Ten Books For English Teachers

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”

Charlie Munger

Ten Books To Give An English Teacher For Christmas.



booktree11This was first written as a guest blogpost for the lovely people at the Scottish Book Trust. Visit their website for some wonderful resources and ideas on how to inspire reading and writing in the classroom.

There is no shortage of books for teachers. In fact a huge industry has been created to produce them, and largely they are books whose aim is to tell teachers how to ‘do it’, to give them the magic ingredients which will turn their classrooms into beacons of organisation and efficiency, while all the time improving their students’ grades, with titles like ‘How To Teach Like a Demon’, ‘How To Prepare The Perfect Lesson To The Nth Degree’ or ‘How To Please an Inspector’. I have no doubt that many of them are informative, some of them are useful, and a few of them may even contain wisdom. I believe however, that all good teachers have one thing in common, and that is that they are readers (and by definition learners) first and foremost. So this is a short selection of some of the books I think all English teachers should read, not because they are about teaching, but because they are about books, and about the importance of reading and storytelling.

The Seven Basic Plots (Why We Tell Stories) by Christopher Booker

Stories lie at the heart of learning, whether we are trying to make sense of the stories which have existed in the world since the dawn of communication, or whether it is our own attempts to create, control and update our life stories. In this fascinating study, Booker explores the notion that there are only seven basic story ‘types’ and that all successful stories fit into one of the seven categories. Whether you agree entirely with his thesis is neither here nor there, but it certainly opens up for you and your students a whole new understanding of the concept of ‘genre’. As for the reason we tell stories, it is summed up best by the author in these lines: ‘One of the deepest human needs met by the faculty for imagining stories, is our desire for an explanatory and descriptive picture of how the world began, and how we came to be in it.’

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller                                                                

Donalyn Miller says she has yet to meet a child she couldn’t turn into a reader. No matter how far behind her students might be when they reach her 6th grade classroom, they end up reading an average of between forty and fifty books a year. Miller’s classroom is filled with books, all of which she has read herself, and her unconventional approach dispenses with worksheets and assignments that make reading a chore. Instead, she helps students navigate the world of literature, nudges them gently towards their next discovery and gives them time to read books they pick out for themselves. Her love of books and teaching is both infectious and inspiring. The book includes a list of recommended young adult literature that helps parents and teachers find the books that students really like to read. It’s an American-centric choice but useful nevertheless.

How To Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C Foster                              

One of the methods employed by sophisticated readers in the search for understanding is the recognition of pattern, memory or symbol (where have I seen this before?) and therein lies the curse of the professor of English, according to this lively and entertaining study by Thomas Foster, in which he gives us an insight into the crucial skills of ‘deep reading’. What does it mean when a fictional hero takes a journey? Shares a meal? Gets soaked in a rain shower? Good mechanics, he argues, the kind who used to fix cars before computerised diagnostics, used pattern recognition to diagnose engine troubles. Literature is full of patterns, and your reading experience will be much more rewarding when you can step back from the work, even while you are reading it, and look for those patterns. Comes with a very useful reading list as an appendix.

99 Ways To Tell a Story by Matt Madden                                                                              

In 1947 the French poet, novelist and mathematician Raymond Queneau wrote a collection of short narratives in which the author retells an apparently unremarkable story in 99 different ways. Using a variety of styles ranging from the sonnet form, through Cockney rhyming slang to mathematical formulae, Queneau’s work is both comical and experimental, a tour of literary forms and a demonstration of playful invention. The text became a cult classic and was the inspiration behind a similar experiment more than half a century later, when the graphic novelist and comic illustrator Matt Madden, in homage to Queneau, set out to explore the same idea using visual narratives. In a fascinating series of drawings which questions the very definition of narrative, Madden stretches the limits of the comics genre by telling the same story from different narrative perspectives and in a range of styles including maps, graphs, ‘public service announcement’ and even ‘paranoid religious tract’.

How Fiction Works by James Wood                                                                                  

James Wood is an English-American literary critic, essayist and novelist. Here he provides an ‘alternative’ history of the novel, by taking apart the mechanics of storytelling and looking closely at the main elements of fiction, such as narrative and characterisation. This is a slim volume, but using examples ranging from Homer (not that one), to beatrix Potter, the Bible and John Le Carré, Wood encourages us to look again at some of our favourite books with new insight, and to question our assumptions about the essential elements of one of the oldest forms of storytelling. Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is point of view, and how does it work? Why does fiction move us? What is imaginative sympathy? Both playful and profound.

Reality Hunger by David Shields                                                                                           

“I think of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, and all forms of storytelling as existing on a rather wide continuum, at one end fantasy (J.R.R. Tolkien and the like) and at the other end an extremely literal-minded register of a life, such as a guy in eastern Washington – named, as fate would have it, Shields, – who (until his recent death) had kept the longest or longest-running diary, endless accounts of everything he did all day. And in between at various tiny increments are greater and lesser imaginative projects. An awful lot of fiction is immensely biographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined. We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day. ‘Fiction’/’nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction.” A weird and wonderful cut-and-paste of a book that questions the meaning of everything.

