. I would have preferred the idea of a message that is ‘communicated’, leaving open that it might have been felt one, a sub-conscious one, an affectively received one. The idea of the writing being ‘constructed to read fluently’ is a wonderfully encompassing, referring to the choice and order of words and the many technical matters to do with sentence and paragraph structure and punctuation. An aspect of writing, though, that could have merited more attention in the book is the matter of rhythm within a sentence. In the final indicator, I would leave room for the idea of specific language features being intuitively used, making it more applicable to younger writers (in other words, allowing the parenthetical reference to ‘more mature writers’ to be omitted).

There is a snappy review of adjectival and adverbial phrases, use of strong verbs and nouns, and the use of contrast within a sentence and personification. In respect to adjectival and adverbial phrases I would have emphasised throughout the book, as is done here, the use of commas as a way to add extra information: a far more naturalistic and accessible way in.

Much is made of semi-colons in the book. I do use them in my writing, but I am drawn, often irresistibly, perhaps incorrectly, to the much less disjunctive looking dash. The current emphasis in convention is to use semi-colons sparingly.

But I do like the attention given to the hyphenated adjective, for instance, ‘pyramid-shaped’ blocks. Yes, it can be tighter than a simile and more suited to the purpose.

And in an Elwyn-style point for a powerful individual intervention, Gail asks the student how an account of how to ride a bike can replace the ‘you’. The student replies, ‘The biker’. ‘Or?’ Gail persists. ‘The rider,’ the student replies again.

Immediately sharpening the account. I love this sort of thing.

Then another reference to the basics:

A simple sentence can be powerful, when a strong verb is used.

A strong verb has more impact than adding adverbs.

Specific nouns in a sentence add more impact than a list of adjectives.

A variety of sentence length, sentence structure and sentence beginnings will make for more effective writing.

But to reiterate my predilection, let the children do a lot of working their way toward these as a result of caring more for their writing, getting a better feel for writing, wanting to express subtlety and complexity more completely – complemented, of course, by some direct teaching, especially when the class is considering the writing of others.

There it is, a book to go into deeply, browse, or consult. Everything a teacher might want, at whatever level of complexity: planning for writing; how authors work; getting children to think like authors; sharing writing with others; how quality literature links reading and writing; the teacher as a model; ways to approach the various genres; encouraging children to write with sincerity; close observation; a host of strategies to get children discussing writing; and ways to tap children into universal experiences. It’s all there.

This book is our book, a book of the best our heritage made relevant for the present. The writers had something to say, something important to say, and they have said it beautifully and persuasively. We must read the book, absorb the message and the detail, then make it our own. What I hope doesn’t happen, but I fear will, is that the book will be widely read and admired, but not acted on in the spirit intended – becoming more an artefact of our once wonderful education philosophy, not a generous, vibrant means for lifting and inspiring present and future generations of children.

 

 

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Posted in Curriculum | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

On the steps of parliament: protest against ERO

Timed for the opening of parliament 1996: New Zealand First in coalition with National

On Wednesday, 11 December, I pointed my car down my driveway in Cambridge, turned right, and right again, and headed south.

It was my appreciation that the present represented a defining moment in primary education – either education was going to be controlled by ERO through bureaucratic managerialism, or by all major participants in the spirit of democracy. As a result, it was not so much the present I was fighting against, but the future I was fighting for.

The flux caused by the MMP elections and the coalition talks; the feistiness of the present Principals Federation executive; the concern about education directions in academic circles; the indications by the news media they were starting to understand the situation; the greater willingness of schools to take a stand; and the general alarm caused by ERO’s continued efforts to increase its powers – all combined to make this, from my perspective, a decisive moment. I had decided to give two months to the anti-bureaucratic campaign (ABC). The petition had been launched, and the returns were coming in strongly. I had hoped schools would, in their deliberations, rise above matters relating to whether they had just received a good ERO report or not, and see the role of the review office in the overall education culture; see the review office as at the centre of promoting and imposing the bureaucratic demands so widely complained about. The evidence, gratifyingly, was that schools were, indeed, seeing the wider picture.

After launching the petition, my task, as I saw it, was to keep the issue, to the forefront, and to keep in touch with key people in education. My tactic each week was to develop a news release then sit in front of my fax, and fax for hours. In a way it was like fly fishing, you cast your line out a large number of times, and, every now and then, you have a strike. I can assure you, though, no matter how small the catch, I never threw one back. So I’d start with the big fish of the TV and metropolitan newspapers, then radio, the magazines, then moved on to the provincial newspapers and, time permitting local and suburban newspapers. I learnt a lot about the news media in the process.

As in any campaign, the purpose is to get the message right, and then to find different ways of saying the same thing. Whether I got the message right, I don’t know, but I certainly found a lot of different ways to say the same thing. The message I tried to communicate was of a crisis in education – a structural crisis deriving from Tomorrow’s Schools allocation of increased powers to layers of bureaucracy at the expense of teachers’ sense of control over things important to them. And that a structural crisis could only be resolved through a structural response – tinkering would not do. For this reason, in respect to school reviewing, I favoured the idea of schools having a range of accredited reviewers to choose from. Such a change would free up education in all sorts of ways.

Anyway, as I pressed on to Wellington, that was all behind me.

About four weeks before I had received a call from Derek Gordon of Dunedin whose professional name as a storyteller to schools is Derek Bringwonder. He expressed his alarm, derived from his experience of visiting schools throughout New Zealand, at the harm ERO was inflicting on New Zealand schools. In other words, he had developed the same point of view as me from a different perspective. Derek also expressed wider concerns about the relations between the governed and those who govern – ERO’s behaviours simply being a prime example of those concerns.

‘I’ve heard about your petition,’ he said, ‘is there anything I could do to help?’

‘Thanks for the offer, I’ll think about it.’

Two days later it came to me: those pages at the beginning of Hard Times in which the character Gradgrind insisted on reducing human behaviour to numbers, that would be just the ticket. I contemplated the matter for a few days – the idea had the capacity to be the most appalling flop, and would I have the energy? What appealed to me and tipped me in favour of ringing Derek was the opportunity to make a public statement about my concerns. For better or worse, whether the ABC petition was a success or not, I wanted to have the feeling that I had given it a lash – the best I could.

So I rang Derek. We delegated responsibilities: he would brush up on Hard Times, do the banner, arrange for a Dickensian costume; I would try to entice along a small audience, gain the attendance of some parliamentary spokespeople, try and interest the news media, get permission from the clerk of the house for a protest on the steps of parliament, and organise material to hand out to those present.

The following was part of the invitation to the members of parliament and others.

