Monday, 22 April 2013

Bookish Bits and Bobs: National Stationery Week (April 22-28)

With the influx of modern technology, it's perhaps hardly surprising that the art of letter-writing is dying out. Why send a letter when it's quicker, cheaper and neater to write an email?

However, this doesn't make the demise of letter-writing any less saddening. The personality inherent in handwriting and the beauty of artisan writing-paper are too magical, in my view, to lose; plus, being a teacher, which is basically the same as being a professional stationery whore, means I am naturally interested. It appears that there are many others that feel the same way - hence the celebration of National Stationery Week (beginning today and ending Sunday).

The week will see several competitions (including the chance to win a £500 stationery hamper), stationery itineraries, and even the chance to download "I'm a stationery addict" badges from the National Stationery Week website. Plenty of national retailers are also participating, both online and offline, including The Stationery Box, The Paperie, Rymans, and Paperchase. National Stationery Week is also working in partnership with Words For Life and the National Literacy Trust to reach out to children in particular.

It's easy to see why today's children might not have a natural love of the physical act of writing. I clearly remember having the internet at home from the age of 12, in 1998 - and it's a little sobering to think that several of the students in my Year 11 class were born in 1997. Despite having the web at home in 1998, I also remember clearly in 1997 there being no computer-linked projectors in school, and having to give a presentation on precious stones using an overhead projector and acetates. Equally, a project on famous authors in 1996 was carried out with a joint reliance on Encarta and library resources (as in books!), with not a webpage to be seen. Many of my students, by contrast, run to Wikipedia at the first chance they get, have serious problems in citing any sources correctly, and will walk through fire to avoid hand-writing anything. My youngest students were born in the year 2000, which makes me feel hideously old even though I'm only 27 - and this provides clear context as to why many of them feel the way that they do about hand-writing assignments (their first question is often "can it be typed?").

However, more encouraging is the fact that a love of reading and writing itself has not died. Every year, alongside the students who require remedial help, and those who just don't care (even though they have already shown that they could write well if they wanted to enough), I have the privilege every year of teaching enthusiastic and talented students who bring extra-curricular reading to class, write perceptive, convincing and moving essays, and, furthermore, have beautiful handwriting (sometimes, at least).

It's true that handwriting has little place in my curriculum (even though my youngest students are 12-year-olds, who are potentially still impressionable in this regard), and that I spend the vast majority of the year honing vital skills such as synthesising information to create new pieces of writing, analysing texts, and distinguishing successfully between different formats, audiences, and purposes, as well as trying to foster a genuine love of reading and writing through the use of a variety of texts and activities. However, I do know that of course being able to do these things is all very well only if others are able to read what you have produced. If my students' handwriting is poor, I do try to call them on it and see what I can do to help - but currently resources for teenagers and adults to help improve handwriting are extremely scarce, and perhaps National Stationery Week could include improvement in this field among its goals. In the meantime, I will be supporting this special week - and perhaps making more room in my curriculum now and in future for the art of handwriting.

Favourite brands

Favourite shops (France)
Mélodies Graphiques, 75004 Paris
Neuilly Dessin, 75017 Paris
Galerie des Joueries, 78100 St-Germain-en-Laye  

Favourite shops (UK)
Anthropologie (various locations; London and Edinburgh)
Paperchase (various locations)
Monocle (Portman Square and 2A George Street, London)
Tinc (various UK locations)

Favourite shops (online)

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes (Daniel Everett)

--The blurb--
"Although Daniel Everett was a missionary, far from converting the Pirahas, they converted him. He shows the slow, meticulous steps by which he gradually mastered their language and his gradual realisation that its unusual nature closely reflected its speakers' startlingly original perceptions of the world. He describes how he began to realise that his discoveries about the Piraha language opened up a new way of understanding how language works in our minds and in our lives, and that this way was utterly at odds with Noam Chomsky's universally accepted linguistic theories."

--The review-- 
Those studying linguistics generally do it as part of a pre-meditated choice. They perhaps were good at languages at school and took an interest in this when visiting foreign countries before taking languages to an even higher level at university. However, Daniel Everett fell into this field almost accidentally via missionary work - and it is the story of this extraordinary accident that forms the interdisciplinary memoir Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes.

In spite of the many opportunities for sentimentality in this missionary basis, Everett is unabashedly frank: he acknowledges the errors he made in trying to impose Western values on the Piraha (pronounced Pir-ha-DAN) people and in putting his wife and children (as well as himself) into grave danger. He also avoids the temptation to make this more about himself than about the people that he meets along the Maici river - so while this is a memoir, it also forms a unique blend with social and anthropological research as well as linguistics, culture, geography and psychology.

Everett's wild yet believable anecdotes are seared onto the brain through his matter-of-fact style of storytelling, and while he could get easily carried away with technicalities of the Piraha language, he sensibly keeps up the pace. However, the story arguably doesn't go as far as it might, lacking a satisfying conclusion before proceeding to the more technical section, which is of more interest to serious linguists than to the general reader (and even the serious linguist might struggle to follow it late at night). Regardless of this, the colours, sounds and experiences of Everett's recount are indelible, and come highly recommended.

Other works by Daniel Everett
The Crucial Educational Fusion (2013)
Language: The Cultural Tool (2013)
Wisdom from Strangers (release date tba)