I hadn’t previously been to the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education aka CLPE, which is surprising given my background in both education and books. How heartening that such an organisation has managed to buck the trend of closed services and inservice training centres – not only to survive but to flourish.
If the quality of the day conference I attended yesterday is typical of events and training days CLPE organises, I am not a bit surprised that schools are, at least for now, willing to spare cash from their strapped budgets to allow teachers out for the day and benefit from such programmes.
The cost of peak rail fares probably limits attendance to those working in schools in the London area, which is a shame, because, especially with the diminished role of local authorities in organising training courses and the closure of all but a small number of teacher centres, an event such as the one organised today would have so much to offer teachers further afield.
Shifting the start and end times of the day forward by one hour might help attract those who are able to reach London for 10:30/11:00 on off-peak fares.
Yesterday’s event was billed as Reflecting Realities: British Values in Children’s Literature
CLPE’s own Learning Programme Leader, Farrah Sarroukh, argued in her opening address that, in the context of both Brexit and the Trump presidency, the emphasis in teaching literacy needs to be somewhat more positive than merely encouraging ‘tolerance’ – much more important is empathy, and an understanding acceptance of difference (throughout the day there was a commendable effort to refrain from jargon and the use of too-frequently-tripped-out terminology – as in the avoidance, where possible, of the overused word ‘diversity’).
Cue the first keynote speaker, Miranda McKearney OBE, founder of both the Reading Agency and the Summer Reading Challenge. McKearney retired from the Agency when she turned 60 but, after a brief spell trekking in foreign parts, found herself compulsively researching recent studies into the effect of reading on the brain. This led to her setting up EmpathyLab, the subject of her talk.
The second keynote speaker was author Elizabeth Laird who used personal anecdote, family snaps and photographs from her travels to give the audience an insight into the way authors collect bits from their past and use brief encounters on overseas research trips to put the elements of a novel together. She did this with particular reference to her latest book Welcome To Nowhere.
Floella Benjamin spoke (and sang) with powerful passion about her experience of moving to England from the Caribbean. Her father, a jazz musician, was the first to make the trip, later joined by their mother. Losing the loving presence of her mother had a shattering effect on Floella, who had to spend fifteen months separated from her siblings and living with a cruel and authoritarian ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’. Finally arriving in England, the reunited family lived in a single room in Chiswick. Floella sufffered frequent racist abuse, but gave as good as she got, often responding physically. Indeed, the way the 67 year old squared up to her audience in boxing mode, fists ready to fly, gave a pretty clear indication of how intimidating her angry responses to those who dared slur her must have been. She is still getting her own back. When the family moved out of their single room and were able to buy a house in Beckenham the racist abuse continued. Her mother stayed on in that house for 40 years undaunted by the antipathy of some. Now Floella is proud of her full title, Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham, the sweet irony of which she is pleased to enjoy on her mother’s behalf.
She called the assembled teachers ‘chosen ones’ who must not let a single one of the children in their care feel unloved.
After a really excellent buffet lunch (five-star conference fare) the delegates split into four workshops, each of which allowing for greater activity and participation than in the morning sessions.
- Candy Gourlay, in a session titled ‘Rosy Cheeks and White Picket Fences” (because that’s how the world was depicted in the British and American children’s books that she read when growing up) talked about her childhood and young adulthood in the Philippines and working as a journalist and illustrator before moving to England and becoming an author
- Catherine Johnson used some of her recent historical fiction to help provoke discussion in her session titled ‘Black History is All Our History, Finding Ourselves in Stories from the Past’
- Artinuke in ‘Drawing on our own Stories to Create New Narratives’ retold a traditional tale in a manner that generated lots of contributions from those attending the workshop, commenting on their experiences of how children respond to ‘told’ as opposed to ‘read’ stories
- Poet Anthony Anaxagorou (artistic director at London’s coolest spoken word and music event Out-Spoken) led a session called ‘Helping Children Find Their Voice’ in which teachers became pupils for a while, encouraged to find poetic pairings of adjectives and nouns
The day ended with a question and answer session featuring two directors of Letterbox Library (booksellers for the conference) and Verna Wilkins (original founder and publisher at Tamarind Press, and now of Firetree Books).
The whole day was wrapped up by CLPE’s Chief Executive Louise Johns-Shepherd.
Keep an eye on future courses and conferences organised by CLPE – https://www.clpe.org.uk/professionaldevelopment/conferences