The importance of analytical reading

We all know how important it is to read to kids, and to start young. But the way we read is important, and more subtle than we might think, argues Bill Murphy in this excellent article. They are not just passive containers for stories. They need to engage in dialogue with adults about them, and that is how they learn.

If pushed, I think most of us would agree that such close shared reading builds empathy. Kids need to be able to imagine a situation from another person’s point of view, to walk in the skin of someone unlike themselves. Incidentally, we don’t grow out of this and it’s tempting not to move out of our comfort zones, as I recently discovered when I went to see Moonlight. Realising how unmoored I felt by an all-black cast gave me new insight into the importance of diversity in children’s books – how does a four-year old black girl feel when she’s confronted with the overwhelmingly white world of Princess Poppy?

Empathy has to be good, right? Well, yes and no. How many of the people who were moved by the photograph of little Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on shore went on to vote for politicians who denied asylum to unaccompanied Syrian child refugees? Emotional intelligence is rather different. It includes analytical skills, looking at the whole picture, at evidence, possible strategies, problems and outcomes. It means asking not just, “Do you think the duck feels sad?” but also, “The fox seems nice. Do you think the duck should believe him? Why not?”

In my work in school libraries, I involve children in these conversations all the time and their perceptiveness frequently surprises me. A good story is full of fork-in-the-road moments, all of which have consequences. And picture books abound in clues that, if decoded, yield vital background information. When we read to a child, we are inviting them to decode that information and theorise about where it could be taking us. Yes, empathy is involved; we can all feel sorry for the little ladybird that doesn’t fit in because she has no spots, or the little girl desperate for a kitten who ends up taking home a gorilla from the zoo. But why doesn’t it work out to keep the gorilla as a pet? Seeing the way he trashes a suburban kitchen, and why the gorilla isn’t happy, carries highly significant life lessons.

It seems that at the moment we are confronted daily with the awful consequences of people determined to maintain a coherent ideological position in face of all reasonable evidence. Too much reliance on feelings can lead into dark places, and the idea that you only have to believe something badly enough and find others who feel likewise to construct your own perfectly valid reality. I wonder if the large numbers of young children who don’t get exposed regularly to language and conceptual development through reading are contributing to the problem.

There is far too much passive consumption of entertainment. Cinema and TV can be wonderful but the emotional beats are frequently heightened and signposted in letters a hundred feet high. Ambiguity is rare, and far too many children are watching without any accompanying person to help them interpret what they are seeing through loving, open-ended discussion. The school day is crammed and even schools with libraries struggle to fit in every class for even one story time a week. After years of austerity, the effect of neglected maintenance is becoming all to apparent in the decline of roads and the built environment around us. The neglect of our children’s inner world and analytical faculties may not show up right away, but we ignore it at our own risk.

Alternative Facts

As a general rule I avoid political comment here. There is enough of it elsewhere. However, education and any job involved with teaching people how to evaluate information is becoming increasingly politicised. The time may come when people with jobs like mine no longer have the option of inhabiting a bubble conveniently labelled “neutrality”.

There’s a point at which we should draw the line, and in this context at least I define it as the point where governments actively interfere with the dissemination of truth.

Most obviously, right now, this is happening in the USA. Already the National Parks Service has set itself on a collision course with the new administration by defying a gag on publishing the truth about climate change. Let’s focus on that for a minute. They haven’t been expressing opinions here. They’ve been publishing verifiable statistics. And they’ve been told to cease and desist.

But we should avoid complacency; such things are happening closer to home. Check out this FT item about what is happening in Poland right now:

Polish schools pare back science in push for the “New Pole”

Trump says he loves uneducated people. People who haven’t been taught what an unreliable narrator is. People who haven’t been taught what a trusted source of information is. People who resist reading, and who have been educated in schools where the time and resources are lacking to change their minds. People who have watched so much “reality TV” that they don’t know what reality is any more.

I resist conspiracy theories, but I can’t help reflecting that the austerity excuse for underfunding schools, closing public libraries and entrenching inequality might be about more than the money. An uneducated populace is a convenient tool for the wrong kind of politician.

So what do we do? I’m faced with a dilemma. Reading too much of the news right now directly impacts on my state of mind and my ability to do my job. I oscillate between paralysing despair and manic overactivity as I resolve to push back. I feel I have to be well informed but sometimes I need a walk, a workout or a spell of gardening even more.

