Sunday, 27 July 2014

My life in books Part 1 (0 -18)

This month’s blogsync is a lovely concept: an exploration of the books that shaped a person’s life. There are more entries here, but here’s my effort. Well, part of it.
I love big books and I cannot lie. I love them in every shape, colour and form. I am drawn to Waterstones, Amazon and Oxfam like a magnet. I could, in fact, spend weekends reading and looking for books. The family, and real life, thankfully get in the way of things. If it wasn’t for my family, I would feature in a Channel 5 documentary on someone that hoards books that they can’t wash. My daughters and their exponential need for space means that there is a healthy culling of books every few months. 
But, where did this love of reading come from? Was it borne from a family steeped in books? Was is it borne from an awe-inspiring English teacher? Was it borne from a special book that hooked me for life? Sadly, it was none of these. In truth, I can’t pinpoint what made me love reading – just as much as I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I loved red wine. It just happened. I like to think of the ‘reading bug’ being something that happened gradually over night. You never saw it happen during the day, but it hit you when you were quietly or nosily sleeping. My reading habit can only be described as eclectic.    
Well, at the tender age of seven I was hooked on reading with the book ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens – I am joking. My childhood memory of reading concentrates on some special books. In a dark dark village and in a dark dark house and in a dark dark room I was read to by my parents books such as ‘Funny Bones’ by Allan Ahlberg and ‘Meg and Mog’ by Helen Nicoll. And, if I am honest, that’s where my odd taste for books that make no narrative sense stems from. Both books defy logic at times, but the beauty of the writing and the simplicity of ideas is that they stay with you to this day. Plus, the drawings are another part of the special magic. It is no surprise that Julia Donaldson is so popular at the moment. She combines all three with aplomb.  Now, all these books are read to my daughters.
Another early memory of reading stems from primary school. Mrs Glasson was my teacher and a regular routine for us was to sit down to read Enid Blyton's ‘The Enchanted Woods’. I can vividly recall sitting down to read the story as a class. Each time we read a different student sat with Ted – a teddy bear with green dungarees. Nothing says childhood like dungarees. I recall feeding Ted (myself) sweets as I listened enrapt in the story. Often, when I teach a novel I think back to this moment fondly. If only I could recreate it with a group of Year 11s. Come on, Tom, feed Ted as we read ‘Of Mice and Men’.  It was the collective reading and shared experience I loved so much. Even to this day, I often ask people in conversations what they are reading so I can share the reading experience more.
When I was eight, my family moved to Cyprus for two years. It was an idyllic experience with school for a few hours in the morning and the rest of the day spent exploring the beautiful and untouched island. It comes as no surprise that later in life I would come to adore ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ by Louis de Bernieres and Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’. I would often find snakes and strange creatures in the garden and scrub land at the back of our house. Sadly, there was very little to do there when it was cold, so I started reading ‘The Three Investigator’ books by M. V. Carey. They usually amounted to a group of boys investigating rum goings which usually amounted to unmasking some form of smuggling. Smuggling was ‘rife’ in Cyprus in the 1980s, so I could clearly identify with things. It was pure escapism and I swallowed them up. Added to this escapism was my pure joy of Greek myths. Little did I know that this fascination would help my literature degree. I had my own copy of Greek myths and I would read them daily and copy out the stories in my own little books. Things were made real by the constant visits to various places associated with the legends. I swam where Aphrodite was born and visited the numerous temples to the gods on the island. This led to me reading about Egyptology, which then led to a visit to Egypt for a birthday present.
