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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Yet Another Watershed Moment

This blogpost has also been published on Bella Caledonia, the pro-independence alternative media site. Please visit, subscribe and contribute if you can.

Given the recent devastating floods across Scotland and the rest of the UK, ‘watershed moment’ may or may not have been the best metaphor to describe the current state of Scottish education, but that was the description borrowed from a recent OECD report by Education Scotland’s Chief Executive Bill Maxwell last week, in his ‘state-of-the-union’-style blogpost on the Education Scotland website. We seem to be living in an age when ‘watershed moments’ in education come thick and fast, but as for this latest case of hydro-hyperbole, I reflect on how big the gap is between the rhetoric and the reality. Dr Maxwell’s post on the Education Scotland blog is fairly brief, so I have quoted it in full here, along with my own thoughts (in italics) on the current state of state education in Scotland.watershed

Scottish mountain-bike daredevil Danny MacAskill in the making of ‘The Ridge’

Bill Maxwell: Scottish education has had an excellent opportunity to “see ourselves as others see us” to borrow a famous Burns quotation.

We have been receiving a lot of international attention recently. December’s report on Scottish school education by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks, was followed this month by the premier annual gathering of education researchers from around the world – some 500 of them – in Glasgow.

The main message I took from these international engagements is one which rings true with the evidence we gather at Education Scotland. That message is that the wide-ranging programme of reform of education in Scotland over the last decade is setting the right ambition and has the potential to ensure young Scots are amongst the best educated young people in the world, but we have more to do to make sure that happens.

The Literacy Adviser: The ‘programme of reform’ in Scottish education has actually been painfully slow, and in the case of the reform of secondary education, virtually non-existent. It is absolutely true that the vision for education set out in Curriculum for Excellence has the potential to ensure that young scots are ‘amongst the best educated young people in the world’, but we knew that ten years ago, and nothing much has changed in the interim. Indeed, we do ‘have more to do to make sure that happens’. However, recent signs are not good, and there are strong indications from the Scottish Government – through the ‘National Improvement Framework’ (sic) – that some of the core principles of CfE are about to be eroded in favour of more ‘teaching to the test’, in the mistaken belief that this will close the attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and those whose parents have more than enough money to be going on with. Incidentally, the OECD may be regarded by some as ‘one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks’, but that view is by no means universal. Others believe that the PISA tests used by the OECD to make international comparisons are riddled with ambiguities, and do more harm than good when it comes to governments using them to determine educational policy (see for example this Guardian article from May 2014)

BM: We need to hold firm to the vision, but we also stand at a ‘watershed moment’ to use a phrase from the OECD report. We need now to move confidently beyond managing the introduction of key structural changes such as the new National Qualifications and strengthened professional learning arrangements for teachers, to a new phase which shifts the focus firmly onto teachers and school leaders capitalising on the scope which these changes give them to develop more effective, more customised learning experiences for all their learners.

TLA: In reality our schools currently spend more time making sure they are watertight rather than sensing that they are in a ‘watershed moment’, and the fact that Education Scotland describes the introduction of new National Qualifications (which are not that different from the old National Qualifications) as ‘key structural changes’ reveals much about the appetite of the educational establishment – and by implication the Scottish Government – for radical changes to the system. Putting aside for the moment all the major changes which would be required to realise Curriculum for Excellence as envisaged in the original blueprint – such as a shift to project or problem-based learning, the re-definition of ‘practical’ subjects, an overhaul of school buildings, timetables and the school day, a drastic reduction in the amount of testing, greater investment in teachers’ professional development and so on – these ‘new’ qualifications change nothing. They are still predominantly pen-and-paper tests, an anomaly in today’s largely digital world, taken by young people when they reach a particular age rather than when they are ready to take them. If you truly want to move education forward in this country, you need to shift the emphasis away from National Qualifications as the end goal.

