[Originally published as part of PETiTathon2015!]
In the Spring of 2006, archivist Craig Fees was contacted by William Frederick - Bill - Garner, a retired teacher, a Quaker, who wanted to write about his experience with "backward" children in the 'C' stream of an inner city school. He had developed a very successful approach, the development of which came to an abrupt end when he reached the age of mandatory retirement. The story had not quite reached fulfillment; and by writing it down it felt as if he wanted to bring a kind of completion. He got in touch with the Archive for information about David Wills and the wider background to the field, and Craig sent him a copy of Maurice Bridgeland's "Pioneer Work With Maladjusted Children".
They then spoke on the phone, during the course of which Craig suggested recording a conversation about what Mr. Garner wanted to say, as a way of helping Mr. Garner with his writing: the Trust would transcribe the conversation, and in that way give Mr. Garner a written armature to build on. The paper below came out of that process: Mr. Garner made corrections and changes to that first transcript; a revised version was typed and returned; there was more refinement. The text below emerged from that process. With more time, there would undoubtedly have been more refinement still.
In 2006 Mr. Garner was 86. Over the next three years he and Craig recorded some 24 conversations. That given here is the second. It was recorded on June 14, 2006, and either Craig or Mr. Garner had got the appointment date wrong - Mr. Garner was taken by surprise, as we hear in the closing seconds. But we don't hear it, in any obvious way, in the interview itself. Instead, as Mr. Garner gathers his theme, he clearly and carefully lays out the broad scope of what he hopes to cover in his ultimate piece of writing. Over the hour and twenty minutes of talking he audibly tires - and at some point slips out of his chair - but he responds to Craig's questions fluently and without an obvious sense of interruption. But perhaps you will disagree.
In later recordings Mr. Garner speaks about his childhood; about his military service - where he discovered his aptitude for teaching; about his experience in a school for "maladjusted" children, and in a child guidance clinic; and more, of a varied and rich career. But his focus remained on his culminating experience at Ivydale School in Peckham - continually returning to it, and never feeling as if he had quite captured what he wanted to say.
The recordings began something like (a very brief medley):
This conversation, like many, is over an hour long. In it - if one allows ones' self to listen and to enjoy the rhythm - , one gets the richness of a very thoughtfully lived and considered life; the life and considered reflections of a teacher, who worked with the system, but with and for the children as well.
I want to speak about my work with the "C" stream.
After taking a Diploma Course at London University Institute of Education called "The Development of Children" and then taking over one of ILEA's Tutorial classes in premises in the Whitechapel Road, I was looking for a post in a school near enough to Goldsmith's College where I had enrolled for an Evening Course in Sociology and Experimental Psychology. I found a post in Ivydale School, Peckham, where the present teacher taking the "C" stream was leaving. I believe she had obtained a less demanding post in another school, so I replaced her and subsequently took 5 or 6 years of "C" streams.
Everybody knows that there are problems in the "C" stream and for this reason teachers are not keen to take over a "C" stream class. All the children in a "C" stream are backward in their 3R work. They do not perform at the level expected by their chronological age, so they are educationally maladjusted. And probably socially and emotionally maladjusted too. If their maladjustment is not helped in some way their problems will escalate into teenage problems which will be much more difficult to deal with. Here could be the origin of what Maurice Bridgeland in his book, Pioneer Work with Maladjusted Children calls a serious and little regarded social problem of our times leading to maladjusted school leavers from mainstream schools. The Government attempts to deal with this problem with its Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. It is certainly common sense financially to attempt to deal with these problems at a much earlier age. All schools in the country have their "C" streams, so the Junior School "C" streams are a wonderful opportunity to deal with a fairly simple problem at 7, 8, 9, and 10 before it becomes much more difficult to deal with
I have always been interested in the pioneers' accounts of how they dealt with maladjusted and delinquent children - most of them in published books, that I can well understand why people conclude that a country mansion in acres of farmland complete with a well stocked farm were an absolute necessity, but I do not believe this is so. I wanted to try how much of what they did could be achieved in an inner city school surrounded by streets and traffic and acres of stone and concrete as an assistant teacher working under a head who did not necessarily have the same ideas.
