Frozen

There are some headlines with are so ingrained in our psyche that their impact never really leaves us. There are moments in history which become iconic in all of our lives. As a fourteen year old boy, reluctantly completing a paper round I hated, I could never have imagined that that moment would never leave me. John Lennon was dead. Ten minutes later,  I was lying face down in the road, knocked down by a Ford Fiesta. The bruises healed quickly – there was no more damage than that – but Lennon’s death would leave a longer lasting mark. A mark which I’ve come to love.

Harry Benson                                                                                                   (c) Harry Benson

On my classroom door I have a photograph of Mark Chapman’s hands holding a copy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. One of those hands pulled the trigger which killed John Lennon: his goal to catch Lennon from falling into phoniness and ordinariness. By committing this crime, he would be freezing Lennon forever, just as Holden Caulfield wanted to freeze his childhood in a moment in time. Lennon would never grow old, never decline. Never disappoint. I tell this story every year in my classroom as I teach the novel, from the explosion of the strange phenomenon called ‘teenager’ after the Second World War to my lying in a puddle in the early morning rain, all those years later.

That frozen moment in time came crashing back this week. While discussing the story of James Castle, the boy Holden remembers from school who jumped from a window after a systemic campaign of bullying from his peers, a student asked, ‘Does Holden see James Castle as some sort of hero, frozen in time, just like John Lennon?’ I’d never thought about it before but it was superbly insightful. Holden’s desire to retain his childhood memories is rooted in the loss of his brother, Allie. Allie is perfect. ‘You’d have really liked him.’ His death has afforded him the immortality Holden is striving for.

And, in that, there is a chilling reminder of the importance of reading literature. As I age, I become more and more aware of those frozen moments in time. Those incidents that make up our own histories begin to drift further and further away, like rootless flowers cast aside: the teacher failing disastrously on his first day; the teenager throwing his school bag into the bin as he leaves school for the last time; the child staring up at a circle of faces as he lay on the ground, crying.

Stealing John Lennon away from us is the crime for which Mark Chapman will forever be remembered. He was horribly wrong of course: horribly, tragically wrong. Who knows what Lennon might have achieved? But a book  about a teenager who struggles to cope with growing up continues to teach me about the beauty and fragility of our lives and the importance of cherishing our loved ones and the time we have with them. It is a book far from frozen in time. Far from merely a book

The Book Whisperer- Scream it from the Rooftops. #favedubooks

Cross-posted from Pedagoo.orgIMG_0553
Being an English teacher, I still look and cringe at my first, probably, five years of teaching. Everything that had got me to where I was, everything which I had experienced up until that point and had supported me through the years of working in terrible jobs – the wilderness years, as I like to call them – had books to thank; books and my ability to read them and stick with them. What shames me is that by the end of my fifth year I had just about thrown in the towel when it came to encouraging Reading for Pleasure in my class.

At around about that point, I stumbled upon ‘The Book Whisperer’. Slightly cynical at first, the title sounded cheesy and cringeworthy, I’ll have to be honest. It, without a shadow of a doubt, changed me as a teacher. I read through this book with increasing ardour, angry at myself for forgetting why reading for pleasure is so important. Donalyn Miller, a teacher from Texas, had written a book which rekindled my belief in reading and one which is never very far from my desk whenever I contemplate reading for pleasure in the classroom. I return to it again and again.

What struck me was not merely the simple message that if we are to create and develop children who will go on to be life long readers – and who would argue with that? – then we have to live that philosophy every day in class, not merely when it suits us. I had become the teacher who drops reading when things get busy, assuming it to be a luxury a packed curriculum could not afford, but the passion and love for her students which oozes throughout the ’The Book Whisperer’ convinced me that there is another way: Time, Choice, and Love have become the backbone of my practice in developing readers.

Creating the conditions for our students to see reading for pleasure as a valued and valuable skill takes a lot of time and commitment but if we, especially as English Teachers, don’t do it, then who will? I’ve persisted with many of the strategist I found in this book – time to read every day, free choice, consistent support and discussion – even when it would have been easier not to. I’ve sacrificed other things in order to keep reading as a mainstay of every lesson. And, do you know what? My students make progress in all areas as well as leaving me having begun that process of becoming a reader.

If you’ve ever heard me rattle on at Teachmeets or Pedagoo sessions then you’re more than likely to have heard me mention ‘The Book Whisperer’. And, while I read some incredibly good Educational books on all sorts of subjects, this one is my favourite. Donalyn Miller has followed this up with more of the same in ‘Reading in the Wild’ but her first book is essential for those of you who are responsible for Literacy and promoting reading for pleasure. Indeed the message screaming from each page might be, “There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more.’ Read it soon.