BM: The new National Improvement Framework, also launched last week, has now set out a clear set of priority objectives for all schools to address, as they exercise these new levels of professional freedom. It places a strong onus on teachers’ professional judgement in the assessment and evaluation of progress. There is also a strong role for educational research, both to help inform the decision schools make about what changes to make in their own provision and to generate a wider body of evidence on what is working well, and what is working less well, across Scotland.

TLA: This nothing short of double-speak. A key aspect of the National Improvement Framework is a return to standardised national tests, meaning a significant reduction in ‘professional freedom’ and a diminution of teachers’ professional judgement. Teachers, especially when they are provided with robust, good quality professional development opportunities, are perfectly capable of assessing learners’ progress and reporting on it to parents. Standardised testing is not about helping teachers to make judgements about a child’s progress, it is about holding teachers to account, or – to put it more crudely – judging teachers by their students’ test results. The suggestion that there is to be a strong role in the process for educational research is to be welcomed, though one would have hoped that this was already the case.

BM: The framework also stresses the need for schools to engage strongly with young people, parents and carers and their local communities as they develop and refine new ways of meeting the needs of learners more effectively. If you are a parent or carer, a learner, an employer or just someone with an interest in education in your local community, you should expect to see increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue about the education being provided in the schools in your locality. Parents and carers, in particular, should expect expanding opportunities to be involved actively as partners in their child’s learning.

TLA: One of the key features of Curriculum for Excellence – quite rightly – was the emphasis on parental and community involvement. The fact that little progress has been made in that regard will not be addressed simply by re-stating it ten years later in another ‘improvement’ document. It has always been the case that parents are more involved with their children’s primary education, and that as they progress through secondary school that involvement tends to be limited to one or two parents’ evenings a year, where they are on the receiving end of a brief summary of progress, usually in the form of grades or scores. It may well be that that is what most parents (and their children) want, but opportunities to be involved in the learning process – teaching methodology, homework policies, curriculum content etc.) tend to be very limited. I am sure communities across Scotland will look forward to the ‘increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue’ and the ‘expanding opportunities’ you mention, but since there is currently no indication as to what this means in reality, I guess they will have to simply reserve judgement for now.

BM: All of this has implications for my own organisation too. Education Scotland was created back in 2011 as a new type of improvement agency which brings a rich mix of education experts in development, support and inspection together in one place. This allows us to flex the way we deploy our staff over time, shifting the balance of the support and challenge we provide from year to year to reflect what is most needed at any particular point in time. In recent years that has meant a strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE in local authorities and schools, including a major commitment to supporting the transition to new qualifications and to new teaching and assessment approaches from the early years onwards.

TLA: The order in which you list that ‘rich mix’ of education experts is interesting, because when Education Scotland was created in 2011, the balance between development, support and inspection shifted quite dramatically away from the former towards the latter, a shift that was reflected in the number of staff who were retained from the original agencies of Learning and Teaching Scotland and HMIE. I am not sure that many schools – or indeed local authorities – will recognise that ‘strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE’ of which you speak. In fact, perhaps the greatest obstacle to the implementation of CfE has been the inability of local authorities to provide clear leadership and adequate support for schools – a situation brought about largely, but not solely, by chronic under-funding – as they have struggled to adapt to the changing world around them. In such circumstances, and fearing that school inspections may reflect badly on them, local authorities often adopt an ‘accountability’ mind-set and impose another layer of inspection on schools. This encourages a fear of failure which stifles innovation and creativity. The solution to this is to end the process of national school inspections and replace it with a form of local democracy, which makes schools more accountable to the communities they serve, but I guess since you represent Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (even though you aren’t called that any more), you are not going to argue for your own demise any time soon!

BM: Looking forward, as we move into a new phase of embedding Curriculum for Excellence, I see that balance shifting. That will mean we move to a stronger emphasis on evaluating what is working best as schools individually, and together in networks, devise new ways of delivering the best possible learning experiences for their pupils. We will increase inspections to help gather and spread that evidence more effectively. We will also accelerate our work on new approaches to promoting improvement in key areas, particularly the Scottish Attainment Challenge as it leads a nationwide effort to close the Attainment gap.

