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.

Behaviour

I was in a workshop during my teacher training where we were role playing behaviour management with our peers. (Doesn’t that sound horrific? Since my first year of university when I unexpectedly contracted “the fear” and walked out of a read-through I’ve had a problem with anything acting-related. This workshop was therefore more nightmarish that you can even imagine.) Yet having observed a thousand teachers and read a million books, you would think I could handle this. Hardly. I clammed up; I was speechless. I had no comeback at all for my partner.

I remember that evening, in despair, calling my “leadership development officer” (basically our mum for 6 weeks), in tears, telling her I didn’t think I could do it. Amy was amazing. After giving me the phone equivalent of a massive hug, she told me something along the lines of “you will. When there is a child in front of you, you just will.” “What if I cry?” I asked. “You just won’t.”

I was, and still am, a crier, so I’m not sure I believed her, but I stuck with Teach First. And she was right. I have never ever cried from managing a tricky child, or a tricky class. Not even nearly. More than this triumph, I never clammed up. I always had something to say.

Obviously, it wasn’t always the right thing to say, but you live and learn.

Now, no book on behaviour management will fully prepare you to teach. Even after several years of teaching students will do and say things you can’t even imagine. Some of my personal favourites are so inappropriate I simply can’t write them here. I think reading these books during your first placement, or first term of teaching, is actually more helpful than reading them pre-term time.

So, onto some of my favourite books on behaviour management.

Classroom Behaviour by Bill Rogers

This was definitely the most useful book for me prior to teaching. It is replete with phrases you can practise saying, and above all in the early days you need some stock phrases to fall back on. Rogers espouses a gently gently approach, always aiming to avoid confrontation and focus on the positive. There are some real gems here; rather than “take off that fluorescent orange balaclava” saying “what’s the school rule about scarves?”; adding a “thanks” to the end of an instruction rather than a “please” (I have never done this, because I am a stubbornly traditional user of English sentence structure, but I hear it works well) and advice on when, who and how to tactically ignore.

Assertive Discipline by Lee Canter

This is an example of a book I read and all but dismissed during training and only came to appreciate when I entered the classroom.

“Assertive Discipline” is an ideal solution for the problem of praise: feel like a bit of an idiot praising the one person with their book and pen out? Canter instead advocates “behaviour narration” rather than judgement. Rather than a “well done for doing the absolute minimum I expect of you” you narrate it: “Chanelle has her pen out and is ready to start learning”. This then draws attention to the positive behaviour and nudges others towards following it. To non-teachers this might sound crazy, but it works supremely well, at least in my experience. (There are other tips, but this one is my favourite.)

Why are you shouting at us? by Phil Beadle and John Murray

I began teaching in the halcyon days of Teachers’ TV, and was a bit of a fan girl for Phil Beadle, one of their vanguards. His charisma and creativity was everything I wasn’t, and I loved reading his book “How to Teach” (though his insistence on the efficacy of marking as a sure-fire way to change achievement even when your classroom is a bit chaotic led to me neglecting planning in favour of an unimaginable amount of written feedback, with disastrous consequences. By my second year I marked less and planned more and found it worked. This is almost certainly my error of interpretation, not his writing.)

I know not all teachers are Beadle fans, but I think he is great. Driven by a strong moral purpose and with all the skills you would expect of an AST, this co-written book is a superb round up of effective behaviour management. At 130 small pages the text is lighthearted enough to be read speedily and joyously. It is also fairly honest about what kids can do and how you can combat it.

Less useful are the charisma based methods – I’m not sure I have ever managed to calm a truly angry child with a joke, though I wholly endorse the anti-shouting pages (quiet seething is far better for your health, if less immediately effective).

Reluctant Disciplinarian by Gary Rubinstein

Rubinstein was trained by Teach for America, and this book is the better for the honesty with which he reveals his classroom mistakes; an honesty which comes partly from his subsequent successes in the classroom. I related to this book as Rubinstein, like me, is a self-confessed “softy”.

Acknowledging that behaviour management can never be adequately taught (not least, I would argue, through role play), this book takes you to the possible pitfalls of your initial months in the classroom and shows you the light at the end of that tunnel.

