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.

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.

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.

The Higher English Folio and Equal Writes.

There won’t be an English teacher in Scotland out there who isn’t currently stressing over the marking of written Folio essays for both Higher and National 5 classes. A pile which never seems to shrink; another pupil who’d like you to take another look; the demoralising realisation that deadline day is fast approaching. Indeed, over the course of my eighteen years in teaching the assessment of writing in the senior phase has changed several times, arguably not in a good way. I would argue that, at a time when equity in education is so much in focus,  the way we assess writing now has never been so unfair.office-594132__340

The new exam system is now in its third year and, while this might surprise some,  I have been mostly pleased with it. Teaching Don Paterson poetry has been a joy; spending time with Hamlet has been fantastic. The rest has been a chore. Time seems to be constrained; deep learning, at times,  rare. However, the writing folio – one creative piece and one functional piece of  a maximum of thirteen hundred words each – is externally assessed by the SQA and is worth thirty percent of the final grade. So, a good grade for Folio can take you much of the way to a pass.

The writing is assessed using a marking grid which every teacher and pupil can access during the writing process. So far, so fair. But not really. It would be difficult to argue that the external assessment is unfair; perhaps there is an argument there but that’s for another day. The real problems become clear, however, when we consider the preparation and support given. The SQA guideline suggests ‘reasonable assistance’. It also says this;

‘Assessors should not provide specific advice on how to re-phrase or improve responses, or provide model answers specific to the candidate’s task. It is not acceptable for the assessor to provide key ideas, to provide a structure or plan, to suggest specific wording or to correct errors in spelling and/or punctuation. This would go beyond reasonable assistance.’

Those who can, rush straight to their tutors for help. And yes, despite the above advice, tutors do. Parents often insist upon it. Those who can afford it get more help. those who can’t, struggle on. Different approaches are followed all over the country. It’s a system which, while appearing to be equal in terms of assessment is, in fact, anything but.

So perhaps, if we are to assess writing more fairly, it needs to return to the final exam. Why the hell not? It might re-emphasise our need to teach writing properly. Our whole curriculum was supposed to be a move away from our traditional exam system but it doesn’t appear to have worked. What was intended to be an attempt to narrow the gap appears to me to be exacerbating it. Let’s face up to that and do something about it.

Reading for Pleasure- A Passport to Everywhere

The sight of a brown box, just delivered, slammed down on the hall rug might not sound special or appealing but it was the most glorious thing that has happened in my professional life. Almost two years in production, I could now stop telling people that I had a book coming out. And, perhaps, that moment was the most nerve-wracking of all. The anticipation as I breathed in, found some scissors and began to open the box, slowly and carefully, for my first sight of ‘How to Teach – Reading for Pleasure’. My words in print. My book.

As long as I remember I’ve been in awe of books. The covers, the spines, the very feel of them; the remarkable nature of words and stories captured inside. Like many of you, no doubt, I loved having them and seeing them on my shelf. Before University, working in factories and shops, I longed to be able to afford more; to fill up my shelves with the complete works of Hemingway or Roth or Updike. It was never a status symbol; they never made me feel clever; I wanted them around me because they were aesthetically pleasing as well as filled with memories. Like a long curated record collection, nothing says more about you than your books.

So what brought me to this point? Why would I write a book about reading for pleasure? There are other books on the subject. And, as a classroom teacher, I’m not convinced that this thing called ‘pleasure’ is my main focus. I want kids to read and read well because literacy is the benchmark for their place in society. I want them to be readers because good readers succeed in life. I am convinced of that. But what I wanted to achieve in writing this book was both a tale of my reading life and a series of, hopefully, relevant strategies which would allow the children in my classes to begin to develop the habits of a reader.

imageAnd I’m really proud of it. I wanted to capture my own approach to reading, perhaps with a touch of humour and a wee bit of memoir. Either way, I think I’ve achieved that. Every strategy in the book has been successful in  my classroom at some point: no, I don’t use all of them all of the time. I use them when necessary and when I’d like to inject a little bit of enthusiasm for reading. It, for the most part, works successfully for most kids.


But holding your own book in your hands? That’s a moment which will stay with me for a long time. The new book smell, the untouched pages, the sight of my name on the front: the proud tears. In  my initial communication with Phil Beadle, who so kindly made this all possible, I said that I wanted to write something of which I was very proud. I’ve done that. Books come and go but our words, in print, last a lifetime. Almost two years after I began, I have a book out. And it’s a wonderful feeling.

