Alethiometers for All?

Philip Pullman has written some terrific ideas into his “his Dark Materials” trilogy: dust, daemons, armoured bears. Today I was reminded of the Truth-reader, the Alethiometer, the Golden Compass which Lyra the protagonist uses to discern what is happening in various situations.

I was reminded of the compass image by this article on Tristram Hunt’s mission to give teachers an ennobled sense of their profession. The “moral compass,” it would seem, is to be at the heart of Tristram Hunt’s vision of what teachers do: they hand it on.  In the ceremony ( if that’s what’s envisaged: see my posts on liturgy and graduation), newly professed teachers would be given a compass as a symbol that the role of a teacher is “to provide a sense of moral purpose and virtue to young people”.

“There is a teacher’s oath about continuing to learn and to pass on the love of learning.

“I’m very attracted by this notion of having almost a Hippocratic oath about the meaning and purpose of teaching,” he said.

“It’s bolstering the moment of qualification and the meaning of qualification – what it means to become a teacher.

“That seems to be an important idea that we want to explore.

“It can’t just be a gimmick – it has to be part of a commitment to professional development and career pathways.”

The commitment to year-on-year improvement is not to be sneezed at, especially if a new Labour government sees this as a commitment to support teachers’ access to high quality postgraduate study and really effective CPD. I worry that this vision of Hunt’s is a bit of conjuring to move the duty to teachers and away from hard-pressed school budgets.

I also worry quite what a “moral compass” is.  A real compass points to a True North. It smacks of an absolute moral right-or-wrong set of beliefs so that ,when we think about “truth” and “morality”,  teachers are being asked to reproduce a catechism of moral choices, rather than to encourage young people to enquire and challenge, to find standards and values to follow. An Alethiometer is much more of a meditation tool, a mechanised (and non-religious) I Ching that challenged Lyra to think, to reflect.  Pullman is too clever a writer to make this a simple set of instructions in machine form.  ‘”It tells you the truth,’” the Master of Jordan College tells her. ‘”As for how to read it, you’ll have to learn by yourself.”‘

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National Poetry Day III

Just to record how wonderful the Poetry Reading event was, with contributors from international students, undergrad interns, members of staff and our close friends.

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National Poetry Day II



..Happily ever after.

That’s the story, but in this case,
The wolf wins,
Jack the Giant Killer falls
No youngest son outsmarts the shadows;
in this case the most that can be said
of those left
of those eager to believe
of the listeners at the doors of faith,
yes the most that can be said is

And they lived…


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National Poetry Day I

Without comment:

In Illo Tempore


The big missal splayed

and dangled silky ribbons

of emerald and purple and watery white.


Intransitively we would assist,

confess, receive. The verbs

assumed us. We adored.


And we lifted our eyes to the nouns.

Altar stone was dawn and monstrance noon,

the word rubric itself a bloodshot sunset.


Now I live by a famous strand

where seabirds cry in the small hours

like incredible souls


and even the range wall of the promenade

that I press down on for conviction

hardly tempts me to credit it.


Seamus Heaney

From Station Island

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Language, culture and education – a quick advert

Just to draw the eye of anyone who might read this to a series of lunchtime discussions at Harcourt Hill:
Oct. 8th 12.0 – 1.00 Dr. Andrie Yiakoumetti The World in the classroom Room AG/09

Why English? First and second language choices and policies
Which English? English as a lingua franca, English as an International Language and World Englishes
Should teachers of English be teachers of culture?

Oct. 22nd 12.0 – 1.00 Dr. Randall Holme The Language Learner: changing methods Room AG/09

What do language teachers need to know about language learners?: Appropriate methodology and learner contexts..
Why should second language acquisition research matter to the language teacher?

Nov. 5th 12.0 – 1.00 Dr. Paul Wickens The English language: changing methods Room AG/09

How is the corpus changing what we know about English? What does that mean for teaching English?
What should teachers know about language?

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Another tweet-and-a-half and no more, instead of a longer post.

Rosemary Roberts once described nursery as “plenty of interesting things to do and plenty of people to do them with,” if I recall her correctly. And here we are at the tail end of summer, working frantically (this brief post is by way of respite!) to make sure that Monday goes as smoothly as possible.

University: interesting things to study and people to study with. Monday: enrolment and induction.

Talks are organised, classes (for some postgrads) set up, their photocopying done: all that is in place. So what else is there? How do we ensure that people joining us feel “held” (to use the phrase a credit-entry year three student used last year)?

What are the messages from nursery?
Is there nothing like milk and cookies and a rest?

Well, there are and there aren’t.

I think the key is that staff understand what transition is. They get the importance of the rite of passage, and the dominance of the institution. They know your change into a student on this course or that is a reinvention, at one level, and that this may not be instant – maybe that it should not be instant.

A concept of transition trajectories lets us acknowledge that successful transitions may take time, that children [read: students] deal differently with transitions and that prior experience needs to be take into account.

