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.

Teaching Vocabulary

 

If this blog had themes, I’m sure one fairly major one would be ‘Changing my Mind.’ And lest readers consider me a fully paid up zealot of the ‘Knowledge Devotees,’ let me tell you that I have only recently changed my mind about teaching vocabulary.

When I began teaching at Michaela, I picked up someone else’s timetable; someone else’s classes. I was totally at the mercy of those who had begun their learning, and it was my job to learn how to teach in the ‘Michaela Way.’ I knew what I was getting myself into, and bit my tongue when one particular sheet came my way. It was a sheet listing 45 difficult words, split into three columns of 15, each with a one (or very few) word synonym.

‘What do I do with this?’ I asked.

‘They learn one column a week – meaning and spelling – and then you test it,’ replied Joe Kirby.

Not wanting to be that challenging complainer on day one, I said nothing. But I thought: ‘no way will this work.’ Everything I’d read, everything I believed, told me that rote learning vocabulary was a bad idea. It was far, far preferable to read widely, flag up new words, and allow children to just absorb them.

The first week, almost every child in the class scored zero out of fifteen on the words. (Here is the test: Me: ‘what’s a better word for determined beginning with “t”?’ Kids: ‘….’ [Meant to write down: ‘tenacious.’) Part of me felt vindicated – this was too hard, and totally pointless. But I trusted Joe, and I’d been wrong before. I was prepared to find out if this was partly my fault.

‘Didn’t you test them orally first?’ asked Joe. I had not. ‘Did you do a few every day at the beginning and end of lessons?’ I had not. ‘Did you give them time to green pen afterwards, looking at a few they had got wrong to really work on them?’ I had not.

I drilled them the whole next week, and tested them again. Half of them achieved 5 out of 15. The other half achieved zero.

Was the idea rubbish? Was I rubbish? Were the kids rubbish?

With lots to do, I had no time to rethink the Michaela vocabulary strategy, not halfway through the year with already boggled children. I kept going.

And as the weeks went by something started to click. It wasn’t just that the kids were starting to achieve 10, 11, even 15 out of 15 – and they were. (I had even taken out my letter cues, saying: ‘what’s a better word for determined?’ ‘Tenacious,’ they would write, spelling it correctly.) It was their paragraphs that showed the impact. They were astonishing. And that’s when I realised that while part of writing an analytical paragraph is knowing about character, plot, quotation, technique and context and combining all of that knowledge to write about it; the other part is having the words in the first place. The good words.

One of my year 7 classes learned the vocabulary. Inexplicably, I didn’t teach the other class the words. The gap between their paragraphs has grown and grown. The difference? Vocabulary. I am teaching the same lesson to each class – usually one straight after the other – the same concepts and ideas. They are reading the same thing, and I am saying the same thing to them. But class 2’s paragraphs contain mediocre vocabulary.

And vocabulary loves vocabulary, like all knowledge loves knowledge. Class 1 are always on the look-out for new words. Supported by their extraordinary form tutor, Ms Clear, who notes down key vocabulary from their class reading (done in tutor time in the afternoon) and tests them on it, Class 1 have actually started teaching me words (not sure yet if this is a low or a high point of my teaching career).

Yes, the kids really struggled with this at first. And they still get it wrong in context – one said recently: ‘The Arctic is the zenith and the Antarctic is the nadir of planet earth.’ Obviously wrong. But the list isn’t everything – it is the beginning of their accurate use of these words. Having this list committed to memory means the kid can say the above sentence, be corrected in front of their peers, and learn more about the correct context for these words.

I used to believe that kids could absorb vocabulary. On some level, I still believe this – if kids read widely enough, their vocabulary will inevitably be better than their non-reading peers. But it isn’t enough, not for any kid, to rely on this. They need to learn words by rote. The more they learn, the more they use these words, and the better their vocabulary becomes. I was absolutely wrong and Joe Kirby was absolutely right – a common theme in my teaching career.

Here is a paragraph from a year 7 exam, done on Julius Caesar and entirely from memory.

image1

I’ve typed out what it says below, and made bold any words this pupil has learned by heart through our vocabulary programme, or through other knowledge organisers he has had this year:

Moreover, Antony develops as the play reaches its crescendo into a choleric, manipulative and sophistical character. After the death of Caesar, Antony calls him a ‘bleeding piece of earth.’ He uses personification fused with the striking word ‘bleeding’ to display his sorrow but also his anger. Shakespeare now makes Antony speak his mind after Caesar’s death to portray Antony’s true character, a manipulative, magnanimous and mendacious individual. Antony then goes on to deliver an oration to the crowd by starting with the lines ‘friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears.’ By combining the tricolon of ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ and the metaphor ‘lend me your ears,’ Antony creates a false sense of camaraderie between himself and the crowd. By doing so, he achieves the attention of the crowd, proving that he is manipulative. Antony uses sophistry to prove to the audience that Caesar was not a tyrant.

This pattern was replicated throughout the essays I was reading. The difference between the great and the good was often the words they had in their memories to use.

There are two changes I would make to the Michaela Vocabulary Strategy for next year. The first is chunking: I’ll be setting five words a week for the first few weeks. Success builds motivation, and those first weeks were depressing for pupils and me alike. We can build up to 10 and 15 words as the year goes on. The second change is to make sure that every single class learns these words. As Wittgenstein says, ‘the limits of language mean the limits of my world.’ With every word learned, those limits expand just a little bit more.

Here is a grid for year 7, with thanks to Joe for letting me share it.

Vocabulary Y7