The Christmas Book Flood

When I’m asked what I’d like for Christmas, my responses over the last few years have been fairly predictable. Books. And Whisky. But mostly books. It’s a lovely way to spend an afternoon over the Christmas period, sitting quietly wth a book ( and occasionally, a whisky), and books are a lovely gift to give. When people give me books it always strikes me as the most personal gift as the givers often want me to read what they’ve read, experience what they’ve experienced.

Discovering ‘The Christmas Book Flood’, from Iceland, started a wee idea rattling around my old noggin. The act of making Christmas Eve the time to share a book with someone you care about; one book you take the time to choose and buy and wrap for a special person in your life seems a beautifully simple but important one. Spending at least some of your time sitting reading quietly might be a lovely time spent before the chaos of the following day.

So here’s a wee plan: why don’t we do the same here? Why don’t we start our own ‘Christmas Book Flood’? I suggest as many of us as possible put aside some time on Christmas Eve to exchange books with someone at home. Spend the rest of the night reading and eating chocolate if you like, but definitely some reading.

Perhaps we can create a hashtag – #xmasbookflood ?- and share a photo of the book or of you reading your book by the Christmas tree, if you like. It might be a nice way to create a new (minor) tradition for Christmas. It might just be a nice way to share books and encourage us all to read a little more. So who’s up for it?

Dealing With Exam Results- Pass or Fail.

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 20th November 2017)

It would seem, if you follow the progress of our exam system through both social and traditional media, that from P1 to S3 exams don’t matter; then they do for a couple of years, but only if you do well; then we’ll photograph your kids literally jumping for joy and put it in the papers. If they don’t, we’ll create a Twitter hashtag telling them that it doesn’t matter. A conveyor belt of ‘celebrities’ will sympathise, claiming, ‘I got nothing at school and I turned out all right, didn’t I?’ We’ll all have our stories of why exam success isn’t the be all and end all.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.

With each year of experience it’s often sobering to think of the number of young people who come through my classroom door. Entering my nineteenth year of teaching, I was shocked to realise that some of the first kids I taught will be well in to their thirties by now. I recently met a former pupil in Glasgow, instantly recognisable and memorable as one of those kids who had been, in his own words, a ‘nightmare’. A polite and erudite young man, he now runs his own business and is married with a couple of kids. He left school with nothing but a whole heap of negative baggage but went on to be a responsible, successful individual.

As a secondary teacher, I do believe that the best thing we can provide for our young people is a strong set of qualifications which will allow them to move on to the next stage of their lives, whatever that may be. That may not sit well with the principles of the Curriculum for Excellence but it is what I’m judged on whether I like it or not: it is what Secondary Schools are judged on. However, this is a damning indictment of those kids who fail to achieve at school, whatever the circumstances. Meeting my former pupil merely reaffirmed the folly of the way our education system works.

Is it not patronising to tell kids who don’t do well in exams that it doesn’t really matter? They, we assume, worked hard at those exams, perhaps expected to pass. Failing is a perfectly natural lesson in life so telling them that it doesn’t matter demeans them as individuals. Is it important to do well in your exams? Of course  it is. Will your life be over if you fail? Of course not. But you will have to reconsider your options. Assisting kids in being able to deal with the disappointment instead of metaphorically telling them to ’cheer up’ is a more responsible and caring way to help them grow and develop.

Time to rise above our station.

It’s 4.30 in the morning: I can’t sleep. Today is the fourth whole school development day I’ve organised – a morning of workshops led by staff, attended by staff – and, of course, I’m convinced it’ll be a disaster. I’ve woken up with a cold so that feeling of impending doom is magnified, that ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is kicking in. It’s never gone badly before but there is always a first time and I’m pretty sure today will be the day. I’m sick of feeling like this.

I’ve spent the last  two months coaxing and cajoling colleagues into leading workshops, delivering training, sharing ideas. The number of superb colleagues who have convinced themselves that ‘I don’t do anything special’ is both mystifying and heart-breaking. What is wrong with a system whose lead specialists feel like this; worn down by s system which seems to be against them, which often treats them like the enemy? A system that treats anyone who raises their head above sea-level as a show off or a trouble maker? But we’re not allowed to rise above our station, are we?

