Thanks to Branksome Heath Middle School - with thoughts of tortoises and spring...
Tortoises are sensible. They hibernate through winter. If we had daemons (as Philip Pullman suggests), mine would surely be a plodding tortoise. But I only dream about hibernating and never do it, except that I try not to make too many school visits in the heart of winter. I’d much rather be at my desk, snug and warm, than out and about.
I couldn’t resist, however, an invitation from Branksome Heath Middle School in cold, grey, wet January. The school is in Poole, just a few miles from where I live and I was told that the whole school – with over five hundred 8 to 12 year olds - was reading one or other of my books, finding out about South Africa, turning detective on me and so on. Naturally curious, I had to meet these young detectives.
Well, their openness, enquiry and engagement was like a dose of spring! Many years ago, when I worked as an advisory teacher for English and Cultural Diversity in Dorset, I brought a number of storytellers and poets from around the world to work with children who are probably the parents, aunties and uncles of today’s generation. In those days, despite its port, Poole felt quite enclosed and the storytellers and poets were rather like explorers. But in the last twenty years, Poole has become more diverse. A world map in the school hall has arrows linking today’s learners to at least 27 other countries globally.
At the end of final session with Year 7s, Mr Fox, the headteacher, revealed to us that twenty years ago he had been teaching in Suffolk where there had been a huge controversy over whether a certain book should be introduced into Suffolk schools. That book was Journey to Jo’burg. Some people had argued: ‘Why did children in Suffolk need to know anything about apartheid and human rights?’ Others, including Mr Fox, believed in broadening children’s experiences and encouraging them to think about universal values such as fairness, equality, respect. Fortunately, those in favour had won the day. The book had been read, leading to lots of creative writing, drama, art... and no doubt a lot of talk using heart and mind.
I left the school with a poem ‘L is for Libraries’ (from S is for South Africa) and the isiZulu/isiXhosa proverb made famous by Archbishop Tutu: People are people through other people. They will be framed and displayed in the library. Thank you Branksome Heath Middle for reviving me mid-winter. Spring is coming!