The next few years will be crucial in ensuring our young people reap the full harvest from the seeds of change that have been planted and nurtured thus far. The OECD praised Scotland for its foresight and patience in taking an ambitious education reform programme to the stage it has reached so far. We now need to follow through and tackle the next phase of improving Scotland’s schools with renewed focus and vigour.

TLA: Here we get to the heart of the matter. ‘What we need to improve Scottish education is more school inspections’, said no-one ever, yet that is the one clear promise in your whole blogpost, and, ironically, what you describe as the shifting of the balance from ‘supporting’ to ‘evaluating’ is one that we can all see happening, just as you do. The difference is that very few people in the educational community will see this as a good thing. And interestingly, while your post emphasises words like ‘research’, ‘evidence’, ‘evaluate’ and ‘vigour’, it makes no mention of teachers, and specifically does not mention increasing support for them in their professional development, which is an absolute pre-condition for improvement in any education system. 

There are many good things happening in our schools at the moment, but I suspect most of them are happening despite the system, rather than because of it. An Education Scotland whose role was to support teachers in every way possible, rather than trying to measure everything they do, would be a welcome step on the road to irrigating those seeds that you mention, without flooding the landscape in the process.

 

 

Taking the Metro or Jumping on the Bandwagon?

Anyone taking the bus or train to work in the UK this morning would have been confronted by this headline in the popular free newspaper the Metro, creating the impression (again) that our schools are currently populated by armies of illiterate teachers who can hardly distinguish their anus from their olecranon. So let me try to put the ‘problem’ into perspective. One of my many responsibilities in a previous role as a DHT in a large secondary comprehensive school was to read, comment on and sign the twice-yearly reports for my year group – around 250 students. In the course of doing that I would regularly have to return to members of staff who had errors in their reports and ask, as diplomatically as possible, that they be re-written, to save potential embarrassment all round (Note that ’embarrassment’ is a tricky word to spell). It is a task I did not enjoy. Was it ignorance on the part of the teacher or simply the pressure of deadlines and a hundred and one other things on their minds? In my view it was much of the latter and a little bit of the former.

“Evidence presented to the Review suggested that a small, but none-the-less significant, number of initial teacher education students lack some of the fundamental attributes to become good teachers, including limited interpersonal skills and basic weaknesses in literacy and numeracy. Although the evidence was largely impressionistic and applied only to a minority of students, the concern was persistent and widespread and needs to be addressed.”

Teaching Scotland’s Future – Report of a review of teacher education in Scotland January 2011

Teachers do, occasionally, make mistakes when writing reports. But we all mistakes, don’t we? Of course we do, yet teachers, uniquely it seems among the population at large, are not allowed to. They must be above reproach, infallible, superhuman, an expectation all too easily taken up by the mainstream media. Newspapers, and newspaper journalists themselves you may have noticed, also make mistakes, despite having internal mechanisms to ensure that they don’t, a point not lost on independent ICT consultant and founder of L4L Leon Cych, who contacted the Metro and asked them about their newspaper and the role of the sub-editor. You can hear the resulting conversation here (Note that it is easy to confuse ‘hear’ and ‘here’ if you are in a hurry).

shcool

Poor spelling or a case of revenge?

At the risk of spoiling the fun for anyone who has yet to attend one of my literacy sessions with teachers, I often begin with a spelling test consisting of four or five words, offering a substantial prize for anyone who achieves full marks. Only one person has ever claimed the prize, and he admitted later that he had attended an earlier event so remembered the words, which I hadn’t changed. The moral of the story is that whether you are a teacher or just an ordinary human being, when it comes to literacy none of us is the finished article (Note the singular noun ‘none’ – no one – takes a singular verb ‘is’). The key issue is not whether you know, or think you know, everything, but whether you are aware of your weaknesses and are taking the appropriate steps to improve them.

Footnote: the most common error in the reports I was responsible for checking was a failure to distinguish between ‘practice’ and ‘practise’. When I explained the difference to one colleague I was told that I was making it up.

