Reading is a habit not an isolated action.

This summer I’ve been submerging myself in fiction again, after a little break with some non-fiction. I discovered the wonder of Grahame Greene, finally read ‘Rebecca’, and worked my way through a host of unread books I’d been adding to my bookcase over the year.  The act of reading is one in which I am most at ease during the holidays. The niggling thought that I should be doing something else dissipates and my time is my own. I leave no time or space between books, almost literally, and that pile of books which had been building up over the last few months starts to decrease.

thinkerWith no pause between books how could I possibly reflect on what I’d read, something I ask my students to do after reading a book? Of course, I couldn’t. Stopping after each book, thinking for a bit, or even writing about it, is not something that experienced readers do an awful lot of. Of course we internalise what we read – I could talk about ‘Our Man in Havana’ for hours if you asked – but good readers can do that. We live the lives of readers and the reflection part is built in, ingrained in what we do. Our students don’t often have habit that yet.

I return to teaching tomorrow and will, for the first time, meet about 150 new students. Some of them may have been with me before but I like to spend that first day, or at least some of the time, talking about the reading we will be doing and why it is important for them. Each will have a reading journal  – they will write in that once or twice a fortnight – and part of their role will be to write about the things which I now take for granted. However, to begin with anyway, it will be more important to get books into their hands. The refection bit will come later.

When it coms to reluctant readers it is important to remember that the quality of the book itself might not be the most important thing at the beginning. I’m happy for them to choose any book to start with just to get that habit on its way. Many of these guys will be coming to us with negative reading experiences so rejection of their early choices merely adds to that. Let them choose whatever they want: when they start to read you can begin to push books over their desk towards them, once you get to know them. And I won’t worry whether they choose to reflect too much on those books.

While I don’t necessarily reflect on individual books any more, preferring to submerge myself into the act of reading, it is important that we remember that when we meet new classes. There is nothing worse than asking kids to write a book review, especially reluctant readers. Don’t concern them with chin scratching and reflecting. Reading is a habit not an isolated action. It’s more important that we begin the sometimes long process of allowing them to develop that habit, along with an awareness of what being a reader looks like. Some will get there quicker than others. But it’s hugely important that they do get there.

Education is a political football. Stop playing games with it.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard it but when, at a lecture at Strathclyde University recently, Michael Apple stressed the point that ‘Education is political’ something resonated with me. At a time in Scotland when the gap between rich and poor has never been wider, it is a point that we should ignore at our peril. For, while school is and never should be seen as the place to solve all of society’s ills, it is incumbent on all of us to do our bit. Improving the literacy of all of our citizens is a political act. What’s more worrying is when education becomes a tool to be used for political gain.

chess-424556_960_720The Scottish Government’s policy of reintroducing National Assessment is on its way. Despite attempts to discover where the policy originated or which research was accessed – see James McEnaney’s excellent work on this here – we are told merely that this is will be ‘for the best’. National Assessment seems to go against the grain of the principles of Curriculum for Excellent and, regardless of your thoughts on that, it is the Scottish Curriculum. Without the support of teachers it will become a policy fraught with tension and the Government will have a hard job of convincing us of the merits of these National Assessments.

What troubles me is that, in an era of massive constitutional upheaval  and the louder and harsher calls for IndyRef2,  SNP policy seems to be taking a surge to the right in order to attract traditional ‘No’ voters rather than stick to the more left leaning approaches which garnered so much support over the last ten years. No-one should pretend that the SNP are a left leaning party; they merely, cleverly, stepped into a hole left bare by the inadequacies of Scottish Labour. However, education is political but not a political tool. I want the best policies for the children in my class, not for the SNP.

I’m still not convinced how and why any new assessment will provide me with any information I don’t already have. I see a whole load of additional admin; I see a whole load of additional stress; I see league tables, which will be created regardless of the intentions of Government. Part of the change to Curriculum for Excellence was the focus on local needs and the increased value of the professional judgment of teachers. Those shouldn’t be followed with a ‘but’. I know how well my students are doing. Comparing them nationally at an early age seems nonsensical.

