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Literacy or #gobigorgohome

There’s a summer in between. Then there’s nothing for it. It’s time to go big or go home.

One of my favourite movies is “The Untouchables”. And a piece of potentially useless information is that the famous “steps” scene, the one where Eliot Ness and his men grab the accountant from Capone’s men is actually an allusion to Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film, “Battleship Potempkin”. How do I know this? On my degree we had to watch Eisenstein’s movie at The Glasgow Film Theatre and then, as English degrees will have you do, pick it apart until there’s nothing left. The bit that stayed with me? Brian de Palma’s one shot (apparently) homage to the film. There’s a better explanation available here. The move from apparently “low” culture film trivia to high culture early twentieth century path finding and groundbreaking cinema is the point. One complements the other. Neither is particularly useful, but man can I bore people with film trivia. (Watch the clips – they’re brilliant.)

My point? Both pieces of knowledge, once unpicked, are of value but in different ways. Both allow the placement of historical moments and define their “importance”: Eisenstein’s film in the sense of the importance of revolution and, “The Untouchables”, in the late twentieth century fascination with the glamour and grotesque nature of organised crime and corruption. Every two or three times a game of Trivial Pursuit has been played the question comes up about what they eventually “got” Al Capone on!

They both fit comfortably within a meta narrative of the battle between good and evil. Depending on perspectives of course.

The definition of literacy is twofold. It refers to the ability to read and write but the wider definition is the idea of competence or knowledge in a specific area. If we are to embrace the second “sense” of the word, our scope for involving and not alienating some curriculum areas is enhanced. I’ve expressed concerns before about what knowledge is best “picked” to ensure that students are becoming “literate” in the broadest sense. The only answer is, that they need to know everything. Take a breath, when I say, “everything”, what I mean is the broadest and most balanced curriculum possible, not one that is focused on pre twentieth century British authors exclusively, but one that allows History, Geography, languages, Science, technology art, the arts and more. And trips. Lots of trips to places they may never get the chance to otherwise see. And enrichment. Lots of enrichment. As much sport as their little bodies can cope with as well as work experience and music and singing and dancing. You know, everything. And all the other things you’re now wondering why I didn’t include in this list. All of it. Everything.

I’m fascinated by the idea that Literacy shouldn’t be a limiting concept.

This isn’t an odd “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” quest that will end up with us having to build another system to figure out what the question was. It’s doable. I’m fascinated by the fact that we’ve been getting it right for a long time but also so wrong in so many ways.

If you’ve been in schools at any time in the last fifteen years (plus or minus 5 if you are a primary teacher), the hanging spectre of literacy has always been there. From the “literacy hour” to the “National Literacy Strategy” to the yearly (and more) changes to the Ofsted inspection schedule, making the teaching of reading, writing and communication an explicitly inspected aspect of all schools. It’s always been there, like an unfortunate Godfather Death figure ready to snuff the light out of everything and inspiring some to say the immortal words (that strike fear into the hearts of CPD leads), “we’ve done this”. And they may have. And they may have cracked it. And, truthfully, familiarity may have actually bred contempt as we ask all teachers to shoehorn literacy in, in terms of the decoding of language, the mechanical skills into their subjects. Where, really, it may not really “fit” (I know! And from an English teacher too! Scandalous!)

The focus on the quality of teaching of reading, writing and communication across the curriculum doesn’t quite cut the mustard in terms of maximising attainment, deepening learning and ensuring levels of progress that are acceptable in terms of the different starting points of kids in schools. It will allow some level of access and I could never do down the focus on teaching students to decode and read words, phonics, spelling and basic comprehension. But this is limiting. It’s more than this. Much more.

It is, of course, foundational. Without the decoding and the ability to put words together, to build, syntactically, we can’t begin the process of making meaning. Without that first curiosity however, that moment when you wonder what a word “means”, the move from morphology and phonology to semantics is where the gold dust lies. And it can be so easily forgotten in the melee and the bunfight that exists around making sure every teacher is a teacher of English. My perception of this oft overused phrase has always been with a reference to marking and feedback. Everybody should mark spelling blah blah blah and this does have to be made explicit. However, the power, for literacy, of every teacher being an even better and deeper teacher of “their” subject fascinates me more. In this way we begin to allow students the chance to really “read” a complex world around them in the depth to become truly “literate”.

I’ll try and explain what I mean. Read the following phrases and try to “translate” them:

  1. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
  2. Through the looking glass.
  3. Down the rabbit hole.
  4. Bite the bullet.
  5. We’re going to need a bigger boat.
  6. May the Force be with you.
  7. Fools rush in (where angels fear to tread).
  8. Green eyed monster.
  9. Saved by the bell.
  10. A Big Brother society.
  11. Tilting at Windmills.


How did you do?

These are all phrases taken from somewhere else that now mean something else. “We’re not in Kansas anymore” can now be taken to mean, “we’re somewhere different”, somewhere where there may be trouble or danger or just difference. But there’s always an edge. This is the gold dust of language comprehension and literacy. The widest sense of “knowing” what something “means” is a combination of a wide range of factors, some sociological, some individual, some intellectual, some experiential. A range. But the more we “know” the more we “know”. And this translates. Sportsmen that are talented in one area acquire skills in others more easily, artists who begin to work in different mediums experiment but apply the foundations of what they already know, musicians trying something else to see what it can bring them, scientists reaching beyond their disciplines but applying the same structures. The traveller who applies knowledge from previous destinations to the new and unknown. All of them a rehearsal for the next journey. And all of them an aspect of literacy – not to be forgotten in the (albeit highly important and necessary) chase for the numbers to evidence the progress of the kids in your school. This is keeping the wolf from the door. But is it literacy?

What’s certain is that it’s not a small task. But I’m fascinated by the fact that literacy shouldn’t be a limiting concept. So it’s the Chicago way from now on I think:

“You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That’s* the *Chicago* way! And that’s how you get Capone.”

Go big or go home. You may want to keep the 22nd of May free if you can. Deliberately mysterious I know – more information to follow on a Conference I hope that will attract many of you. Enjoy the summer folks.