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

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