The Cunning Instrument #2: a slow interview with Simon Smith @smithsmm

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Simon: ‘For me the route needs to be teachers being knowledgeable around texts.’

It has been a long time in coming: an interview spanning one month, two continents and another seven months of international distraction on my part. [takes a breath]

But here it is at long last.

For the second in my stop-start series of interviews with English and literacy teachers, I had the very great privilege of DMing earlier this year with Simon Smith (@smithsmm), principal of an academy in the Northeast of England and, most notably, one of EduTwitter’s foremost champions of the rich and varied landscape of children’s modern literature.

When I first joined Twitter as a teacher, I assumed that it was what one might crudely term a ‘networking tool’. What I never anticipated was that it would become a place where I regularly find genuine inspiration and professional rejuvenation from kindred spirits – basically a place where one can join with friends.

To readers, reluctant or otherwise; to teachers, of all stages, phases and pedagogical inclinations, I give you a friend.

Whats: Hi Simon! Welcome to my new blog series: The Cunning Instrument! I tumbled into teaching like a crap acrobat; how was your route into teaching and how did you ultimately find yourself running a school?

Simon: Teaching was a means to an end… wanted to be an Ed Psych after doing Psychology degree. Had a bit of time doing other stuff then applied for EdPsych course. And while doing PGCE just found I really liked teaching and lost interest in the Ed Psych stuff and never finished the course. Headteacher is different altogether never thought about it or aspired to it till I had a bad experience in a school and left teaching for a couple of years. Was fortunate to get a job as an English consultant in a small LA so worked with lots of heads…some brilliant, some not so. Really understood for first time how important the job was and wanted to do it. So 23 years after starting I ended up as a headteacher. It was definitely about finding the right school.

Whats: What comes across really clearing from reading between the lines of your tweets and various online interactions is that you are flourishing in your role. You seem to have found a simply way to do something really fundamental: cultivate a rich appreciation of children’s literature. I regard you and Mathew Tobin as my primary inspirations for children’s reading. Was there a specific point where you realised that you felt this needed doing or was it a natural process of simply sharing what you’ve enjoyed?

Simon: I simply at first started sharing books that I believed were good. I personally have a passion for children’s literature and a fundamental belief that Reading is the thing that can make a difference in children’s lives. If you believe that then your left with a huge drive to want to put the good stuff in the hands of children. The best way to do that is share what’s good. I think there is a real need for teacher expertise in primary around books, increasingly children aren’t visiting libraries, schools can’t afford a librarian so then it comes down to teachers. I think there is wealth of great children’s lit at the moment. I do however feel we aren’t discerning enough. Everything new and shiny is lauded especially if there author is social media active whilst many great books maybe lost. Due to that I’ve become increasingly wary of recommending stuff and equally found myself sharing older books in the hope we will put them in children’s hands or read them to a class and spark that love.

Mat Tobin (@Mat_at_Brookes) is an inspiration both deeply knowledgeable and a beautiful soul. I’d also add and who all both wonderfully knowledgable and passionate about about books. needs a special mention her work on Reading for Pleasure is hugely important.

Whats: That word ‘discernment’ is really interesting. Do you see us moving back into a canonical domain (to a degree)? Are we becoming more confident in making value judgements on behalf of our children in a way that, in the recent past, we may have fought to be more agnostic of quality?

Simon: For me it’s about balance. Something old…something new. My issue is that there are lots of books published and there seems very little critique especially on social media. Book companies sending books to bloggers and others who promote relentlessly. It’s a bit of a “it’s all brilliant” culture, even when it potentially isn’t. This has made me step back from recommending. I see lots of precious school money spent often on quite poor books, whilst truly great books seem to be being lost. Canons are interesting as a discussion point but are almost always limiting. My first issue with any canon is who is creating it. A canon particularly in primary literature becomes a range of grown ups telling children what is good equally they are often threaded through with an unhealthy nostalgia. For me the route needs to be teachers being knowledgeable around texts. Then they can make discerning choices. We also should be wary of our tastes and biases. Think we lose sight of quality sometimes but then again I’m a bit of a book snob.

Whats: There’s always been (certainly in secondary English) these contrasting aims for literature (between cultural heritage and critical analysis). We want our kids to know about the big textual milestones that lead to where we are now, but we also want them to understand that the way we value these texts can change. So, for example, in sixth-form English, we’re rediscovering literature from a more broadly representative base, which is really healthy, reducing bias, but also allowing us still to connect students to older texts and not lose tough with the language as it was. In primary, it’s a different task (in KS1, certainly)… it’s the building blocks and fostering reading for pleasure. However, I sense a lot of pressure for students to encounter linguistically more archaic texts earlier. Do you see that in your context?

Simon: Will get back to answering your questions over the next few days. It’s been mildly hectic. I wanted to give the answers the consideration they deserve.

Whats: I totally understand. One of the joys of this asynchronous medium is that we can pick up where we left off whenever we get the time. I’m happy to wait.

Simon: Cool, I like slow interviewing. Wish job interviews were more like this.

Whats: Interviewing via DM. It might work.

Simon: Answer…I would personally seek for children to encounter a broad range of text and language. There has been an increasing pressure to use more challenging/ archaic texts. Equally, conversely, there is a drive to only use the most recent. There are great books that could cross this such as Pax or Wolf Wilder which are both language rich but are equally complex.

We seem to either be in the thrall of the new or the archaic. My issue is more around theme than language. I think there are times when we are ready to deal with themes and we currently have a drive to expose pupils to stories that thematically they may not be ready for. Equally we seem to use it as a badge of honour to use harder texts with younger and younger children.

It is a fundamentally complex issue that misses the point that there are complex newer texts and simple older texts. The true solution is around knowing your children and knowing the text and making judgements around that. What do you need the text to do? Does it do the job? The bit we miss is the reading around and drawing connections this is truly how we bring any language to life.

Whats: I agree completely. I think that a large degree of inference is bound up with knowledge of the context and if a teacher has to labour over the teaching of too much background context, then (most especially in the primary phase) there’s a cost associated with that in terms of time.

Final question, if I may…

Simon: Completely. Sorry if the last answer was a bit waffles.

Whats: Waffles is my middle name!

I think I’d like you to try to define children’s literature. Or at least guide new teachers in seeking out those stories which move beyond ‘product’ (and by God there is a lot of product).

Literature as a term is often regarded as somehow pompous and elitist, but I really don’t think it is. (But what IS it?)

Simon: OK this isn’t part of the answer but completely agree about product. That has completely got me thinking…damn you! 😉

Part 1: I’m going to cheat…I think Maurice Sendak sums up essentially what is so important and vital about children’s literature: “Kids don’t know about best sellers. They go for what they enjoy. They aren’t star chasers and they don’t suck up. It’s why I like them.”

Unfortunately in our increasingly media obsessed world I’m not so sure this is true anymore. However, once you get beyond the surface, the celebrity, ultimately great books win through. It’s been fascinating watching pupils move away from the supermarket celebrity staples to explore more widely.

Key bit is teachers knowing books, finding those books which bridge from the comfort zone. Equally the other key bit is knowing the children and finding the book which they can’t put down. Reading great books to our classes in the past year has made a world of difference (not at the end of the day, but giving it some kudos). Children being read to everyday. Exposure to great books, staff passionate about books and copies for children to borrow.

Literature isn’t elitist but we ourselves need to be confident around it – hearing children and adults talking about books around school is joyous. Sendak is right: children are discerning but they need a little help…it’s a risk buying books and most don’t access bookshops with a range. Our job has to be to be the bridge. Librarians, teachers need to know the book and the child, and find that book which grabs. Part 2 will appear tomorrow.

Waffles: Excellent! Good night…

[tomorrow]

Simon: Part 2…”To get a child’s trust – you may know or not – is a very hard thing to do. They’re so used to not believing adults – because adults tell tales and lies all the time.” The key thing is as an adult…is the knowing and communicating the knowledge of books. Children will trust staff when they believe that they like the books they are recommending or sharing.

If you’re using a book you’re not bothered about they will pick up on that. Don’t be afraid to have an opinion, if you don’t like it let children know that equally if you do enthuse and eulogise about it. Literature isn’t a big scary thing: it’s books. Some may be more worthy; we do however run the risk of book snobbery. “Only this is worthy of our time.” I have read a lot of trash literature and enjoyed it immensely…it depends why we’re reading.

I read picturebooks and graphic novels, I love a bit of Agatha Christie as an escape.

Ultimately it’s about taste, I’ve read classics and hated them. Talking about it is the key bit, if you want children to be unafraid of literature they need to be comfortable talking about it and having an opinion. Often this is the bit we miss. We ask lots of questions to know they’ve understood it but we forget to talk about it.

True readers have opinions and make connections. Question: do we in primary give children the room to do that? Increasingly, I think not. You’ll note I’m waffling and avoiding the actual question it’s because it’s really hard to define. Quote 3 part 3 tomorrow.

[tomorrow, tomorrow]

Simon: Or maybe a bit later today…

And a lot what was once regarded as ‘trash’ later on becomes literature. For me, it has less to do with cultural status and more to do with relevance, which is why we retell old stories: to make them current and realise their value.

Completely agree relevance is so important. That’s why Room 13 continues to be a desired text in Whitby l,our children just want to read it because it’s about our town. Knowing books and talking to children and finding that in for them is key. That’s why I personally believe that we shouldn’t be prescribing books for year groups and classes. (Seen it a lot.) For me, that loses the pupil’s voice in the text.

Equally I worry about handing complete choice over to pupils in the form of a “World Cup”. We need to be the expert and the book needs to be matched by us to the pupils needs. (It’s a fine balance.) “You cannot write for children… They’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.”

I agree there is a lot of product out there, equally a few high-profile bloggers regularly push the new.  Some books are definitely hype over content – they do seem to drown out the rest. At the end of the day though, children make up their minds.

Ultimately, we can only offer choices. We had a real Chris Priestley buzz around his Tales of Terror books in Year 5. Children will drive it; adults can only say “try this”. There is hype but I look at the books on the shelves or more importantly not on the shelves. It’s often surprising…the hype might initially fire it…but in the end mostly the good wins through if we give children access to it. Not sure however that children have great access to a range of brilliant books.

‘In plain terms, a child is a complicated creature who can drive you crazy. There’s a cruelty to childhood, there’s an anger.’

Whats: Is that a quote? Very interesting! Lord of the Flies-ish.

Simon: It’s a Sendak quote. Fundamentally great children’s literature understands this. There have at times been attempts to saccharine children’s literature but it ignores the fundamentals of why books like Lord of of the Flies work.

Great children’s literature has a truth at its core linked to that. When I read a book written for children I look for that truth. I read a lot of books that forget to be honest about children. They are the ones that don’t ring true.

So for me great children’s literature carries a truth and a desire. I like the children’s books that dig into human emotions and desires and don’t play on the surface. I think however that we should take the word children’s out of the mix…

The best books are not great children’s books they are great books fullstop.

Whats: And that’s a wrap! The perfect conclusion, Mr Smith!

Simon: Only took a month. Thanks I enjoyed it,

[digital hugs]

Simon can be found conversing with warmth of heart about children’s literature on Twitter here and blogging with both eloquence and heart here.

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