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.

Re-reading and the Discovery of Old Friends

We’ve been decorating this week which meant moving bookcases in and out of rooms. It has been a big job, not helped by finding myself sitting in the hall flicking wistfully through books I’d forgotten I had. A volume of Woody Allen cartoons; a signed copy of The Wasp Factory’ by Ian Banks; a book of John Updike essays on Art. There is no more blissful way to spend an afternoon, surrounded by old friends, more revealing than any photo album. The Updike book, especially, grabbed my attention because he is, perhaps, the writer who has influenced my reading history more than any other.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I went to University. My schooling and my background had convinced me that it was for others and complete terror of formal education kept me away. Throughout that time though I read and read. Updike’s Rabbit novels were an obsession. Harry Angstrom’s struggles to cope with the reality of a changing America struck a chord and stayed with me throughout Uni until eventually I wrote my dissertation about them. I still own my well-thumbed Penguin copies and they’ve sat on the shelves ever since. But here’s the thing: since graduation -1996 – I’ve never been able to pick them up again.

Like old, lost friends, I’m planning to reacquaint myself this summer. The first book sees Harry at 26, my age when I when to Uni. The last one is at 56 – not quite me yet but not far off. I wonder what I’ll find in there though: the lines I underlined, the corners I folded down.  Rereading old books is not merely a luxury, it is a necessity at times. Like old photos, we may see an additional detail in the corners, a changing perspective. And while Harry and I are old friends who lost touch, perhaps we can discover a whole new relationship.

Discovering old books unexpectedly is a joy. It’s why I’ve never been one for alphabetical order; not books, not records, not CDs. The aimless wandering allows me to stumble upon unexpected corners and spark old memories. Along with our music collections, nothing travels with us as much as books. Moving into any new home, sharing that home with a significant other for the first time. Our books take a special place. That bookmark you left sticking out of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’; that train ticket peeking out of ‘The Third Policeman’; the post-its peppering ‘The Magus’.  They all tell our life stories for us.

So, it’s time to move the bookcases back today. It’ll likely take less time than when I moved them out. But what I will do is shelve the old friends in a much more prominent position. The newer, shinier upstarts can take a back seat for a while. Books change as we change; our knowledge, our political perspectives, our relationships. Opening up the ‘Rabbit’ novels once again is a big step for me, but one I hope will, rather than return me to a younger man I don’t know any more, allow me to rediscover the beauty and art of my book collection.

What’s Grown Ups Going to Think?

There is a moment in ‘Lord of the Flies’ when Simon, the artistic, religious visionary, speaks an uncomfortable truth. ‘Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.’ The boys in the story begin to show what happens when all rules, all modes of decency, are eroded. I thought about this recently when reading some of the sneering tweets aimed at the hashtag, PedagooFriday.

I created #PedagooFriday six years ago;  blame me. I wanted to create a space where anyone could share a positive experience from their classroom and, perhaps, develop a happier tone at the end of the week. I’m very proud of what it became, even though I have no input into its running now. Of course, there will be things that are not so great, things that you might feel are nonsense. However, we should welcome new voices even if we may disagree. If not, we welcome a world of ‘Lord of the Flies’ and the atmosphere of ‘survival of the fittest’ pervades.

When the rules, or lack of them,  are established, we manoeuvre in our attempts to be one of the tribe, to impress Jack, the most powerful, strongest, angriest voice. Standing just behind his shoulder, we can throw spear-like tweets knowing that someone has our back. Who we hurt, or upset, is neither here nor there because this is a Twitter and you choose to enter the arena. There is no attempt to enter dialogue, to explain; no attempt to empathise or understand. It is acting without responsibility and, we soon discover, there are no rules.

So, many entering the fray for the first time, sharing their practice, find themselves spurned and mocked very publicly. Jack and his tribe sniff out a weakness; perhaps retweet with a mocking aside; perhaps write a hilariously scathing blog post in retort. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Because Twitter is in the public domain and if you choose to land on the island then what do you expect? Very quickly you are asked to choose one side of the island over another and you better make the right choice because after that anything goes.

Except it doesn’t. We may well choose to share ideas others may think of as silly or frivolous. It may well be the first time we’ve cleared our throats and, like Percival Wemys Madison, ‘The Vicarage, Harcourt St, Anthony, Hants’, have chosen to speak up. We are, for the most part, trying to find our voice in the scary world of Edutwitter. And who can say that at some point we haven’t tweeted something we later regretted or were embarrassed by. When I joined Twitter seven years ago, the educational landscape was a fairly empty one. Now it is a ferocious island where, it seems, it is every man for himself.

So you may think you are right in everything you say; you may even be right. But it takes bigger person to recognise the teacher behind the idea; the teacher tentatively stepping on to the beach, finding their way. It takes a bigger person to welcome all to the debate. Our humanity is based on how we treat others. Social media should be no different. If we don’t consider that, like the characters in ‘Lord of the Flies’, as soon as proper adult turns up, you just look like little boys again.

An Opportunity for Decency

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 21st April 2017)

Before the 2014 Referendum many teachers were asked to avoid expressing their voting intentions in the lead up to September 18 of that year. Generally, that was the correct stance to take. However, the imposition of this edict lead many to avoid discussing what was the most important day on our recent political history, missing an opportunity to teach our young people about the importance of debate in a healthy democracy. Whether we’re about to experience a rerun or not – strap in, folks, it looks like we may be in for the long haul – teachers have an opportunity to do it better this time.

Our public discourse shames us; our politicians, at times, shame us with their play school antics. Our young people need role models.

They also need to know the difference between fact and opinion in a functioning democracy. Recent global events have emphasised the importance of understanding the issues, of understanding why it is not enough to merely have an opinion based on gut instinct. The level of considered debate – or the lack of it – has emphasised the importance of why facts trump fiction: every time. If we have to ‘suffer’ another era of political ‘awakening’ then surely we must use the opportunity to develop that essential awareness of issues over the polarised taking of sides.

Our curriculum is set up for that very purpose: it could be the era in which we finally embed the true virtues of Curriculum for Excellence. We all need to be Successful Learners, listening to the opposing arguments, reading all the facts, preparing for our future. We all need to be Confident Individuals, able to debate rationally with those who perhaps don’t see things our way. We all need to be Responsible Citizens, aware of our place in Scotland, regardless of the eventuality even if it does not turn out the way we would like. And we must all be Effective Contributors to a Scotland in which we will all live, taking our place in a strong and healthy democracy, where all opinions are valued and no-one is silenced.

I wrote at the time that the recent U.S. Presidential election was, in a way, a referendum on decency; we saw how that turned out. As teachers, and as adults, we need to model that decency for our young people. So we don’t mock opposing views; we don’t humiliate those we disagree with, with pithy Social Media jokes; we don’t call those we oppose ‘Traitors’. We may have to rise above our politicians in that regard. But whatever happens, just remember that we all have to live with the consequences of what Brexit and a possible Indyref 2 might bring. What kind of Scotland do you want?