Aesthetic-Ethical-Religious: Goodness Me! Goodness You! Curriculum With A Nod To Where The Wild Things Are

Author: Jones Irwin (St. Patrick’s College Drumcondra)

A Poem

Sometimes, if not all the time, thinking should start with a poem. The fate of the evocative poem “Crocodile,” by the Russian children’s poet Kornei Chukovsky, will help us focus on some of the tensions and ambiguities at the heart of the curriculum and children debate.[1] But, first, let us simply enjoy the poem itself:


There was once

A Crocodile

Who would wander through the streets and smile

Smoking all the while

(And speaking fluent Turkish)

O Crocodile, Mr C Rocodile



Developing the Discussion

In their discussion “Children’s Poetry and Politics: A Conversation,” Marina Boroditskaya and Michael Rosen foreground the plight of Chukovsky’s children’s poetry and literature as an example of a certain kind of ideological tussle between poetry and politics, art and education,[3] with the very conception of children’s literature at the heart of the concern. Kornei Chukovsky was a great children’s poet and author whose poems and stories were banned in the Soviet Union for decades after his work was publicly attacked by Lenin’s wife, the educator Nadezhda Kripskaya in 1929.[4] As Sasha Dugdale describes it,

Krupskaya complained in a resolution passed by the parents of the Kremlin’s kindergarten that Chukovsky’s work did not address social themes and the children in his poems had neither social feeling nor desire to further the aims of the collective. She added that the work encouraged superstition and anxiety and praised the kulaks and the petit bourgeoisie.[5]

Considering the nature of the poem “Crocodile” above, and its rather surreal or absurdist humor, one might be amazed at such a judgment. But for Krupskaya, the poem represents an “incorrect representation of the world of animals and insects.”[6] As we shall see below, the matrix of children’s literature and texts in the adult world is situated within a complex web of reception and reaction. Curriculum construction for children in schools represents one such focal point.

Boroditskaya and Rosen’s interview highlights how, while such ideological control of children’s literature is no longer quite so obvious, the machinations of state repression and censorship of children’s literature and thinking remain strong in the contemporary era. Boroditskya points to the evolution of such political control of children’s thinking and creativity in present day Russia. Rosen points to related (albeit less politically stark) developments within curriculum and educational policy in the UK in recent years. This UK context provides a clear connection to our central concern in this essay, which is with a contemporary curriculum approach for children in an Irish context, in relation to new state multidenominational schools.[7] Here, my focus will be on the curriculum development of the Goodness Me! Goodness You! (GMGY) primary school curriculum, for which I am Project Officer for Senior Programme with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).[8] The aforementioned Russian context demonstrates the need to explore such curriculum developments within a wider frame of political and educational reference, the relation between “poetry and politics,” with especial focus on texts and literature for children.

In the next section, I will first look at this wider frame of hermeneutic reference for children’s texts and literature. I will then seek to situate the development of a specific program such as Goodness Me! Goodness You! within this broader aesthetic and educational context.


Children’s Poetry and Politics

Returning for a moment to the Boroditskaya and Rosen interview, we can see how each points towards the contemporaneous relevance of the Chukovsky discussion. With regard to present day Russia, Boroditskaya highlights how the Putin government continues to implement a certain kind of censorship of children’s thinking and literature: “the general tendency towards ‘patriotic education’ and the uniformity of school books (that smother any smart and free-thinking teacher with obligatory texts) is what really drives me mad.”[9] In her comment one can precisely see a surprising continuity with the Chukovsky example. Boroditskaya also broadens her critique to a meta-level reading of the hermeneutics of poetry at work in such a state context:

[I]t is a crime to make 7- and 8-year-old children “analyse” poetry. At this age, children tend to perceive things as a whole, and a poem is for them a fascinating little story spiced by the magic of rhyme and rhythm. Asking them to dissect it to find out “what the poet means” might kill their imagination and forever put them off reading poetry. If older kids have “rules” on poetry, there is only one by Archibald Mac Leish that I would stick to:

“A poem should not mean | But be.”[10]

