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
(Robert Buck/ Natalie Merchant)