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Shared Conversations - Morag Styles

Based on the interview Morag Styles conducted with Michael Rosen at University of Swansea 5/7/07 while taking a break from the Poetry Focus day of UKLA Conference.

I think the most important  thing any teacher can do is to create a repertoire of poems that a class or group have read. So they have some voices in their heads from those poems.

Michael Rosen  was born in north London in 1946, the son of distinguished educationalists, Connie and Harold Rosen. As well as being a highly successful writer (with more than 140 books to his name), performer, editor and broadcaster, Michael has a doctorate in children's poetry and teaches an MA module  on children's literature at Birkbeck College, London University, though he wears his scholarship lightly. Despite his busy schedule and family life (he is the father of two young and several grown-up children), Michael always finds time to work regularly in schools.

On priorities for the children's laureate
'I let the family stroke the medal!'

Michael is a very popular choice for the fifth Children's Laureate; his term will run until the summer of 2009. Unsurprisingly, his priority is to put the pleasure back into poetry and he seeks to promote it in practical ways.  He's come up with a range of lively ideas including an interactive YouTube site where poets and children can share the performance of poetry.

You don't have to do anything but just play it. People think you have to keep interrogating poetry and coming out with wrong and right answers to make it work, but this is a great fallacy [..] We've forgotten that poetry is supposed to be friendly and it's  important to find ways of just reading it, publishing it, performing it. That's actually what poetry's about. It will start stimulating conversations simply when you make it have air around it.

Michael plans to curate an exhibition on the history of children's poetry at the British Library where he'll 'plunder its archives'. With a little help from Book Trust, he hopes it will become a model for museums and libraries all over the UK to follow, creating their own children's literature trails. Christ Church College, Oxford, already does a good job with Carroll's Alice  and Michael has already started negotiations with Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood to draw attention to children's writers of the past who lived in Hackney (or visited in the case of Hans Christian Andersen), such as Daniel Defoe, Anna Barbauld, Mary Howitt and Anna Sewell.

Michael is also working with  the  Hay Festival to get a Poetry Roadshow up and running. Diverse Verse: an A-Z from Agard to Zephaniah will involve a team of poets performing for children in small groups up and down the country.

I want to build a sense of an occasion - maybe finish with a big 'do' at the Albert Hall. There'll be a buzz about poetry alongside the practical things.

Finally, Michael wants to launch a Funny Prize through Book Trust and 'I'll be lending as strong a shoulder as I can to The Big Picture where they're promoting the  joys of the picturebook.'

Poetry in the classroom

Book Trust are also launching Michael's webpage on How to create  a poetry-friendly classroom based on his introduction to A Year of Poetry (edited by Myra Barrs, CLPE). 'I want teachers to come onto the site and add their thoughts.' Michael goes on to suggest ways of making interesting things happen in the classroom with poetry.

Write out a poem and stick it on the wall. You don't have to do anything else. Your classroom's a village, people are going to walk past it saying things like, 'Miss, why did you put that up? ' or 'What d'you think it's about?' Suddenly you've got a conversation. You could leave a pile of Post-its next to the poem [..] share ideas about how to make poems live in classrooms.

Michael is critical of the Literacy Strategy which has dominated primary classrooms for the last ten years :

They think you have to bully poetry and then you bully the children by keeping asking them questions you already know the answers to. "How many examples of alliteration in the first two verses?"....What is the point of that?

Instead, Michael asks teachers to use their imaginations and ask children questions that they don't know the answer to. For example, Does the poem remind you of anything or anyone you know?

Literature and education

Michael is unhappy about recent developments in the teaching of literacy. His views are influential and he's written and lectured about it in many different arenas.

There's plenty of lip-service about people enjoying books ..handing out free books is great, but we need something much more root and branch than that, because at the moment there's a stranglehold over reading which comes in the form of the Literacy Strategy, SATs, Ofsted and covert selection. If you like, a Literacy juggernaut has taken over and literature has got taken under its wing. But literature is something much bigger, broader, wider,  more important. The core idea of literature is that we can re-present our lives and imaginations and that's  much more important than the business of getting letters right. The stuff going on in schools is denying the basis of what literature is for -  the shared conversation about who we are or might be, what we think, what we imagine, what we feel ...