Moments of Growing Up

aberdeenAberdeen. I don’t know why it has taken me twenty years to write about this, but it has. Twenty years ago,  sitting on a train leaving Aberdeen for the last time. A life lived.

It seemed such an event at the time, such a turning point, a real change in my life. I had gone there an uneducated wanderer, in search of a life and a love, and was leaving a University graduate with everything in front of me. A train journey to something else, something different. Tom Waits on the Walkman – yes, a walkman, with cassettes – deliberately set up and picked out. ‘Goodbye, so long. The road calls me, dear.’ Not that it seemed like a choice, really. It was the end of something. The end of University. The end of the job I had, the last meaningless, mindless job I would ever have. The end of several relationships, relationships which would naturally end – associates, colleagues, course mates – and some I’d hope to keep or we’d promised to keep. Knew we would not.

‘Goodbye, so long.’ And the emotion I felt that day should not have been a surprise but it was. I knew this time was coming. A scarcely held back tear. A sudden realisation, as the train pulled away, that it was genuinely the end of something special, a time that would not only prove to be the making of me in many ways but one which would define who I was. Like a hugely important era in my history. ‘The road calls me, dear.’ The grey, wistful mumble of the train heading over the bridge, over the river, to a new world. The river that separates. Past from present, then from now.

 I’ve rarely returned to Aberdeen, merely the odd occasion, and never for very long. Not the same. Either I’ve changed or it has. Probably both. I think of the people I knew and no longer know and I smile. But I don’t regret, never regret. Aberdeen. It seemed like my home forever at the time. Should have known better. A life apart, that some other person lived. ‘Goodbye, so long.’ Tom Waits knew what he was on about.

There have been at least two other times in my life, at least, when I thought to myself that this was it for me, my life will never change. The first came when I was about twenty two. Still at home, still in a terrible nowhere job, still with the same friends. Don’t get me wrong, the friends I had then helped me through my terrible years, my drinking years. Always there, always by my side. And they would still be if life did not require us to live differently. Our proud, loud, male existence.

There never was a quiet pint, never ‘just the one’. And therein lies the problem.

No, if you went out, you went out. At about twenty two I recall an evening when one of our crowd, always this one – the loud and aggressive one rather than the loud and funny one – was particularly loud and aggressive. You could sense a tension in the crowd, had been for a while. We felt or knew that we were coming to the end of something but did not know how to do it.

A situation which almost came to blows, involving me for no other reason than silence and complicity. I didn’t need this any more. I remember very distinctly thinking that this could not go on. An epiphany which began the end of that particular part of my life. I recall walking (slightly) behind my staggering friends – for they were my friends, remember – and thinking that this could be it for me, This life, unless I acted. The next pub we went to – for we did go to another pub – saw me standing quietly to the side. I would like to say that I, somewhat romantically, gave a silent toast to my friends and left but that is not what happened. What did happen was that I brooded silently, eventually took a final look all around me, a final sip and walked out, home. Soon after, by coincidence rather than design, I left East Kilbride, much like leaving Aberdeen six years later. I continued to see these friends, occasionally,  for some time after but all had things to do, business to take care of, living to do and we lost touch. We all became different people.

Some of us actually grew up.

Gulp! Five Years On…

Back in the day, my first opportunity to have my writing in print came in the highly regarded, award-winning match day magazine -programme to you and me – of the great Partick Thistle. Fortnightly, more or less, for about six years, you could read about my childhood memories of watching my team, or ponder over the creative ways I could liken that week’s political events to the experience of being a Thistle supporter. All good things come to an end though. And my page had to come to an end too. I’d written about every memory, every experience, every possible thing I could. I stopped because I couldn’t possibly continue to force things on to the page. Better to let someone else have a go.

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From then on I concentrated on teaching. I began blogging exactly five years ago – Gulp – with the intention not of sharing my thoughts, but of expressing them in a way in which I could formulate and clarify my own ideas. While I was on Twitter, I hadn’t thought of the links between that and blogging, or how they could complement each other. What I did discover was that there was a whole new world of people who had things to say and things to share. Our school context didn’t cater for that. I wanted to write but hadn’t factored in the CPD possibilities.

