Whilst being an enthusiast for using the body to learn, I appreciate the power of words to communicate an experience. So as I attempt some kind of review of 2021, I have to say that words played an essential role in one of the year’s personal highlights. I had the privilege of getting to know and working with a young woman named Aryam in the retelling of her story as a refugee coming to this country from Syria. This was for a presentation at a community festival and one sunny afternoon last July she simply sat and read aloud her narrative. There was no embodiment – she did not need to ‘act it out’, her words were enough. It was simple and effective, the essence of an experience captured beautifully when she spoke of her parents, “When they came here, they were like so happy, they actually slept after five years. Finally we can sleep.” Those final words remain with me as a powerful embodiment of what freedom from fear can mean.
After many years of on-off attempts to learn the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish, I have finally accomplished it! My 13 year old daughter Grace learned it in about 20 minutes, confirming for me the plasticity of the young brain as opposed to … (no, I won’t go there, having just celebrated another birthday!) The reason for this self-set task is rooted in fond memories of the Dominican Republic and a particular church called San Matias just outside the town of Bani. Whilst living in Florida and attending Church of the Ascension in Clearwater, a team of us would visit San Matias each summer and help with construction projects and the vacation Bible school. Every morning we would gather together with folk from San Matias and listen as Rev Ercilia led morning prayer – in Spanish of course – concluding with the Lord’s Prayer. I kept a copy of the Spanish version and reading it back home helped me feel connected to our Dominican friends. Now being able to recite it aloud in Spanish strengthens that connection and takes me back to those mornings when we would shelter from the humidity and heat under a corrugated iron roof and say the final ‘Amen’ with conviction – a moment quite literally sweetened by the thought of the café con leche (two sugars) that would follow…
My daughter was very proud of me when I recited it to her, “well done mum” she said with real meaning. And today I couldn’t resist sharing my achievement with the Spanish teacher at school who seemed genuinely pleased for me too! I had always assumed that she was from Spain but no, she’s from Peru – how cool is that! I would never have found this out if I had not shared my moment of glory, so I’m very glad I did.
I usually have about five books on the go at the same time and one of my current reads is Obama’s ‘A Promised Land’. I prefer to read non-fiction, especially memoirs and especially political memoirs and especially American political memoirs! Obama is a fantastic writer and I am relishing the detail of his rise to the presidency. However, I found a seemingly small detail very interesting indeed – he often wrote his speeches in longhand first, on “yellow legal pads”, disliking the tidy appearance of word processed “half baked thoughts”. On reading this, I was reminded of a recent blog post on the importance of handwriting by teacher and author Alex Quigley. His post included reports of studies that evidenced the beneficial effect of handwritten compositions on the quantity and quality of words generated by students. Moreover, students were able to record the words more quickly than by typing them. This is a real bonus for students who buzz with ideas and want to ‘get them down’ quickly. Anyway, on reading these accounts by Obama and Quigley, I was inspired yesterday to purchase a notepad as a receptacle for my first draft blog posts. I was a long time in the shop because a) there was quite an array to choose from and b) having read about the importance of handwriting it felt like I was making a major decision! Choice made, I headed home and resisted writing in my newly acquired notepad for 24 hours, not wanting to spoil the aesthetic appeal of its emptiness. I took the plunge today and yes, now that I have drafted this post by hand first, the notepad is no longer the beautiful item it was in the shop. However, I am aware of William Blake’s admonition to “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” and therefore I hope this notepad will go from being beautiful to useful.
I was really sad to hear about the recent passing of Sir Ken Robinson. He was an advocate for integrating the arts in learning – when it was educationally fashionable or, as in recent times, not so much. He believed in the power of the arts to enhance life experiences for all young people but perhaps especially for youngsters who find a text heavy curriculum (such as the one we have today) a barrier to learning. He reminded us again and again that learning does not just happen while we sit behind a classroom desk, “We think about the world in all the ways that we experience it. We think visually, we think in sound, we think kinaesthetically. We think in abstract terms, we think in movement.” 
When I taught a course on arts integration to preservice teachers at the University of South Florida, I routinely showed his famous TED talk (see link below) and when the video stopped, there was always an initial silence – as if his words were quietly awakening some personal memory of significance. Then the student teachers would start sharing instances of dance or drama performances they had been involved with at school – experiences they remembered because the learning involved the body and happened beyond the classroom desk. Yes, knowledge is power but surely it becomes even more powerful when expressed in ways that establish we are sentient beings, ill-suited to sitting all day. We are increasingly surrounded by words (including the words of this blog!) but sometimes words really are not enough, for as Sir Ken reminded us in his TED talk, “we all have bodies, don’t we?” Yes we do, so let’s use them.
