The answer to the question may seem pretty obvious for students to read and write. I do not agree. However, the choice of what children read and who decides is valuable. That challenge was exposed to us when we were developing a literary canon for the small cross-phase multi-academy trust that I ran until I retired in December 2019. What fifty books should all children attending the Trust’s academies between the ages of 4 and 14 read?
When we checked the books the students read, the range was very limited. Their diet consisted mainly of books by Dahl, Walliams, and Morpurgo. What surprised me more, however, was whether the students even read in class with their teacher. What I took for granted in every elementary school class varied widely in fact. A survey by Teacher Tapp in November 2018 showed similar results: “Do you [the teacher] Reading a book to your class? “The drop in reading“ every day ”after receiving it is amazing and not what I expected.
(Source: Teacher Tapp, 2018)
After much discussion, the canon we have chosen in the two main academies of our trust is currently:
Year 1: The Storm Whale; What the ladybug heard; After the fall; Cleaned up; Winnie and Wilbur in winter; Dave the lonely monster; The lighthouse keeper’s lunch; The squirrels that quarreled.
Year 2: Jumanji; Aesops Funky Fables; The owl who was afraid of the dark; Fantastic Mr. Fox; The kite sitter; The worst witch.
Year 3: The Hodgeheg; Ice palace; Shot!; The Iron Man; The butterfly lion.
Year 4: The Fireworks Maker’s Daughter; Perry Angels suitcase; Tyke Tiler’s tumultuous tenure; Emil and the detectives; The legend of Podkin One-Ear.
Year 5: trip to Jo’burg; The midnight fox; Wonder; Five kids and it; Millions.
Year 6: holes; Skellig; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Cogheart; A monster calls; A little history of the world (illustrated, non-fiction book).
Each class also reads a selection of factual texts using either the DK First Children’s Encyclopedia or the DK Children’s Illustrated Encyclopedia
In making decisions about what children should read and who decides, we have always been guided by our beliefs about why we are raising. This larger purpose is often consciously or unconsciously developed around four main philosophies of education (Wiliam, 2013):
1. Cultural transmission seeks to “transmit the best that has been thought and said” (Matthew Arnold). The focus is almost exclusively on the acquisition of knowledge and the development of the intellect. This would consist of both cultural competence and a more specific curriculum that focuses on disciplinary and subject knowledge.
2. Personal empowerment seeks to develop the child’s potential. A balance is required between acquiring skills and knowledge, both of which must be applied. This is underpinned by the desire “to enable young people to have better control over their own lives” (Wiliam, 2013).
3. Preparation for work focuses on problem solving and real experiences. Since better educated workers are more productive, there is a connection between educational achievement and economic prosperity.
4. Preparation for citizenship aims to build communities and overcome social disadvantage. This focuses on the school context and is intended to support the development of social capital within families and the local community.
Cultural transmission is the predominant philosophy that underpins Ofsted’s new inspection framework. The building of cultural capital and changes in long-term memory are the order of the day. Hirsch (1988) defines cultural knowledge as that of the “common reader”.
In the Echoes of Arnold Hirsch is concerned with the fact that, although the students know a lot of knowledge, it is narrowly limited to their own generation and their own context. Their embodied cultural capital is derived too much from their peer group, community or family and too little from their education. Hirsch addresses this balancing act between personal and shared culture and says to the latter: “… it does not exclude anyone; it spans generations and social groups and classes; It is usually not a person’s first culture, but it should be the second to exist as it exists beyond the narrow realms of family, neighborhood, and religion. “Hirsch coordinated a list of about 5,000 words, sayings, people and dates that make up an educated person’s lexicon. He believes that it is a school’s primary responsibility to teach this dictionary.
Hirsch’s view would conflict with that of Paolo Freire. Freire’s writings and ideas are strongly associated with personal empowerment in education. He sees the main purpose of education as giving people more control over their lives. That is, unlike the oppressed, they are liberated and have the ability to act without unnecessary restrictions. He summarizes this feeling of empowerment in the term subjectification – subjects know and act while objects are known and are acted upon. He questions what he calls the “banking concept of education,” where education becomes an act of deposit with students who have no say in what and how is deposited.
Freire sees oppression as the greatest obstacle to empowerment – a ruling elite that superimposes its reality and culture on the poor in order to maintain a social order that disproportionately benefits the powerful. A limited perspective, control from a privileged position that leads to discrimination, has adversely affected people of different sex, racial, ethnic, sexual, disability, or poverty. Interestingly, Freire’s work could come back into focus alongside the Black Lives Matter campaign, which highlights many areas of inequality within society.
There will never be general agreement on the 30 books each child should read in elementary school. The idea is also controversial. In developing a literary canon, a school can highlight the local, national, or international as appropriate. The books can be biased to deepen understanding of one’s own community or of various communities. How do you decide which books children should read?
Freire, P. (2017) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Classics (the original translation into English was published in 1970)
Hirsch Jr, ED (1988) Cultural Competence, New York: Vintage Books
Teacher Tapp. (2018) “What the teacher touched this week # 60 – November 19, 2018”, teacher Tapp, tinyurl.com/y73qkcm6
Wiliam, D. (2013) Redesign of School Education: Principal Curriculum Design, SSAT, tinyurl.com/y9eeb4eu
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