It’s Sunday night and yet again the homework is lying on the microwave, slightly crumpled from the journey home through the park on Friday. I pick it up. “Write three sentences about how to make friends with other people.” A nice bit of interpersonal skills based homework, exploring what it means to be sociable and how to do it. But, like most of the other homework sheets my six year old brings home with him, it will end up scribbled on and stuffed back in his homework bag, ultimately to end up on the scrap paper pile at school.
So why am I not going to insist that my son takes this worthy piece of work more seriously?
Because he can’t write, yet. He can’t write and he can’t read. Yet. I have no doubt that he will in time, but for the moment the fine motor skills, the concentration and most crucially the motivation are all lacking.
I’m not worried, and nor is my husband and I think (or hope) that if the school could take a step back from its targets and achievement charts, and look at the boy, not the writing it wouldn’t be so concerned either.
His EQ is advanced, he likes order, he plays the drums, he is physically fit and loves climbing, running and testing out his growing, changing body. He is a fantastic story teller. He loves doing jobs and finding out how things work. His favourite question is “why?” which can be a bit testing at times, but demonstrates a keen, inquisitive mind. Yet none of these important life skills are tested and measured or focused on at school.
So what picture is being built up about our lovely, bright, intelligent boy? That he isn’t any of those things (well, perhaps lovely, but not when he is disrupting a small group activity that he finds intimidating and unachievable and therefore threatening). That he is a “slow learner” and needs extra support, extra reading and writing at home that we must provide after his six hours of learning at school everyday. We’ve helped him with letters from various engines and the Fat Controller. And that has helped to motivate him to read them and then reply to them, but still it is a real struggle for him.
And because he is a bright boy and notices things around him, he can see that the others in his class are reading and writing and doing their numbers and their work is being put up on the wall. He knows that he can’t read and write and that he can’t do his numbers and he knows that these are important skills to have that make the key people around you proud of you.
So what is happening is that his all too fragile confidence is slowly eroding further.
For my son there has to be a reason for everything. There is no point asking him to count the number of ladybirds in a puzzle book, “Why?”. But ask him to lay the table for supper and it’s done. All the right number of plates, knives and forks. Ask him to help cook some pasta and sauce and he’s there helping to measure everything out. Tell him there is a job that needs doing and he is under the sink with you, spanner in hand. So, for him, at the moment there is no real interest in reading and writing because there is no point.
But he does see a point to playing with his train track and engines, to building endless lines that stretch from his bedroom to his sisters’ with countless branch lines in between (yes, we’re all getting very good at the lingo). And when he’s built these tracks the stories start. Great dramas played out by him with his four year old sister equally engrossed and his one and a half year old providing added danger for the engines as she negotiates their tracks.
And through this play that gives him so much pleasure (it’s the first thing he wants to do in the morning and last thing he wants to do at night) he is learning, he’s story telling. He’s learning why there is a point to reading and writing – to tell stories and read stories.
All reading and writing is about the imparting and gathering of stories. That’s how our various civilisations have always developed and flourished and grown, through a shared story.
The brilliant Dr Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man talks about the master sword makers of Japan and how their knowledge of how to make steel swords that were both flexible enough not to break and yet hard enough to hold a sharp edge was passed down from generation to generation through ritual and ceremony due to the lack of scientific formula and written language. Why isn’t more of this done in our schools? Teaching through doing, learning through imitating the masters? We start off in the right direction in the foundation years at primary school, but come to year one and there is significantly less of it and year two it’s as good as out the window.
A lot of learning is done without the need for reading and writing. Our schools are too caught up in ticking boxes and reaching targets and have lost the ability to step back and look at the child and see how they are developing and growing in different areas at different rates. We need to have the courage to trust our children and their ability to judge for themselves when it is the right time to take on more skills and which skills those should be. We should be teaching our children to learn, in that way they will have a life full of opportunity and possibility rather than a string of tests trailing behind them that leave them adrift once they get out into the real world and find life is not all about cramming bits of knowledge for the next test.
It’s the weekend again and a new style of homework has arrived. Now my son is bringing back lists of words to learn for his weekly spelling test. He’s up there now, trying to copy out the words in the little boxes provided: box, fox, cat, sat…
So when he gets up in the morning and asks to play with his train track and when it is bedtime and he’s had multiple stories read to him and he asks to play with his engines before sleep, I let him. Because he’s not playing, he’s learning. Who has fallen off the tracks this time? Which engine is going to bring the fairground rides to the village green? Can Gordon pull all those heavy coaches up Gordon’s hill without James’s help?
There’s a lot going on in that lovely head of his. And if it wasn’t for comparisons, targets, focusing on early high achievers, it would be enough.
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