I’m a much better teacher than I was five years ago so I suppose the blog title is an appropriate one. I’ve connected with hundreds of great people, many have become good friends. Blogging has opened doors for me that nothing else in my professional life has come close to. I’ve been invited to write articles for many other publications, been invited to speak at all sorts of conferences and Teachmeets. However, like my days as contributor to the Partick Thistle programme, I am coming to the end of the line with this. I’ve said as much as I have to say.

I’ve never wanted to be a ‘big-hitter’ on Twitter or anywhere else. I’ve never really wanted to leave the classroom. I’ve never really wanted to be seen as an expert in anything. My work with Pedagoo intended to be a way to get teachers talking in a way they’d never done before. We do that and continue to do so. I truly believe that the educational landscape is beginning to change in Scotland and we are a part of that. There are discussions going on in staffrooms – not all but many – which may never have happened before. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.

So 2016? I have two huge events happening in my life this year: one personal, one professional. Potentially game changing in many ways. But I think my blogging days may be coming to an end. I’d like to move into more creative writing – something I’ve done more of recently -so may mix my educational thoughts with that. So this is no big ‘I’m off. So long, and thanks’ speech. I may still blog occasionally. It’s just a realisation that I’ve come a long way in five years and I’m maybe ready to move on to something else. Blogging is a blast and, should you be considering it, get going. Be proud of it. I know I am.

Hello darkness, my old friend…

quietI spent the rest of the day, yesterday, worrying that it was my fault. I’d turned and shushed someone at the cinema because they were speaking right behind me throughout the movie. I’m sorry. It’s a thing with me: that expectation that people should know that sometimes they need to be silent. And hopefully not eat noisily. At the end, the gentleman waited behind to, we thought, apologise. But no. He explained that we were being rude for shushing him because he wasn’t talking, he was whispering. And that was stuck with me: is it me that can’t quite grasp that we live in a society where silence is almost unheard of?

Is it any wonder the children in our classes find silence so challenging, find sitting down to read for any amount of extended time, challenging? Walking towards the cinema in Glasgow yesterday we are bombarded with music: Christmas jingles, street entertainers, buskers. And the buskers are amped up now. Noise is everywhere. Perhaps noise becomes the wallpaper to our lives. And before you assume I’m a just a grumpy old man, failing to deal with the modern world, think about the times in your life when you have complete silence. Even in classrooms, we get to the point where a silent classroom is a ‘boring’ one.

It turns out, however,  that the only way anyone develops a love of reading is through sitting quietly with a book. That kids tend not to see reading as something they would choose to do over, say, playing on their consoles, while to an extent being a myth, has some grounds. But how often do we allow them to sit in silence in classes these days? Our desks in groups, our co-operative learning strategies in place, it seems that to look into a classroom and see thirty eleven year olds sitting reading in silence just ain’t ‘sexy’ teaching any more.

The sad reality is that it’s more than likely that half of that class are secretly praying to be sitting in silence. The peace to get on with things, unencumbered by the nonsense of the day, the distractions of the class clowns, the teacher droning. In secondary school, half an hour of hard work, writing in silence, can be a joy. It can provide the only opportunity for me to chat quietly to those who need it most, to intervene on a one-to-one basis.  It’s lovely and calm and, sometimes grudgingly, my pupils really appreciate it.

So, I’m not sure if I can forgive my cinema friend for finding it difficult to distinguish between talking and whispering. Perhaps he genuinely didn’t know. Perhaps whispering is his silence. We all exited to the maelstrom of noise in the busy city centre outside and went about our business. However, I returned to school all the more convinced that we need to provide that space for our pupils. It’s why our libraries should be libraries and not Information Centre/ Cafes. It’s why our classrooms need not always be noisy and collaborative. We think best when we are silent.  We learn best when we are silent. So, for at least some time during our day, let’s be silent.

Using Homework More Effectively

I’ve been trying to get my head round the concept of homework recently. Is there such a thing as good homework and, if so, how can I use it more constructively than I’ve been doing? If I’m to believe some then  homework is the devil’s work and should be avoided at all costs. It’s cruel to our children; it cause parents unnecessary grief when they could be spending more quality time with their families. I should never give it again. Others say that it needs to be the bedrock of a good education and is vital to underpin the work I do in class. So, that’s that solved then.

