Friday, March 06, 2009

World Book Day

Wheew! It was a busy day yesterday. I started out by talking to a group of teenage dyslexic kids. Very enjoyable - for me, at least. Good to have a chance to ask them what things they are really good at. The usual question to dyslexics is what they are bad at.

Then on to a group of GCSE English students who are presently achieving results at grade C but are aiming for grade B or A. It was a small group - particularly because several of them had bunked off. When I was faced with them, I had a sinking feeling that it was going to be really hard work, because most of them didn't look enthusiastic. World book day it might have been, but did they really want to be talking to a novelist about story structure?

The first thing I had to admit was that I only achieved grade C at GCSE English language. And that my school didn't even bother putting me in for English Literature, as I was not good enough. After that we spent most of the time chatting about movies - which they seemed to know a lot about. I gave out some photos of people - pictures cut from newspapers and magazines. From that the students created characters and stories.

Really good stories. Several in that class were natural story tellers.

Later in the day I went to another class of GCSE English students. This time they were kids working at grade A or A*. It was very interesting to me that the kind of stories they were coming out with were quite different from the 'lower achievers' earlier in the day. The narratives tended to be more introspective. To characterise them simplistically, the 'higher achievers' were writing the kind of plot line one might expect to find in literary fiction and the 'lower achievers' were writing what one might expect to find in genre fiction.

But here is the thing - I don't see literary fiction as inherently superior or more worthy than genre fiction. It is possible to tell a simple, accessible story and make it many layered. That was the quality I was looking for and I found some of it in both groups.

Why do I put quotation marks around 'higher achievers' and 'lower achievers'? It is a mark of my own scepticism in the belief that the GCSE is measuring the most important things in our English ability. If I had to pick out the best natural story tellers from the two groups, there would have been three from the 'lower achievers' and five from the 'higher achievers'. But the latter group was more than twice as big.

Then in the evening I headed off to Leicester Writers' Club for one of the best evening's entertainment available in the city on a Thursday night - sitting back and listening to people reading and performing some stunning stories and poems.

I'm glad there is a World Book Day. But glad also that it isn't every day. I'd burn out.

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