There are some traditional methods explored here in a clear way, for example meaning what you say – something I found surprisingly hard in my initial term of teaching. This is possibly because I wasn’t sure what I wanted, or if what I was doing was right; therefore I really didn’t mean what I said all that often. I will always remember a fellow teacher telling me that it was during her bout of laryngitis that she had become a better teacher; she had so little voice that she needed to mean everything she said.
Of course, the best “behaviour management” comes from familiarity: you with the kids, and the kids with you. It can’t happen straight away or overnight; merely sticking it out, turning up and following through with every consequence you say (at first even if you immediately regret it; only later with a conversation and apology if you were wrong) will work. It will work. It will.

Eventually.

Off-duty Reading

Now is the time that my quest for all-the-book-reading reaches its epic zenith. My educator readers might allow me this self-indulgence; I wanted to share my thoughts on what I have been reading while on holiday. This is partly to combat my previously noted tendency to race through books without pause, in using this public forum to school myself in reflection on what I have read. Partly, of course, this is written because, as much as I love school, students and teaching, my brain doesn’t want to do as much thinking on these subjects during the summer months as it does on novels, and other such “fun books.”

In an attempt to justify my words below, this blog is not overtly about education: it is, rather, about books. Only incidentally do I hope to offer any musings on the former.

So – to the vacation! Let me paint a picture: friends, sunshine, plenty to do and see, and me, in a corner, on my own, with my Kindle. This might give you an idea of why you should never, ever agree to go on holiday with me, and allow you to understand why my friends ostracise me at the poolside.  Here were my favourite reads, read in idyllic surroundings with the greatest of hosts and the greatest of friends.
Hearts and minds, Amanda Craig

I began with a paperback by one of my new favourite authors, recommended to me by one of the most impressively well-read, deeply intuitive and eminently qualified teachers I know, Mrs. Clayton. Anything Mrs. Clayton tells me to read, I know I will love. I am indebted to her for this authorial recommendation. I had previously read “A Vicious Circle”, which explores the sordid world of London publishing, with deep delight, and found “Hearts and Minds” similarly enjoyable for wholly different reasons.

Firstly, I love a book set in a place I have lived. The familiarity of London here brought the author’s reality to life all the more perfectly for me. Craig’s characters are a mix of very real, and very stock, yet this is a mix which works. Her interweaving storylines are always an enjoyable puzzle, and in this novel she takes on different ideas about immigration, by focusing her perspective on a variety of classes and cultures. For a more focused awareness of migrants and a storyline at times as outrageous as any BBC thriller, I would recommend this book.

Dark Lies the Island, Kevin Barry

As noted in an earlier post, here, I am trying to increase my reading of short stories. Barry’s stories had been recommended to me by scores of almost universally Irish friends, and I began with this tome purely as it was the most recent I had heard of. I was not to be disappointed.

These beautiful vignettes of Irish life span the island in its modernity, and veer from SoCo (South County Dublin; Londoners, think of purest West London) kitchen drama with a light tone reminiscent of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly to a Joyce-esque devastating portrait of a man trapped in a routine. Language is used in an enjoyably creative way; Barry describes a clean-cut type with an “orthodontic beam” early on; a man aware of the familiarity of his quest for originality notes that: “every last crooked rock of the place had at some point seated the bony arse of some hypochondrical epiphany-seeker.” A short read, but one I took my time over.
Transatlantic, Colum McCann

Have you read “Let the Great World Spin”? It ranks in my all time top ten books, possibly even top five. I trusted in McCann and took a gamble on his new novel.

While I didn’t feel “Transatlantic” reached the mountainous heights of “Great World…”, McCann’s construction of narrative and meticulous research cannot be faulted. His Irish roots have come to fruition at last, as he turns his attention to the “Irish Question”, as always, in an inventive manner. The way in which he interweaves his stories is not as clear as Craig’s, and yet his work seems all the more literary for that intentional blur.

The especially superb parts of this text are, in my view, McCann’s reimagining of Frederick Douglass’ voyage to Ireland, and George Mitchell’s chronologically later appearance as an unnamed senator detailing the intricate narrative of life and negotiations at that time.