For a year I’ve felt like that. Last December my book came out. Pretty soon after, I received two tweets from followers; one a very prominent member of the Educational Twitterati, who reminded me ‘Not to get above myself’. The other one – someone who I have met – told me, after beginning writing for TES Scotland, that I was ‘a big mouth who no-one wanted to listen to’. Both comments have never been very far way for most of this year. Oh, I know that some will think I’m massively prominent on Twitter myself. Perhaps. But I’m a humble classroom teacher who has found himself apologising for being so prominent.

I spent much of my childhood being told I’d never amount to much, much of my school life being invisible. Even when I eventually became a teacher, for the first ten years there was little expectation that I would rise above the mediocre; I’d been conditioned to think that. So, being from my background, coming from where I come from, bringing out a book is an extreme rarity. As a result, I find it hugely difficult and uncomfortable to accept compliments. I expect and anticipate that someone will try to burst my bubble. And that means I turn down a load of offers to speak about my book. No more.

For anyone who is reading this, perhaps recognising these feelings, sharing my upbringing and background, it’s time to get above our station. It’s time to break free from sneering negativity and acceptance of mediocrity. I’m just a teacher like you; I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in a position where I can write a book. But for all of us, it’s time to shout from the rooftops – both literally and metaphorically; write if you don’t want to shout – that we have things to to say; that we will no longer be silent and humble and shy about the great things we do in our classrooms. Lift your head up; look people in the eyes: you are a teacher.

Some thoughts on developing reading

I suppose it was about ten years in to my career that I started to take a serious look at myself and what I was doing. I was bored and boring in the classroom; long since forgotten the novelty and joy of teaching, morphing into the teachers who taught me, teaching the way I was taught. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it was for me.

Things have changed dramatically since then. It’s almost a year since my book, Reading for Pleasure: A Passport to Everywhere’ came out and I’m still dazed by the whole experience. I hadn’t looked it at for a while and, after doing so, I have to say, I’m incredibly proud of it. Creating a reading habit in children is a goal we should all strive for and my book is a good starting place.

But it isn’t enough. Feeling contented with my input only took me so far. Just by having books and even just by reading them doesn’t always make us proficient, critical readers. Reading Daniel Willingham’s ‘The Reading Mind’ messed with my head a bit. It has a subheading of ‘A Cognitive Approach to How the Mind Reads’ and walks through the mental processes of what happens in our brains as we read. That process is hugely complex: the process of learning to read well even more so. Willingham discusses the huge amount of knowledge and experience we bring to our reading.

Consider this example: I happened to be reading Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and came across this passage:

‘The unpredictable revealed itself only at that point. I saw Lila lose her colour, become as pale as when she was a child, whiter than her wedding dress, and her eyes had that sudden contraction that turned them into cracks. She had in front of her a bottle of wine and I was afraid that her gaze would go through it with a violence that would shatter it, with the wine spraying everywhere. But she wasn’t looking at the bottle. She was looking farther away; she was looking at the shoes of Marcello Solara.”

It’s a beautiful, heart-breaking moment in the novel. However, in order to really understand the premise, what am I bringing to the table?

Simplistically, we interpret a sound from the squiggles that become letters; put them together and eventually see words to which we have to assign meaning; lots of those words go together to create sentences and developing language allows us to interpret information. But without greater knowledge we might find that increasingly difficult, especially when lots of sentences go together to create paragraphs and more.

Now, merely having a book in your hand and reading might help you along the way but to develop a greater understanding of context in the Elena Ferrante passage, I need to go further. I need to be aware that, as the book is set in Naples, that contextual factors come into play. The role of women, the role of poverty, the role of politics. Willingham, clearly and wonderfully, talks his reader through these process and makes clear the challenging, but almost unconscious, development of the proficient reader.

So developing readers is not easy. This post is a bit of a splurge of initial thoughts on this so apologies for that. My own book dealt with some effective ways to develop the reading habit in children. Willingham’s book has helped me move forward in my thinking and that’s not such a bad thing. We’re often told that, in education and in life, that we are ‘on a journey’. Sometimes that journey can leave us a little travel sick. But sometimes we can often find out way.