The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell                                                                        

An extraordinary writing experiment as well as a challenging reading experience, this short ‘novel’ consists entirely of questions, a structure which should have you throwing it away in frustration after just a couple of pages, but which amazingly….er…..works. The book is clearly not a novel in the conventional sense, but manages to achieve what many novels set out to do but fail to achieve i.e. to create a character who is able to engage and move us in ways that have us examining our own lives more closely. While not strictly a book ABOUT reading, Powell will have you questioning what else might be possible when it comes to creating works of fiction. One of the quirkier choices on the list, you will either love it or hate it. Either way, it will make your brain jump.

The Art of Fiction by David Lodge                                                                                  

When one of England’s foremost writers and critics was asked to write a weekly column in the Independent on Sunday on ‘The Art of Fiction’, this was the result. Collected here into 50 ‘chapters’, each essay focuses on an aspect of prose fiction (The Intrusive Author, The Sense of Place, Magic Realism, Allegory, Coincidence, The Title………) with one or two extracts from modern or classic texts by way of illustration. Although the book is intended for the general reader, and can be consumed in bite-size morsels, the author has used technical terms where necessary, and without apology. Lodge argues, in the course of his ‘Preface’, that he always regarded fiction as essentially a rhetorical art, that is to say, the novelist or short-story writer persuades us to share a certain world-view for the duration of the reading experience. A good read for for experienced teachers and beginners alike.

The Storytelling Animal (How Stories Make Us Human) by Jonathan Gottschall     

In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall, of Washington and Jefferson College in the USA, explains how stories shape and define us as human beings, arguing that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems, just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations.This is a fascinating exploration of just how central the concept of ‘story’ is to the human animal, how much the idea of creating a narrative form is to our existence. Humans have been telling stories as long as we have been recognisably human: early cave paintings are telling a story of hunting and conflict, and Gottschall argues that the act of storytelling allows us to ‘act out’ or experience things without the inherent perils involved. At its heart, he argues, all story is about conflict, about overcoming obstacles, about triumphing over disaster or evil.

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf                                                                   

 ‘We were never born to read’, begins this story of the development of the reading brain in humans. Wolf describes the origins of reading and writing from early Egyptian and Sumerian scripts and fascinatingly likens concerns over the current shift from a written culture to one that is increasingly driven by visual images, to the concerns of Socrates in ancient Greece that the transition from an oral tradition to a literate one would lead to a lack of virtue and discipline in young learners. Professor Wolf contends that this is akin to the concerns of many modern-day teachers and parents who watch their children spend endless hours in front of the computer, absorbing but not necessarily understanding huge amounts of information. One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is her theory that dyslexia may be linked to ‘unparalleled creativity’.


Time For A Slow Reading Movement?

I’ve been a bit quiet of late on the blogging front, what with new ventures taking up much of my time, but yesterday I was contacted by a young woman from BBC Radio5 Live to ask if I would go on their breakfast programme to comment on a story which appeared in the newspapers over the weekend. ‘The Real Truth About Boys and Books: They Read Less Than Girls – And Skip Pages‘ was the headline in The Observer, and it told you all you needed to know really. Or perhaps not.

The real truth had emerged from two research studies by Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at the University of Dundee, and we are told early in the story that the research was based on extensive data from a ‘computer system used in schools across Britain to test the progress of pupils’ reading.’ What is this computer system that is used across Britain? I wondered, so I looked a little closer.


Reading For Boys. And Girls.

The innocent reader might instinctively believe that it would be a government-funded programme, designed to improve reading, but in fact it is a commercial product called ‘Accelerated Reader’, which in the words of the company’s website is ‘a powerful tool for monitoring and managing independent reading practice, motivating your students to read for pleasure.’ So hold on a minute. This is a computer system designed to monitor progress and a powerful tool to motivate students to read for pleasure at the same time? Highly unlikely, I would have thought, but I would be glad to hear from anyone who is using it, and there are many of you, if indeed it is being used extensively across Britain.

I have no doubt that there are issues with boys and reading (see previous posts Here Come the Boys and  Boys Will Be Boys – If You Let Them), and that sometimes the motivation for boys is different from that of girls, but there is no quick fix, such as plugging them into a computer or providing a multiple-choice quiz at the end of every book. What it takes is a well-trained teacher or librarian who reads loads of children’s books and transfers that enthusiasm to the young developing reader. What it takes is love and care and attention and the right conversations at the right time. What it takes is patience and nurture and a room full of books. What it takes is investment, not the closure of school libraries. And what it takes is time, not more ‘reading schemes’. It’s a bit like comparing factory farming to the slow food movement. We already know that you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it, but force-feeding it doesn’t strike me as a healthy alternative.

Incidentally, the interview on Radio 5 was bumped after the death of Jimmy Perry, and rightly so. Cheer yourself up by reading the story of his life in yesterday’s Guardian.

Creating A Level Playing Field


“It is often said that greater equality is impossible because people are not equal. But that is a confusion: equality does not mean being the same. People did not become the same when the principle of equality before the law was established. Nor – as is often claimed – does reducing material inequality mean lowering standards or levelling to a common mediocrity.”

The Spirit Level’. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. 2009

One of the most urgent educational issues facing Scotland and the rest of the UK at the moment is the apparent ‘attainment gap’ in literacy between those from poor backgrounds and those from better-off families. Papers have been written, funding has been re-directed, conferences held, and yet the problem seems to be worsening rather than improving (for a definitive description of the problem see this Joseph Rowntree Foundation report from May 2014). With so many committed and capable professionals involved in addressing the issue, how can that be the case?

