What should school CPD focus on?

We’ve all sat through some real shockers of school CPD sessions at one time or another. Thinking about the elements of what I think makes great teaching, here are the school-based CPD sessions I think every school should be running:

Behaviour

The most important thing in a school is that the children behave. Managing behaviour should be returned to again and again to ensure all teachers have clarity, and that the systems are applied consistently by all. It is also worth thinking about when behaviour slips – is it in the canteen, at the beginnings of lessons, during the fire drill – and addressing those specific moments with a new approach.

Reading

Children read in every single lesson, but it’s not always obvious how to get them to the point where they will read aloud confidently.


Writing

Children write in every single lesson, but is their writing always accurate and coherent? There are lots of small tweaks we can make to out practise to help children write more effectively.


Questioning

I think questioning is the absolute most important thing a teacher can do. The best teachers I have seen pepper their explanations with multiple questions asked of as many students as possible to check they understand, and then to see if the students can apply their understanding to new scenarios and begin to think more deeply about the content.


Explanation

Subject departments should be talking in their CPD time about the best way to explain tricky concepts, and thinking about the common misconceptions children have.


Booklets

Rather than using Powerpoints or photocopying multiple sheets, departments should focus on pre-producing booklets and then planning how to deliver them. Those responsible for resourcing should be trained in the best and fastest way to produce booklets under the inevitable time pressures of any school.


Knowledge Organisers

Knowledge organisers force teams to consider what they want students to learn for the long term. CPD on making them as effective and clear as possible would be helpful, especially in the early days of adopting them.


Recaps and quizzing

Understanding the science of memory, the power of overlearning, and the simplicity of recapping prior knowledge would go a long way to helping children retain knowledge for the long term.


Deliberate practice

Not all practice is as helpful as it could be. Helping teachers discern the most important skills for children to practice and then supporting them to make activities that ensure children are undertaking deliberate practice is invaluable.


Feedback

Rather than laboriously marking every book, teachers can give whole-class feedback. But it is not always obvious which aspects to focus on to make the feedback as effective as possible.

 

All of the above aspects could easily be covered in short 20 or 30 minute slots, and focused on key aspects or resources, but I think that all the elements are crucial to good teaching. In terms of pedagogy, I don’t think we can do better than implementing coaching observations, as advocated in Leverage Leadership, with frequent low-stakes observations focused on one minor tweak each time to improve teaching. 

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Review of the year

In September 2015, I did not envision where I would be by July 2016. I had just joined a big academy as an Assistant Head. I hoped I would have made some positive changes, changed some minds, and have settled into my job happily. In reality, I left that school after one short (but very happy) term, because I realised that if I missed the chance to join Michaela Community School in its early stages, I would massively regret it for the rest of my life.

Do I regret it? Not a jot. But when I think back on this year, the high points are very very different from what I thought they would be.

A major high-point has been reading. At Michaela, I get to read constantly. With my classes, I have read Romantic and Victorian poetry, The Aeneid, Julius Caesar, Medea, Macbeth, Frankenstein and Northanger Abbey since January, along with other non-fiction and short extracts. With my tutor group, I’ve read Dracula, Wonder, Gulliver’s Travels, Boy, The Three Musketeers (very much abridged!), and Gombrich’s A History of the World. Then with reading group, I’ve read The Secret Garden, Farenheit 451, Matilda, Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, Educating Rita, An Inspector Calls and Pride and Prejudice. I spend the last hour of my day reading with children. There is nothing better in the world. I’ve also found more and more time to read myself, in the evenings and on weekends. Gone are the weekends and evenings of frantic work. Some weekends, I have spent the whole time just reading novel after novel after novel – my idea of paradise!

