My Reading Year – Part Two January 24th

The snow is bucketing down outside and I’m under a blanket. I’ve got Salman Rushdie’s new novel besides me and, while I am supposed be going to the football this afternoon, this sounds like a much more attractive proposition. Being back at work changes my approach to reading as, naturally, I have less time. Tiredness as much as anything means I read less during term time. Finding space is a priority. However, I’m getting through the Christmas books with a vengeance.

There was time when I was deftly jumping through Magic Realism – from Rushdie to Garcia Marquez to Eco – throwing paperbacks behind me. Confidently debating the merits of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ or ‘The Satanic Verses’. Unfortunately recent reading has caused me to think that my brain is turning to mush. I have to keep flipping back when I find myself lost in a world I’ve no idea I’d entered. While set in New York, Rushdie’s book was less familiar to me than the plague ridden streets of Shakespearean London.

Book Three

shakyShakespeare’s Restless World – Neil McGregor

This book is a blast: fascinating from start to finish, it, like no other book I’ve read, prepared me for teaching Shakespeare in  a better way than ever. By telling the stories of objects discovered from the period, he paints a beautifully frightening image of what it was like for those who may or may not have gone to see the plays of  this young upstart that everyone was talking about. Through the political and the social history of the time, we are taken on a journey which is at times terrifying and at others mesmerising.

It ends with a wonderfully moving story from Robben Island, during apartheid South Africa. A rogue copy of the collected works of Shakespeare was circulated amongst prisoners. The inspirational quotations they highlighted to each other will bring you to the point of tears.

Book Four

Salman Rushdie, Two YearsTwo Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Days. – Salman Rushdie

It’s been many a year since I’ve dozed off, dribbling, on a train. Lost in the magical world Rushdie has created – and I mean lost. Not in a good way – I’ve struggled through this one, not really knowing what the hell was going on. Number three in Danial Pennac’s the Rights of the Reader is ‘The right not to finish a book’ and I was seriously tempted on many an occasion with this one. Then I would be sucked into some beautiful prose, pages long. And then the blur; and the sad reality that I’m not the man I used to be. As much as I loved and lived ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, I could care no more for Magic Realism. Thank you,  Salman, you’ve been great.

I’m not even sure that I’m pleased that I persisted. I should live by Pennac’s list more truly.

Next time: It’s funny when you create a pile of books, with a specific order. The nature of other people’s recommendations mean you’ll never stick to it.


Finding a Rhythm With a Challenging Class

I’m not sure if it was me or them but my wee class were beginning to weep quietly. Every one of them could tell me how to use a comma, full stop; could tell me what metaphor and a simile were; could recognise a rhetorical question. Using them in their own writing, however, was another matter completely. Our eyes began to meet over a crowded notebook filled with my red comments and both sides began to wave the white flag. Perhaps kids with weaker literacy skills don’t always benefit from continued reminders that their writing is weak. A year and a half with me and they had progressed in lots of areas: writing wasn’t one of them.

Perhaps I was going about it the wrong way. Perhaps if I stopped pointing at the errors they could concentrate on raising their game in other areas. By fourteen years of age it’s a sad indictment of our system that many of these kids are, in some ways, unable to ever write fluently and I don’t know what to do about that. They redraft perfectly, they blog perfectly with support but, on first draft, revert to established habits and carelessness. What if I changed my approach and gave them the same work I’d give to a high-flying top set. Iambic pentameter anyone?

The rhythm of Shakespeare’s sonnets might help them see that they can do what might be perceived as more challenging work. Watching Akala’s TED talk, see below, they took part in the Hop Hop or Shakespeare quiz and got  a kick out of it. I wrote some lines down on the board, gave them some definitions and talked them through loads of examples of Iambic Pentameter. We dum-de-dummed our way though a whole lesson. They tore apart the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, recognising the rhythm and counting the beats. There was engagement I hadn’t seen from them in English.

This is a class which finds it difficult to cope with individual work. In fact, more often than not, when I set them loose on a task, I’m immediately hit with a forest of hands, some low-level indiscipline and some expert A-grade work avoidance. But this. Something grabbed them. The counting of the syllables, the circling of the stresses, the rhythm of the lines. They counted on their fingers, tapped on their desks. They began to chant Shakespeare’s lines perfectly: ’Two households both alike in dignity…’ And so it went on. And it wasn’t purely a numbers game. They could tell me what was happening, what it was about. They wanted more.

We’ll go on to study ’Sonnet 65’ now. I’m confident they’ll cope. I’m not sure what brought the change; whether the far more challenging task which I told them might be too difficult for them brought out the beast and thy wanted to prove me wrong. Whether the different mental strategies engaged them more. What is clear is that my focus on their technical ability wasn’t working. I’ll still tackle that – God help those who give up on their literacy – but, after a year and a half, I now have the trust of these guys; trust enough to push them to study literature they would never have looked at a year ago.


The Crackle in the Vinyl

Waking up to the news today hit me really hard and I’ve struggled to understand why. I loved and lived his music but was not a lifelong fanatic. He was merely part of the wallpaper of my past. Peers and colleagues were stunned; a figure we all grew up with was gone. And anyone who’d ever dreamed and imagined, mourned his passing. For those of us who merely enjoy the music and were aware of David Bowie as a cultural icon there is a sense of disbelief. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen, does it?

There are times when we have to deal with tragedy, have to come to terms with the sad passing of idols both past and present. That our happiest moments are punctuated by music makes the death of our heroes an unavoidable fact of life.  However, it is when we lose those who have been with us forever that we begin to swallow hard and really take notice.

Flustered and bedraggled by real life, we turn to music for an escape from everyday reality. Sticking on a CD or a record, we can pretend there, hope there, even dream there. Things don’t change. We expect those voices to speak to us. The crackle in the vinyl is our crackle in the vinyl. So the reality in which we live is suspended for a time, we hope. Death does not come into that, we hope. What we think of as reality is the ultimate in escapism. It is real but not real and when reality comes knocking at the door it hits us hard.

We are hurt when our heroes disappoint us: a poor album, a disappointing tour, no tour, and we take such disappointments personally. Music fans are irrational and being disappointed by those we love does not come as part of the package. For no discernible reason than that, we expect a lot and when we don’t get it, we react. But another day arrives and we put the old record on, our favourite, and again we’re there. The perfect amnesia.

So why do we become so personally shaken when we hear of the death of people we have never met? Is it because a little part of a world we occasionally enter is affected? Is it more of a communal mourning which allows us to feel better about the loss? Perhaps. But I think it is more about the real world entering our fantasy one. When famous people die – and those we feel are one of us, part of our lives– then we are reminded of our own mortality. We listen to these guys and share their emotion and we think that they are immortal. They are merely characters we invent though, people who we will almost never meet and definitely never know. And because they are our own creation, we mourn for them when they pass.

I was stunned when I heard of David Bowie’s death this morning and moved by many of the tributes paid to him. However, I almost immediately felt guilty when I heard of the starvation of thousands in Syria and did not react in the same way. Music does funny things to us. That escapism from the real world is what makes us what we are. Dreamers: unrealistic dreamers.

I feel sad tonight. I feel old.

My Reading Year – Part One. January 9th

I’ve never being one for serious New Year’s Resolutions but I always vow to read 52 books in any calendar year. I often don’t achieve that – last year I spent two months reading ‘War and Peace’ – but I think if I can read 350 pages a week I’ll have a good go. A reading life is one of habit and and consistency so, perhaps, if I write about my reading, I will begin to recognise patterns which I can use when encouraging my students to read for pleasure in their lives.

Book One

storm‘Storm Breaker’ (Alex Rider Book One) – Anthony Horowitz.

How can we recommend teen fiction to kids when we don’t read it ourselves? This book has been about for ages but I picked up a copy over the holidays and gave it a go. I grabbed ten pages here, another ten there. In coffee shops, waiting in the car. When you have free time on holiday it highlights, more than anything, what makes you a reader. Actively finding even five minutes to get through a couple of pages, I was frantically searching thorough a packed out Glasgow City Centre for somewhere to sit down, eventually discovering a quiet corner in Waterstone’s. Well, not exactly quiet but I did a good job of cutting everything out for ten minutes.

It’s a real page turner. It’s poorly written: full of cliched set pieces and stereotypes. The action never lets up. A lifetime of reading Fleming’s Bond novels and some le Carre highlighted every ingredient Horowitz has used, causing me to sigh cynically on every other page. But, when I was twelve I would have loved it.

Book Two

habit‘The Power of Habit’ – Charles Duhigg

What makes a reading life so varied these days is the remarkable number of ways in which you can access books. This one was on my kindle and non-fiction. Quite coincidentally it is concerned with changing habits and I chose to read it January merely because it was next on my list. I hate to admit that I read non-fiction in a different way to fiction. It seems to be more dense at times and I have to take time to focus on every fact. I often rush along with fiction and, on occasion, will flick back to find out about a character or event. My kindle is in my pocket so I get through this one reasonably quickly. Recently in the press it has been reported that kindles sales are crashing as quickly as they rose. It seems the humble book is triumphing after all. Many of us never doubted it. I still carry mine everywhere though. You never know when you’ll have a reading emergency.

Duhigg’s book is superbly written, intricately researched, but slightly repetitive in places. I loved the opening section on recognising the nature of our habits. Cue, Routine, Reward. It got me thinking about how we develop habits as readers and how that might  work in classrooms. What is the reward for a reluctant reader? How can we convince them that there is one?

Book three is Neil McGregor’s ‘Shakespeare’s Restless World’, recommended by @JamesTheo. It’s astonishing so far.

Next time:IMG_0774