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’.

Advertisements

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.

dad

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.

You WILL Survive. Popularising Shakespeare.

tennant

David Tennant in the stunning 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet

As it happens, I am one of those boring old traditionalists who believe that no school education is complete without some experience of the genius that was William Shakespeare. After all, if the purpose of formal education includes preparing young people for a rich and fulfilling life, helping them understand their place in the world, showing them that they are not the first person ever to agonise over the complexities of human relationships, then who better to turn to for guidance?

However, Shakespeare is a bit like maths at school. Badly taught, it can have a more profound effect than when it is taught well. ‘I hated Shakespeare at school’ is almost as common a refrain as ‘I was never any good at maths…….’.

Imagine the scene. As an English teacher you find yourself in the position of trying to convince a group of young people, many of whom wouldn’t know the difference between a sonetto and a cornetto – even if they did know that the latter was not originally an ice-cream cone –  of the beauty and relevance of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You will teach them, of course, about the Italian origins of the sonnet, its traditional structure of two quatrains and a sestet (14 lines in all), the regular musical rhythm that they will come to know and understand as ‘iambic pentameter’, and you will demonstrate along the way how Shakespeare was dealing with the grand themes of love and loss, of jealousy and revenge, of lust, hatred, fear and hurt. You may give them some very useful notes, or you may even ask them to make their own. God job done.

Well, sometimes, and for some kids, yes. But, consider the potential difference it could make if you were to ask them to ‘be Shakespeare’ for a while. Write a sonnet as if your life depended on it, which his almost certainly did.

‘Too hard!’ they cry.

Well, OK. The language is challenging, 400 years down the line, the themes a bit adult. But how about if you started by actually giving them the content, and asking them to ‘translate it’ into a sonnet? Which is exactly what Erik Didriksen has done in ‘Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favourite Songs’ from publishers Fourth Estate.  Starting with songs from modern-day pop artists like Beyonce´and Taylor Swift, Didreksen has re-written them as Shakespeare might have done. And here’s the real payback, one of the things we struggle to impress upon modern-day students of the great man – the themes don’t really change!

Gaynor

Gloria Gaynor is given a Shakespearean make-over in Erik Didriksen’s ‘Pop Sonnets’

This technique, which is sometimes referred to in film education as ‘generic translation’ (see previous post here), can be a very useful strategy when trying to develop a better understanding of any text, as it allows the reader to think about what it would look like from the inside, in a different context and for a different audience, while demanding that they look more closely at the conventions of the genre.

Footnote:- While writing this blogpost I just happened to discover this excellent collection of resources from TES for teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.

See also Shakespeare’s Words

 

 

 

 

The New Arrivals

tanOne of my favourite books has no words. Yet it came as no surprise this week to discover that Shaun Tan’s The Arrival was at the heart of an educational research project which has won the 2015 Edward B. Fry award from the Literacy Research Association of the USA. Visual Journeys through Wordless Narratives was co-authored by Dr Evelyn Arizpe, a lecturer in the School of Education at Glasgow University, along with Professor Teresa Colomer of Barcelona and Dr Carmen Martínez-Roldán of Columbia University in the USA.
Dr Arizpe, whose team worked in Glasgow schools with children from 13 countries, found that their strategy of using The Arrival as a basis for discussion and learning gave teachers mechanisms to tackle difficult issues around migration with Scottish children, as well as refugee and asylum-seeking pupils.
“Immigrant children try very hard at school. Often it is the local children who don’t really don’t understand what they have been through and who are susceptible to negative stereotypes. When you give them a book that allows them to put themselves into the immigrant child’s shoes, they begin to understand.”
Immigration is an increasing global phenomenon, as conflict in the Middle east and other regions forces people to seek refuge in other parts of the world, including the UK, and schools and teachers in host countries must continually find new ways of working with an increasing numbers of the new arrivals. Language and literacy development are crucially important if children are to be integrated quickly into their new communities, but finding texts which cut across cultural boundaries can be difficult. The research carried out by Arizpe and her colleagues reveals the benefits of using wordless narratives such as picture-books and graphic novels to support immigrant children’s literary understandings and visual literacy. It also reveals, according to the report’s publishers Bloomsbury, ‘the wealth of experiences the children bring with them which have the potential to transform educational practices.’