My tutor group have been an absolute highlight. When I was first told I would have a one, I was secretly disappointed. I’d always found it hard to manage a group of children I saw for 15 minutes a day. But having tutor time for 20 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon, coupled with the reading programme, has meant that I have really been able to bond with mine, and after a half term or holiday, it is their faces I long to see on the first day back. They were in terrible habits when I picked them up (and at Michaela, that means they tended to look over their shoulders a lot and whisper when they thought I wasn’t looking – we are very strict!), but they have really settled into a lovely group of young people who can have a laugh and ‘Slant’ the next second (‘slant’ is our acronym to remind pupils to sit up straight and track the speaker).

I’ve improved my teaching immeasurably. I’ve had constant feedback throughout the year. We don’t have strict structures of feedback, so I’ve had feedback from deputy headteachers, other heads of department, teachers and teacher fellows. In a place of no egos, you take advice from everyone, and it makes everyone better at their jobs. I’ve not had a formal observation since joining Michaela, but I (along with every member of staff, including the kitchen and office staff) have had a sit down (with biscuits) with the Headmistress, Katharine, who spent much of the time asking me what she could do to better support me, and if I was happy.

I can’t express how amazing it has been to work with the best minds in our profession: I can’t begin to list the things I have learned from my colleagues, in particular Katharine, Katie, Joe, and Jonny. Our debate at City Hall created conversations and challenges, exactly as hoped. We are all writing a book together about the ideas of Michaela, and I’m so proud to be a part of that (do come to our event in November when we launch it!). What feels like hundreds of visitors have come into my classroom since January, some respected colleagues from Twitter, and hearing their comments and challenges has been really helpful for me in thinking over what we do and why. I’ve also had some brilliant exchanges with people on Twitter. Challenge allows me to clarify my thinking, and often to hone and improve what I do. It feels like it is an exciting time to be in education, and Michaela is an exciting place to be.

Of course, it has not all been rainbows and sunshine. I’ve lost out on being part of an exciting turn-around school, and I’ve let down the colleagues, and even friends, I made there. I can guarantee I will never be welcome to work for one particular academy chain again. The guilt of that decision has not yet begun to fade. But we can’t expect to make everyone happy when we make a difficult choice. There are new vistas, new horizons, before us, and we’re only at the very beginning.

Michaela front of school

Reading Reconsidered

Teach Like a Champion,’ by Doug Lemov, changed my teaching profoundly: it was the most practical and helpful piece of writing I had ever encountered, and transformed my classroom practice, giving me specific aspects to hone and improve.

When I heard that Lemov had been an English teacher, it didn’t surprise me – in particular, in TLAC 2.0 there are several techniques which are especially useful for the English teacher. When I heard he was co-authoring a book on reading, I had very high hopes. ‘Reading Reconsidered,’ written by Lemov with Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs, does not disappoint. With a nod to the poetic importance of literature (‘this book is about the enduring power of reading to shape and develop minds’), again, we have a manual for practice; specific things that teachers can do, day in, day out, to read effectively with pupils.

‘Reading Reconsidered’’s opening gambit is that text selection is key: in pages referencing Hirsch and Arnold, canon and cultural capital, the writers note: ‘part of the value of reading is to be able to read and talk about important books that almost everyone else has read.’ The great conversation of literature, intertextuality, ‘works only when pupils have read some texts in common.’ The writers extol the value of a common reading curriculum for all pupils, and warns us to select our texts carefully, noting: ‘a typical pupil might read and intentionally study forty or fifty books in English classes’ over their time in school and ‘these few books form the foundation of their knowledge of how literature works.’ If only there were as many as fifty texts! Such a sentence puts the demands of the new GCSE English Literature, with its four texts (I include the poetry cluster as a ‘text’) over two years into frightening perspective. To those who argue that canonical texts are unreadable by youngsters, the authors respond: we just need to get better at teaching them.

The writers go on to isolate the ‘five plagues of the beginning reader’, looking at five challenges all readers face in encountering tricky texts, and how we can overcome these in our everyday practice. One example is using ‘pre-complex texts’ to prime pupils for the canon, such as children’s classics like ‘The Secret Garden’ which use challenging syntax but have child-friendly story arcs.

The chapters on close reading are a must-read primer for all English teachers, going meticulously through how we should read closely in class, supplemented with specific questions designed to unlock meaning in complex passages. One key take-away for me was: teachers! Prepare to close-read! Annotate your text! It sounds blindingly obvious, but I know I’ve been guilty of sauntering into class, blank copy in hand, hoping for the best. Yet what more important preparation can there be for a lesson than our own annotation?

The most revolutionary chapter for me in ‘Reading Reconsidered’ was that on non-fiction. It made me recognise how vital it is for pupils to read non-fiction alongside fiction to assist with their comprehension and to enable really excellent analysis: ‘reading secondary nonfiction texts in combination with a primary text increases the absorption rate of pupils reading that text’; ‘when texts are paired, the absorption rate of both texts goes up.’ Overall: don’t teach non-fiction as a separate unit, but rather interweave non-fiction texts into your teaching of literature, either with short, contextual glosses or in-depth historical study of the time period in question to deepen analysis.

Though reading is this book’s chief subject, the authors do not neglect writing: ‘we are suggesting that pupils [should] write with more frequency and consistency as part of their daily work of responding to texts’. They recommend intervening at the point of writing to help pupils improve (no mention of lengthy, burdensome and delayed marking), explaining: ‘great teaching begins at the moment learning breaks down.’ ‘Writing,’ in this guide, also encompasses annotation, and again there is detailed advice for modelling these, with the goal of pupils eventually annotating autonomously.

Again, though the goal is for pupils to read independently, we need to be aware that if they do this poorly they are ‘inscribing errors’ (and of course we know from Lemov himself that ‘practice makes permanent’). It is vital that pupils read aloud, as well as listening to great reading being modelled for them. In considering ‘accountable independent reading,’ the writers give such guidance as using short sections with a specified focus, or scaffolding pupil comprehension by using questions.

Although the focus of the books is practical, with advice to be found on the specifics of vocabulary instruction and the dynamics of a classroom discussion, the underpinning voice here is one deeply concerned with children loving reading and doing it effectively. The voice of the parent in each writer is heard most clearly in the book’s dedication: ‘to our kids, with whom we have 16,000 more nights to read – not nearly enough.’ Foundational to this book is a personal and deep love of reading, for all the right reasons.

 

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Top reads of 2015

Non-fiction

Naomi Wolf – The Beauty Myth

This book is a scathing attack on the messages the media sends to women about how they should look and act. It made me really angry, in a good way.

Matthew Syed – Black Box Thinking

Syed explains how we learn from failure, and if we don’t, we are idiots. This is great for getting a new perspective on the ‘gift’ of feedback.

Susan Scott – Fierce Conversations

Sarah Donachy, the smartest person I’ve met this year, told me to read this. It really challenged my tendency to be a bit too cuddly rather than having the difficult conversation that is needed, and I’ve revisited it lots.

Irvin Yalom – Love’s Executioner

Joe Kirby told me to read this when I was feeling a bit stewed up. It’s great for giving perspective, and making you realise your emotions are in your control.

Eric Kalenze – Education is Upside Down

Since Research Ed 2015, I haven’t stopped hearing about this book, and it lived up to the hype. A great exploration of why education is set up to make disadvantaged students fail, and what we can do about it.

Anna Funder – Stasiland

I read this in Berlin, and it really brought to life the reality of living in the German Democratic Republic. The injustices suffered in East Berlin and East Germany in general astonished me.

Daniel Willingham – Raising Kids Who Read

Having listened to Katie Ashford, the guru on reading, for 2 full years, this was the year I finally began to grasp the reality of how children read, and this book really helped.

Daniel Koretz – Measuring Up

Daisy Christodoulou recommended this book at Research Ed in 2014, and it explained excellently the flaws in our current assessment model, and a better way forward.

Doug Lemov – TLAC 2.0

The first ‘Teach Like a Champion’ changed my life, and yet Lemov has improved even on this. The only guide a teacher needs for improving their classroom practice.