And much as I love the Twitter feeds dedicated to the phenomenal stuff going on in schools now, the examples of best practice, the flood of beautiful information books, the author visits and the jaw-droppingly beautiful learning walls, we are where we are. We have the kids we have, we have the situation we are in and we may only have 20 minutes one crowded lunch time to run a book club.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

With the kids, we start where they are and we listen to them. I have to resist the temptation of spending whole evenings preparing for a session and showing up so in love with my materials and my vision that I don’t actually listen to the children. I have no way of knowing what exchange, what apparently off-the-cuff remark or question will bear fruit in years to come.

For example, one Head Teacher I work with asked me to do a weekly book review. Nobody seemed to be coming in and asking for the books I recommended, so I was starting to wonder if the exercise had any point. Then she told me that since I started them, the number of people coming in to hear kids read had soared.

Things do bear fruit, but we don’t own them. We have to keep listening, and we have to be faithful. It may be something as trivial as printing off a whole sheet of barcodes that you’d already laminated so that one child can have a named library card they’ve lost replaced.

We can get so caught up in the sheer, jaw-dropping awfulness of what is happening today that we freeze like a deer in the headlights. I think we are heading towards an abyss that will suck us in even if we feel we are isolated from it right now, and each one of us will have to figure out how to make a stand. But don’t overlook the little things. It might seem sad but unimportant if a library class or a nursery session goes. It’s not. Replicate that all over the country, and a few years down the line we have people who don’t think critically, who misuse their votes and who unwittingly turn their back on democracy itself.

 

The Benefits of Breakfast

Robin Lustig writes in today’s Guardian about the truly shocking amount of sugar in many breakfast cereals routinely consumed by children. This includes apparently healthy products: Raisin Bran, for example, contains raisins dipped into sugar solution because, apparently, the originals aren’t sweet enough to tempt little palates.

The physical outcomes of over-consumption of sugar are depressingly well known. Teachers will also be familiar with the effect fast-release carbs have on children’s concentration and behaviour. Just when the hard work of Literacy Hour kicks in, they’re heading for a sugar crash that leaves them grumpy and unfocussed.

Middle class parents will resolve to do better, only to cave in to pester power as the punishing routine of early starts and frayed tempers that characterises the working week begins to bite. Some schools will send home letters reminding parents that unhealthy additions to lunch boxes will be removed and perpetrators named and shamed. I sometimes wonder if the awarders of the Healthy Schools Initiative’s coveted certificates that deck reception areas are aware of the amount of chocolate and cake being guzzled out of sight in the staff room. It is surprising how many people pass through a busy primary school on visits, exchange schemes and placements, and feel the need to show their appreciation when they leave by donating sugary treats.

Worse still, many kids are coming to school on an empty stomach; sometimes yesterday’s school dinner was the last meal they had. Stories abound of teachers providing food out of their own pockets; I’m sure the main motive is altruism but it’s also true that one undernourished child can disrupt an entire class, dragging down those all-important SATS results.

Poverty, chaotic lifestyles, homelessness leading to the lack of a place to even prepare breakfast, can all have a disastrous impact on kids’ nutrition. And the remedy is simple – schools should be properly funded to provide a nutritious breakfast for every child. It won’t happen; the modest proposal to extend free school meals to all infant school children was controversial enough. Governments fear the wrath of the tabloid press too much to risk anybody apparently being offered something by the state that they don’t “deserve” or could in theory provide for their children themselves. But the demand is clearly there, and growing. Magic Breakfast are overwhelmed by requests for help. Universal breakfast provision would remove the stigma that still puts off many needy parents from requesting help, it would give children the chance to start the day in a structured and secure environment and allow schools to have control over the quality of the food the kids were eating.

Meanwhile, we have reached such a nadir in our social provision for the health of young children that those consuming several teaspoons of sugar at the breakfast table can be regarded as the lucky ones.

Planet Earth II – The Movietisation of Wildlife

planet-earth-2-main

Anyone involved with getting children to read soon learns to keep up with what’s on TV. This year I’ve noticed an unusual addition to the pantheon of Disney princesses and super heroes – Sir David Attenborough.

I was reading David Walliams’ picture book The Bear Who Went Boo! when instinctively I put on a breathy, slightly preachy Attenborough voice for the TV wildlife presenter character who gives the titular character a telling-off, and the kids fell about. Meanwhile, requests for animal books have been taking off. It turns out that the driver of this enthusiasm, which refreshingly seems to transcend gender boundaries (fluffy kittens vs cool scary sharks) was Planet Earth II.

