Easter reading

About one year ago, I attempted to go on holiday. After a day of biking around Central Park feeling smug, I contracted some hideous vomiting bug which had me laid up in bed for the full duration of the “holiday”, thus making that week the longest and most expensive lie-in ever. On the upside, I used my bed rest to write my first two blog posts (here and here), so beginning my foray into writing about books. Although I have strayed far from the tangent, I return today, partly for the sake of nostalgia, to some book thoughts.

I’ve gone about holidaying in a different way this time round. After six solid days of planning, marking, strategising and the obligatory running of many intervention sessions, I went on a holiday. One of those you might normally expect to occur in the midst of July or August, of the beach variety. On a beach holiday, I have two aims: one, spend as long as possible in the sun; two, read as many books as possible.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

I began in the airport, where all good holiday reading begins, with J.K. Rowling’s latest, written under a pseudonym (explained in more detail here). A colleague, who is also our department’s lead Harry Potter champion, recommended this and I’m delighted she did. I’m not normally a fan of crime fiction, but this is crime fiction sexed-up; with a massive dash of celebrity intrigue. It’s like crime meets the Daily Mail Showbiz website. Like The Casual Vacancy and Harry Potter I enjoyed this tremendously, perhaps in an intellectually uncommitted and vacuous way. That said, I do wonder if in a century’s time we might look back on this writer and concede her genius in the way of an Austen or Eliot, in holding up a mirror to our society and making it a rollicking good read.

I am Malala

This is a book for all of my year 11 to read (perhaps not yet – revise first ladies). Malala, also in year 11, has accomplished more than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime, and she is driven by a burning desire to promote education for all. Through this biography, I also learned lots about Pakistan and the Swat Valley, through nuggets of personal anecdote and news-worthy fact which made me hanker back to my pre-teaching days of reading The Economist and generally knowing what is going on in the world. A life-affirming, mission-confirming book.

Primary Colours

Believe it or not, before finding my “calling” in education, I previously worked in politics and sought to make that my life’s work. This novel reminded me of all the dirt and glory that comes with political intrigue. A thinly-veiled portrait of a couple closely resembling the Clintons (I wonder why it is anonymous?), this novel also prompted me to question the “real right” – not political, but moral. The central candidate has catastrophic personal flaws and human failings bordering on the obscene; yet his is absolutely driven by a central aim to make America a better place for its human inhabitants, and an absolute genius in his understanding of policy, strategy and governance. Do we need to care what our leaders get up to behind closed doors? I’m definitely undecided on this one.

The Wasp Factory

 I’m not sure why I read this, other than a feeling that the zeitgeist is normally right about “great” modern writers. For me, this novel felt like Faulks’ Engleby without the humanity. I wasn’t invested in the characters, and the whole climax of the novel fell flat for me. Undeniably, however, this book is beautifully written, and I do believe I have missed something in my underwhelmed response.

Divergent

This novel is known as the poor cousin to The Hunger Games, and with good reason. It rattles on, pure plot, for nearly 500 pages, including almost no characterization. Despite this, I enjoyed it hugely, partly because I’m a sucker for a kids’ trilogy and partly because I enjoy books which are pure plot, especially on holiday. The book is bizarrely almost all scene-setting, with the last 50 pages clamoring to an unexpected conclusion. Will I bother with the second book? It depends how “lite” I want my holiday reading to be.

Next term is short and vital. All term I have found it nearly impossible to read anything that is not about education, be that a piece of non-fiction, blog or child’s exercise book. It has been truly lovely to vegetate my brain with some froth.

 I felt painfully guilty about leaving during the “crucial holiday” for an entire week, but was greatly comforted (as happens so often) by my line manager’s wisdom: “next term is short. But we can do a lot in a very short time. Rest.”

Why students should read more: an assembly

Last Thursday was “World Book Day.” As Head of English and self-proclaimed “reader”, it was my responsibility to be all over it.

I really wasn’t.

I’ve been shamed by looking at the amazing things schools did on Twitter, and I have no excuses other than: 1. There’s absolutely no way I am dressing up as a book character and therefore I can’t really mandate other people to, and 2. It took me by surprise.

I feel like September was about fifteen minutes ago, when I started the year thinking about all the wonderful and exciting things I was going to implement in my department to do with reading. In our Middle Leaders CPD, I chose encouraging reading in the school as my project, and in November when I touched base with the CPD leader she gave me some inspiring ideas for this World Book Day thing and I became really excited about it.

And then, all of a sudden, it was next week and I had to give out some tokens; oh, and could you do an assembly?

Realising I had entirely missed the World Book Day boat, I tried to pull together the best assembly of my life (not hard – I have delivered precisely one assembly, albeit delivered four times).

The assembly begins with this image, which I stole shamelessly from Tessa Matthews, for students to glance at during the time they file into their seats.

tessa reading

I began by introducing myself, and this has proved to be a valuable aspect – I really ought to have done an assembly sooner, as the number of students who asked me what happened to the previous Head of English and why did I steal his job (he has been promoted to Deputy Head) has been incredible. Even some of my own students came up to me later that week asking: “are you really the Head of English?” which I felt was a bit of a title-fail on my part.

I then said that my opening gambit was that every book will teach you something, and I reeled off a variety of lessons I had learned from books. These were: amazing vocabulary from Woolf’s Orlando, about the Napoleonic Wars in War and Peace, how it feels to lose someone you love from Looking for Alaska and form Lord of the Rings that I don’t like that kind of book – but that’s ok, because you won’t like every book, you just have to read them all to find that out!

The initial image was then shown again, and I explained that it makes me think of all the things I don’t know, and all the things I haven’t done. I then listed some of the things I haven’t done:

  • Been to California
  • Lived in the Victorian era
  • Married a prince
  • Been elected to office

and explained that, through reading (The Grapes of Wrath, Middlemarch, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Audacity of Hope) I could experience all of these aspects, even if I will never experience some of them in reality.

For what I don’t know, I showed a slide with just an ellipsis, and waxed lyrical on how we don’t know what we don’t know, complete with Socrates’ famous quote.

I segued from this to say that it wasn’t only “really cool English teachers who love to read”, but that people slightly more famous than us also do. I used three examples, all of whom were white and male (and two dead), thus undercutting my own preference for an inclusive representation in all aspects of life – in my defence, I made the assembly at high speed. I spoke about Steve Jobs, who loved William Blake; Phil Knight (founder of Nike) who has a library in his house and makes his guests take their shoes off before entering (books before shoes!) and Winston Churchill, who accomplished many great political things but has a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the assembly came when I used Maths to back up my arguments – our kids seemed to love the facts and figures. I showed the following charts from the National Literacy Trust and talked the students through what they were showing – the more you read, and the more you love reading, the more you will achieve:

table 1

table 2

I also stole this image from someone on Twitter, but now don’t know who to thank:

why can't i skip

This image had a massive impact, and I enjoyed saying “one million eight hundred thousand words” about seven times in the course of the assembly.

All of which led to my final argument: the more you read, and if you enjoy reading, and the more you read great books, you will be smarter, happier and more successful.

I’ve had a lovely response to this assembly, including some warming comments from staff members. The best outcome is undeniably the number of students who I’ve not had any dealings with, coming up to me in corridors or in the lunch hall and telling me what they have read, what they would recommend to me, or asking for a book recommendation.

All in all, World Book Day came and went and I hang my head in shame; but I hope that my message of reading will live on regardless. Now: to plan next year’s reading assemblies!

Reading assembly

What I want from an education in English

I write to think. It has always been this way.

It’s coming to the end of what most teachers would say is the longest term; certainly any NQTs and Teach Firsters out there will find this term longer than any other. Students are tired. Staff are tired. Things that would leave you unruffled in September, and even November, now cause undue stress and anxiety. You can’t smooth over disagreements with cheeriness. There is no cheer left.

These are the dark days of teaching, both literally and metaphorically. We wake up in the dark, get into school in the dark, leave school when it is dark, walk down dark roads to dark homes. I have a tendency toward very painful headaches at this point in term, normally on Monday and Friday evenings, so there are several times when I sit in the dark. It’s a gloomy old time.

I’ve found myself this week feeling like I don’t have a vision. I don’t know where I’m going, or why. I am a product of Teach First and Teach for All’s sessions, which have shaped me, and I truly feel that without a vision I am purposeless; anchorless.

You can’t go into school every day just to pick up a paycheck. Teaching is too hard for that, too demanding, too exhausting. I’m finding I seem to know more and more people who are leaving the exhausting and frustrating world of state education for what seem to be Elysian fields of private schools: a curriculum they have control over, a trust concerning their professionalism, shorter school years and higher pay.

I’m writing to think today, and I’m trying to think out this “vision” business.

I can start with my students, because when all else fails they are my bright shiny beacon of hope. I’ll start with the students who miss a lesson and track me down to pick up the work. They brighten my day endlessly.

Because I want my students to be independent. I’ve loved Lucy Crehan’s post on Canadian schools here: our students should be encouraged and led towards this level of independence and motivation. At the moment, there are 35 students in Year 11 who are on a D or below in English. All of them could be on a C. What is missing is not intelligence, but motivation.

And then there are the students, and I usually find this out when I call home or meet parents at parents evening, who “are always talking about English.” They love it. They enjoy it.

I want my students to have joy in reading, and joy in exploring texts. Of course I want them to achieve high levels and high grades, but I definitely don’t want to drag them across the level 4 threshhold or D/C borderline kicking and screaming. I want them to drift there naturally, as the cumulative result of reading and enjoying their learning; wanting to do more and go further.

The students who bring a book to detention, and it is one I have recommended. The students I see reading while queuing outside their next lesson. Even the students who I catch reading when they should be doing their task.

If my students don’t love reading when they leave me, I will have failed. And I’ll admit that every year I fail many, many, all too many, students in this respect. It is something I need to work harder and smarter at, because too many students leave secondary school and never pick up a novel again.

What does that mean?

  • Students who are self-motivated and want to succeed.
  • A love of learning.
  • Education not as a means to an end, but a joyous end in itself.

There is another aspect of this vision business, which I alluded to earlier. It is contentious among my friends and colleagues. All children, they contend, deserve an amazing education. I have to agree.

But I also have to work with students who might not have the advantages that others grow up with. Because it is a cruel and unusual thing that students will go further the better off their parents are. It is undeniably wrong that the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots is refusing to close. I adored Stuart Lock’s post about why he wants to be a head; I would echo all his sentiments, which are too eloquently put to summarise here.

Education needs to become the equalizer. For all the talk about what a teacher is not, and the reasonable expectations of a human doing a job and having some kind of life, I accept that there are times when teachers have to play the social worker, the state, the parent even. We have to pick up the responsibility, even if it is not our responsibility, because it is the right thing to do.

There are children who will leave school without qualifications, who have despised their education, who will never fulfill their potential. And I will work every day to make sure that that doesn’t happen for one less child.

It’s definitely not a vision yet, what I have written above. I write to think, and I am grateful you have read.

The Book Whisperer

Before I took on the post of Head of English at my school, I knew that the main thing I needed to do was get children reading for pleasure. Six weeks in, when mock Ofsted came into our department, that was one of very few recommendations made for our improvement: get children reading for pleasure.

So, why haven’t I?

Partly it is because starting at a new school, in particular in a new role, is so exhaustingly difficult it’s hard to move beyond fire-fighting. And partly because every mistake I have made so far (and believe me, there have been many) has been linked to my tendency to make decisions too quickly. This is something I want to get right. I am taking my time.

Actually, I felt as if I’d almost cracked it when I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer about a week ago, and then I had to do some more thinking. The subtitle is “Awakening the inner reader in every child”, so I knew before I opened it that I would love it.

It is, without a doubt, inspiring, in the vein of Rafe Esquith and KIPP stories from the US. Teachers going above and beyond, but also around and in a peculiar swirly motion we’re not sure will work – but, yes, it does.

Miller’s initial prompting to decide her students should read forty books in an academic year is not grounded in evidence based research, but rather a moral certitude that this stuff if good for them. She glosses over some radically improved test results, but doesn’t make a song and dance about the improvement in the data – that’s not what this is about. Miller wants her children to be readers. And I would guess around 100% of English teachers want the same for their students; not to mention parents.

The problem is: how do we get there? It’s fair to say that the curriculum in the UK, while far from perfect, is a very far cry from the mish-mash of methods going on in American classrooms, where many teachers (if you go by the popular education literature) seem to be able to not only set what they are teaching but also decide how it is assessed. There are few schools I have visited that would allow teachers to go ahead and do what they like in the sanctuary of their classrooms.

Miller lets her students start from where they are, reading what they like. Through careful use of feedback, including surveys, she nudges them towards ever harder and more challenging tomes which will suit their interests. She doesn’t seem to ask them to write analytical essays on these texts, however, it is all about the mighty book review.

This is fine, perhaps, at KS2; I am finding it hard to see how such an approach would work, or is in fact right, at KS3 and beyond. Yes, I want my children to be readers, but more than that they need to be literary critics. Engaging with literature critically is a great joy, and no amount of reading can shake my belief in that.

That said, Miller has given me so much food for thought I cannot but recommend this book for English teachers.

Among ideas she has prompted are:

  • How much class time should I set aside for personal reading?
  • How should this change between years?
  • How far should I try to influence or control student choice of reading material?
  • Should I see reading a class text as something different from private reading?

I’ve written before about teaching Dickens to Year 7 (here). That first term was blissful, but we didn’t study full texts. This term, “A Christmas Carol” is markedly harder. The students are enjoying it, but if I’m honest mine aren’t really getting it. I mean, they understand the words, but there isn’t the time for that understanding and that critical evaluation, unless I want us to use the entire academic year to read the thing properly. Year 7 read slowly. Therein lies the rub.

A fabulous colleague of mine has come up with a lovely compromise, and I’d appreciate any thoughts English teachers have: give them the text, give them two or three weeks. During those lessons they read. During their homework for those weeks, they read. They read the entire text. We perhaps do some kind of writing or literacy activity one in every four lessons, to catch those who really do need to spend time on writing skills. But then, after they have read, we go back and select passages, and teach the critical and analytical skills then.

I feel like in not allowing students to just read, I’m pretty much wasting their time in a novel-teaching unit. But I’d be delighted to hear what other schools do.

To conclude, The Book Whisperer is inspiring and thought provoking, and not completely right. Well worth a read.

book whisperer

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.

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.