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Thursday 24 February 2011

Let's Pull Down the Apples

If you haven’t visited Hilery Williams’ rather wonderful Blog, ‘The Woods Would Be Very Silent If No Birds Sang There except Those That Sang Best’ please go and do so, you will love it. I read her post on ‘Inanimate Alice’ the other day – we are both teaching ‘Alice’ at the same time but to different groups of kids – and was moved by the honesty of the kids’ responses.  A dyslexia specialist, Hilery tells of her students who say they ‘cannae read’. A cry that teachers all over the word will recognise in one accent or another. Whether they can or ‘cannae’ read is one thing but for me the fact that our education system has allowed any of our children to believe that they cannot read is tragic and heart-breaking. And it happens all the time. All educators should be doing something about this. Reading is too important to allow some kids to miss out.
This lead me to trawl through some old notes I’d made while reading Rafe Esquith’s ‘Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire’. (Viking, 2007)  He says: ‘Powerful forces of mediocrity have combined to prevent perfectly competent children from learning to love reading.’ (p.31) He goes on: ‘Reading is not a subject. Reading is a foundation of life, an activity that people who are engaged with the world do all the time.’ (p.33)
You may or may not agree with both of those comments but the second one would be difficult to dispute.
Coincidentally, I had been listening to 10,000 Maniacs’ glorious album ‘In My Tribe’ the other night, for the first time in years. I remember falling in love with Natalie Merchant’s voice as I played it and played it and played it back in the days of vinyl.
I was still at least ten years away from becoming an English Teacher but, even then, the song ‘The Cherry Tree’ resonated. I was a huge reader even then – before my mature student, University days, and was working in a series of terrible, uninspiring jobs. But I knew, as I threw paperbacks over my shoulder – having read them of course – that reading would play a fundamental role in my life.
 ‘For all those lines and circles, to me a mystery’, sings Natalie Merchant in the guise of an illiterate narrator. How many confused, terrified kids have looked at a page in my classroom and thought that? I have no idea; and that shocks me. So, tomorrow, I go back into my class and try harder. Reading saved my life. It provided an escape from a life of drudgery.  It provided, and still provides, solace from a world of stress and occasional distress. As an English Teacher, who am I to deny that experience to any child in my care? I’m just trying to be better than I was yesterday. Join me.
The Cherry Tree

Over your shoulder, please don't mind me
if my eyes have fallen onto your magazine
Oh I've been watching and wondering
why your face is changing with every line you read.

All those lines and circles, to me, a mystery.
Eve pull down the apple and give taste to me.
If she could it would be wonderful, but my pride is in the way.
I cannot read to save my life, I'm so ashamed to say.

I live in silence, afraid to speak
of my life in darkness because I cannot read.

For all those lines and circles, to me, a mystery.
Eve pull down the apple and give taste to me.
If she could it would be wonderful.
Then I wouldn't need someone else's eyes to see what's in front of me.
No one guiding me.

It makes me humble to be so green
at what every kid can do when he learns A to Z,

but all those lines and circles just frighten me
and I fear that I'll be trampled if you don't reach for me.
Before I run I'll have to take a fall.
And then pick myself up, so slowly I'll devour every one of those books in the Tower of Knowledge.
(Robert Buck/ Natalie Merchant)


  1. Great post - inspiring but frightening too!
    Surely more needs to be done in Primary with regards to reading and writing...we are disabling our children if we are sending them to secondary school still unable to read. We need to act before the gaps are too big to fill in...

  2. I think the answer might lie in stronger home school partnerships when it comes to books. I think if kids are given some great books to choose from, from an early age, if they see adults reading and hear adults talking about reading,they will read.
    I've had a wee seed of an idea for a couple of years that in August/ September, we have a couple of Parents Evening sessions to discuss reading strategies. While problems may start early on it is the duty of ALL educators -regardless of subject or stage- to ensure our kids are readers.
    I also believe that, eventually, CfE and Literacy across the Curriculum may provide us with better opportunities.
    Thanks so much for your comments. I always appreciate them,

  3. Hi
    Hooray for CfE that stresses the responsibility of ALL practitioners to develop literacy, as you say, Kenny.
    Placing blame on primary teachers is simplistic and offensive. Anyone who spent more than 5 minutes in a primary school would know that every person in that school is focused on teaching children to read and write.
    I agree that much more could be done to support families in making literacy a central part of their lives. It would be wonderful if the whole community recognised its reponsibility to the next generation.

  4. Sorry, perhaps I should explain my post above - I am a Primary Teacher. Totally agree that Literacy is the responsibility of everyone - but I'm just saying that more can be done...I don't think it is unreasonable to expect that all P7 pupils should leave primary with their basic skills in place. More support, more intervention and action are required to help primary teachers do this. The longer a problem is left, the harder it is to sort it out.