Musings of the University of Dundee MLitt Publishing Writing students


What If?

What If?

Three Mondays ago, I did a first reading of an extract from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis with a class of 10-11 year olds. We briefly discussed the story, the meaning of the title and a few closed questions to check for understanding. It was the beginning of a process of philosophical enquiry but we didn’t get very far as we were preparing for a full day’s workshop with Scottish Opera, where the children would, in a single day, tell the story of 1719, when the Jacobites, supported by their Spanish allies, took on the might of the Hanoverian troops.

In the space of three hours, I watched as a rabble of ‘lively’ youngsters morphed into serious singers and performers. Sixty six children who could not stand in a straight line to save themselves transformed into marching armies, flamboyant flamencos and charging clansmen. I witnessed them become people of talent and passion as their singing touched the ceiling and tugged at my heartstrings. They swelled with pride in themselves, just as parents swelled with pride in their children at the afternoon performance. When we returned to the classroom they said they had become butterflies and I felt the winds of change were upon us.

Next time we discussed Kafka they were filled with questions of wonder … but settled on one to discuss … where was the train going? This question took us to Hogwarts and the powers of witches and wizards, which as one child put it, was the only logical explanation of what could have happened. After all, how else could Gregor have turned into a giant insect overnight if not by magic? But if he was a wizard why couldn’t he turn himself back to a boy? Maybe his legs were too short now and he couldn’t reach his wand. Maybe he couldn’t grip his wand because he had no arms – only legs. Maybe he had got into a quarrel with another wizard – or witch – who had done this to him. Maybe it was Voldemort’s ultimate revenge. But one child disagreed with all of this – something else had happened. Magic did not exist! Gregor locked his door every night – who could get in? Another said something about a window – maybe the window was open and something entered that way? Or maybe, said another, he had eaten insects – and eaten so many that he had turned into a giant one. What kind of insect was it anyway? Someone said people eat insects in China and elsewhere in the Far East – covered in chocolate – maybe he had turned into one of these insects. No, said another – what about the white spots? What are they? What kind of insect had white, itchy spots?

It struck me that their minds were going for a walk, a meandering meditation, based on emerging knowledge and logical thinking. I remembered my interview with Chris Arthur on the difficulties of the definition of the essay – an ambulatory meditation, perhaps? Is this kind of exploration that we are missing in schools and education today? There is a focus on problem solving and higher order thinking – but do we apply this enough to children’s perceptions and understanding of the world, to their sense of wonder and imagination? To their writing? Maybe our education system has to look further afield, to places like Singapore, using the ‘white spaces’ approach that Peter MacDonald referred to at a recent masterclass in Critical Criticism, to free up the curriculum and develop pedagogical approaches to include more Socratic questioning?

Perhaps if we had more philosophically based discussions around high quality literary texts, we might foster children’s creative minds, and capture that sense of wonder that makes connections to real and imaginary worlds. What if we could sieze this and put it into a bottle, shake it up and feed it over the years – what genius genies may emerge in the end? Far from being ‘empty vessels’ whose minds we should fill with knowledge and understanding, children’s open minds can take us on new, logical and wonderful journeys of real and imaginative connections – if we let them!


  1. Brilliant post, Loretta. Interesting and thought provoking. I like this white space idea, unleashing imagination by using literature as a springboard! For those of us who were lucky enough to have parents who read to us as children, and for those of us who continued the tradition with our own kids, white space was an integral part of the process e.g. “what do you think happened next?” Or “why do you think the giant did that?” Reading with kids creates a dialogue that feeds and sustains the imagination. As writers we use that process too… how, what, why, when, where? We ask these questions as we write…it’s where stories come from. Murakami must have asked himself a question about Metamorphosis—“Ah, but I wonder how it would go if an insect turned into a man?” He answers that one in his short story, ‘Samsa in Love’!

    • Comment by post author

      Loretta Mulholland

      Thanks Tracey; what’s even more interesting is when you stand back and get the kids to ask the questions. It can be amazing what they come up with. Scary too, sometimes, but that’s the fascinating part – the connections they make, which to me sounds a bit Arthurian and maybe the way forward when trying to teach skills for writing the literary essay?

  2. Jane Swanson

    Brilliant Loretta – quite brilliant and so beautifully observed . . . ideas meandering . . if only we could bottle it! A dash of that would be very useful in my WPS essay! Thanks!