Recommended reads of 2014

This is something of a self-indulgent post, wherein I round up the best books I’ve read this year. In the past, I’ve stuck rigidly to my triumvirate of reading: one education book, one book for children (fiction), one book for grown-ups (fiction or non-fiction). I’ve let this slide somewhat for 2014; there is a definite bias towards fun fiction, perhaps an upshot of going on not one but two beach holidays, each involving a stack of paperbacks. For that reason, I’ll stick with two categories: fiction and non-fiction.

Fiction

Margaret Atwood: Cat’s Eye

It seems unbelievable to me now that the only Atwood I had read prior to this year was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I hated. I saw this book on a list of “realistic representations of girls in school” and, eager to gain an insight into my students (having been both female and a school child, I am constantly concerned I have subsequently unlearned all aspects of each) I picked this book up. It is a gorgeously rendered exploration of childhood, change and femininity.

Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo’s Calling

This is sheer entertainment, and very much ties into my new-found interest in crime drama in general. The kind of book which, as you read it, you feel as though you are, in fact, watching it – that is how little effort it requires.

Sapphire: Push

I’d seen the film Precious, but the book is a much richer and more uplifting portrayal of the life of the central character. I wept at the bleakness of everything at the close of the film; ending this book I felt the opposite. There’s so much hope here, and it is cleverly expressed.

 R.J. Palacio: Wonder

Another book crammed with hope and inspiration, though never cloying – the central character feels realistically drawn; imperfect, self-aware. This was the book I recommended all of key stage 3 to read over the summer, and the one most students have run up to me to tell me they have read and loved.

Dave Eggers: The Circle

I really feel this is the 1984 of our time: a novel of the internet age, taking on every facet of life in a digital world. The silicon valley world feels real here, and if the love interest falls flat it does so for good reason.

John Green and David Levithan: Will Grayson Will Grayson

The imagination in this book is inspiring, and it’s a nifty venture – two authors writing consecutive chapters from different perspectives. The message is one of acceptance and love, and is one children and adults can learn a lot from.

Carys Bray: A Song for Issy Bradley

The tale of a mother dealing with grief in the context of her husband’s Mormon beliefs taught me a great deal about both. This was one of those books which left me feeling empty when it had ended; as if I couldn’t believe those characters had gone from my life.

Laura Wade: Posh

I missed seeing Wade’s play, and I’m sure reading it cannot compare; yet this play was so stark and so heinous, it made me really actually angry. But angry in a really good way.

Non-fiction

Martin Robinson: Trivium 21C

Robinson’s was the first book I read in 2014, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the year. The book is both a vision of how education ought to be, and full enough of personal insight to feel like a friendly conversation. One for re-reading into 2015.

Sheryl Sandberg: Lean In

I’m confused that so many people have strong emotions about Lean In, because I couldn’t see the controversy. This book felt like some really honest reflections about what it takes to be a successful woman, and the choices and mindset necessary.

Heather Kirn Lanier: Teaching in the Terrordome

I’m a sucker for a teaching memoir, and I’m a sucker for anything American. (what is the American version of a Francophile, a propos of nothing? I am that.) Lanier’s depiction of her Baltimore experience of Teach for America made me reevaluate everything I thought possible in my classroom.

 Malala Yousafzai: I am Malala

Of course, Malala is a complete inspiration for us all, but I would argue especially so for young women. This poignant and beautifully written book has been shared with all of my classes across the age groups of the school.

 Graham Nuthall: The Hidden Lives of Learners

I found this way of looking at the way children learn extraordinary. It made me consider that we probably do need to be much more careful about the evidence surrounding the way we educate, and left me with a lot of lovely quotable nuggets I have not hesitated to roll out in too many conversations.

Daisy Hay: Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives

I’m not sure how, but the Romantics are a big gap in my literary knowledge. Preparing to teach Frankenstein to year 13, I sought to remedy this, and found in this particular volume a veritable sit-com of real-life entertainment.

Daisy Christodoulou: Seven Myths About Education

I wasn’t at all sure I would enjoy this book, as I’m not altogether fond of controversy or conflict, and it had felt to me that this book incited (or invited?) both, but after hearing Christodoulou sounding ever so likeable on the radio I decided to give it a go. Thank goodness – there’s nothing controversial here, just sensible observations on education, written in sparse prose (NO superfluous words – not even one).

Diary of an English Teacher

The below is a very out of character post for me, comprising what are essentially diary entries surrounding the only thing I have been able to think about all week: GCSE results.

7pm, Benugo, Wednesday 21st August

It’s the day before GCSE results and I am terrified. I have been afraid for this day for what feels like an age, and if I don’t write I will scream. Aloud. In this coffee shop. I come here a lot, so I’m going to write instead.

This culture of results defining kids – for themselves, for the school, for their teachers – is beginning to get me down. I found a picture of my year 11s today, and I found myself looking at each face wondering what their news will be tomorrow. How different their lives will look tomorrow.