It’s not that I’m completely against Government intervention in Education; that would be daft. But if there is so much opposition to a policy which those in charge find difficult to justify beyond a few practiced lines then we really must start to question them. Along with slightly idealistic and simplistic approaches to Reading for Pleasure, which I write about here, I want to trust a Government which takes decisions based on current research and up-to-date thinking, not one which looks to cement it’s political foothold. I’m not convinced that’s the case at the moment. Education is a political football. Literacy is a political football. We shouldn’t allow anyone to play games with that.

On Not Finishing Books

A fine-looking copy of ‘Ulysses’, resplendent in green jacket like a proud Masters winner, stares at me from my bookshelves. I’ve moved it around because it catches my attention and reminds me of my failure to finish it. Oh, I’ve tried. Many times. One page a day; big chunks at a time; sections in a different order. I just can’t do it. As an experienced reader, it’s something that has troubled me for years. And, while I can’t bring myself to part with it – it as a gift, bought for me at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin – I’ve finally put up the white flag. I will never finish ‘Ulysses’ in this lifetime.

Not finishing books is an unforgivable sin in the English classroom, is it not? Those reluctant readers will change their books every week, every day, if they could get away with it. The novelty of a new book, chosen without thought or advice, trumps finishing the previous one. Experience in spotting the tricks of ‘reading avoidance’ allows us to recognise and intervene but raises the thorny problem of my ‘Ulysses’ hypocrisy. If I’m allowed to dismiss books unfinished then why shouldn’t my pupils? The answer may lie in a discussion of what it’s like to be a reader. Of course you can change books if you’re a reader. Knowing when and why to give up is another matter.

phone-1052023_960_720Life’s too short to waste time on books you don’t enjoy. Notice that I refrained from using ‘bad books’ because I don’t think that matters. I walk into my local bookshop and it often sinks in that, despite reading constantly for forty years, in the larger scheme of things, I’ve read nothing. None of us will ever read everything we want or read everything we think we need to read. So let’s not get hung up or feel guilty if we dump a few books along the way. And I think it should be okay for our children to do so too.

When I take a class to the library it is incumbent on me to be by a child’s side when they are choosing a  book; to stop them choosing a seven hundred page doorstopper if they are a reluctant reader; to know them well enough to suggest a book which they may enjoy; to have read enough teen fiction to be able to make that choice. It is not about insisting that they finish the books I choose for them but providing them with the skills to make that choice for themselves. Children with no reading history have no hook to hang their reading on. My job is to provide the conditions for them to start that history.

In his essay, ‘Why Finish Books?’ Tim Parks argues that it’s fine to finish books before the end because the writing is the most important factor. ‘Once the structure has been set up and the narrative ball is rolling, the need for an end is just an unfortunate burden, an embarrassment, a deplorable closure of so much possibility.’ I wouldn’t argue with him about the ‘Reservoir Dogs’-style end to Hamlet and, dare I agree with him , that the play might have been better without it. But it makes me feel better about not finishing ‘Ulysses’. I recognise the beauty of the prose. It’s just I’ve got other things to read. Allowing our pupils to ‘not finish’ books is okay too. As long as they know why.

Of course you can study Macbeth if you want to. Don’t blame the SQA for that one.

sqaRight from the off, then, let me say that I’m no cheerleader for the Scottish Qualifications Authority. The stress to some of my friends and colleagues caused by some bizarre assessment practices in subjects other than English which seem unbelievable when they tell me of their experiences.  Too often we’ve had goalposts moved mid-season – strange rule changes, confusing, contradictory advice at ‘information’ days – that leave teaching staff in a state of panic, never mind the young people hurtling towards exam season. This year we’ve had to submit Writing Folios on a specially prepared grid, apparently to facilitate e-marking. That was also changed half way through the year. I know of no English teacher who hasn’t experienced a massive increase in workload because of this. So there is a discussion to be had with – and about – the SQA.

However, the appearance of this article in yesterday’s Herald newspaper, Teacher claims bureaucracy blocks study of William Shakespeare – left me a bit frustrated about the nature of the argument. The New Higher exam – or National 6 as it is officially known- brought yet more changes to a course which has experienced so much tinkering even Claudio Ranieri would be embarrassed ( I’m not sure if that joke is massively out-of-date or super hip). Two years ago candidates had to complete two Critical Essays in ninety minutes and a Close Reading exercise, also in ninety minutes. That was it. Along with a Folio of two pieces of writing – and a few Internal Assessment hurdles –  that was your Higher English.

Now, a candidate has to complete one Close Reading exercise – now called Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation – only one Critical Essay on Literature and a forty five minute analysis of a previously studied Scottish text. Make of that what you will but it’s there. The nature of the assessment means that less time is available for the wide ranging study of literature we had before. I would always study two major texts and at least a couple of poems. But nothing, as the article suggests, is banned. The headline puzzled me as I’d only recently finished Hamlet. Without the need to study two major texts – candidates only have to write one Critical Essay now – I got to spend more time with the Bard, not less.

We also studied six challenging Don Paterson poems and, to a lesser extent, Alan Spence’s magnificent short story, Nessun Dorma. It was a high challenge yet engaging and enjoyable course. Like many English teachers I know, I’ve tried to cover the internal assessment aspect to the course with a less formal approach, as suggested by the SQA. I cover bases and pick ups outcomes through my study of the play, as well as the odd Newspaper analysis we do over the course of the year. I have had to make choices as I adapt to the new course but to suggest that anything has been ‘blocked’, as the Herald article suggests, is at best mistaken and at worst mischief-making.

We have some serious discussions on workload coming up and we should be taking that seriously. If any approach to what should or shouldn’t be studied is being imposed by department, school or Local Authority then that is a serious matter. But be fair: that’s not the SQA. They have some serious questions to answer. Why we are being blocked from studying Shakespeare isn’t one of them.

The Scottish Government and Reading for Pleasure

IMG_0603This week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a new venture to encourage  primary-aged kids to read for pleasure. Part of her Government’s ongoing – and as yet unsuccessful – attempt to enhance literacy and narrow the attainment gap, children in primaries four to seven will be encouraged to read as many books as possible and write short reviews to win prizes for themselves and their schools. As one who has blogged, tweeted and presented at Teachmeets, on the importance of reading for pleasure, I’m delighted that this has been placed, to an extent, centre stage of a literacy push. I do worry slightly about the competitive element though.

The First Minister’s comments on reading for pleasure echo mine exactly: “Research … shows that reading for pleasure is crucially important for children’s development, and I hope this scheme goes a long way in encouraging Scotland’s young people to see reading as an important leisure activity as much as a school one.”  That we place reading for pleasure at the heart of any literacy development is vital, especially in the early years, if we are to develop life-long readers, and anything we can do to encourage that must be seen as a positive step. From experience, however, I think there may be some flaws with this venture.

Where it begins to fall down for me is the added burden of the book review. I’m not wholly against writing about reading but I think we open up areas of real difficulty for some kids if we mesh something which we present as being for pleasure with something else which has its own pitfalls. Writing book reviews, long or short, can be a wonderful experience for kids who are confident readers and writers. For reluctant readers, who we spend a lot of time encouraging and finding books for, the thought of writing at the end of a book can turn them off reading forever. They are faced with all of the issues they have with literacy: now hitched to something which was supposed to be about pleasure remember.

I also have an issue with choice. To paraphrase Donalyn Miller, writer of ‘The Book Whisperer – as I do time and time again – in order to create lifelong readers we must provide three things: time, choice and love. Closing down the choice of reading material to a set list chosen by adults is a potential disaster. Kids like to read books recommended by their friends. They may be terrible in our eyes but, with reluctant readers who we simply want to read, nothing should be off the table at first. Then, perhaps, later on we can start to push books their way. Book choices should not be limited to what adults think they should read.

However, despite these concerns, I welcome the Scottish Government’s new focus on Reading for Pleasure. I love the fact that Nicole Sturgeon is talking publicly about her favourite children’s books. We should all be doing the same in our classrooms and in our homes. I perhaps worry though that in order  to take this forward someone felt that it should be made into a competition. So one kid can read ten short books while another reads one long doorstopper: who should get a prize? If you teach kids you’ll probably know that reading for pleasure is not as big a disaster area as we are lead to believe. However, for those who are still reluctant readers we need to get this right.

First Minister’s Reading Challenge

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.

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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