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’.

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Gone To Girona

viatgeresdetall_expoNext time I complain about the lack of space or the – inevitably futile – attempts of the crew to persuade me to buy lottery tickets on my cheap Ryanair flight to Europe, I may reflect on the fact that comfort is a relative term when it comes to travel, and I should be extremely grateful that from Scotland, for less than the price of a return train ticket to London, I can be almost anywhere in Europe within a couple of hours without leaving that (relative) comfort of my own well-padded seat.

Travel also happens to be the subject of a beautiful exhibition right now at the Museu D’Historia here in the heart of Catalonia. ‘Girona Through the Eyes of Women Writers (19th and 20th Centuries)’ is the brainchild of Cristina Ribot, whose study of the same name won her a scholarship from Girona City Council in 2013, and it provides a fascinating insight into the developing image of what is now a popular tourist destination. What makes it unique is that the picture is built up through the literary testimonies of 25 women writers of various nationalities, providing us with a snapshot of their own personal experiences and difficulties in an era when travel was a pastime almost exclusively reserved for men.

typewriterThere were few women writers in the 18th and early 19th centuries, education and writing being largely male privileges which required both support and money. The elite tended to view women’s writing as worthless, and consequently publishers were reluctant to take the risk of publishing them, thus setting up the classic vicious circle which women found hard to break. One exception to this was in the genre of travel writing, though even here books were often published anonymously or under a male pseudonym.The expansion of the railways at the end of the 19th Century had led to a sharp increase in the number of travellers around the world, but it would not be until the 1950s when the concept and the term ‘tourist’ came into the collective consciousness. Up until then it was the preserve of the rich, and the early explorers featuring in the exhibition were no exception. Many titled ladies, particularly French and English, travelled to the Iberian peninsula, usually with massive amounts of luggage and accompanied by several maids. Being aristocrats, leisure was their raison d’etre, and they would travel for months at a time, most often by donkey, mule or horseback.

However, in an era when ‘female modesty’ was also a requirement, the journeys were not without hardship, as some of the voluminous dresses and headgear in the exhibition bear witness. Often the women had to disguise themselves as men, and carried umbrellas, not only to protect themselves from the sun but from unwanted advances and potential robbers. As an extra precaution, many carried pistols in their hand luggage.

The exhibition notes inform us that the women were “easily recognised for their airs of superiority” and that “they arrived in Girona with preconceived ideas about the country….As well as the information these adventurers provide about the monumental city of Girona, their stories also speak of what surprised and shocked them while in the city. They write of vivid memories, intense sensations and powerful emotions; they record ecstatic or unpleasant moments, great friendships or ill-fated loves. The individual experiences may differ, but taken together they for a nostalgic image of the city as it was, while reminding us of the role of these pioneers, who broke the social norms of their times in pursuit of their most personal goals.”

One of these early explorers was a Scottish lady of means, about whom little is recorded, other than that she was a writer and an artist of some note. Lady Sophia Dunbar’s ‘A Family Tour Round the Coasts of Spain and Portugal’  published by William Blackwood in 1862, contains only a passing mention of the city of Girona (its remarkable early-17th Century cathedral), but is much more expansive on the tribulations of the journey from Girona to Barcelona:

“The roads now became execrable, full of holes, heavy clay and mud, through which our mules struggled and plunged. Our diligence (public stagecoach) lurched like a ship at sea and it became darker and darker. We felt very anxious as to our long lone road leading through rivers, mire and mud; at one time we came to a dead stop, caused by eight mules being all down at once. After much confusion and noise, they were got up, and constrained by thrashing and abuse to renew the struggle; for some miles we continued to go on in the same manner, making some tremendous lurches, from which we miraculously recovered our balance; at last fortune deserted us, we lurched, quivered in the air for a second or two, and went over.”

Fortunately, no serious injuries are sustained in the incident, except presumably to the poor abused mules, and Barcelona is eventually reached:

tour“The streets of Barcelona being extremely dirty, we looped up our dresses; this caused the old women to rush out of their houses or shops at us, and pull vigorously at our skirts; it was difficult to appease them, or make them understand that our dresses were purposely worn so. The woollen mantas of Catalonia are very handsome. The men wear these over their shoulder, much as Highlanders do a plaid. They are striped, the colours rich and brilliant, scarlet predominating.”

