Sunday, 24 July 2022

How a Grade 5 'non-writer' taught me a valuable lesson about writing!

One of the great challenges we face as a teachers is that if we don't know our students then we are at a great disadvantage in extracting the best from them. I talk in chapter 5 of my book 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' about the depth of community life in our schools and classrooms and has this has a key formative role in the lives of our students. I shared a story from my days as a Teacher in Charge of a one teacher school and how in a school community, whether a group of friends, a class, or perhaps the whole school. I suggested that this was a rich and important element of any shared community. 

My take home message in relation to that classroom even was that as teachers we need to understand the complexity of the shared communities of practice that exist in schools and be able to tap into them. Sadly, some teachers visit the classroom, teach content and control behaviour without ever developing deep understanding of their students. We might know some of our students well, some a little, and others perhaps barely at all except in relation to their behaviour, work and interactions in class. What do we know about their hopes, loves, dreams and the things that excite them most outside school?

In my book I talk about the need to "orchestrate classroom life". We do this in many ways, but a key tool is to listen and observe classroom and school life in the 'cracks' of the school day. I've just shared a post on my literacy blog "Literacy, Families & Learning" that should be of interest to readers of this blog. I share a story of an elementary (primary) student who I was teaching in the US. She was a difficult students at times, who did little work. 

 

But as I share in the post "On an ordinary morning, as I prepared for the school day I heard the yellow school buses arrive, and the rush of students down the corridor shortly just minutes later. Students burst through the door and we did the usual crowd control as. Imagine my surprise when a bundle of poetry spilled on the floor in front of me."

You can read the full blog post HERE.

I hope that it proves helpful in reinforcing the vital need to know our students.

Monday, 6 June 2022

The Role of Story in Shaping Hearts & Minds

I devote a whole chapter in my book ‘Pedagogy andEducation for Life’ to stories and storytelling. In this post, I just want to make three points about story, which cannot be emphasised too many times. I’ve just posted on my ‘Language & Literacy’ blog about some wonderful children’s books, which prompted me to discuss the impact that stories have on children’s lives. I’m not simply speaking of stories in books, but rather the impact of stories of all kinds on how our children see the world. Three quick points:

 

First, stories in whatever form, can shape our hopes, goals, desires and views of the world. So, as teachers and parents, the choices we make - when we share stories and literature with our children, or when we allow them to watch specific television programs and movies - matter!

 

Second, stories can shape our vision and desires for life. Oliver O'Donovan reminded us of Augustine’s statement that a community is “a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love.” Such groups whether friendship groups, teams, classrooms, clubs etc, influence our ‘hearts’ and minds. In essence, through them we can come to have a common “view of the good.” Or, put another way, the things that matter to them and shape their lives.

 

Third, one’s goals, desires, views of the world and varied cultural practices shaped, might be good, bad or inconsequential for our children.

 

My Christian readers will take comfort in knowing that the Bible is central to their lives and that of their children. As such, this can influence and shape goals, desires and views of the world. And of course, my readers who have other faiths will point to other key religious books and teachings that shape who they are. Others will trust in their children to make good choices, and simply try to influence them within the home, through their own values and actions.

 

But note this. Our children spend much of their lives talking and engaging with other children like them, and spending time on varied social media, much of which teachers and parents don’t use. As such, there are many influences through the varied “communities of practice” in which they live day by day. Hence, within the many and varied real and online communities that our children inhabit, there are ideas and ‘loves’ that are not scrutinized by parents or teachers.  

 

Margaret Meek suggested that the writing of others is “infectious”; and this she always hoped for as a writer. The stories that are part of our experience can shape our vision of the good life, give focus to our desires, and direction. And the stories that are part of our experience shape our vision of the good life, giving focus to our desires, and lead us down different paths.

 

Summing up, story can challenge, move us and lead us to reflect on our lives. And the stories of life in whatever form, helps us to deal with all of life’s emotions including love, hate, fear, confidence, chaos, certainty, weakness, strength, success, and failure. Stories are potentially formative, influencing our attitude toward the ultimate object of love—the God of the universe—who has made us for a future kingdom and an everlasting hope and glory.

 

Friday, 29 April 2022

Our lives are always embedded within a personal history & story

I've been working on my family history. I set myself the task of compiling the story of the previous 3-4 generations of my family history in words (yes, a ‘small’ task!). As I wrote, I found myself revisiting images of people, places and events. I knew that any family history is always shaped primarily by memories and perspectives of varied family members (and non-family members too), who often have different lived experiences and accounts. Even two or more siblings can have slightly different memories of the same events, person and relationships. I began to see that as well as the family stories handed down across the generations, that photographic evidence and documents also matter!

 

 
 Above: My sister & me (a 'few' years ago)

But varied evidence is not always 'equal' in validity. It all helps to shape who we think we are, what we believe, and even character, beliefs and values. An image alone, can help us to situate and understand our memories within a specific place and time. They act as anchors for 'truth'. But an image requires interpretation, so in partnership with the memories of multiple people and sources, places and events, we will end up nearer to the 'truth'.
 

My Great Great Grandfather watched a son and daughter leave Scotland in 1882 never to return to their homeland. As I began to dig out old family photos and records, and listen to the memories of those still living, a bigger and more complete story emerged of what had happened. The addition of unseen images in boxes, old newspaper clippings, ship records and so on, contributed to a bigger and more complete story; one richer than any single family member could recall. There is often much knowledge that is in common between family members, but gaps can be filled by other people and official documents. Like many families, there have been some surprises, with troubling events uncovered, and amazing stories unearthed.

As I have embraced this journey I've been reminded of the words of Alasdair Macintyre:

 

"The story of oneself is embedded in the history of the world, an overall narrative within which all other narratives find their place."

 

Of course, it is true, every story is unique, but also our personal stories reflect the stories of others before us, as well as those we live life with now. Alasdair's words seem to be very much 'big picture', but he is right. As a Christian, I believe that my story is reflective of and part of the greatest story ever told. It should not surprise us when we discover that while our personal stories are unique, they share elements with other people's stories, and are also shaped by the lives of our family members, and previous generations from our maternal and paternal relatives.

  

 Above: My Dad near the Forth Bridge in Scotland having returned after 60 years

 

I grew up in a less than perfect home. For much of my childhood both parents were 'absent' from my life for varied reasons. They had part-time lives as entertainers, and in my father's case, full-time shift work in the mines. Like all parents, they had some shortcomings; hence my older sister and I were fairly independent from about the age of 10. But we both loved them and were shaped in part by them and their lives. We both married early and found wonderful life-time partners, and set about building a different family life for our children.

 

I fell in love with my wife for varied reasons. These included her kindness, gentleness, quiet confidence, servant heart and the fact that she made me laugh! She is also smart and a perfect partner in life. The person she is reflects her personal history, faith and family. After joining her family, I discovered her mother and grandmother were very much the same type of women. In the last 10 years we have discovered through family history research, that earlier generations of women on Carmen's side across four centuries, shared many of the same qualities. Their lives, no doubt served to shape in part their children and ultimately later ancestors.

 

In my life, I've written in previous publications and posts how teachers had a strong influence on me. A few I loved and some I loathed. As teachers, how we engage and nurture the children in our care matters. The small number of teachers who did believe in me, saw me as more than just a cheeky and unkempt kid (which I also was). Whatever role we fill in life, we can have an influence for good.

 

Above: Terry Malone, Dr Phil Lambert & Me

 

I had the joy last night of attending the launch of a book from the recently retired Assistant Director of Education in NSW Dr Phil Lambert. He invited me to attend along with a former colleague I taught with 48 years ago! To our great surprise he mentioned us both in his book. As a 1st year student teacher he was assigned to my class (in just my third year of teaching). He shared that he'd considered leaving teacher training until he came to my classroom for his first period of practice teacher. He said that he observed my love of teaching, and the friendship and fun I had with the teacher in the next room Terry Malone. The fun and joy we had teaching, and the impact on the children's lives inspired him to continue. He came to the school thinking of dumping teaching, but he left keen and excited about completing his course. To learn this many years later was a joy!

 

I share the above story, not in any sense of pride (although I was encouraged by it), but simply to demonstrate that the lives we live each day matter. Our stories are always intertwined with other people's stories. As teachers, it is important to consider how we encourage our students to live in ways that acknowledge their true identities, while also seeking to help them grow and mature through lived experience. Just like their parents and wider families, teachers play a part in helping to shape the character of our students.

 

The central goal of Christian education should always be more ambitious than academic standards, cut-off scores, future jobs, sporting achievements, and so on. As Alasdair MacIntyre argues, education in our schools should lead to “purity of heart,” not just appropriate behavior and school success. As I outline in my book "Pedagogy and Education for Life":

 

"The role of teachers and schools is to partner with parents to create learning school communities that work in concert with the many other communities in which all students are participants. These school communities of learners will teach and nurture and indeed form the children who God gives to us, in whatever educational context we meet them."

 

If you're a teacher, be encouraged, and seek to place the learning of your students and their growth as people at the centre of your concerns. You serve in a noble and important profession.

Monday, 21 March 2022

How Literature Teaches us to 'Truly' Read

Discovering literature

 

I first wrote about ‘discovering’ literature in a book published in the 1990s called ‘Pathways to Literacy’. In it I explained it took me until I was 8 years old before I read my first book. This was in spite of the fact that I’d been able to read since about 4-5 years of age! The first book I truly 'read' was Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’. I had read school readers and some school magazine stories, a lot of comics and a couple of editions of Boys Own Annual. But I had never read a novel of my choice. At school, I’d only ever read for functional purposes.

 

But that changed when I was given Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea at my Father’s Miners’ Trade Union Christmas party. It was this book that taught me things about reading I'd never known before.  As I wrote in ‘Pathways to Literacy’:

 

“I lived through this book" (to use Louise Rosenblatt's well known phrase). I could almost smell the leather in Captain Nemo's Cabin. I felt the panic of the sailors on the wooden hulled ships at the terrifying sight of a glowing 'eyed' monster hurtling towards them in the darkness. I also felt deep compassion for the people inside doomed to death.”

 

There was a sense of excitement and commitment to the text evoked by this story. This had not been generated by my school readers. The formal reading in my first 2-3 years at school had a range of banal plots, impoverished language and weak characterization. The stories were written to teach me, rather than being provided to engage, enrich and transform me through the power of story.

 

I believe that ‘first’ book changed me as a reader, turning me from a passive consumer of text into an active meaning maker. In response to the book I was 'creating' text in partnership with the author!  I was to read the book many times and eventually others as well.

 

 

Years later, as a young teacher I was to observe many children who like me as a young child, never read books except to complete a school task. I helped to run a community literacy centre for a number of years where parents would bring their children to me for help with reading. I discovered something interesting. Virtually all the children who had reading problems, behaved as if they were reading textbooks.

 

Like me as a child, “… they were mere consumers of other people's texts, not creators of meaning in the fullest sense of the word. The attention of the readers was often focused on the surface features of the words in the text, and not necessarily the construction of meaning.”

 

As teachers, our definition of what literature is, also has an effect on the way we value and use literature in classrooms.  For example, some teachers see it is as a vehicle for sustaining our cultural heritage.  For those who see literature in this way, it is the means for ensuring that all students have access to an assumed central and essential cultural knowledge, based on an exclusive cannon of special literature.  Other teachers see literature as the provider of significant experiences which are seen as central to the social fabric of family life.

 

While one cannot deny that literature also fulfills these functions, each misses the point that literature is a living tapestry of yesterday, today and tomorrow. It sustains, enriches and sometimes rebukes the cultural practices of our day.

