Finding the Book That Hooks You

I think we, as both adults and teachers, often mythologise our reading histories. Our formative years with books tend to become a short trip down amnesia lane: we’d like to think it was spent reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ in a tree house; or strolling along the riverside contemplating Thomas Hardy’s difficult later works. The reality likely is, for me anyway, somewhat different. I must have given up on loads of books before I found the one that finally got me. Beyond the standards I was studying at school, I struggle to remember the one book which hooked me on to reading, and I try to keep that in mind when encouraging my pupils to choose books.IMG_0619

What brought this to mind was an interesting piece of data I received from our school librarian recently. He handed me a sheet of paper which had the number of books issued to my S1 class (year 8?) since August. Highly impressive numbers indeed. Their weekly library visit is sacrosanct and I encourage them to read often and as widely as possible. However, on closer inspection, I noticed something really interesting. The ‘league table’ – for want of a better expression – of books issued to children corresponded almost perfectly to their reading ability. Surprisingly though, or perhaps not, those children who had taken most books out were the least able in terms of reading comprehension. Almost exactly in order.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. The best readers are reading Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series, amongst others. However, the others seem to be trying lots of books for size and, perhaps, not settling on any one yet. Is that a problem? Well, no, I don’t think so. Yet. My standard response to kids who say they don’t like reading is they they don’t like reading ‘Yet’. They wouldn’t give up all chocolate because they didn’t especially like a Mars bar. My job is to help, advise, encourage them to pick up a book. Ultimately, like me all those years ago, they will read what they want. The important thing for adults is to never, ever give up. To say of a child that ‘they are not a reader’ is shameful, especially for English teachers.

At a recent Parents Evening I had a parent tell me that her son had started reading after a recommendation by me – Mal Peet’s ‘Keeper’ series actually – and while he’d hated me persisting with books and the library, he had now found ‘his book’. I’m unsure how often that happens  but I wonder how many kids never get there because we teachers give up on them. Despite the joys books gave to us, and all of the other benefits, we are too quick to label kids ‘non-readers’; and, somewhat ironically, we wring our hands when they struggle with comprehension in other curricular areas.

What we do with Personal Reading in English class is always a tricky one for teachers. How much time should we allow, if any? Can I afford the time with something they should be doing on their own? However, when we make these decisions we need to keep in mind the book which ‘got us’? Remember your younger self and the satisfaction you felt every time you found yourself in that ‘other world’ which no-one could share with you; remember how you felt when you eventually found a book you loved; then take your class to the library. And let them quit books now and again. It’s not a bad thing, really.


My Ipad Year – Thanks for the Memories.

I wrote this post a couple of years back when I was a bit giggly over having an iPad. I tried to use lots of apps with classes – some seemed great, some less so – but found it frustrating having only one device in the classroom. Two years on and I don’t use the iPad any more. I’ve used less technology this year than ever before because the elephant in the room in a lot of schools in Scotland is a worrying lack of hardware. Outdated computers and not enough of them, to paraphrase a Woody Allen joke. For every incredible project we hear about where schools have one-to-one devices, iPad experiments, chrome book projects, there are far too many which have little. The future hasn’t yet arrived for some.

However, for me, the most important lesson I learned from my ‘the iPad year’ was a closer awareness of how the pupils in my class learn. Class Dojo forced me to face up to my classroom behaviour strategies and whether I needed an app for that in the first place. Three Ring, an app used as a sort of e-portfolio, made me think about why I was collecting pupil work and the process which lead up to that. Essay Grader promised to cut down hours of marking time; it didn’t. What it did do, however, was allow me to think more carefully about the feedback I was giving. I’m better at all of these now, ironically thanks to the iPad.

When I use IT in the classroom now it is more or less to extend the learning through homework tasks. I use Edmodo to store documents and pass on weblinks to students for further study. I use QR codes on praise postcards to send home to parents – they scan to find a picture of their child’s essay or a particularly good piece of class jotter work. I set homework which  may involve using their phones to collect photos or short films. But very little in class. Both my pupils and I have have limited access to the ICT required to make it worthwhile.