And what I remember is their ample success, the success they have banked already. They have studied for 3 years with me, 2 of those years on two GCSEs. We have come through their anger at being in my class –set 2, not set 1, a tough blow for many. We have got through their boundary testing – those year 9 kids were very different to the young women who left in May.

They weren’t a reading class, and at the start I didn’t do a lot to change that. But the class I left had studied some wonderful works of literature: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Dorian Gray, The Crucible, Robert Browning and individual reading projects of classic texts.

They have written some truly amazing essays: one particularly notable one was at least of A-level quality, but was pegged down three marks in our moderation  because it hadn’t fulfilled all the AOs to the same impressive degree.

When kids write beyond the syllabus, I find it cruel to teach them how to jump through hoops. When they can grasp incredibly complex concepts, what a waste of their time to teach them what an examiner is looking for, rather than the very best way to do something.

I was very inspired by the masterful Mary Myatt’s review here of Martin Robinson’s book, “Trivium”, in particular this:

He took his drama students through deep processes to achieve outstanding results. Consistently among the top in the country. This book and the man need to be taken seriously. He saw what was wrong with the course he was expected to teach. So he got rid of unnecessary homework, ‘writing about misery and colouring in pictures of misery’ and replaced it with a notebook in which students would be expected to collect fragments of writing, experiences, dreams, stories, poetry, lyrics, history, theory.  The material transformed from fragments to connections and became the ‘clothesline on which the lessons were hung’.  ‘I refused to take things students to see things they would normally see, so we never went to Blood Brothers; instead we went to see Beckett, Berkoff, Bausch and Brecht. We would take an unashamedly Socratic approach: questioning, arguing and prompting.’ The exam was a celebration of their exploration – not a jumping through the hoop to get the grades.

This is clearly a teacher who stuck to his guns and taught kids what they needed to be taught. Ofcourse that is how you do it, of course that is the best way. Yet I don’t. Not in year 11, the most important year for growing students, before we cast them to the wide world. I don’t because I know I can teach them to pass an exam, and the other way is a gamble.

Incidentally, my own English teacher told me a story of yore about a genius child he taught, who achieved an A-star in every GCSE except English. He related that he had looked over the student’s shoulder as he was writing his exam responses and described his work as “degree level English”. My teacher believed the examiner might simply not have understood what the student was writing.

Does this sound made-up? It’s a story from so long ago, hearsay, that I don’t want to name my teacher for fear I have mixed details. But I myself taught a sixth former this year. Her ideas and oral expression were phenomenal. Her style was inimitable. I had to unpick her beautifully and effortlessly constructed sentences to work out what she was saying, but I suspected she was just a bit too smart for me. I cautioned her to writing clearly, while also maintaining she needed her own style to mark her out at university. I had her pegged for Oxbridge. She received a D in her AS level. What happened?

I fear for my amazing and intelligent 11s. I know how hard they worked and how amazing they are. I know they know more than enough to achieve double A-star.

But will they have remembered to jump through those hoops?

8.25am, 21 bus, Thursday 22nd August

It feels like I fell asleep about twenty minutes before my alarm went off. Hitting refresh on e-AQA for the 6 minutes before results were officially available paid off, as only three minutes in I had my answers.

It’s a strange one. Over the two GCSEs, over 28 students, only one achieved a C – the rest were A* to B. Sounds good right?

I’m not sure how my students will feel. My 6 or 7 best deserved an A star, and the fact that not all were even cripplingly close is disappointing. There are also so many more B grades for Literature than I expected; I had heard it was more easily marked, and certainly we spent class time revising Literature (not Language) to the extent that I wasn’t entirely sure my class would all pass the latter.

I can’t wait to see the students and find out what they think, but overall I feel deflated. Last year the majority of my class exceeded expectations. Not this year. Perhaps that is the curse of having a higher achieving group of students to begin with: you know they will be fine, and there is numerically less room for them to fly above expectations.

5pm, Southbank Centre, Thursday 22nd August

Coming to the end of a long and emotional day. So many students were delighted with their A grades, and due to almost no one getting above a B for the poetry paper we are having lots remarked from my class, which could swing some students towards the grade they deserve. School is happy – we have smashed all previous A* to C (including English and Maths) records.

Going in meant seeing students who hadn’t known I was leaving, which was horrible. When they mentioned it, they tended to ask: “how long have you known for?” I am chronically unable to lie (this has been and continues to be a massive hurdle in my teaching practice) and I couldn’t face the awful truth of how long I had been duplicitous, so I mostly shifted uncomfortably.

Following results, I enrolled students onto our sixth form. I had the pleasure of seeing some of my own students, for whom the world was mostly their oyster, as well as some heart wrenching moments with other students, watching their closely held dreams, usually of medicine, coming to an end.

The whole thing has been so emotionally stressful for all involved. And these students will do it again next year. And the next year.

Perhaps there is a better way. I think I need a few paracetamol, a good night’s sleep and then a long think.

12.30pm, dining table, Friday 23rd August

Nope, still got nothing.