Monthly Archives: August 2014

ways with(out) words: empowerment and motivation

Year One. Real school, therefore: a timetable. Or should I say: picture table?

picture curriculum b

Pictures, too, to monitor the children’s behaviour on a daily basis:

pig or sheep anonymous

Extremely uncomfortable with this idea of classifying naughty children as pigs (whatever their misdemeanour), I’m the sort of mum who would have kicked up a fuss. There’s something ugly here. Insensate. Something remotely Christian which I object to in any classroom, let alone in a multicultural classroom as this one. (Quick look at the timetable: religious education twice a week…). None of the parents appeared to object to this threat of a public stoning; to the threat of their offspring being branded as pigs. I was only visiting. I also wanted to be allowed back into this classroom. I kept my mouth shut. Before leaving the school for good, I did permit myself to ask the teacher to tell me more:

“it really motivates them, for at the end of the week there’s a prize.”

Didn’t the Head ever stroll into the classrooms from time to time, I wondered? Could s/he have overlooked this? I would have loved to sneak into the other classrooms to see if there were pigs and lambs cavorting as institutional corrective measures, whether the other members of staff had devised their own special (better?) means, so that this one here really was but a one-off, an effective one-off (so I’m told) not worth my getting over-sensitive about. My observation periods were restricted to 2 hours per morning. No correct way of entering other classrooms without the teacher’s permission. Without the Head’s permission. Without the parents’ permission. Without a letter first having been addressed to the Ministry of Education explaining the precise scope of my activities. No way, therefore, without getting into some ethical hot water (which I’m probably in already by now). Don’t get me wrong. I’m not into mud-slinging. I am into critical research. There’s a lot of good practice out there; the picture timetable is a wonderful off-task way to orient the children through the week. But as we all know: there can never only be good practice out there. That goes for me too.


Over to you, children and parents!

You can’t just walk into a classroom and point a microphone or video camera at the children. You have to earn their trust and be around long enough for them not to care about you. That point never truly comes, but at some point – you sense it, suddenly, and skip all the way home, happy, eager to reap what will come as of tomorrow –  it’s still possible to become less foreign to them.

Some children smirk when I ask if I can sit down at their table. Smirks of feigned unwillingness, smirks of pleasure. They move along to make space for me to pilot a questionnaire I had devised. When first piloted, it didn’t work well. I noticed how attentive the other children at the table were, all eyes and ears on me as opposed to on their worksheets. Clearly, I wasn’t invisible yet. Child after child merely repeated the answer given by the previous child. Why were they parroting? I knew they were. What had I done wrong? Why didn’t they trust me? I had to change my strategy.  For the final version of the questionnaire, I invited the individual children to sit with me on the bench, away from the others. Suddenly, the responses became much more colourful:

Q: what do you write at home?

A: I copy things (#1), words (#2), the letters I know (#3), names (#4), whatever I want to (#5), stories (#6), rubbish (#7)

Rubbish??? Is that the child speaking in his/her own right, or simply ventriloquating?

Q: why do you think you’re learning to write?

A. for school (#1), dunno (#2), to write words (#3), because I like it (#4), to give letters (#5), because mum says so (#6), because it’s good (#7)

At playtime, a child came up to me.

Madame? (The children knew not to call me Maîtresse (teacher). I wasn’t one. And he didn’t dare call me by my first name, as they did with their real teachers.)


Will you ask me those questions?

It was a plea, not a fear. A child from the neighbouring classroom; one not foreseen by my studies.

Si tu veux (if you want).

He returned to his play with a smile.

OK. So much for being invisible.

at home, in my logbook:

…children (learners) as teachers: I learn from them and must learn from them before I can ‘teach’ them anything (of use). Researcher (me) as learner far more than as teacher. Teacher/learner roles in the adult/child dyad co-reside, forever shifting, shuffling, re-negotiated. If I publish, then surely because I have ‘learned’ something I want to share.

I not only worked in a bilingual school, but with parents whose children attended a traditional, monolingual French school. Parents are as eager to share their views as the children. Parents who often want to do more than bake cakes for Open Day. It’s not always easy. A German mother, living in Alsace, tells me why:

Q: How well would you say that your ideas about school match the French ideas of what school is and what should be taught in school?

A: There’s this story that the children are already told when they’re in nursery school, the old stories about the big bad wolf who’ll do horrible things to children or people in general and that really does get on my nerves because I know for a fact that wolves don’t do anything of the sort. I think it’s a real pity that this big bad wolf theme gets handed down from one generation to the next although the truth is that wolves are a protected species and we all know that in the meantime. And so I went to school and told the teacher that this should stop. At first I was treated like that typical wicked German woman who thinks she can stick her nose in school affairs and I told them that, at the very least, they should explain things to the children. In the end they did in fact go on a school trip to a zoo and took a look at wolves. But basically they just keep passing the idea on even though there are stories in which wolves play quite a different role and if you ask me, it’s such a shame that parents even have to talk about such things with teachers or indeed that such themes come up in schools at all. And these are the kinds of things where I do make an effort to get involved or ‘stick my nose in’. As far as how the children learn to read and write, that’s not necessarily my thing, but when it comes to how aspects of society are dealt with, or religion, or sometimes how the family is depicted, then I do indeed consider that my business and if I have the feeling that they’re going completely overboard then I will indeed allow myself to at least talk to the teachers about it and let them know that I most strongly disagree with what they’re doing. And I also explain why.