Michael speaks convincingly of literature's  role  as a humanising experience. He reminds us that Roland  Barthes, sometimes thought of as a dry and dusty theoretician, wrote about the pleasures of the text being libidinous - reading as a sensual experience involving other people as we draw them in to share the texts that matter to us. He also resents the separating out of reading, writing, speaking and listening which he believes are intimately connected, likening them to spin-dryers or  a swirly paint mix where each helps the other.

One of the great ways to read is to listen; when you write you are the first reader of your writing [..]  If you try to write the things you say, then you're getting writing and speaking connected with reading. Cartoon strips -say how your mum tells you off and your reply  - uses all the language modes in one go.

He is scathing about some practices imposed on schools, such as singling out so-called gifted and talented pupils.  'Put G&T children on a rack and stretch them? How about wrapping them in clouds of delight!' Michael also loathes the current trend to privilege phonics in the early stages of reading at the expense of other strategies and lovely books. 'Our orthographic system has phonic elements to it, but the big lie is to say that phonics solves all. You only have to think of cough,  though,  through and thorough - or  youth and your; south and sound....' As he points out, pronunciation varies all over the country, 'Laugh, calf  and bath are near rhymes in southern England, but it doesn't work further north!'

On poetry and performance

In the cab going past the Mumbles today, I got this great wave of feeling for Dylan Thomas.  I can remember the little EP going on the turntable - 'and death shall have no dominion'. I'd no idea what it meant, but I loved that incredible voice saying something dangerous about death. He wanted to have a conversation with a listener.

At primary school, a boy with a lisp chanted Stevenson's Autumn Fires and got laughed at, but Michael found the music of it exciting and odd. The first time he thought,  'Hey, wow, golly' was encountering Browning's My Last Duchess. He wrote his own dramatic monologue for homework, inspired by the fact that you didn't have to explain everything - 'this  strange, dislocated way in which  you could express yourself  that was not socially specific.'

The great thing about this poetry performance malarkey is you're on with other  poets. It's so wonderful the way in which we influence each  other. It was terribly moving the other day with James Berry's new Windrush Songs a  bit like a  Caribbean Under Milk Wood where he goes back to his Jamaican voice. For the first time James expressed in public a mixture of feelings about  growing up in Jamaica - pride, shame, anger, envy - and it ends with such a punch. Woosh!  So it's great to be around poets talking about poetry, the  sensuality of it and the intellectual energy required to produce it. ..

Rereading The Odyssey recently, Michael was stunned at how modern it felt -  how brilliantly Homer used those little asides and varied narrative voices within the main storyline 3000 years ago.

Poetry - it's such a strange way to use language. [..] it can simultaneously be outside looking at the picture and inside into what the person is thinking with no more than a hint or an image [..] its own linguistic shape and rhetoric and formal discourse - you never know what's next. It might be a form that's been around 400 years or a weird montage. Take Adrian Mitchell - one minute he's talking about what it was like to feel sexy as a teenager, then compassion fatigue during Vietnam War, then a great big funny dog. There are not many forms of artistic expression with that variety and texture.

Future plans

The future? He has a new collection for Puffin and his Selected Political Poems: Fighters for Life has just been published by Bookmarks. Michael was excited about a new book of Palestinian stories he'd come across, Ghaddar the Ghoul by Sonia Nimr (2007, Frances Lincoln) who he introduced at a recent teachers' meeting. And he was delighted to see that one story contained a motif that's in Jack & the Beanstalk.

I'm doing a radio panto programme on the two hundreth anniversary of Jack & the Beanstalk getting into print. Word of Mouth, of course. Occasionally writing even -yeah yeah a bit of that goes on, I'm always scribbling...

If anyone can make shake children's poetry out of the doldrums, it's Rosen. With his boundless energy and exuberant personality, his belief in children and teachers, his enthusiasm for poetry in all its guises, his powerful conviction in the vitality of this art form and his own dazzling poetry performances, I'm sure his Children's Laureate stint will make a difference. Whatever else he does, putting that 'shared conversation' back at the heart of education will be his prime ambition.


Morag Styles - 8 July 2007




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