From a workload point of view it would suit me very nicely to give up issuing homework. It, perhaps, is the reason for most of the conflict I encounter with pupils. However, my school’s policy means that I must issue homework on a weekly basis and if there is one piece of advice that I’d give any teacher it would be to stick to school policy: your beliefs and principles are important but inconsistency helps no child. So, for the last few months I have been looking to develop homework which is helpful to my senior pupils, something from which they will genuinely benefit.

Part of the New Higher English Course includes outcomes for Reading, Writing, Talking and Listening. It can be an onerous task to tick a lot of boxes and one which seems unnecessarily burdensome. So I’ve done this: I issue a newspaper article or essay on a Monday; the homework task is to read and analyse the language in the writing and answer four exam-style questions attached. I specifically model the questions on questions which they will face in May. For example: ‘How does the writer’s use of punctuation effectively emphasis her point in Paragraph 4?’ The homework needs to be handed in on Thursday.

My marking of that homework is minimal. I spend five minutes looking for one perfect, or near to perfect, answer to each question. I write an ‘E’ for Expert in red and that’s that. We now have four ‘experts’ in the class. On Fridays I announce the experts and send them to corner one, two etc. The rest of the class now has a perfect answer scheme. Their job is to go to each corner and ‘mark’ their own answers. Of course, many of them will have perfect answers too but my plan is to allow everyone to have a chance to be a n expert at some point.

The payback for the experts is that they must discuss and not show. No pointing to answers, no copying from others. Experts must give answers in full sentences, practicing the way  answers should be set out in the exam. I’m assessing Talking as well as Listening outcomes – along with Reading – throughout the process which takes about ten to fifteen minutes each week. More importantly, by explaining their answers to others, the pupils are embedding their understanding of the language and of how they might use it in the exam. Other pupils then go back to their desks and have another go. Over the weeks, these answers build in to a collection of revision resources. As a result, I think I’m beginning to use Homework as a more effective learning tool. So. How might I adapt that to other year groups?

Feedback Gallery – or the Green Room on ‘The One Show’?

I hate to say it but Peer Assessment is, in my experience, hugely ineffective. I know it’s probably the way I was doing it so couldn’t dismiss it out of hand but it never really works for everyone and can be a massive waste of time if every pupil doesn’t benefit. It seems to be one of those things we’d love to work, perhaps even convince ourselves that it does. However, I spent a lot of time teaching kids to critique each others work and they find it difficult. So I tried to find another way that worked.

Even using the ‘This was good when…’ and ‘Even better if…’ structures proved problematic. Asking them to comment on each others work instantly turned the room into what I imagine the Green Room at the ‘One Show’ to be like. Everyone is great and ‘I do so love your work’ and ‘No, yours is better’ and ‘I love everything about it.’. We all feel great about ourselves. But I hate the bloody ‘One Show’. If our pupils cannot accurately and consistently provide effective feedback to peers then it is at best unfair and at worst a complete waste of valuable time. So, what to do?

This year I’ve left three valuable notice boards completely blank. The complete back wall of my classroom. I no longer use it for posters of what Skellig might look like (yes, I know) or the life and times of Jem and Scout. (Aren’t posters just busy work? Do kids really learn anything from them? Another blog post, I think). Once a week, when possible, every pupil pins an example of written work on the ‘Feedback Gallery’ – no exceptions. I give them post its and ask them to comment on what they see. Again, comments are not always helpful but what they do see are examples of peer work which may be better than theirs. They begin to see where improvement is required. They also see inferior work which confirms that they are moving in the right direction.

What I’ve noticed is that, as the classes get used to using the Feedback Gallery and making their work public, they do spend more time on first drafts. Knowing that their work will be there for all to see is a key to focus and attention to detail. Some did not like it at first but began to understand the benefits. What I’ve tried to do is look beyond the strategy and think about the true benefits of Peer Assessment. I, like many I would presume, did try to persist with it even though in my heart of hearts I knew it wasn’t as effective as it could be.

It is difficult at times to face up to the failure of a strategy we’ve used. We try to paper over the cracks by concentrating on the ones who do everything well and give excellent feedback to peers. But it can never be all can it? Why persist with something which wasn’t helping the pupils who need it most? Structured, constructive feedback is what they need but, more importantly for some, modelling of good practice with examples. It’s all very well being laudatory and glowing to Adrian Chiles in the Green Room but our children deserve better.