Fiction

John Steinbeck – The Red Pony

I read this and wept. A wonderful exploration of growing up, told beautifully in Steinbeck’s ever-complex simplicity.

Somerset Maugham – Of Human Bondage

This novel has stayed with me more than any other I’ve read this year. The horribly flawed characters and their ghastly choices felt so real and so close as I read it.

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Unbelievably, even better than ‘The Secret History.’ An astonishing tome of a novel, feeling epic in its scope.

Ian McEwan – The Children Act

This book has one idea, and it explores it in great depth. A searing look at love and relationships.

L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between

My last line-manager recommended this book to me. I adored the narrator’s innocence which was gradually eroded throughout, and the ideas of class and community.

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How to Read: TLT15

On 17th October, I travelled to Southampton for my second year presenting at TLT. I was talking about reading (not much new there), and, specifically, how to read. Reading, of course, is at the core of what we do as teachers; and not just as teachers of English. More and more in my new role, I’m coming to see that reading may be the only silver bullet in education: beautiful in its simplicity, obvious in its impact.

The reality is that our strongest readers read the most, and our weakest readers the least: the exact opposite what we need to see to close the gap between our best and worst performing students. This is not only true in their home lives, but also in our classrooms. Anyone who has ever asked for volunteers to read (including: me; guilty as charged) is advantaging those strong readers, and further denying reading from the weakest.

The gap in reading is not just a practice gap: it is also a knowledge gap. When we take our weak readers out of subjects to teach them reading skills, we are denying them that subject-specific knowledge that will enable them to make sense of a wider variety of texts. With the new strengthened GCSEs, students being able to read rigorous subject matter independently is essential.

Of the three stages of reading, decoding, comprehension and fluency, I said the least about decoding, instead pointing people to the awesome Katie Ashford’s blog, where she gives plenty of great advice on how to deal with students who cannot decode. It is clear that too many students slip through the decoding net at primary school, and we at secondary school lack the expertise to bridge that gap. This is evident in my experience in even years 10 and 11; last year I taught a student who would auto-correct unfamiliar words, as she didn’t know how to decode and hadn’t been properly taught phonics. She would autocorrect so many words, she couldn’t then understand the sentence, so for example: ‘Alison leapt up bracingly from her meal’ she might read aloud: ‘Alison led up braking from her meal’, which makes absolutely no sense.

Comprehension entails understanding what is written. Using Willingham’s examples from his excellent book Raising Kids who Read, often reading contains an inference gap: ‘Trisha spilled her coffee. Dan jumped from his chair to fetch a cloth.’ Expert readers automatically see how the first sentence impacts the second; novice readers might see these as two separate and unconnected events.

Interestingly, though, the gap between those from low and high income backgrounds manifests itself after the decoding has been taught, because comprehension, the second stage, is largely predicated on background knowledge, which our economically advantaged students have in abundance (usually from wide background reading). Using Hirsch’s classic ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run,’ I explained that readers with high levels of knowledge on a given topic do better on tests which supposedly only test their reading ‘skill.’

And yet we are still persisting in believing our weak readers simply need more training in generic reading strategies, often withdrawing students from subject lessons to teach reading in isolation, and then wondering why their reading is not improving. In fact, the optimal way to close the reading gap is for students to gain a broad knowledge of subjects across the curriculum.

So clearly, we need to put reading at the heart of our lessons. Yet this is not an easy sell. Citing my own trials of getting students to read aloud (ranging from outright refusals to early tears), I later that evening found there were many out there who considered reading aloud in class to be cruel: (

I welcome those challenges to this idea. It is all too easy to do whole class reading badly.

Indeed, it is absolutely vital to consider the emotional impact of such a policy, and the way to make it work in your individual classroom for your children. Running a class where every child reads aloud is difficult, make no mistake about it. It depends on excellent pedagogy and the creation of a warm, safe environment. It requires constant vigilance and tight management. But, crucially, it is possible.

Why read aloud with students, if it is so difficult? First, so we know they can read. I’ve heard of too many teachers at KS4 finding out their students can’t read to not put this top of my list of reasons. Next, so we know they are listening during the lesson – the knowledge you could be asked to read at any time undeniably focuses the mind. Also, reading aloud helps us as teachers to check for understanding, something impossible when students are reading silently at their own pace. But finally, because reading aloud is probably the most enjoyable thing you can do with a class.

One recent example: when year 7 went on their ‘outward bound’ trip, I was the lucky teacher of history with three periods to fill for those ‘left behind.’ A mixed group of around 18 students of vastly differing ability, I didn’t want to press on with the planned lessons, but also didn’t have a bank of ‘rainy day’ history lessons as a first year teacher of this subject. In my desperation, I photocopied about 30 pages of Gombrich’s History of the World (recommended to me in the summer by both Daisy Christodoulou and Jonathan Porter) and threw together some comprehension questions. The first lesson was fine, but I was really concerned about the double: two hours of pure reading and writing. And guess what? It’s probably the best lesson I’ve ever taught. No joke – I wish someone had come to see it. These children were utterly, utterly engaged in a way I’ve seen only rarely, in the most remarkable teachers’ classrooms. They adored the stories, and their curiosity led to a wonderful class discussion and some impressive paragraphs.

It was not always thus. Previously, I would use ‘guided reading,’ where my students read at different paces in groups, thus ensuring no misconceptions could be ironed out, and again advantaging those strong readers. Moreover, I previously did not read aloud well to students, as I have written about here.

So, I was held back by my own low expectations, and it was the children themselves who set me on the right track: they wanted to read, and they seized that moment to show me they could do it.

But how can we do it every lesson? Here, Doug Lemov has the best answer I’ve found with ‘Control the Game.’ I went through each of the components of this: be vague about how much children will be reading, keep the reading duration unpredictable but short at the outset, move swiftly to the next reader with limited words (‘Stacey, pick up’, or, in my class, ‘Stacey’) and take over and model reading of tricky passages. At the start of my time in a new school, I tweaked this: we did snake around the class, for two weeks in fact. What was lost in terms of students checking out and not following in this two weeks was made up for, I think, in that it set the expectation that every child would read in every one of my lessons. For unconfident readers, they got used to this expectation with the predictability. It also gave me two weeks to suss who was going to push back on reading, and deal with them individually. (Interestingly, my year 10 middle ability class proved harder to get reading than my year 11 set 7 class, who frequently bound into my room shouting ‘are we reading today miss?’) Only once the whole class was secure in reading (and only a sentence each time) did I move to selecting students, but even now they are only reading a sentence, though I am moving away from that.

The implications of this kind of teaching are that teachers need to spend their planning thinking more about the questions they will need to ask students to ensure they have understood, along with which vocabulary students will struggle with and how they will gloss those words and check students have learned them.

From the mechanics of reading I moved to the motivation: reading is highly emotional, and I shared methods I’ve written about extensively on this blog in the past to build a reading culture in a school, such as sharing one book, sharing reading lists and delivering reading assemblies.

Once again, I would like to thank my warm and encouraging audience, who indulged me in my anecdotes and engaged with the ideas with gusto. Much love also goes to those who listen and challenge in the room and after: it is only through such thrashing out of the ideas that we come closer to being the best teachers and professionals we can be.

TLT

How to read

Planning for mastery

As a follow-on to the initial inset session I have written about previously on memory, I was excited to build on these ideas in delivering a CPD session on planning for mastery with an extraordinary Lead Practitioner, Sophie Smith, who has championed Ark’s English Mastery course of lessons at my school for the past year.

That said, as scary as a day one inset it, you know teachers will be automatically more excited and engaged than at 4pm on a Wednesday, two weeks into term time, when a stack of marking beckons. Showing my draft to a colleague, the feedback was: ‘more pictures.’ I’m not a very visual person, so can’t claim credit for any images on the powerpoint – these are all the work of Sophie.

We began with another paper ‘do now,’ but this time I wanted to collect an insight into people’s thinking about education: what, in their view, was the purpose of education? How good was the current planning in their area? What were the most important aspects of planning? And how much time did they spend on those aspects?

First, I wanted to link mastery planning to the school’s context. We know that our children arrive to us further behind than more advantaged children, who have more social and cultural capital, along with simply knowing more stuff, and having practiced stuff more. I also wanted to pick up on a challenge I’d been given in the feedback from the first session: ‘where is the space for children’s creativity?’ asked one colleague. I asked teachers to think of the most creative child they had encountered: the one who had thought of a new way to solve a problem in maths, or had asked a curious question in science, or had linked different factors together in history. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, those children are also the ones who know the most. This correlation suggests to me that knowledge is the essential bedrock of creativity. You can’t create successfully in a vacuum.

We then posed the question: how do you teach a year 11 class who have an exam in a week’s time? Is it the same or different to your usual teaching?

In retrospect, this question would have worked better later in the session, or perhaps in a later session. There is too much to consider in changing the planning paradigm to successfully cover it all in an hour. What we wanted was for people to note the urgency with which they taught year 11 before an exam, and for us to link this urgency to our way of planning in all years – because time is short, and we have five years to close a significant gap.

I then shared what I found to be a useful distinction from Joe Kirby on planning: changing the paradigm from engaging starter, exciting activities, and reflective plenary to recap, instruction and deliberate practice. (I’ve added ‘deliberate’ to Kirby’s wording for two reasons: firstly, because we need to be completely focused on practising the specific aspects our students most struggle with, and secondly because without it the memorable phrase: ‘Recap, Instruction, Practice’ spells ‘R.I.P,’ which I felt would not connote a happy paradigm for teachers.)

Why is this so important? We know our students come to school massively far behind; research shows that less advantaged children at aged five have heard 30 million fewer words than their more advantaged peers. We also know that, nationally, students on free school meals achieve nearly half the five A*-C including English and maths compared with their more advantaged peers. We can’t do anything about how our students come to us, but we do have five years to close that gap to ensure they aren’t leaving us academically deprived.

Then, instead of citing the Sutton Trust’s research on motivation as I had planned (‘too many words! More pictures!’), Sophie engaged teachers with the cart and horse analogy: we often see self-esteem as the horse, pulling along the achievement, but in fact it is the opposite: achievement drives motivation and builds self-esteem; when children start succeeding at school, they are more likely to buy in.

We shared four key concepts on planning for mastery: select the content, sequence it, teach it, and quiz it. In retrospect, each could be a session by itself. Sophie shared the more rigorous texts brought in with English Mastery, and we asked departments to discuss how much children should read in their subjects, and what they could get them to read. In sequencing, I emphasised considering both the knowledge and practice gap when planning any lesson. For teaching, I didn’t go into nearly enough specific depth, and allowed departments to discuss themselves what they felt the highest leverage teacher actions were, with some interesting results. And finally with quizzing, I cited the knowledge maps and multiple choice tests we were already creating and which could be easily reused.

Subject teams took fifteen minutes then to look over a lesson together alongside these key principles and edit it. We finished with a similar quiz, with room for teachers to write their concerns and needs for support. Most wrote ‘time,’ and a few asked for support in making knowledge maps or finding rigorous content. The next most prevalent concern was meeting the needs of all students, which I will be writing about soon.

In reviewing the feedback sheets, I was interested to gauge the teachers’ response to the do now question: what is the purpose of education? Rank these statements 1-6 where 1 is the most important purpose. The vast majority, 60%, rated ‘forming good, kind and moral individuals’ as the top priority, followed by ‘preparing our students for the world of work’ at 27%. Not a single person chose either of these options as the most important purpose: ‘ensuring our students achieve the highest results in national exams’ or ‘teaching our students rigorous content so they outperform their peers in exams’. For the least important, 37% chose that latter option. The next most popular least important choice at 33% was ‘teaching our students the best of what has been thought and said.’

Mastery CPD

Do now (1)

Ten kids’ books you should read (if you want to be an English teacher)

This week, we welcomed a would-be PGCE student to our department for some experience of the wonderful world of English teaching. One of the things which struck me was how far removed recent graduates are from KS3, and the kind of books you want to be encouraging KS3 students to read. She mentioned the classics, but probably you want to teach these; a huge part of being an English teacher is encouraging students to read widely and for pleasure.

With this in mind, I recommend just ten wonderful books you can read and pass on to your future year 7, 8 and 9 students.

The Fault in Our Stars

Ok, if you haven’t heard of John Green you’re about to spend the next six weeks reading everything, and then wishing you’d gone slower (probably). The above is already a classic, and promoted Green to the stratosphere of great writers for young people. Green’s protagonists are often preternaturally wise, and alongside a brilliantly expressed story you can often glean interesting factual snippets. The characters are also both real and unreal at once; an unusual feat.

The Book Thief

I always despair when a popular book is turned into a film, because students start to tell me they have seen the film and therefore don’t want to bother to read the novel. Luckily, the adaptation of this was not as good as it could have been, and so I’ve found students largely receptive in reading this. An amazing creation in terms of perspective, this novel is narrated by death and takes students through the trials of surviving in Nazi Germany.

The Giver

This novel is a teaching staple in some classrooms (notably American ones, I’m reliably informed), but I’d not come across it until recently. A sci-fi look at a dystopian future where colour has been forgotten along with many aspects of freedom and experience we take for granted means this novel raises some thoughtful questions and issues for its young readers.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

You will undoubtedly be familiar with this, if not from the hugely acclaimed novel itself, at least from the stage adaptation. Seeing the world through the lens of an autistic boy is masterfully done by Haddon, and this is a brilliant book for year 9 (or even 8) students to read to help them to empathise with those different to them.

What is the What

Eggers is an epic story-teller, and each of his novels feels so distinctive I wouldn’t be shocked if you told me they were penned by different people. This one is definitely the most student-friendly, telling the true story of a young man’s plight in leaving war-torn Sudan.

The Knife of Never Letting Go

Though really, anything by Patrick Ness will be fabulous; he really is one of the foremost children’s writers today. I wrote about A Monster Calls here, but Knife was the first of his books I read, and it is the one I have most successfully managed to pass on to reluctant readers, chiefly due to the opening’s inclusion of a talking dog.

Looking for JJ

A sympathetic exploration of a child who has been re-assigned a new identity having committed a horrific crime. Written with bracing pace, and guaranteed to raise some moral dilemmas of interest.

Chains

Laurie Halse Anderson is another one of those authors who writes a wide variety of generally excellent novels for young people; Speak is similarly excellent though entirely different to the above. Chains explores aspects of American slavery and racism, so will often complement the kind of “civil rights” explorations in English many schools now offer at KS3.

We Were Liars

A year 10 student recommended this one to me, but I think most year 9s could handle it. This novel is engagingly written, with one of those shocking-twist endings that will stay in a student’s mind and have them coming to tell you they’ve reached it. Doesn’t everyone love a mystery after all? I really enjoyed this book too for its allowing me to live vicariously through rich, pampered young people with nothing much to do and their whole glorious lives ahead of them.

Wonder

I’m not sure there is a better children’s book out there, but I’d love to hear what others think. This book stayed with me long after I read it; I read the first gripping page to year 7 and year 8 during assemblies last year and I have lost count of the number of students who subsequently read it and let me know they had read it. The book tells the story of a boy with a disfigured face, exploring society’s expectations and making us question the extent to which we are hopelessly superficial. About halfway through this book I cried like a small child. Luckily, the ending is uplifting.

If you’d like more recommendations, I’ve blogged previously about reading lists:

And I would also definitely recommend looking at the Carnegie prize website for further inspiration: