If you recommend one book

I am in the habit of giving vastly long reading lists, which I do believe are extremely helpful to students who already tend to read. Where this process falls sharply down is when students are not tending to read. I gave a reading list to a new group I was teaching in September, and their groans killed me. These aren’t low ability kids, although they were definitely under-achieving. I was delighted that despite the groans I saw a solitary child with one of the books from the list weeks later, but I’ve been thinking that my plan of attack for creating little readers needs to be more multi-pronged.

Then, my mentor and inspiration (Ms Moran), told me about an amazing thing she had been doing with her classes to foster a reading culture. She would stop the lesson five minutes before the end, and talk about the book she was reading. What genius. She’d put the front cover up on a slide, or read aloud to the students from the first page. The effect was unbelievable – students were clambering to read the books she was talking about.

I’m not saying I’ve never talked about what I’m reading with students. But it has usually tended to be spurred by them asking, or me carelessly leaving a reading book on my desk. I haven’t pre-planned these chats, and with sixth form, I have often had to castigate myself for “wasting their learning time” with the lengthy chats about books. The conversations are definitely worthwhile, but I do think a planned approach is safer.

With this in mind, I’m going to outline three great books I have read in the past year, which are my number one recommends for the three secondary key stages right now.


KS3 (year 7 or 8): A Monster Calls

a monster callsI’m beginning with the book which began Ms Moran’s new policy. As she says, “no-one writes an opening like Ness.” I’ve recommended The Knife of Never Letting Go to high ability students in year 8, but even truly reluctant readers in year 9 are drawn in by the style and content of the opening.

A Monster Calls is a little over 200 pages, and looks manageable for, I would say, all but beginning readers. Ness’s characters in this book have the slightly other-worldly feel of David Almond’s; they speak to each other and it sounds plausible, but not familiar. That aside, the content and style are what sell this book.

The basic plot-line is that a tree-monster wakes a child up and scares him lots, but also teaches him lots, especially about the very difficult trials he is going through with an extremely ill mother. This isn’t a book about death though, or really even suffering. It’s a book about resilience and faith against the odds.

KS4: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

At open evening in my new school, I got chatting with a parent about books and she recommended that I read this one. (Parent, please send your child to my school!) This booka tree grows in brooklyn has already rocketed into my all-time top ten.

The story follows Francie, who grows up in the 1900s in a Brooklyn slum. But the nuances are miraculous – so much is withheld; we see through Francie’s eyes, and if the blurb hadn’t given the setting away, we might have little idea she is living in poverty until some time into the book.

The novel is full of anecdotes; rivers of stories which make up the sea of human experience. It feels timeless and massive. I’m not too sure about reading the opening of this to hook students, but I would recommend a paragraph 14 pages in, where the main character observes an old man. Smith writes:

“He is old. He must be past seventy. He was born about the time Abraham Lincoln was living and getting himself ready to be president. Williamsburg must have been a little country place then and maybe Indians were still living in Flatbush. That was so long ago.” She kept staring at his feet. “He was a baby once. He must have been sweet and clean and his mother kissed his little pink toes. Maybe when it thundered at night she came to his crib and fixed his blanket better and whispered that he mustn’t be afraid, that mother was there. Then she picked him up and put her cheek on his head and said that he was her own sweet baby. He might have been a boy like my brother, running in and out of the house and slamming the door. And while his mother scolded him she was thinking that maybe he’ll be president some day. Then he was a young man, strong and happy. When he walked down the street, the girls smiled and turned to watch him. He smiled back and maybe he winked at the prettiest one. I guess he must have married and had children and they thought he was the most wonderful papa in the world the way he worked hard and bought them toys for Christmas. Now his children are getting old too, like him, and they have children and nobody wants the old man any more and they are waiting for him to die. But he doesn’t want to die. He wants to keep on living even though he’s so old and there’s nothing to be happy about anymore.”


KS5: Bright Shiny Morning

bright-shiny-morning “Welcome to LA. City of contradictions” reads the blurb of James Frey’s masterpiece. This book is a gem for the sixth form: modern and realistic in its scope, but also creatively told with modernist sensibilities – dialogue without punctuation, and the stories interwoven with paragraph-long excerpts of the history of the city.

There are elements of comedy and tragedy in this epic tome, but there is also truth and hope. The characters are sketched but somehow they live more truly for that sketch-quality. Their stories are built up slowly, and this draws you in the more fully. They don’t all interlink, because that isn’t true to life. We have the homeless man, the child inter-state migrants, the rich and famous. We have all of human life at its extremes and in its non-extreme normality made beautiful.


Teaching Chaucer to Year 7

There are many things I did not think possible when I began teaching. The above didn’t even cross my mind. I studied The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales when I was in year 12, and the wonderful Mrs Grinham made us love it (it was hard to dislike anything she taught; she sat at her desk, book in hand, and seemed to simply chat to us in the lightest, richest voice I ever have heard, interspersing literary gems with nuggets about knitting, baking and her grandchildren. I think it was looking at Mrs Grinham in her perfectly tailored clothes and perfectly shaped bob that made me think “I’d like to be like that one day”).

But teaching Chaucer to year 7? How we had struggled with the language and spent the first three weeks entirely blank-faced, as Mrs Grinham patiently explained the intricate meanings of each Middle English word.

So when my colleague, Ms Moran, told us last year she was teaching Chaucer to year 7, I personally thought she was having a laugh.

A word about Ms Moran: you know how people say watching a great teacher is like watching an artist? Ms Moran is probably the Monet of teachers. I have literally never seen a better teacher in my life. Oh, and you know people say: “but no-one is outstanding in every lesson.” Well, she is. I’ve sat next to her in the English office for nearly three years and 100% of her lessons are pure pedagogical genius.

She’s rolled out her scheme of work to the rest of the department for this year and we’re all giving it a go. As I’ve said previously, our department rarely works in tandem with each other. We’re encouraged to teach what we love, so our classes are usually experiencing very different topics at different times in different ways. Yet every year the whole of year 7 have a trip to Canterbury Cathedral, from our school in Southwark. Sound familiar? Almost irresistible for us English teachers. The RS department was keen to enlist English in making year 7 feel like modern-day pilgrims, and give the trip that cross-curricular dimension.

Obviously, the language is hard for them. The first lesson begins with a fifteenth century text of “The Prodigal Son”, a text our Church of England girls (the very vast majority) are familiar with. This eases them into Middle English, of which they explored only odd lines. The first lesson was a run-through of the pilgrims, with some lines from the opening, which they were scared of. Yet the challenge of those words really excited the students; with enough group work, one child suddenly “getting it” rippled through the class.

By the third lesson (after, I will mention, some extremely thoughtful chunking by Ms Moran of the lesson content), my students were quoting from the original text of the Portrait of the Miller to support their points about him. They were even able to explain the ideas behind some of the words. It was a complete joy to hear one student saying “this one’s my favourite line!” and explaining why.

Our pilgrimage to Canterbury was sadly less Chaucerian than we might have hoped. There were three modern coaches, for example; no horses; and a number of electronic pacifiers to ensure we teachers weren’t unduly subjected to mass-singing (though some did break out on the way back).

Of course, many did talk to each other. I wonder if any told stories? When our all-girls school coach was passed by a coach containing members of a male cricket team, there was immense excitement of some would-be wives of Bath.

At the Cathedral, our tour guide (a volunteer, and allegedly nearing 80, though looking and sounding far younger) took a small group of us around the Cathedral, using stories to engage his group. The students were especially excited by the “ghost of Thomas Becket” seen from a certain angle. In the afternoon, they settled onto the grass around the Cathedral to begin to plan their own pilgrimage story, complete with moral aspect.

So far, so good. This experience has taught me that there isn’t really a limit on difficulty of text. Properly supported, students will enjoy and learn with any text. Why not make it a great one?

Although my aim of teaching Beowulf in its original Old English may be a step to far…