 

Literature's potential

 

There are many who are locked within their narrow and limited conceptualizations of what literacy and literature are, and hence they fail to identify all that they can offer.  Literature is not just about story, it is about life, and one's world. In my book, I suggested that literature can fulfill many complex functions.  It can act as:

 

• a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances;

• a source of knowledge;

• a source of ideological challenge;

• a lens to peer into the past, and the future;

• a vehicle to other places;

• a means to reflect on inner struggles;

• an introduction to the realities of life and death; and

• a vehicle for raising and discussing social issues. (‘Pathways to Literacy’ T.H. Cairney)

 

Most books offer the potential to address many of these functions at once.  For example, Charlotte's Web (E.B.White) simultaneously offers new knowledge about spiders and the animal world, addresses the complex issue of dying, and deals with many elements of the human condition, including love and companionship.

 

In short, literature offers "endless possibilities" for readers to explore their world and learn from it, to enter "other worlds" and to engage in meaning making (Cairney, 1990). 

Sunday, 27 February 2022

When Fears Rush In: How can we help our children to overcome fears in times of crisis?

When fears rush in, how can we support our children?

In light of the crisis in Ukraine, while nations seek to push back an international bully, parents across all nations will wonder, how can we encourage and reassure our children? As children see and hear newsflashes that adults seem very interested in, what might they be thinking. And if they ask questions about the situation in Ukraine, what might we say? 

This is a cross post from another blog I write. I don't usually do this, but I think the practical challenge to read to, and with our children, at this time is important. People of faith will of course place their trust not just in self and circumstances. But for our children, it will be helpful to spend more time with them and allow opportunities for them to ask questions and allow their fears to surface. Families will talk and pray with their children. As well, they might use literature as a context for further reflection and opportunities to chat about their fears.

Throughout history, stories have been helpful to allow humans to gain insights into specific life situations, as well as comfort and encouragement not to allow fear to take a hold of them. This post looks briefly at a number of wonderful books that might be helpful to share at this time to allow any lingering fears within our children to be discussed. These aren’t necessarily, the ‘magic’ books that will help to remove all fear, they are examples of books that might allow parents to open up difficult fears, shine a light on them and offer comfort and hope to our children.

 

1. 'How Big Are Your Worries Little Bear?' by Martin Waddell & illustrated by Barbara Firth


Little Bear is a worrier. He worries about everything! But with Mama Bear’s help, he soon learns his worries are not so big after all. 

Through this engaging and beautifully illustrated story, children will learn that everyday worries and fears can be overcome. It just takes a willingness to share with a helpful listener, and an understanding that making mistakes is how we learn. 

Also included are Discussion Questions for parents, caregivers and educators, and extra hints to help children manage anxiety.

Recommended age: 3 and up

   

2. 'What a Bad Dream' by Mercer Mayer

 

Nightmares happen to everyone, including Little Critter. One night, one of his dreams starts out great, with him skipping baths, eating fudge pops for breakfast, and getting a gorilla as a pet. But it quickly turns into a nightmare when he realizes his family is nowhere to be found, so he has no one to read to him, tuck him in, and give him a hug. Everything is better when he wakes up to his mom and dad comforting him.



3. 'Wilma Jean the Worry Machine by Julia Cook and Illustrated by Anita Dufalla 


"My stomach feels like it's tied up in a knot.
My knees lock up, and my face feels hot.
You know what I mean?
I'm Wilma Jean,
The Worry Machine."



Anxiety is a subjective sense of worry, apprehension, and/or fear. It is arguably the number one health problem in most nations. While common, anxiety in children is often misdiagnosed or even overlooked. Everyone can feel fear, worry and apprehension occasionally. 


This is a fun book that addresses the challenge of anxiety in a way that relates to children of all ages. It also offers strategies for parents and teachers to use with children to lessen the severity of anxiety. The book aims to helpchildren develop tools to feel more in control of anxiety. The book also includes a note to parents and educators with tips on dealing with an anxious child.

