As I scrolled my twitter timeline the other day I was drawn in by a tweet written by a teacher at Michaela School in Brent. It contained a photo of a beaming Year 9 student. The girl was in the school playground very proudly holding up a copy of a book titled ‘The Malay Archipelago’.
The tweet read:
“This pupil arrived in UK 4 years ago without Eng. Now she’s reading ‘Malay Archipelago’ by A.R. Wallace. Rushed over to show me her fave page!”
It was the lovely smile that did it. Oh sweet! I thought. Sure, there was nothing so very unusual in a child enjoying a quality book but there was something so heartwarming in the thought of this girl skipping across the playground to share her book with her teacher that I could understand why the teacher had shared the event.
I wondered what she had been reading so I googled it:
The Malay Archipelago is a book by the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace that chronicles his scientific exploration, during the eight-year period 1854 to 1862.
Wow! Now I was REALLY impressed. As one teenager, myself as was, (hooked on 19thC literature) to another (intrigued by 19thC science writing) I saluted her taste! More than that – I acknowledged all that Michaela School, an inner city school with a tough intake, had achieved to create a culture in which this sort of event was likely. I’ve visited Michela. In the morning on the tube, on my way to the school, I saw Michaela kids reading their books as they travelled in. When I arrived I found out about all the policies in place to raise reading ages way beyond normal expectations and the carefully chosen knowledge curriculum that gave children genuine access to more difficult texts. My own daughter is the same age and goes to a lovely school but, goodness, it doesn’t quite have the reading culture Michaela has created. Perhaps Michaela isn’t unique but I was impressed and tweeted this:
“Brilliant work. @MCSBrent throws down the gauntlet to the rest of us. If they can make this happen so can we all.”
I, rather naively, hadn’t anticipated the barrage of negativity my little tweet of admiration would create. Apparently, according to some on twitter, there was nothing unusual about this little event. Many, many schools across the land achieve similar every single day. Yeah, sure thing I thought. Who hasn’t come across Year 9 kids reading the original works of nineteenth century explorers? Normal, normal, normal.
Then after reading a few more rather unfriendly twitter notifications the penny finally dropped… The readers of my original tweet hadn’t even noticed the title of the book this girl was reading. They had totally misunderstood the point I was making because they had seen one acronym:
…and got no further. The sight of this term had compartmentalised any interpretation of my tweet as a comment on…
‘Work With EAL’.
That this child had been reading for pleasure showed the success of…
‘Literacy Policies For EAL’
and presumably this could be measured on some EAL progress spreadsheet somewhere.
How tragic that this is the mentality our education system creates. Why weren’t these angry tweeters actually interested in WHAT a child (whatever her background) had been reading?
Surely the most notable aspect of the little tweet story I’d shared was NOT that an EAL student had read a book? Wasn’t it obviously more noteworthy to teachers that a 13 year old had got beyond reading pre-teen romances and made a foray into the syntactically dense but beautifully turned phrases of Victorian writing? Wasn’t it of most educational interest that she had delved into some original scientific observation?
Surely the quality of the literature a child is reading is of more educational interest than her background and the particular label she has been given in a progress spreadsheet?
Terms like EAL or even ‘literacy’ only have meaning in so far as they help us discuss how we can help children learn the actual, specific content we want to teach them. My twitter notifications over the last few days starkly illustrate how labels designed to help teachers do their job better can so often lead to the compartmentalising of children and a focus on means (EAL provision) over ends (a child learning something great).