Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Little Boy 2

Today I was reading a wonderful book by Bronwyn Davies, ‘Listening to children’ (2014, Routledge), and this poem from ‘Don’t put Mustard in the Custard’, by Michael Rosen came into my mind:

My mum says once I came home from nursery with a sulky look on my face.
"What's the matter?" she said.
 I said nothing.
"What's the matter?" she said.
I said nothing.
"What's the matter?"
"I had to sit on the naughty chair."

"Why did you have to sit on the naughty chair?"
 I said nothing.
"Why did you have to sit on the naughty chair?"
"Cos I was being naughty."
"Yes, yes, I guessed that," she said, "but what were you doing?"

"I was playing about at singing time, I wasn't singing the right things."
"What was everyone singing?"
"Baa baa Black sheep."
"And what were you singing?"
 I said nothing.
"What were you singing?"

“Baa Baa Moo Mooo.”

I am going to unashamedly use the ideas Bronwyn Davies lays before us in her book and apply them to think about why this poem came to my mind and how reflecting on it can help me better understand Davies’ ideas about listening to children.

The child represented in this poem is standing on a “familiar, safe plot of land (the nursery rhyme, the ritual, the place)” yet at the same time he takes off on his own ‘line of flight’. He takes a risk in being different. He experiments with his own identity as a humorous being. But being different is not allowed in this classroom and so he is sent to sit on the ‘naughty’ chair. 

A nursery rhyme in a British school is a collective cultural event – familiar to some children from their experience at home, and unfamiliar to others whose cultural space, whilst almost certainly containing songs for children, probably doesn’t have this particular one. The boy has disrupted this space designed to bring all children into the dominant culture. As he explores being different, he finds out that different ways of being are not welcome here. We – the readers of the poem – appreciate the humor of his disruption, but not apparently his teacher.

The teacher’s action has stopped his ‘line of flight’ and turned it into a ‘line of descent’. The boy has challenged the striations of the space (we can all imagine what this looks like – a group of 20+ children sitting on a carpet, joining in with the nursery rhyme that is orchestrated by the teacher) and therefore challenged the authority of the teacher. The teacher can’t let him ‘get away with this’, he has to be publically labeled as ‘naughty’ – a lesson to others not to challenge the capability of the teacher to manage the class.

I can imagine that the teacher was irritated that her careful lesson plan had been disturbed; the nursery rhyme had probably been chosen to support the small child’s love of rhythm, pattern and rhyme; she probably wrote in her lesson plan that this helps prepare the children for literacy. She has clear learning outcomes in mind and is not going to be sent off-course by a small child. Is this I wonder, why she is so closed to hearing the child as he plays with words and makes a joke? She wants an orderly environment where the boundaries are made clear to the children and this overrides the child’s creativity, which bounces against these boundaries.

The teacher is part of a system of childhood education that is driven by its will to manage and to measure. How can she ‘measure’ the child’s engagement with the nursery rhyme if he plays around with it like this? What she understands of the purpose of her job in the classroom interferes with her capacity to hear the voice of the child. An opportunity for knowing the child is lost. 

What has the small child learnt from this? He has to face the fact that rules and procedures are the structuring forces of his day; the teacher is in charge – and he must conform. His own thoughts and ideas are not welcome here; if he dares to express them he will make the teacher cross and he will be punished. Through Rosen’s poem we feel his shame and humiliation as he struggles to tell his mother why he had to sit on the naughty chair. He will never experience the exhilaration of exploring different and new modes of thought. He will learn to listen to the teacher, to fit in with her agenda and forget his own ideas.

And what will the other children in the class learn from witnessing this event? They too will quickly learn that the classroom is not a space for experiment, for thinking and doing for yourself. There is no time for ‘lines of flight’ – they will distract from the learning outcomes already planned by the teacher and incur her displeasure. They will learn compliance to the teacher’s will and never even consider that they could contribute new ideas that could help to build a community of learners in the classroom. They will see that the teacher will judge them against her ideal of how a pupil should be and if they don’t match up they will be punished. And punishment incurs public humiliation. They will soon learn what it means to be competent in the teacher’s eyes and most will want to conform to her judgements.