In charge of a "C" stream seemed a good place to start. The Head was in charge of the whole school which included all the ancillary staff like the kitchen workers and the maintenance and caretaking staff. I was only concerned with work in the classroom, but thus being the only person available for identification may be an advantage. Here I must pay tribute to all those Heads I worked under who trusted me to arrange the work of the group as I wished it to be. Without their trust and goodwill I could not have done anything at all to help the children. The Head lays down how the whole school is to operate. I am responsible for our work in the classroom and we need the school rules as a boundary. We are not working subversively against the Head. What we do in the classroom can only be in line with the Head's rules. What we do within the classroom is my chance to see how much of the pioneers' work could I replicate in these totally different surroundings.
The pioneer I chose was David Wills, who describes in detail in his book Throw Away Thy Rod living with difficult children exactly how he approached the fifty or so maladjusted children in his school at Bodenham.
By following exactly what he said I set up the emotional climate through which I was later going to conduct what is called 3R Remedial Work. This was a co-operative and caring attitude that was the foundation for any 3R work I attempted.
The 3R work could be seen as part of my planning an environment more conducive to their learning than had been the case so far. I did not see the children in front of me as merely backward pupils. Each one was unique with a built in biological uniqueness. All the publicity recently about DNA proves this. Also, sports coaches look for signs of this uniqueness which tells them a certain child would with further training make a good footballer or a good swimmer or any other kind of athlete.
I am especially interested in the unique learning pattern of each child, what Piaget calls the child's cognitive development, for this might hold a clue as to the way in which he or she can contribute to his or her own learning.
Most of the children before me have reading difficulties and my remedial work must address this problem. I do so making it plain that I see it as a co-operative task because I see my "teaching of reading" as a pointing out to the child of ways in which he can help himself to crack the code of the printed page to get meaning. I just tell him where it would be profitable to put his energy. Thus I avoid giving him the impression that I am the "know all" teacher and all he has to do is to listen and then remember what I say. Most of these tips will be around the usual work beginnings, certain groups of sounds that can be found at the beginning of most words. The remainder of the word can often be supplied by an intelligent guess taken from the context.
Each child had a pack of cards with these word beginnings on them which they could choose to do when I gave the word. Whenever I was busy at my desk I asked them to choose what they wanted to practise. They had about half a dozen tasks to practise. First there was my basic Reading Scheme which combined a work book with the story book. Then there were the reading cards mentioned and a pack of Number Board cards which were self checking in that the answer to the addition on one side of the card was on the reverse of the card. These cards could happily be worked through by themselves without any help from me.
Each child had a story book for free writing either a story or a diary. Everything they wrote I asked them to read to me, and I was able to pick out several words and write for them in the book in my best writing the correct English spelling. Each child also had a paper in which I wrote their full home address and the full postal address of the school.
So each child had a full choice of things to do when I was not able to see them. And they did work at these tasks. I was surprised how quite boring and repetitive tasks were performed willingly. I believe the motivation was that they themselves found they were "getting better" by doing this work proving to me that unwillingness to work may well be because the child sees no point in doing it.
A little bit about Shared Responsibility which was an absolute must for David Wills in his work with maladjusted children at Bodenham. I was not able to develop this fully with my "C" stream children, partly because it was in essence difficult for I was working as an assistant teacher within the boundaries set up by the Head, but also because these "C" stream children did not seem to be interested. Perhaps they weren't old enough - there were no teenagers in my group but what I did set up was what I called a talk session. Everybody could say what they wanted to and listen quietly to the others talking in their turn, even if what was being said was something they didn't agree with. I felt we had reached an important milestone which could be developed into shared responsibility in the full. After one or two of these talking sessions the children seemed more cohesive as a community. Their experience seemed to strengthen my efforts to make the work of the classroom into a cooperative effort of us all.
