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The Good, the Bad, and the Ambiguous

May 12th, 2009

For a long time I’ve been thinking about the fiction read in primary classrooms – in particular about characterisation. Overwhelmingly, if characters are morally ambiguous in any way they tend to have come right by the end of the story – “I used to think my brother was a bit of a loser but now I realise he’s kinda cool” sort of thing. But what is there to say about a character like this? The “reformed character” theme has been spelt out for the reader; there’s no work left for them to do because any indeterminacy present at the beginning has been neatly removed by the end – presumably because the writer and/or publisher thinks kids can’t handle moral ambiguity. Our research, in contrast, suggests not only can kids handle indeterminacy, but their thinking becomes deeper and more complex as a result of engaging with it.

Our research (The Lifelong Literacy project funded by the Cognition Education Research Trust) includes an exploration of kids’ meaning making of morally ambiguous characters. One of the teachers we are working with chose the father in Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story because in this version of the story he doesn’t just have “goody” or “baddy” status – he has both. We have provided a brief outline of the teacher’s first lesson in the Thinking Object: How much is Cinderella’s father to blame for her situation? In this resource we briefly describe the support given to the teacher prior to the lesson, and the teacher’s and researchers’ thinking about why the lesson was so successful.

It’s our hope that you will take a look at the Thinking Object and leave comments about how useful you think a resource like this might be for classroom teachers and teacher educators. In effect, your comments will provide an informal review and will help us to refine the design of future resources of this type.

Click here for a pdf version of the Thinking Object.

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On Reading Trash

February 26th, 2009

It all depends on how you define “trash”, of course. On a bad day I’d probably define it as anything I don’t read. But on a better day, when I’m trying on my post-structuralist hat (I’ve got a lot of hats but I’m not actually convinced I suit any of them), I’d tell you there was no such thing. I’d say that literature and trash may often be set against one another but that there’s no real reason why they should be.

It’s what you do with a text that matters. Readers can engage with a complexly crafted text as well as a much simpler one on the same sort of intellectual level: I can make use of Mills and Boon to think about aspiration; I can make use of Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife to do the same thing. From this perspective we are less likely to see “literature” and “trash” as opposites, and instead of spending time distinguishing between two extremes, we are more likely to spend it critically exploring the themes a text represents: what is important is the level of thinking generated. I should have used this argument when I was asked, “Wouldn’t you be far more intellectually stimulated if you taught secondary?” I wish I’d had the wit to point out that, for the teacher, intellectual stimulation is not derived from the complexity of student thinking. It comes from the process of working out what to do in response to student thinking – complex and simple.

I can easily convince myself of this “there is no such thing as trash” argument as long as I’ve got the right hat on. But something always makes me take it off.

Hatless, it occurs to me that I’ve just implied Mills and Boon is on a par with Emily Perkins, that no novel is of more worth to us culturally or aesthetically than any other. The trouble is nothing will convince me this is true. So I’m stuck in an argument with myself where trash does, and does not, exist; stuck spinning around in an argument neither of my two selves can win. Sticking the hat back on helps.

Now I can remind myself of my main point: Mills and Boon and Novel About My Wife can be read at the same intellectual level. Yes, got that. But in saying this I haven’t said they are equally well written and that they have equal cultural or aesthetic significance. Just because a novel can be put to intellectual use doesn’t mean it will necessarily be one of those texts that live inside all of us (whether we are conscious of them or not). Sometimes written hundreds of years ago, these are the texts our current conversations and actions can be traced back to; the ones that show us the historical weight of narrative on present events – they show us the agency of texts. Who knows, Novel about My Wife might one day have this kind of place in our culture. I doubt anything from Mills and Boon will.

But I’m left asking myself if I think Mills and Boon could be a useful part of secondary English classes even though its usefulness will be transitory. And the hat comes off again.

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Shifting literacies

February 10th, 2009

What reading is meant to be

Two steps inside the door and I either had to veer to the left or stop at the “here’s the new stuff we expect will sell pretty well” table. I opened the first page of the first book I saw whose title was in bigger font than the author’s name. It’s worked in the past, but not this time. What I read was held together by poetic references I just didn’t get.

When you’re drowning in text, it’s probably natural to think you’re the problem – if only I knew a bit more stuff, I’d recognise the references. I suppose you could try to fix your inadequate self by enrolling in some kind of course but there might be ways around the problem that rely less on deficit thinking:

1. Ignore all obscure references

Simply read right over the top of them and go hunting for bits you do get. This is all very well but doesn’t quite fit if you think reading is about taking risks, about facing and experiencing the unfamiliar.

2. Make sense of them in your way, even if you think it may not be the author’s way.

This kind of behaviour will get you into trouble with some literary theorists, though – the ones who insist that any allusion understood in a way not intended by the author is a misreading (but you’re probably safe to practise this kind of subversion in the privacy of your own head). And besides, there are plenty of theorists who say texts can be read at various levels, so missing a few of the author’s intended meanings doesn’t result in the text being unintelligible to the reader.

3. Think of Anton.

Chekhov, that is: cherry orchards … “Is that it?” endings. He knew what reading was all about: “When I write I rely fully on the reader, on the assumption that he himself will add the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” Here was a man who actually thought something was missing until a reader comes along with all their subjectivity, their fabulous “baggage” (a middle child with a fear of rats, an inclination towards sugar, an aversion to obsequious shop assistants …) and uses it to help make sense of the text.

Remind yourself of Chekhov, then, whenever you get to a really dense bit – a bit that makes you suspect you’re not quite smart enough. He’ll reassure you that the writer’s job is to put the text out there in the world so readers will add themselves to the mix and make some kind of sense of the whole thing. This is what reading is meant to be.

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