Can the teacher be blamed? Isn’t she merely enacting the status quo – just putting into practice the rules and procedures of the school? She has a need to regulate and to control, and if she fails how will she ‘get through’ all that stuff the government expects her to accomplish? She must, at all costs, be productive – there is no time for diversion, she must stay on track if she is to fulfill the role of ‘a good teacher’.

When I first came across this poem decades ago it made me smile and it made my children laugh. Now I wonder why did I smile? I like to think it was the humour that made me smile. Yet I can’t help wondering why I stopped there, why wasn’t I outraged at this treatment of a small child? Why couldn’t I name this as closing down the child’s voice and failing to truly see him? I think this is all part of childism, the unquestioned assumption that the adult knows best and it is the child that is at fault that I am struggling to overcome. And why did my children laugh – I think they recognized only too well the scenario in the poem and had probably experienced it for themselves and of course they delighted in the child’s humour. Our responses are never straightforward and back then I was much less aware than I am now.

Finally I can’t end this blog without considering in what alternative ways the teacher might have responded. Davies calls on us to see that the alternative is to open oneself up to questioning the status quo, to actively seek ways of questioning the meta-narrative of ‘schools as performances’ to question the drive to ‘raise standards’ by driving up the test performance of pupils in relation to national benchmarks. Instead we need to open up to new ways of being with children, to join children in their ‘lines of flight’, to truly listen to them – not in order to manage and control them, but to become open to their differences, to allow multiple ways of behaving and doing.

What might have happened if the teacher in the poem had been able to see the boy as an individual, to enable ‘the not-yet-known’ to emerge in her classroom instead of shutting it down, to instead ‘open up the capacity for thought and being’? To not be bound by what she already knew – to be open to “Baa, Baa, Moo, Moo”.


Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Finding a voice - valuing children's communication

Last Friday morning when I woke up in my daughter’s house, my grandson Edward greeted me by stretching his arms to the ceiling and bending over to touch his toes. It was a wonderful moment of communication. Last time I had visited he had accompanied me when I did my morning stretches; his bodily gestures told me he remembered my visit and had an expectation of what we might do together. I have thought a lot about that this week and what it tells me about language development in a small child. It is one of the best things about being a Nana when my grandsons do something that sparks off a train of thought. In this blog I want to record my memories of Edward finding his voice.

I was visiting to share the celebration of Edward’s second birthday. Just two years old, he talks a lot but as yet the sounds that come out are not recognizable as words to the adults around him. I arrived on Thursday evening just as he and his four year-old, brother Charlie were having their bath. Charlie started to tell me about the bird of prey sanctuary they had visited that day and Edward tipped his head back and made open and shut gestures with his mouth. His dad explained he was showing me how a particular bird of prey had caught the food thrown to him by the staff at the sanctuary. His desire to communicate is strong; he wants to share and explain and inform the same as his brother. However sometimes this is frustrating for him. The next day in the car he wanted something and we couldn't work out what it was. We offered food, drink, a toy­ – we just couldn't get it right and he was so cross with us. I really felt the frustration of being a small person wanting to communicate and the big people just don’t understand.

Edward however, doesn’t need spoken language to know exactly what is going on around him. And there is a lot going on! He is surrounded by language and observes it being used to achieve all kinds of things and fortunately for him, all the adults include him in their talk. We see Edward as capable, we believe him when he is struggling to communicate and we expect him to be able to communicate in many different ways. We treat him as an understanding being who wants to make meaning out of what is going on around him. We have noticed with interest how he uses lots of talk to accompany whatever he is doing and do wonder what he is saying but can see that out of the big buzzing swarm of words that surrounds him he is finding his voice. And this voice is expressed using gestures as well as sounds; his whole body is involved in communicating. We pay attention because we assume intent when he addresses us, we respond to his gestures and sounds and recognize he has his own agenda and purpose and do our best, sometimes with limited success, to correctly interpret his signs. Of course he wants to communicate and we value language and immerse him in language related activities all the time. He is very responsive and shows his interest in words through his love of books and nursery rhymes and singing. We sit with him and read the books he chooses and love the way he actively engages and shows his enjoyment in sounds and gestures.