One possibility of course is that the problem is too great for schools alone to overcome, and that unless we address the societal inequalities which lie at the heart of the problem, inequalities which mean we are still talking about kids from ‘poor backgrounds’ as if poor backgrounds were a fact of life, like Benjamin Franklin’s death and taxes, any gains in closing that gap will be marginal and, for many kids, too late. The scale of the problem facing us was graphically illustrated in Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s best-selling book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, published in 2009, which claims to demonstrate through extensive study of all available data, the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and encouraging excessive consumption”.

Highlighting the effects of inequality on each of eleven different health and social problems – physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being – the study looks at how outcomes in all of these areas are significantly worse in more unequal rich* countries.

One of the more interesting aspects of Pickett and Wilkinson’s study however, is that, in those countries with the greatest wealth inequality, not only do those at the bottom end of the social scale suffer poorer outcomes, almost everyone does, including those from more affluent backgrounds. Conversely, in more equal societies, everyone benefits:

“It is often assumed that the desire to raise national standards of performance in fields such as education is quite separate from the desire to reduce educational inequalities within a society. But the truth may be almost the opposite of this. It looks as if the achievement of higher national standards of educational performance may actually DEPEND on reducing the gradient in educational achievement in each country . Douglas Willms, Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, has provided striking illustrations of this. In Figure 8.4 (see below) we show the relationship between adult literacy scores from the International Adult Literacy Survey and their parents’ level of education in Finland, Belgium, the UK and the USA. This figure suggests that even if your parents are well-educated – and so presumably of high social status – the country you live in makes some difference to your educational success. But for those lower down the social scale with less well-educated parents, it makes a very much larger difference.

An important point to note, looking at these four countries, is the steepness of the social gradient – steepest in the USA and the UK, where inequality is high, flatter in Finland and Belgium, which are more equal. It is also clear that an important influence on the average literacy scores – on national levels of achievement – in each of these countries is the steepness of the social gradient. The USA and UK will have low average scores, pulled down across the social gradient.”

Fig 8.4

According to Pickett and Wilkinson’s findings, not only is there a greater difference in attainment between rich and poor in more unequal countries, but there is the cyclical effect of low self-esteem to take into account. Where young people are given the ‘impression’ that they are less capable, even when they aren’t, their performance in assessments will invariably reflect this. Consider this story which the authors include in the text.

“Priyanka Pandey reported the results of a remarkable experiment. They took 321 high-caste and 321 low-caste 11 to 12-year-old boys from scattered rural villages in India, and set them the task of solving mazes. First, the boys did the puzzles without being aware of each other’s caste. Under this condition the low-caste boys did just as well with the mazes as the high-caste boys, indeed slightly better. Then, the experiment was repeated, but this time each boy was asked to confirm an announcement of his name, village, father’s and grandfather’s names, and caste. After this public announcement of caste, the boys did more mazes, and this time there was a large caste gap in how well they did – the performance of the low-caste boys dropped significantly. This is striking evidence that performance and behaviour in an educational task can be profoundly affected by the way we feel we are seen and judged by others. When we expect to be viewed as inferior, our abilities are diminished.”

This is a key point, worth remembering when assigning names, letters or other labels to classes or groups of children within a school setting, and while differentiating young people according to ability, no matter your intentions.

The Spirit Level. Summary of Chapter 8 Educational Performance

  • the biggest influence on educational attainment is family background
  • parental involvement in education is crucial
  • children do better if their parents have higher incomes/ have achieved higher education, if they have a place to study at home and if education is valued
  • international education scores are closely related to income inequality
  • the lower you are on the social scale, the greater the difference the country you reside in makes to your chances of success
  • a stimulating social environment is essential for early childhood development – this is more difficult to achieve for parents suffering from poverty, stress or lack of support
  • societies can improve the quality of early childhood education by implementing family allowances, parental leave from work, tax benefits, programmes to promote better work/life balance, and high standards of early childhood education
  • there is much evidence to support the idea that educational performance is greatly influenced by the way we are perceived by others
  • inequality directly affects educational achievement because it impacts aspirations, norms and values for people who are lower down the social ladder

But where does all that leave us, as teachers of literacy in one of the most unequal of the richest societies in the world? If you accept the findings of the Pickett and Wilkinson studies – and many don’t, despite the weight of evidence to support them – of course you continue to support and develop the literacy skills of ALL those young people for whom you have some kind of responsibility. You give extra support to those who need it most, as good teachers have always done. The bigger question is, do you have another responsibility, to be an active campaigner for social justice, for the creation of a more equal society? You tell me.

(*The authors begin by observing that as countries develop, the social problems associated with their poverty are eliminated – but only up to a point. The improvement does not continue indefinitely. Beyond a certain point the increase in GDP per head does not result in a significant increase in life expectancy).

Footnote: As I write, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron has announced measures to ‘re-define poverty’ in the UK (read the full story here).

Read A Banned Book Today


Today is World Book Day.

Away back in the dark ages of the late 1980s, when I was a young and idealistic Head of English in a secondary school, I was taken aback when a story reached me of an act of censorship for which I was not prepared. Our headteacher, with whom I had a good relationship, had been driving across the country the previous weekend when he chanced upon a radio discussion about ‘Forever’, Judy Blume’s novel for young teens. The book was reportedly sexually explicit (it isn’t really) and was causing quite a stir. The following day he happened to walk into a class where one of the girls was reading the book, demanded that she hand it over, and returned it to the library with the instruction that it should be removed from the shelves. Word quickly got round, and within a few weeks there was hardly a girl, and very few boys, who hadn’t read it.