Addressing the Gender Imbalance

In the immediate aftermath of my previous blogpost on how to engage boys in reading, I discovered two very interesting items related to the topic of gender imbalance in the classroom. The first was a report by the Teaching Agency which suggests that the number of men training to be primary teachers in England has increased by more than 50 percent in the last four years, surely a figure to be welcomed by everyone with an interest in education and schools. The second was this TED talk by Ali Carr-Chellman on how to engage boys through the use of gaming in the classroom. Thanks to Fernando for bringing it to my attention via the Transmedia and Education group on Facebook.

A former colleague and fellow DHT of mine used to maintain that many of the problems in schools at the end of the 20th Century had been caused by what he described as the ‘feminisation’ of education. I disagreed with him entirely, and I still do. The issue for me is not that we should treat boys very differently from girls, but that the curriculum should more accurately reflect the broad range of interests and passions which exist in the world, and that the range of texts with which teachers and students engage in the classroom should be much broader than it often is. As always, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Warning. Joined-Up Learning Ahead

I’ve just been reading about a really interesting experiment in Kirn Primary School in Dunoon on the west coast of Scotland. Faced with a reducing number of full-time staff, supplemented by an increasing number of part-time teachers who had been re-deployed from other schools with falling roles, the headteacher decided to play to the strengths of his team, while providing stability and continuity to the learners. An early years and first level ‘department’ was created for P1 – P4, staffed by full-timers, where the nurture and support so critical for youngsters in the early stages of schooling would not be compromised. From P5 – P7, however, the learning would take place in what are described as ‘subjects’, with part-time teachers offering specialist topics to each of the classes in turn, according to their own (that is, the teacher’s) strengths and interests.

The gamble seems to be paying off. One of those part-time teachers, who specialises in music and RME, describes how she and the children worked on a school production called The Peace Child, where they had to pull together all the aspects of theatrical production while exploring the theme of conflict resolution, and where they now had ‘time and space to reflect on their learning’. The six-week block of time allowed them a greater element of personal choice, and the opportunity to explore in greater depth aspects of the topic which had a special appeal. A welcome by-product of the new way of working has been an increase in the amount of outdoor education offered to the pupils  – surely a welcome development at a time when Play England reports that 42% of children in England and Wales have never made a daisy chain and 32% have never climbed a tree; there’s no reason to believe that the figures for Scotland would be very much healthier.

One particularly interesting – and slightly curious – aspect of this story for me is that the headteacher himself describes the six-week blocks which teachers offer as ‘subjects’, causing the TESS, where the story was reported this week, to wonder:

“But the solution does seem to go against the grain of recent experience, where separate departments in the secondary school, as well as rigid timetables, are making the new curriculum harder to implement there.

It also seems contrary to conventional wisdom that the primary-secondary transition is problematic for pupils, because one teacher and a close relationship become many teachers, who flit in and out of their lives. Surely forcing that transition earlier can’t be an improvement?”

The reason for this concern and confusion, in my opinion, is in the terminology. Potentially, what Kirn seems to be offering here is successful project-based learning, the very antithesis of learning in ‘subjects’. The learners are engaged in one topic at a time,  over a relatively short period of time, with one teacher, not many. In other words, it is nothing like a secondary model. Other schools have experimented with versions of the ‘rich tasks’ approach with mixed results, but this is one experiment which should definitely be worth watching.

This is the Common Craft team’s take on Project Based Learning:

Stornoway Saga

Over on John Connell: The Blog, John, thought-provoking as ever, raises the issue of ‘non-writers’ who have a responsibility for teaching writing skills to young people:-

“How many teachers teaching writing have ever actually tried their hand, successfully, at sustained writing of any sort: journalism, report-writing, essay-writing, short story writing, writing a novel….whatever?”

Alfie introduces me to his favourite beach

It’s an interesting question, the kind which often comes up in a sporting context. You know the one, ‘Does a football manager need to have

been a successful player in order to be a successful manager’? My answer to that would be no, but they at least ought to have played the game on a fairly regular basis.

