I knew at once that it was one of those books. I was grazing along my bookshelves, a constant source of agitation to my librarian husband as they have books lodged at all angles with no apparent classification or logical system. I’ve tried various ways to approach some kind of order: colour, size, topic, usage factor, reference, fiction, hardback, but they elude me. I think the chance of discovery outweighs any benefits of orderliness.
Running my hand along the spines, I randomly pull a handful forward at an angle of 45 degrees to reveal my book ‘stack.’ Library ‘stacks’ are often rows and rows of very close bookshelves, dark and mystical places of lost and forgotten words.
Funny how memory works as I suddenly recall a Neil Diamond lyric:
You got me waiting out in the back
Under a stack
Stuck in a bin
You been keeping me in
High on the shelf all by myself
Feeling like I’m doing time
Under a sign
That reads Forgotten
My stack revealed a 1980 Penguin edition of ‘How Children Fail’ by John Holt, a collection of journal entries and memos from his observations of children in USA schools.
I’m hooked when I read Allan Fromme’s Introduction:
“Failure in a success-oriented culture is hard to take. We are failing and our children are failing in our schools at an alarming rate. Even children who achieve enviable grades are failing to learn much of what we hope to teach them: abstraction, curiosity, and, most of all appreciation. The subject matter of a course is frequently little more than a vehicle for the achievement of these educational goals – yet, all too often, the subject matter becomes an end in itself.”
Holt goes on to say that these goals are possible as long as children are not afraid, bored or confused. He felt that a school should be:
” a smörgåsbord of intellectual, artistic, creative and athletic activities, from which a child could take whatever and as much as he wanted”
Oxford English Dictionaries define smörgåsbord as “A wide range of something; a variety” or as Merriam Webster Online defines it “often a large heterogeneous mixture.”
Holt describes his idea of such a school to one of the children he observed, asking:
“Tell me, what do you think of it? Do you think it would work? Would kids learn anything?”
She said: “You know, kids really like to learn; we just don’t like being pushed around.”
Holt replies: No they don’t; and we should be grateful for that. So let’s stop pushing them around, and give them a chance.”
As I’m wondering how to follow this, I recall hearing about schoolchildren writing letters to an Unknown Soldier a statue I experienced very recently. Through Fromme’s lens I see:
1. Curiosity – through investigating the statue, context and it’s portrayal of reading a letter from home, perhaps asking why it’s on Platform One at Paddington Station?
2. Abstraction – aspects of the statue might not be recognisable to children, the uniform, the greatcoat and tin hat. However, finding attributes they recognise, such as the significance of an individual starting a journey, the focus upon the letter, the coat over the shoulders, and stance, perhaps to keep the rain off the letter are all recognisable to children and may start the process of association.
3. Appreciation – it’s hard to know what the children’s personal response will be however, generating a letter to the soldier requires attention, effort, awareness, comprehension and use of language.
All in all, the children are actively taking part in a community activity which values and appreciates what the Unknown Soldier represents and are developing their tacit knowledge and understanding.
I’ve seen some terrific examples of how the smörgåsbord can be enhanced using digital media. You might take a look at the UCO Teachmeet Padlet wall where Chris Waterworth shared his primary schoolchildren’s WW1 padlet.
Does Holt’s concern about children ‘failing’ because they’re bored, afraid or confused still ring true today? Are Fromme’s educational goals of abstraction, curiosity and appreciation still applicable?
And finally, if you get a chance, go and experience the statue yourself, it’s on Platform One, Paddington Station. It captures a form, a soldier, a human spirit so, so well. I know it’s strange and a little surreal but I can visualise the soldier reading the children’s letters. It is that truthful, and will not be forgotten.