One thing we librarians find ourselves doing frequently is explaining the difference between non-fiction and fiction. I tend to feel uneasy about the proliferation of guides to fictional universes that mimic encyclopaedias and dictionaries – kids are already pretty muddled about what is and isn’t “real.” The strength of Planet Earth II is that it’s taken the pulling power and authority of a national treasure to head up the most cinematic natural history series ever seen on British telly. They’ve even got Hans Zimmer to write the score, and the editing and photography intentionally mimics the qualities that make movie blockbusters so enthralling.

Most important of all of these is narrative. We all love stories. We watch sequences like the breathtaking iguana vs snake smackdown on the edge of our seats. We sympathise with the ravenous lioness but still feel sorry for the giraffe she stalks. And I defy anyone not to chuckle when the brazen monkey in an Indian city market makes off with someone’s bottle of Sprite.

Not everyone relishes this approach to natural history. Martin Hughes-Games, producer of the more factual BBC wildlife programme Springwatch, complains that Planet Earth doesn’t take the reality of wildlife extinctions sufficiently seriously. “These programmes are still made as if this worldwide mass extinction is simply not happening,” he says, “The producers continue to go to the rapidly shrinking parks and reserves to make their films – creating a beautiful, beguiling, fantasy world, a utopia where tigers still roam free and untroubled, where the natural world exists as if man had never been.”

That does make me wonder if he actually saw the final episode about the interaction between humans and wildlife in cities, but I recognise his point. Of course (and there may be a little envy at work here) he’s right to say that Attenborough has turned natural history into a big theme park spectacular. When people with good intentions fall out in public there is often an element of wanting the same outcomes but disputing the road map to them.

The reality is that humanity has always relished stories. It’s how we learn, not only facts but empathy. Try talking to a six year old about whether we should kill a starving leopard that attacks someone on the way home. Ask a Hulk-fixated eight year old boy if he thought the snakes were cool when they throttled the iguana, or a sensitive child hooked on Magic Kitten stories if it would be right to intervene to help the disorientated baby turtle about to die in a storm drain.  They’ll have an opinion. Take it seriously, and they may just become the wildlife advocates of tomorrow. Or at the very least, they’ll take the first steps to appreciating the complexity of human relationships, both with each other and with the other species on this planet.

 

Entitled little snowflakes – or tomorrow’s democrats?

march

One of the many things that has saddened me over the last few days of post-Brexit chaos has been some of the invective directed at young people. Their generation, already facing much lower prospects of home ownership, secure employment and freedom from graduate debt than their parents, now face having to live with the consequences of a momentous decision that will affect them for decades to come.

Little wonder that they are taking to the streets in protest; yesterday a “March For Europe” in Central London, predominantly supported by young people, attracted international news coverage. And the inevitable comments, such as, “The vote was to leave the EU – that’s democracy for you. Get on with it, stop complaining.”

To address this remark to the 16 and 17 year olds who were denied the opportunity to vote in the referendum is offensive and hypocritical. Our society is fracturing down multiple fault lines at present and it seems to be open season for opposing groups to hurl insults at one another across the cultural chasm that divides them. Insulting and negative language towards young people (sometimes accompanied by outraged claims like, “They want to stop old people voting!”) are one manifestation of this. Articles about the grief they are experiencing invite mockery and abuse. None of it is helpful.

Grief comes in multiple varieties and it is a futile exercise to rank them in order of severity. If we have a generation capable of feeling genuine dismay at the turn that our national politics have taken, and they are willing to take to the streets peacefully in protest, that’s a very healthy sign.

Maybe papers like the Guardian are adding fuel to the flames by running pieces on anguished liberals, but better that than front pages based on lies and racist propaganda. It is also an oversimplification to assume that everyone protesting yesterday was demanding a rerun of the referendum. Some will hold that view, but others will be marching simply to show solidarity with the European ideal, or to support the argument that a decision of this complexity and importance should be debated by Parliament, not outsourced to an easily led angry public mob.

A sense of entitlement and a conviction that you are the centre of the universe and always right is not the sole prerogative of the under-25s. If you want young people to understand the responsibilities of democracy, you don’t let their leaders abuse its privileges and then tell said youngsters to shut up and suck it up. You give them the vote.

 

The Dangers of Democracy

People don’t always know what they want. They just think they know. And even when they are absolutely sure they know, what they want is often not what they need. Every democracy has to wrestle with this reality. When they are on the stump, the things we demand from our politicans are passion, conviction, charisma and authenticity. We want them to make us feel better about themselves and they future, or at the very least persuade us that voting for them would be an act of enlightened self-interest.

