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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Alice Is Coming Home

Good news for fans of the wonderful Inanimate Alice series. The long-awaited Episode 5 will be released on 1st December along with a newly re-vamped website, access to designer’s journals and a gallery of student-created content. If you haven’t met Alice before, now is the time to catch up!

alice

 

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Regular readers of the blog will know of my admiration for Inanimate Alice, the digital novel which has captured the imagination of teachers and young readers around the world, and many of you have already introduced your own students to the story, as well as making full use of the literacy resources which accompany the four episodes currently on the website. (You can catch up with my previous posts on Alice here, here and here). After reading about Alice and her travels, young people love to write their own version of the next episode, setting it in their own locations and introducing new characters, but their most frequently asked question is, When are we going to see Episode 5? Recently I caught up with producer Ian Harper of The Bradfield Company at his Vancouver Island base and asked him that very question, as well as what readers might expect as our eponymous heroine develops into young adulthood.

Bradfield.jpg

TLA. It has been a long time since Episode 4 appeared online. When can fans expect to see Episode 5 and can you give us any clues as to what it might look like?

Ian Harper. Yes it has been a while since Episode 4 appeared. Way too long in fact. We haven’t been entirely idle in the meantime and have been concentrating our efforts on establishing relationships with partnerships that will grow the title for the long term. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the relationship we have established with Education Services Australia, the government organisation that has been responsible for the development of the curriculum across the country. We are delighted that Inanimate Alice was the first digital text chosen to be adopted into that national curriculum. That feels like a landmark moment. Education Services Australia has invested in both the development of new content and in the title’s discoverability across all of the nations education platforms and websites. Quite a commitment. It has certainly put Australia firmly on Alice’s map. This year we are developing interactive journals and translating the first four episodes of the series into Japanese and Indonesian for ESA’s Language Learning Space. We must be doing something right!

I digress. These developments, though, have encouraged our creative team to proceed with the development of that long-awaited Episode 5. It is in production now with a planned completion date of the end of May 2014. We are seeking promotion of the episode in similar way to the launch of Episode 3 in the Guardian newspaper. Readers of the series will see familiar scenes in Episode 5 as this episode is set in the same town, the same school as Episode 4. However, Alice is two years older and trying out her storytelling skills using the Unity game engine for the very first time. So those readers may well be surprised to see 3D effects within a 2D linear storyline. This episode provides the transition to the full-on 3D explorable environment we are anticipating for Episode 6 when Alice is “off to college.”

I’m hopeful that long-standing friends of Alice will be pleasantly surprised by developments. There has been much more going on behind the scenes than can be gained from viewing the website. For example, the new Australian project will form part of Season 5: Gap Year where Alice takes up travelling once again, this time without her parents or the Aunt who accompanies her around Europe as part of Season 4. With Japan and Indonesia on the itinerary it is shaping up to be quite a year. Tasters, at least, of each of these Seasons will appear during the year and we will open up windows on Japanese and Indonesian culture in the same way that we have done with Alice’s Australian adventures. Expect to hit the ‘Japan’ button and find yourself in Hiroshima. ‘Indonesia’ will lead to Jakarta and the gateway to a country that doesn’t know how many islands it comprises.

alice-5-grab-1

Work in Progress. A screenshot from Inanimate Alice episode 5. The bird silhouettes, like the cat and the nightclub in the following two shots, are animated and move gently, creating a sense of depth.

TLA. You have said often that IA was written as entertainment rather than education. Have you been surprised by the uptake from teachers around the world, and how do you account for its tremendous popularity in classrooms?
Ian Harper. For sure, teachers have taken us by surprise on many occasions and continue to do so, after all this time. The first surprise came quite early on when we noticed, from the website statistics, that most of the site users were teachers and, importantly, they represented almost all of those returning to the site time after time. It was then we decided to switch tactics and actively support teachers in their endeavours.
As the numbers grew, we were able to detect trends in usage and saw that in addition to literacy objectives teachers were using it right across the curriculum with high-spots naturally in literacy and ICT education. What was at first a surprise and continues to be a joy is the uptake in the language learning community. Around the world, British Council teachers of English are among the title’s strongest supporters. We see usage at international schools particularly across the Pacific Rim. The translations, too, have served to widen uptake with Spanish being by far the most popular at this time. This interest is from the Spanish speaking Americas as much as Spain itself. There are multiple factors at play when it comes to its popularity, the strongest of which must surely come under the heading of engagement. Students are immediately gripped by the dramatic storyline and teachers can rely on having the attention of everyone in the classroom. This is a primary consideration whether students are high performers or reluctant learners. It has turned into a bit of a mantra but one of the beauties of the title is that is suitable for deep-reading and re-reading, The story bears revisiting and viewers are often delighted when they experience something fresh on each occasion.
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TLA. How many episodes are planned in total, and how fully developed are they?