In the middle of the 19th Century bull-fighting is prevalent across Spain and Portugal and, as you might expect, our traveller has some observations to make on a subject which provokes an emotional response to this day:

“The picadors, or horsemen, the chulos or men on foot, with gay-coloured cloaks, and the matadors or killers, are dressed in gorgeous antique costume, and certainly have an imposing effect; but the poor bull, lately taken from his native pastures, in the prime of his youth and strength, being a four-year-old, is roused, and made to rush into the middle of the arena; here he halts, and stares with bewilderment and surprise at the assembled thousands, who greet his arrival with clapping of hands. From the middle of the arena, the bull was soon provoked to make desperate charges, right and left, at chulos and picadors, the former showing the greatest activity in vaulting over the palisades, or escaping into the narrow side-niches, where the bull cannot follow. The picadors receive the charge of the bull by meeting him with the point of their lance, which is a short knife on the point of a pole about eight-feet long. With this they meet or catch him on the shoulder, which always mitigates, and often completely checks, his charge. The bull sometimes avoids the lance, and it is then he gores the horse, or sends him and his rider sprawling in the dust. Cut and goaded with the lances of the picadors, and exhausted by fruitless charges at the gay cloaks of the chulos, he at last yields to the lords of the creation, and looks out for the entrance through which he had been admitted…”

A Family Tour.…’, one of the 25 works curated for the exhibition, was re-published in 2009. It can also be downloaded free from the Internet Archive by clicking on this link.

If you have the good fortune to be passing through Girona between now and the 27th of September, make sure you visit the exhibition at the Museu D’Historia De Girona, Placeta de l’Institut Vell, 1
17004 GIRONA.

Footnote: In 2010, the Catalan Parliament agreed, by an absolute majority, to ban bullfights involving the death of animals and the use of goads: banderillas, picas, and estoques. The law was passed thanks to a citizen’s legislative initiative (ILP) promoted by the civic associations that obtained hundreds of thousands of signatures in favour of animal rights. However, the approval of the law was strongly criticised in centralist media and political spheres, who considered the ban to be the result of anti-Spanish feeling.

Don’t Blame Boo Radley

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Other great books are available.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book. It is one of many great books, and it happens to be written by an American. It is one of many great books written in the English language, and it happens to be written by an American, and it happens to be written by a woman. You see, great books are written in many languages, by writers male and female, of many nationalities. One of the key roles of teachers is to introduce young people to great books, at the appropriate times, and in accordance with their developing love of reading and awareness of the world. By now, I hope, you are all nodding in agreement.

So when an English Education Secretary says that young people are not reading enough, that they are not reading difficult enough books, and that he wants to make sure that they are reading ‘a wide range of texts’, what is there to disagree with? Well quite a lot , actually. Michael Gove’s announced changes to the literature requirement for GCSE English caused more than a little anger this week, with media channels, writers, bloggers and commentators rushing to proclaim that he had ‘banned’ American literature from English schools, including one or two which had become classroom staples for recent generations. (see To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men axed as Gove Orders More Brit Lit).

In reality, what he had actually done was to set out a minimum requirement for anyone studying GCSE Literature  – a Shakespeare play; poetry from 1789, including the Romantics; a 19th-century novel; and some fiction or drama written in the British Isles since 1914, to be precise. Besides believing that this would provide a much-needed injection of his favourite ingredient, ‘rigour’,  he further defended the changes by adding, “Beyond this, exam boards have the freedom to design specifications so that they are stretching and interesting (sic), and include any number of other texts from which teachers can then choose” and that teachers had welcomed a “specification that allows for Keats and Heaney, Shakespeare and Miller, the Brontes and Pinter.” (see Michael Gove Attacks ‘Fictitious’ Claims He Has Banned US Books From School).

The telling word in this statement is ‘allows’. Of course, the syllabus ‘allows’ for the reading and study of any other works of literature, but TIME doesn’t. In reality, overstretched teachers will stick to the texts which are guaranteed to come up in the exam, because they will ultimately be judged by their students’ results. I have written before about this effect (see Of Mice and Flies: Death by Examination), and how it leads to the demise of reading rather than its further development. Reading for pleasure and enlightenment gives way to learning how to write ‘critical’ essays and preparing for the test. Not that we in Scotland have anything to be complacent about here. Admittedly there are fewer restrictions on the choice of texts which young people can use in response to exam questions (see National 5 English Course Assessment Specifications) , but the introduction of a compulsory Scottish text in national courses recently was a mistake, and I say that as someone with a deep regard for Scottish culture and who has read, taught and enjoyed a considerable number of Scottish texts, both fiction and non-fiction. If this is indeed social engineering, as some would claim, then the fact that we are not quite in the Govean league of social engineering is nothing really to be proud of.

You see, there are two important principles at stake here. The first is that it is not the role of politicians to determine what young people read. If it was then we may as well make teachers redundant, send reading lists home to parents and their

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee's classic novel.

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in the film adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel.

kids, and let them get on with it. If Michael Gove had really wanted young people to read more widely, then what he should have done was to remove the specified texts completely from the exam requirements, then teachers (and students) would truly have to argue the merits of their chosen texts. Nor should it be the role of examination boards to determine what young people read. As I said earlier, that belongs to the trained professional, the teacher. And that is the second important principle.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Postscript: Michael Gove’s announcement had two immediate effects. Three of the four main examining bodies in England immediately removed the aforementioned American authors from their list of specified texts, and sales of To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon increased significantly.