In a single day the activities Edward engages in at nursery and at home are all accompanied by language. He hears language being used for all sorts of different purposes to achieve different things. Sometimes language is directed at him, he is asked if he wants a drink or if he is hungry; sometimes he is given instructions, ‘sit down to eat your dinner’; sometimes he is told off, especially when he does something anti-social; sometimes language is used to try and persuade him to do something he doesn’t want to do. Language is used to describe what is happening or to tell him what is going to happen. When he shows emotions language accompanies it, ‘I know you are feeling angry, tired, frustrated etc.’; ‘You’re really enjoying that aren’t you?’ His expressions of affection are heartily returned and appreciated with words and gestures. Apart from the language directed at him he also hears his parents using language to achieve things, to plan, to speculate, to agree and disagree, to reflect and wonder, to explain and to share. It is a rich language environment and he clearly understands so much of what is going on and wants not only to be part of it, but also to influence it, to make a contribution.

When he does contribute he is definitely working within his own style; it is different to his brother's style and we know how important it is that we strive to understand him so we can support him. Watching his language development reminds me that one of the most important things about us as adults is our style of speech. Each one of us has a unique style of speaking and communicating and it is this more than anything else that gives us our particular individuality. Edward has helped me see how important it is to acknowledge this uniqueness in him and by extension get a firmer grasp of something universal in all of us. He has renewed my commitment to strive to understand this interesting and particular human phenomenon, the drive to communicate, to make meaning, to influence and control, to set our own agendas and make our voices heard. His older brother Charlie tells me, “Nana, he hasn’t got his words yet so we can’t understand him.” It is true, he hasn’t got many words we recognize as words yet, but Edward is a powerful communicator and certainly knows how to make his voice heard. And he makes me think and wonder – what an achievement!

I have written a number of blogs about childism and most of these have highlighted the prejudice adults show towards children simply because they are children. And it is true, dismissive and patronizing attitudes abound; respect for children as knowers is not high on the list of values our society espouses. Instead adults frequently approach children with a ‘we know best’ attitude and expect them to learn from us rather than the other way round. My experience as a grandparent has given me a chance to be in a position to know and experience the world in ways that are otherwise unavailable to me. And as I watch and interact with my grandsons I find it helps me learn and grow. In writing this blog I aim to challenge societal narratives that see children as less than adults and contribute to a different narrative them sees children as ends in themselves, fully worthy of moral respect that we can learn from as well as teach.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Hospital Memories

I was reading a book today and the author referred to a time she had spent in hospital as a child and this started me thinking about my own childhood experiences of hospital in 1960.

I was nine years old and it was a Monday morning when I was taken by ambulance from my home to a hospital. I remember the doctor was very cross with my mother. I knew I was ill; I couldn’t walk. I knew my father had not taken me seriously, had not listened to me when I said walking was difficult. It was at the end of half term and I had spent a lot of time that week reading in bed. This had been interpreted as laziness and on Saturday my father had made me walk the three miles to the library. I remember crying and on the way back my legs wouldn’t work properly and I had to crawl. My father thought I was making it up and kept telling me to stop being silly. That evening after tea I was expected to clear the table. I had to do it on my hands and knees – still they didn’t believe me.

It was on Monday morning when I couldn’t get out of bed for school that my mother called the doctor. When I got to the cottage hospital I was alone; my mother had not come in the ambulance with me and I was put me in a ward with mainly elderly women. There was no separate children’s ward. My clothes were taken away and I was put in a hospital gown. Without a word of explanation I was put in a bed and denied a pillow. I was to lie flat. I was not allowed to get out of bed or even sit up for the next two months. No-one ever explained why I was there or why I had to lie flat. My brother was not allowed to visit me. My parents were allowed to come at visiting hours only which was 5.00 – 6.00pm. My father could not get away from work and my mother would need a sitter for my brother, nevertheless she did come most days and my father came at weekends.

