Roy Race as Superhero – his part in my reading life.

royOver the years, as I read more and more about reading, the history of reading and the development of how we read,  it has become very clear that learning to read is a complex business. That, as a Secondary teacher, I get 30 new kids who can read – to varying degrees, yes, but very rarely any single kid who can’t read at all – is a minor miracle. The complexities of symbol recognition, joining with other symbols to make words, sentences, paragraphs, stories is a result of so many changes in how our brains function that I bow down to the work of my Primary colleagues. Hat tip. You do an incredible job there.

The difficulties we experience at Secondary are not or should not be concerned with teaching kids to read but with teaching them to read deeply and creating readers who will do so for pleasure for the rest of their lives. When they struggle to do that, it is often because they have no real bank of knowledge behind them, no real reading histories to hang new things on to. Part of my job, and a fundamental reason why I do the job, is to help them get there, just as I did a whole load of years ago. And Roy Race helped me to do so.

You see, Roy Race saved me from the hell of School Reading Programmes; programmes so designed to ensure that I was reading while removing all the joy from the process. I saw Tom Sherrington use this clip at #TLT14 last year but I think it applies equally well.

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjmfaZyNvDg%5B/embedyt%5D

I’ve discovered through reading ‘some’ research – I’m very wary of every saying ‘the’ research – that programmes like Accelerated Reader increase reading at the time but, once the rewards are taken away, reading actually decreases compared to those who don’t use the programme. But I digress slightly. I want to talk about Roy Race as Superhero. Why is he a  superhero? Well:

  • he was generally mild mannered and loved, during the day,
  • he put on an unusual outfit when he jumped into action
  • he performed miracles nearly every time it was required and
  • he would routinely defeat the evil enemy, sending them back to where they came from.

And he, as much as anyone, turned me into the reader I am today.

‘Roy of the Rovers’ – and for those youngsters who are unaware of this, it was a fabulous graphic novel from the seventies and eighties – would fall through my letterbox every Saturday morning. My dad would shout up to me: ‘Who’s Ray of The Ravers’ is this?’, EVERY SINGLE WEEK just to annoy me but I’d bound down the stairs for it anyway. It had my name on the front and, over the years, I’d build up a perfectly ordered collection which sat on the corner of my room. And I think it was that ownership, that identity with something which was mine and mine only which helped me on my way to being a reader.

What I’ve found over the years is that if you can give kids ownership of what they want to read, no matter how hard it is to find out what they like, then previous negative attitudes to reading for pleasure being to change. Asking parents to subscribe to magazines, with their child’s name on it, means they begin to develop their own wee collections and begin to build a reading history. Reluctant readers often don’t have reading material at home and sometimes library books, while a good start, are not enough.

The difference between instruction, which we should leave to the experts, our Primary colleagues,  and building readers who read for pleasure is that it can be long old slog to embed those habits and the knowledge to develop those habits. We struggle and search and sometimes battle to find the right book for the right child. Gabriel Zaid says: ‘To write, publish, or distribute a book is like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it into the sea: its destination is uncertain’ It is my responsibility to find that child’s ‘message in a bottle’

Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head

‘So why are you English teachers so obsessed with death?’ one student asks, quite seriously and legitimately. ‘Erm…we’re not,’ I reply, as I foolishly attempt to cover up the class set of Hamlet I’m about to issue with some ‘Death of  a Salesman’ handouts. I’m trying to convince them that we’re actually very happy people. Yes, Lennie gets whacked at the end, Willy Loman drives himself into a ditch for the insurance money, Macbeth loses his head. Oh, and Johnnycakes has to die alongside Dally if we are to understand the evils of gang warfare and Tom Robinson is up against too much for him to survive. Other than that …

It was kinda difficult to argue though. We’ve finished studying a couple of Don Paterson poems: ‘The Ferryman’s Arms’ tells the story of the poet/ persona’s contemplation of life and death while waiting for a ferry. ‘Nil NIl’ deals with the manner in which life and death even each other out over time. The descent of a successful football team is compared to the death of a pilot ejected out of his crashing plane. But surely there is a greater message about life in there. Paterson considers his own mortality, accepts it and gets on with his day and I’ve always argued that to come to terms with our own inevitable death is the moment we become adults.

For that reason, I think I’m scared of Hamlet. Always have been. Not the character or the ghost but the teaching of the play. I’ve taught it three or four times and never been happy with what I’ve done with it. Its philosophical complexities are difficult to get a hold of for me, never mind the sixteen year-olds in my class. But this year I’ve begun again, planning more time to fit in all the sub plots and alleged minor characters.  The very mention of Shakespeare can be a real stumbling block for some kids so Hamlet is going to be a challenge. Balancing the complexity of the ideas with quagmire of the language (for some) is going to be a challenge.
Screenshot 2015-10-10 10.41.50Before starting any Shakespeare play, I like to start with Trevor Wright’s ‘There is a problem…’ exercise from ‘How to be a Brilliant English Teacher’. Students begin to make connections and build a little bit of intrigue; if you include just enough of a clue to the more gruesome parts then it can be an excellent way in to Shakespeare. But jumping straight into the middle of Hamlet and the ‘To be or not to be…’ soliloquy is perhaps not the most obvious way to begin. I wanted them to get inside Hamlet’s head and get to grips with his contemplation of life and death, in a similar but darker way than Don Paterson does.  And that brought us to the question which starts this post.

I suppose I’m grappling with that very idea, that we do deal with literature which involves death an awful lot. By focusing on that, though, we can prepare our students to think of the complexities of life and the maturity of accepting our own mortality. Perhaps. But perhaps I’m just terrified of Hamlet and it’s just me.