It made me think that just going for a walk around your neighbourhood tells many stories, if you know how to read them.
In the first place, there is the organisation of the area itself, a series of interlocking paths that offer alternative routes and different scenery; we took a completely different route back to the car, to avoid the mud of the water meadows.
Knowing your way around is a fundamental organisational skill, which can apply to navigating your house (try moving around your house in the dark during a blackout, a different place) through to the journey to school or other important place. Within the school, orientation is an important aspect of being in the right place at the right time. So having mental maps is an important aspect of living in the world, in order to function independently.
My childhood, in Exeter, Torbay, Brisbane, Adelaide, and other cities en route to and from Australia and, living in a time where parents were less concerned about stranger-danger, the act of exploring created mental maps of localities, supporting active, confident and safe movement within the local environment. I was unconcernedly walking the mile and a half to school at five.
Today’s children may not have the same possibilities. One grandson is now being allowed to go out with friends, as long as he has a fully charged mobile and credit and makes regular contact, within a very clear time limit.
How is this change impacting on the mental imagery of children?
Are they creating useful personal maps within their heads from which to determine routes?
Do they have an exploratory (survival) mentality? Do they actively engage with their local area, with their parents?
Children drawing their routes to school vary greatly in detail. Some come by car, so may not pay close attention to the journey, while others walk and may possibly have a greater insight into their locality, although many do not, as they engage in activities other than looking around themselves. It can be a salutary experience to ask children to explain how they get from the classroom to specific areas of the school. Linking geography, oral and drawn and mental organisation akin to coding (giving directions), a child’s awareness, ordering and organisational abilities can be explored.
Orientation is an essential life skill. I have heard it referred to as psycho-geography; developing maps in your head.
Or why SPAG may not be the be all and end all of writing
Last term, I watched a PGCE student on final practice take a class of year four students through an exemplary English lesson, with a major focus on grammar. The learning objective was on creating a setting.
The children demonstrated very good understanding of a range of grammatical elements, significantly more than I knew at their age. The lesson had several parts with imagery and excellent opportunities to talk and capture ideas. The writing and the supporting images were focused on the class book, so there were textual links as well as imported images and a short DVD.
The focus of The Railway Children was interesting and the children came up with similes and metaphors, adjectives and adverbial starters, strong choice of verbs and embedded noun clauses.
At the end of the lesson, the children had produced and shared a wide range of examples of sentences and constituent parts that showed that they could write appropriately.
But, throughout I had a nagging feeling. Did the children really have a good understanding of the setting about which they were writing? Despite the local station being a five or ten minute walk from the school, there was no guarantee that any of them had ever taken the train, or stood on a platform and watched trains arriving or departing. In addition, the setting was the early part of the 20th century, with steam trains, so several removes from their experiences. None wrote about the real sensory experiences, such as the noises, the feelings and the smells. They had the visual, so they wrote what they saw on the video.
In the summary session, the children were asked to share, on a post-it, what they knew about writing settings. Without exception, they wrote down the grammatical constructs. While they are essentials, the sensory aspects need to be available to provide the depth, to create writing that fully brings the reader into the narrative.
Children today, more and more are living vicariously, through television and computer imagery. While they give a flavour, as David Attenborough did, for me, as a young child, it was the fact that my best friend’s dad was the zoo superintendent at Paignton Zoo, so was able to get close to the animals, that they really became real.
Don’t assume that children have experiences from which to draw mental images. That may be a significant limiting factor in a child’s education.
Ps. The conversation after the observation was very positive and reflective; the student is an excellent prospect.
People need somewhere to live. Some live in houses, terraced, semi-detached or detached, while others might live in a flat, or possibly an apartment. On two occasions in my life, I lived with my family in a caravan.
Working on locality based topics allowed for an orientation project, using the landscape and features to orientate the children.
Another topic, based around settlements explored the need for temporary shelter, finding ways to cover and protect someone from the weather, then using the available materials to build slightly more permanent dwellings, within which families might be able to live all year round, which enabled them to develop small farmsteads. Within 20 miles of all the schools where I worked, were two excellent “living” museums, Butser Ancient Farm and the Weald and Downland Open air Museum, as well as Portsmouth Museum rooms from history, or the Gosport Search Museum 1930s experience. These provided excellent stimuli for exploration.
The basis of the topic was discussion of life essentials, food, water, shelter and the better places to build a house and to find out where the first settlement might have been. Exploring maps over an extended time frame gave the impression of the area growth.
Once this was established, consideration of the available materials for building gave rise to speculations, which could be checked through our local museums; for example, where locally there was evidence of Neolithic habitation, if they used trees to build, how did they cut and shape the trees with axes? Equally, with the museum showing deer antlers used for “digging” preparing for planting, finding a similar shaped piece of wood offered an opportunity to try in the school grounds.
Creating a building museum in the classroom and asking children to bring in labelled offerings, we received a wide variety of building materials that were surplus to projects, as well as a significant range of tools. Every item gave food for research and reflection.