Kelvin Smythe

Developmental Publications Ltd

PO Box 4082, Hamilton

An invitation

On Thursday, I2 December, at 12.20 p.m., a small meeting will be held in front of parliament allowing Derek Bringwonder, storyteller, to make a personal statement about the need to nurture the human spirit, and about his concern, developed as a result of working in schools throughout New Zealand, at the harmful effects on schools and teachers of review office practices and philosophy. (He will, as part of this, be dressed as Charles Dickens’ Gradgrind, and orate the philosophy of that character from Hard Times.) 

I am delighted, as the organiser of the education anti-bureaucratic campaign (ABC) and petition, to support Derek Bringwonder in these purposes.

If you could be there as an expression of your own support, it would be greatly appreciated. It will go ahead rain, hail, hurricane or shine. If you do think you can attend, please let me know.

Best wishes

Kelvin Smythe

One of the difficulties was to find a day and a time when the members of parliament would be able to attend. We chose Thursday, 12 December, as a tentative date. But would that conflict with the swearing in of the new parliament? The swearing in date moved around, and sure enough, after all those weeks of coalition talks, the swearing in was Thursday, 12 December. I suggested to Liz Gordon, the newly elected Alliance member, that that might be for the best as it meant that at least they’d all be there, and that would be good; she said no, there’d be lots of other things going on, and that would be bad. However, Brian Donnelly said the swearing in would be over by 12 p.m. – as a result we adjusted the time to 12.20. When I visited National’s Tony Steel in his Hamilton electorate office he said he’d do his best to be there, and Trevor Mallard’s secretary said Trevor had noted it in his diary. Liz Gordon said there was no need for another fax, she’d be there if she could.

So here I was heading to Wellington rather fearfully. Would my 20 or so invitees be there? Would the spokespeople be there? Would the idea be a good one in concept, irrespective of how everything else went? What would the weather be like? Though, on this, I was ambivalent. I rather liked, what was to me, the romantic notion of a howling gale, Charles Dickens and me and, of course, a back-turned Richard John Seddon, and no-one else, standing out there in howling wind and rain. We would proclaim to the elements.

I booked in at a hotel near parliament, then walked down to it for a reconnoitre. As most people know, traffic goes round parliament in a frenzied circle. I had fears that tomorrow, in transporting the sound system in my car, of getting on this merry-go-round and not being able to get off. But there was the entrance near the cenotaph and a road looping gently to the paved area in front of the main steps with Richard John Seddon facing away. So it was back to the hotel for a sleep – of sorts.

The coalition talks had come and gone. Information I was receiving indicated the review office was, indeed, a coalition issue, but there had not been, and there still wasn’t, any confirmation of this. I feared the worst – that in the rush to complete the talks, the matter would drop off the negotiating table.

I went to the door to get the Dominion. On page 3 was an article about the coalition and what had been agreed. I ran my eye down the list, hoping, but not expecting, to see the review of the review office listed.

But there it was, linked in with another review, and with the briefest possible reference. Now, how do they express this in the media? I was visibly moved.

After years of plugging away, on the morning of a protest to be made on the steps of parliament – there it was in black and white. Wow! This was only a first step, the review office would fight a wily fight, but this was a moment to relish.

I drove round to the hotel to pick up Derek and his wife Pamela. When he opened the door, top hat, red vest, black formal pants, and all – I felt immediately at ease. Hey! This had the makings of a memorable day.

In picking up the sound system I found there wasn’t room in my car for an office chair I’d brought down for Derek to stand on if he needed some height to perform better. No – he didn’t need it. What to do with the chair? To this day I like to think of it still sitting in the entrance way of the shop I dumped it in.

We made our way through the iron gates and parked on the parliamentary forefront. The day was fine (though breezy), so no Lear on the heath heroics. The parliamentary officials checked our permission papers; pointed us to our assigned place; assured us the sound system would be fine as long as we didn’t point it directly towards parliament; and, were generally very helpful. We set up the banner, the sound system, composed ourselves, and waited.

The parliamentary scene to the north of us on the steps was one of remarkable vibrancy. The first time mps clearly identifiable by their cheerful, expectant expressions, the old hands by their here-we-go-again demeanour. Especially notable were the new Maori mps with their families and elders, hugging, laughing and singing. TV and radio reporters were everywhere. The chief justice and entourage swept past us in full regalia.

Then all was quiet.

12 0’clock.

Was our timing going to be awry?

Invitees started to arrive. At 12.10 there was a small gathering at the doors of parliament, a gathering that grew in size, then pushed pseudopodia-like down the steps. I saw Brian Donnelly detach himself from the group, then Tony Steel appeared, and so did Liz Gordon, finally there was Trevor Mallard, looking very heroic, propped up as he was on this occasion by a walking stick. Also there were some teachers and principals who had absented themselves from school to be there and some office workers from nearby government offices.

Donald Matheson from the Education Review Magazine was there, as was Penny Deans from TV1 though minus a camera which might or might not turn up. (It didn’t.)

I stood on the steps of parliament, welcomed the group, and began my address.

The life of a campaigner for progressive education campaigner in regressive education times is that good news never comes. Well, this morning, for me, the good news did come. It came in the way of a two-line statement in the Dominion that the review office will be reviewed, I know this is only a step along the way, that the head offices of many varieties will conspire to protect another head office, as will stubborn Labour mps and anti-teacher National ones, but today is a day for quiet satisfaction.

There is a crisis in school education, a crisis that goes well beyond vulnerable schools in vulnerable parts of our society – it is a crisis affecting all schools, everywhere. It is a crisis of quality, confidence, and future direction.

This is a defining moment in school education – schools are either going to be run in a partnership between teachers and their community on the basis of professionalism and democratic participation; or by bureaucrats on the basis of managerialism and regulatory enforcement. Is the locus of control going to be in our communities or in the bureaucracies?

The bureaucratic iron chain must be broken.

Whoever controls evaluation, controls education. The review office in evaluating schools, is controlling them.

And on I went, with many of you having read what I would have thundered.

I then introduced Derek Bringwonder:

 However enough of all this, why try to tell the story when we have one of New Zealand’s best storytellers to tell it for us. I introduce Derek Bringwonder to present Gradgrind from Hard Times.

Derek Bringwonder came forward and made his personal statement through Charles Dickens. The relevance of what he had to say being quite remarkable. Looking at the faces of the people listening you could see connections were being made.

You are to be in all things regulated and governed, said the gentleman, “By fact’’.’

‘We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.’

‘You must discard the word Fancy altogether.’

‘You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls.’

‘You must see,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’

And so Derek Bringwonder continued. As Derek performed I was able to sit down and savour the occasion. People were drifting over with their lunches, the sun was shining, our group was fully engaged, there was laughter and interest. Hey! This was rather fun.

Derek received a great ovation.