The banning of books is not new of course, particularly in those parts of the world where religious puritanism still has a strong grip. Perhaps the Headteacher who decided to ban the award-winning play Black Watch in her school (full story here) has friends in Kansas, where last week the State Senate approved a bill which would allow prosecutors to bring charges to teachers and school administrators for assigning or distributing materials judged harmful to students (read the story here). The bill was introduced by the Republican state senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, who says it is necessary to prevent the distribution of pornography in schools, a situation which ‘has not previously arisen’, while fellow Republican, senator Joseph Scapa, cited as an example of pornography a novel by Nobel Literature winner Toni Morrison, proving apparently that he is well-read and not-very-well-read at the same time.

Read the full text of this blogpost which first appeared on Bella Caledonia.

Many of the modern texts which have come to define America and American literature have been banned at one time or another. Here is a selection of them. A more complete list can be found on the Banned Books Week website under Banned Books That Shaped America.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884

The first ban on Mark Twain’s American classic in Concord, MA in 1885, called it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Objections to the book have evolved, but only marginally. Twain’s book is one of the most-challenged of all time and is frequently challenged even today because of its frequent use of the word “nigger.” Otherwise it is alleged the book is “racially insensitive,” “oppressive,” and “perpetuates racism.”

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley, 1965 (Grove Press)

Objectors have called this seminal work a “how-to-manual” for crime and decried it for its “anti-white statements”. The book presents the life story of Malcolm Little, also known as Malcolm X, who was a human rights activist and who has been called one of the most influential Americans in recent history.

Beloved, Toni Morrison, 1987

Again and again, this Pulitzer-prize winning novel, by perhaps the most influential African-American writer of all time is assigned to high school English students. And again and again, parental complaints are lodged against the book because of its violence, sexual content and discussion of bestiality.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown, 1970

Subtitled “An Indian History of the American West,” this book tells the story of the USA’s growth and expansion into the West from the point of view of Native Americans. It was banned by a school district official in Wisconsin in 1974 because the book might be polemical and they wanted to avoid controversy at all costs. “If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it,” the official is quoted as saying at the time.

The Call of the Wild, Jack London, 1903

Generally hailed as Jack London’s best work, The Call of the Wild is commonly challenged for its dark tone and bloody violence. Because it is seen as a man-and-his-dog story, it is sometimes read by adolescents and subsequently challenged for age-inappropriateness. Not only have objections been raised in the US, but the book was banned in Italy, in former Yugoslavia, and burned in bonfires in Nazi Germany in the late 1920s and early 30s because it was considered “too radical.”

Catch-22, Joseph Heller, 1961

A school board in Strongsville, Ohio, refused to allow the book to be taught in high school English classrooms in 1972. It also refused to consider Cat’s Cradle as a substitute text and removed both books from the school library. The issue eventually led to a 1976 District Court ruling overturning the ban in Minarcini v. Strongsville.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1951

Young Holden, favourite child of the censor. Frequently removed from classrooms and school libraries because it is “unacceptable,” “obscene,” “blasphemous,” “negative,” “foul,” “filthy,” and “undermines morality.” And to think Holden always believed that “people never notice anything.”

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953

Rather than ban the book about book-banning outright, Venado Middle school in Irvine, CA used an expurgated version of the text in which all the “hells” and “damns” were blacked out. Other complaints have said the book went against objectors’ religious beliefs.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway, 1940

Shortly after its publication the U.S. Post Office, declared the book ‘non-mailable’. In the 1970s, eight Turkish booksellers were tried for “spreading propaganda unfavorable to the state” because they had published and distributed the text. This wasn’t Hemingway’s only banned book – A Farewell to Arms and Across the River and Into the Trees were also censored domestically and in Ireland, South Africa, Germany and Italy.

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936

The Pulitzer-prize winning novel (which three years after its publication became an Academy-Award Winning film) follows the life of the spoiled daughter of a southern plantation owner from before and the fall of the Confederacy to the decline of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. Critically praised for its thought-provoking and realistic depiction of ante- and postbellum life in the South, it has also been banned for more or less the same reasons. Its realism has come under fire, specifically its portrayal of slavery and use of the words “nigger” and “darkies.”

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939

Kern County, California has the great honor both of being the setting of Steinbeck’s novel and being the first place where it was banned (1939). Objections to profanity, especially ‘goddamn’ and the like, as well as sexual references, continued from then into the 1990s. It is a work with international banning appeal: the book was also banned in Ireland in the 50s and a group of booksellers in Turkey were taken to court for “spreading propaganda” in 1973.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

Perhaps the first great American novel that comes to the mind of the average person, this book chronicles the booze-infused and decadent lives of East Hampton socialites. It was challenged at the Baptist College in South Carolina because of the book’s language and mere references to sex.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, 1952

Ellison’s book won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction because it expertly dealt with issues of black nationalism, Marxism and identity in the twentieth century. Considered to be too expert in its ruminations for some high schools, the book was banned from high school reading lists and schools in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington state.

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 1855

If they don’t understand you, sometimes they ban you. This was the case when the great American poem Leaves of Grass was first published and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice found the sensuality of the text disturbing. Caving to pressure, booksellers in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania conceded to advising their patrons not to buy the “filthy” book.

