Today I was reading a wonderful book by Bronwyn Davies, ‘Listening to children’ (2014, Routledge), and this poem from ‘Don’t put Mustard in the Custard’, by Michael Rosen came into my mind:
My mum says once I came home from nursery with a sulky look on my face. “What’s the matter?” she said.
I said nothing.
“What’s the matter?” she said.
I said nothing.
“What’s the matter?”
“I had to sit on the naughty chair.”
“Why did you have to sit on the naughty chair?” I said nothing.
“Why did you have to sit on the naughty chair?”
“Cos I was being naughty.”
“Yes, yes, I guessed that,” she said, “but what were you doing?”
“I was playing about at singing time, I wasn’t singing the right things.” “What was everyone singing?”
“Baa baa Black sheep.”
“And what were you singing?”
I said nothing.
“What were you singing?”
“Baa Baa Moo Mooo.”
I am going to unashamedly use the ideas Bronwyn Davies lays before us in her book and apply them to think about why this poem came to my mind and how reflecting on it can help me better understand Davies’ ideas about listening to children.
The child represented in this poem is standing on a “familiar, safe plot of land (the nursery rhyme, the ritual, the place)” yet at the same time he takes off on his own ‘line of flight’. He takes a risk in being different. He experiments with his own identity as a humorous being. But being different is not allowed in this classroom and so he is sent to sit on the ‘naughty’ chair.
A nursery rhyme in a British school is a collective cultural event – familiar to some children from their experience at home, and unfamiliar to others whose cultural space, whilst almost certainly containing songs for children, probably doesn’t have this particular one. The boy has disrupted this space designed to bring all children into the dominant culture. As he explores being different, he finds out that different ways of being are not welcome here. We – the readers of the poem – appreciate the humor of his disruption, but not apparently his teacher.
The teacher’s action has stopped his ‘line of flight’ and turned it into a ‘line of descent’. The boy has challenged the striations of the space (we can all imagine what this looks like – a group of 20+ children sitting on a carpet, joining in with the nursery rhyme that is orchestrated by the teacher) and therefore challenged the authority of the teacher. The teacher can’t let him ‘get away with this’, he has to be publicly labeled as ‘naughty’ – a lesson to others not to challenge the capability of the teacher to manage the class.
I can imagine that the teacher was irritated that her careful lesson plan had been disturbed; the nursery rhyme had probably been chosen to support the small child’s love of rhythm, pattern and rhyme; she probably wrote in her lesson plan that this helps prepare the children for literacy. She has clear learning outcomes in mind and is not going to be sent off-course by a small child. Is this I wonder, why she is so closed to hearing the child as he plays with words and makes a joke? She wants an orderly environment where the boundaries are made clear to the children and this overrides the child’s creativity, which bounces against these boundaries.
The teacher is part of a system of childhood education that is driven by its will to manage and to measure. How can she ‘measure’ the child’s engagement with the nursery rhyme if he plays around with it like this? What she understands of the purpose of her job in the classroom interferes with her capacity to hear the voice of the child. An opportunity for knowing the child is lost.
What has the small child learnt from this? He has to face the fact that rules and procedures are the structuring forces of his day; the teacher is in charge – and he must conform. His own thoughts and ideas are not welcome here; if he dares to express them he will make the teacher cross and he will be punished. Through Rosen’s poem we feel his shame and humiliation as he struggles to tell his mother why he had to sit on the naughty chair. He will never experience the exhilaration of exploring different and new modes of thought. He will learn to listen to the teacher, to fit in with her agenda and forget his own ideas.
And what will the other children in the class learn from witnessing this event? They too will quickly learn that the classroom is not a space for experiment, for thinking and doing for yourself. There is no time for ‘lines of flight’ – they will distract from the learning outcomes already planned by the teacher and incur her displeasure. They will learn compliance to the teacher’s will and never even consider that they could contribute new ideas that could help to build a community of learners in the classroom. They will see that the teacher will judge them against her ideal of how a pupil should be and if they don’t match up they will be punished. And punishment incurs public humiliation. They will soon learn what it means to be competent in the teacher’s eyes and most will want to conform to her judgements.
Can the teacher be blamed? Isn’t she merely enacting the status quo – just putting into practice the rules and procedures of the school? She has a need to regulate and to control, and if she fails how will she ‘get through’ all that stuff the government expects her to accomplish? She must, at all costs, be productive – there is no time for diversion, she must stay on track if she is to fulfill the role of ‘a good teacher’.
When I first came across this poem decades ago it made me smile and it made my children laugh. Now I wonder why did I smile? I like to think it was the humour that made me smile. Yet I can’t help wondering why I stopped there, why wasn’t I outraged at this treatment of a small child? Why couldn’t I name this as closing down the child’s voice and failing to truly see him? I think this is all part of childism, the unquestioned assumption that the adult knows best and it is the child that is at fault that I am struggling to overcome. And why did my children laugh – I think they recognized only too well the scenario in the poem and had probably experienced it for themselves and of course they delighted in the child’s humour. Our responses are never straightforward and back then I was much less aware than I am now.
Finally I can’t end this blog without considering in what alternative ways the teacher might have responded. Davies calls on us to see that the alternative is to open oneself up to questioning the status quo, to actively seek ways of questioning the meta-narrative of ‘schools as performances’ to question the drive to ‘raise standards’ by driving up the test performance of pupils in relation to national benchmarks. Instead we need to open up to new ways of being with children, to join children in their ‘lines of flight’, to truly listen to them – not in order to manage and control them, but to become open to their differences, to allow multiple ways of behaving and doing.
What might have happened if the teacher in the poem had been able to see the boy as an individual, to enable ‘the not-yet-known’ to emerge in her classroom instead of shutting it down, to instead ‘open up the capacity for thought and being’? To not be bound by what she already knew – to be open to “Baa, Baa, Moo, Moo”.