Michaela Librarian

At Michaela, reading is at the heart of everything we do. We read in every single lesson – not just English lessons, and yes, including Art, Music and Maths lessons. Every pupils reads for twenty minutes with their tutor at the end of the day. Pupils read at lunchtime and after school in the library. The weakest readers read for an additional thirty minutes every day in our reading club. Our culture and habit of reading means that if we ever have ideas we want to communicate with kids, we tend to write them down, and read them with the children: our PSHE offer is a booklet the children read and discuss with form tutors on Wednesdays – we call it ‘Wednesday Wisdom.’ 

Given this culture, coordinating all the reading that happens at Michaela has become a full-time job – just one that has been split between multiple people. The organisation and administration of the tutor-time reading programme, or the library, are huge projects, and while much of the ‘set-up’ has been done, we have so much more to do.

That’s why we are looking to appoint a Librarian and Literacy Coordinator who will champion reading in the school. They will not be a teacher, but they will have constant contact with every single child in the school – all of whom visit the library at least every two weeks to renew or change their books. They will inherit a school library that is packed to the rafters with classic children’s and adult’s books, and free of some of the usual fare school libraries provide (as Katie Ashford has spoken about so eloquently at our conference).

We believe that reading is the number one way to change a child’s destiny, and we want to hire someone who shares that belief, and has the capacity and tenacity to make it happen.

Apply here!

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Reading Reconsidered

Teach Like a Champion,’ by Doug Lemov, changed my teaching profoundly: it was the most practical and helpful piece of writing I had ever encountered, and transformed my classroom practice, giving me specific aspects to hone and improve.

When I heard that Lemov had been an English teacher, it didn’t surprise me – in particular, in TLAC 2.0 there are several techniques which are especially useful for the English teacher. When I heard he was co-authoring a book on reading, I had very high hopes. ‘Reading Reconsidered,’ written by Lemov with Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs, does not disappoint. With a nod to the poetic importance of literature (‘this book is about the enduring power of reading to shape and develop minds’), again, we have a manual for practice; specific things that teachers can do, day in, day out, to read effectively with pupils.

‘Reading Reconsidered’’s opening gambit is that text selection is key: in pages referencing Hirsch and Arnold, canon and cultural capital, the writers note: ‘part of the value of reading is to be able to read and talk about important books that almost everyone else has read.’ The great conversation of literature, intertextuality, ‘works only when pupils have read some texts in common.’ The writers extol the value of a common reading curriculum for all pupils, and warns us to select our texts carefully, noting: ‘a typical pupil might read and intentionally study forty or fifty books in English classes’ over their time in school and ‘these few books form the foundation of their knowledge of how literature works.’ If only there were as many as fifty texts! Such a sentence puts the demands of the new GCSE English Literature, with its four texts (I include the poetry cluster as a ‘text’) over two years into frightening perspective. To those who argue that canonical texts are unreadable by youngsters, the authors respond: we just need to get better at teaching them.

The writers go on to isolate the ‘five plagues of the beginning reader’, looking at five challenges all readers face in encountering tricky texts, and how we can overcome these in our everyday practice. One example is using ‘pre-complex texts’ to prime pupils for the canon, such as children’s classics like ‘The Secret Garden’ which use challenging syntax but have child-friendly story arcs.

The chapters on close reading are a must-read primer for all English teachers, going meticulously through how we should read closely in class, supplemented with specific questions designed to unlock meaning in complex passages. One key take-away for me was: teachers! Prepare to close-read! Annotate your text! It sounds blindingly obvious, but I know I’ve been guilty of sauntering into class, blank copy in hand, hoping for the best. Yet what more important preparation can there be for a lesson than our own annotation?

The most revolutionary chapter for me in ‘Reading Reconsidered’ was that on non-fiction. It made me recognise how vital it is for pupils to read non-fiction alongside fiction to assist with their comprehension and to enable really excellent analysis: ‘reading secondary nonfiction texts in combination with a primary text increases the absorption rate of pupils reading that text’; ‘when texts are paired, the absorption rate of both texts goes up.’ Overall: don’t teach non-fiction as a separate unit, but rather interweave non-fiction texts into your teaching of literature, either with short, contextual glosses or in-depth historical study of the time period in question to deepen analysis.

