It’s been a testing week for some UK children taking their national curriculum assessments with a new syllabus. Some parents have registered their disgust for the tests and curriculum by staging a “school strike” in protest at the loss of childhood.
(For the benefit of my (4 or 5) international readers, the UK has recently changed the elementary and middle school curriculum to focus on grammar and back to basics. The test for 10 and 11 year olds is sampled here – give it a go. )
My son was at home for different reasons.
He started on an insulin pump last week: a device which delivers precise, fluctuating amounts of insulin continuously through a cannula mimicking the pancreas (which has been destroyed in an autoimmune attack in people with Type 1 diabetes). I’ll blog about the pump soon, but at the moment it’s like having a newborn: on top of waking every two hours to test his blood glucose, we are feeling a mixture of apprehension, frustration, exhaustion, pride and sense of wondrous possibility best kept in the family unit for now.
We have arranged to home-school until we gain some confidence in our son’s levels. So as well as learning about cannulas, basal testing, multi-waves and square wave boluses, I find myself investigating a whole new un-encountered language.
[I should say up front that I have nothing but respect and admiration for my son’s school and teachers so anything I say here is not a criticism of them.]
In the past few days, alongside multiplying decimals (counting carbohydrate has made us quite good already: 170g carbs at 18.3g per 100g anyone?), I have resorted to Google with questions including:
- what’s a parenthetic comma?
- is ‘and’ always a connective?
- are verbal connectives a thing?
- conditional – tense or mood?
- can you have connectives at the beginning of sentence?
- And, what the jeff are ‘strong’ verbs?
My son is 9. I am 43 and I have a degree in English, a post-graduate diploma in journalism and I was paid to write for more than 15 years, latterly for some big names in broadcasting, I’ll have you know! I have never needed to distinguish between a “subordinating conjunction” and a “preposition” (presumably like the unfortunate minister for schools ).
I’m from a generation whose knowledge of language was osmotic: gleaned through reading, discussing and experimenting. My 9 year old boys love to read. I overheard one of them yesterday telling my 4 year old girl that reading is “so much better than films as you can conjure pictures in your own imagination”. They burn with a passion to be Rick Riordan or John Flanagan; to express themselves.
Their grammar needs to improve. Presented by my son’s teacher with a piece of his almost entirely unpunctuated writing, I now recognise it was unhelpful to describe it as “Cider with Rosie written by the bastard son of e e cummings and James Joyce”. So I’ve made sure the boys know grammar is a building block to the next level of writing, without which you will never be taken seriously.
But “modal verbs”, “conditional clauses”, these are not building blocks. And learning to write is more organic and fluid than construction. Sub-editing is an important skill, but continuous monitoring and using a starting point of technical detail will not deliver growth.
As an English graduate, my thoughts turn to similes. The effect of type 1 diabetes is like the effect of the literacy curriculum on our children’s education. For my child, nothing is natural. He watches and assess functions that should happen without thought. By analysing, dissecting, testing we are attempting to mirror something that, in different circumstances, would happen through the miracle of development. We break the day down into chunks and try to build it back up again. And it’s time consuming, mind absorbing stuff, squeezing out time for play. The consequences of failure lurk constantly in our peripheral vision.
Nothing we do will replicate the human pancreas. No matter how good we are, no matter what technology we use. This is the message repeated to me by medical professionals, perhaps sensing that my intense need for knowledge and data is an attempt to achieve a god-like perfection in supporting my son’s health.
We are not the sum of our parts
The difference is we have no choice. What nature gave us is broken. Bust. Kaput. Whether you think this approach to literacy is right or not depends on how broken you think educational development is, how little faith you have in the child’s intrinsic ability to learn self-expression. But trying to build a wonderful whole from the component parts will always fall short, for either child literacy or child health.
[Incorrect use of connectives as sentence openers with no corresponding clause in this piece is entirely deliberate. Other grammatical errors may also be so…]