Art doesn't come with a set of instructions

Michael Rosen

For very nearly the whole of my adult life I've been involved in figuring out ways of getting schools and children interested in the arts. I've been doing it for so long, I don't often stop to think, why am I doing this? What's it for? How do I justify it? Anyway, even if I can figure out answers to those questions, surely it's actually the job of educationalists or arts organisations to do that kind of work, when I ought to be getting on and writing another poem ...

However, writing a poem to mark the expansion of the national Arts Award initiative - which is designed to support and reward young artists as they develop - to children as young as seven triggered yet more thoughts on the subject.

The first was around what we understand by "literacy" and how we enable children to be literate. I find it odd that, throughout the history of education, an enormous amount of attention has been paid to this as a "skill" involving instruction and exercise and much less to the substance of literate material - books, magazines, comics, signs and, now, on-screen texts. Even less attention has been paid to what we think goes on in readers' minds as they read or in turn to how all this relates to what children might want to write.

On the reading side, this matter can't be described fully with terms such as "decoding", "reading for meaning", "comprehension", "retrieval" and "inference"; on the writing side, it can't be summarised with schemes that prejudge the structure of what you're going to write.

What I see missing from both sides of the reading-writing nexus is what is at the core of literacy: a child using what he or she knows of language and life in order to engage with the feelings and ideas that are intertwined in any piece of writing. The other day I watched a mother making up new lines and words for extra verses of "Row, row, row, your boat ..." while her toddler sat on her lap laughing at each new invention. That very young child was using what she knew of text in order to enjoy the surprise of "river" and "liver" in the place of "stream" and "dream".

What was happening is at the core of arts education in whatever art form is being produced. We use the materials we find or are given (language, clay, our bodies, voices, music, rhythm, paint, film etc); we use our memories of what we have seen, heard and felt others doing with those materials (what Roland Barthes called the "already written") and do various kinds of assembling, playing, juggling, shuffling, building with the "already", according to our mood, intention, memory, sense of self, outlook on life and so on. This is what the mother was doing, taking the "already" of "Row, row, row your boat ...", taking the "already" of our Western ideas of rhyme and rhythm, along with a "repertoire" of jokes and nonsense found in nursery rhymes and in, say, Spike Milligan's poems, and doing a kind of poetic-musical retread with the original, guided by the response of her child.

Whenever we do something like this - in whatever medium - we discover in ourselves that we have the power to change those materials and in so doing (because it's us doing it) we change ourselves. Along the way, whether it's making a dance, a clay model, a poem or film, we make many discoveries about who we are. In this particular instance of the mother and her child, I could see above all that this was a moment of pleasure: the face-to-face engagement, the expectation, the gratification were all causing the child to laugh and wriggle about, and in turn you could see that the child's pleasure was gratifying the mother, finding that she could produce these variations and jokes that "worked" on her intended audience.

Between them, the mother and young child were making art.

So, what happens if we take that back to literacy? And what if the mother-child set-up I've described is, say, two children, or a group or a whole class? And instead of "Row, row, row your boat ..." (not that I've got anything against that lovely little lyric) we thought it could be any piece of poetry, drama, story or song? At the core of our practice will be the engagement of writers with readers and readers with writers. This will happen if both have a sense of freedom from being wrong, and a sense that what they think or say, and what they write (or make), is valued and won't be mocked or diminished or used as a means to make them feel small or segregated from other children seen as better than them. Teachers know when all this starts to work: reading and writing start to become self-sustaining. The reading stimulates the writing, which stimulates reading.

However, I can say with absolute certainty that this will not happen with the relentless use of extracts or examples solely chosen by the school and not the child, amid a constant barrage of closed-ended questions, in an environment of being under permanent assessment and testing.

We need the arts as a particular way of investigating the world - one that mingles ideas and feelings in the materials we use. At other times the curriculum separates ideas and feelings, but the arts try to figure out such fuzzy matters as motive, compassion, power, friendship, danger, envy, fairness, cruelty, courage, hope and fear. I defy anyone to tell me that these matters are less important or less significant than any other part of the curriculum. When teachers and pupils do explore these areas through the arts, I think it's right and proper to acknowledge this.

Michael Rosen is a poet and children's author. The Arts Award programme is managed by Trinity College London in association with Arts Council England.

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