Ian Harper. We have long held on to the vision that there will be ten episodes in all, spanning Alice’s life from an 8 year old through to her mid-twenties, when we see that she has achieved her ambition to work as a computer game designer. One of the first tasks undertaken, by the writers Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph, was to develop a story bible that not only described the arc of the narrative but also delved into the multimedia guidance we needed to understand her circumstances at each juncture. This document keeps us generally on track in managing her ever-improving skills as a digital creative, yet affords the flexibility for us to learn both from feedback gained and the improving technologies that help us better present the story. Beyond Episode 6 which has an established format, we have not developed the later episodes in any detail. The shift to 3D graphics and the provision of interactive journals that will run alongside and in-between episodes allow great opportunities to discuss challenges and intended outcomes with partners.

TLA. Are you prepared to give away the ending of the story?

Ian Harper. The straightforward answer to this question is NO! However, I can tell you that the complexity and interactivity increases exponentially with each episode and that by the end of the series the last episode will have the look and feel of a AAA computer game title. That ambition brings great challenges and we hope to surprise and delight ‘Friends of Alice’ many times along the way. It is no secret that the Inanimate Alice series was developed from a theatrical movie screenplay. The ambition holds that folks, having met Alice through all 10 episodes, 3 hours of screen-time, but never having seen her face, will want to visit the Tokyo Games Show and meet her together with Brad for the first time.
TLA. One of the features which makes IA unique is that, in your own words, it was ‘born digital’. Do you think that the era of the paper book is over?
Ian Harper. By no means. The printed word remains just as fascinating, just as gripping as it always did. People still love to get their hands on a book. I’m sure that that desire will remain, but the sorts of books that consumers will buy in paper form will certainly change. The revolution we are now experiencing centres on content, words with audio-visual accompaniment, appearing in multiple forms, often concurrently. Formerly, readers would have the single option of getting their hands on a paper book. Now they can read and experience on myriad devices. They can browse now or download for later reading. They have the choice of ‘read only’ or selecting an enhanced version that offers the prospect of venturing outside of the linear narrative. This enhanced narrative experience is in its formative stages and its an exciting time to see this unfold.
From our perspective, one of the great advantages of having the title ‘born digital’ is the prospect of simply being able to take the title in any direction. It’s just as easy to anticipate smartphone delivery as it is to imagine what Inanimate Alice looks like in print formats. Ease of translation and switching between translations suggests far greater reach than the mere option of “do you want the paperback or PDF on an e-reader?” and thinking beyond “how much is it?” What fascinates me is the challenge of delivering stories and translations for example in print to students in Australia, while offering a mobile version of the stories directly to kids in Japan, China and Indonesia. This kind of reach was the sole domain of the world’s largest publishers until digital came along.
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If you haven’t already joined Alice’s growing band of supporters you can do so in a number of ways. Here are a few of them.
Follow Alice on Twitter
Like Alice on Facebook 
Follow Kenny Pieper and his English class as they engage with Alice here
Find out more about Alice on Wikipedia
Read the latest Alice news at Scoop.it!
Collect Alice images and pin them at Pinterest
See how other teachers are using the Alice stories on Edmodo
Download and re-mix the the digital assets from ‘Alice in Australia’
 

What Do You Mean By Literacy?

Readers of the blog will know that one of my regular mantras is, ‘Learning IS Narrative’. ie not only is narrative  – or storytelling – an important element of learning, but that all learning consists of the creation, analysis and sharing of stories. This is HOW we learn, and has been so since there was life on earth. What changes is the variety of media through which we create and tell these stories. I was reminded of this when reading this excellent blogpost on the use of film and media in English, literacy and creative writing by Tom Tolkien, which included the following lines:-

“If printed literature is seen as a brief period in the historical synthesis of storytelling, it isn’t surprising that technology will deliver a succession of new forms for the delivery of stories. Whether film will last longer then print as a form is debatable, but film is currently more accessible and more engaging to young learners than books. How many pupils have seen the film but not read the book? Is that a good thing – I don’t know – but it’s certainly worth taking advantage of when considering how to improve the teaching of writing.”