 

4. Can't You Sleep Little Bear? by Martin Waddell & illustrated by Barbara Firth

 


Little Bear can t sleep. There is dark all around him in the Bear Cave. Not even Big Bear s biggest lantern can light up the darkness of the night outside. But then Big Bear finds the prefect way to reassure Little Bear and help him fall fast asleep 


Martin Waddell is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest living writers of books for children. His work includes Farmer Duck, Owl Babies and the 1989 Kurt Maschler Award-winning The Park in the Dark, also illustrated by Barbara Firth. In 2004 he won the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award. 


Barbara Firth won the Kate Greenaway Medal for Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? She illustrated over 30 picture books in her lifetime, including You and Me, Little Bear; Sleep Tight, Little Bear; Let's Go Home, Little Bear; Tom Rabbit; and the 1989 Kurt Maschler Award-winning The Park in the Dark.

 

 5. 'The Invisible String' by Patrice Karst & illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff 

 

‘The Invisible String’has been acclaimed as a wonderful tool for helping children to cope with separation anxiety, loss, and grief. It is a relatable and reassuring contemporary classic. The story centres around a mother who tells her two children that they're all connected by an invisible string. "That's impossible!" the children insist. But still they want to know more: "What kind of string?" Their mother says it is simple. There is “An Invisible String made of love. Even though you can't see it with your eyes, you can feel it deep in your heart, and know that you are always connected to the ones you love."

 

The book poses many questions. “Does everybody have an Invisible String? How far does it reach? Does it ever go away?” It is a wonderful picture book for all ages. It explores questions about the intangible yet unbreakable connections between us, and those who love and care for us. The book will allow deeper conversations about love, fear, security and hope.



The book has been recommended and used by parents, bereavement support groups, foster care and social service agencies. It has also been embraced by military library services, church groups, and educators. This special book offers a simple approach to dealing with loneliness, separation, and loss.  with an imaginative twist that children easily understand and embrace, and delivers a particularly compelling message in today's uncertain times.

 

6.  'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit' by Judith Kerr

 

This is a book for older readers 10-13. It is a semi-autobiographical classic, written by the beloved Judith Kerr, it tells the story of a Jewish family escaping Germany in the days before the Second World War. It tells the story of Anna living in Germany in 1933. As a child, she has not listened to talk of a leader called Adolf Hitler. She is too busy with her schoolwork, Friends and tobogganing.

 

This beautiful new edition celebrates the fifty-year anniversary of an adventure that Michael Morpurgo called “The most life-enhancing book you could ever wish to read.” But one day Anna and her brother Max are rushed out of Germany in alarming secrecy, away from everything they know. Their father is wanted by the Nazis. This is the start of a huge adventure, sometimes frightening, but also funny and always exciting.

 

Judith Kerr wrote the book based on her own journey, so that her own children would know where she came from and the lengths to which her parents went to keep her and her brother safe. It is recognized today as a classic that is required reading for children all over the world. 

 

 

  

Thursday, 27 January 2022

The teacher-student relationship: The importance of teachers attending to the 'invisible'?

You've probably heard the old statement teachers sometimes use: "remember, I have eyes in the back of my head". This is mainly used to class control and to modify behaviour. I can recall teachers who would say, "I'm watching you Cairney". Did this change my behaviour? A little. But more importantly, did it change my attitudes, hopes, priorities, beliefs and so on? No! While teachers are generally good at spotting children who are misbehaving, or pushing the limits of their patience, I think there is a far more important skill for effective teaching.  Are we good at seeing that which isn't simply visible? By this, I mean observing classroom behaviour, and grasping what this might reflect. It's easy to see a child who misbehaves, or acts appropriately. But do we see beyond the demonstrated behavior to their motivations and beliefs that lead them to the action, make bad choices and so on? We need to sharpen our human imagination and develop our "social imaginary".