We moved back to Wales for my first year of secondary school and the world changed in many ways. I stopped being the adventurous child and became a sulky teenager overnight. There are very few photographs that show me smiling at this time. If I am honest our move to Wales, was not the best of experiences for me. I moved from a country where you can do anything to a small parochial village in Wales where you couldn’t do anything. The nearest city was an hour away. It felt like a slow death to a teenager. The whole universe was growing up, having fun, and I was left out, in a village of about 200 people. In truth, they were not having fun, but it didn’t help me at the time. It would explain why I enjoyed ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ as an A-level student. They taught me how others saw ‘the skull beneath the skin’. I like reality. Real things happening to real people. I didn’t want happy things. I was sad and I wanted to read sad stuff.  
During these depressing times, I retreated into ‘pap’ reading, as I like to call it. I read and read ‘Doctor Who’ novels. I would constantly read the books by Target publishers. They were simple and quick descriptions of the television stories. The prose was sparse, but I lapped them up and read them all, if not most of them over a couple of years.  By the time I was 15, I had amassed a massive collection of books, which I have only recently sold. It was also during this phase that I started reading Doctor Who fanzines and magazines. In fact, I was a regular writer to a fanzine and if I am brave enough one day, I might share them on here.  
The library became my haven. It was a small library and it seemed, at the time, to hold copious amounts of ‘Mills and Boon’ books and large quantities of large print books on cowboys – must be a welsh thing. It would seem that I enjoyed science-fiction books; I didn’t. Even to this day, I don’t. I really struggle with fantasy and science-fiction books. I have tried and the ones I have enjoyed are the classics ‘Day of the Triffids’ and ‘The War of the Worlds’. My mother is an avid reader of fantasy fiction, but I would rather walk on hot-coals than read one of her books. Too many dragons and silly names for my liking. I, in my attempt to be contemporary and of the moment, bought the complete set of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in the vain attempt to read them. I couldn’t get past the dwarf songs. That was my limit. Oh, and the talking, walking tree people. The endless discussions I have had about how I couldn’t stomach the tree people. Nah, I don’t buy it. Magic rings and small people with hairy feet I can stomach. Talking trees are just too much for me.
Anyway the library was a regular haunt at weekends. I would borrow loads of book, but I’d often be drawn to other sections. For some strange reason, I was drawn to the true story section and especially the haunted / ghost books. The ‘Ghost Sightings of the British Isles’ book and various others on a similar theme became my new addiction. I became hooked and read all the different stories and tales. At that time, my English teacher was reading ‘The Snow Spider’ by Jenny Nimmo, which focused on some of the myths of Wales and some extra magic for good measure. It is sadly the one book I can actually recall from my English lessons, which is sad as I must have read some other books. But, alas all I can remember is this one.  Worse still, I can't even remember my GCSE texts.
Then, I started my A-levels and enjoyed them. My love of Victorian literature stemmed from this time. In particular, my reading of ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys. Yet, like most students, I didn’t dive into literature at this point; I was on the outskirts. I waited to be told what to read. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Jane Eyre’ and read and discussed it openly, but I didn’t do anything else. I felt that I had really engaged with a book for the first time. However, like Jane’s journey in the wilderness, I was lost metaphorically with reading. I read Doctor Who books in my free time and nothing else. I was a bit directionless with reading.
It was a bit surprise when I took it on myself to go to university. And that’s where I learnt to read ‘proper’ books with big words and fancy titles. Oh, but that’s another chapter….
Thanks for reading

