Hagrid’s armpits smell of chocolate

I first read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when I was 22 in a backpackers’ hostel somewhere in Canada. I could perhaps be a little embarrassed to reveal that I was reading Harry Potter at the age of 22, but the reality was up until that point I had never found reading enjoyable. Throughout school, college and university I experienced reading to be perfunctory, just about tolerable, and always dictated by someone else.

Picking up that battered copy of a story of an 11 year old boy wizard changed everything. Something happened to me which hadn’t occurred before; I discovered that reading transported me from the world around me, and asked my mind to imagine – I was able to turn words into vivid images in my head.

Not everyone has moments like this, some have them at an early age, others not until they have retired, but it is essential that children and adults are encouraged to find these life changing moments. The key aspect of these moments (which I believe to be absolutely crucial), is the triggering of decision making inside your brain. Before the blockbuster Harry Potter movies appeared, there were millions of versions of the Great Hall of Hogwarts – each one unique in the imagination of the person who read the book. These versions were constructed from the lived-experiences of the readers – mine was drawn from the many cathedrals my parents dragged us to on family holidays, combined with the distinctive smell of my school dining hall. My Hogwarts’ Great Hall is different from everyone else’s, and no one can tell me it’s not authentic.

This is where I see a direct relationship between children’s literature and creative learning: decision-making without the interference of adults. Unconsciously, as adults, we are always meddling in the lives of children: teachers, parents, politicians, social workers, doctors, and anyone else who comes into contact with ‘kids’. We design curricula which leave little room for pupils to assert themselves. Parents spend their lives running about after their children – dropping them off at karate, picking them up from swimming and hovering on their shoulder as they do their homework. We constantly snowplough a path for our children which diminishes their ability to make decisions, fail, and deal with uncertainty. In simple terms, well-meaning adults are inadvertently denying children the capacity to build resilience. I suspect this is driven by a fear of not trusting kids to make the ‘right’ decisions. But what adults think is ‘right’ for kids is judged by adult norms and adult standards. I am interested in research which understands children as ‘others’ and childhood to be an ‘otherness’. All because adults used to be kids once, doesn’t mean we can know what it’s like to be a kid now.   The best that we can do (if we really want to do our best) is to show respect and assist in the creation of adult-free spaces, where kids can be kids. One of these spaces is in books. When a child becomes immersed in a book, the adult cannot interfere. The child is free to create a world that they have full control of.

Marshall McLuhan famously declared that a book is a ‘cold’ medium, and that TV & movies are ‘hot’. What he meant was, a book requires imagination to make it come alive, while TV and movies are an audio-visual feast, requiring little imagination during their passive consumption. They even have the added bonus of conveniently positioned toilet breaks.

I believe that creative learning requires a number of circumstances to occur. One of the key components is children’s active participation in all stages of the learning process. Through authentic (not tokenistic) participation, children have the ability to design, process, experiment, fail, collaborate, make decisions, assess, validate and share their learning. These are all capacities that are present in children but as adults we need to learn how to harness them, not in order to control them, but rather, to unleash them. Central to this is children’s capacity to make decisions based on children’s norms and children’s standards – on their own with the confidence that they don’t always require adults to make the decisions for them. If we nurture children’s ability to read, we are developing their capacity to make decisions, and the confidence to justify them. I’ve had full blown disagreements with children about books they are reading because their interpretation is completely different from mine. I’m usually proved wrong as they have such conviction it’s almost impossible to find a chink in their armour. This passion and ability to make meaning without adults is key to children’s ability to learn independently and creatively.

So, the question is how, do you develop a love for reading books in a world where children seem occupied by a multitude of blue neon screens? A statistic that emerged recently in Scotland which left me staggered, suggested that the average 8-year-old was more likely to own a mobile phone than a book. We need to be careful not to create a binary opposition between ‘screens or books’, because we live in a predominantly visual age requiring multiple forms of literacy. I see children on a regular basis able to decipher complex meaning without words. Our school system places huge value on the written word and grade our children on a very limited understanding of literacy (word-based competencies). I have found children’s journey into reading often comes through the visual, after all it’s where we all started, i.e. by looking at story books with vivid pictures to find meaning which leads to language and vocabulary. I collaborate with associates to use film, music, photography, sculpture and movement to support children to understand literacies from a multiplicity of sources. A class of children once read my jumper – they were able to make decisions based on what they saw and what messages they took from it. One girl confidently said ‘Your mum bought it for you – probably in Debenhams’. She wasn’t far from the truth.

Words can feel clunky to some children. From an early age these children disengage as the performative demands of school lead them to feel that literacy is not their strong point, when in fact everyone at every stage of every day is reading – social situations, body language, tone of voice, mouth position, facebook images, jumpers, etc, etc. We are all reading, all the time. It’s just that some of us are better at deciphering an abstract, codified sign system better than others. (That’s “words”, to you and me. And words are king: if you can spell them, punctuate them and write them neatly with a pencil, then you’re ‘clever’…)

When I work with groups I start with the belief that everyone is reading but they just don’t know it. The process of helping groups to recognise the everyday literacy skills that they bring with them to learning develops confidence and demonstrates they are active participants in meaning-making. This empowers them to make decisions and share opinions. If we want our children to read more we need to help them to recognise that they already are reading, and understand that rather than doing it ‘wrong’ – they might be doing it differently – in ways that might be more appropriate for their futures than the pasts of the adults around them. Once we accept it’s the adults who might need to change, then we are in a better position to move forward together.

We need more children to experience that moment I had in that hostel in Canada many years ago, but we must accept everyone will experience their moment differently, and it probably won’t occur if we force children to write a book report following a set of criteria. We must create more space for children to read without adults interfering – children have enough of that. Make sure our schools, homes, and playgrounds and literacy rich and full of spaces which children can forget about the adult world and enter into their own decision-making one.

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