At a primary school in Luxembourg, the teacher made use of a parent-teacher evening to lessen the gap between home and school. Parents could not only take a look at their children’s schoolwork, but leave a comment in their diaries. The diaries were written as part of Year One German classes in order to provide authentic writing activities. Via the parental contributions, these diaries become shared (home-school-teacher-parent-child) plurilingual semiotic socio-cognitive-affective spaces:

diary 1German text reads: Mama und Papa s(e)ind so lieb (Mum and Dad are so kind). This is an English child schooled in Luxembourg. Aged 6, she speaks English, French, German and Luxembourgish.

diary 2This is a Luxembourgish child, whose parents, taking their cue from the fact that the diary is in German, answer in German:

mum and dad love you so very much. You’re the best little boy (in the world). Keep up the good work! Mum sends you lots of kisses for you to take to school with you every day so that I’m always with you. Mum and dad love you!

Now, a Luxembourgish parent, replying in Luxembourgish to the child’s German ‘Papa pas gut auf’: Dad, pay attention:

diary 3Hello, my darling cuddly mouse! I’m really paying attention now, and when we’re done, I’ll write you some more. The teachers have now told us so much that I can’t remember all of it…. But I still remember a little and I’ll tell you that tomorrow. Big big kiss!!

Another Luxembourgish parent answering in Luxembourgish:

diary 4Mummy was here with Godmother and we’ve seen all that you’ve done. Isn’t it fun at school! Big fat kiss!

These diaries allow us to see more of the child and their focal points of the day:

decoprim dairiesReproduced with the kind permission of the DECOPRIM project leader, Dr Gérard Gretsch, Luxembourg. From left to right: today the doctor is coming to our school… I have a headache… fashion show. It was great!… I’m playing football… I’m going to get something to drink… teacher, mama, little mouse… I’m riding a bike

And now, my favourite entry, written by a Portuguese-speaking mother who spoke none of the state languages. The teacher puts me in the picture: ‘the parents never come along because they can’t speak Luxembourgish. They don’t understand French and they don’t speak German. Sometimes they send someone else along’. But the mother came herself, this time. And she ‘answered’ with flowers:

Maria 09-10-20b edit

As we saw with Lisa, parents may find ways to surmount barriers and support, in their own way, their children’s development.

What I like most about these diaries: parents happily disregard their children’s school status as beginners, as apprentices, of literacy. Instead, the parents write meaningful, authentic texts – not exercises –  which engage their children as fully-fledged members of their literate community, as is the intention of the teacher by introducing these diaries in the first place. There is no talk of error, or worse: of rubbish. And why should there be? A limited level of skill need not be an impediment for full community membership.

The Jacke Wilson Way: the spitwad

Time for a more humorous look at teachers and students with the help of author Jacke Wilson. Jacke is undoubtedly one of my favorite bloggers. He’s a great storyteller. Take your mind off whatever worries you may have right now. Return to high school. Read on:


Here’s something I’ve learned: teachers are human.

They’re not superheroes or gods. Not saints or demons. They’re human beings, with flaws and weaknesses like all the rest of us.

Don Ward was a fine man who taught high school biology to undeserving students in the same crumbling, run-down building for forty-three years.

How bad was our school? When I was there, ceiling tiles used to fall crashing to the floor. I’d never actually seen one drop, but at least once a month we’d see one in the hallway by the lockers, broken on the ground with a cloud of white smoke that was probably 100% asbestos. In the ceiling, there’d be a gap that stayed there forever, never to be filled. No money in the budget. Or maybe nobody cared enough to bother.

Not such a great workplace for Don Ward. How did he do it? Why did he stay? It was impossible to know, because he exhibited no personality whatsoever. Zero. His face barely moved when he spoke. With his plain brown mustache covering his upper lip, you literally could not detect any change in his expression for hours at a time. He never smiled. It was like being taught by Buster Keaton without any of the physical comedy.

That was our biology class. Day after day, Mr. Ward stood in front of the class in his drab plaid shirts, droning on about chlorophyll and flowering plants. And in exchange for his years of service he was mocked and jeered and verbally abused by the teenagers who knew everything and had all the power.

Yes, power. Who knows where this power comes from? Teenagers are desperate, scared, and self-conscious. And also cocky, fearless, and totally in control.

I used to feel sorry for Mr. Ward. If only he’d tell a joke once in a while, he’d probably have a better chance connecting with some of the renegades forced to take his class. That’s all it took for other teachers, who could pal around a little. Anything to prove he was not a robot. If only he’d ask if anyone had seen the World Series the night before. Or say he heard something interesting in church last week. Or raise his voice in anger. Or smile.

But no: Donald Ward delivered his lecture in the same way, sentence by boring sentence, until the class, forced to submit to this for months at a time, had developed a kind of of pent-up frenzy. These were high school students, after all. Adolescents! Their insides were full of raging energies that had to be discharged. They needed to show off, to thump chests, to flirt, to challenge authority. They needed all this to survive.

In other classes, the teachers released this energy with a few little quips now and then, letting the students laugh and tease and push back, so the air would clear and the business of learning could begin. It was like the quick open-and-shut of a pressure valve.

Not in Mr. Ward’s class. In Mr. Ward’s class it was all pressure, no valve. For months. Something had to give.

Which brings me to the glorious day when Mr. Ward told a joke. Well, sort of a joke.

“Okay class,” he began. “Today we’re going to talk about buds. Now I don’t mean ‘Hey, Bud’ or ‘This Bud’s for you.’ I’m talking about the embryonic shoots on flowering plants…” And we were back into the lecture.

Not a great joke, to be sure, and gone as soon as it came, but there it was. Personality! His mustache even twitched a little, making us think he at least could smile, even if it was not 100% clear that he was doing so as he delivered his joke.

We all looked at each other to make sure we were not imagining this.

“Wow,” my friend Bobby mouthed at me, shaking his head in wonder.

I had new hopes for Mr. Ward. He had (sort of) told a joke! And a few kids had even laughed!

