School Blues: Daniel Pennac in interview with Quentin Blake

He felt a ‘dunce’ as a child, had an inherent fear of capital letters and described his school life as ‘a little hell’. Now a revered author and teacher, Daniel Pennac (accompanied by his expert translator Sarah Ardizzone) talked to the illustrator Quentin Blake about secrets to the art of teaching, reading James Joyce to children… and why he allows them to jump out of windows.
Daniel Pennac’s School Blues (from the French title, Chagrin d’ école, a pun on ‘chagrin d’amour’ meaning ‘heartbreak’) is a book first and foremost about pain, as Quentin discovered: ‘You don’t expect to read a book about education that makes you want to cry’. Informed by Daniel’s own childhood tribulations, the book is written from the perspective of a schoolboy who is ‘a dropout, a failure, a dunce’. So, Quentin asked, what are the symptoms of being a dunce? ‘This is the situation exactly. You’ve got Quentin here my master and he’s asked me a very simple question: what is a dunce? My jaw drops, my wrinkles meet up in the middle and my answer is, sir, I don’t know!’ Daniel explained, with much gesticulation. ‘That’s the first symptom: complete inability to answer any question, convinced that my answer won’t be the right one, whatever kind of question it might be.’
This is accompanied by debilitating fear and inhibition. ‘My brother used to say I had a dreadful fear of capital letters because they come before a proper noun, the name of a country, a historical personality, it was a word that carried knowledge. It was like a letter that said stop! This word means no entry to tiny cretins like you. It says to the tiny little squit idiot, watch out this opens up all grammatical and spelling problems into which you are going to fall.’ Then there is the lying. ‘I don’t understand questions in homework so I don’t do it. I don’t understand the text of a poem so I don’t learn it. I’ve got to explain all this to my teacher. So I make up these stories.’
These varied symptoms culminate in an unbearable sense of shame, which provokes a complete withdrawal from the real world with the child feeling like ‘another idiot’ and hating adults and teachers. ’In short, it’s a little hell.’ However, there was hope. ‘One of the miracles of teaching is that just one teacher can save [children] from the rest of education,’ he said. ’It is almost a magical world. The teacher turns up with a magic wand but actually it’s a wand of teaching ability. He taps me on the head and says you’re not, you’re NOT an idiot! And the magic is you believe him and from that moment you start instantly working for him.’ Daniel encountered four of those kinds of teachers. Unfortunately, they arrived at the end of his schooling – ‘the idiots. It would have been better coming at the beginning.’
During his teaching career, Daniel experimented with varied (and somewhat unusual) techniques. He remembered an incident in the early 70s when he encountered a student who was incapable of listening without drawing or making clay models from behind his desk lid. ‘Teachers were sending him off to the head so I said to myself, hold on, he’s not necessarily doing it on purpose.’ He gave the student a workspace to enable him to create during the lesson but the following morning he demanded the child came in 15 minutes early to relate exactly what he had taught the previous day. ‘It was an experiment. He was only able to concentrate when his hands were busy drawing or making something. The minute he understood [the lessons] we reduced the hours at the work surface and in the end he was able to carry out French lessons without it at all.’ Then there was the instance of a student who would keep absolutely still for ten minutes ‘like he was some kind of wound-up bomb’ and then ‘exploded.’ Daniel ensured the boy was sitting near a window and when he raised his hand, Daniel would allow him to jump out of the window (he assured that they were on the ground floor). The child would then run around the playground for three minutes and return. He doesn’t know what became of the running champion.
Perhaps the most common challenge was (and no doubt persists) getting children to enjoy reading. Daniel decided he had two choices: to either accept there was nothing he could do for those students and think ‘those young people are dead for literature and any kind of intelligent life’ or to think that ‘they don’t really mean it, that they don’t know what literature is and they are saying, in reality, I’m scared of the questions you’re going to ask me when I’ve read that book.’
Unsurprisingly, he had a solution. ‘In that situation you say, fine, you don’t like reading. Sit down, listen, I’ll read to you. I swear to you that I won’t ask you a single question.’ He would dedicate one hour a week to reading with the promise of no questions at the end. However, he discovered that after the second or third round of reading, the questions would come. ‘Paul said “I don’t like reading” at the start. He’s listening to Roald Dahl. Three hours later he’s going to say, “Hey, sir, who’s this Roald Dahl bloke? What else has he written?” As a teacher you have to be patent and wait. It’s torture. Teachers love asking questions! There are two states that are unlivable in a classroom: silence… and noise!’
Quentin alluded to Daniel’s tendency to select commonly-perceived ‘difficult’ books to read to his pupils. ‘There’s only prejudice as far as literature is concerned – the main one being how hard it is.’ So he experimented by reading James Joyce. ‘There is a passage about hell. Twenty-five magnificent pages of hell. It got my children in an absolute state of fear so I stopped and they cried, “More, more!” And that’s Joyce… who’s supposed to be incomprehensible. The thing is not to give in to that prejudice that they won’t understand.’
But perhaps fundamental to Daniel’s successes as a teacher has been his philosophy to teaching. ‘A class is not a regiment, it’s an orchestra with a heap of different instruments and intellectual and physical abilities,‘ he explained. ‘Quite simply, they [pupils] don’t ripen at the same pace. I was extremely inhibited intellectually until I was 17. I had my own rhythm. In this room no one has the same rhythm. You really have to bear this in mind as a teacher unless you don’t give a monkey’s!’
He argued that rather than a technique, teaching is a job ‘more akin to an art’ and lamented how much consumerism has taken precendent over education: ‘We live in a society that doesn’t have a correct idea of what luxury is. We think it’s being able to change your car every two years. The real luxury is to invest in education… Amen!’

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