One very important thing was the result of our "talking sessions" in that I felt their expectation of me as safeguarding their security in a way that could well result in my taking an authoritarian role in any situation for the common good as it were. We could be democratic and co-operative as much as we liked but, in the end, when as it were , the chips were down they expected me to adopt an authoritarian role in everybody's interest. Many people working with maladjusted children have sensed this feeling, that I was the guardian of their security.
This reminds me of an incident about which I have given much thought. One day several of the children in my group rushed up the stairs to tell me there was a fight taking place in the playground, would I come. Why me? The two boys fighting were from another class. The Head was available and there were always other staff supervising their "play". Why pick me?
I went down with them and managed to stop the fight by asking them to stop without manhandling them or making the occasion one for a homily along "moral sin" lines. Since there were other people available and I was not officially doing playground duty, I like to feel that this feeling that I was a suitable guardian of their security was working. I felt I was "on trial" so was very pleased that I could stop the fight without any kind of punishment or moralistic "telling off'.
I must say a word about what we all called P.E., i.e. physical education. All the children thoroughly enjoyed this. They would go outside in the playground whatever the weather. We had to share our time in the playground and the Hall with the music teacher who used the piano to lead singing and the other classes. Sometimes we got extra time in the playground because I would get a message from one of the teachers to say their class was not using the playground because they had misbehaved in some way and missing games was a punishment.
I never cancelled their games, certainly not as a kind of group punishment, but this was often done by teachers. My group enjoyed their time in the playground. There were plenty of volunteers to take the apparatus down the stone stairs into the playground. Ropes long and short, balls large and small, skittles, coconut mats, long wooden forms, all were taken down by the children. They knew they could choose any of these to play with initially. The boys usually picked the large balls and practised heading and other football skills. Girls chose the ropes for skipping, either individually or in a group using a long rope. I was never allowed to forget our time in the playground and carefully made sure that whatever happened they had to have their P. E.
I also took them all to Dulwich Baths where the more able ones could show their swimming prowess, and where I learned that the more timid ones needed a time to play in the water to become water friendly. This was a weekly visit and I was never allowed to forget the day and time of day. A coach took us to and back from the baths. The driver was used to ferrying children from place to place and had the usual horror stories about their behaviour, and the damage to the upholstery they were said to have done.
So far it will be noticed I have not mentioned what A.S. Neill called self-government, but David Wills preferred the term Shared Responsibility. I was not able to set up the formal machinery of shared responsibility. Working as an assistant teacher in a school where a Headteacher was responsible for the general school rules meant that my responsibility was limited to being responsible for what happened in the classroom only. It was not difficult to see the Head's rules as a necessary boundary within which we had to work. As I've already said, I organised my own classroom time table which had to fit in with the demands and needs of the remedial work I was undertaking.
Although there was no formal machinery for dealing with shared responsibility, my whole approach to the group was based on the need for us all to co-operate. This arose quite naturally by following David Wills' first step which I could call the approval step which he outlines in great detail in his book Throw Away Thy Rod. I also felt quite strongly at times that the group was not old enough to adopt formal machinery. All the children were younger than 10 or 11 years old. I did however prepare the ground for shared responsibility by introducing "talking sessions" in which we all listened to each other even if we didn't agree with what was being said. Such talking sessions willingly participated in by all seemed to mark a very important milestone. The children became a real community group. It was almost as if they found a corporate existence very important to them all.
I think I have shown that with a "C" stream in an ordinary inner city school it is possible to carry out a large part of what the pioneers achieved with their maladjusted children. My model has been David Wills who in his book Throw Away Thy Rod gives a careful description of how he approached his work with the maladjusted children in his own school, Bodenham, near Hereford. The most important part of this preparation is the initial "approval" stage which if not carried out effectively and if not consistently maintained will invalidate any subsequent effort to help the child, as Wills himself pointed out in his book.
