Wednesday, 14 November 2018

The Power of Print

A BBC B microcomputer  32 KB of RAM
The first computer printer to enter my life was a dot-matrix printer attached to a BBC computer in a primary school. When children entered my Reception class I used to sit down at the computer with them and get them to tell me stories about their lives, just a couple of sentences as a rule. Then I'd print the stories nice and big on a sheet of A4 paper and they'd draw a picture and I'd stick them all in a big book. Those books must have been read hundreds of times, each child reading their own story to anyone who would listen. From this simple activity they learnt a fundamental lesson. Writing was a way of communicating their thoughts and ideas to other people. Writing was important. THEIR writing was important.

Of course, the key thing here is turning the things children say into words on a page, and writing it by hand is almost as good.  But seeing the words in print does add something, and that was especially so when computers were new.

When I started writing my own stories I used a typewriter at first, before moving on to a word-processor which was like a typewriter with a two line LCD display and a floppy disc drive. That floppy disc meant that I could take bits and pieces that I'd written and print them out on the inkjet printers at work. I was amazed at how much more important my writing looked (to me at any rate) when it was printed out in Times New Roman 12 point.

When I wrote a whole novel and I was ready to send it off I wanted it to look important, and my neighbours let me print it out on their printer (I was still working on the word processor). I printed out a lot of drafts of that book on their printer—thanks Clare and David! I used to try different fonts, trying to see which was the most impressive. Years later I asked an editor if they minded which font a writer used. The answer, not surprisingly, was that it made no difference at all.

Still, children love to see their writing in print, and those simple stories we wrote at the computer were their introduction to publishing. As they got older we made a lot of books, among them little 8-page pamphlets, stories with a cover and a sentence on each page. I would photocopy these and make half a dozen books so children could sit round a table and read them together. This often confused them, and I had to take the to the office to show them how the photocopier worked. A few years later I was visiting a school, talking about the publishing process. I showed a group of children some copies of a book I'd written. One child put up her hand and asked me 'How long does it take you to make all those books? Do you have to colour in all the covers?'

I was able to set her mind at rest, but it goes to show, just because you tell a child something, it doesn't mean they understand.
(Or an adult, for that matter!)

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Learning to Read — the Tram Map Method

The Nottingham Tram Map
There are many different ways of learning to read and the route my four-year-old grandson has taken is a new one on me. He has learnt the names of all the stops on the Nottingham tram lines, together with the automated announcements that go with them, and now, looking carefully at the words, he is gradually learning to recognise them.

In the long ago, had he been in my class, he would have started a project on trams. We would have made a tram journey game to play with his friends. We would have played pelmanism and snap with cards with the names of the stops written on. We would have sorted them in different ways — lanes, roads, streets, vales. We would have made model trams.  We would have worked out how many people would fit on. We would have written stories about trams and photocopied them so we could read them together as shared reading books.

I could go on, probably forever, but at least for half a term. We always tried, back then, to start from children's own interests and, with a touch of creativity from the teacher, we could almost always cover everything that needed to be learned. And it was fun.

Even if other children didn't share an obsession with trams it was still possible for an individual child to follow their own path. And if you think that having thirty children all doing different things sounds like hard work, well, it is and it isn't. Children who have chosen their own field of study tend to be highly self-motivated, and anyway it was rare that thirty children were all doing their own thing all the time. But it was a given, when I was a young teacher, that if a child came into school enthused by ants, or trains, or puppies, then we'd try to build on that enthusiasm, often with the whole class, but quite frequently with the individual child.

Even with the onset of the National Curriculum it was still possible to work like this, especially in the Infant School. It was the arrival of the Literacy and Numeracy hours that really started to change things. Before the late 1980s very many Primary Schools were still the kinds of places described in my favourite government document, Primary Education (1959). I've quoted from this before, but here's another sample:

Statutory requirements are less exacting than they have ever been . . . The head is thus left considerable freedom for planning the daily programme. The timetable is an expression of his (sic) educational philosophy and that of his colleagues; it reduces to firm terms what they consider best for children, and demonstrates their beliefs about the relative values of what the school has to offer.

It has already been said that young children thrive best on a regular routine, and that they respond to its rhythm and balance. But this does not mean that the timetable should ever be a tyrant which, by its fragmentation of time, encourages short-lived occupations, or which brings to an unnecessarily abrupt end undertakings in which children are profitably engrossed.  (My underlining)

And what did my grandson's teacher (who is very nice, by the way), say when she heard of his ability to decipher the Tram map?

'Well, he still has to do phonics, you know.'