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

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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.