Though reading is this book’s chief subject, the authors do not neglect writing: ‘we are suggesting that pupils [should] write with more frequency and consistency as part of their daily work of responding to texts’. They recommend intervening at the point of writing to help pupils improve (no mention of lengthy, burdensome and delayed marking), explaining: ‘great teaching begins at the moment learning breaks down.’ ‘Writing,’ in this guide, also encompasses annotation, and again there is detailed advice for modelling these, with the goal of pupils eventually annotating autonomously.

Again, though the goal is for pupils to read independently, we need to be aware that if they do this poorly they are ‘inscribing errors’ (and of course we know from Lemov himself that ‘practice makes permanent’). It is vital that pupils read aloud, as well as listening to great reading being modelled for them. In considering ‘accountable independent reading,’ the writers give such guidance as using short sections with a specified focus, or scaffolding pupil comprehension by using questions.

Although the focus of the books is practical, with advice to be found on the specifics of vocabulary instruction and the dynamics of a classroom discussion, the underpinning voice here is one deeply concerned with children loving reading and doing it effectively. The voice of the parent in each writer is heard most clearly in the book’s dedication: ‘to our kids, with whom we have 16,000 more nights to read – not nearly enough.’ Foundational to this book is a personal and deep love of reading, for all the right reasons.

 

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How to Read: TLT15

On 17th October, I travelled to Southampton for my second year presenting at TLT. I was talking about reading (not much new there), and, specifically, how to read. Reading, of course, is at the core of what we do as teachers; and not just as teachers of English. More and more in my new role, I’m coming to see that reading may be the only silver bullet in education: beautiful in its simplicity, obvious in its impact.

The reality is that our strongest readers read the most, and our weakest readers the least: the exact opposite what we need to see to close the gap between our best and worst performing students. This is not only true in their home lives, but also in our classrooms. Anyone who has ever asked for volunteers to read (including: me; guilty as charged) is advantaging those strong readers, and further denying reading from the weakest.

The gap in reading is not just a practice gap: it is also a knowledge gap. When we take our weak readers out of subjects to teach them reading skills, we are denying them that subject-specific knowledge that will enable them to make sense of a wider variety of texts. With the new strengthened GCSEs, students being able to read rigorous subject matter independently is essential.

Of the three stages of reading, decoding, comprehension and fluency, I said the least about decoding, instead pointing people to the awesome Katie Ashford’s blog, where she gives plenty of great advice on how to deal with students who cannot decode. It is clear that too many students slip through the decoding net at primary school, and we at secondary school lack the expertise to bridge that gap. This is evident in my experience in even years 10 and 11; last year I taught a student who would auto-correct unfamiliar words, as she didn’t know how to decode and hadn’t been properly taught phonics. She would autocorrect so many words, she couldn’t then understand the sentence, so for example: ‘Alison leapt up bracingly from her meal’ she might read aloud: ‘Alison led up braking from her meal’, which makes absolutely no sense.

Comprehension entails understanding what is written. Using Willingham’s examples from his excellent book Raising Kids who Read, often reading contains an inference gap: ‘Trisha spilled her coffee. Dan jumped from his chair to fetch a cloth.’ Expert readers automatically see how the first sentence impacts the second; novice readers might see these as two separate and unconnected events.

Interestingly, though, the gap between those from low and high income backgrounds manifests itself after the decoding has been taught, because comprehension, the second stage, is largely predicated on background knowledge, which our economically advantaged students have in abundance (usually from wide background reading). Using Hirsch’s classic ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run,’ I explained that readers with high levels of knowledge on a given topic do better on tests which supposedly only test their reading ‘skill.’

And yet we are still persisting in believing our weak readers simply need more training in generic reading strategies, often withdrawing students from subject lessons to teach reading in isolation, and then wondering why their reading is not improving. In fact, the optimal way to close the reading gap is for students to gain a broad knowledge of subjects across the curriculum.

So clearly, we need to put reading at the heart of our lessons. Yet this is not an easy sell. Citing my own trials of getting students to read aloud (ranging from outright refusals to early tears), I later that evening found there were many out there who considered reading aloud in class to be cruel: (

I welcome those challenges to this idea. It is all too easy to do whole class reading badly.

Indeed, it is absolutely vital to consider the emotional impact of such a policy, and the way to make it work in your individual classroom for your children. Running a class where every child reads aloud is difficult, make no mistake about it. It depends on excellent pedagogy and the creation of a warm, safe environment. It requires constant vigilance and tight management. But, crucially, it is possible.

Why read aloud with students, if it is so difficult? First, so we know they can read. I’ve heard of too many teachers at KS4 finding out their students can’t read to not put this top of my list of reasons. Next, so we know they are listening during the lesson – the knowledge you could be asked to read at any time undeniably focuses the mind. Also, reading aloud helps us as teachers to check for understanding, something impossible when students are reading silently at their own pace. But finally, because reading aloud is probably the most enjoyable thing you can do with a class.

One recent example: when year 7 went on their ‘outward bound’ trip, I was the lucky teacher of history with three periods to fill for those ‘left behind.’ A mixed group of around 18 students of vastly differing ability, I didn’t want to press on with the planned lessons, but also didn’t have a bank of ‘rainy day’ history lessons as a first year teacher of this subject. In my desperation, I photocopied about 30 pages of Gombrich’s History of the World (recommended to me in the summer by both Daisy Christodoulou and Jonathan Porter) and threw together some comprehension questions. The first lesson was fine, but I was really concerned about the double: two hours of pure reading and writing. And guess what? It’s probably the best lesson I’ve ever taught. No joke – I wish someone had come to see it. These children were utterly, utterly engaged in a way I’ve seen only rarely, in the most remarkable teachers’ classrooms. They adored the stories, and their curiosity led to a wonderful class discussion and some impressive paragraphs.

It was not always thus. Previously, I would use ‘guided reading,’ where my students read at different paces in groups, thus ensuring no misconceptions could be ironed out, and again advantaging those strong readers. Moreover, I previously did not read aloud well to students, as I have written about here.

So, I was held back by my own low expectations, and it was the children themselves who set me on the right track: they wanted to read, and they seized that moment to show me they could do it.

But how can we do it every lesson? Here, Doug Lemov has the best answer I’ve found with ‘Control the Game.’ I went through each of the components of this: be vague about how much children will be reading, keep the reading duration unpredictable but short at the outset, move swiftly to the next reader with limited words (‘Stacey, pick up’, or, in my class, ‘Stacey’) and take over and model reading of tricky passages. At the start of my time in a new school, I tweaked this: we did snake around the class, for two weeks in fact. What was lost in terms of students checking out and not following in this two weeks was made up for, I think, in that it set the expectation that every child would read in every one of my lessons. For unconfident readers, they got used to this expectation with the predictability. It also gave me two weeks to suss who was going to push back on reading, and deal with them individually. (Interestingly, my year 10 middle ability class proved harder to get reading than my year 11 set 7 class, who frequently bound into my room shouting ‘are we reading today miss?’) Only once the whole class was secure in reading (and only a sentence each time) did I move to selecting students, but even now they are only reading a sentence, though I am moving away from that.

The implications of this kind of teaching are that teachers need to spend their planning thinking more about the questions they will need to ask students to ensure they have understood, along with which vocabulary students will struggle with and how they will gloss those words and check students have learned them.

From the mechanics of reading I moved to the motivation: reading is highly emotional, and I shared methods I’ve written about extensively on this blog in the past to build a reading culture in a school, such as sharing one book, sharing reading lists and delivering reading assemblies.

Once again, I would like to thank my warm and encouraging audience, who indulged me in my anecdotes and engaged with the ideas with gusto. Much love also goes to those who listen and challenge in the room and after: it is only through such thrashing out of the ideas that we come closer to being the best teachers and professionals we can be.

TLT

How to read

The “Summer Dip”: an assembly

The “Summer Dip”, or “Summer Slide”, is the term we use to refer to learning lost over the long summer break. It is a phenomenon almost every teacher, and many a parent, will be well aware of; however I wondered if students knew? Furthermore, I wondered if they knew that they could “beat the dip” by reading a few books? I decided to do some research, and from that research grew last week’s assemblies.

I began the assembly by re-capping my previous assembly on reading, boiling those ideas down to three points:

  1. Every book will teach you something – whether it is something about the world you live in, about you as a person, or just about the kind of books you do or don’t enjoy;
  2. Books give you access to emotions and experiences you’ve never had – so, you can go places you’ve never gone, and be people you’ll never be;
  3. Reading makes you smarter.

I recapped the National Literacy Trust’s table with the cold hard figures: of students who read every day, nearly a third were achieving above their expected little. Of students who never read, over a third were achieving below their expected level.

I then introduced the idea of the “Summer Dip”. Admittedly, most of my research is American-based, and so imagines a summer holiday which is, inconceivably I know, even longer than British schools’ ludicrously long holiday (6 weeks for any international readers out there). That said, I think obfuscating this worked well, as clearly students do lose learning over the summer, and my message wouldn’t have been as useful if I’d caveat-ed every statement to year 7 with “however, we should allow for the data being slightly unreliable because…” I find assemblies deal better in certainties.

That said, this document does uphold the evidence that children make the most progress during the Summer term, and the least in the Autumn term. Terrifyingly, it also tells us that “In reading, nearly 40% of children go backwards between the end of year 6 and the beginning of year 7,” though this of course may well be a by-product of the expectations of teachers and modes of assessment changing between primary and secondary school. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence tell us that, for most teachers, the student who is comfortably on a 5c at the end of the year does not usually begin the following year on a level 5. The scary American research puts the learning lost for students at between 2.5 and 3 months. Obviously, I opted for the latter, asking students to imagine that everything learned between April and July would just… Disappear. Terrified faces looked back at me.

Now came the kicker: research, albeit research conducted in the states, has shown that reading as few as four books over the course of the summer can help to prevent the dreaded slide. Four books! Some students looked genuinely relieved, and I iterated my understanding that many of the students before me would read far more than four books over the course of the summer.

But how? I showed them a map of the libraries, and shared the link to their opening hours. I explained that for building your own library (I think I put it: “for books you can take home with you forever, and hug them and love them”), the Oxfam bookshop nearest us sold second hand books for only £2.50 each; and the (admittedly slightly evil) online seller Amazon sold books for one penny, meaning that including postage you could have a book of your own from their for £2.81.

I diverged for a couple of minutes from reading to share some ideas for staving off “achy hand syndrome” – you know, the first week back when you can’t even finish the date without it hurting (or for teachers, when the first set of books to mark takes an unreasonably long time).

But then back to reading.

I shared with students 5 of the books I’m hoping to read over the summer, which allowed me to refer to many of the reasons we choose books to read. I began with Plainsong, which a sixth former recommended to me. I moved onto The Edible Woman, which a parent governor had told me to read. I referred to Murakami’s After Dark, explaining that as someone who had never visited Japan, I loved the opportunity to walk Tokyo’s streets through Murakami’s prose. I mentioned Will Grayson, Will Grayson, as the book-du-jour my year 9s are all reading. And then poems by e.e. cummings, explaining that I need to read more poetry (and giving me the opportunity, in alluding to cummings’ peculiar views on punctuation, to share my favourite cummings quote: “since feeling is first/who pays any attention/to the syntax of things/will never wholly kiss you.”

To finish the assembly, I shared tailored recommendations for each year group for reading, which were also on a hand-out given to tutors. And for the final piece, I read the first page of one of those books to the students (some thing I have written about before and do weekly with my own classes). I will never grow used to the reverent silence of children when being read to. The power of the story is a beautiful thing.

And the results? So far, so promising. My own children bounced up to me, proudly saying they liked the assembly and would definitely be reading four books at least over the summer. I hoped as much, given they have also had me banging on about reading to them four to five times a week. What I love, though, is the students I don’t know coming to talk to me about reading. It allows me to know a much larger proportion of the student body. I even had a student say she was going to see if she could volunteer in her local library over the summer, which was especially wonderful, and another student who raced straight to the library to take out Wonder, the book I had read to year 7 from.

Summer Dip

Why study A-level English? An(other) assembly

When the Head of Sixth Form asked me to deliver an assembly to year 11 on why they should study A-level English, my first thought was one giant, panicked, bold and underlined “why?”