McCann’s language is always succinct: in depicting life in Dublin’s slums of yore he writes: “women walked in rags, less than rags: as rags”, for example. His summary of the British feeling on the Northern Ireland issue, though perhaps coloured, is excellent: “embarrassed by what they have done for centuries in Ireland. Ready to leave. To hightail it out of there. They would wipe their hands clean in an instant, if only they didn’t have to do it in front of the world.”

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates

In a moment of weakness, I watched this film on iPlayer about a year ago and thus consigned myself to never reading the novel – that’s how it works, right? Then, in a second hand book shop, I came across it for only £2 and couldn’t resist.

I am extremely glad I gave into temptation, for if the film is unremittingly depressing (don’t watch it if you’re even a little bit sad) the book is far, far less so. There is an abundance of humour, both in terms of irony and also in Yates’ playful use of language. One example I was so particularly fond of as to bore those around me in its recital is this: the central character, Frank, justifies his decision to take on an unexciting career by saying:

“Look at it this way. I need a job; okay. Is that any reason why the job I get has to louse me up? Look. All I want is to get enough dough coming in to keep us solvent for the next year or so, till I can figure things out; meanwhile I want to retain my own identity. Therefore the thing I’m most anxious to avoid is any kind of work that can be considered ‘interesting’ in its own right. I want something that can’t possibly touch me. I want some big, swollen old corporation that’s been bumbling along making money in its sleep for a hundred years, where they have to hire eight guys for every one job because none of them can be expected to care about whatever boring thing it is they’re supposed to be doing. I want to go into that kind of place and say, Look. You can have my body and my nice college-boy smile for so many hours a day, in exchange for so many dollars, and beyond that we’ll leave each other strictly alone.”

The crisp narrative appears to fly on apace, although ironically this is a book which turns on inaction.

The tragedy with which the novel ends is surprisingly muted. There is a lack of feeling or emotion in the text, which serves to emphasise the ideas Yates seems to be putting forward in the narrative.
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

After my recent diet of extremely fun, and universally modern books, I felt like I’d committed the reading equivalent of eating one too many McDonalds. Indeed, I have for a long time felt the English graduate’s smugness of having read pretty much all of the Oxford Classics (when I say read, you might substitute “skimmed” or even “read a series of critical essays plus selected skimming”) at University. But it is time to face facts: there are innumerable “classics” I did not read, or did not read properly, and it is time to put this to rights.

Now, I’m cheating here because I haven’t actually finished this book. But I really wanted to write something about “David Copperfield” because I have rarely enjoyed Dickens. The promise of “Oliver Twist” was not fulfilled for me in “Bleak House” or “Little Dorrit” or “Dombey and Son”, possibly one of my least favourite tomes (shortly followed by “The Faerie Queene” – if you have read and enjoyed it, I bow in your literary honour).

Following university, it occurred to me that Dickens is not best read skimmed. His way with words is the essence of his work; the plot, surprisingly, is not enough. I went on to read “The Old Curiosity Shop” and “Great Expectations” about five years ago, but slowly, and with some surprised enjoyment. Yet “David Copperfield”, at least until page 724, supersedes all the previous Dickens of my acquaintance. It is really, really funny, for starters. The characters in this novel have multiple dimensions and conflicting passions and prejudices in a realistic and natural way unachieved in the texts named above. The use of first person is delightfully employed, and in my year 7 Scheme of Work for Autumn 1 on Dickens, we will certainly be revisiting parts of this novel.

My only wish with Dickens is that the latterday publishers would divide his novels into installments as they were initially published for his reading public. In fact, I feel there is an opportunity for a service which delivers weekly or monthly installments to your inbox, to prevent us slaving away unnaturally at a thousand pages a time.

So endeth the self-indulgent survey of my holiday reading. Lest you non-teachers think I slack, I will assure you I have also read more study guides, Cambridge Companions, literary essays, critical biographies and pedagogy guides than you can shake a large stick at in preparation for the new academic year – do not entirely begrudge me the rest.

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