What do I do with the scary smart ones?

A member of SLT I greatly admire told me recently “I don’t like labels.” I think I had forgotten you were allowed to say that in a school. We have so very many labels for our sausages (another member of SLT described the kiddies thus – another thing I had forgotten we were allowed to say): SEN, EAL, FSM… At what level are there just “kids in my classroom who are all a bit different”?

In our age of advanced data awareness, we are encouraged to not only differentiate, but to do so for the target groups du jour, and in many schools G&T, AG&T, or GTP (gifted and talented, able gifted and talented, gifted and talented pupils – love a good acronym, do teachers) are a box to tick. I know of one school where these students are given gold badges to wear, undeniably a source of pride for them (and a key visual clue for their teachers).

Yet I’m not convinced this helps us. I worked in one school where G&T students were a massive deal; there were countless G&T coordinators, and the provision for these chosen ones was immense. Other students, not knowing the label, would frequently complain that this cohort got to go on all the trips, for example, and that they felt excluded. I’ve used the term “chosen ones” as that is exactly what they were: teachers would identify about 10% of their class, the official guideline for the proportion of a school’s G&T population, and put them on the list, as early as year 7.

Ever after, that student was on the list. You could be added to the list, but you couldn’t be taken off the list. This kind of assumes that G&T is purely an achievement thing: if a kid is achieving at a higher level, we need to sustain that progress.

Though there are arguments that being gifted is much more than being a high achiever. I put students forward for the list who were gifted creative writers; who wrote stories in their own time which were, frankly, works of brilliance. Clearly a gift. But often their achievement in term of APP box-ticking was not of the highest order.

That brings up another problem, of course; kids change. As a child, I was obsessed with dogs. Imagine, if you will, a school which taught “animals” as a subject. I’d be identified in year 5 as gifted. But by year 9, I actively hated animals. If teachers had been intervening, trying to get me to take up once more my love of furry creatures, I would not have been happy.

Of course, we don’t teach animals; we do identify kids as gifted in academic subjects that we hope they will flourish with throughout their school days. But it is worth considering that a child’s interest may well move, just as some children “struggle” in their primary school and go on to flourish in another school, and can in time be taken off the SEN register.

Once upon a time, I like to imagine (though it is probably untrue), teachers were lone rangers, seeing a smart and motivated student, and giving them a little bit extra to do or think about. In English, that meant extra books to read. I wonder if we don’t already do this without the label.

Word of mouth reaches me faster than the data is made available. Last year, I knew who I had to “look out for”: students who were very, very able indeed. I taught one of them in year 12, but she basically taught me. In the most incredibly polite way, I would make a statement, she would frown a tiny bit, put her hand up and say “but miss…” and destroy my argument. It was an incredible blessing to have such a child in my classroom, but how do you teach such a child?

Luckily, I remembered that I had an English degree. I went back to the days of the Friday 9am “Critical and Cultural Theory” lecture of first year, and found the anthology of critical theory I had done battle with for my four year English degree. I lent it to the student, and she devoured it, quoting essays from it in her coursework. I felt cruel asking for it back when I left.

I have written before on making book lists for students, and in a mixed ability classroom I do think it is worth spending time, perhaps on a cohort-level, talking to high-achieving, highly motivated students about reading particular books. I have made separate reading lists for these students, because I want to make sure they are being challenged when they read, and engaged and interested. (I’ve pasted these below, and before anyone tells me I have duplicated books across year groups, I will say I have duplicated books – I’ve included the whole list for each year group lest anyone be about to reinvent the wheel and find the below useful.) I also think you can never underestimate the importance of “having a chat” in schools, whatever the group of students you choose to focus on.

Sure, some of these students will go on to choose Maths, or become doctors. But while they are interested, we can give them something to chew on. And that is something you can do with the scary smart ones.

Year 7 Extension Reading List

  • John Green: The Fault in Our Stars
  • A girl suffering from cancer meets a boy… Very romantic.
  • Helen Grant: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden
  • An adventure story and one of friendship – it will intrigue you.
  • Anne Cassidy: Looking for JJ
  • An interesting look at psychology and forgiveness.
  • Marcus Sedgewick: Revolver
  • Step into a different world and time for a book about a revolver.
  • Jostein Gaarder: Sophie’s World
  • Kids are smarter than adults – this is the way this book opens! Like to think deeply? This is the book for you!
  • Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist
  • Dickens’ orphan story is epic and full of twists and turns.
  • George Eliot: Silas Marner
  • Explore a small village and a man who loves his pot of gold.
  • Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle
  • Romantic; a book which is also about sisters.
  • Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
  • Told by an autistic boy, extremely funny too!
  • Marcus Zusak: The Book Thief
  • An imaginative and moving account exploring life in World War 2.
  • Dave Eggers: What is the What
  • One man’s struggle to escape the civil war in Sudan.
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Racism, civil rights and a very likeable narrator.
  • Philip Pullman: Northern Lights
  • Fantasy; Pullman creates a completely new world.
  • Frederik Douglass: Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
  • Douglass escaped slavery, taught himself to read and write and told the world about what happened.
  • Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • A girl falls down a rabbit hole and discovers a whole new world.
  • Louisa May Alcott: Little Women
  • One family and many sisters.
  • John Steinbeck: The Pearl
  • Boy dives for pearl… But this book is about so much more.

Year 8 Extension Reading List

  • Jostein Gaarder: Sophie’s World
  • Kids are smarter than adults – this is the way this book opens! Like to think deeply? This is the book for you!
  • Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist
  • Dickens’ orphan story is epic and full of twists and turns.
  • George Eliot: Silas Marner
  • Explore a small village and a man who loves his pot of gold.
  • Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle
  • Romantic; a book which is also about sisters.
  • Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
  • Told by an autistic boy, extremely funny too!
  • Marcus Zusak: The Book Thief
  • An imaginative and moving account exploring life in World War 2.
  • Dave Eggers: What is the What
  • One man’s struggle to escape the civil war in Sudan.
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Racism, civil rights and a very likeable narrator.
  • Philip Pullman: Northern Lights
  • Fantasy; Pullman creates a completely new world.
  • Frederik Douglass: Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
  • Douglass escaped slavery, taught himself to read and write and told the world about what happened.
  • Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • A girl falls down a rabbit hole and discovers a whole new world.
  • Louisa May Alcott: Little Women
  • One family and many sisters.
  • John Steinbeck: The Pearl
  • Boy dives for pearl… But this book is about so much more.
  • Angela Carter: The Magic Toyshop
  • First love, and a toyshop that is magical.
  • Kathryn Stockett: The Help
  • Detailed exploration of American “help” in a time of intense racism and segregation.
  • Bram Stoker: Dracula
  • The original vampire book.

Year 9 Extension Reading List

  • Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
  • There are no families and your life is governed by state-given drugs.
  • Jane Austen: Emma
  • Emma has the best of intentions, but her plans often go horribly awry…
  • Carson McCullers: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
  • The inner struggles of four central characters.
  • Henri Alain-Fournier: Le Grand Meulnes
  • The seeking of a lost world and the gap between childhood and being an adult.
  • Henry James: Daisy Miller
  • Love or hate her, Daisy is a complex character who knows her own mind.
  • D.H. Lawrence: Sons and Lovers
  • Northern mining town; strange family relationships.
  • Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure
  • Heartbreaking story of a man trying against the odds to rise in the world.
  • Thomas Hardy: Tess of the D’Urbervilles
  • A tragedy of a beautiful woman defied by fate.
  • Jostein Gaarder: Sophie’s World
  • Kids are smarter than adults – this is the way this book opens! Like to think deeply? This is the book for you!
  • Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist
  • Dickens’ orphan story is epic and full of twists and turns.
  • George Eliot: Silas Marner
  • Explore a small village and a man who loves his pot of gold.
  • Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle
  • Romantic; a book which is also about sisters.
  • Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
  • Told by an autistic boy, extremely funny too!
  • Marcus Zusak: The Book Thief
  • An imaginative and moving account exploring life in World War 2.
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Racism, civil rights and a very likeable narrator.
  • Frederik Douglass: Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
  • Douglass escaped slavery, taught himself to read and write and told the world about what happened.
  • Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • A girl falls down a rabbit hole and discovers a whole new world.
  • Louisa May Alcott: Little Women
  • One family and many sisters.
  • John Steinbeck: The Pearl
  • Boy dives for pearl… But this book is about so much more.
  • Angela Carter: The Magic Toyshop
  • First love, and a toyshop that is magical.
  • Kathryn Stockett: The Help
  • Detailed exploration of American “help” in a time of intense racism and segregation.
  • Bram Stoker: Dracula
  • The original vampire book.

Year 10 and 11 Extension Reading List

  • Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
  • There are no families and your life is governed by state-given drugs.
  • Jane Austen: Emma
  • Emma has the best of intentions, but her plans often go horribly awry…
  • Carson McCullers: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
  • The inner struggles of four central characters.
  • Henri Alain-Fournier: Le Grand Meulnes
  • The seeking of a lost world and the gap between childhood and being an adult.
  • Henry James: Daisy Miller
  • Love or hate her, Daisy is a complex character who knows her own mind.
  • D.H. Lawrence: Sons and Lovers
  • Northern mining town; strange family relationships.
  • Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure
  • Heartbreaking story of a man trying against the odds to rise in the world.
  • Thomas Hardy: Tess of the D’Urbervilles
  • A tragedy of a beautiful woman defied by fate.
  • Jostein Gaarder: Sophie’s World
  • Kids are smarter than adults – this is the way this book opens! Like to think deeply? This is the book for you!
  • Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist
  • Dickens’ orphan story is epic and full of twists and turns.
  • George Eliot: Silas Marner
  • Explore a small village and a man who loves his pot of gold.
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Racism, civil rights and a very likeable narrator.
  • Frederik Douglass: Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
  • Douglass escaped slavery, taught himself to read and write and told the world about what happened.
  • John Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath
  • Like Of Mice and Men, but epic and enormous. Very helpful to read for your Literature GCSE.
  • Angela Carter: The Magic Toyshop
  • First love, and a toyshop that is magical.
  • Bram Stoker: Dracula
  • The original vampire book.
  • Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • A man trying to escape a jail sentence pleads insanity and winds up in an insane asylum   
  • E.M. Forster: A Room With a View
  • A young girl’s heart is awakened on a holiday in Florence
  • Sylvia Plath:  The Bell Jar
  •  Plath explores depression using the story of a young, intelligent girl
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment
  • A man brutally commits murder and comes to terms with it       
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
  • A young woman is ostracised for having a child out of wedlock
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
  • A man pines after his lost love and accrues great riches in an attempt to attract her back
  • George Eliot: Middlemarch
  • An in-depth exploration of a small society which focuses on different characters, their flaws and redeeming qualities
  • Jack Kerouac: On the Road
  • Tells the story of life on the road, where the only aim is to enjoy life
  • William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying
  • A ground-breaking novel which takes place around a mother’s coffin
  • Virginia Woolf: Orlando
  • A man becomes a woman and grows older through the centuries   
  • Mary Shelley: Frankenstein
  • A scientist creates a monster – or is it less simple?
  • Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
  • Life story of a young Victorian lady. Some romance, some tragedy
  • Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace
  • A novel containing everything that is in life and more
  • Truman Capote: Breakfast At Tiffany’s
  • A woman searches for an emotional home   
  • J.D.    Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
  • A young man battles for realism in a “phoney” world
  • Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • A vain young man has a sinister portrait painted which has surprising consequences
  • Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights
  • An examination of the pain that comes with great love
  • Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart
  • A gripping study of European colonialism in Africa
  • Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot
  • The most philosophical comedy you will ever read
  • Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman
  • A tragic examination of a man
  • William Shakespeare:  Othello
  • A tragedy concerning a marriage and a deceitful friend   
  • John Milton: Paradise Lost
  • Satan betrays God and is cast out of heaven
  • Walt Whitman: Song of Myself
  • What does it mean to be American? Human? Walt Whitman?

