Leave time for imaginations
Thursday 15 July 1999
LET'S CALL her Mrs McKee - a primary school teacher, an amalgam of several teachers I've met in the last year. She's tired from last night's record-keeping and target-setting, but she gives me a warm smile as I walk into her room.
"This is David Almond," she tells her pupils. "Let's make sure we make him feel at home."
They smile and greet me; Mrs McKee completes the register; takes in dinner money. The children read and watch me. Display boards are filled with children's work. A section's dedicated to me: children's reviews of Skellig, drawings, cover ideas, poems and stories, a couple of newspaper clippings. I'm moved by the quality, by the depth of the children's reading.
The questions start. Why did this happen in the book? Where did that idea come from?
Mrs McKee reminds them she's managed to negotiate and beg time from another department, to double the length of this lesson. The children are pleased. I see how responsive they are to her, how they admire her.
I talk about my working methods. I show them my notebooks. We discuss the problems and opportunities that confront us all as writers.
Skellig is about Michael who finds a mysterious creature in the garage. Skellig looks like a tramp but this 'tramp' eats blue bottles and has wings. Michael brings his friend, Mina to meet Skellig. Mina is educated at home and loves William Blake . Michael's baby sister is dangerously ill. Can Skellig help?
The children ask about Skellig and its characters. They talk about William Blake, about evolution, about angels.
They discuss technicalities - why the chapters are the length they are, why so many phrases are repeated, and how dialogue can move a narrative quickly forward. They'd put to shame those who glibly say: "Oh, kids can't learn these days. Kids don't read any more."
Mrs McKee guides me to discuss particular areas that she knows cause difficulties - the pains and pleasures of re-drafting, perhaps. I see how Mrs McKee would put to shame those smug prophets of decay who tell us: "Oh, teachers can't teach any more."
We play writing games that show just how vivid and how quick the imagination is for all of us. Mrs McKee joins in. We begin to write a story. We read our work to each other, and we also applaud one another. Despite its extra length, the session rushes to its end. A few last questions, then the children have to hurry off to their set percentage of another subject. As always with Mrs McKee and her class, I'm gratified, pleasantly tired, deeply impressed.
As the classroom empties, Mrs McKee says: "Skellig. So much in it. Once, we could have used a book like this as the basis of a whole term's work. Not just the reading, the writing. Could have explored so much, discussed so much, made so much: evolution, religious history, mythology, the history of schools, the nature of dreams, poetry, clay modelling, painting..."
Outside the room, the next class is lining up, ready for its set percentage of Mrs McKee's time. "Not now," she says sadly, turning to welcome the next children into her space.
As I move out into the corridor, I realise who Mrs McKee really is. She's the demon. She's the swivel-eyed monster we have read so much about in the past 10 years. Her preferred methods are diabolical. She'd lead her children into a dark pit of anarchy and ignorance.
She is - a progressive teacher.
We thought we'd consigned her to the flames, but there she is in our schools: energetic, inspirational, exemplary. And she gets results. Her pupils do move through the artificial levels and percentages, they do leap quickly across the tick boxes and score charts.
But for Mrs McKee, this is far from enough. She is at odds with our educational culture. She knows that she has more to give, but that in this world of assessment, accreditation, targets, scores, grades, tests and profiles, she will continue to be frustrated.
Mrs McKee understands that young minds cannot be fragmented into percentages. She understands that in young minds, all subjects merge and flow together.
We need Mrs McKee. We need her scepticism about our mechanistic philosophies, and we need her energy and her optimistic approach to young minds. But we entangle her in the bureaucratic nightmare of tests and charts, and we're in danger of losing her.
I know of Mrs McKees who've walked away from the job that was a vocation. Instead of stifling and frustrating Mrs McKee, we need to give her a voice. There are a thousand pilot projects for the more pedantic of us. We need to offer Mrs McKee her own projects.
What would you do, Mrs McKee, if we gave you a month in which you could run your classroom as you wished? Your planning can consist of maps of possibilities. Your record-keeping can consist of speculations. Your subjects can be integrated and can merge and flow together.
There might be times when nothing is apparently going on, but we will accept your belief that there is a mysterious zone of imagination, of intuition, of insight in which the beady gaze of the assessor and the record-keeper would be deadly. Here is a month, Mrs McKee. Use it as you see fit and, though we find it difficult, yes, we'll trust you.
`Skellig' is published by Hodder Children's Books (pounds 4.99)
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