Alive? Dead? Never been alive?
Children aged 5 -7 need to be able to wrestle confidently with this topic, in the new curriculum. And very interesting it is too.
E.g. ‘Dead’ – A chair is made out of wood from a tree which is no longer alive. We know that it is no longer alive because it is not re-producing, breathing, eating, excreting etc. ‘Excreting’ is always a popular discussion topic with 5 year olds.
We moved onto thinking about ‘a book’. ‘Never been alive’ was the general consensus. I was just wondering about how to introduce the origin of paper without losing half the class when one girl said – “A book is alive because as soon as you start to read, the story comes alive in your mind.”
Figurative thinking? Or is it scientific thinking? The science of how the mind works is arguably one of the most exciting areas of current scientific exploration.
Arbitrary distinctions are so hard to work with. As any parent whose children have gradually studied science at a higher and higher level knows, they come home every year and say “Well, apparently all that ‘stuff’ I learnt for SATs / GCSE / A level is actually wrong – the real truth is…” Arbitrary agreements are made by assessing / examining bodies about how much, conceptually, children are able to understand at different ages. Then they unpick it all at the next stage, and re-learn the new, more complex, ‘truth’.
This is, of course, convenient for assessment, but unfortunately out of kilter with children’s rather random development.
On the morning on which I was discussing whether a book was alive, I was also surprised to realize that one child didn’t know that wood (the chair) had come from a tree. And yet another child was pondering about oil (great excitement – dead things from millions of years ago come through the diesel pump at the garage and swill about in our cars). She thought that as coal is also a ‘fuel’, it may be made of dead things too. Hoorah! I do hope that she does a PhD in something fascinating… Perhaps she will invent wind-powered cars (Two current fixations in Class 4: 1. Cars with wind turbines – once they start they will never stop, because they’ll self-generate the necessary wind. 2. Cars with sails – how could we lay out motorways for tacking?).
These are the days when I’m glad that I don’t have a head-cold. Or a different job! There is nothing more interesting than being with a group of children who are curious about the universe and happily burbling their theories. But in science I find that it never develops as I thought it might. It is so easy to tell children that they are wrong, when what we actually mean is “That is not the answer I was expecting, or one which will get you the mark in the SAT test”. Think deeper, think wider…
How early do we close down this wide-ranging curiosity? How quickly do we want to explain to them that there are required answers? Not wise, complex, deep answers – just required ones.
You may be aware of the discussion about England’s rating as measured by PISA scores. It may be right to be worried, and I agree with the emphasis on high level literacy and maths skills. Certainly we need to ensure that our education system is excellent, given the current world climate. But I do also worry that we may be losing confidence in our country’s admittedly unusual education system. Creativity and innovation have been a strength of our education system. Stifle the originality and expression too early, and we may well find that we have lost a lot more than we’ve gained. Of course children need to be able to articulate their originality. Of course they need to be able to measure and manipulate data dexterously. But they must also be taught to think, and encouraged to develop creative, original responses.
How would you answer the 6 year old child who says “A book is alive because as soon as you start to read, the story comes alive in your mind”?
Answers on an email, please. I’d love your help!
Parents who have withdrawn their child from Religious Education all year were upset when their child wasn’t cast in the nativity play.
I don’t know how that story ended, but it did make me wonder, and carry out a little research. Apparently ‘7.5 million people’, or ‘35% of the population’ (choose your statistic) attend a church service sometime during Advent or Christmas. If you add in school nativity plays, I think that number would probably jump again. There can be a particular poignancy and potency about Christmas plays. It is easier to create a moment of hushed stillness, of awe and wonder, in a nativity play than it is in any other. There is something in the story that most of us recognise and respond to.
Or is it just sentimentalism? The department store advertisements play on our feelings at this time of year. ‘You are not cynics…’ they cry. Although our society can seem extremely cynical at times, there have been various moments this year when collectively people have rejected cynicism. Behind the Queen’s birthday celebrations, behind the support for the ‘ordinary’ folk on Bake-Off, behind the empathy with the suddenly ordinary ‘celebrities’ on Strictly, behind the creation of flood-victim support groups, you can hear the calls of “We believe in our community”. It is probable that for many of us the Brexit / Remain vote was based on a ‘gut reaction’ response – an idealistic desire for a positive community.
What’s this got to do with the nativity play?
In a frantically busy world, we sit down on those hard pews, in the candlelight, and find ourselves pausing for a moment in peace.
In a cynical world we find ourselves celebrating innocence and weakness, and the power of new life.
In a materialistic world, we look at this vulnerable family, and how a series of random interactions supports them. We can all identify with the sudden feeling of community that comes from human beings responding kindly to strangers.
In a ‘modern’ world, this story ties us to our past. It echoes down the ages, and gives us a comforting feeling of community across the world and throughout time.
‘Sentimentalism’ has negative connotations because it can be dangerous and seductive when we’re vulnerable. But it can also be a recognition of our most simple and powerful emotions. With our children we often allow ourselves to be sentimental. We make all sorts of little ritualistic stories to help them learn about growing up. Or is it to help the adults cope with the change? The tooth fairy eases the way from a chubby cheeked toddler to a suddenly long-faced child.
Somehow it’s ok for children to say what adults can’t. They can stand on stage and say “I believe in kindness” “I believe in love” “I believe in light in the darkness”. And the adults cry, because they know about the darkness. And they hope against hope that the children are right.
