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.

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.

Choosing Our Texts Carefully

I suppose it’s the nature of reading, being an adult and a reader and having a pile of books that never seems to diminish, but I never read enough children’s or young adult fiction. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of or happy about but there you go.  Finding books for the kids in my classes is a hugely important and rewarding part of my job so keeping up-to-date with what’s new should be something I keep on top of. And there shouldn’t be an excuse. Walking through your local High Street bookshop, you’ll see an explosion of colour as books for young people are marketed so beautifully now; some of them are even fabulous.

I had the great privilege of reading two such books recently, both of which were linked thematically and blew me away. The first one is a book I’m teaching for the first time: Patrick Ness’s ‘A Monster Calls’. The second, ‘Noah BarleyWater Runs Away’ by John Boyne called out to me from a shelf in the school library. Both dealing with the difficulties of coping with loss and family illness, we follow the lives of our protagonists through mystical, magical worlds as they struggle to face up to family tragedy.  Both are beautifully written and heartbreakingly moving.

Like many, I first came across  John Boyne with the publication of  ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. Despite the unsettling nature of the subject matter I found it extraordinary. The beautiful tale of two young boys and the friendship which see them through horrible times is both shocking and tragic.

‘Noah BarleyWater Runs Away’ has a more mystical feel. Noah runs away from home and finds himself in a toyshop run by an elderly man. The man’s stories allow Noah to reassess his choices and face up to the real reason he leaves in the first place. Slowly, we begin to see through the fantasy and see a little boy struggling deal with a painful truth about his family. ‘The thing is, she made me a promise, you see. And I think she’s going to break it. And I don’t want to be there when that happens.’ It’s a powerful and moving novel, and a hugely important one. The denouement will leave you stunned with mouth agape.

There is also a similar element of tragedy in ‘A Monster Calls’. Like Noah Barleywater, Conor is struggling to face up to his own monsters; the truth about his inevitable future. He is visited by a monster at 12:07 at night, with tales intended to help him. Conor fights against the monster until, slowly, the truth begins to emerge. ‘Many things that are true fell like a cheat. Kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farmers’ daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving’. Patrick Ness seems to have nailed that ability to create characters struggling to find their way in the world. His prose is mesmerising, characters wholly believable and I love his writing.

The power of great literature provides us with opportunities to approach difficult subjects in the classroom. Our compassion for both Noah and Conor results in powerful conversations with children; conversations which allow them to develop empathy and, perhaps, to begin to understand challenges in their own lives. We must never underestimate the importance of what we choose to teach as, beyond the story, we can engage, affect and influence our learners and open them up to worlds they may never visit.

Catching Up With Good Reads

I’m getting to an age where being invited to other people’s houses fills me with terror. The small talk, the nibbles, the apologies for having to leave early after constantly and surreptitiously checking my watch every ten minutes; my ability to cope with the opinions of others is seriously receding. The concept of the book group is another level of hell. I’m unforgivably very set in my ways and my views. If I like something, I like it; I’m rarely swayed by reviews, whether from friends, strangers or newspapers. But that’s the nature of our tastes. My taste in books is better than yours; same goes with film and music.

It is in that context that I signed up for Goodreads. If you’re unaware of what it is, it’s a Social Media platform for readers, one where we can track what we read and record our progress. There is also scope for ongoing discussion with others and  it is an excellent forum for recommendations. And that’s fine if you like that sort of thing. I’ve not always been that bothered with it but signed up years ago just to see where it would take me. Like most Apps on my phone, however, I forgot all about it. Mostly.

This year has been a little different. In January, when we go through that resolution phase, I signed up to the reading challenge where you give yourself a target number of books to read in the year. I normally hate that sort of thing as it is quite okay if ‘War and Peace’ is the only book you read in a year as opposed to 18 books by Andy McNab or Jeffery Archer. However, I had spent years looking  at shelves of books I had bought and never read. Those were the books I, mostly, put on my list. If I couldn’t read them this year, I would get rid of them.

And it has been fine so far. That long line of neglected books has begun to shrink. That David Sedaris book I bought a couple of years back; finally discovering the joy of Magnus Mills; others that were ‘must-reads’ about five years ago. All moved to the ‘recently read’ shelf. ‘Goodreads’ has, bizarrely, provided a childish sense of achievement as I watch the list decrease and my ‘Reading Challenge’ overcome its targets. I’ve never given myself reading targets before. It has been okay. I do, however, miss  the rediscovered joy of reading an old book from my past; the digression from what I had planned to read to reacquaint myself with an old friend. Re-reading ‘Rabbit, Run’ was my greatest reading pleasure of the year.

The biggest problem is that when I look from my unread books to my newly purchased shelf I seem to have created a whole new, even bigger, pile. Of course I keep buying new books; of course I always will. And of course I’ll go back to reading old ones.

