Learning curves: reading 52 books in 2016
14 Dec 2016
“Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” Maya Angelou
Remember that voracious obsession that dominated every hour as a child? Remember that innocent abandon in which you devoured books before the adolescent years descended like a black cloud? Remember the sonorous call of George and the bunch as you powered your way through Blyton’s ‘Famous Five?’ Remember rooting passionately for James in his peach mission? No? Just me?
As January reared its ugly head this year a nostalgic desire overtook me. A desire to reconnect with the world of reading. Of real reading, of choice with innocent abandon that was not dictated by insecure need to be the ‘expert’ of whatever literary endeavour I would be exploring with young people. Reading for pleasure.
Andy Miller’s hilarious account ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ fuelled this entirely selfish desire. One book per week, it sounds so seamless! The list in all its glory is here: http://www.teachergratitude.co.uk/reading/. Hang on in there desperately until the end of the post for the top five. As it reaches its conclusion I have been thinking about the the endless dilemma of how to encourage young people to begin to use their reading passport, the mechanisms by which we can enable them to “form a habit of reading”.
On a purely hedonistic level the readathon was a lot of fun. I might be slightly sleep deprived and almost wife deprived but returning to the days of devouring different books was hugely enjoyable. You forget just how addictive reading can be. You forget how calming and relaxing it can be, what an effective way it is to switch off from the endless world around you and leave technology rightly abandoned and behind.
On an intellectual level you forget how much more informed you feel after reading: how malleable our vocabularies are, constantly expanding and growing. It is also, having constantly espoused this at varying parents evenings over the years, like osmosis – the more you read the better your writing becomes. You do really begin to recognise what constitutes quality writing, and return to that sense of wonder at a beautifully phrased sentence or paragraph. You also realise that previous reasons why you don’t invest the time in reading were utterly nebulous or even worse, lazy excuses. The television and I are now no longer in a relationship, he is growing dust in the corner – evilly sneering at my rapidly expanding bookshelf (until Match of the Day, that is!). With discipline and ruthlessness you can make time for reading, you can force yourself to put aside time every day.
I have spoken extensively to all the year groups I teach about this readathon. I have shared with them what I have been reading, started lessons by reading astounding sentences, copied wonderful extracts to discuss with them, bored them by endlessly recommending reads for them. Has it had any impact? Has it sparked any army of followers, each now excitedly working their way through their own readathon challenge?
Well. Not quite. Lets stick with the positives. Students will not buy into our reading missions, our collective philosophy unless we are endlessly reminding them of the marvellous potential of reading. Being a reading role model as an English teacher is remarkably important. If we don’t make the time to read it is like being a builder without tools; a swimmer without water; a driver without a car. I could go on but you get the message. To espouse the glory of reading should be in our job descriptions, if we don’t who will? We have a duty to be powerful reading advocates.
The instant gratification of just about everything else on offer to young people means that this is a real war. Reading has to be central to English lessons, particularly given the demanding scope of the new GCSEs. I have lost count of the utterly superfluous conversations/rants have I had with groups in which I berate them for not reading, in which I endlessly harp on about the twenty minutes a night at least they should be reading. Pointless frothing. That moment when you provide recommendations, when you share something you have read, when you build up their anticipation about a novel has far more impact in genuinely encouraging reading. Talking about the time you designate every evening, no matter what else is on offer, to reading – might just be more meaningful in developing this profoundly important habit for them.
More important, however, is tapping into the addictive potential of reading. Giving scope and time to enable reading in the school environment will begin to open up its potential for students. Teacher led modelling and encouragement will, as this year has proven to me, have only limited impact. I am trying to make sure that each lesson has some element of reading in it, some space of time in which students are quietly immersed in reading. Combined with this is there is now more reading aloud in my lessons, with students sharing extracts from their own reading or from something I am sharing. We are trying to make reading entertaining, modelling reading with real passion, joy and enthusiasm.
Eventually the weary compliant expression on the faces of students become apparent when listening to me rambling about reading. The ones who read are excited by it, the ones who don’t aren’t. Student reading role models are the real key to helping enabling reading communities. I have tried to build in time each week with students in which they present/share/explore what they are reading. It involves a one minute pitch from someone in the group, selling the wonders of their novel to students. Students then have to question the individual on what they have been reading. Year 7 call it the ‘great read debate’, not the most imaginative of names but fun! I will be working on reading displays over the break, I should have done more to make my own reading challenge visible in my classroom, and sharing the reading of others.
So with a new display and a new launch in January 2017 will be the A-Z reading challenge. Two weeks on each letter of the alphabet. The caveat being that it has to be ‘classic’ writers (a whole controversial can of worms!) This will again be a focus with students, all with the desire of opening up the world of more challenging reading: striking that delicate balance between encouraging reading and stretching students’ reading potential. It will also be a journey I will take each class on to develop their understanding of literary heritage. I bet they can’t wait!
Seeing as you asked: here are the top five reads:
- ‘Stoner’ by John Williams. A remarkable novel that initially went out of print then rose from the ashes fifty years later to huge acclaim. It follows the life of William Stoner, an awkward, shy academic. Williams captures what makes this novel, in which ultimately nothing really happens, so alluring: “The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner’s sense of a job … a job in the good and honourable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was.” Amazing novel, powerful in its exploration of teaching and relationships.
- ‘No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This detailed historical account of the Roosevelts during World War Two seriously eat into the challenge – spanning over a number of weeks. It is absolutely fascinating – scintillating in the insight into both the remarkable Eleanor and formidable achievements of Franklin. Almost as good as ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln’. Read both!
- ‘Olive Kitteridge’ by Elizabeth Strout. This is a remarkable collection of short stories set in Maine, America. This empathetic collection is centred around the forceful figure of retired school teacher Olive Kitteridge. Each story is majestically drawn and beautifully captures the fragility of life.
- ‘The Last Act of Love’ by Cathy Retzenbrink. Without doubt the most poignant and emotional read of the year. Retzenbrink’s brother was hit by a car at the age of sixteen and the novel documents the eight years he spent in a coma and what was left behind after his death. Profoundly moving.
- ‘1984’ by George Orwell. Couldn’t let the list go by without the masterful Orwell making an appearance. Read on the week of Trump’s election: nightmares. Gets better with every reading, such an important novel. Enjoyed various tasks with students on this – including how to write an amazing opening!
A slight confession: I have one book left to fully complete the challenge. Obviously it has been deliberately left to the end in eager anticipation. It will, of course, leave everything behind it its wake: guaranteed to be a masterpiece. Yes: Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography. As the great man himself said: “Oh honey, tramps like us/ Baby we were born to read.”
Thank you for reading. Here are a range of much better blogs about inspiring reading in young people: