Michael Rosen
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Stories, schools, SATs

I've said this elsewhere but having children going through the primary school system stirs up things all over again. There is a basic misunderstanding or deliberate misconstruing of the purpose and importance of stories by those who have designed the primary school curriculum and the SATs tests. The authorities demand that teachers ask children to do work on retell stories stressing the importance of getting the sequence of the 'main events' in the right order. This exactly reflects the kinds of questions asked on the SATs papers that focus almost entirely on the sequence of events in a story, the apparent logic of why this or that happens and a general obsession with observable empirical facts in a story.

I suggest that this completely misunderstands why and how stories matter to us. Stories set up situations, scenes, characters and moments that play with our emotions. This play of emotions involves an ebb and flow of feeling on our part. We express or feel a complex set of emotions towards, against, for and with these situations, scenes, characters and moments. This is how literature works. If we don't have these feelings, the story, poem or play won't matter. It won't work for us.

I suggest that what schools should be doing with stories, poems and plays is encourage children to explore this set of feelings; to enquire how it is that authors help create these; how it is that we 'conspire' with authors to help them. This involves a completely different set of activities from the ones presently on offer in school. It requires that teachers are not forced to ask questions of children that they, the teachers, already know the answers to. Instead, the only questions they might ask are the ones that they don't know answers to: does this book remind you of anything you've ever read, seen, heard, felt before? How? Why? If you could ask any of the characters in the book and/or the author some questions, what would you ask? Can anyone in the class have a go at answering these questions? If one of the characters in the book had to tell someone what was going on in a given scene or moment what would they say? How would you or another character respond?

Questions such as these encourage children to engage with this free flow of feeling  that I've described. Questions addressed to the author can be followed up in a more factual way using reference books and the internet. There's no need for the teacher to be the sole authority on the matter.

Further, books and stories are ideal for other activities within the expressive arts: performance, art, music, pottery, dance, mime, film, photography. The use of these is much more in spirit and in tune with what stories are about then this nonsense about recreating stories in the right order. If that's all stories were they would be no different from factual reports or accounts of science experiments.

 

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