Apart from my family, I was deprived of the company of other children except for a short time when another child was in the bed next to mine but she was very ill and didn’t communicate very much, but I still have a vivid picture of her in my mind. I have no idea what happened to her. Each day was the same hospital routine. I had nothing to do. There was no hospital school, no work was sent from my school. I loved books but found it very hard to read flat on my back and they wouldn’t let me turn on my side.

Over the next two months I never had a bath, only a bed bath once a week. They couldn’t wash my hair so they cut it very short and I had dry shampoos. I still remember the itchiness. I tried to amuse myself by day dreaming. The highlight of my stay was when I received letters from every child in my class, they were almost identical – it must have been a writing exercise on the board. I remember longing to be back at school and so grateful they hadn’t forgotten me.

Each day I was made to eat the hospital food, which was awful, but the worst was every Friday when Coley fish was served with lumpy mashed potatoes and parsley sauce. The smell was awful – my mother always cooked Coley fish for our cat and I was convinced they were making me eat cat food. Most evening and at weekends my mother brought me food – I wasn’t hungry but she made me eat it. She didn’t trust hospital food because it didn’t have any goodness.

In fact the ward I was on was a geriatric ward and unsurprisingly people died. They never told me they had died even though, awake and scared in the night, I saw them taking the body of an elderly lady away on more than one occasion. Once I asked after her and they said she had gone home. I knew they were lying.

There were rituals in the hospital and some I never got to the bottom of. Every evening the nurse would fill in my chart and ask: “Yes or No?” I didn’t know what she was asking and never knew what to reply. It didn’t seem to matter what I said as I don’t remember any consequences. It was only later I found out that the question related to the opening – or not – of my bowels.

After two months I was allowed to sit up and for the next month I gradually learnt to walk again and was able to visit some of the other wards. I remember a strange mixture of women and men with what I now realise were mental illnesses and I was scared, but knew it would be wrong to show I found them repellant. I steeled myself to visit them and be polite but, following one horrible incident where an elderly, toothless woman grabbed me and pulled me close, made sure I stayed out of their reach.

Even when I eventually left hospital, I was not allowed to return to school for several months while I convalesced and regained my muscle power. It was then I found out I had had rheumatic fever. Later I was surprised when on returning to church I heard them say prayers for a child who had nearly died and been brought back to them. Who was it I asked, only to be told it was me they were talking about. I had nearly died – surely not, I hadn’t been that ill! I always believed they were exaggerating.  

I had put on a lot of weight in hospital and my hair had been kept cropped. There were no mirrors and I remember seeing myself for the first time when trying on the new clothes my mother had bought for me. I remember staring at a chubby girl with cropped hair and looking over my shoulder for my former athletic self with a bob haircut and ribbons. It was a shock. I didn’t recognise myself.

When I returned to school no one recognized me either, but they soon found a name for me – ‘fatty’. My former friends had found new friends in my absence, I couldn’t blame them – they probably hadn’t been told I would eventually come back. My mother always insisted I went home for dinner (she didn’t trust school dinners either) so there was no opportunity to make friends during lunchtime. My final year in primary school was miserable and made worse when I discovered I had failed the 11+ and would not be going to grammar school. I had been away from school for months but no one had thought to make sure I kept up with the preparation for the tests and not surprisingly I failed. However, I was apparently a borderline fail, and my family were brought into school for an interview. My father told me afterwards they had decided I wouldn’t get a place in the Grammar school because another girl, Jennifer, whose father was a policeman had been given the place. Apparently they thought she, rather than me, daughter of a factory worker, albeit a skilled toolmaker, would have more support from her family and so I went off to one of the very first comprehensive schools in the UK.  My school report said, “If Marilyn did less daydreaming and concentrated more she would do much better.” Daydreaming had got me through the day in hospital – I had become very good at it.

