Alberto Manguel – his part in my reading life

I’ve always loved reading about reading. The lives readers lead and the way books have formed them is an endless source of fascination, often envy. From Francis Spufford’s ‘The Child that Books Built’ to Susan Hill’s ‘Howard’s End is on the Landing’, tales of the remarkable journeys that we go on as readers have encouraged me to reflect on my own reading history, forming many of my values as an English Teacher. In particular, Alberto Manguel’s books continue to document the life of the reader like no others. So I was thrilled recently to discover that he has a new book this year, ‘Packing my Library: an Elegy and Ten Digressions’.

My first experience of Manguel came when I discovered his ‘A Reading Diary: A Year of favourite Books’ in a second hand book shop. It is a joyful short read, doing exactly what the title suggests. He takes us through his literary thoughts on classics such as ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘The Wind in the Willows’: he never reviews, never critiques; merely shares his thoughts as he walks alongside Mole and  Sancho Panza, reflecting on his life at that moment. I’d never read anything like it. Beautifully written, infectiously optimistic, it might possibly be the root of much that came after for me. He recognised that ‘Reading is a comfortable, solitary, slow and sensuous task’ while recognising that ‘every book exists in a dreamlike condition until the hand that open it and the eyes that peruse it stir the words into awareness’. And if I’d written that sentence I might never have to write another one.

When I began to write my own book on reading, it was to Manguel that I first turned; his ‘A History of Reading’ being as a good a point as any to start. Impeccably and painstakingly researched, Manguel walked me through the roots of reading. From a pre-Aristotle age to very contemporary, political approaches to reading, the book is a remarkable achievement, carefully arguing the roots and the pros and cons of silent reading, to translation and banned books. How we have changed as readers through the ages, how reading has been valued, and de-valued throughout history and how reading and literacy  have become the political tool of our age is a liberating story.

He sums up the importance of reading in the words of Thomas a Kempis: ‘I have sought for happiness everywhere but I have found it nowhere except in a little corner with a little book.’

While I’ve had it for a few years, I’m unsure I’ve read all of Manguel’s ‘A Reader on Reading’. It’s a magnificent collection of essays which you can dip into; my favourites being, ‘How Pinocchio Learned to Read’ and ‘The Library at Home’. The range and breadth of subjects covered suggests a writer who knows his subject. His journey is a thoughtful and remarkable one and this is a book which I return to often. Those of you who really ‘get’ that books can be a haven from a hectic world will love it:

“In the midst of uncertainty and many kinds of fear, threatened by loss, change, and the welling of pain within and without for which one can offer no comfort, readers know that at least there are, here and there, a few safe places, as real as paper and as bracing as ink, to grant us roof and board in our passage through the dark and nameless wood.”

Finally, as I wait patiently for his new book, another essay collection to recommend is ‘The Library at Night’. Now I grew up in libraries, having never had my own at home, and, in an era where libraries are seen as an excessive luxury rather than societal necessity, Manguel’s essays will make you weep with joy for a world sadly disappearing. He takes us through a series of thoughts and explanations, a series of treatise about libraries as collections of books as much as spaces; how those spaces, wherever they may be, provide us with places to live, places to think, places to grow.

“And for the course of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexations, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass into their world.”

Thank you, Alberto Manguel.

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.

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.

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.