Monday, 16 May 2016

To the young author who was worried by SATs

Dear Young Author,

I read about you on Michael Rosen's Facebook page, where I found a link to this article.  I read that you were worried, because you thought the kinds of questions that baffled you in the SATs tests might mean you had to give up on your dream of being an author.  I was pleased to see that lots of authors have already responded on that page.

Perhaps I'm too late, but here's my message to add to the others: I'm an author. I always knew I would be one, because I spent my childhood telling stories to my friends, my sister, my parents, my teddies and anyone else who would listen.

My English teacher at school used to put ticks next to the bits he liked best in my stories.  If there was one tick, it was something quite good.  If there were two ticks, he was seriously impressed.  Any more ticks than that, and he had probably done a victory lap of the room and opened a bottle of champagne before sitting down to continue marking.  Once, I wrote quite a long story about a girl who had to run up a mountain and warn some people hiding in a cave that there were soldiers coming to get them.  When he marked the story, my English teacher put THREE ticks next to the sentence 'Rocks, lots of rocks before the cave!'

Now, I know what you're going to say, or at least I know what the person who set the SATs tests would probably say.  That isn't a sentence - it hasn't got a verb in it.  Also, it has an exclamation mark where there should have been a full stop.  It uses the word 'rocks' twice when it could have used an interesting synonym, and it has no 'wow' words in it at all.

The reason it got three ticks, my teacher said, was that taking the verb out and repeating the word 'rocks' gave the sentence a breathless, hurried, stumbling feeling, which helped him to imagine how the girl looked and felt as she raced up the mountain and was faced with climbing over loads of rocks when she was in such a hurry.

My English teacher knew what he was talking about.  Every now and then I still check over my writing for a 'three ticks' moment.

There isn't actually an exam type of test that can test good writing.  The only way to test good writing is to see whether people enjoy reading it.  If you can write a story which makes people want to carry on reading it, which makes them worried about the character in it, or which makes them feel breathless or excited or happy or sad, or which makes them laugh until they cry, then the story has passed the test.

It's never about YOU passing the test, by the way.  If the story doesn't pass the test, it doesn't make YOU a bad writer.  It just means that the story needs polishing, or that you could try writing a different story until you find one that works.  I have notebooks full of stories that didn't quite pass the test, and I think every good writer probably does.  Each one helped me to become a better writer, not a worse one, because that's what good testing should do - unlike the SATs.

I look forward to reading one of your books one day.

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Traveller and the Wise Man

In which I tell stories in protest, and inadvertently answer a question about the role of imagination in storytelling.

This is a tale of two parts.

In the first part, I was recently at a retreat day led by Malcolm Guite.  There was a discussion about imagination - Guite has written about theology and poetic imagination at length in his wonderful book Faith, Hope and Poetry, which I finally finished reading in February - and at one point, he asked me to say something about the role of imagination in storytelling.  Taken by surprise, I talked briefly about how, in storytelling, the audience does at least half of the imaginative work by creating the story visually in their own minds, which was true, but a little garbled and possibly not very relevant!

In the second part of this tale, I was asked to do some storytelling on the 3rd May at an outdoor event for the Let Kids Be Kids campaign: children and parents who were protesting against the emphasis on SATS and testing in education by taking a day off school to do fun learning out of doors.  I went along very gladly, because I agree wholeheartedly with the campaign and have been following the news about the SPAG tests with growing horror (have a look at Michael Rosen’s blog for a good commentary on the whole thing).

I chose two stories to begin the session.  The first was Peg Soup, a story which I have recently added to my repertoire: it’s a version of the well-known folktale in which a traveller claims to be able to make soup out of a peg, and so persuades previously poor or selfish people to add the few ingredients they have individually as ‘flavouring’ until a real soup has been made which everyone can share.  The second story was one I’ve been telling for years, in which Ming Lo visits a wise man to ask him how to move a mountain, and the wise man responds with various ridiculous and ineffective methods before relenting and telling Ming Lo to ‘dance the dance of the moving mountain’, which turns out to involve walking backwards with his eyes shut.  When he opens his eyes, the mountain is far away.

After telling both stories, I asked the children whether they’d noticed any similarities between them.  This is usually a good way of opening up a general discussion about storytelling.  What tends to happen is that a few tentative answers will focus on the method: “There were bits that repeated” “There was a rhyme” or “You did actions”, for example.  As the children learn that there are not really any wrong answers, they become more confident and we can start talking about the stories themselves, at which point they might notice that both stories contained a trick, that they both contained people who believed that the impossible was happening.  Then we could start to talk about what role the trick played in the story.

This time, however, one of the first answers came from a girl who confidently said the following: “Both the stories were about how if you think you can’t do something, or don’t have something, the answer is actually inside you all the time”.

I was stunned, because it is very unusual to find a child - or an adult - who can leap straight to the heart of the message of a story like that, and I can only assume that she has been steeped in folktale since infancy to do it so instinctively!

It was only when thinking about her surprising answer later on that I realised that the two stories perfectly answered the question about the role of imagination in storytelling.  In fact, the traveller and the wise man both embody the role of imagination within their stories.  Instead of giving an instant solution to the problems of the other characters - in fact, instead of pointing out that the things they want (a meal out of nothing, a mountain to move) are impossible, they both respond by imagining what would happen if the things were possible and teaching a lesson that way.

And this is precisely the kind of teaching which is hampered by the mindset of a Gove or a Morgan or a Gibb who thinks that learning must be rote and precise and testable, and that teaching must have a measured outcome.  Neither the wise man nor the traveller point out that they have been teaching a lesson all along.  They leave their pupils to work it out by themselves - and even if they never do, even if the trick is never revealed, the villagers will still get together to share their goods when they make ‘peg soup’, and Ming Lo will still know which dance to do when he is next faced with an immoveable object.  The fact that they won’t know how they are achieving these impossible things won’t actually matter to them.  They have learned something all the same.

Let’s have Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, who could believe in six impossible things before breakfast, for education secretary.  It’s only by imagining how the impossible could happen that we can ever achieve it in real life.