The subject of writing, coincidentally, was also the focus of a transitions workshop I was leading last weekend in Stornoway with an enthusiastic group of primary and secondary teachers who had given up their usual Saturday pursuits to reflect on their own teaching practice. First of all I asked them what they had written in the past week, and then to consider what they asked their students to write. The point of this was not to shame teachers into thinking that they should all be writing short stories or novels or essays, but simply to remind ourselves that when we ask young people to write an extended piece of prose, we are asking something of them which is pretty demanding, and I think it is reasonable that we at least attempt it with them. Incidentally, I read somewhere that for most people, most of the writing they do will have been done by the age of sixteen.

Chancing my arm somewhat, I then introduced the concept of the mini saga, and told the group that they had fifteen minutes to complete one. Not only that, but since lunch was arriving in approximately fifteen minutes time they would have to complete their mini-saga before being allowed to eat it. Imagine my surprise when, far from telling me where to go, they set about the task in complete silence, completed it on time, and in some cases were eager to read them aloud, to the appreciation and loud applause of their colleagues. The moral of the story? Teachers need opportunities to show off the remarkable range of talents they have which led them into teaching in the first place.

If you are unfamiliar with the mini saga idea, the challenge is to write a complete story, of epic proportions, in exactly 50 words. Not 49 or 51. It is a very effective way of teaching narrative, grammar, summary skills and word choice, as well as having fun! With thanks to a great bunch of people on Lewis, and a special thanks to event organiser Liz Sutherland (@doglaunchers), PT English at The Nicolson Institute, for all her hard work before, during and after the event. Thanks also to Alfie, her dog, for introducing me to the beautiful beach at Tolsta on Sunday morning. Sorry I broke the ball launcher Alfie, but promise I’ll bring you a new one next time I visit.

With kind permission I have published the group’s mini sagas below. Why not try one yourself and I’ll add it to the anthology!!

For more examples of mini-sagas and competition details check out the Young Writers website.

Literacy Transitions CPD – Saturday 16th April 2011

50-word Mini-Sagas

In the beginning … God saw it was good, paradise even to those within.  BC, AD, the ice age, stone age, iron age, the dark ages, the Renaissance, rebirth – for what?  Fast forward; earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, infernos, wars – the supreme conflict of the nations: Armageddon.  Is this all there is?

The writer gazed out of the window, seeking inspiration.  A van pulled up and screeched to a stop.  The editor piled out of the van, entered the building and pointed a gun at the writer’s head.  The writer, reluctantly, submitted his 50-word essay, dreading the inevitable consequences.  The editor fired.

The sky darkened suddenly and seemed to get darker still.  It was no storm cloud yet it evoked the same feeling of foreboding.  She noticed the strange quiet – no shouting, no jostling, the market stalls busy a moment ago, suddenly silenced.  Shockingly, she felt herself lifted by the dragon’s claws.

 Once a girl yearned to become an artist.  Everyday she painted everything around her.  Her pictures became lifelike and she often lost track of time.  One day she looked up and asked her parents, “What’s for tea?” but only the paintings of them remained to look back at her.

The princess was missing.  Things couldn’t be worse.  Tristram recalled the King’s words. “Find her,” had been the gist.  The note had followed days later.  “We have your daughter – £10,000 for safe return.”  So here he was, sword in hand, having battled her captors.  Their blood was on the ground.

Jackets on, bags on shoulders, Miya and her friends waited.  The infants had been met, hugged and taken away. Now their parents would come.  The ache in Miya’s stomach was spreading – it was more than hunger now.  Teachers with worried faces whispered “catastrophe”, “nightmare”, “disaster”.  Waiting, patiently, silently, in vain.

The boy on the floor wept.  Beside him, discarded, lay a sword, smudged with red – the evidence of the crime.  Fate called him here; his destiny yet unknown.  Slowly he got up, weary of his battle.  He was victorious.  But then, a roar from behind him sounded.  It wasn’t over.

