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She’s buying a stairway to heaven: or how to help children wonder, with help from Led Zeppelin

Date posted: Sunday 19th May 2013

Led Zeppelin

The word wonder has several meanings. School assemblies are supposed to fill children with a sense of ‘awe and wonder’. Children should leave an outstanding assembly feeling thrilled and with a sense of the greatness of the world and the power of the spiritual life. As a teacher I would strive to achieve this state in the massed ranks of children, but they often left my assemblies on a Monday morning wondering what it had all been about. So in that sense, the word wonder involves thinking about confusion.

I have been listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin recently, and watching the film Celebration Day, about their amazing comeback concert at the O2 Arena in 2007.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now

It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.

Listening to Stairway to Heaven really makes me wonder: how could one of the coolest, loudest and heaviest of bands of all time sing such twaddle? And have you ever wondered why certain tunes and lyrics pop into your mind for no apparent reason? This may be because they reflect what we are subconsciously thinking or how we are feeling. I think this was one of the reasons why my first ever date went so badly wrong. I was a great Led Zeppelin fan from the age of 14, and could sing all of the great songs from their early albums. I thought the date was going quite well until, for mysterious reason, I started to hum a line from ‘Dazed and Confused’.

Felicity, unfortunately, was also a massive Led Zep fan, though she was wondering why their lyrics were so horrible about women. She recognised that I was humming

‘Lots of people talking, few of them know,

The soul of a woman is created below.’

The date ended before it started, so we never got to discuss why Robert Plant used to shriek and wail just like Janis Joplin, and how an apparently macho man could get away with wearing women’s tops on stage and waving his arms around like an overexcited girl. It still makes me wonder.

Robert Plant: A bustle in his hedgerow, the Hammer of the Gods, or a big girl’s blouse?

Robert Plant: A bustle in his hedgerow, the Hammer of the Gods, or a big girl’s blouse?

I also used to wonder about my friend Doug. Doug was ‘a big noise in HR’, for a large firm in the City of London. He was a very sensible guy, most of the time. He used to try to spend ‘quality time’ with his two little boys. One Saturday morning he decided to teach his children about science. So, like most parents who think about science teaching, he took the boys into the garden and tried to recreate his first secondary school science lesson. He set alight to a piece of paper and said, “Look boys, that’s a chemical reaction. That paper can never be paper again. But if we had soaked it in water and then dried it, the paper would have returned to its original state. That’s called a physical reaction.” The children were filled with wonder: “Daddy, I wonder if I can go inside now? I’m scared.”

Doug’s wife was a science teacher, and while she didn’t want to stop her husband from bonding with the kids, she took him to one side. She explained that when you first involve children in thinking about science, you start by asking real questions like: ‘I wonder what would happen if..?’ You do something interesting together, and then talk with the children about it. So she asked Doug, “I wonder what would happen if you went back down the garden with the boys and looked for slugs and snails and worms, and wondered out loud with them about all the minibeasts you find?”

So Doug took the boys back down the bottom of the garden, and they collected a pile of slugs, snails, centipedes and worms. He was now ready to engage his little children in some constructive talk that would help them love science. “Right boys, let’s set alight to these bugs, and I wonder if that will be chemical change or a physical change?” Ooh, it makes you wonder….

Joking apart, there are lots of advantages to wondering aloud with children. Early Years Consultant Judith Twani often wonders aloud with children about what they are doing, as a way of supporting their development of Knowledge and Understanding of the World: “I wonder what would happen if we put another brick on top of that tower. I wonder if it is firm enough, or might it fall? / Look at those dark clouds. I wonder if it is going to rain. What do you think?” These are real questions, as the answer is not clear. Judith calls this ‘pondering out loud’ and it helps give children the language they need to frame their thoughts.

This technique can also be used with children who are very quiet. They often know what they want to say, but are anxious about talking with unfamiliar adults and in groups. Quiet children can also find it quite a challenge to respond to questions, even though they know the answer. If I am playing with a quiet child; e.g. completing a puzzle, I might say, “I wonder which piece you are going to fit in next. Might it be the train or the bus?” or “I wonder what piece goes in there?” This shows the child that I am thinking about what they are doing, and because I am not asking a direct question, the child will more likely to feel relaxed with me and respond.

I wonder if this post has been helpful. I wonder if readers can help to explain what this means?