Once they are in power, however, they need to call on very different qualities, because politics is the art of the possible. They need to be good negotiators, strategic thinkers, team builders and able to compromise whilst selling us the belief that said compromises are not only necessary but what we wanted all along.

It is rare to find a leader who can embody all these qualities – normally, at best, we have to settle for about half of them, the rest supplied by a skilfully selected staff. The moral gyrations this produces has been the stuff of many great comedies, from Yes Minister to the more acerbic and cynical The Thick of It. And in practice, what tends to happen in a healthy,  mature democracy is that we oscillate between the media-friendly Tony Blairs and the dour, steady going Browns.

People who appeal to simplistic emotions to get into power may well become demagogues once in office, dismantling the machinery of dissent before disillusion with their promised utopias sets in. At the other end of the extreme, an excessive pragmatism on the campaign trail can make a politician unelectable – it did for Ed Milliband.

True to Miranda’s law of alternating political extremes, Corbyn was swept into leadership of the Labour Party on a tide of longing for clarity and authenticity. The second they got in spades, but it paralysed him as a leader. Sometimes the only way to get anything done is to muddy the waters and plunge right in, selling a compromise as a triumph. That is anathema to an idealist unable to select the least worst way forward and commit to it, at least publicly, taking the electorate with him.

Corbyn appears to be a decent and principled man, and because of that he was too conflicted to throw himself 100% into claiming that staying in the EU was the best way to protect the interests of the dispossessed and underprivileged, though given the current set of circumstances and the ghastliness of the alternatives, that was undoubtedly the case. Unable to compromise on the socialist Utopia he saw beyond the theoretical fall of Brussels, he has left the people most in need of the Opposition’s support exposed to a Government that can only exacerbate their problems. He has to go, and that’s the tragedy of democracy.

Rerun the Referendum Petition – To sign or not to sign?

passport

Petitions are, inevitably, proliferating. The one to rerun the referendum is enjoying huge success and I’ve been linked to it several times. However, I’m not signing it.

I would love to feel that this would make a difference, but I honestly don’t. I’d go further, perhaps with a bitterness that will fade with the passage of time – I actually think this superficial accessibility to the corridors of power via social media has done a great deal to bring about the idea that “we’ve all had enough of experts.” To prolong this bitter, divisive debate further would be utterly futile and counter-productive. It would also wreak yet more havoc on the British economy.

What does offer a sliver of hope is Matthew Parris’s piece in Friday’s “Times” (now sadly behind a paywall again) pointing out that a large majority of MP’s were in favour of Remain, and the triggering of Article 50 has to be approved in Parliament. Boris Johnson’s stalling on the timescale and Cameron’s decision to stay for a few more months may be the first stage of the mother of all staring contests. Yes, the people have spoken and if they rioted in the streets on the grounds that Parliament has broken faith with them, that could get messy. But given a competent leader of the opposition, something sadly lacking right now, such feelings of rage and betrayal could be turned on those who deserve to bear the brunt of them, the promoters of neoliberalism and austerity. Already it is blatantly obvious that Brexit will not deliver the domestic changes people naively hoped for when they made their decision to squander a protest vote. Riots might not be the worst thing that could happen to the country if they are aimed at the right issues.

Of course, Brussels will talk tough but privately they are absolutely shitting themselves. They know that others are eager to follow Britian’s lead in this and that the break up of the EU is a real possibility. Getting the people to vote for Brexit was tough enough. Getting Parliament to vote for it will be infinitely more difficult. Yes, MPs will worry about their voters and their constituency associations, but there could well be a General Election within the year and in the bloodbath that would result from that, all bets are off, including the guaranteed survival of the major political parties in their present form.

As for letting the people speak, we should learn from the Germans (Hitler used referenda three times, and the last one led to depriving the German people of the right to vote at all). If we are going to pay people who know what they’re doing to govern us, our job is to vote for which ones, not to bully them once in power into delegating their job to us.

If to be an intelligent, well-educated person is to belong to an elite, I make no apology for outing myself as one. The shameful thing is not that such people exist but that the slow attrition of state education, public libraries and affordable higher education over the last 30 years has taken away the opportunities that once were available to able working-class people to join their number.

http://www.standard.co.uk/business/anthony-hilton-why-we-may-remain-even-if-we-vote-leave-a3272621.html

And one I do think it’s worth supporting:

https://www.change.org/p/eu-offer-european-citizenship-to-uk-citizens