Sunday, July 24, 2022

Helping our Students to Make Connections between Life and School

I presented a plenary address this week at the Seventh International Literary Juvenilia Conference 2022. The conference explored Juvenilia, that is, youthful writing up to the age of twenty. As part of my plenary address I explored Intertextuality research which was a key focus for me in the 1980s to 1990s. Intertextuality refers to the "relationship between texts" (Kristeva). In my book 'Pathways to Literacy' (Cassell, 1995) I describe it as "the process of interpreting one text by means of another text".

Two people inspired me to explore Intertextuality. First, my dear friend and colleague Margaret Meek from the University of London (who died just two years ago), and Prof. Jerome Harste (Indiana University) who has been a close colleague and friend for almost 40 years. Jerry invited me to come to Indiana University (Bloomington) as a Postdoctoral Fellow in 1984. My purpose was to commence postdoctoral research and writing on Intertextuality.

While at IU, I collaborated with a Grade 5 teacher at an Indianapolis School. Barbara invited me to spend time at her school and assist her as a co-teacher, with a class that at times was challenging. I want to share a story from this classroom, that I also shared at the Juvenilia Conference this week. This student's writing, was to offer me a profound insight into why the task of inspiring our children as readers and writers can be at times challenging.

On an ordinary morning, as I prepared for the school day, I heard the yellow school buses arrive at the entrance, and the rush of students down the corridor shortly just minutes later. Students burst through the door and we did the usual crowd control, as they jostled their way to their seats. Some were shouting to one another, and a few were saying “Hi Sir”. A bolshie young African American named Nora (not her real name) threw her bag onto the desk. It missed, and its contents spilled onto the floor right in front of me. I started to help her pick things up. I grabbed a wad of writing paper with numerous texts that looked like stories.


I was shocked! Norah was a disruptive student and had the ability to spend a whole day without completing any task. She was from a difficult family and lived in a trailer court. It’s no exaggeration to say, she had not produced a single piece of writing in English while I was there. I said to her, “what’s this Norah?” She replied, “Nothin Sir”. I said, “looks like writing to me”. “It’s Nothin Sir, just stuff I do at home.”


I hesitated and said, “can I read some of it?” “No Sir, you won’t like none of it. It’s just stuff.” “Looks like poetry to me”.  “No Sir, just some songs.” I said, “please let me read some.” She replied, “well, maybe just a couple.”


The first untitled ‘song’ that caught my attention was this one ‘:


Lonesome all alone

She waits by the phone

Lonesome all alone

She wants to belong

Lonesome all alone

She listens and hopes

But there is no sound

Just a lonesome hound

Lonesome all alone


Was this great poetry? For this 11 year old child, yes! At home, it seemed Norah was a writer, whereas at school she was mostly a pest, and had not completed a single piece of writing at school. She saw little relevance in her school learning, but found inspiration in writing music stimulated by her own inner hopes and dreams.

I share Norah’s story, because I believe there are many children like her in our schools, for whom the literature of great authors has not been part of their lived experience. As such, the literary seedbeds of their storytelling and writing are different to the students many of us will teach in our schools. She was inspired by popular music at home and moved to write in response to her struggles as a disadvantaged African American.

I want to suggest 4 key ingredients for motivating and engaging our students as learners:


  • First, know your students well. Who are they at home? What are their passions outside school
  • Second, discover the things in life that our students might want to share with others?
  • Third, consider what might unlock the passions and interests of our students leading them to become risk takers, willing to share the things that touch and inspire them most? 
  • Fourth, as teachers we should try to help our children to build a "cauldron of stories" as a reservoir into which they can dip as writers.

The challenge in my talk at the conference was a simple plea. Get to know our students well, and seek to plough the seeds of the love of literature, into the lives of students like Norah, and I suspect many other children within our schools. In this way, we might just be able to help children like Norah (& me when at school) to grow as readers and writers as they connect their lives with the things of school.