And as we wind on down the road

Our shadows taller than our soul

There walks a lady we all know

Who shines white light and wants to show

How everything still turns to gold

And if you listen very hard

The tune will come to you at last

When all is one and one is all

To be a rock and not to roll

And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

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19 responses to “She’s buying a stairway to heaven: or how to help children wonder, with help from Led Zeppelin”

  1. Sara Caldwell says:

    Michael, I just wanted to say that I love reading your posts. They always make me wonder and reflect. Thank you.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you!! I like to mess about, but there’s always a serious message in there.
      Best wishes

  2. Hi Michael, this is lovely, a really interesting post, thank. you,

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Ruth! Thank you! The next post will be about interview and conversations and everyone will have a chance to name their favourite piece of music.
      Best wishes

  3. Julie Jones says:

    So true – it’s not about the adult fulfilling a grand role in a child’s life. It is about offering the child an environment full of natural elements they can explore . . . all the adult has to do is know how to be in the child’s world and make a gentle, interesting suggestion that may prompt the child to want to explore. This may encourage the accompanying language if the child feels comfortable to share his/her thoughts. If they don’t want to share their thoughts at least they will be rich, internalised ones that will provide them with a source of wonder . . . that may prompt writing/talk later.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Julie
      You are so right. How we approach little children, and take an interest in what they have to say makes a real difference

  4. Judith Twani says:

    Michael, another great blog and thank you for the mention. It made me realise that I constantly talk about “pondering aloud” and wondering with the children…I said it again only last week! It certainly makes conversations come alive with children and creates a learning partnership – fanning flames instead of filling buckets!

  5. Tim Dunkerley says:

    Loved the surf music post.this one rocked too. For education/ zep fusion check out Jack Black in “School of rock”a one joke film but it’s avert funny joke.
    Can’t wait for the next popular culture/music reference from you.
    You are indeed the Nick Hornby of SALT

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Tim
      I love School of Rock! It’s totally brilliant, and Jack Black is totally over the top.
      It’s nice to be compared to Nick Hornby. I used to try to be like Ernest Hemingway, but I hate bullfighting, big game hunting and marlin fishing, am no good at drinking, and have no intention of topping myself with a shotgun. However I do try to keep my sentences as short as possible!
      The next post gives you the chance to share your ‘Desert Island Discs’
      Keep in touch

  6. Tara Ruane says:

    I wonder how long it has been since we last spoke? Loving your posts Michael- forgot how funny and clever you are! Diggin’ the Led Zepplin references too!
    Hope you’re well,Tara

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Tara!!!! I think of you and your little family often!!
      Next post is about Desert Island Discs and when I was interviewed by Michael Rosen for his Radio 4 programme.
      Take care now

    • Michael Jones says:

      We last spoke in 2010 outside St Joseph’s Infants. I had just bed. Doing a talk and mark making session with Reception. I love that school!!

  7. Sue Thomas says:

    This is great Michael, love the Nick Hornby of SALT comment above too!Had a chuckle thinking of you attempting to fill an assembled mass of children with awe and wonder – we’ve all been there but not sure that many have succeeded?!Maybe Michael Rosen…

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Sue
      Actually I realised pretty early that assemblies need to be well planned and interactive: no questions and answers, as these can be followed up with teachers in class. The maddest ones were in Luton, including a rock band led by Music Service staff and high school students. Another involved chopping wood with an axe, though one head was outraged when I took a chunk out of her hall floor. (It was only a very small chunk…)
      It’s funny to be compared to Nick Hornby. I’d have preferred maybe Arthur Miller, or even Doris Lessing, but Nick Hornby has earned more, and High Fidelity and About a Boy have more laughs than Death of a Salesman!

  8. Julie Barton says:

    I like your suggestion of asking quiet children indirect questions instead of direct questions. This method can reduce the pressure that the quiet child feels to respond. It might increase the likelihood that the child will speak. I will experiment with this method in my classroom.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Julie
      Yes, that was an idea from Maggie Johnson, who is my co-author on our book”Supporting Quiet Children’
      Please let me know how you got on!
      Best wishes

  9. Carol Adams says:

    I always have a little chuckle at you articles. This one certainly brought back a few memories. When I told my husband the end bit about the lyrics he instantly knew what I was going to reply. Many moons ago when I was studying for my BA in English Lit I took a module in understanding poetry. The lecturer was very young and enthusiastic (he has since gone on to become a successful novelist); when asked how to interpret the meaning of part of a poem he replied, “if you think its about a f***ing daffodil its about a f***ing daffodil. Over the years being a keen music fan I have used his wise words to interpret many band lyrics

  10. moriel gidney says:

    sharing the journey – if I have learnt nothing else in the last few years this is something big. Being with children sharing their journey and learning ourselves at the same time. And how often when we find ourselves trying to explain something wonder-full do we run out of words to express it? Maybe that is why Led Zeppelin and other bands come out with such obscurities which maybe lead to shared wordlessnesses….thank you for another thought provoking blog.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hello Moriel
      I think you are right there. I suppose it is all about creating atmosphere. When I was young I saw an illustrated copy of Goblin Market by Eleanor Farjeon. I didn’t understand half of it, but I knew it was something incredibly creepy. I know that Stairway to Heaven is a bit mad, but it does create a kind of atmosphere. I used to listen to the Incredible String Band, who interestingly were a big influence on Led Zeppelin. Their lyrics were a lot of funny nonsense, bug quite fascinating all the same.
      And who knows what half of Bob Dylan’s songs are all about?!

      What makes me laugh is the way that children try to make sense of the weird things that adults say.
      Best wishes

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