Liz Gordon indicated she would, in what would be her first speech as a sworn-in member of parliament, like to say something. As you can see from the photograph, she was in wonderful form.

As I moved forward to wind things up, who should appear on the high steps, but Lockwood Smith? I could see him trying to work things out; then it clicked. He turned and shot off.

I thanked everyone for coming along, there was a clap, and it was all over. We were reluctant to go, standing around in small groups discussing this and that.

After lunch with Derek and Pamela, I shook hands with them, and we said our farewells. Then, in a mixture of relief and satisfaction, the long drive back home.

Postscript: Brian Donnelly, of the New Zealand First Party, and minister in charge of the review office when New Zealand First was in coalition with National, promised much but, in the end, was outmanoeuvred by the bureaucracy. The review of the review office was stacked with Labour and National conservative politicians and hangers-on, including Hekia Parata’s sister, Apryll. When giving my submission, I looked at her and wondered: Who is that? Well, now we know.

Posted in Education Review Office, Political | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

An evening with Lockwood

One of the marvels of contemporary political and education life is that Lockwood Smith was such a hopeless minister of education and such a good speaker of the house. (Probably rules and thinking in straight lines are his forte.)

Lockwood’s insistence on zoning being entirely a local matter was a characteristic of the very early years of Tomorrow’s Schools when the ministry and the education review office insisted on keeping away from the details of school functioning on the principle they were only interested in outcomes. Tomorrow’s Schools, it was believed, was set up in a state of near perfect balance, on the odd occasion when it had clearly slipped from that, no doubt ascribed to local fumbling, there was confidence an in-built natural mechanism for something close to self-correction, aided a little by locals coming to their senses, would soon right things.

The year was 1993

Network was going to be in Auckland, so when he heard Lockwood Smith was making a special trip from Wellington to talk to a group of parents about a controversial issue, Network thought he would go along to.

Most readers will be aware that when Network has written about Lockwood in the past, he has nearly always done so tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, to be frank, Network went along with the idea of writing such a tongue-in-cheek item.

As he drove along the leafy streets of this affluent Auckland suburb, he felt himself sharpening what he likes to call his satirical knives. Hold on, though, as regular readers might already have observed, if there was going to be a satirical article, the signal for this would already have been sent, but it hasn’t been.

Network would have dropped in some trifle like: ‘He hasn’t had a good laugh for a while so …’ or ‘Having nothing better to do (which is some indication of the present lack of stimulation in his life), Network thought he …’ or ‘Feeling somewhat stronger in constitution than usual, Network felt …’ Regular readers will know the drill.

But no trifle has been dropped in. As a result, those regular readers are entitled to ask: What’s going on here? Has Network gone soft? Having experienced Lockwood directly for the first time, has Network been won over by sheer persuasiveness of argument and power of oratory? Has he come to an acceptance that he has calumniated and libelled him on the basis of information false and rumour foul? Was Network going to recant? Instead of tongue-in-cheek was it going to be respectful obeisance? Was Network going to write an analytical discourse on the thoughts of Lockwood Smith so that people would see a flowering of genius where only intellectual weeds had been thought to grow before?

Whatever – the question remains, why no satirical signal where one could reasonably have been expected?

As indicated above, this was the first time Network had seen Lockwood in action ‘live’. Would the reality match with his view of Lockwood’s general incompetence, immaturity, and unsureness of educational grasp?

Dear readers, Network wants to say to you as clearly and as early as possible that, to his alarm, nothing he had heard about Lockwood before in any way prepared him for what he was to experience that evening.

Lockwood’s performance that evening put paid to Network’s tongue-in-cheek intentions, destroyed his confidence as an aspiring satirist. What he discovered was that Lockwood was beyond satire; what Network had thought were caricatures of Lockwood’s qualities were, in fact, pallid imitations. Indeed, as attempts at satire

Network could be sued for product misrepresentation.

Dear readers, that a person of this miniscule sensitivity, imagination, wit, and understanding could be a minister of the crown is incomprehensible. He is beyond Gilbertian, which was an initial image. This was not life imitating art, this was art desperately trying to find something to imitate in life and failing.

Lockwood Smith is beyond satire. He has outflanked satire so comprehensively his description demands a new literary genre. A kind of literary surrealism comes to mind as a possible recourse. Lockwood is so quirky he makes Dan Quayle look like Abraham Lincoln in comparison.

The horrible truth about Lockwood is that everything you have heard about him is horribly true, only worse, much, much worse.

That there hasn’t been straight talking about the fatuity of this minister is a testament to what David Lange has bequeathed to New Zealand schools – the high politicisation of education, the direct control ministers and ministry of education have over day-to-day affairs. The minister now has so much immediate power that various groups have become more intent on shoring up their position, rather than speaking out in the interest of education as a whole.

Well – back to the meeting in the leafy Auckland suburb. Network is not going to give special attention to the issue concerned and the agonies it is putting a school through, suffice to say, it is a zoning issue; the sort that wouldn’t have occurred under the previous system or, if it had, would have been resolved in a twinkle.

Into the hall were crammed over 300 people, they overflowed outside. Also outside was a cluster of police – a phenomenon which has become Lockwood’s only original contribution to education administration. It would be easy to slight the motives of the parents inside, yes it was about avoiding going to schools with a greater smattering of brown faces, yes property values might be affected if the exclusions stood, but these were good Kiwi parents trying to get the best for their children as they saw it, and the system allowed.

The meeting had already begun by the time Network found a place in the crowded hall entrance. On the stage to the audience’s left, sat Christine Fletcher, member of parliament for Eden, and a principal instigator for the meeting. Further along was the independent chairwoman, then Lockwood, and further along still a ministry representative (Network was told later).

In the early part of the meeting a succession of neighbouring principals went to the microphone to describe their zoning policies, their roll situation, and to give support to the idea of a demographic survey. The problem with a demographic survey, as it became clear, was that there was no-one immediately obvious to do it. Tomorrow’s Schools, as a system, is ad hoc at the local level, pure schlock at the national, with nothing in between except a mass of fluctuating interests. (Mind you, in the end, the ministry will come to the demographic survey party and, in doing that, have its ideological purity sullied. From there will occur the same kind of negotiations that characterised the education board way of doing things.)

Frank Dodd, former president of NZEI and principal of a neighbouring school, turned to the minister during his address and said, ‘I hope minister, it’s not your expectation that we compete as a natural state of affairs, and only co-operate to save the government when things go wrong?’ Frank Dodd was, of course, wrong in this, and with his experience should have known better. He was wrong because he had made the cardinal error of over-estimating the minister’s lucidity – of thinking the minister’s head could ever be sufficiently clear for such a thought to occur.