I’m not dismissing the importance and future of technology in class, far from it; just aware that it’s not a level playing field yet. Having an iPad helped me to organise my day in a much better way. I have a Macbook Air now and use for planning lessons and organising my week, Pocket to collect blogposts and weblinks I want to view later. I complete admin tasks in a much more organised manner now. However, if you watched me teach you’d rarely see ICT in use. I’ve spent too much time sweating over poor internet connection and a projector which has a life of its own. It just ain’t worth it yet.IMG_1068

In what might be the most tragic country and western song title ever, I loved my iPad for a while. We went everywhere together. However, within a year or two we started drifting apart. The things I wanted to do, I couldn’t. The things I could do were really nothing to do with my teaching. However, I’m a much better teacher because of the relationship. How children learn is something I’m much more aware of if I try out new strategies. Now, I look at my iPad, sitting forlornly in the corner, and I sigh. Sigh for the memories of the times we had and the dreams of what could have been. There is a serious point here, however, that if we are to truly make use of technology in the classroom then every pupil and every teacher needs access. In Scotland anyway, we are a long way off from that.

Marking – A Year On.

About a year ago, I wrote this post about marking which proved to be somewhat popular compared to my usual widely unread subject matter. Perhaps the topic hit home with teachers. In it, I described a change in my marking approach which was completely altering my practice. Some people thought I was being ambitious in what seemed to be a mammoth workload issue. How could I possibly maintain the marking load while attending to other matters at the same time? Well, since then, I have adapted things to suit my routine but still manage to correct and feedback to every pupil in S1 to S3 (year 8 to year 10?) every week.

So what has changed? Every morning – almost without fail – I arrive at school at 7.45. I place fifteen class books on the desks of the pupils, make myself a cup of coffee and get going. I mark 2-3 pages, depending on what we’ve done that week, and leave a comment or two.  It takes about half an hour. The most important thing I’ve learned doing this is that it is essential that I take care to write clearly and carefully while giving my feedback. On the odd day when I’ve rushed that, when my own handwriting hadn’t been given the attention it deserved, I’ve been faced with a hold load of problems when the books are returned. Some pupils will be confused, some will find excuses to question. Now I ensure I am clear both in handwriting and in feedback.

I think it was Phil Beadle who wrote about showing the class you care, especially the ‘challenging’ bottom sets. This is so true when it comes to marking. I find it essential to return work as quickly as possible if the pupils are to gain most benefit. The longer time passes before returning work the more chance of pupils forgetting or losing interest in the work into which they put a lot of initial care and attention. If you can return books the next day it also reminds individuals that you are right on top of them. No graffiti, no messing around, no lack of care. Hugely informative from a teaching perspective.

I try to respond to every piece of work with questions now. ‘How might you use a rhetorical question, here?’; ‘What alternative adjectives could you have used?’ It takes the follow up work beyond a simple correction exercise and promotes deeper thinking, producing much better work. I see it every day. It has been, perhaps, the most pleasing change in all my years of teaching. A light bulb moment. Something I used to think of as a burden has become the most essential part of my week. My workload is more manageable as I’ve prioritised marking and attempted to dismiss anything which has little effect on pupil learning; not always possible at times but I try.

David Didau described marking as and act of love and of course he is right. There were times in the past when I would be embarrassed to look at class books on Parents Nights and would try to convince myself that it was a collection of notes and not the real work. What was most damaging about that was that I was, inadvertently, embedding bad habits. My new approach means the books are well-presented and the pupils take pride in their work, especially during first draft. Marking is feedback is differentiation is planning. It is also essential.

There is No Beginning

There is no beginning. We saw Lewis

laid down, when there was not much but thunder

and volcanic fires; watched long seas plunder

faults; laughed as Staffa cooled…

(From ‘Slate’ by Edwin Morgan)

 My National 5 class are working on ‘Slate’ this week as part of their compulsory Scottish text study. Edwin Morgan wrote it in 1979, in the light of the last Independence referendum. We Scots voted for Independence but, apparently, not enough of us. It is a poem, I think,  about the difficulties of change while accepting that change has always been with us. It is a poem about persistence over time. It is never easy, often damaging, but always leaves something better in its wake. I think.  After attending the Higher English Implementation meeting with the SQA today, I can see some parallels.morgan2

While we’ll see a new Advanced Higher course in the next year or two, Higher English implementation may be seen as the final piece of a very big, 3-18 jigsaw. The new curriculum has been changing for years but the final assessments – the last ‘exam’ most pupils will sit in English – will be in place for most next year. Like “‘Slate’ it’ll be a bumpy ride. However, I saw some real progress today; progress towards an education system I want to be a part of; an Education system that sees assessment as an ongoing process, allowing more autonomy for the teacher. Eventually.