Bricks, made from local clay, enabled the challenge to dig some from various gardens, then to make small dwellings from mini-bricks. Other (purchased) clay was also used. Various waterproof materials were explored to find the best for a damp-proof course, while sand, gravel and cement were mixed with water to make various concretes, which were then tested for strength.
Vocabulary was probably the most significant winner, providing the language through which the topic could be discussed, researched, explored and expressed.
All of the above was with Infant and lower junior classes, while an extension would be provided by exploring building details, windows, doors, brick sizes, all giving clues to the ages of houses, with local census materials giving the evidence of habitation over time.
The essence of good topic activity is opening children’s eyes to what is around them, but also giving them the knowledge language with which to interrogate what they are seeing. The alternative is to leave them “blind” to their surroundings.
As a species, we tend to live in communities, starting with families, extended or otherwise, living in our street, among others with similarities and differences, within villages or towns which have different forms of collective structures.
Each of us experiences our personal narrative as a result of birth, most of us, fortunately, being brought up and kept safe by our parents, grandparents, wider family and friends. We are born in our particular time, which has implications for the articles that surround us and possibly the finances available to parents to support our upbringing.
Our story, my story, her story, his story = first steps in history.
I used to use the idea that each of us has a story when I worked with Infants and Lower Juniors, to make a link between different ages of “lived lives”. Working with their own memories, supported by photographs, we were able to consider time before they were born, with exploration of parent and grandparent narratives, again with photographic storyboards. In this way, children could develop the idea of time having passed. The oral tradition of sharing stories was kept alive and the shared experience was often quoted as bringing children closer to older family members, as links were established.
Stories of playing, or eating and how they dressed were shared. The highlights and difficulties of significant events. Each could be recorded, physically on tape, but also as transcripts.
People around us
The local police officer was a regular visitor to schools, especially when there was dedicated school link officer, to talk with the children about growing up issues and responsibilities. Other regular visitors would include the fire-service, ambulance, school nurse, area librarians, local sports coaches and local representatives of several different churches. In so doing, this extended the school community, by invitation.
Local organisations often asked for children to participate in local events, sometimes singing, carols or summer fair fun songs, sometimes country dance, including maypole dancing on 1st May on the village green.
Taking advantage of local expertise supported some aspects of the wider curriculum, as they became known to the school.
All of these events served to show the breadth of people locally and the specific skills that each had to offer to the community.
Life is largely lived in some form of group, home, school and work. Each of us has to find our place within this matrix. Some find it easier than others. An aware group will keep an eye on each member, to ensure that each has a place and is valued for themselves.
Children need to learn to live within and value the group for all that it offers them and others.
The first twenty years of my life were somewhat nomadic. By that point, I had been around the world twice, both times as emigrants to Australia, first as £10 Poms, then at 17 with residual family after parent’s messy divorce. It was seen as the land of milk and honey by my dad. We came back reasonably quickly, as 1) he discovered that bringing up teenagers alone was not going to be easy and 2) he was worried that I’d be called up for the Vietnam war.
As a result, I got into the habit of travelling relatively light. The things of childhood were spirited away, but not into someone’s loft to be rediscovered in a sense of lost joy. A few special pieces remain from that period; my County cricket cap, having been awarded that the year before the second Oz trip and a small wooden model of a man that “lived” in my grandmother’s display cabinet and came out when I visited. The legs moved and that was magical to a three year old, “walking” the man down the arm of the chairs or across the table. That this belonged to my grandmother means that it is now over 120 years old.
That I lived a somewhat itinerant lifestyle and had little when I got married meant that this period was the most settled period in my life to that date. Seeking out and renovating furniture became a hobby. To be able to look at a finished piece and feel that it was pleasing to look at and the product of personal effort imbued the object with special meaning. It was something of mine. It belonged to me, and, in a sense, created a sense of belonging.
A few pieces remain from that period. After my first wife died, it was a period of sorting and readjustment, with special emphasis a couple of years later, as I remarried and moved house. Some special bits remain, this time some in the loft, but, in order to rebuild a life, it required an adjustment and a selection of specific special things. You cannot live in the past, only the present and with plans for the future.
A new “nest” had to be created.
The “things” that remain, when all is said and done, are the memories that go with and surround any physical pieces. You may pick up something and remember. I remember holidays in South Wales when I smell coal dust; the smell of the slag heaps. Meeting people jogs memories of shared experience.
The things matter, but so do the ephemeral aspects of life, the stuff of memories. The pictures and the words often outlast the physical closeness of “things”.
I just need to know that I belong, which is also what I wanted for any child in my classes.
There's always a time when whatever activity you have devised for a class comes to a close before the time you had planned. There's a need for some kind of "filler" activity.
Early in my career, a colleague suggested that I should make three sets of cards, based on a set of people, places and things or objects. The idea was very simple. a child would select a card from each group, then link the elements together in a short spoken story. This became a very popular filler, but had the potential to be developed further, into extended pieces of imaginary writing.
Where experiences might be limited, and based on the teacher's good knowledge of their class, each of the groups can be tailored to their locality. Of course, this also relies on the teacher having a good understanding of the area where their class lives!