There just remains for me to say something about an assessment of how successful all this was. There was no formal mechanism of assessment which often concerns what are called Standardised Tests of achievement and give a Before and After picture of attainment in a chosen area. But assessment was continuous in that I was constantly assessing the result of any work I undertook with a child or the group. In the early days I was concerned to see a breaking up of the black cloud of failure and guilt that hangs over every child transferred to a "C" stream. It was almost as if at this stage everything we did had to contribute to a breaking up of this black cloud. I was expecting certain behavioural changes, a freedom commensurate with a stronger more realistic self-esteem or confidence, an openness both as an individual and in the group.
I was helped in this by scraps of feedback that would come my way. The parent saying that "he liked school now", and a general appreciation of how the children were now so different both at home and about the school. And in the later stages appreciative comments by parents reaching me about the child's handwriting or reading. In fact contrary to usual teacher opinion I valued the parents and would very happily see them on a regular basis. The one advantage the "C" stream has is the fact that the children are in their own environment and return to their home every night so there were no difficulties brought on by leaving the home and going to some other environment to be tackled.
Very useful feedback came to me via a supply teacher who came in to take my "C" stream while I was on sick leave. He was so enthusiastic about the group saying they were so well-behaved utterly unlike any "C" stream in his experience. I remember his exact words. They were, "There was no cheek", obviously something he expected from a "C" stream. I was pleased to hear that they had not broken out in my absence and gave the supply teacher a hard time. All of this strengthened my feeling that we were going in the right direction and were ready for the remedial work I had planned for them.
Another happy bit of feedback was when the Head came to tell me that a certain parent had asked if their child could go into my "C" stream group.
The remedial work was an important part of the planned environmental therapy which I hoped the children would respond to in a happier way than they so far had been able to do.
The work was in two parts. Firstly each child in turn came up to my desk and we talked about their work and they read to me what they had written in their story book or diary. The second part consisted of a free choice of several things. I provided each child with the necessary apparatus for 5 different activities and they could choose which one they wanted to practise. I used a basic scheme or readers, each reading book having its own work book. The questions in the work book were answered by reading the reading book. Each child had a pack of what I called Number Cards which were all self-checking and based on the connection between addition and subtraction, e.g. on one side is 7 + 8, and on the reverse 15 - 7 or 15 - 8. Similar selfchecking cards could be made up for the multiplication and division bonds. Then I gave each child their own address and the school address in my best "joined up" writing. It was a kind of copy book and was quite popular with the children. Each time they read their story to me I picked out a few spellings and wrote them out in my best writing.
Writing out spellings in this was quite popular, for there was no question of writing them out as a punishment for getting it wrong in the first place. Also each child had a pack of cards showing the most common clusters of consonants that come at the beginning of words on the printed page. I was surprised and very pleased at the way the children enthusiastically carried out these tasks for many of them were boring drudgery of the repetitive kind. This made me feel that the value in repetition leading to familiarity and thus to learning is too little realised in schools. It is usually a punishment as in "Write it out twenty times", but I think each child knew that they were learning, "getting better" as they called it, and this was the motivation that sustained them. When I heard a child say, "That's better than yesterday, or last week", I knew he had reached a very important milestone. My approach to the work with the child was always on the ground that they could teach themselves if I gave them a few clues of what to look for. This was very important in reading, for I constantly pointed out that I was teaching them how to help themselves to read. There would not always be someone by them to tell them. And I knew that like all children in the "C" stream, they desperately wanted to catch up with their peers and no longer be labelled "backward".
This is why I'm not very sure about these people who advocate no lessons for maladjusted pupils, for the 3R remedial work is a necessary means of planning the environmental therapy that you hope will be more helpful to the children than anything that has gone before.
There's just one more thing I feel I must say. In common with David Wills I am a Quaker, and also in common with him as he says in his book, Throw Away Thy Rod his faith was at the back of all he did.
Not at the back in the sense of evangelising or proselytising but as a constant reminder that each backward pupil in front of me was a unique person and had a unique pattern of learning. This pattern was important in that it may hold a clue as to how he could be helped to help himself to teach himself, especially important in something like spelling and reading. A clue he himself has spotted could be just as helpful in his teaching himself to read as anything I may have to offer him.
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