Last week I sat down in front of my laptop, opened up a new word document, typed “Chapter 1 Minibook” and then stared at the empty space before taking a deep breath and muttering ‘here we go’. I am delighted to have a publishing agreement with the United Kingdom Literacy Association to write a guide on using embodied learning as part of their Minibook series https://ukla.org/publications/minibooks-series/ but looking at that empty space on screen was simultaneously exciting, daunting and scary. Exciting because I am passionate about using movement in learning and I’ll get to communicate that passion and hopefully make an impact on teaching and learning. Daunting because of the graft that comes with writing for publication – remembering where that perfect quote came from, beating myself up for thinking I’d remember the reference and then starting down the Google rabbit hole in search of it. And scary because I have 7 weeks in which to complete a document that is well written, informative but most of all interesting!
The concept of an ‘empty space’ speaks of both absence and potential and I am reminded of Peter Brook’s seminal work of the same title. I first read this book in 1985 at Rolle College, Exmouth (which sadly no longer exists) when I began my BA in English and Theatre Arts. I had never read anything like it, nor was I a particularly avid theatre goer and yet I ‘got’ what Brook was saying about the spectrum of theatre performance – deadly, holy, rough and immediate. I still have my copy, complete with many underlinings and pencilled comments. The book opens with this image,
“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged” (1984, p. 11)
If I look ahead to the day when my manuscript is complete, in essence it will remain an empty page until someone reads it and engages with the words on the page so that the ideas become embodied in their own teaching. And that thought is what mobilises me to keep tapping away at the keys…
So how is my ‘becoming literate’ journey coming along? I am aware that it is six months since I wrote my first blog post but this doesn’t indicate a stagnant journey! There is so much I could say – about my work and my evolving approach(es) to teaching secondary students and various facts I read that seem to be of cultural significance – such as more people applied to be on Love Island than applied to Oxford or Cambridge… But I will begin with an update on some reading I have been doing from a book I bought in 1989 when I was training to be a teacher at the University of Wolverhampton. The book is called ‘Children’s Minds’ by Margaret Donaldson and we were strongly advised to buy it – which I did. I think like most books on the reading list, it received a skimmed reading approach. Just enough reading to inform me that she was challenging some of Piaget’s theories, but as I hadn’t a strong grasp on those either, a challenge to them did not make a mark. But the book remained on my bookshelf as evidence that I was a teacher trained in theory as well as practice and as a reminder to me that one day I should try reading it again. So, thirty years later I am doing just that and what gems I am finding!
First of all what about this as our starter for 10:
‘some of the skills which we value most highly in our educational system are thoroughly alien to the spontaneous modes of functioning of the human mind’ (p. 15)
So, why do we persist with things that are alien? Are we scared of spontaneity? And to be sure – spontaneity isn’t about letting the students do what they want. She talks about teachers guiding the learning within a ‘structure environment’ (p. 120) that enables students to become ‘competent, self-determining, responsible beings’. For her, a heavy handed control is really an anticipation of a rejection of learning, whereas an unobtrusive control seeks to render itself unnecessary. Instead she calls for a ‘light touch’ (note, not an ‘easy touch’) and herein lies the skill and artistry of teaching – a profession that I began 30 years ago but am only now truly seeking to discover what a ‘light touch’ looks like in a classroom where I desire spontaneity and not chaos…
First of all I feel the need to acknowledge the above heading and the naming of this blog. The phrase ‘becoming literate’ is found within the quote of a writer and academic I greatly admire and wish I could have met! Her name is Maxine Greene (1917 – 2014 – wow!!!) and in the book ‘Releasing the Imagination’ she writes, “Imagination will always come into play when becoming literate suggests an opening of spaces, an end to submergence and a consciousness of the right to ask why” (1995, p. 25). I love this quote because it mentions the provocation of imagination through the process of becoming literate – and this process is aligned with expansion of thought and experience. I am also indebted to Michelle Obama in the curation of this title! Yesterday – January 1st – I symbolically finished reading her book ‘Becoming’. I say symbolically because January 1st is traditionally associated with enlightenment and a determination to ‘become’ more than we were the year before. I don’t actually subscribe to this – way too much pressure – but I love the word ‘becoming’ because it suggests a continual development rather than one that can be measured at any particular time.
And so to the word ‘literate’. I am a literacy intervention teacher and I have a doctorate in literacy – so the word and what it means is extremely important to me. I intend to use this space to document what ‘becoming literate’ actually means and to expand on narrow definitions of literacy through examining life as a lived literacy.