It’s a hard time of year. So come along to a nativity! It might just give you a giggle, or a tear… It might just help restore your sense of the rightness underlying the chaos.
‘…this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect.
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.’
U E Fanthorpe
The world feels full of strife at the moment. There is a great desire for wise and competent leadership, and much discussion about the absence of it. So when we were choosing which Shakespeare play to perform this year, Henry V seemed an apt choice. The wild youth, Harry, is transforming into Henry the King. There are factions, prejudices, impossible odds, idealistic dreams…
We split the role of Henry between two children. One played Henry ‘the King’, as he issued his royal edicts. The other played the man, Henry, who is coming to terms with his kingship, and struggling with loyalties and the loneliness of his new role.
Adam Foster, our new teacher, directed brilliantly. The children performed on the stage at Theatre by the Lake last week. If you’d like to see the play, they’re performing again on Tuesday 13th December at 6:30pm in St Oswald’s church. The play lasts about 40 minutes. It is a play for our times. Please come along.
I loved watching the Olympics. All those ordinary people, having extraordinary moments as a result of team-work and tenacity. All of us ordinary people enjoying the extraordinary moments, with others, at the end of our “ordinary” days. There was chat afterwards about “how to be happy when you’re mediocre”. Mediocre. I found that depressing.
No-one, of course, is ordinary. If you’re in schools every day you know that. Adults turn up at school with unique little human beings. Those children are to their parents the most extraordinary humans in the world. They are right. It’s not a deluded fiction; it’s fact. Every person is uniquely important. Love and grief are the most powerful things we ever know, because to each of us, some other human beings are uniquely special. Every person has infinite possibilities for development, and is born into a “team”, a community, which will help to nurture their talents. First of all they learn to crawl, walk, talk – all astonishing milestones. They learn to make friends, to tell a joke, to puzzle things out. Is that ordinary? Every child does all of this spectacularly originally.
We’ve got Olympic and other elite athletes coming through our village on Monday. The “Tour of Britain.” It sounds relaxed, but really isn’t. Lots of single-minded individuals, supported by huge teams, will be striving against each other, themselves and the usual rain. They are obviously extraordinary. But they are no more extraordinary than any of our new starters on Monday, who will be watching them. Just differently extraordinary!
We finished the school year with ‘Arthur, the True Story’, and ‘The Leavers Service’. They were, of course, ordinarily delightful – parents and families saw their unique children performing, and surpassing their own little goals. What I think makes productions and sport particularly powerful goes beyond this individual delight. There was a moment in ‘Arthur’ when I heard the ripple of “Is that…?” followed by appreciative wonder. We are a community, and during a production, or during a wrestling competition, or during a relay race, we join together to wonder at the individuals amongst us, and of what we’ve achieved as a team. As a nation we did the same during the Olympics. Lots of people came to me after the end of term. They said, “Did you know she / he could do that?” to which the answer is “We thought they could, and they found that they could, and what do we have to lose in trying to find out?” People also said, “Where did that come from?” The answer to that is, of course, “It came from that unique individual, and from the support of their team / family /community.” We’re all part of the success of each child and adult amongst us.
I have no idea which of the humans in Grasmere on Monday will turn out to be the most famous. It could be that several or none of us become more famous than Sir Bradley Wiggins. But I know that the place will be full of extraordinary unique people on Monday. I could show you someone who can create and adapt unbelievable costumes; someone who can bake glorious gingerbread; someone who properly, properly understands electricity; someone who can swim in lakes and not get cold. I’ll stop there! They are all ‘ordinary’ super-humans to me. Those are some of the adults. I’m not going to tell you about the children. They can tell us themselves over the coming days and years. Welcome back, every single one of you extraordinary human beings!
“To be able to respond to all the challenges we face in life, honourably, courageously, positively, ambitiously and creatively.” (Grasmere School Vision Statement) We’re aiming to give children the skills, attitudes and confidence that will be a solid foundation for the rest of their lives.
Most of life’s challenges happen outside a classroom, so it’s really important that children get lots of practise at applying skills in different contexts.
This week we’ve been on residential to Hadrian’s Wall. Every child will have had a different experience, depending on what they were ready to learn. Obviously we’ve learnt lots of historical information, in an engaging and relevant way. I saw lots of other little moments of revelation, which will be built on in later life:
- Lasagne can be approached with enthusiasm rather than suspicion. (Hunger helped with this one.)
- The skill of putting a duvet inside a cover is a skill worth learning. (Some children were viewed with awe, for their efficiency with this.)
- Telling friends scary stories can make them upset, and then you need to sort it out to make sure they’re ok again.
- It is possible to keep track of gloves, hats, waterproofs, water bottles etc, without adult prompting.
- Gold really is gold! We saw an archaeologist find a string of gold – very exciting.
- Making jokes when you’re tired can really help.
- Making jokes when you’re tired can go horribly wrong.
If I had to guess which learning experience will stay with them forever, I would probably choose the workshop where we were trained as Roman soldiers. One and a half hours of intense physical training, in Latin, dressed as Romans. But I might be entirely wrong! Education is the accumulation of lots of little experiences, and as teachers we don’t really know what we’re giving the children. As I write, what’s vivid in my mind is our early morning walk in the frosty fort, watching the lambs trying to climb the ruins… We will each have taken our own pictures and learning home, and stored them for future use…
That’s the wonder and humility of being a teacher. Our aim is to try to provide an environment and experiences which will help the children to learn, for their good and for the good of the future of the world!
As Wordsworth said,
“Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour”