17 Oct '14

News Frank Cottrell Boyce: schools are destroying the power of stories

In this extract from the David Fickling Lecture, the author argues that the transformative power of reading is under threat in an education system obsessed with targets and literacyBoth the government and the arts agencies have recently begun to talk about the economic importance of culture by which they mean the West End or the film industry. But we need to understand how culture happens. It always floats on a sea of favours and loyalties. Even a massive West End hit like War Horse begins with Michael Morpurgo kindly inviting city children to his farm and watching how they related to the horses. If you try and do it for money you end up with Viva Forever!. Or Viva Six Weeks. And the same is true of the individual reading experience.I visit many schools. I see amazing, creative work being done especially in primary schools. But I have a nagging fear that in encouraging literacy we are killing the pleasure of reading. I love visiting schools. Theres a humbling, Homeric magic in the sight of a crowd of children sitting down waiting to listen to your story. A few months ago, however, a lovely young NQT stepped between me and that crowd and said: Now we are very lucky to have Frank with us today. Were going to use our Listening Skills (she touched her ears) to try and spot his Wow Words (what?) and his Connectives so that we can appreciate how he builds the story. Imagine going on a date with her. Were going to have some proteins. Some carbs not too many and conversation. If you make me laugh, thats a physical reaction so it puts you on the erotic spectrum and you might get lucky. But an encounter with a story should be every bit as unpredictable, dangerous, full of potential and fear as a first date. My mailbox nowadays is filled with A4 envelopes containing nicely illustrated letters from year 6 classes. Thirty letters telling me that their favourite author is me and can I answer some questions. Theyre nearly all the same questions. Time and time again I come across teachers reading a story and then asking immediately for some kind of feedback. A piece of creative writing inspired by the story. Some opinions about character and wow words. Something to show the parents or the school inspectors. It pollutes the reading experience by bringing something transactional into play. It destroys pleasure.In the group I met friends for life all with a growing shared love for literature, as a common interest. I left behind a way of life and a group of people who were not serving me well. I found a particular friend from the reading group and we had a mutual love of reading Shakespeare. To date we have read 17 of his plays and watched them on DVD and at the theatre. I remember vividly an encounter with Henry V and Falstaff with whom Henry sowed his wild oats but Henry rejected Falstaff when he became king with the words do I know thee old man?. I dont feel judgmental towards myself or the people I was associated with at that time but I had to reject the ways of the past and the reading group assisted me to do this for my own wellbeing. I am simply not the same man who walked into the book group five years ago. This week I was sitting on a table drinking a cup of tea outside a cafe and a man walked past and I was able to look up and exchange a smile. Ive become open to the world in a way Ive never experienced previously. Continue reading...

Read the full story in Guardian Education
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