In his book ‘My father and Other Working Class Heroes’, Gary Imlach discusses the problems with televised football. ‘Every goal we see is remembered for us.’ Creating an online record of every book we have ever read creates a similar issue. Forgetting great books and returning to them unexpectedly can be a joyous thing; it can reintroduce you too old friends or enemies. And it reminds us of why reading consists of a lifetime of Good Reads.

Clouds in My Coffee – Being With My Books

In his book ‘Out of My League’ the journalist George Plimpton quotes humorist James Thurber who claimed that ‘every American male falls asleep to the dream of hitting the winning run in baseball.’ In that, he hits upon the very heart of the male psyche. For perhaps we all want to be the hero: scoring a late goal in the cup final, the winning runs at Lords; standing on our classroom desks proclaiming ‘O Captain, My Captain.’ Plimpton wrote about his attempts to live out this childhood fantasy, humiliating himself in the process. Most of us never get that chance. We do, however, identify ourselves in the literary characters we love.

With twenty years of hindsight, I think this may be what connected me to Harry Angstrom all those years ago. The protagonist of John Updike’s ‘Rabbit, Run’, Angstrom has been described as a ‘heroic antihero’, one who stands alone against world. When I first read the books, in my early twenties , I realise now that I foolishly, pretentiously and wholly incorrectly felt that the world had dealt me a dodgy hand, fought against my injustice and saw a kindred spirit in Harry.

That seems to be the power of reading; that we can see ourselves in fictional characters, allowing us to develop some form of empathy, mistakenly or not.

But the character I saw as a rebel, one standing up for himself despite the mistakes he makes, I now see an unconscionable monster: one who damages everyone around him with his cruel behaviour. What was I thinking? Taking time to reread ‘Rabbit, Run’ half a life away has provided an insight into a younger me I perhaps wouldn’t like very much now. Wholly selfish, concerned only with my own place in the world, righting wrongs. What an idiot I was.

Re-Acquainting myself with Harry, all these years later has given me the opportunity to consider how much I’ve changed.

We recently changed our smallest bedroom into a library. A bunch of Billy bookcases, of course, filled to the brim with a lifetime’s collection of old paperbacks, beautifully bound hardbacks and a multitude of travel and photography books. In quieter moments, when I’m alone, I like to run my hands along the spines, feeling the stories within them recalling a younger me, a lifetime ago, when I first picked many of them up and jumped in. Having a library in my home has been, it turns out, a lifetime’s ambition. It’s a small room but it’s ours.

Sitting on the floor, surrounded by a lifetime of reading – a lifetime of friends and enemies, loves and hates, laughter and tears – I realise that books have changed me and I could never have lived with out them. Who needs to be a hero when you’ve got that?

What’s Up, Docs? Digital Technology in English.

As  an English teacher I get no greater pleasure when I see a classroom full of children engrossed in a book. Whether that is a focused ten minutes on their own choices or hanging on every word of Macbeth, books are what got me here and books are what it should be about. So when it comes to tech, I’ve always approached with caution. With any new ‘innovation’, I always begin with two questions: will this help reduce my workload rather than increase it and will it genuinely be a better way to teach kids stuff? If the answer to either of those is ‘No’ then I’ll ignore it.

I have real concerns that some of the major international tech firms are looking on at Education in the UK and are rubbing their hands with glee. So much money; so much possibility. The blind swallowing of this thing called ‘21st Century skills’ often disguises the fact that good learning is good learning no matter the tools we have in front of us. But is it incumbent on us all to find out what might work for our classrooms and ourselves? Perhaps. Again, approaching with caution – and a firm eye on the price tag – is key.

Having said that, though, it is our professional responsibility to utilise the best strategies for our classrooms. Using effective tech is already part of what we do in Scotland. The Government issued document ‘Enhancing Learning and Teaching Through the Use of Digital Technology’   states that: Digital technology is already embedded within Scottish education. It has a place within Curriculum for Excellence, Initial Teacher Education and the Professional Standards set by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS).’ So, knowing that, I have always tried to use the best resources I could find for my classes. The danger comes, however, when we use tech just because it is there.

I have recently been dabbling with the  ‘Classroom’ suite of tools from a very big tech company. For writing in the senior school I have begun to see it as hugely impressive. Our students have to produce a Folio for Higher and National 5. Using Docs this term has allowed me to follow progress very closely, to mark and assess as they go along, and avoid the chasing up of late bits of paper. It both cuts down on my workload and helps the students to make progress. Sold. I would never use it with younger kids; they need to write accurately with pen or pencil before they should move on to more focused tools but for seniors it works really well.

As teachers we should be able to assess how tech works most effectively. Kids have loads of gadgets but are not as tech savvy as we may be lead to believe. In fact it is often  lazy assumption. They have tools with great power. Whether we can tap into that or not remains to be seen but we should find out of ourselves. Tech, if anything, should allow us to extend the classroom, providing genuine opportunities for learning. If it doesn’t do that the we should leave it alone. And get back to the books.