13 December 2010

Book of the Week (80): "School Blues" by Daniel Pennac, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

While Daniel Pennac’s School Blues is not a book for children or teenagers it deals with core issues that confront today’s youth each day they battle through the education system. So we thought it appropriate to give it mention here, to spread its message to as many teachers, parents or educational professionals possible.

School Blues is not a book about school, but about dunces
those children failing to engage with education, written from the perspective of a schoolboy dunce with an aversion to capital letters, who took a year to learn the letter A, and simultaneously from the perspective of experienced teacher aka dunce rescuer. It’s an insightful tightrope Pennac walks as he recalls school days dominated by shame and failure alongside later years as a passionate teacher of literature and language.

It only takes one teacher to tap in and resuscitate a flailing pupil. A teacher with the passion and determination to find a way to engage the individual in education; for Pennac there was the teacher who set him the task of writing a novel
to deliver one chapter a week, with accurate spelling throughout. The teacher recognised the narrator within and gave him a voice. His other inspirational teachers were those that somehow communicated a thirst for knowledge and the desire to pass it on. On a base level, it requires someone, other than parents, to believe the child capable of learning and to show the child their ability.

Historical memories of ignorance battle his current educational knowledge as his old dunce voice pipes in from time to time to remind us of his roots, his self-doubt, his expertise in all things dunce. Ignorance versus knowledge
a battle core to any classroom. Teachers think ‘I wasn’t trained for this’, while children think ‘I’m not made for this’. Pennac takes ‘this’ and dissects it, both within classrooms exploring its grammatical vagueness in children’s statements, uncovering the fear it attempts to disguise, and within this book concluding ‘this’ to be the violent clash between knowledge and ignorance for which teachers are little prepared. He wills new teachers to consider their own prior ignorance, to explore their failures at school in any subject, to remember how it feels to not understand when all others do.

School Blues is a delightful mix of personal anecdote and professional commentary on the educational system, and unavoidably thought-provoking. A book to be considered by all those taking their first doubting, stumbling steps into teaching as well as experienced teachers, for parents of dunces, for dunces, for educational ministers. In short for anyone who encounters the educational system from any angle – this book should be read.

Recommended by Tessa Brechin

[PS - Anyone who likes the sound of this might also be interested to read the interview a friend and I did with Daniel Pennac about this book The Independent a few months back. You can find it here. - D.H.]

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