Top Reads of 2018

I said last year that I would endeavour to read more non-fiction this year, and I certainly feel I have done that. I’ve stuck, however, chiefly to education-related non-fiction. I’ve tried to cull my list down to ten fiction and ten non-fiction, as not even my immediate family could be trusted to read beyond that. 

Fiction

Roxane Gay: Difficult Women: I picked this up in a bookshop when on holiday and it is the longest I have ever been unable to put down a book prior to buying it. A series of phenomenal short stories.

Hilary Mantel: Bring Up the Bodies: for an unknown reason, possibly related to its weight and the length of time I had to carry it around for, I didn’t enjoy Wolf Hall. I now need to re-read it, because Bring Up the Bodies evoked that world of old political intrigue so convincingly.

Meg Wolitzer: The Wife/The Interestings: I can’t decide which; don’t make me. I’d read no Wolitzer until this year; both of these have stayed with me – the former for its incredible twist, the latter for the characters I am still thinking about.

Kamila Shamsie: Home Fire: Thank goodness for friends who read: Carly Moran told me to read this modern telling of Antigone. I loved the multiple voices and the ambiguity of the twists (the kind where I had to text Carly saying: ‘did that really just happen? Have I misunderstood?’)

Zadie Smith: White Teeth: Smith is in my top five living authors, but I’d not enjoyed this when I read it while at university. Thank goodness I re-read it this year; there was just so much I’d missed the first time around. I’ve grown into loving epics that span generations, so this was a perfect read for me.

Amor Towles: A Gentleman in Moscow: Matt Pinkett recommended this on Twitter and again it is one that has haunted me (in a good way) since reading it. A fascinating perspective on the Russian revolution and one man’s journey through it, with an almost ‘magical realism’ element.

Sally Rooney: Conversations with Friends: This is a strong contender for ‘book of the year’ for me. I’m somewhat biased, because I too went to university in Ireland, and there’s nothing quite like recognising first hand where characters are in the world. But the complex, believable relationships and starkly beautiful writing style make this a firm favourite for me.

Nathan Hill: The Nix: I rationed myself three days on a beach holiday to crack through this, messed up my reading schedule (yes, you read that correctly), and ended up with this ‘to begin’ on an overnight flight. I both started and finished it on the flight. An epic American tale spanning generations and warmly human. Again, thank goodness for friends who read, especially Dani Quinn, who only seems to recommend books I will love.

Alain de Boton: On Love: Second contender for book of the year, this was such a clever little book that was spookily accurate about relationships and brought you from start to finish without really investing you in the characters – almost a clinical look at human psychology, told through story.

Wallace Stegner: Crossing to Safety: Stegner takes the friendship between two couples and tracks it back over the decades, using a few key events as focal points. I loved all the characters so much. If ever there was a book that made you think that language can never fully express meaning, this is it.

 

Non-fiction

Peps McCrea: Lean Lesson Planning: I also loved Memorable Teaching. Peps makes big ideas feel easy in his tiny but mighty books.

Hockman and Wexler: The Writing Revolution: I wrote about this here – although there is so much more I’d like to explore with this, it has already had a huge impact on my teaching.

James M. Lang: Small Teaching: I wrote about this here – I loved this book for its clear explanation of complex cognitive science, along with the fact that it introduced me to a few concepts I’d not come across before.

Craig Barton: How I Wish I’d Taught Maths: I wrote about this here – I adored this book, and it has been invaluable in working with the Maths team at my school to work on curriculum and lesson planning.

Leonora Chu: Little Soldiers: I wrote about this here – a fascinating insight into another culture and another school system.

Marshall Rosenberg: Non-Violent Communication: I wrote about this here – this really made me consider what we do with our ‘edge-case’ kids who seem impervious to systems, but also how we use language to communicate with all our children.

James and Diane Murphy: Thinking Reading: I think this is the book I have returned to most this year. On reading the immortal words – that ‘reading is the entitlement of every child’ – I bounced into my Head’s office unannounced and she responded by making reading a core priority for the school this year.

Alex Quigley: Closing the Vocabulary Gap: This wins the prize of ‘most discussed in line management’. The Head of English has been working on putting some of Quigley’s advice into practice, and I think it is going to have an enormous impact.

Iain Hall: Glass Ceilings: I wrote about this here – this book took me back to my roots, reminded me why I do what I do, and helped me out of a dark night of the soul professionally.

Maryanne Wolf: Reader, Come Home: I wrote about this here – I was absolutely floored by some of Wolf’s analysis. This was the book that made me re-think how I read.

 

And with that in mind, some reading resolutions for 2019. I’ve learned from Wolf that I don’t need to feel so guilty about reading fiction, but I do need to regret time spent on my phone. I could have read so many more books if I’d had a little bit more willpower. I’ve deleted nefarious, time-wasting apps from my phone’s home screen (so when I unlock my phone now I think: why am I here?), downloaded the app ‘Space’ to track screen time, and resolved to be more mindful next year. That said, I probably do read a little too much. I’m hoping to spend more quality time with people I like and the dog in the new year, and get more balance away from a leisure time that is 95% me reading on my own.

Books not pictured: those currently out on loan.

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The Writing Revolution

I have always been convinced that children need to read texts with high cultural capital. It is only in the last five or so years that I have begun to think more carefully about reading, and why it is so vital every child reads in every lesson, and how we can go about checking children’s reading. But I have really neglected to think about writing. In my early years as a teacher, I would get children to do ‘extended writing’ for fifteen to twenty minutes every lesson. More recently, I began to see the merit of using short-answer comprehension questions to check children’s understanding.

What The Writing Revolution provides is both a revolutionary rethink on how we teach writing across a school, and some really easy-to-integrate, sensible activities to help hone students’ writing skills. Below are some key take-aways for me.

 

The content drives the rigour

Just like reading, the more rigorous the content studied, the more challenging the writing required. Writing about a very simple text is much simpler than synthesising the key elements in a very complex one.

 

The stem of writing is a short, simple statement…

…but children need to be able to expand on that statement in a variety of ways. The authors use the connectives because, but and so. Using these, you can really see how much children have really understood of the teacher instruction and the text read. In his foreword, Doug Lemov gives an example to illustrate this: if the sentence stem is: ‘the Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city,’ the three sentences the student writes might be: ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, because at the time, citizens didn’t have the knowledge to stop the fire before it spread;’ ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, but London survived and thrived;’ ‘The Great Fire of London burned 4/5 of the city, so the city was rebuilt as a result.’ After reading a complex text, we can give students a sentence stem and get them to finish it in these three ways to encourage them to apply their knowledge, as well as focusing on creating a grammatically accurate sentence before they are ready to write long paragraphs.

 

Note-taking is crucial

Taking notes by pen consolidates understanding. Children putting ideas into their own words is invaluable in helping them to process what they are learning. We need to explicitly teach children how to take notes, and explicitly teach them the signs and symbols associated with note taking.

 

Teach sentence types and transition words

We need to teach children: topic sentences, sentences of supporting detail and concluding sentences. Using this language across subjects will help to ensure student paragraphs are more coherent. Likewise, teaching the three ‘transition’ types and the associated words (time and sequence transitions like ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘finally’; conclusion transitions like ‘in closing’, ‘consequently’, ‘in the end’ and illustration transitions like ‘for example’, ‘such as’, ‘particularly’) will help to add coherence to student writing.

 

A cheat for quotations

We need to explicitly teach children some helpful words to introduce quotations and drill them so they practise this – getting students to embed quotations is notoriously tricky. I think almost all English teachers already do this, but perhaps some feel like they shouldn’t. I think we should feel happier about drilling ‘Shakespeare writes’ and ‘Romeo states’ because this is the crucial first step to accuracy, without which children can never move on to use their own insight and creativity to express their ideas more originally. After quoting, we need to teach children to paraphrase the quotation to display their understanding immediately after using it, again by teaching some useful fragments like: ‘in other words…’, ‘therefore, according to the author…’ ‘Romeo’s point is that…’ With my intervention group of year 11s, I’ve simply introduced ‘this means…’ which has really revealed to me who understands the quotation and who does not.

 

Summarising is vital

One of the best tasks the iGCSE English required, in my view, was that students write ten bullet points (not in full sentences) about a text and then made these into a short summary. Summarising is a helpful skill in and of itself, but it is also a great activity to consolidate learning in the acquisition phase, and one that is easily incorporated into lessons. The authors provide some incredibly useful scaffolds in their book to develop summary writing even further.

 

Explicitly teach them how to craft essays

The authors break down the art of the essay into really manageable steps, including writing a thesis statement and then supporting it with paragraphs that are developed using a very clear and simple scaffolded plan, relying on student knowledge of the sentence types outlined above. If we teach the individual elements of writing, crafting the essay draws on this explicit knowledge and helps students to form cogent arguments.

 

 

There is a lot more to The Writing Revolution that I haven’t covered. Every school’s current situation will be different, and for me the aspects above are the most pressing ones for us to address now. Yet all of the above seems, to me, entirely manageable with a few tweaks. The beauty of The Writing Revolution is that a few tweaks will lead to a lot of gains in learning.