Saturday, 12 July 2014

100% Concentration

Planning lessons is great. It was one of my favourite tasks of teaching. It usually follows the pattern of me going: oh, I could do this; oh, I could read this with the class; oh, I could get them to; and, oh, wouldn’t it be great if…? I become engrossed in the exploration of thoughts and ideas. Time speeds up as I waste hours making a booklet, a resource or a ‘whizzy’ PowerPoint. Then, the opposite occurs when marking. Time slows down. I am interrupted by everything in the world: my stomach; my interest to learn the current market value of bananas; my desire to see a cute kitten; and a speck of dust which has landed on the desk. In fact, I put everything I can in the way of preventing the job.

My level of concentration varies depending on the task. I am much better with my marking than I once was. In my NQT year, I’d spend days marking one set of book. Now, I plough through it and mark them in half that time, but it is all down to concentration. I have trained myself to concentrate better on the things I don’t enjoy. But, that is sadly what we haven’t done in teaching? We haven’t always taught students to concentrate more. In fact, if I am honest, we have only supported our students’ inability to focus on one thing for any long time.h

We live in a busy world – bear with… just checking my phone. We live in a busy world and there are constant drains on our attention. You are probably nodding off now as you read this, because I haven’t included a picture of something relevant. My lessons, of old, used to feature tonnes of things designed to entertain students. I was made to feel, as a younger teacher, your lessons needed to take the shape and look of a Blue Peter lesson. Here’s a sonnet I made earlier! My only real concern was making sure students were entertained, I mean engaged. Lessons used to be filled to the brim with activities to entertain students. A card sort. A quick quiz. A video. But, this was how I was led to believe that lessons should be. I should be doing ‘fun stuff’ and the students should be entertained.

Frankly, all this way of teaching only supported the fact that students didn’t have to do much in the learning. They just had to respond. Not be engaged. They just had to wave a card at me and I was convinced they had learnt something. They just had to refrain from doodling an obscene image of a book for me to be proud that they were engaged in the learning. As long as their response was positive, I was happy.

There’s been a lot of talk about resilience and grit - and other things that resemble the names of aftershaves. Grit for Men – You’re Tough Enough!   There have been comments like ‘we must make them more resilient’ and similar things that wouldn’t sound out of place in a line from the Borg in ‘Star Trek’. For me, I think concentration is the key thing that underwrites all of this malarkey. In fact, do we consider, plan or factor concentration levels in lessons? I used to have the inbuilt timer of: 5 minutes - Year 7; 10 minutes –Year 8; 15 minutes – Year 9; 20 minutes – Year 10; and 25 minutes Year 11.    

The change in the curriculum suggests that there is a shift in expectation from students. Things are getting tougher and harder. Yet, I think amongst all the talk of change, we might be missing one thing: developing the concentration levels of students. The main difference between a modern novel and a classic text is the amount of concentration needed. The thought and effort needed to follow things in ‘Jane Eyre’ is twice the amount of ‘Of Mice and Men’ (based on a ‘real’ fact).  ‘Of Mice and Men’ is instantly engaging and enjoyable, yet ‘Jane Eyre’ is a grower, as they say. It takes time to enjoy.

Do we need to work harder on developing the concentration levels of the students? Do we need to factor that in our planning? Or, have we manufactured the bitesize generation? They can only read small texts. They can only really write effective short paragraphs. They can only deal with things for 10 or less minutes.

Look at proofreading. Effective proofreading is a product of concentration. You concentrate hard to spot errors. (I apologise if there are any on this blog.) Watching students proofread is hilarious. It suddenly becomes an Olympic sport. A three paged essay is checked within 2 minutes. Amazing.

This week I worked on proofreading with a group of students. To be honest, I made them spend a whole hour proofreading one piece of their work. They did it well, and, I managed to make it engaging.

I told them that they were going to make money. The more mistakes they found, the more money they would make. I told them afterwards how much each mistake cost so that they wouldn’t be tactical. Then, they read the text several times, but each time they focused on a different aspect.

Reading one: The Basics – full stops and capital letters

Reading two: Spellings – homophones and regular words

Reading three: Commas

Reading four: Grammar – missing words or incorrect phrases

Reading five: Apostrophes

In pairs, the scoured the text for mistakes. At this stage they didn’t correct them, simply highlighted the mistake. When they had completed the different readings they had a table to fill out, highlighting all the different mistakes.

Finally, I told them how much each mistake cost.

Reading one: The Basics – full stops and capital letters 2p

Reading two: Spellings – homophones and regular words 2p

Reading three: Commas 5p

Reading four: Grammar – missing words or incorrect phrases 10p  

Reading five: Apostrophes 5p

It worked well for the class and it saved me a lot of effort circling their work for obvious mistakes, but it proved a point: they could do proofreading well if they concentrated on it. Proofreading is all about concentration. To be experts, students need to realise the slow pace that is necessary to build to expertise.  Our students want to be experts without the necessary work. Let’s teach them to concentrate first and then things will follow.

The A grade students in the class are the ones that can concentrate.  The rest want to be like the As, secretly, but they can’t yet because they can’t concentrate enough.

Thanks for reading,