I spend a lot of my life now thinking about children’s rights and what needs to be done to persuade adults that children’s voices should be listened to and then acted upon. I have no doubt that my hospital experience was pivotal in my life; it was a benchmark, I saw my childhood in two halves, before and after I was in hospital. Some things I learned in hospital I am grateful for – I learned how to make a bed with properly mitered corners that before the widespread use of fitted sheets stood me in good stead and still comes in handy occasionally. I also learned that I was resilient, I didn’t complain, I made the best of things and realised I could cope without my family and maybe it did equip me to cope with problems in my life, I’ll never know, but learning how to daydream probably prepared me to be a reflective person. Things I am not grateful for are what I now see as my invisibility. No one saw me, I felt powerless and lonely, no one was interested in what I thought; no one considered that I should be told anything – I was only a child. To be a child in 1960 in England was to be a non-person. I had no rights. I had no power. I had no voice. I had no chance to ask questions about the things that were happening to me. I don’t remember nurses being kind to me, I do remember being made to eat my Coley fish even though I was crying; I do remember the pain of having blood taken every week and dreading the moment when the needle would be stuck in my arm and hoping the nurse would find a vein and only have to do it once. I remember being told not to be silly when I showed fear, to be a brave girl ‘for Mummy’. I remember not being treated as a person because I was a non-person – a child.

As I recall these memories I wonder what would have been different if the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child had been passed at that time. I think first of all my parents would have had open access to visiting and may even have been allowed to stay with me over night if I was really scared. I think my brother would have been allowed to visit me. Surely I would have been in a children’s ward with staff trained to work with children and they would have been sympathetic and explained what question ‘Yes or No’ was the answer to, as they filled in their charts and they wouldn’t have made me eat that Coley fish! I think they might have found a way to set up a prop for a book so I could read. I would probably have had a tutor and the school would have set work and I would have passed my 11+. Most of all someone would have explained what was wrong with me and why they had to make me lie flat, and why they had to take blood and why they were so interested in the workings of my bowels. They wouldn’t have cut my hair off and they would have found a way to wash it. I like to think I would have been given some choices and a chance to discuss the rules of the hospital rather than just be made to obey them. I would have been allowed to have my own pyjamas and not the silly hospital gown that was too big and constantly rucked up under me (I still can’t bare to wear a nightie in bed). My mother would have told the hospital not to feed me as she was bringing food and I wouldn’t have got fat. Maybe they would have found a way to push my bed outside so I could see the sunshine and feel the wind. I wouldn’t have been excluded from any sense of control over my life; I would have had some personal autonomy. They would have explained what death was and helped me understand what was wrong with the other patients. On returning home my mother would have let me choose my new clothes and let me grow my hair.

I see now that to be ignored as I was is the ultimate in powerlessness. I felt as if I didn’t count, worse I believed I was a nuisance because the nurses told me I was. I felt guilt for all the trouble I caused my parents in coming to see me. My mother had to catch two buses each way.

These memories were stirred as I read another account of a child’s experience in hospital and for the first time I realised that my experience was not just my experience; that other children had been treated in similar ways, that others had felt the same as I had, I felt a sense of solidarity. My generation of children were frequently treated as non-persons, were frequently ignored, were seen as not competent enough to be able to process our experiences, let alone be involved in decisions about our lives. Our voices were silenced.

A lot has changed, but not enough. The rights of the child have been recognized officially, but few adults recognize all the issues that need to be addressed to properly enact those rights. Most important of all is children’s voice. We must value children’s experiences, listen to what they have to tell us and act upon it. This means the relationships between children and adults have to continue to change; we need to pay attention to how children are treated and how they feel. We have to think about how much power children actually have in their daily lives and campaign for the social changes which will have to take place if the position of children is to get better.  Changes in the ways children are treated in hospital today compared to my own childhood shows change is possible. I hope that my grandchildren will look back at their lives and wonder at how little power they had compared to their own children – that would be progress.