Vampire Novels and Wizards

I’ve never been an “early adopter”, as I am reminded with depressing regularity. I am often last on the bandwagon for all of life’s ingredients: when you spot me doing anything remotely trendy, you can be assured that trend is in its death throes.

I don’t recall the advent of Harry Potter. I think I first read it in 2001, 5 years after its publication, and incidentally around the time it was made into a film. I had indeed caught on very, very late.

One positive aspect of being a late adopter, though, was the presence of the other Harry Potter books. I’m not sure whether The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets would never have kept me hooked; it was only the knowledge of the following books which made me persevere. I really did love the fourth book in particular, The Goblet of Fire. Everything about these books appealed to me, even in my late teens. I had always been a complete nerd, and the stories of people who were cool because they excelled at school provided some welcome escapism.

Perhaps more embarrassing is my tragically late awareness of Twilight. I have probably told people that I read the Twilight series when I knew I would be teaching in an all-girls’ school. That would be a lie.

I began reading Twilight when my boss (happily the same age as me) bought me a copy for my birthday. My boss of that time was painfully cool, and extremely intelligent – she will soon be a doctor of philosophy. She handed me the book with joyful glee, and I went home to kill an hour reading. I don’t think I even paused for a tea-break: I was entirely hooked.

At that time, I didn’t know the immense baggage that went with this book. I was also not discerning enough to spot how annoying the central character was, or how utterly unrealistic even the most “realist” parts of the narrative. Like I have said before, I’m a sucker for a story, and I ate up Twilight.

In my excitement, I purchased the other three books in the series shortly after. I was about halfway through that second book when the Twilight craze truly hit; I’m going to guess again that this was when the films began to be released. Who can say whether this affected my response, but I just didn’t enjoy any of the following books. I remember stolidly picking my way through the final installment, telling my bemused husband through gritted teeth “I just need to know what happens at the end.”

When I began teaching, I was extremely grateful to have persevered. (I was also grateful to know the words to all the High School Musicals, as well as Camp Rock. Again, something that, embarrassingly, happened in advance of teaching in a girls’ school.) In my experience, students love that you take an interest in what they love. If you show that you are willing to try reading what they like, they are that much more likely to take on your recommendations.

I will defend, perhaps in the face of popular opinion, the rights of children and adults to read books like Harry Potter and Twilight. For so many children, these cult hits function as “gateway texts”, whetting the appetite for a good story. Their sheer length, in particular of the former, gives many children the feeling of having accomplished something massive; it makes them more confident of tackling the comparatively short class texts. Students move themselves into good habits, taking time to read when they might previously have been more engaged in other activities.

Moving students onto more challenging texts is obviously something I immediately seek to do, but hell will freeze over before I ban these hated tomes from my classroom.

In praise of re-reading

I know someone who re-reads books as a habit. When I first heard this, I could barely hide my incredulity: “but why?” In my land, there are just too many books to do this. As I have stated, my aim is to read all the books. When time is short, who has time to re-read?

My immediate second thought was a jealous one. The books he read were full of clever-looking annotations, scribbles, highlights and a dialogue with himself over the re-reading cycles. My books are fairly marked themselves, but usually only with those initial notes – an underlined quote here, an asterisk or exclamation mark there, and only if I happen to have a pen and the inclination about me. Clearly, this was someone who engaged deeply with his reading. Clearly, I skate on the surface of books.

Indeed, I have read so many books that I very frequently forget the names of central characters. My conversations with people reading a book I have read invariably go like this:

“Oh I read that!”

“Really? What do you think?”

“I loved it!”

“What do you make of the [plot twist/character detail/theme/use of delicious language?”

“….”

In contrast, the books I studied at university and A-level (I am forever grateful to my 17 and 18 year old selves for buying my own “revision copies” of texts to scribble and highlight on) are a godsend when I come to teach a text. That hard “thinking work”, which I seem to find increasingly hard to do as term progresses, is already done. I can choose the quotes I want my students to analyse with ease – they are already highlighted. I can even do Ms Moran’s amazing trick: “I’ve made C-grade annotations – now, you add your A* insights”, a task a blank page on a busy lesson-planning Wednesday makes me despair at.