We often forget that we have not merely been transforming parts of our education system over the last ten years; it is not about changing exam systems or transition between primary and secondary or early years. It is a huge transformation of education from ages 3-18; and that has never been done before. It is a move towards a more equitable system; a move away from a system where those who are the best at passing exams prevail. There are many who are concerned by that change; perhaps they are more secure with the way things were; perhaps they feel that change is happening too soon. I get that. But when I step away from my own personal concerns –  the things I am dealing with in the classroom on a day-to-day basis – and look at the bigger picture, I can see the dust settling and a better land in its place.

Morgan recognises ‘thunder and volcanic fires’ as Scotland settled into the form it has become. We certainly have that. Staffrooms are split over the new changes. The negative media reports on the Curriculum certainly don’t help with parental involvement and support. There are troubling things happening as implementation occurs. However, there are many, many more good things. Let’s talk them up. Let’s make it our professional duty to do so. You many only see ‘the sorry glory of a rainbow’ but it’s there and it’s beautiful.

Morgan starts his poem with ‘There is no beginning.’ He is right. Our education system has constantly changed and constantly come up against resistance as it does so. There are still loads of questions and, perhaps, we won’t find the answers for some time. Brian Boyd’s paper for the Jimmy Reid Foundation, released on Monday, certainly paves the way. I started to see the progression of courses today and to understand how I can raise the bar and challenge my classes to achieve. There is no beginning. There was no beginning. Let’s now make sure we do it right.

A Reading Period? Seriously?

I apologise if I’m going over old ground here but this does make me very cross indeed. The topic of personal reading in English class is one I’ve written about many times before and it always amazes me that some teachers still leave it to chance. What really troubles me is that kids all over the country are being labelled with the non-reader tag when the reality is they just haven’t had the opportunity. Practices which were prevalent when I was at school – terrible class libraries if any at all; limited time to read for pleasure – still exist and it is a crying shame.

However, what really makes me weep is the realisation that some kids still have a ‘reading period’. Once a week. That’s it. Oh come on. Who ever became a reader in those circumstances? The only encouragement given from your teacher is a forty minute session, with no interaction, with no opportunity to share books and opinions, knowing that you won’t have to do it again for another week. Because it’s not important to you as a teacher is it? There are other things you need to cover. Personal reading doesn’t have a grade as such so it can always slip off the table, this week anyway.

The only way anyone ever became a reader was through self-discovery, of course. We may have had books around us at home; relatives who bought them every birthday and Christmas whether we asked for them or not. We may have had friends who talked about books. We we’re allowed to quit books if we didn’t like them; we were given space to choose our own, rubbish or not, without an adult sneering at our choice. From there we persisted and developed the confidence to read more challenging books. That’s the way it works. However, some kids don’t have those experiences. As English teachers it is our responsibility to provide them.

Added to this is a teacher who will teach students to analyse their reading; who will introduce them to great literature study and focus on construction of meaning; who will be right with them as they move their fingers along the lines, metaphorically or not. English teachers do both. We provide opportunities and access, modelling what a reading atmosphere is like and what reading for pleasure looks like – some kids might never have seen an adult do that. We then teach them how to do it properly. It’s not one or the other. It devalues the discussion to suggests otherwise.

My experiences as a secondary English teacher still convince me that those who don’t read for pleasure are the ones who struggle most with examinations in the upper school. They often recognise this and wish they had time machines to take them back to S1 so they could begin to read. They often recognise their own mistakes when they haven’t read. However, as English teachers is it not the case that we often, willingly or not, actively discourage kids form reading? Book reviews; having to read ‘classics’, way beyond their ability, for pleasure; and a reading period. Oh, come on. A reading period?