Borodiskaya finds herself agreeing with Rosen’s diagnosis of the current educational reading of literature, which he outlines as also taking place in UK schools. We will see a connection to our curriculum context for GMGY below, which takes place with regard to a whole series of issues beyond simply aesthetic problems.[11] But when questions of aesthetics or poetics become absorbed in a wider complex of political and educational concerns, the key question is to what extent this should involve a reduction of the aesthetic dimension,[12] an instrumentalization of the aesthetic, and/or an assertion of ideological “didacticism”?[13] As Boroditskaya and Rosen describe the situation, the pressures towards an instrumentalization of poetry and the aesthetic, especially with regard to children’s literature, are made clear. However, while these pressures are significant threats to the possibility of authentic aesthetics or poetics, particularly in educational contexts, they are not—and should not be, as Boroditskaya and Rosen argue cogently—inevitably determining. In other words, far more enriching possibilities for a connection between the poetic and the pedagogical remain in our school and extra-school contexts. I will argue below that GMGY, as a curriculum example, while hardly perfect in this respect, nonetheless represents a positive counterexample to some of the more reductive tendencies described by Boroditskaya and Rosen.   

Rosen’s diagnostic of the more negative connection between poetry and politics in British arts curricula paints a less affirming contemporary situation. In the socio-cultural context that Rosen describes, education becomes the key site of contestation. Here, Rosen’s analysis tallies with significant critiques of a hegemonic managerialism and technicism in education emanating from philosophy and sociology of education in recent years through thinkers such as Paulo Freire and Jean Francois Lyotard.[14] With regard to the context of poetics especially, the emergent discourse of “literacy education” has been paradoxically often very regressive in this (aesthetic) regard.[15] In the name of renewing literacy, there has been a strong emphasis across educational systems (especially in Europe) on a methodology of testing, performativity, and measurement, which seems very much at odds with a more aesthetic or existential notion of “literacy,” what Freire evocatively refers to as “reading the world and reading the word.”[16]

In a related way, Rosen calls attention to curricular reform in the UK: “To find anything analogous in the UK, we have to look at the few areas where there is any kind of control over what children read: mostly that is within education….”[17] He cites the significant example of Maurice Sendak’s seminal Where The Wild Things Are,[18] noting this book was repressed in the UK for several years after its original publication in the United States. In this example, the rationale was analogous to the Chukovsky situation described above; as Rosen clarifies, “At a surface level, this was on account of it being deemed too frightening for very young children, but perhaps they also sensed that it was a book which showed a child’s destructive feelings without these feelings being punished.”[19] But the examples of Sendak’s work breaking through to a young audience, along with others such as Spike Milligan’s popularity as an iconoclastic children’s poet, show that the overall ideological controls are not wholly successful. Nonetheless, in educational and schooling contexts, Rosen points to how these hermeneutic regimes are becoming more, rather than less, entrenched:

In the last year, another government initiative has created a compulsory part of the curriculum: learning poetry by heart and the new (2016) tests for Key Stage 2 children (7- and 8-year-olds) will probably include a paper on poetry. […]

The questions are extremely narrow, eliminating open interpretation or any kind of emotional or reflective connection made between the child and the poem. […]

This kind of examining is a form of government control of literature. […] Given that it is so narrow, and eliminates the child’s view from the permitted range of responses, there is a clear ideology being expressed….”[20]

As noted above however, these trenchant—and in my view, justified—critiques by Rosen and Boroditskaya of an increasing instrumentalization of poetics—and arts education, more generally—also point to more positive possibilities beyond such reductive hermeneutics. In their very critique of the existing situation, they point towards more enriching potential, both aesthetic and educational. “The idea that poetry exists in order that we can open a particular kind of conversation that draws close attention to feelings, ideas, unfamiliar ways of looking at the world, suggestiveness, open-ended questioning and ludic approaches to language all disappear under this government onslaught.”[21] Despite such a governmental onslaught, but also because of it, we should remember that poetry can still open that very particular kind of conversation.

In the next section, I will seek to situate the development of a specific program such as Goodness Me! Goodness You! in this broader aesthetic and educational context. I want to make the claim that in its own limited way, GMGY points towards the richer potential, in an aesthetic-educational sense, that Rosen and Boroditskaya are hoping to move us towards. Moreover, insofar as GMGY is not an aesthetic curriculum per se but rather a curriculum which is more focused on ethical, religious, and beliefs education, it also foregrounds the significant possibility of rethinking the relationships between aesthetics, ethics, and, indeed, religion, often overly compartmentalized domains in pedagogy.


Aesthetic-Political Challenges and Possibilities: Goodness Me! Goodness You! Curriculum for Children

“The atmosphere of the school is more welcoming; it has a different way of looking at things.”[22]

Goodness Me! Goodness You! is a primary school curriculum in ethics and religion that has been developing specifically for the new state multidenominational sector, the Community National Schools (CNS). The Irish educational system is unusual in being predominantly denominational, with state-funded faith-based schooling representing 96% of the primary school sector of schools. 90% of the faith-based schools are Catholic and 6% Protestant, while approximately 4% of schools are multidenominational. These latter schools are mostly under the patronage of Educate Together, which is a private charity, and their schools get state funding. In this context, the emergence of the CNS model of school represents the first state, rather than simply state-funded, model of multidenominationalism.[23] As the statement of ethos for GMGY makes clear, “This name [GMGY] reflects the child-centred focus of the programme pointing towards the sense of wonder and awe children intuitively have in relation to the world around them. The title also echoes the innate goodness within all children and the ease with which they form meaningful relationships with others.”[24] The CNS model is relatively new in the Irish system, only emerging in 2008 and still evolving, as both a school model and as a curriculum approach within GMGY.[25] One of the striking and most original aspects of this program to date is that it takes a distinctly “narrative” or story-based approach to the curriculum: because the program bases itself “on the children’s experience of life,” and because it “seeks to help children live and understand and flourish in their lives,” “the programme is story-based.”[26] This is especially unusual in areas of pedagogy such as ethics and religion which often involve more directive pedagogies.[27] The narrative approach is especially prominent at Junior program level (Junior Infants to 2nd Class),[28] which was developed in cooperation with the CNS Management groups and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.[29]

The title for this essay, “Aesthetic-Ethical-Religious” references the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s three phases or domains of life and existence.[30] Kierkegaard’s philosophy points towards the distinctness of these genres of life, but also their interconnection and interdependence. But for Kierkegaard, as for the development of GMGY, the challenging project of interconnecting these three domains of existence can lead to significant conflicts of understanding, both pedagogically and aesthetically. We have already seen above, in the examples of Boroditskaya and Rosen, how the aesthetic often comes to be instrumentalized by narrow (ideological) emphasis on the ethical or political aspect. 

GMGY, at least in principle, tries to avoid such instrumentalization, by allowing each aspect of life—aesthetic, ethical, religious—to coexist and interact in a more egalitarian fashion. As noted by the program management team,

Every lesson in GMGY’s Core dimension explores a theme in such a way that it enables the faith or belief of the child, to flourish. It does this by building lessons around stories that can promote different interpretations and understandings. The child’s faith or belief can “come into play” in any lesson as and when and how the child chooses or “is moved,” to do so.[31]

This “coming into play” can be seen as in opposition to the situation described by Boroditskaya and Rosen, where the poetics is completely in the service of political ideology. For example, Chukovksy’s poem “Crocodile” must conform to a certain political vision, and if it doesn’t, it is banned and excised from the curriculum. In this way, poetry and narrative becomes simply a means to an end. In GMGY, however, we can see how “story” and poetics are more than merely a vehicle for ideas. The medium becomes constitutive—lessons are built around stories and poems rather than poems and stories being built around lessons.        

This multi-belief through narrative approach to the school ethos and curriculum in the CNS schools can be described as a (radical) form of pluralism, where

it is the policy of the CNS [model schools] to respect, celebrate and recognise diversity in all areas of human life. Children will be taught and encouraged to view diversity as something which reflects the community from which the children are drawn. The school will endeavour to encourage the children committed to their care to have a pride in what makes them different and a belief that difference, when respected and valued, gives strength and vibrancy to the total school community and the wider community in which they live.[32]

Some of the tensions involved in such a “strong” pluralism, however, are noteworthy in the curriculum approach at Junior program level, where a common program is supported by what is referred to as “belief specific teaching.”[33] For some communities, this pedagogical model runs the risk of separating children because of their differences, or in effect essentializing these differences, with especial reference to differences in religious or belief perspective. This is an ongoing debate in the CNS approach, and a variety of approaches are being explored at Senior program level to engage this complex challenge.[34] The Senior program continues a strong narrative approach, but develops this in a more strand-based manner of curriculum—for example, in the strand entitled “Story.” In this instance, we have poetics for its own sake. Matthew Sweeney’s iconoclastic and challenging (as well as comedic) children’s poetry, for example, features in this context.[35] Narrative and poetry are also used as methodologies throughout the proposed four Strand Senior curriculum, which also involves a Values education strand, a Philosophy strand, and a Comparative Belief and Religions strand. This revised approach also points to the limitations and challenges of a simply poetic- or narrative-based approach in the current educational context. Especially when engaging with ethical, belief, and identity issues at Senior program level—children aged from eight to thirteen years—one can argue that a purely poetic approach is not desirable or helpful. While we can agree with Boroditskaya that analyzing poems can reduce their vivacity, we can also argue that some level of analysis of the aesthetic might actually act as an enhancement of the poetic, so long as it is never seen as some kind of complete or exhaustive analysis of meaning. Moreover, especially in the context of an interdisciplinary curriculum such as GMGY, where the aesthetic, ethical and religious dimensions of life communicate with each other for children, we need of necessity some methods for supporting and developing such communication and interaction. Here, again, we can see the benefits of Kierkegaard’s understanding of the three phases of the “aesthetic-ethical-religious.”

For Kierkegaard, far from being an abstract conception of life, the three-phased understanding is an existential dialectic that starts with each living, breathing individual in the world, as an existent being.[36] (36). Indeed, Kierkegaard is in this sense—as recognized by Sartre [37], for example[37]—the first existentialist thinker. This should also be the basis of any curriculum for children—the existential life of the child. As noted by the GMGY Management Team, “Community National Schools seek to nurture the development of the whole child, and they value all dimensions of the child’s family and community life, including beliefs and religions.”[38] Too often, as we have seen with the justifiable criticisms of contemporary educational curricula by Rosen and Boroditskaya, children themselves become mere means of the continuing dominance of test scores and performance of schools. In stark mode, we have here exactly the form of education that Paulo Freire described so evocatively (and pejoratively) as “banking education.”[39]

Thankfully, despite this apparent hegemony of managerialism in education,[40] more vibrant and authentically existential forms of a real child-centered education continue to develop in micro-level contexts of curriculum development, just as in micro-level contexts of poetic and aesthetic practice.[41] Children’s literature is an extraordinary contemporary resource in this regard, which seeks to articulate what Declan Kiberd has called “the invisible republic of childhood.”[42] I have argued that GMGY is another such interesting example, hardly perfect, risk-taking, and certainly having made some errors in that very pedagogical risk-taking, as it has progressed since 2008. Nonetheless, or perhaps precisely in that very risk-taking educational practice, there is also much to admire.


Where To Next?

In this essay, I have delineated some of the key points of contestation when it comes to childhood and curriculum, as evidenced in one specific example of the Goodness Me! Goodness You! multidenominational curriculum development in primary schools. I have also sought to contextualize some of these issues in the wider arena of poetics, children, and politics through some of the lines of thought raised by Boroditskaya and Rosen in their “Children’s Poetry and Politics: A Conversation.” Despite the attempts at reductionism that we see all around us in international education and politics, we can also point to inspiring counterexamples. Sometimes, precisely in and because of their very adversity, these narratives of resistance become all the more persuasive and creative for us, as adults and as children alike. Faced with increasing bureaucratization in schools and universities, not to mention within wider (and yet also more personal) existential life and society, we perhaps should take some courage from our hero Max, in the aforementioned Where the Wild Things Are:

And when he came to the place where the wild things are

they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth


and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws


till Max said “BE STILL!”

and tamed them with the magic trick


of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once

and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all


and made him king of all wild things.


“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”[43]


[1] This paper was originally presented in different form as “Aesthetic-Ethical-Religious—Developing a Children’s Curriculum in Community National Schools” at the Constructing Childhoods and Texts for Children conference, Irish Society for the Study of Children's Literature (ISSCL), LexIcon, Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, April 10-11, 2015. I would like to especially thank Dr. Anne Markey (Trinity College Dublin) and Dr. Marnie Hay (St. Patrick’s College, Dublin) for their invitation to speak at such an interesting and inspiring conference.

[2] Featured, in translation, in Sasha Dugdale, “Editorial” in “I Wish... Children’s Focus,” ed. Sasha Dugdale, special issue, Modern Poetry in Translation 2 (2015), 1-2.

[3] Marina Boroditskaya and Michael Rosen, “Children’s Poetry and Politics: A Conversation,” in Dugdale, ed., Modern Poetry in Translation, 67-74,

[4] Dugdale, “Editorial,” 1.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Quoted in ibid.

[7] Goodness Me! Goodness You! Management Group, “Goodness Me, Goodness You!: Frequently Asked Questions” (Dublin: National Council for Curriculum and Assessment [NCCA], 2015),

[8] NCCA/GMGY Curriculum Team, “GMGY Rationale and Strands for Senior Programme” (Dublin: NCCA, 2015).

[9] Boroditskaya and Rosen, “Children’s Poetry,” 70.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See NCCA/GMMY Curriculum Team, “GMGY Rationale”; see also Community National Schools (CNS), “Submission to Forum on Patronage and Pluralism,” (Dublin: CNS Management Group, 2011).

[12] See Mary Shine Thompson, “Introduction” in Divided Worlds: Studies in Children’s Literature, ed. Mary Shine Thompson and Valerie Coghlan (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007), 20ff; Nancy Watson, “‘And nothing at all to do except wait to be eaten’: Matthew Sweeney,” The Politics and Poetics of Irish Children’s Literature (Dublin: Irish Academic Press. Dublin, 2009), 140ff; and Declan Kiberd, “Foreword” to Watson, The Politics and Poetics.

[13] Mary Shine Thompson notes tellingly that “didacticism continues to dominate many children’s books well into the twentieth century; that didacticism is indicative of an authoritarianism and hierarchism that creates power asymmetries”; Shine Thompson, “Introduction,” 20. In an Irish context, she singles out the texts of Samuel Whyte (“verse and prose”) and Oscar Wilde (“fairy tales”) as subverting this kind of moralism (which should be distinguished from a more authentic conception of a non-moralizing ethics and ethical education). She also observes that this “shaping the moral consciousness of the young” continues in much of the more apparently radical recent theory: “a homiletic strain remains” she notes. See ibid. 21

[14] See Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London: Penguin, 1996); Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986); Nigel Blake, Paul Smeyers, Richard D. Smith, and Paul Standish, “Introduction,” in The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Education, eds. Blake et. al. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003); and Jones Irwin, Paulo Freire’s Philosophy of Education: Origins, Developments, Impacts and Legacies (London: Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2012).

[15] See Jones Irwin, “‘Reading the World’—Freire, Lyotard and a Critique of Literacy Education under the Postmodern Condition,” in Improving Literacy Skills across Learning: CIDREE (Consortium of Institutions for Development and Research in Education in Europe) Yearbook, ed. Viola Bozsik (Budapest: Hungarian Institute for Educational Research and Development, 2015),

[16] See Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed (London: Continuum, 1992). See also Blake et. al., “Introduction,” and Irwin, “‘Reading the World.’”

[17] Boroditskaya and Rosen, “Children’s Poetry,” 68.

[18] Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (New York: Random House, 2000).

[19] Boroditskaya and Rosen, “Children’s Poetry,” 68.

[20] Ibid., 69.

[21] Ibid.

[22] A parent, quoted in CNS, “Patronage and Pluralism,” 12.

[23] For a detailed discussion of the different approaches to school ethos in Ireland, see Jones Irwin, “Interculturalism, Ethos and Ideology: Barriers to Freedom and Democracy in Irish Primary Education 6 (2009),

[24] GMGY Management Group, “Frequently Asked Questions,” 1.

[25] See CNS, “Patronage and Pluralism.”

[26] GMGY Management Group, “Frequently Asked Questions,” 1.

[27] For a philosophical discussion of the different approaches to moral and ethical education in Ireland and internationally, with an emphasis on the contrast between more directive and more “problem-posing” approaches, see Jones Irwin, “Teaching Ethics and Religion From ‘Within’ and ‘Without’ a Tradition—From Initial Teacher Education to the Primary School Context,” in Re-imagining Initial Teacher Education: Perspectives on Transformation, ed. Fionnula Waldron, John Smith, Maeve Fitzpatrick and Térèsa Dooley (Dublin: Liffey Press, 2012).

[28] Note, for example, the following description of class-time methodologies: “The methodologies used in class seek to invite children into a variety of different learning engagements. Each lesson is based on a story. All stories are related to the child’s experience of life and all of them are richly illustrated. The teacher then engages the children in conversation around the story. The purpose of the conversation is to give children the opportunity to explore the story and relate it to their experience of life…”; GMGY Management Group, “Frequently Asked Questions,” 6. Also: “Songs, poems and quiet time are a regular feature of the GMGY lessons. Children love to sing songs and recite simple poems. The songs and poems are especially composed for children and reflect the theme of the lesson”; ibid., 7.

[29] As noted, “GMGY was written by a number of authors, under the direction of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). The authors of GMGY are supported by various groups of teachers and management who work collaboratively in the production of the programme. The NCCA is a national body charged with responsibility for the development of curricula and assessments in schools. This process is carried out through curriculum development and consultation with a wide body of interested partners working collaboratively”; ibid., 3.

[30] See, primarily, Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (London: Penguin, 1992); but also Jean-Paul Sartre, “Kierkegaard; The Singular Universal” in Between Existentialism and Marxism (London: New Left Books, 1974), 141-69, and Paul Ricoeur, “Philosophy after Kierkegaard” in Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader, ed. Jonathan Rée and Jane Chamberlain (Oxford, Blackwell, 1998), 9-25.

[31] Quoted from an initial background document in GMGY Management Group, “Frequently Asked Questions,” 4.

[32] NCCA/GMMY Curriculum Team, “GMGY Rationale,” 1. This progressivist and “strong” pluralism is also evident in the enrolment policies of the school, where “the Community National Schools welcome all children of the appropriate age from the local community. There is no prioritisation based on ability, language, nationality or creed”; ibid., 3. For example, one can cite the fact that the Community National Schools do not have a clause in their admission policy making the intake of children with special education needs dependent on the furnishing of resources. 

[33] GMGY Management Group, “Frequently Asked Questions,” 3ff.

[34] I was appointed to be Project Officer of the Senior GMGY Programme with NCCA in late November 2014.

[35] See, for example, Matthew Sweeney, The Flying Spring Onion, illustr. David Austin (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), and Sweeney, Fatso in the Red Suit, illustr. David Austen (London: Faber and Faber, 1997).

[36] See Kierkegaard, Either/Or.

[37] See Sartre, “Kierkegaard,” 141-69.

[38] GMGY Management Team, “Frequently Asked Questions,” 2.

[39] Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

[40] See Blake et. al., “Introduction.”

[41] See Sweeney’s The Flying Spring Onion and Fatso in the Red Suit, as well as Dugdale, ed., Modern Poetry in Translation.

[42] Kiberd, “Foreword,” vii.

[43] Sendak, Where the Wild. Coincidently, I started reading Where The Wild Things Are to my youngest son, Max (!), every night this week. Max is almost three and at a beautifully mischievous stage of his childhood. He has been fascinated (and somewhat perplexed) by the story, which is quite unlike anything else he has come across to date. But when I asked him yesterday what he was going to dress up as for Halloween, he had a clear answer: “King Max, Dad.”