Janet Moyles: Beginning Teaching, Beginning Learning

University can be an institution larger and more impersonal than you may be used to – but it is staffed by real people, who are contactable, people with whom you can communicate, who care (dare I say it?) about you and your learning.

Next week will bewilder and alienate, just as it does when you are two and go into a massive room full of busy, bigger children and adults you don’t know. Do what one of my granddaughters did this week just gone: find something to do that you like, make sure you can find coffee and books and a computer, or someone who looks like they will be OK.  Attachments are important; place is important; activity is important. Transitions are key: just remember amid the forms and room changes and institutional hiccups that your tutors know this and are there to support you.

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The future of Nursery Schools: Tuesday morning’s adjournment debate in Parliament

This is a very, very quick post to push on Julian Grenier’s plea that people should write to their MPs about the future of the Nursery School.

This is the link to his blog: which contains all you need, from suggested text through to the “Contact Your MP” link.


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Expect scuffles

The short but clever blog post from Gareth E Rees raises some interesting questions about public landscape and memory, using the insights of memorials.

I won’t spoil the impact by citing the neat ending, much as I’d like to share it, but the notion of memory is an important one. “Jodie” and “Duncan” – or Mrs A, Mr B, Chris and Deb, Ena, whoever – being remembered brings with it a certain appropriation, Gareth maintains. He may be right: I sit on a bench in this park and know that the view was appreciated by someone else.

Of course, I don’t mind that. Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series of books are meditations on her house and its history, and are built on just this point, for example.

The bigger questions around landscape and myth, however, that I’ve explored before, impinge here, particularly when we think of landscapes as mutable. Can we alter this view, when Fred loved it so much? And more particularly, can we acknowledge the manes, lares et penates of previous inhabitants?

There is a bench I know that overlooks an old gravel pit and a railway siding. In the misty moisty, mornings of September it is beautiful: quiet, with grebes, mallards, the occasional plop of a fish or the silent flight of a heron. The bench has a commemoration on it.  The commemoration does not, I presume, remember when the gravel pit was in full operation, or when a local railway line ran through what is now the park. It remembers Mrs X “who loved this spot” for much the same reasons as many people do now. Her ghost, if you like, resonates with current feeling.

Another ghost, perhaps, of the Neolithic marsh dwellers of South Oxford, or the Normans who built their Grand Pont across the wetland might want to contest her view, our view. Where does our conservation stop? Whom do we recognise? Where does conservation of a nineteenth or twentieth century landscape become a matter of public interest? How do we represent landscape as mutable without laying in open to any and every change – or recognise that change is not always bad?

And can [children's] literature represent this mutability and beauty at one and the same time?

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A personal post to acknowledge the repulsive skirmishes around what Malorie Blackman may or may not have said about diversity and representation in children’s literature.

Her point that there is “a very significant message that goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading” is what I’m thinking about. Wise words, and I want to explore three examples of books: “classic” books, modern children’s books and modern children’s picture story books. I’m going to make this post confessional, rather than dispassionate.

When I as a white, middle-aged man read Narnia, for example, I can “be” (in the sense that I strongly identify with) at least eight human children. When I was a boy, reading Dawn Treader I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was Eustace, and from C S Lewis I understood that this was not a good person to identify with (There were all sorts of reasons I couldn’t possibly do more than hero-worship Peter, but apart from Lucy, I think I found the posh and very familial Pevensey children a bit difficult; Lucy was most like an only child, and I got that).  I also thought some of the animals were closer to my aspirations, especially in Prince Caspian: Reepicheep, for example, was a bit over-the-top, and Bulgy Bears sucked their paws, &c., &c.  But the children were posher than me, had brothers and sisters and a lifestyle that left me cold, by and large. I loved the Narnian Chronicles, but Lewis’ judgmental attitude gave me a very clear message about how far I had to go to be a Narnia child. Getting to be an undergraduate at Lewis’ old college, Magdalen, was probably it.

Narinia is problematic in its depiction of race, and even in sixties Essex I found that puzzling. I got the notion of the allegory, I suppose, but why are all these Calormenes either bad or good-looking?  I’m not arguing for a children’s edition of Said’s Orientalism,  but it was what I lacked:  someone to talk me through the puzzles of identity that these engrossing stories threw up for me.

As a young teacher I joined (for a while) the enthusiasm for Roald Dahl, but even then (late eighties, early nineties) I found I had to Bowdlerise his texts, getting rid, for example, of the casual side-swipes about foreigners. Like Lewis, he was “of his time,” but there was a difference here: colleagues liked the things he did (as did I) but didn’t seem to think there was much of a problem with his depictions of race, or class – and anyway it was softened by Quentin Blake’s illustrations. There were, at any rate, some clashes around what status Dahl should have; I edited as I read aloud.