Moby-Dick or The Whale, Herman Melville,1851

In a real head-scratcher of a case, a Texas school district banned the book from its Advanced English class lists because it “conflicted with their community values” in 1996. Community values are frequently cited in discussions over challenged books by those who wish to censor them.

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane, 1895

Restricting access and refusing to allow teachers to teach books is still a form of censorship in many cases. Crane’s book was among many on a list compiled by the Bay District School board in 1986 after parents began lodging informal complaints about books in an English classroom library.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, 1947

The sexual content of this play, which later became a popular and critically acclaimed film, raised eyebrows and led to self-censorship when the film was being made. The director left a number of scenes on the cutting room floor to get an adequate rating and protect against complaints of the play’s immorality.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960

Harper Lee’s great American tome stands as proof positive that the censorious impulse is alive and well in our country, even today. For some educators, the Pulitzer-prize winning book is one of the greatest texts teens can study in an American literature class. Others have called it a degrading, profane and racist work that “promotes white supremacy.”

Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, 1963

Sendak’s work is beloved by children in the generations since its publication and has captured the collective imagination. Many parents and librarians, however, did much hand-wringing over the dark and disturbing nature of the story. They also wrung their hands over the baby’s penis drawn in In the Night Kitchen.

Redefining The Human #edcmooc


Creative Commons Image by digitalbob8.

From ‘reasserting the human’, this week we move on to looking at ‘redefining the human’ in the final block of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. Last week I wrote about how current educational theories and practices are largely based on differing versions of humanist philosophy. Now we are being asked to consider a rather different perspective on ‘being human’ in the digital age: the notion that we are already posthuman, and that ‘human being’ is a variously constructed social category, not a pre-determined and fixed entity with universal characteristics. Instrumental posthumanists, for example, treat the human body and human life as things that can and ought to be optimised by technologies. Pacemakers, cosmetic surgery, prostheses, exercise equipment that provides biofeedback data, genetically modified food, diet supplements and Google glass, for example, are all posthuman technologies that are already widely used in the ‘developed’ world, which begs the question, to what extent can we continue to enhance the human body and mind before we redefine what it is to be ‘human’, and what are the implications for education?

At the same time, where instrumental posthumanism is merely the integration of post-industrial technologies with humanist values, critical posthumanist theories challenge the very values and assumptions on which humanism is based, and though varied in nature, share the view that humanism is a limiting and most often oppressive ideology that needs careful examination. Humanism often includes the belief that ‘technology’ is the opposite of ‘natural humanity.’ Critical posthumanists do not see these as opposed: the human body is just as ‘technological’ or ‘mechanical’ as the digital device on which you’re reading this post. The brain and the heart rely on electricity, just as DNA is a kind of programming. Critical posthumanism holds that technology is itself neither good nor bad, helpful nor hurtful. It is the contexts in which it is used, the conditions under which it is produced, etc., that make it a positive or negative thing.

In True Skin, this short science-fiction film by Stephan Zlotescu, synthetic enhancement has become the norm, and the boundary between human and machine has been erased (think Pop-On Body Spares for humans). At the end of the film, the protagonist, when facing death – at least the death of his current body – takes advantage of an internet service which backs up all of his memories, which can then be inserted into his future (new) self. Sound familiar? It’s that old two-way ‘computer as human brain, human brain as computer’ metaphor (see previous post MOOCs and Metaphors).

What this notion says about the nature of mind, memory and learning, and the ways in which technological mediation is positioned in relation to it, is a theme which is also picked up in this week’s reading assignments, in particular in an article in Atlantic magazine in 2008 by Nicholas Carr, entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid?,  a defining polemic which became the water cooler around which critics of the internet gathered to bemoan the demise of critical thinking;-

A Novel Approach To Reading


Contains more than recipes. Art, geography, history, photography, folklore and classical culture are all covered.

Since acquiring an eReader last year, my reading habits seem to be developing into a new pattern, whereby I tend to download and read novels from the screen, but continue to buy non-fiction titles, graphic novels and – an increasing obsession – cookery books, in paper format. I suppose the most obvious reason is the tactile quality of many of these latter texts – I’m thinking of titles like Shaun Tan’s The Arrivals or Chris Ware’s Building Stories which is literally a book in three dimensions – but there is often, too, something about the physical weight or heft of a book in your hand which, in the case of many cookery books for example, suggests bounty or treasure – you feel as if you are getting something for your money. These are the texts for which the word ‘book’ now seems a bit inadequate, for often they are indeed artefacts or works of art.

However, sticking with novels for the moment, once you have become a fiction addict you are always on the lookout for that next fix, and I recently enjoyed a great novel called Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain. As it happens I was on Twitter when I spotted this tweet from Jamie Byng of Canongate, who published the book, and was intrigued enough to favourite it for later reference. A quick look at the reviews on Amazon confirmed that it was  ‘my kind of book’, so I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and was reading it within minutes. How the magic of technology has improved and enhanced our reading habits in recent years, particularly that facility to read a sample before we decide whether we want to read the whole text or not.