All of which has of course set me to wondering about definitions of literacy which are appropriate for the age we live in. What does it mean to be literate today?  This is a short presentation I delivered at last week’s TeachMeet Ayr/Aberdeen at the University of the West of Scotland. It is intended as a light-hearted starter for discussion. Feel free to use it with your students or with your colleagues if you find it of any value.

For a version of this presentation with video introduction go to YouTube

New on Storify: Teaching – An Academic Career?

Given my conviction that storytelling is at the heart of learning, I was always going to be intrigued by a new curation tool and website which makes the creation of stories simple and intuitive. Alerted to Storify through my Twitter PLN (Personal Learning Network) where so much of my learning comes from these days, I decided to experiment with it and effectively write this latest blogpost using it as an alternative platform. To stimulate some discussion around a topic I posed the question ‘What is an academic?’ on Twitter and followed it up with ‘Do teachers regard themselves as academics, and would they choose to do so anyway?’. The responses were intriguing. I saved the tweets to my ‘Storypad’ (see notes on how to do this at the end of the blogpost), added some text and quotes from other sources, and published my story under the Education section. Unfortunately, because this is not a self-hosted blog, I am unable to embed the story here in its original format but I have added a screenshot of the introduction to let you see what it looks like. If you want to read the whole story just follow this link to My Storify

To create a story using Storify, just follow these simple steps:-

  1. Decide on a topic or theme
  2. Decide which media to include in your search (available sources include Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Google, YouTube and others)
  3. Search media
  4. Save chosen media items to Storypad
  5. Click and drag selected items to story template
  6. Re-arrange structure as required
  7. Add text and commentary
  8. Publish to Storify

To save tweets to the Storypad (or desktop):-

  1. Open selected tweet
  2. Click on the day or time tag at the top left (this opens the tweet in a new window)
  3. Click on the ‘Storify’ symbol below the tweet
  4. Save to Storypad or an existing story (text or comment can be added at this stage if you want it)

As storytelling and essay writing become more digitally based, I think Storify provides an attractive platform for learners and teachers to experiment with new formats, It also gives the teacher a context in which to discuss issues such as plagiarism, cut and paste, ‘value added’, creativity, effective internet searching, essay structure and effective storytelling. What do you think?

 

[View the story “Getting started” on Storify]

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.

Message from Stornoway: I Can and I Will

Last weekend I had the pleasure of chairing the first ever TeachMeet Hebrides in Stornoway on the beautiful Isle of Lewis. The sun shone as we gathered in the bright new foyer of Lews Castle College UHI to listen to a tremendously varied selection of short presentations. There was a live video link so that those who were unable to travel, but with us in spirit, were able to feel part of the event, and a Twitterfeed displayed on the wall gave instant feedback and reassurance to those for whom Teachmeet was their first opportunity to present themselves in front of their peers – a potentially daunting task in any profession. Sometimes the technology refused to co-operate, which only served as a reminder that Teachmeets are about people’s experiences, successes and challenges. If the technology works, it’s a bonus rather than a necessity.

You can catch up with the presentations, photographs and associated events from TeachMeet Hebrides here.

Since returning from Stornoway, my attention has been drawn to this short film, made by a group of youngsters from the town’s Nicolson Institute, with help from local director Roddy Maclean in association with screenHi and the BBC’s L.A.B. Scotland. In the film, three of the young people describe the challenges they face when it comes to reading, writing and talking and how this in turn affects their confidence and self-image. Yet in each case, what strikes you is how articulate they are and what skills they have. At a time in Scotland when many are fretting over how we make assessment ‘fit’ the new curriculum, or even more sadly how we make the curriculum fit the new assessments, perhaps we should remind ourselves that when a curriculum is described in terms of ‘I can…’ statements, an essential component of assessment is self-assessment, and that no-one quite knows a person’s strengths and weaknesses as well as themselves. It is also worth reflecting that an important role of the teacher is to help young people articulate their story as effectively as possible. It strikes me that what applies to young people applies equally well to adults; just ask those teachers at TeachMeet how they felt immediately after their presentations last week.