Unlocking the World of Reading


The library in our school is an amazing place. It has huge windows from floor to ceiling, welcoming light and space for classes to spread out and read. There is a study corner with computers; another corner with study booths. Our previous librarian had huge bean bags for readers to sit on. There are glass cases with class work, a selection of magazines and you can browse the yearbooks of former year groups. It is a wonderful space and so much different than the rest of the school. But still it is a terrifying prospect for some of our younger kids.

I’ve written about Tom before and I want to return to him again, three years later. He’s that young lad who arrives at secondary school and finds himself locked outside the world of the reader. He browses the shelves aimlessly, completely in the dark about where to start. And while it easy to feel sympathy for Tom, how much empathy do we have as teachers? Rather than merely suggest books for Tom to read, in what sense can we put ourselves in his wee shoes? You see, giving him what we think is appropriate reading makes us feel good, but he still lacks the history required to understand why it is important.

We’ve had two visits to the library already this term. I try to ensure that we go at least once a week. I have two S1 classes (12 year olds) this year – sixty kids – and I insist that they all read for ten minutes at the beginning of every lesson. So, they need a book. Many of them come to school with one every day anyway. They don’t need the library but instinctively know what to do when they get there. Library rules are second nature to them. But some have literally never been to a library, beyond the small class collections which may have been in their primary school rooms.

I had already recognised the four or five ‘Toms’ in the class, not all of them boys. Arriving in the library was like throwing them into a swimming pool when they couldn’t swim, except natural instinct wasn’t going to help them. One picked up a 700 page novel, the others picked up books without even looking at what they were. This is why the teacher talking about books, every day, whenever possible, is so vital for these guys. They need to hear what books can do, recognise what they can find in there, talk about what they discover. They need to see us reading, picking up a book, carrying one around, being readers. There is nothing more important to me.

As Scout says in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, when Miss Caroline forbids her from reading: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.’

So discussion of books becomes the key as I model the life of a reader. I tell them about my reading: what confuses me, what entertains me, makes me laugh. And I ask the same of them. Telling others of what they’ve read becomes part of my classroom. Recommendations fly around the room. Those who know me will know all about book speed dating, where students try to convince others that their book is the one to read next. When teaching language points I reach for my current novel and discuss a particular image or use of contrast or an effective use of the colon. Then, Tom starts to see that his reading is useful to him. He begins to enjoy his ten minutes at the beginning of every lesson. Sometimes he’ll even read ten minutes at night and come in and talk about it.

As the year progresses, the library becomes his space too. He is included. And isn’t that what school is for?


The Worst Paperboy Ever


Nothing to do with teaching this one, but here you go.

It is a struggle to delve back and remember this but in another life I was the worst paper boy the world has ever known. I came to the job through a pal who, suddenly and mysteriously, appeared to have money in his pocket. I wanted some of that action. There were comics to be bought and sweets to be eaten. Money was required and whatever this friend was doing seemed to solve the problem.

For a year or so I did the weekday shift. Monday to Saturday. Before school, I’d take my bike and deliver a load of papers in an area of the town of which I had no awareness. Usually the letter boxes got the correct papers. Often, by the time I’d returned to shop where I’d collected them, there had been a phone call complaining and I would have to return, full of apology and a ‘Sun’ to replace ‘The Guardian’.

At that point in my life I had no concept of the difference, apart from the size.

When it became clear to both me and my employer that the hectic one hour a day workload was proving too much for me – and my last day coincided with me being knocked down by a car on the day the world heard that John Lennon had been murdered; a story for another time – I was moved to the Sunday shift. A much more leisurely gig, I had thought.

It would mean less money but less effort on my part and less commitment, especially during the school holidays when bed was like a cocoon I never wanted to leave.

What I didn’t account for was the size and weight of Sunday papers compared to their daily sisters. More people purchased Sundays – perhaps people had more time to read them – and my bag was huge and heavy. As a result, my route was longer. My delivery got longer and slower and many a time there were complaints when papers were arriving long after their previous paper boy would get them there. The last straw came when I stopped to sit for a moment on the stairs of one of the flats to which I was delivering. I was awoken by one of my customers about an hour later who had come out to look for me because he was worried. He’d phone the shop to enquire about his paper and both he and my ‘boss’ were concerned that I’d disappeared. I think that was my last day.

Anyway, back to the heart of the matter. At the time of the daily paper round, in my early teens, I was having a hiatus from supporting Partick Thistle and was Liverpool mad. I think it had started with the transfer of Kenny Dalglish; that and winning an awful lot of the time. But my room was covered in posters; every available space, including the ceiling, had something to do with Liverpool on it. They were very successful in Europe and had, to everyone’s amazement, been drawn to play Aberdeen in the European Cup. The whole country was talking about the game and tickets were like gold dust. ‘The Sun’ began a voucher scheme where you could be entered into a draw for an all expenses trip to the first leg at Anfield. The more vouchers you sent in, the more chance you had of winning, surely. You see where this is going, don’t you?