Looking for Patterns

Call me crazy, but I don’t think we have yet begun to realise the full significance of recognising ‘patterns’ in learning across the curriculum. So much so in fact, that one of my favoured Seven Reading Strategies for exploring a text, whether the text is written, spoken or visual, is Looking for Patterns. Where once, as a young English teacher, I would often spend time creating a set of close reading questions to try to elicit the main points from the study of a text, or to start a discussion, now I would do it quite differently. One of the strategies I would use is simply to ask students, working in pairs or groups, to identify any patterns they can find, and begin the discussion from there (*note that this is only the start of the discussion, not an end in itself). In that way, the students are not immediately playing the ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ game,and the questions raised are ‘real’ questions, in the sense that the learners genuinely want answers to them.

The patterns identified will usually include elements of the plot (if there is one), structure, elements of grammar, layout, use of graphics etc. Some will focus on language patterns, the repeated use of particular words, images or symbols, and the recognition of common themes in a text or group of texts. So whether you have set out to teach an aspect of language, or structure, or author’s purpose and viewpoint, you are in a very real sense teaching these things because you have been asked to, and the difference is tangible.

One of the most obvious contexts for this kind of approach is when studying poetry. Ask students to read and listen to this classic poem, From a Railway Carriage by Robert Louis Stevenson – listening is important since many of the patterns are aural – and write down as many patterns as they can find. Now use their findings to explore the significance  of the patterns, their contribution to the whole text and the overall effect in terms of the writer’s purpose. By learning this simple strategy, and using it regularly to compare and contrast different texts, students begin the journey to becoming more sophisticated readers, with a growing understanding of the concept of ‘genre’, which, after all, is simply the study of patterns in literature.

mapping51.39.jpgIt isn’t only in the study of literature that patterns are important however: patterns in number, musical notation and in art immediately spring to mind. I was also intrigued to find this link recently to a fantastic resource called Mapping History, a site created by the University of Oregon. Thanks to Richard Byrne at Free Technology for Teachers for bringing it to my attention, and for the following insight:

“Some of my favourite social studies lesson plans included having students use maps to analyze data and identify patterns in history.” Richard Byrne

It stikes me that the ability to recognise patterns is an essential element of reading, and of learning, regardless of the curriculum area or context, but as always of course I would love to hear from you on whether, and how you think it might apply in your own particular area.

The Power of Fiction and The Storytelling Animal

As a former English teacher, I have often argued on the blog and elsewhere that the English curriculum in schools offers a distorted syllabus, in which non-fiction is heavily outweighed by fiction texts – no doubt reflecting the fact that most practitioners have degrees in English Literature – and that there needs to be a re-balancing to reflect more accurately the texts with which we are surrounded in daily life. Time and again however, my attention is drawn to the importance of storytelling and the need to understand ourselves and the world through the medium of story.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan 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. The theory is that storytelling has evolved, like other behaviours, to ensure our survival.

“The constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skilful negotiation of life’s problems. From this point of view, we are attracted to fiction, not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice (sic) reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”

But isn’t fiction our ‘escapism’, you might argue. Surely it’s in fiction, whether it be in a good novel or the latest Dr Who series, that we find our escape from the problems of everyday life? Well yes, and no. According to Gottschall the nature of the stories we tell betrays their true purpose.

“There is a paradox in fiction that was first noticed by Aristotle in The Poetics. We are drawn to fiction because fiction gives us pleasure. But most of what is in fiction is deeply unpleasant: threat, death, despair, anxiety, Sturm and Drang. Take a look at the carnage on the fiction bestseller lists – the massacres, murders, and rapes. Look at classic literature: Oedipus stabbing out his eyes in disgust; Medea slaughtering her children; Shakespeare’s stage strewn with runny corpses. Heavy stuff. But even the lighter stuff is organised around problems, and readers are riveted by their concern over how it will all turn out.”

On the morality of stories, or whether stories have a moral purpose, Gottschall is adamant. When addressing the dire warnings of social commentators from Plato onwards that fiction corrodes

The good guy usually wins

morality, especially in the young, his conviction is that they were entirely wrong, and he prefers to accept that, with some exceptions, the most popular story forms are still structured around ‘poetic justice’: the good guy usually does win out in the end.

“As with sacred myths, ordinary stories – from TV shows to fairy tales – steep us all in the same powerful norms and values. They relentlessly stigmatise antisocial behaviour and just as relentlessly celebrate prosocial behaviour. We learn by association that if we are more like protagonists, we will be more apt to reap the typical rewards of protagonists (for instance, love, social advancement, and other happy endings) and less likely to reap the rewards of antagonists (for instance, death and disastrous loss of social standing). Humans live great chunks of their lives inside fictional stories – in worlds where goodness is generally endorsed and rewarded and badness is condemned and punished. These patterns don’t just reflect a moralistic bias in human psychology, they seem to reinforce it.”