In terms of identification, I confess I didn’t pay much attention to how bad so many of the women were; when they were bad, they were so mythologically bad they seemed unreal, and there were good strong female characters, too, and atrocious men like Mr Twit. My class were not slow to point out how my beard made me look like Mr Twit.  Is there, however, a challenge to identity in the books of his I read with the children?  I think it came – and came positively – in Revolting Rhymes. By turning the stories around (Cinderella rejecting the psychopathic Prince; Red Riding Hood being nastier than we had exected), the chidren were invited to think again about the messages of traditional tales. I remember an uncomfortable afternoon retelling, with my Reception Class, the ending of Rumplestiltskin: why would the miller’s daughter want to marry the king? I think, in the end (and in Roald Dahl fashion) they got the goblin to steal the king away…

In young children’s picture books, identification is an important part of the business of becoming a reader. While race can be sidestepped by anthropomorphic animals (I have in front of me Mr Wolf’s Pancakes by Jan Fearnely and Emily Gravett’s Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears) or by pure fantasy (Shaun Tan’s books, or Raymond Briggs’ Fungus the Bogeyman), many books have got representations of children and childhood in them that demand “real” children.  Ian Whybrow’s Harry, with his dinosaurs, engages boys in narrative while playing with a reader’s understanding of technical names for dinosaurs: we have some identification possible here.

Of course, there are other kinds of representation too: my own thinking about representation of landscape might also extend into why we sell the pre-mechanised farm as an ideal, or why do we sell the countryside as wallpaper for delighted town-dwellers or a place where we can have adventures away from parents. Misrepresentation, coming, sometimes from hidden “should” statements; we should be out in the countryisde, and farmers should keep their farms pretty, small-scale. &c.  In the case of how we create possible worlds in the imagination, the “should” I’m unearthing might be a warning.

Here, for me,  is the difficulty with diversity of representation. Blackman, as children’s laureate, highlights a problem about how race, gender, sexuality are avoided by failure to represent characters from different groups. She is quite right to do so. However, she is also a first-class author; those of us who consume children’s literature (teachers, parents, children – even down to academic study [the least important group for an author to consider]) also know – as doubtless she does – the perils of depicting people specifically so that readers can identify with them.  This worst kind of didacticism leads to clumsy storytelling, tokenism, writing from outside an author’s genuine understanding or empathy. This is as much of a turn-off from leading a child to identify with – or be challenged by – a character as ignoring the issue and writing about the Pevensey children in a different guise. We need diverse books; we also need publishers and creative writing tutors to nurture those writers and illustrators who can deliver writers who can produce characters we can identify with.

So, although it doesn’t really connect with the above, a last bit of confessional self-disclosure.

I was Mole in Wind in the Willows, and learned it was OK:

  • not to be cool;
  • to be inspired by my wittier, more able friends;
  • to have a part to play.

But I also learned a lot more from children’s literature; that’s probably why I’m still here.


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Hold the Front Page – reflection on yesterday’s Sun

Pages like this are not new. They are part of the Heavy Artillery of the Red T ops in the battle for readers.  The small storm (which now seems to have passed over the Sun to cloud the skies of Richard Dawkins) around yesterday’s front page is illustrative of the ways in which people – I ‘d include myself – find a sudden burst of righteous anger when faced with insensitive idiocy.

And it was idiotic, wasn’t it? I’m not imagining it when I see the picture of a young boy with mark on his chest being described as having a “mark of Satan” and think “This is cruel on so many levels”?  If we discount at the first filtering of idiocy the notion that this is mark of Satan – I must dust off my copy of Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic before I go down that route too far – we are left with a child accidentally or on purpose marked (possibly a burn, possibly a pressure mark – and speculation is with the end of a hairdryer) and the picture  found by or sent to a newspaper. The Independent has a good line in its discussion:

“…the silly season ceased to exist a long time ago. In the information age there is never a shortage of news. Least of all now, as the world is transfixed by the horrific events in Gaza.”

The next line of idiocy – it feels like mounds of rubbish in some intellectual rubbish dump – is the defence that the parents thought it funny. Parents have a right to find their children funny, from child A (yes, a real person, now an adult) getting dressed entirely in Thomas the Tank Engine stickers to child B (another real person, still quite small) arguing about bed time by pointing out that her partner in crime, the cat, is allowed to stay up. Parents are also allowed to be delighted or exasperated by their children, to be worried by them, entertained and challenged. Go into  Twitter and find adoptive dad Nick King to hear the stories, or find his blog.

What parents can’t do is mark or hurt their children, find it funny and publicise it. It may be, of course, that this isn’t what happened – there are all sorts of explanations possible and You’ve Been Framed type publicity at least provides a precedent  - but we should be wary of such images for a number of reasons, and here are two:

Children’s rights are sometime seen as a left-wing or woolly liberal excuse for getting children off the hook when they have done something wrong. Given the context of this particular picture, in which a demonic mark and abduction by aliens are mooted as possible, the Sun commodifies the child to an extent where the rational has gone out of the window. It’s exploitative. This is what children’s rights are about: protection children from mindless exploitation.

Images of children are themselves highly emotive. This can be positive – fond memories, key moments, assessment opportunities – but it could also be traumatic (as in the images from Syria and Gaza, which may or may not stir the viewer into action or at least sympathy) for the child or for others. We are bombarded with images of children suffering; in what way does this image lighten that load or seek to do good?

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