As a slightly wayward paper boy, beginning to resent the lack of salary incentives in the job, I saw an opportunity. It began with me buying a ‘Sun’ here and there. Even then that stuck in my craw a little bit, but needs must. Then it got a bit silly. I would ‘accidentally’ add another copy or two to my bag as I left on my round. Then it became four or five.

By the time the deadline came around I had about one hundred and fifty vouchers and whole load of cut up ‘politically suspect’ newspapers in my parents’ rubbish bin. it would be worth it. How could I fail to win? Who else would have put both their criminal and moral character on the line for a mere football game. I was a teenage criminal mastermind who was about to strike gold. I was already planning my trip and contemplating who would be my ‘Plus Guest’.

That I’d heard nothing as the game approached didn’t really bother me. I only had to know the day before really so what was the panic? Hindsight’s a funny old thing though. The day before the game, in a small corner of one page in the paper, it was revealed that someone from Liverpool had won. They lived about ten minutes from Anfield and wasn’t that a great story and a coincidence? It hadn’t occurred to me that that fine upstanding newspaper would ever do things unfairly. I was devastated. I recall reading that while wandering slowly and aimlessly across a busy road one October morning.

I would do that one more time, a couple of months later, while reading about John Lennon.


Building Up to a Comprehensive Guide


On a bookshelf, at the bottom of one of my bookcases, I have a three volume collection called ‘Football Handbook’. It’s not a particularly attractive set: green laminate plastic with ‘Football Handbook’ garishly splashed down the spines – but I love it and I love that I’ve kept it for almost forty years. It became the result of almost two years of collecting; one of those ‘Marshall Cavendish builds up to a comprehensive guide’ types which were so prevalent when I was younger. Perhaps they still are, I’m not sure. It meant a commitment and dedication that both teenage distraction and limited pocket money would fight against, day and night. I got there in the end though. Saturday morning deliveries, waited for by the door, became a family irritant. For me, a tradition.

I very rarely even open these three books though. When I do they, of course, seem out of date and weary; poorly written prose about footballing issues which have long since drifted out of date. However, they represent something far more important to me: the young reader just beginning his life in books.

Collecting things seems to be a very human characteristic. Unique and personal, regardless of what that collection may consist, it represents part of our histories. And whether you’ve dumped any sight or sound of that collection – I really wish I hadn’t thrown out the first one hundred editions of ‘Roy of the Rovers’, I really do – it stays with us and becomes part of who we are.

Those three green volumes were the start of a lifetime’s book collection which still grows and adapts to this day. Like a permanent marker in an ever changing landscape, the green spines are always there. Building our book collection coincides with building our reading history. They take a lifetime to construct; they may constantly change but our favourites remain because they form part of our lives and loves, representing times in our lives which we want to keep alive. As Susan Hill writes:

‘…if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books, as me…I am my literary DNA.’

There is something remarkably personal about bookshelves. They have taken a lifetime to construct; they are unquestioningly individual. Checking out the shelves of houses you visit tell you more about a person than anything else. That they would have their books out and on display instead of hidden away tells you even more: that books are not an optional extra but part of the air we breath. Each book has a story to tell, not about the writer but about the reader.

That’s why we readers seek out bookshops and libraries no matter where we are in the world. We are at home there.

‘Libraries generate longing. It collects in the shelves and rustles under the desks and zaps people like static electricity.’ Ian Frazier

My bookcases tell as much about my past as most photographs. How can we convince young people that this may be the result of a reading life rather than a short term activity that school insists that they do? They may well live in houses with books but more often than not they belong to family members: their own shelves filled with childish annuals which embarrass them. How do we help them to develop into the lifelong readers we hope they become? Perhaps allowing them to subscribe to a magazine of their choice, just as I did all those years ago – regardless of how shallow and mundane we might find it – could help. There are some great titles out there on a huge range of subjects, far more than from which I had to choose. Ensure that it is delivered to them personally. Maybe allow them to develop that anticipation which I had on a Saturday morning, creating a collection that looks good in a pile in their room and, who knows, allows them to read things for themselves. It might work.

If we’re serious about developing a generation of readers we surely need to think beyond the classroom. I know my reading certainly didn’t stem exclusively from school and my English class. Perhaps by taking them seriously as readers we could encourage them to build up their reading experiences while sharing ours. They could well build into a comprehensive guide to the readers of the future. And that wouldn’t be a bad thing.