‘In loco parentis’ – In the place of a parent.
Writing about named children is tricky and painstaking. I did it in The Road to Writing because I felt it would be genuinely useful to give specific examples of children’s writing. (The photos and samples of writing are lovely, and very valuable I believe for practitioners.) To achieve this I had to work alongside the parents and their children for a long period of time. I had to gain their trust, and ensure that I got their copy approval before publication. I had to write sensitively and with care about the individuals involved. Of course it helped that I wasn’t saying anything controversial.
I’ve used generalised ‘case studies’ quite a bit in my books, in order to help teachers understand how to deal with specific situations in their own classrooms. What I’m saying is this: ‘If you come across this ‘type’ of child, you might have some success with these kind of strategies.’ I make it clear that these ‘children’ represent a common combination of traits, but not a specific individual. Because that’s what children are: individuals. Any generalisation is dangerous unless we know the exact context. And even then we run the risk of reducing a human being to a cypher for our ideas or opinions.
I was asked to read a book some years back, with the view to giving it a ‘this book is great, you must buy it’ quote to go on the back cover. The book used some stories about anonymous students. But while I enjoyed reading the anecdotes, I couldn’t bring myself to say I liked the book. Now, whilst this story is true, I’m not going to name the book or the author. It would spice up this blog post enormously if I did, but it doesn’t serve any purpose to do so – it doesn’t move anyone forwards. If I was writing this anonymously, I could name the person and make you all go ‘oooh, bitch fight!’ But I still wouldn’t do it, because it’s simply not necessary or helpful.
Even as I write this, I’m weighing every word I use. Did this really happen? (Yes.) Will the person concerned know I am referring to them and be upset? (No, they wouldn’t have known I was asked for a quote and nothing I’ve said makes them easily identifiable.) Is it okay for me to use this example in this context? (Yes, because it helps to explain the point I’m making, plus the author decided to write the book and put it out on the public stage.) Am I quoting an example out of context to prove a point? (No, I’ve made it clear that this is my personal response to a personal situation and I’m trying to clarify my own position on this topic rather than say that one position is ‘right’.) Should I name the author here, would it be fairer and more honest? (No, because the harm outweighs the good and I have been careful to state only a personal opinion. I’m not asking anyone to agree with what I felt.) Am I being rude in saying this. (No.)
My issue with the book came down to this: either these stories are true, or they are generalisations. If they are true, then how do I know what was taken out to ensure that the children stayed anonymous, and how much that impacted on the truth of what was said? If the stories were changed enough to ensure that children couldn’t be identified, then has the essential ‘truth’ of the ‘true story’ been compromised? (And if they are completely true, with just names changed, then I hope those children or their parents never figured out the author was talking about them.)
Similarly, if these are generalisations, or if there’s any exaggeration going on, then as a reader I don’t want it presented to me as the ‘truth’. Many readers will look at a generalisation and take it as truth simply because it’s in print, so you have to be very careful to present it as what it really is. That’s not to say it’s a lie, but just that it is what it is – a generalisation. And finally, I felt that what was written didn’t really move anyone forwards or give me any solutions to those children who were being presented to me as ‘problems’. To me they felt like stories for the sake of stories. Because kids make great copy.
I’m not sure whether this adds to the ‘anonymous bloggers’ debate that I inadvertently started last week, when I was stuck in the garage waiting for my car to be repaired. I think it’s an important debate to have, because I find the atmosphere on Twitter, and in the blogs it spawns, to be unnecessarily unpleasant, rude and provocative. Perhaps I will come under attack for writing this post, but it’s okay, I put myself and my ideas out in public, I accept that this may happen, that not everyone will agree. I’m not a special snowflake, honest (although I do think rudeness says more about the person being rude, than about the recipient of the rudeness). I’m just someone trying to figure out why I feel what I feel through the medium of writing about it.
All I want to say to anyone reading is this: does taking this person’s story and using it to serve your own ends move us all forwards? If you can answer this question with a confident ‘yes’, then well done you and please carry on. If not, then please measure and edit your words with the very greatest of care.
Because as a teacher, like it or not, you are in loco parentis.
(Please note: I am not saying that you should never refer to a child you teach in your writing in a negative way and I am not referring to any specific blogs or bloggers. Just: precision, rigour and sensitivity please.)