Fighting for the Right to Read

Tom sits cross legged in the library. He’s not a reader, never has been, and I can see that this is difficult for him. Not merely that he doesn’t like reading or doesn’t like the book, even finds it difficult. It’s difficult because he really wants to please me, his new English teacher, in the first week of his new term, in his new school. He wants to like it, he really does and he concentrates hard not to move his lips as he reads. He wants to read Lemony Snicket because his friend liked it and he watched the movie over the summer, quite liked it. But Tom was probably representative of hundreds, maybe thousands of kids going through the same thing that week. What have we done to him?

As an English teacher, it breaks my heart to see kids like Tom who, for no real fault of their own, perhaps victims of circumstance, have missed the opportunity to fall in love with books. I’m certainly not blaming anyone but a system which appears to have failed him. For what greater gift can we give children than the ability to read well.

He’s had seven years of school and he is sitting, hoping that it will click into place for him. Until that happens he’ll feel excluded from an amazing world, a world his friends inhabit comfortably.

He won’t wander the corridors of Hogwarts or through Rivendale with Bilbo Baggins; he won’t climb through the wardrobe into Narnia or fight alongside a young James Bond. Something about that doesn’t quite sit right with me.

I came back to school about a month ago after the holidays and, as I’ve been thinking about reading strategies again, I returned to the work of Kelly Gallagher and Donalyn Miller, both inspirational teachers of reading from the US. I’d always thought of myself as a strong promoter of reading in the classroom until I read these two. Perhaps the difference is that they saw developing a love of reading as the number one job of an English teacher.  Until I read about their work, I had never really thought of it in that way. They made me totally re-evaluate my approach to personal reading in the classroom.

As Donalyn says in her glorious book, ‘The Book Whisperer’:

‘Reading must be an endeavour that

  • has personal value to the students
  • students themselves as capable of doing (Are they discouraged by reading failure in the past?)
  • is free from anxiety (overstated or over tested?)
  • is modelled by someone they like, respect, trust, and want to emulate.’

I learned from ‘The Book Whisperer’ that I had to be involved in my students’ reading; not just at the end with a hopeless review or a terribly busy poster. These things serve no purpose whatsoever. We need to be by their sides as they encounter confusion or want to share their excitement or laugh at the funny bits. They want us to do that. Too often we don’t.

Reading for pleasure seems to be the first thing that slips off the desk when the pressure is on; but, as English teachers, we must not forget why we are there in the first place. We loved reading and books and talking about reading and books. What happens to us? Why do we very often forget the one thing that got us where we are? As Gallagher states:

‘When schools deprive students of the pleasures of recreational reading we end up graduating test takers who may never read again for pleasure.’ (Readicide. p.45)

We need to follow up our beliefs in Reading, not let tests and deadlines take over. If your students are only doing reading which is tested – either in essay form or Close Reading – then they will begin to see that for what it is and stop reading altogether.

The new Curriculum in Scotland states that it is the responsibility of all to promote reading:

“Level 3 Literacy

I regularly select and read, listen to or watch texts for enjoyment and interest, and I can express how well they meet my needs and expectations and give reasons, with evidence, for my personal response.

I can identify sources to develop the range of my reading.”

I need to do better. I need to be better.

Taking it Down a Notch

I’ve been back at school for about six weeks now and have, I must confess, been starting to question some of my previously held beliefs about my own teaching. Whether that’s been down to pressure of workload, when the things which don’t go as well as expected take a more prominent role in the the end of day discussion over wine choice, or simply that I ain’t as good as I thought I was, I’m not sure. Things have been getting me down, folks.

So, over this holiday weekend, I’ve been sitting crouched over my PC tapping away at some thoughts. The Blog is supposed to be a place for reflection, right? I’ve about  three posts waiting to be completed; they will be one day. For this one, however, I’ve stolen the words of another. Having read Todd Whitaker’s ‘What Great Teachers Do Differently’ I went through what he states are the fourteen things that matter most. These are the things he describes so eloquently in the book, of course, but it is a list which has had a powerful effect on me.

Here they are. with Todd’s permission, of course.

           14 things that matter most

  1. Great teachers never forget that it is people, not programs, that determine the quality of a school.
  2. Great teachers establish clear expectations at the start of the year and follow them consistently as the year progresses.
  3. When a student misbehaves, great teachers have one goal: to keep that behaviour from happening again.
  4. Great teachers have high expectations for students but even higher expectations for themselves.
  5. Great teachers know who is the variable in the classroom. They are. Good teachers consistently strive to improve, and they focus on something they can control – their own performance.
  6. Great teachers create a positive atmosphere in their classrooms and schools. They treat every person wither expect. In particular, they understand the power of praise.
  7. Great teachers consistently filter out the negatives that don’t matter and share a positive attitude.
  8. Great teachers work hard to keep their relationships in good repair – to avoid personal hurt and to repair any possible damage.
  9. Great teachers have the ability to ignore trivial disturbances and the ability to respond to inappropriate behaviour without escalating the situation.
  10. Great teachers have a plan and purpose for everything they do. If things don’t work out the way they had envisioned, they reflect on what they could have done differently and adjust their plans accordingly.
  11. Before making any decision or attempting to bring about any change, great teachers ask themselves one central question: What will the best people think?
  12. Great teachers continually ask themselves who is most comfortable and who is least comfortable with each decision they make. They treat everyone as if they were good.
  13. Great teachers keep standardised testing in perspective; they centre on the real issue of student learning.
  14. Great teachers care about their students. They understand that behaviour and beliefs are tied to emotion, and they understand the power of emotion to jump-start change.

So, there you have them. It is very easy to forget what makes us good at what we do. But we get up and do it every day and we love it. So we are good, very good.

I’ve been soul-searching this weekend and, I think, I feel a bit better about my teaching. I’m certainly moving in the right direction. It would be good to have a wee discussion about some of these. Any thoughts?

Do it Yourself

Over the summer holidays I caught up with a few Ted talks, especially the ones which had such an effect on me when I watched them over the last couple of years. One of my new resolutions has been to try and read more educational articles and to watch TED talks whenever possible and I felt the same awe watching Ken Robinson and the like as I did first time round. However it is Sugata Mitra’s ‘The child-driven education’ which continues to knock my socks off. His witty and eloquent discussion on the way kids learn without teachers should be essential viewing for every single teacher starting a new year.

After two weeks of this new term, it came back to me. It came back to me sitting with a glass of wine on a Friday night when I was exhausted. Two weeks in and I was absolutely drained, completely empty and very quickly eyeing a second big glass. I fired up the old Ipad and watched it again. It came at a good time. We teachers spend the summer thinking of new things to do in our classrooms. We listen to others, read about great strategies, pick up tips from Twitter and our favourite Blogs. But when we start back again and we’re thrown head first into the hugely stressful, never stop whirlwind of a day in our schools, it is so easy to revert to type and creak out the lessons that we have used before. It seemed that some of my good intentions were already being consigned to next year. Sugata Mitra cured me of that.

By Monday I’d decided to test out his theories for myself. My S2 English class (13 years old) were proving to be a tough nut to crack. We set in S2 – an argument for another day – and I have set nine out of twelve. They seem nice kids but they are very aware that they are in class nine out of twelve. Our system has placed a value on their ability and they know it. A very passive ‘learned helplessness’ seemed to have overcome them. I had intended to work on Mindsets with them, hoping to convince them that, yes, they can get better at English. Sugata Mitra’s talk gave me an idea.

There was nothing especially scientific about what I did. I wrote four questions on the board and gave each group of four one netbook.

1. What are Mindsets and does everyone have one?

2. What different Mindsets are there and what are the main differences?

3. In what ways can you change your Mindset?

4. How might knowing about Mindsets help you in school?

I sat down. I asked them to stand up and put their chairs to the side of the class becaue I wanted a bit of movement and a bit of active learning. The only ‘rule’ I imposed was that every member of the group of four had to be able to answer the four questions convincingly i.e. know what the words meant without reading notes.

They did it, of course. It took a wee bit of reassurance at times, along with a few ‘you have the whole world at your fingertips, why ask me?’ responses along the way. But with what Sugata Mitra calls a ‘granny’ approach to praising and prompting, every student could respond to a difficult concept they’d never heard of fifty minutes before.

And, do you know what, this simple short lesson might even be the life saver I’ve been looking for. I cannot continue to be so utterly exhausted on a Friday night. If this is ‘flipping the classroom’ then I’m in. This may seem like simple thing to learn, perhaps even obvious, but at a time when our lives as teachers are so completely taken over, I must remember that if I’m working harder than my students while they are in the classroom then something’s wrong. I did nothing original. The point was to reclaim the creative ideas I’d planned over the summer and drag myself away from ‘safety’. As teachers everywhere go back to school today – three weeks after me – you should try to retain that creativity and those great ideas. You will soon become so submerged that it is easy to lose that energy. Watching this TED talk could help you.

Thank you, Sugata Mitra. Thank you.