March 13, 2017 - Comments Off on “Humans needs stories” and other words of wisdom from the recent CLPE Reflecting Realities conference
Our friends at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education recently held a conference on the subject of Reflecting Realities: British Values in Children’s Literature. Read on for their inspiring account of a truly special day of discussion…
At the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education we’ve just held a conference. Curated by our very own Farrah Serroukh and coming from the perspectives she has set out in her article about the importance of seeing oneself in literature we planned a day to discuss how ‘British Values’ can be explored through children’s literature and how we can ensure that we are truly reflecting the realities of all the children in our classrooms.
There were a range of people in the audience: teachers and leaders from schools across England, academics, librarians, publishers, charities, authors and poets. Speakers and workshop leaders were drawn from a range of disciplines and age groups and included thinkers like Miranda McKearney from Empathy Lab and Verna Wilkins from Firetree Books. The day covered a range of topics from neuroscience and psychology to personal stories, writing processes and research. We looked at the importance of story and literature to identity and reading and talked about book stock in schools and how transformational texts can change the way in which children think and feel about themselves. There was so much to be positive about, not least a rousing performance from the much-loved Floella Benjamin whose own story is told in her important book Coming to England and who eloquently describes the importance of story, self-belief and confidence to her success. And yet we did have an anxiety about the day. More than ten years ago CLPE and the Arts Council hosted a conference with almost identical themes. Fenn Coles and Kerry Mason from Letterbox Library posed this very question in their session with Verna – Why are we still here?
We know humans need stories. They have made them up since language first developed, to make sense of the world, to explain the unexplainable, to describe faith and belief, to teach lessons and illustrate morals. The significance of understanding viewpoint and perspective, becoming a discerning reader and being able to differentiate fact from fiction is currently one of the most important skills we can encourage.
So the books in our classrooms, particularly for those children who don’t have access to books at home, and particularly in a climate where children are less likely to have access to the facilities of a public library, become extremely important indeed. Children need to see themselves in stories – representation makes children believe they are included, it says this world of reading and books is for you and you are part of it. And this is also why we need to make sure we have authors, poets, illustrators from a range of backgrounds and perspectives – it is both about seeing yourself in a book but also seeing yourself as a creator – both worlds are open to everyone.
We also need to reflect the realities of those who may not be part of our immediate sphere. Reading fiction about those that are different, have different life experiences and journeys to our own helps us to understand those perspectives. It can make us see things in a different light, it can give us a different point of view, it can open a whole area of history, or geo-political theory we never knew we were interested in.
We are further forward than ten years ago but the challenge now is to make sure that we are ensuring the literature that our children encounter is truly reflective, not just tokenistic. We talked a lot on the day about the publishing industry, about how it is necessarily an industry driven by market forces and by the economics of big retailers and celebrity authors. In schools we could create the demand. If all 20,000 plus primary schools are asking for things other than the Tesco or Amazon Best Sellers then we would surely create a market.
When reviewing book stock in your classroom or school you can ask yourself the following questions:
• In this collection are there stories that the children in my class can see themselves in?
• Does everybody have a point of reference somewhere in this collection?
• As well as mirrors for the children in our school, do the books in our collections provide windows on the rest of world?
• Are there books here that enable us to understand others in an authentic and genuine way (both in terms of stories, and also in terms of voices)?
• Are there different viewpoints represented – from other places in the world or other perspectives of history?
In all our work at CLPE we believe that the books that our children have access to need to reflect the reality of our world, and that world is complex. So the books need to reflect the complexity rather than diluting it. Candy Gourlay spoke at the conference and wrote about it afterwards: “Authors creating story may dress their characters up in hijabs and what have you, but it’s the soul of the character that matters. In a well-written book, you can hear the character’s heart beating.” And this surely, is the point. If you hear a beating heart – be that in a historical context, a sci-fi novel or a picture book – you will identify with it as a real character, a being with whom you have something in common. You go so much further than merely ‘tolerating’ difference.