Granted, they seemed to be laughing at him, at the craziness of the moment. The guy waits five months to tell a joke and that’s all he can come up with? It was not even really a joke with a punchline. It didn’t work as a pun, exactly. If you analyzed it carefully, as I have many times over the years, you would probably conclude that it was basically a statement.

So yeah, it wasn’t really much of a joke. And so the general abuse returned. The pent-up fury was still rising.

And the next day, when Mr. Ward strangely repeated the joke, word for word, Ernie Starks was merciless.

Mr. Ward: Okay class. Today we’re going to talk about buds. Now I don’t mean “Hey, Bud” or “This Bud’s for you.” I’m talking about the embryonic shoots on flowering plants…

Ernie Starks: What the f—, dude? You told that same exact thing yesterday!

(Let’s pause here to appreciate the second sentence that emerged from Ernie Starks’ unwitting mouth. You told that same exact thing. Not told that same exact joke. Not said that same exact thing. It flew right past me at the time, but looking back, I realize what happened: Ernie was planning to call it a joke but couldn’t bring himself to give it that much credit. It did not rise to the level of a joke. It was more like a thing. Ah, Ernie: proving that sometimes even excited utterances can contain moments of linguistic genius.)

We all waited to see what would happen. Mr. Ward looked “surprised,” which for any other human being could be described by saying he “paused for a few seconds longer than normal.”

Mr. Ward: I did?

Ernie Starks: What is you, ignorant?

Mr. Ward checked his lesson plans at his desk and returned to the front of the room, flustered and apologetic. “Sorry, class,” he said. “I had my days mixed up.”

That joke, that non-joke, that thing he told, was in his lesson plans. He said it six times a year to six different classes, year after year after year. And in our case, he told it twice, word for word.

In other words, we were not exactly dealing with Richard Pryor here. But why should we have expected that? We were being taught by a good man, a hard worker. A tireless public servant. A human. Wasn’t that enough? Of course it wasn’t. Not for any of us. And especially not for a guy like Ernie Starks.

Ernie Starks was human too, but more on the criminal side of the spectrum. He was a mean kid, a troublemaker since kindergarten, a bad seed. He lived by the funeral home and used to shoot his BB gun at the processions of cars that drove slowly past his house on the way to the graveyard. Can there be a less human instinct?

But that was Ernie Starks: foul-mouthed, a jerk, a bully since he was old enough to sneer, a ceaseless fountain of pranks and negativity—and strangely charismatic! That’s the weird thing about high school. In regular society he’d be in prison. In high school he was the leader of the classroom, when he wasn’t actually serving detention or suspended from school.

It was easy to envision Ernie’s future: for the next several months he’d lead a small band of fellow criminals and wreak havoc on the school until he dropped out or was expelled, which would let him get on with his true calling of bar fights with pool cues and baseball bats and everything ending with a high-speed chase with the cops on the backroads of rural Wisconsin.

Poor Mr. Ward: his joke-thing, the highlight of his semester, had disintegrated. And right in front of Ernie Starks, who had all the power and was unforgiving. Ernie stared hard as Mr. Ward finished his apology, grinning in his sadistic way.

We all knew what was happening. Ernie Starks was not yet finished with Mr. Ward.

When Mr. Ward turned around to draw a diagram of photosynthesis on the chalkboard, Ernie Starks reached into the winter coat that he wore year-round and pulled out a Bic pen, which he converted to a weapon by pulling out the back end with his teeth and letting the ink cartridge fall to the floor. His expertise in executing this maneuver was impressive and seemed almost lethal; a trained Green Beret could have done no better. Then he ripped a page out of his biology book—the page on photosynthesis, a nice poetic touch but probably an accident—and tore it into eight pieces.

We all knew what this meant. Spitwad time.

Sure enough, Ernie loaded a square into his mouth and started chewing, a fiendish gleam in his eyes. His jaw churned; his tongue rolled around his cheeks. He was a spitwad master; years of practice had gone into perfecting his craft. His spitwads were especially disgusting because he chewed tobacco all day. This was in defiance of school rules, of course, but that didn’t bother him and it had a glorious effect in terms of spitwads: the paper came out soggy and brown and perfectly prepared for maximum distance and accuracy and impact. These were spitwads as elevated to an art form. I could swear they even sounded better than the spitwads prepared by lesser mortals.

Mr. Ward was drawing the chloroplast. Ernie Starks loaded his weapon.

Fffftooo. The ugly brown mess shot through the air and splatted against the chalkboard, six inches from Mr. Ward’s hand. Ernie grinned. In the back of the room, a couple of Ernie’s cronies sniggered.

Mr. Ward did not turn around. Had he not noticed? He must have. The thing was sliding down the board, leaving a brown stain.

Ernie frowned. This was the point where he was usually tossed from the class, his preferred result. Finally he shrugged. His face grew more determined. Okay, pal. This is how you wanna play, this is how we’re gonna play.

He loaded a second shot. Nobody stopped him. Maybe we were afraid of Ernie. Maybe we thought Mr. Ward was so ridiculous he didn’t deserve our help. A joke in his lesson plan? And not even a funny one? How much of this were we supposed to endure? Of course Ernie Starks would try to liven things up. Anyone who knew the guy knew he had no choice.

Fffftooo. Another soggy missile smacked the board. This one hit the drawing. Still no response. Mr. Ward started labeling the diagram.

Fffftooo. A third hit the board just below the word sunlight. Nothing.

Fffftooo. The word glucose now read “g—e” with a brown splat in the middle. That one had just missed Mr. Ward’s hand. Still he kept writing. Still he kept his back to us.

Ernie smiled his cruel smile and held up his hands to the class, shaking his head. He had a whole textbook full of paper and plenty of spit. We could do this all day. I imagined an entire board smeared with wet brown pulp. Probably not an ideal educational environment.


We stared in shock. This one had hit Mr. Ward himself, who now had a dripping brown wad stuck to the back of his neck, above his collar and below his hair. It looked as if he’d been dive-bombed by an enormous beetle, which he had smacked with the palm of his hand, so that now all that remained was a dead carcass oozing with brown blood.

Ernie smiled with cruel satisfaction. He had hit skin! The shot of his lifetime, one in a million. In the back of the room, his cronies high-fived each other: their leader had demonstrated his ability, and their discipleship was justified—nobody else in the school could have pulled it off, or would have dared.

“Holy sh–,” Bobby mouthed at me.

Mr. Ward paused for a moment, his hand in mid-letter. Still he did not turn around.

After a half a minute, Ernie Starks started to chuckle. Then he began to laugh. Then he leaned back, put his hands behind his head, kicked his chair up on its back two legs, and laughed harder.

He was not alone; the rest of the class started laughing as well, although we did so nervously, somewhat afraid and somewhat ashamed. But we had to laugh, we couldn’t help it. This had been the strangest day: first the repeated joke, then the spitwads on the blackboard, and now a spitwad right on the neck of our boring teacher.

If you’d been in class with Ernie Starks for ten years, as most of us had, you knew how much this meant to him. His whole life to that point had been building to this. Years of bullying and cruelty had all built up to this one single moment. And for everyone else in the class, who had been tormented by him for so long we had come to understand that his cruelty was just part of his nature—well, we couldn’t help but feel like he’d met his perfect victim and carried out his perfect crime. There’s something inspiring about witnessing the pinnacle of any endeavor, no matter how pointless or disgusting.

Our laughter wasn’t because we liked Ernie. We laughed because we knew him, truly knew him, in a way that only kids who’ve grown up together over a long period of time can understand.

And yet, even as we were laughing, we felt sorry for Mr. Ward. Why did he have to be such a patsy? We had to put up with Ernie’s abuse. But Mr. Ward was an adult, with resources to draw upon. Why did he just take it? Was he so embarrassed about the joke fiasco he couldn’t even muster up the courage or energy to send Ernie to the principal’s office?

Finally Mr. Ward turned around. Everything in the room changed in an instant. There was still no change to his expression. But his eyes were lit up like I’d never seen them before.

The class fell silent immediately. Not even Ernie made a sound.

Of course Mr. Ward knew exactly who had done it: Ernie’s book, with the half-torn page, still sat on the table. Not that any evidence was needed. We had a lot of bad kids in our school. But there was only one Ernie Starks.

Mr. Ward took a step toward him, surprising us all. Ernie dropped his chair onto all four legs. His hand closed his book. His eyes were still on Mr. Ward. He was not afraid, but he waited like the rest of us. In the charged atmosphere it seemed like anything could happen. I suddenly wondered, for the first time, whether Mr. Ward could beat up Ernie Starks.

The teacher, the notoriously unexcitable Mr. Ward, kept walking slowly, still not saying a word or changing his expression. His eyes were almost hard to look at, full of an intensity we did not know he possessed. He raised his index finger.

Nobody in the class could breathe. We thought he might burst into tears, or quit his job on the spot, or scream and attack Ernie Starks with his bare hands. Who knew? Twenty years of teaching, twenty years of putting up with guys like Ernie Starks. What happens when the dam finally bursts?

He stopped, his index finger still raised. Now he was within five feet of Ernie, who returned his stare with unyielding defiance.

And here was the problem for Mr. Ward, even the animated Mr. Ward who had suddenly appeared. What could he do to Ernie Starks? The guy had been punished since he was five. His parents didn’t care. He hated school and couldn’t wait to be expelled. You’d have to kill him to wipe that smirk off his face. Even that probably wouldn’t do it.

Mr. Ward’s mustache twitched, enough to make us think he was about to speak. His index finger was still pointing upward.

No one in the school would have believed what happened next, had there not been thirty eyewitnesses.

Because at that moment, at that very instant, with Mr. Ward staring at him and pointing up and not saying a word, a heavy ceramic tile fell from the ceiling directly above Ernie’s head. It whisked his nose on the way down and landed smack on the table in front of him, shattering into pieces with a huge cracking sound. A cloud of dust flew up into Ernie’s face, whitening his face and hair.

Everyone gasped. A few people screamed.

Only Mr. Ward did not change his expression.

“Next time it won’t miss,” he said.

Suddenly it seemed as if he too had been getting ready for this moment for a long time. He lowered his hand as if he were a sheriff returning a smoking gun to its holster. Then he turned around and walked back to the board. The spitwad was no longer on his neck. There was no sign of it anywhere, not even a stain, though I couldn’t remember seeing him remove it.

Ernie Starks sat for a moment, his lips trembling and his body shaking, something I could hardly bring myself to watch. Finally he stood up and rushed out of the room. At first I thought he was going to the bathroom to wash his face and brush the dust out of his hair. But no, of course he wasn’t: we heard his motorcycle start up and roar out of the parking lot. It was the Way of the Bully: he could not live in a world where the balance of power had shifted from himself to Mr. Ward. He never came back.

The rest of us never got over the experience either. To everyone else it became a funny anecdote, a school legend, but for those of us who were actually there it was something larger. The unchanged expression. The intense eyes. The unworldly coincidence of the ceiling tile just missing Ernie Starks. The spooky magic of it all.

And then the perfect line, next time it won’t miss, delivered by the only man in the world who could have kept a straight face as he said it. It was the funniest thing I had ever heard any teacher say. A joke, a real joke, on the very day Mr. Ward needed it the most.

If it was even a joke.

I’m not sure that matters: it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up either way.

Yes, as I said, over the years I’ve learned that teachers are human.

And sometimes, every now and then, they’re a little bit more.

Classroom literacy (2): The First Days

Twenty-two children learning to read and write in French and German in Year One (in Alsace) and trying to work out for themselves what these skills might be good for. Two teachers – Sandrine for French and Ingrid for German –  charged with the task of transmitting these skills effectively. I continue my series of narrative snapshots, hopefully getting across some of the excitement and the character of typical classroom interactions. What would you say is the main difference between the German and French teaching styles presented here?

Snapshot #2: First Day in French

Twitter. Twitter.

Look at my new shoes. You’ve cut your hair. Where did you go on holiday? I like your new satchel, grandma bought mine can you already read a little I can, I’ve been practising in the holidays. With mum. Oh no, she wants to take even more pictures of me (deep sigh yet inwardly pleased). (Sarah)

Parents mill around in the school courtyard. Bright flowers. Bright smiles. Yes, they do grow up so quickly, don’t they? In no time they’ll be…

From now on we are not allowed to enter the school grounds, but must await our knowledge-hungry offspring at the school gate, today being an exception. Today being their Big Day. Ten to eight. Time to leave.

Oh I wish she wouldn’t wave at me like that I’m not a baby anymore. (Daniel)

Real school. New room. New layout. Tables no longer clustered like honeycomb the children would weave their way through and clamber over to snatch something from a classmate before the teacher intervened with a stern voice. In real school the tables are lined up like pencils on their sides: one, two, three, four rows, every face to the teacher. In real school you don’t hang your coats up in the classroom like the little ones do, but leave them outside on a hook with your slipper bag. And you keep your things in that compartment under your desk…

Who’re you gonna sit next to? D’you think we can choose? I hope I won’t be right at the back. (Marie)

Please don’t put me next to Thibault if I have to sit next to him I’m gonna throw up. (Elise)

We can’t all sit together anymore they’ll probably move us around like they did last year. If you sit at the front you’re the teacher’s pet. (Sophie)

N’importe quoi! (what a load of rubbish!) (Dimitri)

Belt up! Who’s talking to you, anyway? (Marie)

D’you reckon we get to come and write on the whiteboard? (Elise)

The walls are as bare as the new books now being taken from the satchels and purchased in strict accordance with the list handed out to the parents at the end of the preceding school year. Every book, every pencil, rubber and sharpener, every pair of scissors bears the child’s name. Hours of writing, sticking, of calming down excited children implored to write their names neatly (unless you opt for just initials in capitals or for using a pc) have gone into the preparation of this big day, their first celebration beyond the intimacy of home – their first public celebration of the public Self. The classroom looks, smells squeaky clean, thanks to the investment of a cohort of mothers in the run-up to school. The naked walls, like their exercise books (like their supposed minds???) shall soon be clothed with common knowledge.

The children – erratum – the pupils may in fact choose their own seats, the noise level necessarily rising, yet the teacher is generous with her patience. For today. The register is then taken. They all know the routine. The pile of new books, stacked on the teacher’s desk like so many plates in the canteen, now ladled out to the children, row after row. These books, that is what today, what the rest of their time in these rooms, is all about…

Sandrine: Bien. Et maintenant, au travail. (Right, now let’s get down to work)

The first morning includes activities like these:

Activity 1:

The course book is handed out: Mika CP. The key figure, Mika, is a little girl, whose adventures with a wolf provide the narrative context for the reading exercises. On the front cover, the book is described as ‘méthode interactive d´apprentissage de la lecture’ and further as ‘cycles des apprentissages fondamentaux’ (i.e. as ‘an interactive method for learning to read’, and as ‘a basic training course’). From the back cover we learn that Mika will accompany us through our first year at school, that we will read our first story (broken down into 10 episodes) and that the book contains numerous exercises to help us understand how the written language works: ‘le fonctionnement de la langue écrite’.

We turn the first page. Sandrine distributes a sheet with a text on it to each child. She reads:

‘The start of school. Today, it’s the start of school (la rentrée). For you, it’s your big day. You are now in Year One. Real school’.

The pupils are asked to identify and underline in yellow a number of words in the text: La, jour, entrez, m’appelle, amie, votre maîtresse. Other words: jeudi 5 septembre, c´est la rentrée des classes, pour, au CP, à la grande école, bonjour je suis, are to be underlined in red. At the bottom of the same sheet, four words are encased in the following order: Mika – je – Bonjour! – m’appelle. The text is cut out and pasted into the classbook. The pupils must now cut out the four jumbled words in order to reconstitute the sentence ‘Bonjour! Je m’appelle Mika’ in the allocated speech bubble:

je m'appelle MIKA

Sandrine goes from pupil to pupil, checking the answer before stamping the date into the pupil’s exercise book. Those who have finished may browse through the book whilst they wait for the others.

Activity 2:

Sandrine distributes a sheet featuring the underlined words from the previous activity. The red words form ‘The start of school’ form one group. The yellow words form another group.

Whilst the pupils are busy cutting out the words, she writes the same words on sheets of A4, using the standardised writing model. When she reads these words out loud to the class, she holds them beneath her chin: “what does this say?” Some pupils shout out the answer and are reproached with a stern look. She chooses a pupil who has put his hand up. His answer is correct. ‘Good!’ Sandrine praises, before she repeats the answer, then pins the word on the wall next to the whiteboard. If no-one is able to read the word, Sandrine gets the pupils to identify each of the letters in the word before she says the word slowly, running her finger along the letters as she pronounces them. Then she invites the pupils to pronounce the word a number of times:

je m’appelle…

je m’appelle…

je mappelle.

       (short short  l o n g…)

Activity 3:

The pupils must now write their names according to the French italic writing model they’e been practising since Reception Class/Grande Section. The children are eager and complete the task without any difficulty. Sandrine, sitting on her desk, asks intermittently: “finished?”

For homework:

  1. learn to recognise the words from the yellow group.
  2. draw a picture of yourself and your teacher.
  3. colour in the picture at the front of the book (children outside the school-gate, keen to start their first day of real school).

Very little talk all morning apart from Sandrine’s instructions and the pupil’s answers. During the cutting out activity, the noise level rises slightly. The pupils seem eager to work hard. Above all, they must work individually. I comment on the solitary nature of the morning’s activities. Sandrine informs me that after the break, the pupils can work in pairs with their word cards.

Snapshot #3: First Day in German

(as the children have a whole day in a single language, their first day in German is in fact the second day of school)

The children enter the grounds accompanied by their parents, laden with bags or boxes filled with the year’s materials and which they deposit near the teacher’s desk. Some children are accompanied by a larger cluster of adults, a number having come from far afield to be there on this big day. Grandparents have come along, too, and who might the others be? They’re the aunties, uncles, godparents of the native German-speaking pupils, and they take snapshots of the new first-grader who poses proudly with satchel and Schultüte, an enormous cone filled with sweeties and school-related objects, as every real German first-grader knows all too well.

Once the excitement recedes, overtaken by the rev of engines reversing out the car park, Ingrid, having rallied the pupils around her and whilst still waiting for all the other pupils to enter the building, clears her throat:

“So, dear children, welcome back to school. Welcome to Year One (die erste Klasse). I’m sure you all had a wonderful summer. And I’m sure we’ll all have a wonderful time learning to read and write in Year One. In Germany, the start of Year One is an important day for every boy and girl and it is celebrated. For each of you, I have a Schultüte, like in Germany. I shall take a photo of you with your Schultüte and you can give this photo to your parents. Or stick it in your photo album if you’ve got your own one already.”

The pupils are called forward in alphabetical order. Ingrid takes a photo and the pupil may then enter the classroom and sit down (same seating arrangements as for French).

Typical activities for German:

i) Look at your schoolbag carefully and draw it on the paper (Betrachte deine Schultasche ganz genau und zeichne sie dann auf das Papier!



ii) My Schultüte


Who has never seen a Schultüte before, Ingrid wants to know. Some pupils turn round to see how the others respond. “I’ve seen some in the supermarket,” proffers one pupil. Others agree. Someone comments “mais ce n’est pas la même!” (They’re not the same!). No, Ingrid agrees, those ones are not the same. They’re too small, they’re for anyone, and they have nothing to do with school. The pupils must draw their Schultüte, either the one Ingrid gave them that morning, or else the one they received from their parents/family. At the end of this activity, Ingrid passes round a picture of herself on her first day of Year One, bright-eyed, knobbly-kneed and holding an enormous Schultüte. The pupils are fascinated. Laugh. Ask questions. Ingrid says she remembers exactly her first day of school. And the name of her teacher. More questions. Genuine interest. Ingrid laughs. “Ok, let’s get back to work.”

III) wir halten Ordnung! (we keep the place tidy!)



Ingrid solicits from the class what they see in each of the eight pictures. One set of pictures shows a tidy classroom, the other set, a messy one. She asks which picture is the better one and why. Some hands are raised. Other pupils just say what they think. Ingrid recapitulates a few responses: because it’s nicer to work in a tidy area. Because it’s less dangerous for yourself and others. Because it makes things easier to find. The pupils must follow the instructions concerning the school desk, the waste paper bin, the coat pegs and the tables and chairs: Male die richtigen Bilder bunt aus! (colour the correct pictures brightly).

Iv) so spielen wir miteinander (this is how we play together). Wir gehen vorsichtig mit unseren Spielen um! (we handle our toys carefully!), Wir streiten nicht! (We don’t fight!), Wir räumen unsere Spiele auf! (We tidy away our toys!).



v) school materials



Now that these worksheets have set the social climate for the classroom, Ingrid turns to the course material: negotiating space in the run-up to writing:



and, of course, now that we’re at real school, there’s homework:

nino ninaGerman HWK










At the end of this learning block, Ingrid secures the attention of her class by asking them to look her way. She introduces the Kummerkasten, or complaints box. A big box with a slit in the lid, which she holds chest high as she faces the class. If the pupils have anything they’re unhappy with, they can write a note and put it in the box. Spelling is unimportant because it’s not a test. She will look in the box once a week and she will always get their meaning, Ingrid promises. The notes can be anonymous or signed and Ingrid assures them that their comments will be read and taken seriously: ” It’s a box for you, so use it whenever you are ready to.”

‘Don’t forget!’

She gives the box a shake, places it on a table near her desk.

Morning break.

Classroom literacy (1): Grande Section’s daily routine

Over the next few entries, I’d like to make you familiar with the classrooms I conducted  research in. We’re in France. In Alsace, to be precise. And we’re in a bi-lingual French-German nursery-primary school. I’ll provide what I call narrative snapshots: descriptive accounts of typical routines. Today we’ll visit the last year of nursery school; la Grande Section. Does any of this seem familiar to the contexts you know? As always, I’d love to hear from you.




Snapshot #1:

The Grande Section’s daily routine ( 11th February, 2002, 15.15h-15.40h)

Teacher, Isabelle (T) and children (CC).

Isabelle and all the children are seated on a long v-shaped bench in the corner of the classroom, away from their tables and chairs. The interaction takes place in French.


T: Are all the children here?

CC: Yes!

T: Are you sure? We’ll see. Elisa, are you here?

Elisa: I’m here!

(Isabelle notes Elisa’s attendance with a tick in her register)

T: Victor, are you here?

