Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why reading might matter more than anything else

Australian politicians and education departments are in a tizz. Despite NAPLAN and MySchools, despite throwing laptops at high school students, despite everyone claiming the war between phonics and whole reading is over - our kids are still way behind where they should be (according to world standards stuff). It's all very well to test the heck out of kids, but when all that does is take the fun out of learning and show that kids are less able to read and comprehend, you have to wonder.

This postcard is sad but so true. I teach in a writing course, and probably 25-30% of our students are less than average at grammar. No doubt it's the same or higher in other courses. It's not their fault. They just aren't learning it at high school, or even primary school. They also have poor listening skills, and when I researched how to teach these skills, I discovered they were supposed to be taught in Grade 5.

Yes, learning grammar can be boring, but it's a lot easier at primary school to learn the fundamentals, a bit at a time, over a few years, than it is as an adult to have to learn it all in one year (which is most of our first year Editing unit). If you don't know how to construct a decent sentence and punctuate it clearly, you can't be a writer. (If you can't serve the tennis ball well and get it in the court, you can't be even a decent tennis player. Extrapolate that to any profession you like.)

The experts (our current Education minister, Pyne, seems to consider himself one, too, without any experience or qualifications) all have their own theories on what will "fix" this falling standards problem. I recommend they consult a writer friend of mine who also happens to be an 8th grade science teacher, who told us on FB the other day: "Since I've started taking my students to the library every two weeks I have two success stories-really it's their success story. One student has now checked out and read more books in the past two months than the prior 8 years of school. Another student who hated to read now has a positive attitude abut school and loves to read. It is true. There is a book for every child. It just takes time to find what the child likes and make reading fun-don't attach any tests, reports, etc. to it." Yay for her!

If a child can read, and if they enjoy it enough to keep reading (without being turned against it by not only tests and reports but also adults hassling them and parents expecting "progress"), I think this is the one thing that can make a crucial difference. Being able to read fluently means confidence, ability with language (it's no coincidence that our students with poor skills don't read much), higher comprehension of material and a whole host of other connected skills. If you read a lot, you can tell when a sentence isn't "right" - when the verb tense is wrong, or even that the full stop is in the wrong place. You can tell when a word is spelled wrongly because it also doesn't look "right". Reading well leads to this skill which then means you can fix your errors.

A person with poor language skills can't even write a decent application letter for a job. A person with poor language skills knows it. You don't have to be dumb or stupid to have poor language skills. You just have to have been put off reading at an early age, for one reason or another, and then been left behind. My theory (if Pyne can have one, so can I, and I bet I know more than him about it!) is that if we can get more than 90% of our kids to enjoy reading from their first years in primary school, and to keep that enjoyment going, with whatever books and materials we can, we might go a lot further in solving the slipping standards issue.

Add in those early grammar lessons (I'm not saying I enjoyed them, but they stuck, and I did always love reading) and we're on the way. And every time the issue comes up, we are always told to go and look at what Finland is doing. Here's one article about how they do it. It's clear they're doing exactly what my writer/teacher friend is - taking the time to find what works for each kid. That means letting teachers do their job instead of filling out another round of reports and justifying every thing they do with more paperwork.

Here in Victoria the government (Napthine and Liberal mates) seems to think the solution is to demonise teachers and make us believe they're all a bunch of rotten eggs who don't deserve any pay rises. The myths about teaching and teachers that they want to feed us are appalling. I think every politician who thinks he knows something about education or has a role in making up these fabrications should be made to go and teach in a Western Suburbs state school for a whole week. And do all the pointless paperwork!

Friday, October 04, 2013

What poetry does

Three days ago, I wrote a poem. For those who write lots of poems, all the time, the response would probably be - so what? But for me, after completing a first draft, it was a moment of - what took so long? How could I have gone more than a month without writing a single poem? For those who write no poems, the response would probably be - what's the big deal? But it set me thinking about how poetry really is always in my life, even if sometimes it goes off on a holiday for a while.

I've been writing poems since I was 18 years old. I can pinpoint that as my starting year because before then, I had no idea what poetry was. I went to a high school where we studied no poetry AT ALL until 6th form (now equivalent to Year 11). In that year, I only remember two poems we read in class - one about a girl running away through the woods, and one by Robert Graves, but I don't remember which. I do know it was enough to send me off looking for more by him, and discovering "Love is a migraine".

When I first dared to write my own, they were awful. Full of angst and terrible rhyme. I kept the rhyme and later, when I was travelling, I would write funny rhyming poems to make people laugh. I still remember the first poetry class I ever did with Bev Roberts, where I wrote a 4-line free verse poem about autumn (a writing exercise) that she liked, and she told me it had a great metaphor in it.

My response? What's a metaphor?

I laugh now, but at the time it was like having my eyes opened to a magical world of language and images, where I could write whatever I wanted, about whatever I felt or saw or experienced, using language in new and different ways to anything I'd ever done before. It was the world of free verse.

Since then, I've probably written hundreds, if not thousands, of poems. I've written four verse novels. I've written free verse, forms such as villanelles and sestinas, and prose poems. I've taught poetry writing to hundreds of people, from kids to teens to adults.

Still, at the heart of all of this is language and expression and "getting things off my chest and onto the page". Maybe when I don't write much poetry, I'm not aware enough of the world to find a subject. More likely, I don't write much poetry when I'm working hard and deep into a novel, as I am right now. But when I stop and pop my head up, often a poem or two arrives to greet me.

What does poetry do for me? Self-expression, as I said. For every poem that gets reworked and perhaps published, there are usually four more that stay in my notebook. But more importantly, poetry feeds into all of my writing. Reading poetry makes me aware of what language can do, what I can create with language myself. It makes me aware of how important it is to try new things, new ideas, look for new horizons. It reminds me that there are lots of fellow poets out there, doing as I do, because it's important and valuable and meaningful to them, too. Reading their poetry shows me what is possible, and often sparks new ideas for me.

Writing poetry feeds into my prose writing - it flexes my language muscles, provokes me into better imagery, stronger rhythm, more precise word choices. It reminds me of sensory details, of the telling detail, of voice and cadence. Writing poetry reminds me I am a writer. It allows me to focus on a moment, an image, an idea, with complete and utter attention.

This is why I am always going on to people about the importance of poetry to children and teenagers, about how much we lose when we don't have poetry in schools. We don't have to "teach" poetry. That, in unskilled, uninterested hands, can kill poetry forever in a child. But we should at least be reading poems to kids every day or every week, putting poetry on the fiction shelves in libraries instead of away in the 800s, and making good poems available at every opportunity. I'm sure that if I'd been given a whole pile of good contemporary poems to read in high school, it would have made a big difference to me. The few I did get still resonate with me today.
What about you?