They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol’n the scraps. (Love’s Labours Lost) As well as a writer, I’m a soon to be ex-teacher. Over many years I’ve taught in many settings, and just had the demoralising experience of administering sample SATs tests to children of six and seven. I don’t propose another tirade against fronted adverbials or to discuss whether a possessive pronoun would be better known as a possessive adjective (eh?) – Michael Rosen and friends are already doing excellent work there. But I do want to say that I’ve spent my teaching career trying to communicate a love of words, both English and others. I’ve seen pupils of all ages, abilities and mother tongues mesmerised by Shakespeare through film (Branagh’s Henry V; Jarman’s Tempest, Polanski’s Macbeth come to mind) and live performance (hats off to Cheek by Jowl, or Theatre in Education companies with minute budgets and toy swords). I’ve also worked successfully from the printed page, overcoming the mean production values of dog eared class sets used in a leaky mobile classroom on a Friday afternoon. (In fact, you can sell the witches on their blasted heath anyhow and anywhere, but Coriolanus needs more PR.) Now having spent so long promoting the Bard, I’d like to call him to my aid in the current debate about teaching grammar to young children. No offence to Michael Rosen, but Shakespeare has an even more incisive way with words.
No profit grows where is no pleasure taken; In brief, sir, study what you most affect. (Taming of the Shrew)
This term, to my shame, I brought small children to a room where they are more used to doing “special work” – collaborative games for social skills, enjoying puzzles, playing instruments, acting plays – and sat them at separate tables with six pages of print, four of them in single spaced paragraphs. (Some of these pupils are still more comfortable reading large format, large print picture books with one line per colourful page, but we have to provide evidence that all of them at least tried the test this year, however unlikely they are to succeed). I handed out a booklet of 18 comprehension questions, and told them to get on with it silently. They find it hard to grasp that they may not ask what even the hardest words mean, or query what a question requires of them. Although some have yet to reach a developmental stage where they can read silently, they mustn’t decode a word by “sounding it out”, since if they read aloud it might be construed as consulting with each other. They may most certainly not write in the little boxes where the teacher will later note their marks (which fascinate them more than the text). There’s no discussion allowed, although their education up to now has emphasised finding solutions together and using the help of adults and peers as a springboard to independence. They’re bewildered, but illogically proud of their answers – any answers: a few of them have only scored 1 or 2. We distribute stickers or biscuits to “make it better”. However, one or two have cried. The child with eczema is scratching harder than ever; the boy with itchy eyes looks red and puffy, and everyone wants to get a drink of water. The caretaker has cleaned up more “accidents” and vomit than usual this week. Oh, to be saved by the fire bell.
At their age, my classroom had a sand tray, a water tray, a home corner and a dressing up box. I sewed mats (I’m not sure what the boys did. Some things have changed for the better). I painted pictures when I wanted to, not when the timetable dictated, as it hardly ever now does. I (we, together) built with bricks, climbed on logs and performed as an ensemble in school concerts and plays. In year 5 and 6 in at least one local school, they’ve said there’s no time for a school play, because of SATs.
I’m a linguist, I value grammar (yes really) and sometimes I enjoy teaching it, but not when it takes precedence over tactile experiences, spatial awareness, solitary and collaborative play, practical learning of courtesy and how to share and the joys of mutual discoveries. Not every day, in snow or sunshine, during Jubilees, Diwali and the World Cup, and not to children who often go straight from school to a private tuition session. And certainly not when it shoves so much else out of the curriculum: the paints dry up in the cupboard; the glue order is halved; the design and technology equipment trolley hasn’t been unlocked for years; and each class gets only occasional turns on the expensive, fast weathering climbing frames outside. Even the stories we write using the grammar we have so painstakingly learned are planned to within an inch of their character’s lives: god forbid that writers should explore the joys of rambling on, maybe discovering some interesting byways, or that they should be permitted the freedom to give up when an idea isn’t working out.
Is not birth, beauty, good
shape, discourse, manhood, learning, gentleness, virtue, youth,
liberality, and such like, the spice and salt that season a man?
(A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
My current pupils are infants. Actually they do not, generally, mewl and puke in the nurse’s arms (As You Like It) by the age of six, though some have developed compensatory forms of dependence on their tablets and phones. Miraculously, most of them do still come to school cheerfully and willingly (if only to get away from the hours of tuition at home). And I would not pretend there was ever a golden age when adolescents zapped along the route to school with much enthusiasm. But current practice is going to take ever lower the age at which they start to whine and creep like snail Unwillingly to school (As you like it).
We’ve seen the writing on the wall, but we’re ignoring it, and breeding an unhealthy, unhappy generation in the name of raising standards. Lord, what fools these mortals be! (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But time will tell, since the evil that men do lives after them. (Julius Caesar) Recent government policy could make for a depressed, hunched, selfish, over worked and underplaying generation. For the time being my pupils remain mostly delightful, open, imaginative individuals so we can’t be sure, but the signs are some of them may grow up stunted, selfish, taciturn, unable to use an artistic paintbrush or indeed a decorator’s, without independence or the confidence to make mistakes, incapable of manual dexterity, overweight from lack of exercise, asthmatic from pollution, dry-eyed from computer screens. I cannot believe this will make them in the long term any more employable. But I’d love to know the aggregate earnings of Hamlet for the British economy since (approximately) 1602, even though in an age with less prescriptive grammar Shakespeare obviously didn’t realise that To be or not to be is (arguably) a statement, not a question.
And the saddest thing? It’s that they still trust us, and believe what we are doing for them is constructive, well thought out, and for their protection. That’s why I’m ashamed. Last week one of them quickly made me this end-of-the-boring-morning card, just because she thought I looked “a bit sad”. In return I’ve colluded in making her into Fortune’s fool (Romeo and Juliet).
© Jessica Norrie 2016