Developing this theme, Gottschall cites the Dutch scholar Jemeljan Hakemulder, who in his book The Moral Laboratory, reviewed dozens of scientific studies which indicated that fiction has positive effects on the reader’s moral development and sense of empathy. Other studies show that fiction reinforces our belief that life rewards the virtuous and punishes the vicious. Even though this is patently not the case, for a society to function at all it is necessary for people to believe in justice.

The notion of empathy, a core feature of works of fiction, is taken up in this TED talk by Jessica Wise, who argues that the importance of fiction is that it has the power ‘to change a person’s point of view’. I think the short film would make a perfect starter for discussion in any English classroom.

Reading By Numbers

The English Education Secretary Michael Gove caused huge controversy this week (not for the first time) when he boldly proclaimed that every 11 year-old should be reading 50 books a year. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he meant ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if all 11 year-olds read 50 books a year’. The problem is that he has no idea how to bring that about, or even how to begin to encourage such a scenario, and being part of a government determined to close public libraries certainly isn’t going to help. The clue to his thinking is in the word ‘should’ and in the arbitrary choice of 50 as a target number of books. Is it based on the notion of one book per week with two weeks off for good behaviour? The ‘should’ of course is based on a model of education which is centred on instruction, telling young people what is good for them, rather than fostering a real love of reading, which takes time, dedication, a fairly detailed knowledge of the individual child’s likes and needs, and a love of reading on the part of the teacher.

If anyone with access to Mr Gove happens to read this post, perhaps next time you see him you could lean over and whisper in his ear the title of The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. Were he to add this to his reading list – assuming he himself reads at least 50 books a year – he might begin to understand the effort and dedication it takes on the part of those teachers who are already developing young readers and pay them a bit more respect. However, if he is determined to turn young people off reading for life simply by imposing targets, here are a few more pieces of advice he might give any teacher trying to create reluctant readers:-

•Don’t ever talk about books
•Keep books out of sight to prevent theft
•Make sure books are well-worn and unattractive (see above)
•Never read aloud to children
•Make sure the furniture is hard and uncomfortable and all fluorescent lights are on
•Always have the class reading the same book at the same pace
•Make it clear that comics and graphic novels are not ‘proper reading’
•Prepare plenty of worksheets and insist that they write a book review every time they finish a book
•Never ask kids about their hobbies and interests
•Don’t allow them to bring their own books to school
See also Kenny Pieper’s excellent blogpost Things To Do In Ten Minutes

Edwin Morgan 1920-2010

I just heard the sad news of the death of  Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s first Poet Laureate and last survivor of that iconic group of seven who revived our reputation as a centre for literature and the arts in the middle years of the twentieth century –

Edwin Morgan aged 89. February 2010. Photo by Alex Boyd

McDiarmid, Garioch, MacCaig, Crichton Smith, Mackay Brown, Sorley MacLean, and of course Morgan himself. Names to strike fear into the defence of any poetic opposition lineup.

The first time I met Edwin Morgan was when I was in my second year at Glasgow University and he became my English tutor. In my youthful ignorance I had no idea of course of his own significance as a poet, nor of his growing international reputation, but his tolerance of my ignorance of literature, and life in general, was a measure of the extent of his humanity. In years to come, like many other English teachers, I was to draw extensively on his hugely imaginative and wide-ranging poetic canon for classroom material – it never failed to engage the young people to whom it was introduced or to provoke a response, even from the least likely members of the class.

The next and only other time I met him was many years later. I had been invited by a couple of friends to Mauchline Burns Club‘s annual celebration of the life of Robert Burns, and Morgan was the guest speaker. After delivering a particularly erudite, and some might argue controversial, Immortal Memory, he was thanked by the chair and invited to deliver one of his own poems. Again, eschewing the easy option, given that the audience consisted largely of men brought up on a diet of whisky, haggis and rhyming couplets, he chose to recite The Loch Ness Monster’s Song, prompting one inebriated listener to exclaim, ‘Ca’ that f*****g poetry?’

I’m sure the man of letters didn’t hear it, but if he had, I’m equally sure it would have produced a wry smile, for the true mark of the man was not in the poetry but in himself.

The Loch Ness Monster’s Song

Sssnnnwhuf ff fll ?

Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl ?

Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.

Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl-

gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.

Hovoplodok-doplodovok-plovodokot-doplodokosh ?

Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok !

Zgra kra gka fok !

Grof grawff gahf ?

Gombl mbl bl-

blm plm,

blm plm,

blm plm,

blp.