Victor: I’m here!

Isabelle goes through the whole class. Whilst the register is being taken, the children fidget and whisper.

 T: How many are we today?

CC (simultaneously): Fifteen!



T: How many girls? Who would like to count the girls?

Numerous hands shoot up and a few bottoms hover above the bench fervently. A girl is selected. She stands up, points her finger at each girl as she counts. The other children count with her. The procedure is repeated for the boys. Today there are nine boys and eleven girls. Two boys are missing. Isabelle chooses a different child to count how many children are present altogether. Some children join in too, whilst others chatter. Isabelle waits patiently.

T: So, we have more…

CC: Girls!

T: Girls.

The girls cheer. The boys sulk.

T: Which day is it today?

CC: Monday!



T: Today is the first day of the week…

CC: Monday!

T: Monday, right.

Isabelle gets up. She walks over to a wall chart with the heading : Aujourd’hui nous sommes (‘Today we are…’). The heading is followed by the days of the week, each associated with a particular colour and a one-line poem. Handwritten day tags, of the same colour as the days on the chart, are pinned on the wall next to the chart. Isabelle chooses a girl to find the right tag for Monday. This girl finds the tag, takes it off the wall and places it beneath the chart. The other children begin to get restless. The noise level rises.

T: What is the date today?

The children guess various numbers. They seem to have forgotten the date they had on Friday (I hear a few whispered ‘Friday was the …?’) and over the weekend they appear not to have use of knowledge of this type. Still, they work it out in the end. Today is the eleventh.

T: How do we write eleven?

Isabelle holds out a bag of numbers written on square card. She chooses a boy this time to come forward, who finds the correct number before placing it next to the day below the chart.

T: Good. And the month?

CC: February!

T: February. Two thousand…

CC: … and two!

T: Two thousand and two. So today is…

CC: Monday, the 11th February, 2002.

Isabelle crosses the classroom to the blackboard. In the top right hand corner, she writes the date in joined-up letters, pronouncing each word as she does so:

T: Lundi, le… onze… fevrier… deux … mille … deux. Bien!

With a gesture, she signals the end of the activity. The children return to their tables, grouped to seat up to five children.


Activities in the Grande Section consist of a clearly defined blend of play-oriented skills acquisition tasks, with the morning and afternoon sessions consisting of four activity blocks: ritual, language work, worksheet, pre-writing exercises. A typical worksheet is Le trait vertical; the vertical line, which progressively structures the size of the children’s penstrokes in the ‘run up’ to writing:



My observation of this activity is accompanied by the following fieldnotes:

The children sit at group tables, are supposed to work individually, but mix their work with private talk, which, though tolerated, is punctuated by Isabelle’s frequent reminders as she moves from group to group: ‘not so loud! Concentrate on your work!’ At the end of each morning or afternoon session, the children’s work is filed away in their folders, stored in a communal area along one side of the classroom. The children go over to a big chest of drawers and put their pencils and crayons back in one of the drawers bearing their name.

Despite the significant space accorded to promoting the activity of writing, rigorous evaluation criteria are not applied to work in the Grande Section and no use is ever made of the red pen. The children self-correct as they gradually learn to manage the directionality and spacing of script. When required, Isabelle explains, sometimes using a separate sheet of paper, how to improve the writing, after which the child returns to his/her own sheet and attempts to carry out the recommendations.

Notwithstanding the argument that children insist upon the distinction between drawing and writing, writing development is channelled as ‘emerging’ from drawing, it therefore requires the children to ‘redesign’ their knowledge of drawing and we may clearly identify the different steps assisting the child through the activity to achieve a degree of accuracy which brings writing ‘within reach’. Although the child is required to complete such worksheets alone, the activity is nonetheless facilitated, or framed, by others, notably those who design the worksheets in the first place, and by the teacher, who will verbally prepare the child for the activity by explaining what needs to be done, and who will assist the child further in the event of any difficulties. The children, we note, are not yet being taught the sound of the letter, but are drawing, or ‘pre’-writing. The boundary between the illustrative and the semiotic, therefore, appears to be porous, yet the clear intention is to use drawing to ‘stretch’ the children to the higher developmental skill of being able to write. For the moment, reading remains ‘beyond reach’.


Framing learning and practice in La Grande Section

Classroom interactions send a plethora of messages; overt, covert, and even, at times, conflictual:

‘A classroom, for example, where young children spend considerable time copying letters beneath their teacher’s clear handwriting and are expected to get every spelling correct in the first draft runs on assumptions about learning that are very different from those of a classroom where children choose what to write and where children’s invented letter shapes and spellings are accepted and encouraged’. (Czerniewska, 1992:53)


The classroom as a zone of free movement (ZFM):

We may think about the classroom in terms of its functional availability and how adults structure a child’s access to this culturally designed physical environment.

With regard to literacy acquisition, this classroom comprises three main learning spaces:

i. grouped tables: the mechanics and meanings of writing are practised and appropriated with the support of worksheets like ‘the vertical line’.

ii. bench area: here, the registration routine encourages the recognition of key words associated with scholastic discourse. The bench area is also the space where the children may withdraw to discover or read books – but not write – on their own if time permits.

iii. whiteboard: forges a link between the tables and the bench as discrete seating areas. It channels the children visually to a limited space, from which they may take the knowledge the teacher places there.


We see, then, that the physical characteristics of the classroom are not arbitrary, but consciously designed to provide an optimal learning and working zone for teachers and pupils. Classroom design limits specific types of learning to specific spaces for learning in a systematic manner (unlike home). The classroom, however, also offers supplementary learning zones, which promote rather than limit the child. These zones can be considered a Zone of Promoted Activity and will be addressed next.