 

 In 'Pedagogy and Education for Life' I cite Charles Taylor's work that is helpful in addressing the above.  Taylor suggests that to understand culture, we need to stop assuming only ideas move people. James Smith also takes up Taylor's call to look more deeply at why children do the things they do. Taylor challenges teachers to get beyond the surface rhetoric, and the priorities teachers and schools express. Why? Because they are simply the intellectual arguments or priorities of an institution. Beyond the surface level rhetoric, we need to consider how the priorities of the school and teacher are received and taken on. How do our students reconcile the priorities, stories, myths, images, iconic hopes and dreams of the school, with their present and past experiences? How do they connect these? Taylor suggests all groups and individuals are motivated by a “social imaginary” which helps them to imagine the context of their lives and their hoped for future. What do I mean by this?

 

The relationship between students and teachers, and students and institutions is complex. Classroom life is not just about the things we do or say to one another. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that there is a dialectical relationship between teaching and learning. He used the concept of Obuchenie to explain such relationships. Teaching and learning are intertwined, and how students receive that which is taught, and how this does or doesn't shape or transform them, is not straight forward. 

 

For true transformation to occur in students, that is, that which is beyond mere compliance and appropriate behaviour, teachers and students need to adapt to one another. This in essence is what the word "Obuchenie" seeks to represent. That is, a change in the relationship between teacher and child. As I write in my book:

 

"...Such change requires a shift of pedagogical focus from simply transmitting knowledge or practices for students to replicate, to the creation of classrooms where students have the opportunity to see connection between the varied communities of practice they navigate each day as part of normal life. These are classrooms where teachers guide, nudge, respond, question, listen, observe, urge, teach, and reveal truth in ways students can connect to their lived experiences." 

 

The next time you observe another teacher, try to contrast the messages of the school with that of the world, and the extent to which your students comply with and more importantly, accept these as part of their life. Furthermore, consider how these are different to, or simply the same as those projected by the world. If there is little difference, then "Houston, we have a problem"!

 

For further thoughts on this topic you might like to read chapter 6 of "Pedagogy and Education for Life" that is titled 'Classroom Life'.

 

 

 

Wednesday, 15 December 2021

Do we listen to children, but never really 'hear' them?

I've had a paper on my study floor for several years in my pile of papers loosely categorized as those ‘I must read some day’. Many times, I've picked up a photocopied extract from a book titled ‘The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination’. The book was written by psychiatrist Dr Robert Coles. Each time I would skim a few paragraphs and think, "now why did I place this paper from a psychiatrist here to read"? I was flipping through the pile again this week when I saw the Coles extract once more. I read a few pages and finally realized why I’d kept it.

 

Coles' work needs to be read by teachers, parents, doctors, psychiatrists and politicians. As I finally did read it completely, one key aspect of his work resonated strongly with many of my own instincts about nurturing and understanding our students at school. We often fail to truly listen to the stories our children want to tell us, about who they are, and what matters most to them. Instead, we more often observe and draw conclusions based on their behavior, the things we’ve listened for, and responses to our questions.

 

Coles unpacks the lessons he was to learn about knowing and understanding his troubled patients. One of the simplest, yet most profound lessons, was simply that patients - and I would add students at school - want to tell their stories. But often we fail to listen, and instead begin to ask questions about the things WE want to know, not what they are trying to share. At the feet of a good teacher, Coles realized his patients were telling him the stories they thought he wanted to hear, and refraining from those things that mattered most to them. He began to realize that if he failed to listen to things other than what we were looking for, they would stop sharing the things that mattered most to them. These 'hidden' things of course include their challenges, hidden pain, life frustrations, hopes and fears. As teachers, I suspect we often miss the stories that offer an insight into who our students really are.

 

 

As I read Coles' work, I could see special significance for teachers who try to understand their students. I suspect our school students always carry round stories to which we barely listen. If these are shared, they tend to interrupt the flow of our plans for the day. Students arrive at school usually full of life and keen to tell others about the stories that matter to them. Stories about the things happening in their lives. But do we listen? If we don’t we lose so much. For in the comments they make, and the stories they try to share, we gain insight into the things that matter most to them, not to mention their fears and hopes.