 Stop thief!  I couldn’t believe it, my hard earned money had vanished!  Downhearted and dismayed I consider what to do next.  Turn once again to a life of crime or beg from disinterested others?  My conscience whispered swallow my pride – ask for help – the baby would suffer – so I did!

 Following a childhood crammed with fairytales and love-conquers-all film endings, Esme found her own prince in Paris.  She fell in love.  He omitted to mention his wife!  Despite the lies, they eventually married and had a daughter.  Esme never read her fairytales!  They did not live happily ever after …

 A simple spartan cottage, isolated, framed in the lonely, barren landscape by purple heather and sweeping russet hills.  A man, alone, tired, stands outside.  A shadowy figure approaches on horseback and dark clouds gather overhead.  He always knew his time here was short.  His freedom has come to an end.

Erik the Bold left his icy homeland with a group of warrior to defeat the sea-monster that terrified  his people.  One night the creature appeared and unleashed its fury.  Erik, with mighty courage, fighting for his life, cut the monster’s head.  He was hailed by all in his homeland, forever. 

 Rainbows filled the skies.  They poured their jewelled droplets onto the earth.  The earth.  He knelt down in the dirt and dug his clear, new nails into the ground.  The earth smelled good.  Here was potential.  “Earth,” he said.  “Ground.  Dirt.”  “World,” he said.  He stood up.  And walked forward.

Inga fell into bed and tossed and turned on the hard mattress, considering her future.  Should she stay on this small farm in Småland or move to America with her brother’s family.  Prospects in Sweden were poor but the journey ahead was treacherous.  She would never see her parents again.

Ellie’s face flushed with confusion and humiliation.  Blinking rapidly but pursing her lips hard together she stood rigidly, only vaguely aware of her mother’s irate words washing over her.  She didn’t understand.  Her mother had said she could have the chocolate – so what if they hadn’t reached the checkout yet?

Hands hovering over the keys.  ‘Delete’ beckoning right.  ‘Send’ glowing red to the left.  Brriinngg!  Startled she clicked ‘Send’.  Gasp!  Hands frozen over the keys she stared at ‘Delete’.  Too late.  The email telling them she was leaving had gone.  Brriinngg!  The phone continued ringing as the door finally slammed.

The slaughter over, the Viking longboats rested on the beach.  Lars surveyed the firth from what would be Thingwas.  Beside him stood Mord.  “It’s time,” Lars said.  He called the council.  “Here rules Morda,” Lars intoned.  All turned to see not a warrior but warrioress – first queen of the north.

Waiting for Superman

The American education establishment is braced for the release, later this week, of Waiting for Superman, the latest documentary from ‘The Inconvenient Truth‘ director Davis Guggenheim. While the 2006 dual-Oscar winning ‘Truth’ brought the attention of the world to the former Vice-President’s campaign to raise awareness of global warming issues  – the film was distributed free to all Scottish secondary schools, causing some commentators to express concern that children were being fed a politically biased account of an as-yet unproven theory – Waiting for Superman profiles some of the real people behind the shocking statistics  of the US state education system, and looks at the so-called ‘drop-out factories’ and ‘academic sinkholes’, laying the blame largely, if not entirely, on poor teaching standards and the power of the teaching unions.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, ‘The film isn’t exhaustive in its critique — the enormous downside of standardized testing isn’t mentioned, for instance, possibly because testing is how we know just how dramatically today’s system is failing — but it cites plenty of blood-boiling practices, like the $65 million-a-year “Rubber Room” in which bad New York teachers draw full salaries while waiting idly for the school district to prove charges of misconduct.’

How accurate a depiction the film is will no doubt be the subject of much debate, but with the latest statistics suggesting that something in the region of 1.2 million young people drop out of school in the USA each year, almost 50% fail to graduate from high school in the 50 largest cities, and one in six young people attends a high-poverty school,  the inconvenient truth upon which everyone seems to agree is that things need to change.