What the report’s reviewers said:

“Product of an outstanding international research team, Visual Journeys Through Wordless Narratives offers the reader narratives by immigrant children about their feelings, emotions, experiences and knowledge inspired by Shaun Tan’s famous picture book The Arrival. Anchored in the metaphor of the journey, and using a visual journey as support, this unique, fascinating, and well-organized volume is a fine tribute to Tan and a genuine hymn to teaching and integration of immigrant children from diverse cultural and linguistic origins.” –  Maria da Graça Pinto, Professor, University of Porto, Portugal.

Detail from 'The Arrival' by Shaun Tan

Detail from ‘The Arrival’ by Shaun Tan

“In this evocative book, Evelyn Arizpe and her co-authors reflect on their ambitious research project to explore responses of immigrant children in Glasgow, Barcelona and Arizona to Shaun Tan’s complex wordless picture-book, The Arrival. Framed by Tan’s eloquent introduction and by the authors’ in-depth analyses of the students’ responses, the book offers readers new understandings of the power of visual narratives to engage these young immigrants’ literacy skills, personal reflections and imaginative powers. This is an important new international addition to texts on picture-books, visual literacy and issues of immigration.” –  Ingrid Johnston, Professor, Department of Secondary Education, University of Alberta, Canada.

“This fascinating and remarkable international research bears close reading and re-reading. A highly significant examination of the potential of wordless picturebooks to support immigrant children as learners and meaning makers, it is inspiring, thought provoking and engaging. This important book also reveals the critical nature of the teacher’s role in developing literary understanding through image based narratives and offers new hope for intercultural understanding in the classroom.” –  Teresa Cremin, Professor of Education, The Open University, UK,

Watch Canadian children welcoming their new neighbours, Syrian refugees. Heartwarming!

Bookmark and Share

 

Found In Translation

One of the highlights of last week’s Scottish Film and Learning Festival was Rob Smith’s presentation ‘Using Film in the Classroom‘, which you can hear (though unfortunately not see) on the Radio EduTalk website by clicking here, and I would suggest that one of the reasons Rob’s workshops and Literacy Shed website are so popular, is that he is thoroughly convincing when he argues that using film in the classroom is the key to unlocking creativity, especially when it comes to the quality of children’s writing. And that is the point. Reading or watching film is often seen as an alternative to using printed texts, which leads to a polarised debate about the relative merits of films and books. ‘Books allow you to use your own imagination, while in a film the director has done all the work for you’, the argument goes, ‘and surely the only way to improve writing skills is by studying WRITTEN texts?’

If you listen to Rob, you will discover the fallacy of both statements, and if you accept that using books and using film in the classroom are not mutually exclusive, you will have made the problem disappear. Keep in mind also that there are many ways to create texts, and the written word is only one of them. Which is why one of my Ten Tools For Reading Film is the grandly titled ‘Generic Translation’, an approach which allows teachers and students to experiment with media and come to understand the possibilities each of them presents. Take this example of a short animation, based on the Charles Bukowski poem ‘The Man With The Beautiful Eyes’. What better way to develop an understanding of metaphor than by studying the printed text and the animation side-by-side.

You will find more detailed suggestions on how to use this film in the classroom, as well as many others, at the Moving Image Education website by clicking here.

To listen to more talks from the Scottish Film and Learning Festival see previous post.

Are Literacy And Learning the Same Thing?

There are very few references to literacy these days which don’t have an adjectival prefix – digital literacy, financial literacy, emotional literacy etc. – which makes me wonder whether literacy has simply become a synonym for learning. Which also makes me wonder whether, when we talk about literacy in the traditional and narrow sense, we shouldn’t call it what it is i.e. the ability to read, or to write grammatically, or to spell a specified list of words without reference to a dictionary or spellchecker. Is it possible to have such a range of definitions of ‘literacy’, or does the word ultimately become meaningless? I guess that is my thought for the day.

brecht