I’m preparing to teach some texts next year which I have read already, and I am determined to alter my wayward ways. I have re-read “An Inspector Calls”, “Waiting for Godot” and “The Yellow Wallpaper”, among others, and I have been strict with myself about making at least two annotations on every page (though, with “Inspector”, it was more like ten – either the text is thechoice for AQA Modern Texts, or I was having a brainy/non-lazy day – I’m not altogether sure). It has been so long, around ten years, since I last picked any of these texts up, that I could really enjoy this re-reading, and I definitely feel I can have a more intelligent conversation with anyone, in particular my future students, about them.

And perhaps, after all, this is the other great part of being an English teacher. Paid to read widely to recommend books to read for enjoyment; paid for reading closely to elucidate or encourage deeper readings for students. And right now, paid to read in the sun. What a life! Don’t tell the taxpayer…

annotated text

Creating a community of readers

I have written before here about the importance of loving reading, and this post builds on what I’m trying to do with young readers.

When I was in school, I remember the sad day I told my friends: “there are no more books. I have read them all.” Child genius, you may think. In fact, what had happened was that I had no idea what to read. I had read the books which looked like I should read them, and then had no inkling where to go from there.

All that changed in year 10, with Dr Byrne. I will write about Dr Byrne at length another time, because he truly deserves all credit for anything I have thought or written about anything ever.

One day, for no reason that was clear to me at the time, he put a copy of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot on my desk. This play changed everything for me: it broke all the conventions of what I thought about drama at the time, in terms of character, unity and realism. It challenged my thinking in a way no other book had.

And the great books kept coming. When I was stuck, I only had to go to Dr Byrne and I would have a giant list of books I could be getting on with.

Due to this personal experience, from the start of my teaching career I endeavoured to make book lists for my students, usually of twenty to thirty titles, and often with a brief explanation as to why I thought that book was great.

To make this more visible for my students, I picked my favourite four books every term and made a poster of the front cover and something I had said about it, like this:

Gatsby poster

Pretty soon, I ran out of space. Here’s the corridor outside my classroom:

recommended wall

These posters prompted conversations, and, I hope, these conversations prompted reading.

On a visit to a school for a Debate Mate round, I noticed a teacher seemed to have lots of Philip Roth posters in his classroom. Loving Philip Roth, I had to investigate more. On closer inspection, it seemed these were hand-made posters, with a simple black background, which had the words “Mr… is currently reading.” I loved this idea and immediately stole it as my own. My apologies, sir.

Other teachers at my school loved it too. We put these up outside our doors, and changing them took all of two minutes. If a student or another teacher had recommended the book to read, we stuck their name on it too. This had the great side-effect of even more students recommending books for me to read.

ms is currently reading

One of the best interview tasks I have ever been given was a room of 5 delightful students who I had to consult in creating a whole-school “Reading for Enjoyment” policy. I could barely contain my excitement on being given such a task – my keenness was frankly embarrassing. These young people had some fantastic ideas, pointing out that reading sitting up wasn’t how they liked to do it – they suggested we give them an area which is comfortable, and filled with great books. They were also fond of the idea of eating and reading – they brought up the idea of giving dedicated readers free muffins when they came to read together, or even a standard school breakfast or lunch depending on the time of day. Open to abuse they might be, but both of these suggestions seem like small concessions to the reading community they could open up.

Yet the aspect these eloquent youngsters talked most about was recommendations: they wanted their teachers to recommend books to them. And I would guess that nearly all teachers, no matter what they teach, read. Making students aware of the fact that we are a community of readers can only encourage them. And if their students then want to read some Darwin or Dawkins? I’m sure that will be fine too.

i heart english

Reading Lists

I thought I would share some of my favourite reading lists with any teacher readers before the onset of the summer holidays.

I wish I could say I had a firm system for these lists. I always try to do one before a long holiday, or even a short one, and definitely one at the start of the year. My students are amazing, though; a small number will start asking me for recommendations and that is how I know it is time to wheel out another one.

