Wednesday, 15 June 2011

High Ambition - Andrew Strong

Telling a class of children a story can be magical. But wash your hands first, because if a story works, you'll have them eating out of your palms. I like to tell stories as often as I can; sometimes I'll just make a story up. I'll wait until almost the last moment, until I'm in front of them, and savour the feeling of a story popping out of nowhere. Last week I made up a story about a man who fell asleep on an inflatable bed and drifted out to sea. It was very exciting. Until I got to the end because I couldn't think of one. So I asked the children. The consensus was they wanted him to drown. I didn't let him, of course, he was too nice.

And not so long ago I told the story of Joseph and his brothers. Just as I was about to begin, one child put up her hand and asked, "is this R.E.?" I nodded vaguely. She groaned and sunk in her seat. But after three or four minutes, every face was turned to me. It was wonderful. Stories are powerful.

But when it comes to reading books to children, rather than telling stories, there are more challenges. After all these years, I think I know what to look out for. First, there must be natural breaks. Twenty minutes is enough. I need somewhere to end so that children are begging for more. Second, I don't want to explain too much. Keep content simple.

A few months ago I read a class some of the Mr Gum books. When I came to the line 'he was a gingerbread man with electric muscles' I almost suffered a stroke. I could not continue: the place was in uproar. I was shown the door - it was red, and covered with scratches. Some people, it seemed, had tried to claw their way out of that room.

After the Gum books, I wanted to be a little more ambitious. I wanted to try longer chapters and difficult vocabulary. I chose a book as far from Mr Gum as possible and by one of my favourite children's writers, Geraldine McCaughrean.

I say 'one of my favourite children's writers' but I have long held a suspicion that actually McCaughrean's books are far too sophisticated for ten year olds. But putting my doubts to one side, I began.

'The Kite Rider' is set in China during the thirteenth century, its vocabulary is quite tricky, and the background needs some explaining. I would need to take my time. Consider that there are some children who have only the simplest grasp of where they live. Yes, you point to a place on a map, you can tell them, show them again, repeat where it is, get them to explain to you. But ultimately if they have haven't travelled, not even as far as the nearest city, they can have little grasp of the scale or nature of the world beyond. China is a big step for them. Thirteenth century China, an enormous leap. Even one of the brightest children asked me if they had electricity back then. There is work to do before a book such as this can be tackled.

But, ten chapters in they were riveted. They loved the main protagonist, Haoyou, and suffered every one of his blows. McCaughrean is a writer of enormous scope, she can unpick a character's motives and lay out each thread for you to examine. Nine and ten year olds may have difficulty in appreciating this, but as the story is so powerful they are swept along.

I doubt that many of the children in the school, and very few I have taught, could have read this book alone. At the most there may be one or two who could have a go, but the vast majority would find it an impossible task.

Yet I think they need exposure to this quality of writing. It is simultaneously panoramic and microscopic. Including the preparation, it's taken us the best part of two months to read together. For some of these youngsters, it's become a big part of their lives. I am yet to find out exactly how much they enjoyed it, but I know that, in years to come, they will use the experiences of the Haoyou to discover their own world, and when they do, the flight of 'The Kite Rider' will have been time well spent


AnneR said...

That's wonderful, Andrew! It took me several paragraphs to work out that you were a real teacher - perhaps I'm just not tuned in to this real-job thing. Being able to read books to children who would not otherwise get to enjoy them must be one of the most - if not the most - fantastic things about teaching.

Your pupils are extremely lucky to have someone with such knowledge, confidence and patience to bring these books to them. If I had a hat, I'd take it off to you!

John Dougherty said...

Likewise - I assumed at first you were talking about school visits - but another metaphorical hat tipped here.

I agree entirely that "children need exposure to this quality of writing", and moreover to a wide range of writing. For that, they need a teacher who understands writing, who believes in the importance of reading stories, and who has a knowledge of children's literature. Your class are, indeed, very lucky.

frances thomas said...

Wish I'd had more teachers like you, Andrew. (I had one - he was magical - the rest were dreary)

Emma Barnes said...

That was quite moving to read, Andrew. I am always struck by how much children love to be read to, how engrossed in a story they can become, and one of the saddest things is schools where this does not happen because of "lack of time". But I think that's changing - and more and more teachers are making the time.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Brilliant. Would love to have been there.

Katherine Langrish said...

I agree - brilliant, and it's so important to read to them. They will always remember these stories.

Andrew Strong said...

These are such lovely comments. I don't deserve them. Yes, I am a writer posing as a teacher. I do most of my writing in the summer months. Not going to get much done this year, then.

Meg Harper said...

Great, Andrew. I too love Geraldine McCaughrean's books and would love to recommend them to children and teachers but worry that they won't cope - so glad to hear they are doing! And I'm always relieved to find a fellow part-time writer!!! : ) Hope you do get lots done this summer. Maybe you could on on strike a lot!!!