Stint at the rock face challenges ideas on literacy - and self

March 11, 2005

As a trainee teacher, I recently spent a few days attached to the English department of a large mixed city secondary school. It was inspiring as well as revealing. In one discussion with the head of the department, I mentioned that for some courses at my university we have compulsory modules designed to bring everyone up to standard in written English. "God, what must they think we do here?" came the reply.

I've seen what they do and it's brilliant - so now I am confused about where literacy problems start and how things can be improved. The pupils I spent time with had huge amounts of energy, grasped ideas quickly and most wanted to discuss them.

The exciting moments were when the pupils who were struggling suddenly "got it" - their eyes lit up and they surged ahead. The really hard bit was trying to encourage students to write. One teacher suggested that pupils often don't see reading as a leisure activity and that there is a marked difference in written skills between those who read and those who don't.

What really surprised me was the speed and volume of information that teachers have to impart to often large and unwieldy groups.

Another teacher lamented that the pupils have little time to reflect because the curriculum doesn't allow it. I am beginning to see why some students arrive at university worn out and fed up with study. Add the shock of having highly organised days at school, then being plunged into the freedom of university and a lot more makes sense.

My college principal has pricked my thinking by wondering if I am not a bit snobbish about academic life. It's a good question, but it makes me fidgety. The honest answer is that I don't know. I see university life with two brains: one to do with my own immediate practical needs as a student and the other to do with developing a view of education and how I can contribute to it. It can be hard to reconcile the two.

What I didn't expect about university is that it is challenging a lot of my ideas about who I am. I like it; it feels dangerous even though it sometimes puts me on the back foot. I've always tended to live on the edges of what might be seen as the norm; any bloke who says he wants to be a ballet dancer when he is ten puts himself on the edges and is reminded daily by bigger kids' fists.

The danger (and benefit) of being a bit of an outsider is that it can give you an off-centre view of the world. But if I'm not careful, this can unintentionally appear to be elitist, which won't be helpful in the classroom or the staff room. I know I want to make a difference - I just don't know how yet.

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