Why indeed? I went away and spent a couple of weeks pondering, thought of a few lame lines, and came back to admit defeat. Somewhat unadvisedly, I explained that I “had never really thought about why myself”, having myself “not thought things through and just chosen what felt right – that’s how I work.” Given that this person line manages me, admitting to my haphazard decision-making skills was probably an error.

I’m nothing if not honest. I did English Literature A-level because I had to; I was compelled to read and question; it was the only thing I loved and was any good at. No thinking needed.

Fortunately, I have a great line manager, who expertly guided me towards the light. I shared my clumsy “course outline” and “what looks good on your UCAS form” and he shook his head, saying: “what they really need is inspiration.” He referred me to this ad, suggesting that literature is about life: not the biology or the mechanics, but the human, and the emotional.

The assembly begins with the following on the screen, for students to ponder (or ignore) as they await the start of the session:

so much depends

I then showed my initial (lame) reasons for studying English Literature: universities rate it, it is more rigorous than English language, and many future careers await you. I then proceeded to explain that none of these are good reasons to choose to study Literature, drawing on the wisdom of Laura McInerney’s research showing that the idea of “facilitating subjects” is often not backed up by evidence. Despite few firm conclusions, I’d rather persuade my students to do three subjects they love and can achieve decent grades in, over any particular combination of subjects.

So, my opener for “why really study English Literature” was a fabulous quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

 We’ve all had that moment when reading when we suddenly acknowledge that our feelings, emotions and thoughts are not isolated and freak-like; we are connected to others in a tissue of shared feelings.

I then used Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a conduit for my next point (which was fairly similar to the entire assembly I blogged about last week here):

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives… She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

I then returned to the initial poem, one of my favourites. I asked students whether they thought it was a poem; opinion seemed fairly split. This worked well for me. If this writing were on a toilet door, or in a fortune cookie, would they think it was a poem? Heads shook. Then I asked: what if it was in a poetry book? Confused faces.

William Carlos Williams calls this a poem. Some of you don’t call this a poem. Who matters more; the poet, or the reader? Or do neither of you matter? What about when the poem was written, or the cultural context? Was Williams trying to make a point about poetry? Or is the only aspect of importance the words themselves?

If you want answers, don’t study English Literature; there are no ticks and no crosses. But if you want to question and debate and argue and never be sure, you’re picking the right subject.

I closed the assembly by saying that if none of those arguments convinced them, I had one more: literature is beautiful. It makes you think things, and it makes you feel things. And I read Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” This is actually one of my year 11’s favourite poems (I expressed to year 11 that I was delighted that someone other than me has a favourite poem, only to have another come up to me afterwards and exclaim somewhat angrily: “Miss, I have a favourite poem too!”), which is partly why I chose it. It is also a wonderfully complex piece of word mastery that even the science teacher I practiced saying it to minutes before the assembly began could appreciate its clever intricacies (I’m not saying scientists aren’t capably of being poets. But it’s good to chase cross-curricular opinions and attitudes).

I then showed my initial (lame) reasons for studying English Literature: universities rate it, it is more rigorous than English language, and many future careers await you. I then proceeded to explain that none of these are good reasons to choose to study Literature, drawing on the wisdom of Laura McInerney’s research showing that the idea of “facilitating subjects” is often not backed up by evidence. Despite few firm conclusions, I’d rather persuade my students to do three subjects they love and can achieve decent grades in, over any particular combination of subjects.

So, my opener for “why really study English Literature” was a fabulous quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

 We’ve all had that moment when reading when we suddenly acknowledge that our feelings, emotions and thoughts are not isolated and freak-like; we are connected to others in a tissue of shared feelings.

I then used Roald Dahl’s Matilda as a conduit for my next point (which was fairly similar to the entire assembly I blogged about last week here):

“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives… She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”

I then returned to the initial poem, one of my favourites. I asked students whether they thought it was a poem; opinion seemed fairly split. This worked well for me. If this writing were on a toilet door, or in a fortune cookie, would they think it was a poem? Heads shook. Then I asked: what if it was in a poetry book? Confused faces.