None of that would have happened though, I guess, if I wasn’t already a reader. How I  became a regular reader is a long story – much longer than any novel – which started way back in primary school, when the Friday afternoon ‘treat’ of silent reading wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but suited me just fine, thank you very much. The generous class library, which comprised most of Enid Blyton’s prodigious output, Just William in every imaginable situation, a smattering of Jennings and Derbyshire and W.E. John’s handlebar-moustached hero Captain Biggles, held a seductive enough range of material with which to escape the classroom for a couple of otherwise dreary hours. For a boy growing up in a semi-rural working-class West of Scotland community, the main attraction of the stories was the excitement of exploring other worlds, a virtual travel agency if you like, which is exactly what reading does.

Just William

Just William

It is through reading, and especially through fiction, that we are able to journey, for a while, alongside people who are not like us.

You can perhaps understand then why my heart sinks every time I hear teachers discussing which novel (often  singular) they will be ‘teaching’ students this year. I don’t blame them (I was that teacher once), but the exam-driven system which has brought them to this state of affairs. I too spent many hours in the classroom – this time as a teacher – pulling apart some  great novels to look at how you might squeeze them into the straitjacket of a particular essay question. It was a system designed for a minority of students who would study literature at university, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Imagine an education system where young people read an increasing number of books year on year, and keep on doing so long after they leave school, rather than, in many cases, abandoning the practice as soon as they are no longer ‘made to read’. Imagine if the culmination of your efforts as a teacher, and the measure of your success was not exam results but the number of lifelong readers you had helped to create. Imagine, if in their final year, the task you set the class was not to write a ‘critical essay’, which in all likelihood most of them will never have to do again, but to complete a group investigation something like the one below. Imagine the opportunities that would present, the reading that could be done, the fun you could have together, and the gift you could pass on to future generations.

Final Year Reading Task

What is the origin of the novel as a storytelling form, and why does it remain popular today?

What novels would you say every young person should read?

What features would you say are common to all the novels you (as a group) have read?

What distinguishes a successful novel from an unsuccessful novel, and is ‘successful’ the same as good?

Why should we read novels written in previous centuries?

Further Reading:

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

Study: Reading Novels Makes Us Better Thinkers

Related Posts:

Sticking to the Plot

Lighting a Spark for Reading

Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

The Power of Fiction and the Storytelling Animal

Reading by Numbers

The Ikea Effect

Last week I had the dubious pleasure of assembling some flat-pack furniture from everyone’s favourite value store, the ubiquitous Scandinavian giant IKEA. Like many of my contemporaries, I served my apprenticeship, in furniture-building terms, on the inferior British version, MFI, cursing and swearing with the best of them when discovering that the 16 2-inch screws required to complete the job numbered only 15 in reality, and that on completion the missing screw would make the difference between a sturdy family heirloom and a pile of kindling. It wasn’t entirely the fault of MFI, however, since back then I felt that the pictorial instructions were included as a bonus – a kind of first aid kit to be opened only in case of emergency – and that the whole thing was really down to male intuition and an innate sense of logic. Much experience and many years later, and heeding the words of Thucydides, as you do, that ‘few things are brought to a successful issue by impetuous desire, but most by calm and prudent forethought’,  I carefully opened the boxes and started to READ THE INSTRUCTIONS.


What I didn’t appreciate until well after the event was that the sense of achievement I felt on completing the job and realising that it could hold several books without reverting to its original state, has actually been identified and named by a group of American academics as the ‘Ikea Effect‘. In a series of experiments, Daniel Mochon, a marketing professor at Tulane University, along with his colleagues Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael Norton of the Harvard Business school, demonstrated that people attach greater value to things they have built themselves. Building your own stuff ‘boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent’ apparently. I’m going to ignore the fact, for now, that the bookcase had actually been ‘built’ by someone else and only ‘assembled’ by me. Let’s not go splitting hairs when feelings of pride and competence are at stake.


New York box-cart

Now any English teacher in the land (of Britain that is) could have pointed to the story of Spit Nolan by the Irish-born writer Bill Naughton and said, ‘He told them so’. In this much-loved tale of working-class kids from the North of England, the eponymous hero, Spit, is without question the district’s champion trolley rider, the ‘trolleys’ being the carts or buggies made from bits of junk collected in the local scrapyard. Spit’s success is all the more remarkable for the fact that he is recovering from tuberculosis, a common illness in poorer areas of Britain in the first half of the 20th Century. Spit’s trolley has been lovingly crafted by his own hands, and he remains unbeaten until his friend Ernie appears with the Rolls-Royce of carts, assembled in his father’s factory by his engineering colleagues. The challenge is set – and the outcome in the balance – but the moral of the story is already making itself known to us, in flashing lights, in the words of the unlikely hero himself:-

“You own nothing in this world except those things you’ve taken a hand in the making of, or else you earned the money to buy them.”

Spit Nolan by Bill Naughton

Not everything about the Tulane report was positive however; it comes with a health warning. One of the implications of the Ikea Effect is that we tend to fall in love with projects we have spent a great deal of time working on, even when they are quite clearly failing, losing any sense of objectivity along the way. Which is why we need ‘critical friends’ who are prepared to tell us that in fact that shelf is not quite straight, or that lesson plan might just be a tad unrealistic.

“It’s a good reason — and this is true whether you are running a big complicated project involving millions of dollars or finishing a third-grade craft project — to have someone from the outside, who isn’t invested in you or your work, give you some objective feedback before you show your project to the world.”

