Recommended reads of 2014

This is something of a self-indulgent post, wherein I round up the best books I’ve read this year. In the past, I’ve stuck rigidly to my triumvirate of reading: one education book, one book for children (fiction), one book for grown-ups (fiction or non-fiction). I’ve let this slide somewhat for 2014; there is a definite bias towards fun fiction, perhaps an upshot of going on not one but two beach holidays, each involving a stack of paperbacks. For that reason, I’ll stick with two categories: fiction and non-fiction.

Fiction

Margaret Atwood: Cat’s Eye

It seems unbelievable to me now that the only Atwood I had read prior to this year was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I hated. I saw this book on a list of “realistic representations of girls in school” and, eager to gain an insight into my students (having been both female and a school child, I am constantly concerned I have subsequently unlearned all aspects of each) I picked this book up. It is a gorgeously rendered exploration of childhood, change and femininity.

Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo’s Calling

This is sheer entertainment, and very much ties into my new-found interest in crime drama in general. The kind of book which, as you read it, you feel as though you are, in fact, watching it – that is how little effort it requires.

Sapphire: Push

I’d seen the film Precious, but the book is a much richer and more uplifting portrayal of the life of the central character. I wept at the bleakness of everything at the close of the film; ending this book I felt the opposite. There’s so much hope here, and it is cleverly expressed.

 R.J. Palacio: Wonder

Another book crammed with hope and inspiration, though never cloying – the central character feels realistically drawn; imperfect, self-aware. This was the book I recommended all of key stage 3 to read over the summer, and the one most students have run up to me to tell me they have read and loved.

Dave Eggers: The Circle

I really feel this is the 1984 of our time: a novel of the internet age, taking on every facet of life in a digital world. The silicon valley world feels real here, and if the love interest falls flat it does so for good reason.

John Green and David Levithan: Will Grayson Will Grayson

The imagination in this book is inspiring, and it’s a nifty venture – two authors writing consecutive chapters from different perspectives. The message is one of acceptance and love, and is one children and adults can learn a lot from.

Carys Bray: A Song for Issy Bradley

The tale of a mother dealing with grief in the context of her husband’s Mormon beliefs taught me a great deal about both. This was one of those books which left me feeling empty when it had ended; as if I couldn’t believe those characters had gone from my life.

Laura Wade: Posh

I missed seeing Wade’s play, and I’m sure reading it cannot compare; yet this play was so stark and so heinous, it made me really actually angry. But angry in a really good way.

Non-fiction

Martin Robinson: Trivium 21C

Robinson’s was the first book I read in 2014, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the year. The book is both a vision of how education ought to be, and full enough of personal insight to feel like a friendly conversation. One for re-reading into 2015.

Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In

I’m confused that so many people have strong emotions about Lean In, because I couldn’t see the controversy. This book felt like some really honest reflections about what it takes to be a successful woman, and the choices and mindset necessary.

Heather Kirn Lanier: Teaching in the Terrordome

I’m a sucker for a teaching memoir, and I’m a sucker for anything American. (what is the American version of a Francophile, a propos of nothing? I am that.) Lanier’s depiction of her Baltimore experience of Teach for America made me reevaluate everything I thought possible in my classroom.

 Malala Yousafzai: I am Malala

Of course, Malala is a complete inspiration for us all, but I would argue especially so for young women. This poignant and beautifully written book has been shared with all of my classes across the age groups of the school.

 Graham Nuthall: The Hidden Lives of Learners

I found this way of looking at the way children learn extraordinary. It made me consider that we probably do need to be much more careful about the evidence surrounding the way we educate, and left me with a lot of lovely quotable nuggets I have not hesitated to roll out in too many conversations.

Daisy Hay: Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives

I’m not sure how, but the Romantics are a big gap in my literary knowledge. Preparing to teach Frankenstein to year 13, I sought to remedy this, and found in this particular volume a veritable sit-com of real-life entertainment.

Daisy Christodoulou: Seven Myths About Education

I wasn’t at all sure I would enjoy this book, as I’m not altogether fond of controversy or conflict, and it had felt to me that this book incited (or invited?) both, but after hearing Christodoulou sounding ever so likeable on the radio I decided to give it a go. Thank goodness – there’s nothing controversial here, just sensible observations on education, written in sparse prose (NO superfluous words – not even one).

Teaching memoirs

I love a good teaching memoir. During my first year in the classroom, I relied on the Teach for America memoirs (which are legion) to provide hope that I would prevail, despite current adversity. I’ve also included some organisational biographies and books of leaders which I’ve found especially inspiring.

1. Taught by America, Sarah Sentilles

This is the first Teach for America memoir I read. Sentilles joined TFA as a member of the 1995 corps and was sent to Compton, a city south of Los Angeles. Her beginning days as a teacher will sound comfortingly familiar I think:

I woke up before 5am each school day, made myself breakfast and packed a lunch, drove to the nearest copy shop to make copies for that day’s lesson, and then hightailed it to Compton. I taught thirty-six students all day, and then I cleaned my classroom, graded papers, planned the following day’s lessons, drove home, opened a can of something to eat for dinner, and practically fell into bed. I often cried myself to sleep. The next morning it started all over again.

If nothing else will, these American teachers will make you grateful for your school copier (even if there’s a huge queue after 7:30am and it jams five times a day). The issues of unsettled homes are writ large in this book: Sentilles contends with an ever-changing register of names as children leave and move into the area. Despite these struggles, there are some truly heart-warming moments in this book – although the ending can be hard to swallow if you’re a hardened teacher (I won’t give it away here).

2. Hands up! Oenone Crossley-Holland

This is the sole Teach First memoir of a participant I have been able to find (if you know of another please do let me know). Crossley-Holland’s placement school was alleged to be the one near my own placement, and a girls’ school as well; I thought I’d find plenty to learn from here. I wasn’t disappointed. The writer takes you through several “typical” days, and some of the challenges (both external and emotional) of working in a “Teach First” school. I found the style of the book warm and the writer extremely likeable. Her dialogue is convincing and the students warmly depicted, with a real sense of them as humans, often flawed by factors not of their own making, and eminently lovable.

3. Whatever it takes, Paul Tough 

This isn’t a memoir, but rather a biography – yet it is also informative of the challenges facing our students, and inspiring in one man’s quest for educational equality, crusading outside a classroom. Geoffrey Canada, a teacher by trade, took it upon himself to transform the life chances of children growing up in Harlem, creating the “Harlem Children’s Zone”, and Tough chronicles his movement in this book. This book is a must-read for any would-be education-reformers, as well as anyone with an interest in the backgrounds of the students they find in their classrooms. Depressingly, it also shows us how vast the issue of educational inequality is; at the same time, one might also conclude that more people with Canada’s dedication can do much to turn the tide.

4. The Best Job in the World, Vic Goddard

I’ve never tried to hide it: I am a massive, massive fan of Educating Essex (any international readers: this is a Channel 4 series which documents the year in the life of an exceptional school in Essex, England). Goddard, in the series, is seen in headteacher-guise; a very human headteacher, but still one with all the confidence such a role illuminates. His autobiography shows us that such certainty is created, not inborn, and Goddard takes us through the highs and lows of his career, whilst simultaneously repeating his rallying cry to those new to the profession: become a headteacher; it is the best job in the world. There is much to learn here, both about teaching, learning, behaviour management and, especially, leadership.

5. Teaching in the Terrordome, Heather Kirn Lanier 

This is another TFA memoir, one about an English teacher. It is suffused with genuine humility, such as Lanier’s retelling of her first lesson with her students, where she wants them to see reading as a door to new and undiscovered worlds:

‘See! It looks like a door!’ I close the cover to illustrate, then open it again. I nod. “A book is a door! Reading is a doorway into a new world!’ I raise my eyebrows, I smile. They stare back blankly. They show no signs that they are enthralled by the prospects of visiting new lands via literature. No music plays in the background, and I win no one over.

The sheer belief you have in your students is often met with complete and utter apathy at first; in Lanier’s disfunctional school in Baltimore, she overcomes challenges I could only imagine, and reveals more about the disfunctional American system than perhaps any other memoir I have read.

6. Work hard. Be nice. Jay Matthews

This is another biography of an organisation, this time KIPP: a chain of hugely successful charter schools which have gone on to inspire many of their UK counterparts. This is the story of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two of my heroes (and it is well worth following both on Twitter); of their initial experiences in the classroom (both were not born teaching prodigies, comfortingly) and their unstoppable drive to change education for the better for as many children as they could. The story is peppered with anecdotes which show the human and reflective side of the educators; my favourite is the one of the student who can’t finish her homework because she is addicted to television (something I sympathise with). Feinberg visits her home and asks the mother for the television set. She protests that it is their only one, and he responds:

That’s fine, but you tell me you are powerless to stop your daughter from watching it, so it seems to me the only way to make sure she doesn’t watch TV is to take the TV out of the house.

After the incident, Feinberg humbly admits he has overstepped the mark, yet there is something heroic in the anecdote I think we can all gain from.

7. Radical, Michelle Rhee

If ever there was a truly “Marmite” educational reformer, it has to be Michelle Rhee. She is known to many through her appearance in the documentary “Waiting for Superman”, wherein she becomes chancellor of schools in Washington D.C, said by some to be the most malfunctioning system in the states. Her central aim is to put students first; unlike my educational inspiration, Dr Irene Bishop (CBE; Superhead) who contends that to put students first you must look after your staff, Rhee often accomplishes this aim by firing “inadequate” heads and incentivising the best teachers financially. Although this sits uncomfortably with me, her invective against mediocrity is compelling. We must always be familiar with what we disagree with. And I don’t disagree with her aims, her intentions; only at times her method. Rhee’s style is powerful and she really takes you on her journey through education, as well as leaving you will an irrefutable call to arms.

This post is un-finishable; I have not explored There are No Children Here or In the Deep Heart’s Core, two of my very favourite books, as they mainly reiterate concerns above – but I would urge interested readers to read both; the first set in Chicago, the second Mississippi.

Finally: readers, please direct me to more teacher memoirs; share your favourites and, most importantly, go and write your own so I have more to read.