The classroom as a Zone of Promoted Activity (ZPA):

The concept of a Zone of Promoted Activity (ZPA) relates to the interplay of people and materials involved in interactions on offer within the environment which, rather than limiting the child’s development, are geared towards promoting the child’s development with regard to a particular activity. Let’s take a closer look.


Interactional partners:

There are a number of people on offer within the classroom environment. There are the children, the teachers, the auxiliary staff and the parents. These actors may be paired or grouped in a number of ways: children interacting with other children, teachers interacting with auxiliary staff and children, teachers interacting with parents, etc. Children’s talk among themselves, however, is only tolerated to a certain degree. The auxiliary staff are not charged with pedagogical responsibilities in this school, and the parents only pop in and out of class mostly to pick up or bring their children, with whom, as with the teacher, they may only exchange a few brief words before their departure. In practice, therefore, the potential offered by all these interactional partners is not fully exploited, and, as intended, social interactions within the classroom centre around the teacher-pupil dyad. In what follows, I highlight how teacher-pupil interactions are framed at this school in order to promote literacy development.


verbal and affective frames:

Children’s learning to write, along with their emerging identity as a writer, is framed verbally largely via question-answer routines, commonly referred to as ‘initiation-response-feedback’ (IRF), which channel, tease out and confirm the correct or desired reply:

T: Today is the first day of the week…

CC: Monday!

T: Monday, right.

With her statement ‘let us see if all the children are here’, or the question, ‘Elisa, are you here?’, Isabelle also subtly manoeuvres the children at the start of each day away from their private identities into their identity as learners in an institutional context, employing specific learning strategies and discourses that may, or may not, be familiar to the children from their home backgrounds. Getting the children to internalise school discourse prepares the children for the more imperative, analytical linguistic styles or registers later encountered in the course material for Year One.

At another level, feelings are harnessed in order to promote learning. We are talking about affective frames. The feelings solicited often try to evoke a sense of fun to take the sting out of learning. The registration ritual, for example, is designed to feel like a game; the children cheer, play at sulking, laugh. Pre-writing exercises are made to feel like drawing rather than the serious business of learning to write.

Wall work, as an interface between parents, teachers and children, and thus between the home and the school, may also be harnessed emotionally. By talking about their work on display, the children may not only proudly demonstrate their abilities to their parents, but also see the interest of their parents validated by talk with the teachers. Verbal framing, moreover, has additional affective attributes in that the children, once repositioned as pupils, are supposed to feel differently; in particular, they should feel that they are at school to work, yet may look forward to learning via activities and interactional strategies that are intended to be enjoyable, and therefore motivating. Fun and games notwithstanding, the school does not feel like home, so that, even at the emotional level, different zones may be identified.

Not only the teaching materials employed or the potential interactional strategies seek to tap into children’s feelings in order to promote their learning, but the classroom design itself constitutes an emotional frame. The children sit in groups, whose members are rotated so that the children may learn to learn, and make friends, with different people. The physical and social climate of the classroom will feel quite different in Year One, due to frontal, individual, and definitive seating arrangements.


Material frames: the classroom as a Zone of Promoted Activity:

There is a link between the physical and social properties of the classroom and how they promote literacy activity. Unlike the objects referred to in the Zone of Free Movement, designed to limit activities (e.g. activity x is only performed in space x), within the Zone of Promoted Activity, as the name suggests, new spaces are provided that promote development in a non-binding manner. I don’t believe it is essential to remember the terminology. What we can remember is: some areas promote learning by keeping a tighter hold on it, others promote learning in a less controlled manner. The two zones, ZFM and ZPA, may, and do, overlap: objects on offer within the ZPA form an interface with the ZFM in that they are part of the physical equipment of the classroom. But as explained, they are used differently:

coatpegs: bear the children’s names, and to which the children return several times a day as they arrive and leave school and come in from or go out to play.

wall space: wall space showcases samples of the children’s schoolwork at the child’s eye-level, inviting, but not demanding, the children’s attention. The children must, therefore, actively decide to interact with these literacy spaces and ‘opportunities’, and in so doing, they are interacting proactively, even though they are not writing. (Other materials, by contrast, lead to the children interacting reactively. These are the materials such as worksheets, wall charts, cue cards, or indeed classroom rituals as teaching material, which solicit the children’s responses, but do not allow them to instigate.)


On the one hand we have carefully structured, goal-oriented interactions, on the other, we have more holistic opportunities for more child-initiated interaction. The children are, therefore, being sensitized in different ways towards diverse forms and functions of writing.

Notwithstanding clear curricular specifications, in practice, there still seem to be conflicting messages about what really counts as literacy. I note, for example, the inherent discrepancy between minimal correction of classroom work on the one hand, and the selection of conventional, error-free samples of writing for public display, on the other. The teacher does not systematically write according to the official model, although she only selects work which corresponds to the norm for public display. It seems that one aspect of what counts as literacy is accuracy in the display of skills. Moreover, there appear to be two levels of skills display involved. On one level, the worksheets, later filed away in the children’s folders, document the progressive acquisition of writing skills and provide a reference point on display for the children. On another level, the selection of perfected writing for public display document an additional, more official interface between:

  • the children as a community of learners, and the school as an institutional, evaluating and evaluated organ
  • the children and parents, hence the home and school

Thus, the question of what counts must be pursued by for whom? The answer to what counts relates to who is seeing, and judging, different texts.


An image of how the child is being shaped as a writer begins to emerge from all the facets analysed so far. It is of the child as becoming rather than as being a writer. I hope this blogpost has helped you to take a fresh look at the pre-school classroom, above all at the physical, verbal and affective properties and at the shifting perspectives of thought and action for everyone concerned. Has this post made you think of anything you would like to share with me? I’d love to hear from you.