We Change When We Read. But So Do Our Favourite Characters

No plots, hopes or dreams were ruined during the writing of this post.

I suppose if J. D. Salinger really did have another Holden Caulfield novel hidden away – perhaps it’s still locked up in a sanitarium somewhere- it would tell a tale much along the same lines as ‘Mad Men’. The cynicism of a Don Draper and his advertising friends is already there in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and there is no suggestion of a happy ending in the novel.  We leave Holden in ‘this crazy place’: this isn’t a guy who’s about to grow up into a rounded human being. Perhaps Madison Avenue would be the perfect destination for one who was so quick to recognise ‘phonies.’

IMG_0394This return to our favourite characters years later is the premise of Harper Lee’s ‘unpublished’ novel, in which we are parachuted back into the world of Maycomb, twenty years after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, alongside a returning Jean Louise Finch – no longer Scout – now living in New York. As one who loves the first book this is an unexpected journey, one which seems strange at first, uncomfortable. What leads us though this wonderful trip, however, is the fact that what makes ‘Mockingbird’ such a success – the naivety and innocence of the narrative voice – has been replaced by the more cynical, big city, savvy girl.

However, as Jean Louise returns to an ageing Atticus, it is my own life as a reader on which I being to reflect. Returning to ‘tired, old’ Maycomb some thirty years after I first read the book was a strange experience. The wonderful, inspiring, rose-tinted glow of the first one has been lifted to reveal a darker but nevertheless more real world. Over time we change, experience and age altering our outlooks, and that is reflected in the way we read.When we re-read old favourites we don’t merely repeat the process because we have changed; our background knowledge has increased, our life experiences enhanced. So, like Jean Louise, we might return there but it can never be the same.

If we are to believe that whenever we read something new our brains alter to adapt to the new information, then we could argue that we are what we read,  almost literally. We have our own literary DNA. Perhaps Harper Lee helped us develop a greater sense of right and wrong, of tolerance and racism and equality when we were  teenagers. But we are the sum of all of those parts. We also shared Scout’s rebellion and strength of will but sometimes we have to rip up those ideals – or at least temper them with a touch of realism – if we are to grow. That’s the message of this book.

There is no doubt some will hate ‘Go Set A Watchman’. Some will hate it without reading it and I can understand that. We like to keep our idols as idols; we often want our past to remain in the past. However, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is one of those books which almost every school child will ‘have’ to read at some point. I don’t know any who haven’t been affected by it in some way. It is too easy to dismiss this new book as an addendum; we owe it to Jean Louise to follow her story to the end. We owe it to ourselves to return to Maycomb for one last look.

‘You Make Me Wanna Be a Better Man.’ A review of ‘This Much I Know About Love Over Fear…’ by John Tomsett

There’s something about blogging which has provided me with a better understanding of how education has brought me to this point in my life.  The more autobiographical posts have allowed me to think of my own learning and,  I think, it is that approach which has helped me to improve in the classroom. In a sense, we often thrive on our autobiographies unconsciously when we are in the classroom. Reading John Tomsett’s book ‘This Much I Know About Love Over Fear’ exemplifies that exactly. Mr Tomsett has written  a beautifully nuanced reflection of his life and how it made him the man he is today.

I’ve met John on a few occasions – at a Pedagoo event and even in his own school at ReserachEd last year. Along with his Director of Learning and Reserach, Alex Quigley, there is something extraordinary about these two. Not merely where they work and what they create but their very presence convinces you of their commitment to the learning of their students. Mr Tomsett’s book is a reminder to all of us of the importance of learning in our lives and how our experiences influence where we go and what we do. It is a beautifully written, honest account of Mr Tomsett’s life in teaching and a life we could all all learn from.

At PedagooLondon a couple of years back, I heard Mr Tomsett speaking  about his challenging boys’ class and the writing they did on the Rumble in the Jungle. It was one of those sessions in which you could have sat for hours; not merely that I was stealing every idea I heard but John’s genuine love for these boys shone through in every word. He recounts that work again here in the book and it is compelling stuff. What wouldn’t I give to have been in that classroom with those boys. It is a stunning chapter, filled with compassion and hope.

There may be things you disagree with here – I’m not sure that the section on lesson planning made that particular part of teaching any less onerous – but his reasoning is honest, intelligently thought through and packed full of humanity and humility.  However, I was writing down lines from almost every chapter about how to be a better teacher and a better person. Reading Mr Tomsett’s book – and Alex’s excellent ‘Teach Now’ – confirmed that education books have reached a new era. Blogging has resulted in an explosion in writing – and good writing too – about education. Many more have a voice. ‘This Much I Know…’ is as much autobiography as instruction and all the better for that.

What we learn from Mr Tomsett’s book is that ‘love’ is a word that we should embrace in teaching not fear or feel uncomfortable with. A love of teaching. A love of colleagues. A love of learning. But, most importantly, a love of the students he teaches and is responsible for. Perhaps if we looked more to our own stories in education we may develop a greater understanding of our present. I loved this book and wish I could write as well. It has set a bar for my own writing.

‘Sometimes Right. Sometimes Wrong. Always Certain.’ A review of ‘What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong’ by David Didau

As a middle aged man from the west of Scotland it is a very human trait for me to automatically accept that my opinions are facts. ’Sometimes Right. Sometimes Wrong. Always Certain’ as Danny Baker and Danny Kelly often proclaim. We men do that though, don’t we? Waving off any evidence which contradicts us as just a mere triviality. So, within that context I approached David Didau’s ‘What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?’ with extreme caution. What truths could possibly lay within? What evidence could I dismiss as scientific, academic jibber jabber? How could I possibly be wrong?

IMG_0332It is a huge book in many ways. Almost four hundred pages if you read the appendices – which I swear I’ll get to. In these pages Mr Didau picks holes in our approach to just about every idea about education you may have ever had, offering alternatives to established teaching techniques and the beliefs that we’ve always thought effective. And he makes a compelling case. We can be a conservative lot in teaching – with a small ‘c’ – and we don’t always like to be questioned, but that is what this book does and does well. Whether you agree with him or not, this book will change you.

This not is not an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ book in the slightest. Despite the title he’s not saying that you are wrong. You may be, probably are in some areas, but what the author is trying to do here, I think, is to ask you to at least question some of your long held beliefs about what you’re doing. We do things in teaching which we’ve always done because we convince ourselves that they work and they fit with our principles and beliefs but do they work for our students? How do we really know that? They may well work but we should be asking those questions.

The book goes some way to convincing me of a better path to learning for my students but also, ironically, nails a key stumbling block.

‘Everything about school is is set up to value performance over mastery and learning.’ p 316

While Mr Didau argues that performances of learning are poor displays of deep learning, it is difficult to shy away from the fact that Secondary Schools are judged on exam results. Therefore passing exams becomes a greater aim than ‘mastery and learning’. And even if that’s just a perception, my greatest gain from the book was that I am now convinced that there needs to be a better way for me; that maybe  a lot of what I thought I knew was wrong. Not all of it though.

This is a book that left me unsettled. I read a lot of books on education and like to be challenged but this was different. It goes to the heart of what a mature, intelligent profession like teaching should be. Questioning ideas, not people. Unpacking policies, not egos. It is a hugely readable and entertaining monster of a book and you will hate it at times. But, the thing is, I’m never usually wrong, or so I thought. I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes I might be. And If I can do it, so can you.