William Carlos Williams calls this a poem. Some of you don’t call this a poem. Who matters more; the poet, or the reader? Or do neither of you matter? What about when the poem was written, or the cultural context? Was Williams trying to make a point about poetry? Or is the only aspect of importance the words themselves?

If you want answers, don’t study English Literature; there are no ticks and no crosses. But if you want to question and debate and argue and never be sure, you’re picking the right subject.

I closed the assembly by saying that if none of those arguments convinced them, I had one more: literature is beautiful. It makes you think things, and it makes you feel things. And I read Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.” This is actually one of my year 11’s favourite poems (I expressed to year 11 that I was delighted that someone other than me has a favourite poem, only to have another come up to me afterwards and exclaim somewhat angrily: “Miss, I have a favourite poem too!”), which is partly why I chose it. It is also a wonderfully complex piece of word mastery that even the science teacher I practiced saying it to minutes before the assembly began could appreciate its clever intricacies (I’m not saying scientists aren’t capably of being poets. But it’s good to chase cross-curricular opinions and attitudes).

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

PP Arial Why Study English Literartue

Why students should read more: an assembly

Last Thursday was “World Book Day.” As Head of English and self-proclaimed “reader”, it was my responsibility to be all over it.

I really wasn’t.

I’ve been shamed by looking at the amazing things schools did on Twitter, and I have no excuses other than: 1. There’s absolutely no way I am dressing up as a book character and therefore I can’t really mandate other people to, and 2. It took me by surprise.

I feel like September was about fifteen minutes ago, when I started the year thinking about all the wonderful and exciting things I was going to implement in my department to do with reading. In our Middle Leaders CPD, I chose encouraging reading in the school as my project, and in November when I touched base with the CPD leader she gave me some inspiring ideas for this World Book Day thing and I became really excited about it.

And then, all of a sudden, it was next week and I had to give out some tokens; oh, and could you do an assembly?

Realising I had entirely missed the World Book Day boat, I tried to pull together the best assembly of my life (not hard – I have delivered precisely one assembly, albeit delivered four times).

The assembly begins with this image, which I stole shamelessly from Tessa Matthews, for students to glance at during the time they file into their seats.

tessa reading

I began by introducing myself, and this has proved to be a valuable aspect – I really ought to have done an assembly sooner, as the number of students who asked me what happened to the previous Head of English and why did I steal his job (he has been promoted to Deputy Head) has been incredible. Even some of my own students came up to me later that week asking: “are you really the Head of English?” which I felt was a bit of a title-fail on my part.

I then said that my opening gambit was that every book will teach you something, and I reeled off a variety of lessons I had learned from books. These were: amazing vocabulary from Woolf’s Orlando, about the Napoleonic Wars in War and Peace, how it feels to lose someone you love from Looking for Alaska and form Lord of the Rings that I don’t like that kind of book – but that’s ok, because you won’t like every book, you just have to read them all to find that out!

The initial image was then shown again, and I explained that it makes me think of all the things I don’t know, and all the things I haven’t done. I then listed some of the things I haven’t done:

  • Been to California
  • Lived in the Victorian era
  • Married a prince
  • Been elected to office

and explained that, through reading (The Grapes of Wrath, Middlemarch, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Audacity of Hope) I could experience all of these aspects, even if I will never experience some of them in reality.

For what I don’t know, I showed a slide with just an ellipsis, and waxed lyrical on how we don’t know what we don’t know, complete with Socrates’ famous quote.

I segued from this to say that it wasn’t only “really cool English teachers who love to read”, but that people slightly more famous than us also do. I used three examples, all of whom were white and male (and two dead), thus undercutting my own preference for an inclusive representation in all aspects of life – in my defence, I made the assembly at high speed. I spoke about Steve Jobs, who loved William Blake; Phil Knight (founder of Nike) who has a library in his house and makes his guests take their shoes off before entering (books before shoes!) and Winston Churchill, who accomplished many great political things but has a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the assembly came when I used Maths to back up my arguments – our kids seemed to love the facts and figures. I showed the following charts from the National Literacy Trust and talked the students through what they were showing – the more you read, and the more you love reading, the more you will achieve:

table 1

table 2

I also stole this image from someone on Twitter, but now don’t know who to thank:

why can't i skip

This image had a massive impact, and I enjoyed saying “one million eight hundred thousand words” about seven times in the course of the assembly.

All of which led to my final argument: the more you read, and if you enjoy reading, and the more you read great books, you will be smarter, happier and more successful.

I’ve had a lovely response to this assembly, including some warming comments from staff members. The best outcome is undeniably the number of students who I’ve not had any dealings with, coming up to me in corridors or in the lunch hall and telling me what they have read, what they would recommend to me, or asking for a book recommendation.

All in all, World Book Day came and went and I hang my head in shame; but I hope that my message of reading will live on regardless. Now: to plan next year’s reading assemblies!

Reading assembly

The Book Whisperer

Before I took on the post of Head of English at my school, I knew that the main thing I needed to do was get children reading for pleasure. Six weeks in, when mock Ofsted came into our department, that was one of very few recommendations made for our improvement: get children reading for pleasure.

So, why haven’t I?

Partly it is because starting at a new school, in particular in a new role, is so exhaustingly difficult it’s hard to move beyond fire-fighting. And partly because every mistake I have made so far (and believe me, there have been many) has been linked to my tendency to make decisions too quickly. This is something I want to get right. I am taking my time.

Actually, I felt as if I’d almost cracked it when I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer about a week ago, and then I had to do some more thinking. The subtitle is “Awakening the inner reader in every child”, so I knew before I opened it that I would love it.

It is, without a doubt, inspiring, in the vein of Rafe Esquith and KIPP stories from the US. Teachers going above and beyond, but also around and in a peculiar swirly motion we’re not sure will work – but, yes, it does.

Miller’s initial prompting to decide her students should read forty books in an academic year is not grounded in evidence based research, but rather a moral certitude that this stuff if good for them. She glosses over some radically improved test results, but doesn’t make a song and dance about the improvement in the data – that’s not what this is about. Miller wants her children to be readers. And I would guess around 100% of English teachers want the same for their students; not to mention parents.

The problem is: how do we get there? It’s fair to say that the curriculum in the UK, while far from perfect, is a very far cry from the mish-mash of methods going on in American classrooms, where many teachers (if you go by the popular education literature) seem to be able to not only set what they are teaching but also decide how it is assessed. There are few schools I have visited that would allow teachers to go ahead and do what they like in the sanctuary of their classrooms.

Miller lets her students start from where they are, reading what they like. Through careful use of feedback, including surveys, she nudges them towards ever harder and more challenging tomes which will suit their interests. She doesn’t seem to ask them to write analytical essays on these texts, however, it is all about the mighty book review.

This is fine, perhaps, at KS2; I am finding it hard to see how such an approach would work, or is in fact right, at KS3 and beyond. Yes, I want my children to be readers, but more than that they need to be literary critics. Engaging with literature critically is a great joy, and no amount of reading can shake my belief in that.

That said, Miller has given me so much food for thought I cannot but recommend this book for English teachers.

Among ideas she has prompted are:

  • How much class time should I set aside for personal reading?
  • How should this change between years?
  • How far should I try to influence or control student choice of reading material?
  • Should I see reading a class text as something different from private reading?

I’ve written before about teaching Dickens to Year 7 (here). That first term was blissful, but we didn’t study full texts. This term, “A Christmas Carol” is markedly harder. The students are enjoying it, but if I’m honest mine aren’t really getting it. I mean, they understand the words, but there isn’t the time for that understanding and that critical evaluation, unless I want us to use the entire academic year to read the thing properly. Year 7 read slowly. Therein lies the rub.

A fabulous colleague of mine has come up with a lovely compromise, and I’d appreciate any thoughts English teachers have: give them the text, give them two or three weeks. During those lessons they read. During their homework for those weeks, they read. They read the entire text. We perhaps do some kind of writing or literacy activity one in every four lessons, to catch those who really do need to spend time on writing skills. But then, after they have read, we go back and select passages, and teach the critical and analytical skills then.

I feel like in not allowing students to just read, I’m pretty much wasting their time in a novel-teaching unit. But I’d be delighted to hear what other schools do.

To conclude, The Book Whisperer is inspiring and thought provoking, and not completely right. Well worth a read.

book whisperer