Once upon a time ... no, please listen

29th January 2010 at 00:00

On Thursday mornings I read to the nursery children. It's a pleasurable point in my week, because I relished being read to by my teachers and parents when I was very small.

There's a slight problem, though. These days, children aren't read to as much as they used to be. Many parents are too busy and their offspring sit in front of a television instead. Listening to a teacher read a story, therefore, can be a shock for the child. You're expected to sit still, you can't pick up the remote after three seconds and change channels, you can't talk because it'll disturb other children and you can't play with something while you're listening. For many small children these days, this is a very steep learning curve.

I notice this particularly in the first two months of the school year. The children aren't absolutely certain what my function is, and now they are suddenly herded together on the carpet and asked to listen to me. I take my coat off and ask who'd like to hold it while I read a story. Hands shoot up. I choose somebody, drop the coat on his head so that he can't see, and the children laugh uncontrollably. Too uncontrollably ... I have to use all my skills to get them back in listening mode.

"Here's a great story," I begin, "about a caterpillar who was extremely hungry. Let's see what happened to him ... ". I glance down and notice that Patrick is using his right hand to explore every orifice in his body. Two children move away from him rapidly, and the teacher, ever ready for any eventuality, quickly pulls tissues from a box. Patrick uses them and leaves them on the carpet. Andrea breaks wind, the volume of sound out of all proportion to her diminutive size.

"By the light of the silvery moon," I begin. "Moon," says a voice loudly from the back. "A little egg lay on a leaf," I continue. "Leaf," repeats the voice. As I read, the voice repeats, loudly, the last word I read each time I pause. I look up. "Please sit quietly and listen. You'll spoil the story for everyone."

I continue reading. "Out of the egg came a small and very hungry caterpillar ... ". "VERY hungry caterpillar," says the voice. I plough on, noticing that Jermaine has dropped a playbrick down Tommy's shirt and is anxiously trying to retrieve it. Andrea, meanwhile, has wandered to the home corner, and Billy is yawning loudly. I wonder if I should have retired last year after all.

But after just a few weeks, there is a dramatic change. My nursery teacher, already incredibly skilled after just two years of teaching, has moulded the children into a group that can share a story together with immense enjoyment, while appreciating the rules about listening. They now welcome me on Thursdays with huge smiles, and chuckle with anticipation as I take my coat off and ask who wants to look after it.

The sessions still have their amusing moments. As I read Fat Cat, who increases in size as he eats people, Emily tells us that her Auntie Doreen looks a bit like that. When I read Where The Wild Things Are, Sam says that if we want to see wild, we should see his granny after she's been on the gin. And Not Now, Bernard merely provokes the response that they've heard it loads of times and they recite it word for word.

But the loud repeating voice no longer repeats. He sits in front of the children and tells stories. Pretending, apparently, to be me.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, South London; Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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