I liked the “20 books you should read” format because I thought it seemed manageable. The first was originally made for a very high-achieving year 10/11 class who needed to be stretched and prepared for the rigours of A-level. I also included any books I loved at their age, or that I remember my friends loving. The sixth form list goes further, and has non-fiction texts which are critical but I think accessible.

KS4: 20 books you should definitely read:

  1. Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus
  2. Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  3. Tracy Chevalier: The Girl with a Pearl Earring
  4. Stephen Kelman: Pigeon English
  5. George Grossmith: Diary of a Nobody
  6. Vladimir Nabakov: Laughter in the Dark
  7. Emma Donaghue, Room
  8. David Nicholls, One Day
  9. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
  10. Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
  11. John Irving, The World According to Garp
  12. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  13. Bill Bryson, Shakespeare
  14. Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel
  15. Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
  16. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
  17. Vikram Seth, An Equal Music
  18. Richard Llewellyn, How Green was my Valley
  19. Steve Tolz, A Fraction of the Whole
  20. Richard Russo, Empire Falls

Sixth form:

20 books you should definitely read:

  1. Sebastian Faulks: Faulks on Fiction: The History of the Novel in 28 Characters
  2. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
  3. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
  4. Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
  5. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
  6. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
  7. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
  8. Bill Bryson, Shakespeare
  9. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
  10. Jay McInernay, Bright Lights, Big City
  11. Andrew Marr, A History of Modern Britain
  12. Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
  13. Strunk and White, The Elements of Style
  14. Jane Austen, Emma
  15. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
  16. Sebastian Faulks, Human Traces
  17. Sophocles, Antigone
  18. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie
  19. Virginia Woolf, Orlando
  20. George Eliot, Middlemarch

Recommended by students

It has been a long time since I delved into my favourite type of book: books that kids love. It has been a complete treat to be able to read some extremely entertaining books, on the premise that as a teacher I should probably 1) be aware of what my students enjoy reading, and 2) be able to share this knowledge with my more reluctant readers.

Second only to results day (some of us are in it for the glory, to our eternal discredit) my favourite thing about teaching is when a student comes up to me, thrusts a book into my hands and says “Miss, you need to read this!” and then I go home and absolutely love every minute of reading it.

Seriously, it doesn’t get any better than this.

I’m going to write about texts I believe students must read later; the below aren’t must-reads; rather they are vital gateways to enjoying reading in students’ spare time.

I’m going to put a caveat on this that I work in an all-girls’ school, so these books might seem a little more appropriate for your ladies than gentlemen.

So, below are some of my favourite books, in no particular order, which students have recommended, along with some ideas about who I would go on to recommend these for.

Looking for JJ

I noticed an extremely gifted year 8 student reading this in a library session, and worried it wasn’t challenging enough for her. In fact, it probably wasn’t; but the fact that it was her eighth time reading it, and that I have led a lot of more reluctant readers to it since, allows me to forgive her just this once.

Cassidy’s novel has a variety of rubber stamps from the book industry: it was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Book Award and won the Booktrust Teenage Prize.

It’s a great story involving murder, creatively told. Your year 7 and 8 students will love it; your reluctant year 9s will definitely get something out of it.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

Possibly one of my favourite books ever, and one of my most successful re-recommends. This is one of those books I staggered into school on four hours sleep for because I just did not know when to stop.

This was first recommended to me by one of my most widely read year 10 students, and now serendipity has made someone lose their library copy of it in my room. I could give it back, but I have some repeat-offenders who have taken to it in detention. I’m a greater-good kind of person.

The structure of this novel is its main selling point: incredibly creative narrative jumping all through time, as the title would suggest. At its heart, though, this is a romantic tale full of slush, not to mention some great vocabulary. I’d probably recommend for year 9 and above.

Major warning: there is a film version. I tend to find this makes some of my students immediately discount reading the book as they can just see the film. I’d hold off telling students it even exists.

Life on the Refrigerator Door

This book was recommended to me last year by an amazing year 7 student, who brought me dozens of books to read on an almost weekly basis. This was definitely my favourite. An undeniably easy read, it is certainly one for our non-readers to whet their appetite for reading. Extremely short and told in the form of notes on a fridge between a mother and daughter, this explores relationships and family tragedies convincingly. Students love the note aspect, especially how they are presented (often pictorially).

I’d recommend to Key Stage 3 reluctant readers; or any Key Stage 3 student before the holidays – they can read something easier if they also take out a Dickens. Them’s the rules.

The Sky is Everywhere

My year 9 tutees are my best book recommenders. I’ve taught them since year 7 so it has been a long time in the making, but when I’m stuck for something to read I sneak a bit of tutor time to pick their brains. One of the Beliebers (who has so far recommended about 7 excellent books for me) told me to read this, and I really did love it. Another one of those mushy romantic stories – they do love them so – this one also explores ideas of bereavement. Gorgeously written, and again some nice presentation for students needing the safety of images. Not to down-grade it – there’s a lot of words here too. I think year 7 and 8 could read it safely, although some of its themes might be a little boundary-pushing; this one comes into its own for year 9 reluctants.

I’ll definitely be revisiting this topic, not least because I’m always reading something a child has thrust onto my desk in the English office. Sometimes I truly don’t know what I’d read without my students.

Fostering a love of reading

As an English teacher, the goals I have for my students tend to be simple: I want them to achieve a great grade at the end of their English experience, and I want them to love reading – now, and forever.

Year 10 and 11 are mostly about the former aim: we work as hard as we can to ensure students “do well” in an academic sense. We need, due to time pressures, to prioritise this aim. For me, this makes year 9 all the more precious. I am blessed to work in a school which trusts me to do what I feel is right for my classes, and what I have decided to do with my year 9 is to invest time in my second aim.

To begin with, reading lists (of which more, later). How can we expect students to know what to read on their own? I didn’t enforce reading from the list, but most students did. I had a wonderful, warm, fuzzy moment a few weeks ago when I realised almost every student was reading a recommended book.

Then, silent reading. Controversial, perhaps (although part of me feels very sad that some people feel that children reading silently might be a bad thing). I started year 9 off with 10 minutes of silent reading every lesson, and one 50 minute reading lesson a week. In my experience, I felt that the main factor holding my students back was their literacy. They were amazingly creative thinkers, but they did not have the deep and fast comprehension skills they needed to succeed academically. I wasn’t going to back down from this: these kids needed to read. (Incidentally, although I experienced major guilt for these extended reading sessions, this was assuaged hugely by one conversation with a fellow teacher at a Prince’s Teaching Institute session, who was also a mother. She told me that her son had once been an avid reader, but now all he did was play computer games. I believe her exact words were: “if I could know he is reading for a solid 50 minutes a week, I would be thrilled.”)

This policy has had its ups and downs. To begin with, it simply didn’t happen. The students didn’t have the will or the ability to concentrate for so long. But over the weeks, something changed. I can’t remember when the shift occurred, but it seemed that, all of a sudden, they were actually reading, and really enjoying their reading. In fact, during the lesson I would catch some reading instead of doing the work – obviously not ideal, but surely a great thing to catch a student doing nonetheless. (Thinking of the alternatives, I would say this is actually pretty amazing. “You! Yes you! Stop reading immediately!” I really never thought I would say those words. Perhaps a sad side-effect.)

Then the students started reading books not on the lists, and enjoying them. And then recommending that I read them – more on this later too.

When I asked my year 9 one jittery session (yes, it still happens; they still find the reading hard at times, particularly towards the end of the day or the end of the term) why they thought we read at the start of every lesson, I received some valuable responses. One student, however, noted that they believed it was “to calm us down so we start the lesson ready to learn.” I hadn’t even considered this, but given the fact that I was essentially curtailing a 50 minute lesson and making it 40 minutes, I realised then that I’ve always managed to get a lot done with this class. The student was right – we begin the lessons in a focused and calm mindset. This only strengthened my belief in the silent reading starter.

But more than that, I really hope that my year 9 students can continue to love reading. These students deserve more than just a cookie-cutter course designed to allow them to have a grade on a piece of paper. English is about so much more than that. If these students can learn to love to read, I will have done my job.