Shankar Vedantam, NPR

Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

I’m returning to a topic that I have written about many times in the past, but it is an issue of such fundamental importance to our education system that it can never be aired often enough. The context is Scotland but I would be willing to bet that it applies in many parts of the developed world, and it was prompted by this tweet which appeared in my Twitter timeline from Erica at the Young Adult Literature Symposium in St Louis, Missouri, last week:-

Now, while I don’t have a problem with introducing 45-year-old books to young people – and of course many of the best books  ever written are much older than that – I think implicit in that statement is the fact that when it comes to the English curriculum in schools, and those texts which candidates choose to write about in examinations, the core list of texts often seems to be set in concrete, and the same very narrow range of texts is promoted as if they were the only books ever written – Of Mice and Men anyone? Animal Farm? Lord of the Flies?

How does that reduction happen? Consider the following key outcome of the new curriculum in Scotland. Despite the language of the outcome, which suggests it was written by a committee (and believe me it was), the objective is clear and commendable – that, by the age of 15, or before in some cases, all young people should be able to say that they are regular readers and are able to make personal choices in their reading. I would have preferred it to say something along the lines of ‘Reading is an important part of my life and it is something I will continue to pursue long after I have left school’, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

“I regularly select and read, listen to or watch texts for enjoyment and interest, and I can express how well they meet my needs and expectations and give reasons, with evidence, for my personal response. I can identify sources to develop the range of my reading.”

Curriculum for Excellence Literacy Outcome 3-11a (S1-S3)

Why is it then, when young people are able to meet this outcome by the age of 15, many of them are failing so dramatically to demonstrate this ability by the age of 16 and 17? What has happened to them in the intervening two years? Three simple words – the examination system. Have a look at some of the key points emerging from this year’s External Assessment Report for Higher English. These statements are taken directly from the report and are unaltered.

  • There was more evidence than in recent years of candidates coming to the exam with prepared answers (often on questions from recent past papers, as the appearance of key words suggested) and attempting to adapt these to ‘fit’ the questions asked.
  • The high number of choices of inappropriate choice of poem for questions 12 and 13 leads to the suspicion that significant numbers of candidates are coming to the exam with just one poem on which they are determined to answer come what may. This practice cannot be discouraged strongly enough.
  • A number of candidates are in the habit of writing at the end of most paragraphs stock phrases such as ‘….and this helped me to understand the central concerns of the text’, without ever having stated what they believed these central concerns to be, let alone how what they had just described had aided their understanding of them.
  • The term ‘theme’ continues to be used in an inappropriate way by some candidates, as if it were a ‘technique’, similar to, for example, setting, characterisation or symbolism. A proper understanding of ‘theme’ is key to the study of literature.

This is what happens when teachers are judged by the exam results of their students, when there is pressure on young people to learn a procedure which is quite alien to them, and for all of that to happen within a very short time frame. Writing ‘critical essays’ is not something which most of them will ever do again, and simply reflects an academic study of literature which is inappropriate for all but a tiny minority of students. Any love of reading has been squeezed out of them by the end of the process. How can it be that so many young people who at the age of five were reciting poems and enjoying the rhythms and patterns of language, will, by the time they sit Higher English, be thinking of poetry as that single poem which they have ‘analysed’ to death, the lines and responses to which they will have spent the best part of a year committing to memory.

There must be a better way, and there is. If Higher English is to remain in its present form – and it has seen too many ‘reforms’ in recent years to suggest that there is any appetite for further change – we need to make sure we provide a viable alternative for those young people who have genuinely developed a love for reading but not for essay-writing, and we need those people in positions of authority who talk about Higher English using expressions like ‘the gold standard’ and ‘benchmark’ to think more carefully about their own language. More importantly, we need to recognise that a love of reading, and by implication a love of learning, SHOULD BE THE NUMBER ONE  GOAL FOR ALL LEARNERS.  When a young person is able to ask, in response to the literacy outcome above, “I’ve just read this. What do you suggest I should read next?” you know as a teacher you have done something invaluable.

You may also be interested to read Braintrack’s The State of Young Readers in America

For my extensive list of fiction for 10-14 yr-olds, each text summarised and reviewed, click here.

Here Come the Boys

My goodness. Boys. We don’t quite know what to do with them. As recently as February this year the What Kids Are Reading 2012 report by Professor Keith Topping found that the level of difficulty of the books read by boys was no longer lower than that of the girls, whereas The Boys’ Reading Commission findings published this week reveal that three out of four (76%) UK schools are concerned about boys’ underachievement in reading. Last year an estimated 60,000 boys failed to reach the expected level in reading at age 11.

The all-party Parliamentary Literacy Group Commission’s report compiled by the National Literacy Trust reveals that the “reading gender gap” is widening and says action needs to be taken in homes, schools and communities, with recommendations including boys having weekly access to male reading role models.

The problem with politicians and survey findings of course is that a) they always want action but have no idea what it should be, b) they want a quick fix when it almost never exists, and c) they usually believe the solution lies in introducing a new test, or the revision of an old test, or a compulsory ‘reading hour’ or some such, all of which are only likely to compound the problem.

My own experiences over a long number of years as a reader, a father and an English teacher lead me to believe that the problem is not so clear-cut as the figures suggest, but nonetheless there are some measures which can sensibly be taken to encourage reading, especially among boys.