The parents listened attentively and, given the tension that gripped the hall, with relatively good humour. On the platform sat Lockwood, loopy expression and all, in permanent communication with a set of papers that came in and out of his breast pocket. From time-to-time, amidst this restless interaction, there could be noticed another expression competing with the loopy one – it had the appearance of someone who had experienced a moment of illumination, one that needed to be recorded immediately for fear that it be lost to posterity. (It was later revealed that Lockwood was noting down roll numbers principals were giving because they were at odds with the ones given to him by the ministry.)

Lockwood was introduced … all the way from Wellington … our minister of education … greatly appreciated … listen with considerable interest … There was an encouraging round of applause. Then, with that cringe inducing manner he essays so effortlessly, Lockwood came down from the platform to floor level. What’s wrong with that the reader might ask? Nothing really, except the unctuous way he presented it. ‘I’ll come down to where you are and speak from there,’ he mealy-mouthed. ‘I won’t speak from up there where the principals did.’ In his action there was provided an inkling of the attitude that was to lead Lockwood into such foolishness that evening and, indeed, of the attitude that underpins his actions as minister of education. You see, Lockwood, as it was to become clear, saw himself as the parents’ champion. They were his people.

Lockwood Smith lacks a conceptual grasp of how education in New Zealand works. Under the previous system he would have been both better advised and better protected. The minister of education now acts more like an emperor than an executive officer of a democratic government, and those around him more like fawning courtiers – made so by the vulnerability of their employment, their need for dispensation of personal favour.

No longer do education officials, Janus-like, have to look both ways. They no longer have to be equally alert to both minister and schools and, in the course of doing this, serve both the minister and schools better.

The result of this, especially for shallow ministers like Lockwood, is that they have no protection, no opportunity to grow into something resembling competence. Lockwood is condemned to be a minister adrift, unable to put anchor down or sail up, unable to get a fix on where he is, or in what direction he should be heading.

Lockwood is living in a fantasy world of his own construction. He has this perception of public dissatisfaction with schools and himself as a kind of white knight.

What this minister doesn’t seem able to grasp is that he is far from being viewed as a white knight, more a cross between Stan Laurel and Frank Spencer as Don Quixote.

When Lockwood stepped down from the platform that night and made his remarks, he was merely acting out his white knight fantasy. He was standing with the parents, their white knight, someone parents could look to for protection from those misguided teachers, their principals, and their wicked unions.

A reminder of the setting: an overflow hall, anxious parents, concerned teachers, fretful local member of parliament, and a police presence outside. And here was a minister of the crown, the minister of education, flown all the way from Wellington.

Lockwood stood before them, the loopy grin never more in evidence, and he began to talk. And he fronted up to the issue straight away.

‘The issue’, said Lockwood, ‘is a local one, so it has to be solved locally.’

And that, for him, was it.

With the issue dealt with, Lockwood now felt free to unburden himself on those present with the thoughts of Lockwood.

He spoke about parents as first teachers, his curriculum initiatives, special education, and the merits of changing funding arrangements.

There was complete bewilderment amongst the parents.

As he warmed to his oratory his loopiness became even loopier. It was only erased for a moment when the irrepressible Frank Dodd challenged him in booming style over special education funding. That intrusion over, Lockwood settled back into the comfort of his fantasy world.

The chairwoman had asked Lockwood to talk for fifteen minutes. These were nearly up. Parent bewilderment had turned to restlessness, now to anger. On he looped.

‘They’re with me all the way,’ Lockwood’s demeanour seemed to indicate. ‘I can even hear some murmuring of support.’

‘They even laughed at something I said. This was really worth the trip.’

The parents had laughed all right, laughed derisively. Lockwood had said, ‘You might know there’s a review office.’ For goodness sake Lockwood, of course they know there’s a review office. They also know there’s an election next year, a thought which might well have contributed to Christine Fletcher’s increasingly aghast expression.

Parents looked at each other in their mixture of bewilderment and anger. Lockwood at the parents and thought he was going famously. The teachers and principals looked at each other and thought – well, at least they know what we have to put up with. And Network looked at Lockwood and thought, ‘You bloody nincompoop!’

You can imagine Lockwood’s shock then, given his evident self-satisfaction as to how he was performing, when the chairwoman rose, crossed to the microphone and stopped him in full flight … ‘The clear targets in the curriculum initiative will …’

‘Mr Smith, I’m sorry for interrupting you, but would you please speak to the point.’

Applause erupted.

Such was Lockwood’s astonishment there was a temporary loss of loopiness.

How would Lockwood respond? The answer: In character – in caricature.

‘I’ve come a long way to say this,’ he whined, ‘and I would like to finish it. It’ll only take a few more minutes.’

And on he went … ‘will allow parents an exact picture of where their child is.’

And on and on he went.

Then, the mist momentarily cleared, reality intruded, and he addressed the issue.

‘As I said at the beginning it is a local issue … but have you heard of the government’s Educational Development Initiative?’ The reference to the issue was so quick, and the return to his meanderings so immediate, that we blinked in incomprehension.

Here was a group of parents, many of whom were deeply agitated about a zoning issue, one affecting their children’s lives in the present as they saw it, and a minister of education who had flown all the way from Wellington ostensibly to talk about a zoning issue but talked, instead, about a whole lot of other stuff.

Lockwood’s behaviour was grotesque. By declaring the issue a local one, he sincerely appeared to believe he had provided a solution. Can you see what Network means when he says Lockwood is beyond satire, and why this recounting has had to be a straight record of events?

Christine Fletcher who would have hoped that Lockwood might pull the chestnuts out of the fire, could only hope those present would be supportive enough to see some value in them as burnt offerings.

Network is a bit vague about the details of what followed but somehow Lockwood became disputatious about roll numbers given by various principals.

‘My figures have come from the ministry,’ he announced with an air of finality.

Cynical laughter came from a section of the hall close to, or exactly where, the principals were sitting.

Meanwhile, like Brer Fox watching Brer Rabbit getting stuck to Tar-Baby, the man from the ministry said ‘nuthin’.

With that the Hon. Lockwood Smith, minister of education, minister of the crown, who had flown all the way from Wellington, walked back to his seat in silence.

The debate that proceeded from there ignored what Lockwood had to say, whatever that was. A minister of the crown had flown from Wellington to speak at a meeting; he had spoken words, but he that spoke them was soon forgotten.

Why had his advisers let him come? The well-established rule of thumb for attendance at such meetings is that ministers don’t attend unless there are votes to be gained – that was not the case here. And given that it was Lockwood who was coming, he should have been chained to his ministerial chair. (The way Christine Fletcher was looking, she probably wouldn’t have minded if it was an electric one.)

But north he’d come; the white knight to the rescue – the parents’ champion. His head full of fantasy. And his lance had stuck in a windmill and he’d been spun around and dumped. But on his way back to Wellington, Network has little doubt that in Lockwood’s clouded consciousness another dragon had been slain and he was champion to a misty-eyed Christine.

Returning home to Cambridge that night, Network felt like weeping.

Posted in Education Policy, Political | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Labour’s primary school education policies hang in the balance (before they have even begun)

Is this going to be a bold Labour Party or a timorous one?

If the school review policy is not changed, that will dramatically reduce benefits from the abolition of national standards and other potentially positive changes.

On a personal note: I have never liked institutional power, which makes it strange I know that I became a senior inspector of schools; but I have been close enough to it to experience its allure also to witness the harm to those who are the object of it and the personal corrosiveness to those who carelessly wield it.

After David Lange brought in Tomorrow’s Schools and the administrative structures that accompanied it, he was bitterly disappointed that the curriculum did not improve – he said the government would pay attention to it later. It never did because, perhaps unknowingly, he was following the neoliberal agenda to a T, so we were left with an almost exclusive focus on the administrative structures and the curriculum it allowed – a narrow and ideological one.

To improve the curriculum, to make it enlightened, you need to have people who know the curriculum in an enlightened way, really know it, not people who take their curriculum lead from those people who focus on structures. Structures should not lead the curriculum; the essential characteristics of the curriculum should lead the structures.

It is ridiculous to deny that Tomorrow’s Schools was from the neoliberal playbook. The idea and basis for Tomorrow’s Schools came from Treasury, the same source as for Rogernomics. Before the implementation of Tomorrow’s Schools, a considerable number of young, suited, Treasury males swarmed through the Education Board buildings interviewing us. They made it abundantly clear the education system was being changed to serve the new economics one.

It is time for the Labour Party to break the shackles completely.

National standards were developed for the education review office, policed by them, lived by them.

To retain the present structure would be the most damaging of tricks to play on expectant classroom teachers.

In a coalition, the Greens would welcome such a change and so would New Zealand First, the sticking point is within Labour.

Jacinda Ardern in her first speech as leader said she wanted an education system that fostered creativity – that won’t happen under the present review structure.

Is this going to be half-way house Labour?

The New Zealand primary education is in significant decline, amidst all the numbers, including international ones, are the numbers from the Dunedin Monitoring Unit (carried out by academics) – the numbers are on average about 20% below the official national standards results. Those declining numbers have taken 25 years to bring about and will take decades to recover from, but the present system of national standards, and outcomes-based school reviewing, all kept in place by the unyielding rule of the education review office, must go if that recovery is to begin.

To take away national standards and to leave in place this undiluted neoliberal institution (evaluation institutionally separate from practice; based on outcomes-based measurement; narrowing education for vocational and ideological ends; having people controlling, deciding, and judging in education who have little or no experience of what they are controlling, deciding, and judging to conform to the neoliberal idea that people involved directly in an activity be excluded from controlling, deciding and judging because of a supposed self-interest) would be a cruel hoax to play on all children and I isolate Maori and Pasifika children in particular.

The key aim in primary education is to hand on to secondary schools children who can think, like to write, are independent readers, express themselves, and enjoy learning. That cannot happen in a widespread way under the present system.

There will be principals who prefer the rigid nature of the current system with boxes to tick all in a row. There will be some, if change were to occur, who would find unsettling the need to give more active consideration to the whole curriculum and real achievement. But talk to the teachers who are pulling out their hair at being stopped from widening the curriculum and genuinely getting children to think, independently read, and express themselves aesthetically.

At the moment teachers often have to ask reviewers to come in to their rooms, and when they do, they observe how uncomfortable they are to be there.

To invite junior teachers to continue with early childhood’s Te Whariki is a brilliant inclusion in the Labour manifesto but completely at odds with the outcomes-based, measurement-based, records-based way the education review office functions and the way it is staffed. Labour must get a grasp of its philosophy and follow through.

There are some good people in the education review office who do useful things, in a kindly manner, serving in some respects to ameliorate the fear-inducing environment but, as history informs us, destructive institutions to gain sufficient acceptance require some good people for a façade. The review office is beyond the democratic pale. The relationship of review office to school is one of unpredictability and lack of accountability leading to an overall relationship based on fear that is often sublimated by schools furiously conforming to, even going beyond, review office expectations.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of the review office’s way of functioning is its anti-democratic way of deciding, without consultation with parents, teachers, or any representative consultation group, what curriculum areas should be emphasised, how teaching should be organised to minute non-disputable detail, and how schools should be administered. The official curriculum in New Zealand education is now a document interpreted for meaning by an unaccountable, centralised grouping (review office, ministry, Treasury), with the latest word often being spread through review visits and edicts.

I have always advocated a review system that has a review organisation as part of the ministry structure and involving teams with an education cross-section of members.

There is a South Australian model that is close to my idea: the composition of teams is determined primarily by the knowledge and skills required to undertake the various parts of the review programme.

I would see the review programme as being based on the official curriculum – if the official curriculum does not meet what is needed, then the curriculum should be changed, using the full democratic processes of curriculum development. Schools should then be given a good deal of freedom to interpret that curriculum to suit their children, community, and teachers. And, it would be on that curriculum interpretation the school would be reviewed.

The days of bureaucratic institutions producing arrays of objectives, indicators and the like must be ended. Also ministers imposing curriculum change on schools without following proper curriculum processes. For instance, as was done using corporates and private companies to produce the digital curriculum with only one teacher present and that a relation of a cabinet minister.

In general, school-based review teams would be led by a permanent review officer, and the teams comprise a school principal, a community representative, one or two school-based teachers (not from the school), and the principal of the school.

All principals of review teams should receive training in review methods. This training could be provided various organisations, for instance, universities, NZEI, PPTA, STA, and some private organisations, with an emphasis, I suggest, on the curriculum. Over time the desired effect would be to have principals and teachers in all schools trained in review methods. This opportunity to work in review teams would provide school-based staff with a valuable insight into school planning and development and enrich, inform, and inspire the whole system.

What could be closer to the democratic ideals of the Labour Party than this?

Let the present Labour Party demonstrate recognition and some penitence for promising school freedom in Tomorrow’s Schools and then taking it away with the education review office. It seems to me Labour, in 2017, is proffering educationally positive things on one hand but is still lacking sufficient trust in schools by holding on to the repressive education review office on the other. As a byword, Labour wants to act on refreshing and democratising our institutions and society – the conceptual opposite to neoliberalism. There is a reference in the Labour manifesto to paying attention to other matters that arise – let a new way of reviewing schools be one of those matters.

Let trust reign!

Jacinda promised creativity in education; it can only be achieved with a very different education review process.

Posted in Education Policy, Political | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Networkonnet and Kelvin Davis

About six months ago, I was frustrated with Chris Hipkins missing an opportunity to expose a serious fault in Hekia’s education system. The title of the posting was: If Chris Hipkins can’t do it give it to Kelvin Davis. Chris and I have since made up and, except for the terrible error in not restructuring the review office (to use principals on short term contract as done in Australia), I am very pleased with the Labour manifesto. 

What follows was part of that posting.

In many respects Kelvin Davis is more conservative than Chris Hipkins but Kelvin Davis listens and that is all we are asking.

I want to make it clear these postings are entirely my initiative. If Kelvin asked me to stop I wouldn’t.

He first came to my attention many years ago when I was at Waitangi on Waitangi Day taking photographs for a social studies resource. The word spread like wildfire that Helen Clark had continued north to speak to a promising potential Maori candidate – that promising potential Maori candidate was Kelvin Davis.

In the last three years we have probably communicated four or five times. In a posting, I pushed him and Stuart Nash for leadership material, and that Christmas (after the election), in walking down to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, I met him and his new secretary who had been taken north to meet his family and visit the electorate.

We had a very good discussion.

I urged him to put in bid for the leadership of the Labour Party (against David Cunliffe).

Since then we have communicated about four times, usually when he sought information about a school and principal he thought might be able to help. Please note: not to work together but to do what he could do from his position.

Kelvin Davis was decisive in protecting Opua School from the very bad behaviour of the education review office.

Two times, after reading my postings, and then ringing me, I could sense his deep concern about the bullying of two women principals.

The questions he asked were always direct and quite tough: summed up, he didn’t want to be caught defending an incompetent. Kelvin is not someone to be trifled with.

I did ring him on one occasion to do with his visit to a charter school in Whangarei. He said he did not support charter schools, and I believed him, and so should you – Kelvin Davis does not tell lies.

The circumstances were that he was asked to visit the school for a special occasion by the principal, a close member of his whanau – that member had worked to start a school for Maori children, one she intended to have within the public system. That was the originating plan, but the ministry would have none of it, and insisted it be a charter school or nothing.

In the end Kelvin Davis decided to serve one loyalty while transgressing another.

Kelvin Davis would disagree on a lot of things with me about education, I don’t care; he is a listener. I see him as a future prime minister.

… and then I continued with the education case I wanted to put to Kelvin Davis (to get up Chris Hipkins’ nose).

Posted in Education, Political | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Triumphant unanimity in the Far North

It was November, 2009.

In normal times websites like networkonnet should leave schools alone to survive the end of year, but these are not normal times – what has happened, and will happen, in the year’s concluding weeks will be decisive for the inevitably tumultuous and decisive events of next year.

Friday, November 27, was a gorgeous day: the place was Kawakawa School in the Bay of Islands; the occasion a meeting of Tai Tokerau principals (Whangarei to Reinga); the purpose to discuss national standards. Over 80 principals were in attendance; the redoubtable Pat Newman was in the chair; three people from the ministry were there – the Auckland second-in-command whose name I didn’t pick up, Alison Dow, and Mary Chamberlain (a last minute call in); and there was Bruce Hammonds. In the audience, with his attendance much appreciated, was Kelvin Davis, the Far North Labour list mp. His attendance could well have contributed to a subsequent significant development in what turned out to be an auspicious period for the campaign against national standards.

Pat in black (looking rather like a local mafia chapter leader) in his introductory comments, left no doubt of his point-of-view, but promised to chair the meeting fairly (which he did to the extent of hauling me in when I was expatiating with considerable enthusiasm on how bureaucrats earned brownie points by demonstrating their staunchness in going against the expressed wishes of teachers).

Alison Dow spoke in stolid fashion (which was, for the ministry, appropriate for the occasion) for about ten minutes; then came Mary Chamberlain. As I said afterwards, Bruce and I thought we had done quite well in undermining the national standards’ case, but we weren’t within a bull’s roar of doing this as well as Mary Chamberlain had. The anecdotal inconsequentiality of this was so extreme that, in a transcendental way, it became almost an art form. Perhaps, two points amidst the frenetic absurdity, the ministry apparently sees national standards as a kind of education AA providing signposts for education (OK, but where are they pointing?); and with desperate googling they have located an article that seems to be saying that while nearly all national standards are disastrous, there is one kind that might not be (though no living example was provided).

Mary Chamberlain sees herself as explaining national standards, but her judgement is letting her down, she is justifying them.

The audience spent their time shaking their collective heads and quietly murmuring, but were, and continued to be, polite.

Then Bruce Hammonds spoke in his characteristically eloquent and humanistic way.

I thundered away for about 30 minutes.

In my introduction I shamelessly tried to ingratiate myself by pointing out how I had taught at Maromaku (during the latter years of when Elwyn Richardson was over the hill at Oruaiti); then with striking irrelevance felt the need to inform the principals that I had represented the north in sport; then more appositely spoke of how my auntie had been matron at Rawene for decades working with Dr Smith and how we used to go blackberrying wearing surgical gloves and gowns; perhaps the most likely convincing winning point was how my son-in-law’s father owned the nearby freezing works’ meat shop (Mac’s Prime Meats) and that anyone who wanted a good deal need only call in at Moerewa on the way home. I even scored with the principal of my granddaughter’s principal at Hurupaki School who, when I mentioned my daughter’s attendance there, asked me if I had visited the school’s wetlands. I was able to say that indeed I had, just the day before and, as well, I had also admired the school’s new logo.

I am not going into any detail of what was said because early next year I will be sending a posting giving an overview of the situation.

In the afternoon, the meeting was thrown open to questions and statements. There is a saying about the north: Every hill a chief. After listening to the questions and statements, for me, it was every school a philosopher. The analyses and questions were clear-eyed and penetrating. It was inspirational. Tony Hamilton spoke forcefully and cogently for the NZEI principals and Peter Witana for the Federation. Then there were the equally excellent contributions from others from the floor. As I listened, I saw our future leadership. None more so than when Keri Milne-Ihimaera, Moerewa principal, had her say, concluding with the question: ‘What are the implications if I just say no to national standards?’ I parried that a bit at the time but noted her as a genuine prospect for stirring and leading debate. (Which she has proceeded to demonstrate: yesterday morning she was on national radio saying how inappropriate national standards were for Maori children.)

With the meeting in good heart, Pat put a series of motions to the meeting, the first that schools should do nothing with national standards until the teacher organisations had consulted their members in the first term.

All motions were passed unanimously.

As I walked down to central Kawakawa to where I had parked my car, it was a wonderful memory to see the cheery waves from a van full of far Far North teachers.

But then I looked across the road to under the spreading oak and I felt a chill. The ministry delegation was clustered around their public service car in deep and serious discussion. I sensed then a different message leading to a different mood to be delivered to head office. It reminded me of the change of mood after the Springbok tour match at Hamilton – a change of mood from finding us mildly comical to one bordering on hatred. The body language of the ministry officials was a signal – inevitable if our struggle was lifted to the real – that the New Year was going to be a terrible one in our education history with the education of a generation of children at stake, the professionalism of teachers, and the humanism of our system.

Posted in Education Policy, National standards | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Bruce Hammonds on using the immediate environment for expressing and learning

Personal writing is a means to let the children affirm that their own lives are significant and worth recording. By bringing their world into school we are in a way legitimising the children’s unique existence and, in a small way, helping them come to terms with themselves and their experiences. We are also reinforcing the idea that small scale events of one’s own life are valid things to think about and express. Many children in our school seem to mistrust their own way of thinking, finding security in the ‘right’ answers that many teachers prefer.

There are a number of activities that can help children develop their own ability to express themselves and to recognise that they all have something of value to say and share. For children who have learnt to dislike writing (even early in primary school) this at first will be no easy task and will require time. Teachers who contemplate introducing such a programme must appreciate that it will take a long time, even for the competent writers, to share their innermost thoughts with a teacher. It will be over to teachers to develop the right atmosphere and relationship so that the children will come to trust their ideas with them.

Theme selection is an important matter because many children have great difficulty in focusing on the most important aspect of an experience whether from memory or the present. Often language topics are chosen which are so broad in canvas that intensive thought is impossible. For example, an account of a day’s visit starts from the moment the child wakes and then develops into a recitation of events. To avoid this, ask children to quickly list all the things they remember about the trip (or a happy event, or beginning school …). From this initial list the children then select an idea for development.

Another useful technique is scribe writing. This has been found most successful when used with junior classes and with older children who have lost confidence in their writing ability through repeated lack of success.

Scribed writing is simply the children’s language written down by the teacher as it is spoken by the children. This last point is vital if the teacher wishes to gain the confidence of the child. Scribed writing allows the children’s thoughts to be recorded with immediacy. These thoughts can be used for the individual child’s reading and can be kept on large charts to be referred to when necessary. Obviously it is possible to work with only a small group of children. Scribed writing recognises the very important link between talking, reading, writing, and visual expression. The emphasis must always be on the value of self-expression.

We now move closer to a consideration of the quality of children’s written language.

Every child should be encouraged to see the shapes, patterns, textures, and movements of things around them.

Children should learn to be able to express their thoughts and feelings about such experiences and make comment on the network of relationships that exist on a personal level for us all. To see with the eyes of a scientist, poet, and artist is an important experience for all children. The environment is a rich storehouse of visual memories and emotional responses to be embroidered, relived, combined, and transformed by the imagination, ready to be recalled by an active mind. The teacher’s task is not to teach in this situation, but to set the children free to do their own learning. Inspiration is there for the taking.

Vital to achieving quality responses in language or any expressive form is a need to develop a reflective atmosphere, both in the class and in the field. Encouraging a reflective atmosphere in a large class is not any easy task but it is an important one. The more ‘open’ the classroom programme, the more it is a necessary.

The allowing of time is a vital ingredient in the development of work of quality in any subject field. When achieved it gives the teacher an opportunity to enter into meaningful dialogue with individual children – listening, helping and, most of all, valuing the child’s efforts. At these times, the teacher can really assist children in making their own discoveries.

Possibly the teacher’s own actions and responses to the environment is the best model. It is also important for the teacher to explore the potential study areas of the local environment. Too often teachers rush unprepared into a field trip outdoors, armed with the belief that such experiences will automatically interest and thereby involve children. The truth is that unless the children have the correct attitudes and skills, much of the time will be wasted in containing over-excited children rather than using their natural enthusiasm more constructively.

The following are some activities teachers could provide:

Looking high above us. Collect thoughts about clouds, the wind, tree branch shapes, birds, aeroplanes … Lie down on the lawn or concrete.

A search for tiny animals. Note where they are found, what they looked like, and what they did when they were disturbed. Look under stones, in grass, in flowers … Work on hands and knees.

Take out a small group and play ‘I spy’. Observations could be illustrated and made into a chart or booklet.

Feel the wind. Go outside on a windy day. Pretend to be blown around. Be aeroplanes, birds. Sit down and gather thoughts about the wind, what it does, what it reminds us of, and what it is. What makes wind? Copy the ideas on display sheets, name beside, or have the children write their ideas for display. Be unreceptive to ideas children have just repeated. Leave the sheets on display for long-term interest and adding to. Use this process as a model in consideration of all environmental activities. The immediate environment should be seen as a laboratory.

Go on a tree shape hunt. Visit a selection of interesting trees and gather observations, descriptions, and thoughts.

Look at the leaf, trunk, branch patterns. Measure height, girth, and spread. Draw shape.

Rain. Put on raincoats and explore gutters, raindrops. Collect rain thoughts. Observe raindrops on windows.

Visit after rain – when the sun is out. How has the rain changed our world?

The magic of dew. Collect thoughts about a heavy dew. Paint dew-drop paintings.

Frost. Walk on fresh frost. Collect impressions. Look at the patterns. Explore icy puddles. Break one. Describe.

Complete the paintings – white on black.

Shadows. Visit some shady areas, what are they like? Contrast with a sunny spot. Play games with your shadow.

Puddles. After a shower of rain on a hot day visit a puddle. Look into it. What can you see (reflections)? Drop a pebble into it. Draw around with chalk – observe during the day. Where has the water gone?

Playground rocks. Visit early in the morning. How do they feel? Revisit late afternoon on a hot day. How do they feel? How did they get hot? Record thoughts. What else gets hot in the sun? A bucket of water? Wooden walls …?

Kowhai in spring. Visit kowhai (if you’re lucky so might a tui!) Admire colour. Discuss shape. Collect a flower and in class explore – petals, stamens, and pistil. What is the function of these parts? When the kowhai has finished flowering, watch the skinny seed pods grow – measure growth. Make a lino cut.

Observe a flower. A simple colourful flower like a poppy is ideal. Direct observations to the young bud, a flower opening, petals falling, and seed box. Note any other areas of interest. Make a flower mural – life and death of a flower. Mime growth.

Measure. Have a flower show. Grow plants or seeds.

Observing birds. Go on a bird walk in winter or spring. Describe birds you see. Count them. How big are they? What is their behaviour? Make a bird feeding table. Make a bird mural. Name those you can. How do birds fly?

Explore a bird’s nest. Admire a nest. What thoughts come to mind? Measure. Take apart carefully, write a description.

Tree trunks and bark patterns. What is the function of bark? Visit a select number of tree trunks in the playground to feel textures and describe shapes. What images come to mind? Look at shapes, colours, patterns.

Use a crayon to take bark rubbings. Measure girth and height to first branch. Look for animals and plants on trunk – especially around base.

A number of leaf activities. Visit the environment to find a range of leaves from the very small to the largest you can measure. Another visit could concentrate on the thinnest to widest leaves. Some leaves could be traced on to squared paper and the area counted. Visit to find leaves with a variety of shapes – from simple to complex; leaves with more than one colour; leaves with interesting textures. Such activities could lead to comparisons, measurement, and classification skills. As well, leaf prints with crayon or ink and rollers can be introduced. Make a lino cut. Copying machines make excellent copies of leaves. Games such as find this leaf can be developed.

Leaf shapes in lawn or waste area. Collect at least six different shaped leaves from a limited area. Sit and discuss ways in which they could be grouped (size, shape, colour, feel …). Describe a number of the more interesting ones. Make a pressing or take a leaf print – add descriptions.

Wild flower collection. See how many small wild (weed) flowers you can find. Bring a flower from each back to class. Group them by colour. Paint or invent some flower patterns. How many different flowers? Graph common colours.

Lawn daisies or dandelions or cape daisies. In spring or summer when the fields are covered with daisies, visit to gather impressions. Lie down and look at eye level. Describe. Throw physical education hoops and count flowers. Find the longest stemmed flower. Make a flower mural. Count petals.

Autumn leaves. Look for autumn leaves. Lie in them. Throw in the air. Collect different colours. Which are the oldest? Which have the best colour? Write impressions, thoughts. Make an autumn tree mural.

Spring buds. Visit trees and shrubs in spring. Observe buds. Describe different buds – sticky, furry, pointed, scaled … Discuss what might be inside. What do new leaves look like? What function do leaves carry out? Fat buds are usually flower buds – thin ones, leaves. Make a display inside. Bring along buds from home – pussy willow, magnolia.

Insect visitors. Either visit one flower bed or one shrub which has insect visitors or check a number of plants. What animals can you see? Describe them. Collect children’s thoughts. Keep selected animals in suitable containers. Paint giant flowers and add insects and thoughts. Group insects. Count them.

Looking into lawns. A mini-jungle. Lie down on a lawn or along a fence line. What shapes, patterns can you see? What animals? What are they doing? Plan a mini-jungle mural. Write impressions. Mime. Classify finds by colour, shape, movements, number of legs …

Worms. Why are worms useful to people? Detergent and water brings worms to the surface. How many from a square metre? Place on paper and observe, listen, measure. Observe movements, write thoughts. Look for worm casts – how are they made? Find worms on the surface after heavy rain.

Snails. Undertake a snail search. Look in leaves of flax, red hot pokers, under things. Observe and describe snail trails. Place snails on glass and observe, describe, and write thoughts. Note movement. Draw. Make a lino cut. Measure speed. Have a snail race.

Slaters. Find some slaters. Note where you found them. Look under a rock, in grass around trees, under things. Put in a 3D viewer. Observe. Count legs. Write thoughts.

Spiders and spiders’ webs. Visit spiders’ webs (orb webs or cartwheel webs) on a dewy morning. Describe. Write impressions, thoughts. Count spokes. Which bits are sticky? Feed in a fly – observe. Make a giant web in the classroom. Catch a spider – observe in a jar. Count parts of body – legs, eyes. Describe. Draw.

Monarchs, emperor moths, white butterflies. Follow the life cycle of a moth or butterfly. Record changes. Describe movements. Draw caterpillars and adults.

Material used in building. Walk around the school to see what different kinds of materials are used in building. What are the properties of each? What textures? How do they react to the sun? How are they treated? Make a collection of materials. Group them. Wood, glass, iron, concrete, tiles, plastic, aluminium, bricks, blocks …

Follow the sun. Follow the sun through the sky on a sunny day. Make a note or diagram where it is at each hour. You could mark with chalk the movement of sun’s rays in the room. Where does the sun rise – and set? Write sun thoughts. What are your ideas about the sun? Night and day? The moon? Stars?

Patterns against the sky. Search the school grounds for patterns made by objects against the sky – describe (or draw) what can be seen – tree branches, telephone wires, birds, TV aerials, pylons …

A feelings walk. Emphasise the sense of touch. Go on a feelings walk to feel and describe textures. How can we group the things we feel – rough, sticky, warm …? Collect thoughts about each. Take rubbing of textures. Make a display of textures. Blindfold children and feel textures. Make a video.

A listening walk. Listen to sounds in different parts of the school grounds – under trees, by the road. Shut eyes. Record thoughts about sound – make into a sound poem. Listen to small sound (imagine a leaf falling) – distant sounds. Make a list of sound words.

A smell walk. Collect thoughts about smells. Make a smell poem. Smell smoke of the incinerator. Newly mown grass. Crush up phebalium leaves – mint, parsley. How do the smells travel? Smell crushed onion weed, flowers. Grasses. In summer collect as many grass flowers as you can. Measure the tallest piece of grass. Play ‘tinker-tailor’ with rye-grass. Lie in the grass. Smell grass. Write thoughts.

In autumn collect as many examples of seed heads, seeds, and fruits as you can. Back in class sort them out into groups. Make a display of seed heads.

Shape hunt. Walk around the school looking for as many round things as you can find – or curved things. Walk to find exciting things, delicate things, solid things, shapes …

Pattern walk. Collect as many examples of patterns as you can – weatherboard, tree branches, bricks, netball lines …

Looking for records. Find a pod with the most seeds, the animal with the most legs, the flower with the least number of petals, the shortest leaf, the narrowest leaf, the biggest weed, the longest daisy flower stalk …

Estimating. Use a stretched out hand (span) to measure a tree trunk, a flower bed, the height of a friend. What could you measure with your finger, your foot, a step? Guess, then measure.

Explore space. Find a big area. Explore as much as you can. Run to all the corners. Walk using giant steps, tiny steps, kangaroo jumps, on toes, on heels, skip – fast, slow. Swing arms. Spin. Bend. Lie down, crawl.

Map making. Use directions from children to make written instructions for getting from A to B in the school grounds. Emphasise precision. Get another adult and teacher to follow instructions.

As Bruce has suggested, when taking children outdoors we are trying to lead them into experiences that will involve them touching, seeing, tasting (where possible), smelling, and hearing things in their world, and we also want them to become involved in experiences which lead to imagining, exploring, measuring, reasoning, drawing, inventing, experimenting, investigating, and selecting so that these experiences will enrich the learner and lead to personal growth. Most of all we want the children to come to think of the environment as a place to enjoy, care for, and to learn in, and from.

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