Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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13/8/16: let's stop and have a bit of a think about this

Before proceeding to the next paragraph, can I ask that you read this BBC news story about the French tradition of learning poetry, involving a dedicated exercise into which the poem is copied on one page with a corresponding picture on the facing page and then, every two weeks, Friday afternoons are given over to all children in the class one by one reciting from memory the poem, with their exercise book held up by the teacher for the whole class to see.  This tradition started back in the 1880s and has continued with little change in format ever since.

I can see that the resulting filled exercise book is a nice thing to have going into adult life - or for parents or grandparents to keep.  And maybe that's the main reason why this tradition evokes fond memories in adults who have experienced it themselves as they speak to children now doing this.  But this is against evidence as related in the BBC news story, of huge anxiety and panic arising from this tradition going well beyond the children themselves to parents and other family members.

Which does make sense, doesn't it?  Let's try to picture the scene.  30 children taking it in turns to recite the same poem over and over and over again.  Do we really imagine that with repetition children are taken into the deeper meaning of the poem, reflecting on its beauty, structural characteristics and rhyming patterns?  Or is it not rather more likely that the real agenda for the children is looking for mistakes or other reasons for future mockery, this being used as part of a way of establishing elaborate pecking orders?

And hidden in the BBC news story is a detail which seems to me to be extremely important.  It is estimated that 1% of the French adult population ever reads poetry.  I don't know what corresponding figures are in other countries but would guess that this is fairly typical across the world.  So let us be absolutely clear.  If the purpose of this exercise is to instil a lifelong love of poetry then we can pretty safely say that it's a failure.  And after 130 years we might reasonably say that it's some way beyond the trial period.

Meanwhile, I wonder what French poets themselves think of all this?  I would imagine their feelings are mixed.  On the one hand this tradition means that there is a market for poetry which helps to keep them employed. But on the other they must realise that there are many far more interesting, exciting, motivating and enjoyable ways of engaging youngsters with poetry.  Do they shudder with horror even as they're collecting their royalty cheques?

If at first you don't succeed, try again.  Then quit.
There's no point in being a damn fool about it.
W.C.Fields

In practice, I suggest, this is really hard.  We can reasonably suppose that many French people would oppose the abolition of this tradition, however compelling the reasons would seem to be to do so looking at it from the outside.  And to take a different example, consider what happens as we set up a restaurant.  There's a need to establish a location and a market, projecting what will happen in the future to establish that there's good grounds for believing that a restaurant at a particular price point serving a particular type of food at a particular location is going to be successful.  Then there's the need to equip the kitchens and the dining areas, to employ staff, to advertise, to have a launch event, all of which happens before a single penny / shilling / cent comes in.  Even when paying customers do start coming, it is reasonable to assume that the business will be running at a loss before eventually - if things go well - breaking even, then making a profit, so that the original investment can be repaid and the business then can make money for the owners.

The point here is, there is going to be a period at the early stages when there is the need for a level of self belief, vision and purpose as money is going out with none coming in.  But at what stage do we say enough is enough?  The trial period is over, the business is still not making money, let's cut our losses and do something else?  How can we be sure that the turning point is not just around the corner?

No clear answer to these difficult questions.  We need to balance confidence with humility.  Self belief with listening to others.  Optimism with realism.  And from a Christian perspective we pray for God's wisdom and guidance as we look to live for Him in our personal and professional lives.

4 Comments to 13/8/16: let's stop and have a bit of a think about this:

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David Mansergh on 13 August 2016 16:40
Thanks for that Geoff. I know someone who pretended to be ill on Wednesdays when he was 7 years old to avoid having to recite poetry in front of his class. I would definitely vote for extra maths instead!
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Geoff on 13 August 2016 21:33
Thank you, David. Actually I wouldn't go for the 'more maths' option, tempting though it is. I'd look at how poetry is being approached and see if it can be made more accessible. Could recitation be a group rather than an individual activity, if people are finding it really hard?


Jenny Spence on 30 August 2016 04:16
Jonathan's class had a really nice exercise on poetry to do. They all had an individual poem to learn (chosen from a selection provided by the teacher) and wrote one themselves. The performances happened in morning assembly three children at a time (spread over the year) and they could perform with a friend if they wanted. I'm not sure it has instilled a life long love of poetry in Jonathan, but worked hard at the recitation of his poem to make it interesting to listen to for the audience.
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Geoff on 30 August 2016 06:51
Thank you for this, Jenny, this sounds like a far better way of engaging youngsters with poetry, particularly like the point about being able to do it with a friend - and only a small number of different poems at a time! By the way, will possibly be in SSJ Sunday 18th September, not fixed yet, hope to see you there if I am.

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