Finding Positive Role Models

One of the more constructive suggestions of the Commission’s report is that boys need strong male role models. There is no escaping the fact that most teachers, especially in the primary sector, are women, and many boys have no positive male role models in their lives. Schools should go out of their way to find strong male readers in the community, whether they are parents, local sportsmen, community artists or whatever, and invite them to conduct reading sessions in school. I saw a suggestion on Twitter recently that men should consider volunteering to read to boys in their local school, but the initiative has to come from the school. Having created an ethos where adult males seeking involvement in their local school are often treated with suspicion, we need to take steps to redress the balance.

The Teacher as Learner/Reader

Teachers – male and female – must realise that first and foremost they themselves have to be a reader and a role model. Too often I meet teachers who have hardly picked up a book since they graduated from college or university. They should be immersed in books and reading, and it should be a frequent topic for discussion. This means that, apart from adult fiction and current literature relating to their own professional development, they should constantly be seeking out and reading books relating to the age group for which they have responsibility. This will often mean reading material which would not necessarily have been their own choice by instinct.

To understand how important this is, and how to make it happen, one text which should be on every teacher’s list is The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.

Finding the Right Materials

In my experience, when it comes to reading in schools, the emphasis is firmly on the reading of fiction. There needs to be much more of a balance. While fiction of course is important in so many ways, boys often favour non-fiction, and given a choice when visiting the library will overwhelmingly go for factual material, yet when it comes to the serious study of texts in the classroom, fiction wins out every time. We need to provide good quality non-fiction material, including biography, which will engage those who demand the facts!. Teachers should also consider seriously the place of comic books and graphic novels, both of which play an important part in in the development of boys’ reading but are often ignored, or even more bizarrely dismissed, as an inferior form of storytelling. Speaking as an adult male reader, my own preference is to read fiction and non-fiction texts more or less alternately.

(see Literacy Adviser book lists for 10-14 year olds here https://literacyadviser.wordpress.com/books-10-14/fiction-10-14/)

Embracing New Technologies

While many of us still prefer to pick up a paper book, especially when it is a picture book or one that has particular aesthetic appeal, new technologies have resulted in a revival of interest in reading for many adults, and the advent of the eReader presents new opportunities for a new generation. Boys love gadgets, so why not take advantage of these new technologies to introduce them to texts which they might otherwise ignore. If you can’t afford a class set of Kindles or iPads, buy one or two and direct them specifically at those boys who don’t think reading is cool but think that machines are. The more gadgetry the better. Repeat after me – playing with gadgets and reading are not mutually exclusive.

Timing is All

The thing about reading is that there is a time and a place, and that time and place is different for every individual. I have followed some very interesting discussions recently on the blogosphere on the place of silent reading in the classroom, the pros and cons, the optimal amount of time to spend and so on (see Kenny Pieper http://justtryingtobebetter.com/ and David Didau http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/07/01/some-thoughts-on-silent-reading/ in particular) This is a hugely complex issue depending on so many variables, including those already mentioned above. One thing of which I am fairly certain, and that is we are too often asking young people – especially boys – to read at the wrong time, a time which suits us rather than them. Silent reading is something which requires full attention and the right conditions, which are extremely difficult to replicate in a classroom full of tightly-packed bodies. Reading aloud, when done well and with the right texts, can motivate and engage even the most reluctant reader, but moving them from there to reading willingly on their own is a different matter. Another factor which is often overlooked, is that most boys need to be moving around and doing something physical before turning to more cerebral matters. I know that most of my reading is done after exercise, and not before it, when I find it more difficult to concentrate. Perhaps there is something to be learned here by anyone planning a learning timetable.

Reading Doesn’t Have to Involve Writing

One of the surest ways to kill an interest in reading, especially among boys, is to insist that every time someone reads a book they have to write a review, or a ‘critical evaluation’. To develop a genuine love of reading, young people need to be encouraged to TALK about books, read aloud and listen to extracts from the best writers, and make recommendations to each other. If you do want them to be writing about their reading, make it less formal and with a real purpose, such as a discussion forum in the form of a class blog or wiki.

(see for example Kenny Pieper’s 1B2’s Bookworms Blog)

The Library as the Beating Heart of the School

The school library should be the learning hub from which all else emanates, the librarian a thorough professional and integral part of the learning team, not simply someone who issues books and collects fines. Too often, when budget cuts are being considered, it is the library which suffers first. In too many schools restrictive practices reinforce the notion that reading is something for a privileged elite, and boys are made less welcome because they are seen as boisterous and ill-disciplined. This can be witnessed most often when a teacher and/or librarian expects a prolonged period of silent reading without first cultivating the environment for this to happen. A more productive use of library time is to explore, discuss books and work with individuals to find the right connections – the right book at the right time – a key role of the teacher/librarian.

Finally, a word of advice to politicians. The world moves on, times change. Perhaps it’s time for you to revise and expand your definition of ‘reading’ to include all forms of reading, especially as it relates to moving image, transmedia and web-based texts. Who knows, when you do this you might discover that in fact there isn’t such a gender gap after all

Read previous post Boys Will Be Boys here.

Books – Designing the Future

I’d like to thank my friend Yatra for bringing this to my attention, and John at I Love Typography for posting it first, as well as having the most elegant, unique and beautiful blog. I make no apologies for bringing it to a wider audience.

As someone who still reads only paper books for now (not that I have any sentimental moral objections to eReaders, I just haven’t got round to buying one), I am intrigued by what it is that makes us hang on to books, literally and metaphorically. In this fascinating account, the writer, designer and publisher Craig Mod examines our emotional relationship with books and looks at how we might preserve this relationship into the digital age.