Tuesday, 17 March 2015

at a loss for words

You showed me Eyebright in the hedgerow,
Speedwell and Travellers Joy.
You showed me how to use my eyes
When I was just a boy;
And you taught me how to love a song
And all you knew of nature's ways:
The greatest gifts I have ever known,
And I use them every day.

I often get told by students that they "don't like reading" this is usually accompanied by a giggle and maybe a raise of the eyebrows and a little grin as though it's a delightful affectation. Basically it's because they get bored and it seems too much effort. Some of the students who do read tend to read the same books - certainly the same types - over and over again. Reading a Harry Potter book twenty times doesn't really make you a reader. And, too be honest, I don't think it helps your vocabulary much either. It certainly doesn't help the quality of essay writing. Essays are often ridiculously short and there is an incredulity at the expectation of "developing" the points made. Or making more than one!

Having made my living as an English teacher for the past quarter of a century, I would be expected to find this a sorry situation. However, although I, thankfully, don't teach the subject any more, I still see the need for a good vocabulary and a developed literacy. Over the past few days I have had conversations with students that are variations on the "don't like reading" theme. It's me that raises my eyebrows in despair. Reading about the subject you are studying will obviously help you become a better writer about it. This follows on that a better understanding is developed and, rather obviously, better grades will be the result. It seems that this point is beyond the pale for some students. Some of them get exasperated about the length of a Wikipedia page and this is about all they'll ever bother to attempt to read. If it's not available to look at on an iPad screen, it's not worth bothering about. 

Robert Macfarlane's new book Landmarks explores the loss of language that shapes our sense of place. The point made early in the first chapter is jumped on often in reviews and articles but it's an important one. In the Times Higher Education review the point about this loss of language is referred to:

Some readers may dismiss this as mere whimsy. But they should ponder the disturbing detail that Macfarlane includes in his opening chapter concerning the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, in which there has been a “culling” of words concerning nature – acorn, cowslip, kingfisher, willow – as, at the same time, terms such as blog, chatroom and celebrity have been added. As Macfarlane ruefully remarks: “For blackberry read BlackBerry.”

I do understand why there has been a shift but it saddened me to read these words. Many youngsters don't venture out into wild places very often and don't see a need to know the names of plants, birds or birds. Yesterday there was a clue in a crossword: "small wild flower (9)" it stared with s and ended with l - "speedwell," I said immediately. Mrs Dave went off to check as she hadn't heard of it. I was right. Okay, so it's not important for young people to be able to name wild flowers or even do crosswords as both seem so arcane and pointless, I guess.

As a child in the sixties growing up near the edgelands of a growing town I was lucky enough to be able to spend a lot of time wandering around the countryside. We played in bluebell woods and fields near ponds and climbed trees. Parents were usually at work and the summer holidays were a great time to explore. We weren't ignored but left to our own devices. As I got older I still walked those mean fields, often alone lost in my dreams and thoughts. An old song I wrote from that time has a refrain that, in part, features the imagery of these walks: If I'm out in a cold winter field/Or down in a damp frozen ditch . . . and song titles echo them too - Endless Summer Days being one such example.

By the time I was in my late teens I had taken to making up for my woeful lack of reading anything that wasn't Sci-Fi, James Bond or Westerns written by Louis L'Amour. I took to wearing jackets that had pockets big enough to carry a Penguin Classic paperback and I was happy to sit in a pub or restaurant alone reading. I still do nowadays. In fact last Thursday evening I took myself off to my local to read the Sandy Denny biography whilst enjoying a pint of Adnam's best whilst Mrs Dave was being sociable with some of her friends. I was quite happy.

The point I'm making here is that I come from a pre-digital age where the act of reading was a pure joy. It's an important skill, obviously, but for the students I teach Film Studies to it's an essential one. I often start a lesson with an article or chapter that I have found - I give it to them and get them to read it, make notes on it and discuss it. Occasionally there is one left on the desk at the end of the lesson, discarded. Many of our students eyes are fixed constantly on their iPad screens and I know they're not really taking notes. This shift to all students having the damned things isn't helping their poor literacy skills.

We can't escape the use of tablets and phones I know. A few years ago when I still taught English at GCSE we had to study several Seamus Heaney poems. With the remark made by Macfarlane, quoted above, I guess some students will assume that Blackberry-Picking is a poem about going down to the phone shop at upgrade time.

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