In his wonderful 2002 memoir, Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference, Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, touchingly recalls the book which changed his life. He had been a football player, one who lived for sport and never the academic life until he was introduced to Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.
“I read in a rage that so much that was palpably my business had been kept from me. It’s like finding that the post office has for years been siphoning away packet after packet of the most engrossing letters – some of them approaching love letters, no less – addressed personally to me. And who has been guilty of this malfeasance? Who are the corrupt officials? The faculty of Medford High are the main conspirators…A line by the poet Richard Brautigan summed it all up: My teachers could have ridden with Jesse James for all they stole from me. I read it and wept angry tears sliding over my face and down onto the bucking mustang.”
(Teacher:The One Who Made the Difference, Edmundson,
Vintage, New York, 2002)
A young boy in my class this week failed an Assessment fairly badly. He is a fairly unengaged kid, likeable but disinterested. While I had hoped that he would have passed the paper comfortably – he has made some great progress this year – he barely completed half of the questions. What I then discovered was that he had been reading Nick Hornby’s ‘Slam’ underneath the desk. This is a boy who definitely had not been a reader. He reads for the first ten minutes of every lesson, as do all of my classes, and I am, secretly, very proud of him.
Should I be? Should I have been more observant? Perhaps. However, that boy is a reader and I’d like to think that has something to do with me. This class is challenging for many reasons. I have laughed and cried over them. We have had some magical moments this year: and some horrible ones. But I have persisted with the ten minutes reading at the beginning of each period. Even when pressures of coverage, resistance to any reading from some and, at times, open hostility made it extremely tempting to give up and do something else.
Ten minutes. Everyday. Some had never read a whole book on their own. One has now read four of five. The cumulative effect of ten minutes reading has turned some of them into readers. So it’s worth it, isn’t it? What else can you do in ten minutes? Walk to the local shop for a paper? Have a cup of tea? Relax during half time at the football? Listen to three songs on your Ipod? So providing – and I use that word deliberately – ten minutes for every single pupil to read whatever they like can be transformative over time.
If you are an English Teacher and you are contemplating dropping Library/ Reading time because that essay needs finished, please don’t. I beg of you. Be patient and you could, perhaps, change someone’s life.