Laughter lightens literary angst

1st August 2008 at 01:00

"Fishing," says Henry Winkler, "is a washing machine for the mind." At this time of year, I suspect most lecturers, like me, have hung up a "Gone fishing" sign on their doors as they take time out to clear their heads.

Yet we are always on the look-out for inspiration. And Winkler, it seems, has not just a way with aphorism, but offers inspiration, too. Winkler, aka the cool Fonzie in the television series Happy Days, is the successful co-author of a series of books whose 10-year-old hero, Hank Zipzer, is "the world's greatest underachiever". Like Winkler himself, Hank has dyslexia and has a pretty hilarious and tough time making sense of what is going on around him.

The books have encouraged and empowered young readers, especially those who have felt out of step with the world of learning. Winkler seems to have found a way of reaching the hard-to-reach.

Lessons in language skills in further education can often be about teaching such people: the learners who feel sick at the thought of doing a presentation, the learners who "can't", or "won't", who say defiantly, "I'm thick", or the learners who baulk at the literature module because they thought they had left English behind with the schoolbag.

Literature can be the bogeyman. Show some classes a poem and they back away in fear. "It's only words," I tell them, sounding like a back-in-the- day Bee Gee. Fearful, they want to be told what it means, like picking a walnut out of a shell, in case they make a fool of themselves and get it wrong.

There is no right and wrong, they are told, only argument and discussion. And fun, you insist. This seems an alien concept, as if they expect all teachers to resemble Hank's Ms Adolf, who thought there was generally too much laughing in her class.

They learn to be playful, to be less overawed by the big names. Doing a close reading of the opening pages of Wuthering Heights last block, we read bits aloud in silly, Pythonesque voices and discovered that Emily Bronte, though a cracking good storyteller, was over-fond of alliterative binaries and the melodramatic.

Literary vandalism goes down well. Sometimes, when they dare to take ownership of the text, the discussion can be fabulous. And, of course, it's not just about the literature. It's about developing the whole package of communication skills.

July's Bercow Review of communication needs of children underlines that such skills underpin a child's development in all areas - not just in learning but in terms of achieving potential and building relationships. Poor communication skills are also prevalent in young people who are not in education, employment or training - a figure, it is suggested, that is much higher than statistics tell us.

Those of us who work in education are well aware of these truths. What we have to do is find ever-new ways of teaching these skills to inspire all learners. That is something to mull over while waiting for the fish to bite.

Two things are already clear, though. Winkler's young hero was unlucky with Ms Adolf. And, next session, there will be more laughing in my classes.

Carol Gow, lectures in media at Dundee College.

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