 

In my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’ I say much about story, but Coles’ work has reminded me that we need to amplify the importance of storytelling in our classrooms even more. Children are born to be story tellers. If given opportunities they will share stories in class, walking into school in lines, at group tables with other students, at sport, while waiting in assemblies, or simply waiting at the school gate to go home. Some teachers might see the buzz of such conversations and stories as unimportant chatter. But if only we would listen I suspect sometimes we might just hear children speaking of the fears, phobias and hopes that impact on their lives.

 

 

Robert Coles was taught by his mentor Dr Ludwig something critical about not missing opportunities to listen.

 

The people who come to see us bring their stories. They hope they tell them well enough so that we understand the truth of their lives. They hope we know how to interpret their stories correctly.

 

While we might be teachers, not psychiatrists, I wonder how often we miss such stories and opportunities? Whether our students' comments and stories are happy, sad, important or just great memories, do we give them opportunities to share them? And if they do, do we actually listen?

 

I share a number of stories in my book about teaching moments when I have gained great insights into my students in the cracks of classroom and school life. One of them concerns a ‘non-talker’ I met in a Kindergarten classroom where I was teaching part-time. As a researcher, I visited classrooms regularly in a country town to explore using writing as a means to encourage young writers to express themselves. On one occasion, I took over a Kindergarten classroom (5-year-olds in a primary school). I handed out blank books and asked them: “tell me a story in these writing books.” I stressed that they were to choose anything that was important or special to them.

 

 

One little girl finished her work and shared her story with me. She had left her seat and come to me excited and keen to read what she had written, much of it was invented spelling, but she read her work with pride. When the School Principal dropped in on this particular morning (no doubt to check on the visiting researcher), I asked the little girl to share the story with her. She did so and returned to her desk. The Principal was aghast. When she spoke to me later, she shared that the little girl “didn’t speak”, and had said nothing to her teacher in the first 8 weeks of school. In fact, she had been tagged in a “non-speakers” group so they could monitor her progress.

 

I also shared a story in my book about an African American student I taught in an Indianapolis Elementary school in the 1980s while a visiting Professor at Indiana University. Chanda was not my most cooperative student. She rarely completed tasks, and often didn’t even start. One morning as she dropped her bag on the desk, the contents fell out, including a bundle of paper with writing on the many sheets. I asked her what she was writing? To which she replied:

 

“Nothing, sir.”

 

I gently prodded a little more and said, "what are you writing about". She responded, "not much Sir". I had the good sense to say, “I’d love to see your writing.” She reluctantly pushed a sheet across the table and said, “It’s just music, sir, just bin writin music.”

 

I began to read her quite poetic and rhythmical writing, and discovered that there were a dozen or more examples like the first that I picked up. Yes, it was music! Chanda went on to share that she had been writing music at home for some time and it was one of her passions.

 

I could go on to share many other stories of students who would wander into my classroom in the morning before classes for a chat. I always listened and they shared many things. Some seemingly banal, others profound, some disturbing, but all offered insight into aspects of their lives and a sense of who they were as people.

 

 

One of Robert Coles’ great insights while working with adult traumatized psychiatric patients, was that all people deep down are story tellers and want to tell their stories to someone who will listen. Sadly, he found that if people do share something of our lives, but they sense others aren't interested, then they stop and withdraw into telling us what they think we wish to hear.

                                                           

As an elementary school teacher and later as a university lecturer, I found that our students do want to share some of their life story if they have a relationship of trust with you. Their sharing of personal stories often happens within the classroom in the ‘cracks’ of the school day. But it also happens as we walk in lines to school sport, as they unpacked their bags at the start of the school day, or as they prepare to go home. I loved playground duty as a young teacher, because this was another less formal place where children would come up and talk about the things important to them.

 

As I write in ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’: “The role of teachers and schools is to nurture, inspire, form, and influence for the good the children God gives” us. Assisting their formation as people is a foundational part of education. To have any right or opportunity to do this we must create contexts where they are willing to tell their stories. And when they do, we must listen carefully so that we might just come to a deeper understanding of who they really are, and what their hopes for the future might just be.