Having a laugh: the Lollies

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I like a laugh, so when I was asked by Scholastic if I would review the shortlist for the Laugh Out Loud Book Awards I jumped at the chance! I’ve also enlisted the help of some young readers I happened to find at a loose end…

The picture book category

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These were great fun, mixing the unexpected with the ridiculous in equal measure. However, my standout favourite was Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise. In this book, the first person narrator adopts a super-villain tone littered with fantastic mock-cliche similes: “the terrible silence of the night spreads everywhere. But I cut through it like a knife” and my personal favourite: “my eyes glitter like sardines.” Brilliant!

The 6-8 category

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I found these harder work with a tendency to litter each page with a bewildering array of font and graphic changes mixing cartoon, handwriting, and zany whackiness. It felt a bit like reading late-1990s MTV rendered on the page and some of them gave me a headache! There was an element of style-over-content here too, with shallow laughs aplenty but nothing like the deep enjoyment of the picture books. The exception was The Jolley-Rogers and the Cave of Doom which presented an entertaining mash-up of modern stereotypes and pirate-genre narrative hooks.

The 9-13 category

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This was much more up my street as a secondary teacher! There was still a tendency to throw a few zany font changes into the pages of these books, but these stories were genuine narratives and there were laughs aplenty. However, David Baddiel’s The Parent Agency stood out head-and-shoulders from the field, using humour to pose some genuine questions about the nature of family and the relationship of children to their parents. It’s the same essential idea that was Hollywood-ised in Freaky Friday but here presented without so much of the saccharine sentimentality. Baddiel’s dry tone and willingness to actually provoke thought made his novel a cut above the rest, and my favourite from the whole competition.

The Laugh Out Loud Awards

There are a whole load of free resources and you have until 10th June to vote for your favourites at the Lollies site. Thanks to Scholastic for sharing the shortlisted books with me!

An Appointment at the Reading Spa

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The Chew Valley Reading Spa is in session…

 

I’ve just had the great pleasure of taking part in our inaugural Reading Spa. Inspired by the brilliant gifts available from Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, the event was designed for our sixth formers to help re-ignite their love of reading and brilliantly organised by English teacher Bell Wall alongside our librarian Jane Hillis.

Each sixth former was given an appointment with a member of staff to serve as their “bibliotherapist” for their spa session; in my case Amelia, a Year 12 student. These weren’t students we taught – the bibliotherapists were assigned from willing volunteer teachers to each sixth former. The students filled in a reading survey giving details of their reading tastes, habits and enthusiasms; I was given Amelia’s survey a week in advance so I could have a think about what sort of books I could recommend for and discuss with her.

If this doesn't reignite your love of reading, nothing will...

If this doesn’t reignite your love of reading, nothing will…

The library was transformed into a reading spa for the day with comfy sofas and chairs, mood lighting, and a wonderful array of cakes and coffee laid on. Jane, the librarian, had gathered a great selection of books from a range of genres to pick and choose from. The spa was on!

A huge array of reading delights!

An array of reading delights!

Amelia and I chatted through her reading survey, getting to grips with the sort of books she liked and what she’d already read. She’d devoured The Color Purple as part of her Literature course and already ordered Beloved and The Secret Life of Bees to broaden her reading in that genre. I recommended Twelve Years a Slave, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Yellow Wallpaper, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, The Bluest Eye and Cloud Atlas before leaving her to browse the selection whilst I enjoyed a florentine,  and a wedge of chocolate cake, and a mug of Arabica, whilst struggling to believe that this was actually work.

After a period of browsing (during which Bell recommended I have a go at The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton) Amelia decided to have a go at The Bluest Eye and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Whilst we were having our chat three other sixth formers were meeting their appointed bibliotherapists, and there are more appointments scheduled throughout the week. In the future, Bell plans to expand the project to include staff, to create a wider reading community and help answer that perennial question: “what should I read next?”

All in all, the reading spa was a great success. I loved the opportunity to talk about books and reading whilst Amelia got some more books to read, all in a relaxed quiet hour in the library. With cake. Highly recommended!

Download a reading survey template.

Reading Spa 2014 Feedback

Childness; or Why I Read Children’s Books

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I was fascinated to read the report in the Guardian on the research project conducted by Jo Bowers and Dr Susan Davis into the benefits of children’s literature. Focused on their primary PGCE cohort at Cardiff Metropolitan University, they found that reading children’s books helped their trainees in and out of the classroom. There is some great supplementary research cited in the article, including the NUT’s excellent Reading for Pleasure and the National Literacy Trust’s Reading for Pleasure research overview. They also cite the UKLA’s Teachers as Readers article which begins: “For primary teachers, knowledge of children’s literature…is essential in order to support the development of younger readers”.

The UKLA research emphasises the importance of reading children’s literature as professional development; the National Literacy Trust and the NUT the importance for well-being. Bowers and Davis found both benefits in their PGCE study. I found myself nodding along as my attitude to children’s books combines both of these. As a secondary English teacher, I feel it is my professional duty to read the latest books aimed at the age group I teach – the Carnegie list, the Guardian prize winners, and more locally the Centurion Award shortlist. I think it helps make me a better English teacher to be able to recommend books to the students I teach. I also love it when – as Jo Facer has described – they recommend them to me! (As an aside, you must read Jo’s excellent blog – she is Reading All the Books).

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Secondly, I really enjoy a good children’s book. I love them like I love teaching. Back when Harry Potter books were being published, I pre-ordered and waited up for the postman to deliver my Amazon packages on release day. I was in the beta for Pottermore and got sorted into Slytherin. I was so taken with His Dark Materials that I went straight back to Northern Lights as soon as I’d finished The Amber Spyglass. I read the Chaos Walking trilogy back to back. I loved Lauren Laverne’s rock’n’roll magic realism in Candypop. I did an MA in Children’s Literature. 

My love of children’s books and my love of teaching are, of course, inextricably intertwined. I spend my working life in the company of teenagers, and I find them a real pleasure to be around. It’s little wonder, then, that I also enjoy the world of teenage (or “young adult”) literature.

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It’s more than that, however. It’s also about the concept of “childness” outlined by Peter Hollindale. Childness encompasses the characteristics attributed to childhood and children by the society and culture of the time. Hollindale says “childness is a changing, culturally determined concept, not a static one, and this is very important to our understanding of its influence. The childness prevalent in our age will permeate the images of it which we transmit to our children, in children’s literature and in other ways” (Hollindale, 1997: 48).

The concept of childness explains why we have a mid-twentieth century age of innocence where writers like Arthur Ransome, Enid Blyton, and CS Lewis showed plucky young children getting on perfectly well without adults, solving problems and behaving honourably without the awkward intervention of hormones (except for Susan Pevensie, denied entry into Aslan’s Kingdom in The Last Battle because she is “no longer a friend of Narnia…she’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up”). It also explains how this conception of childness seems somehow inadequate nowadays. We don’t see children in the same way any more.

So how do we conceive childness today? Are our children capable of horrendous crimes as in Ann Cassidy’s Looking for JJ or Anne Fine’s The Tulip Touch? Are they sexually voracious as in Melvin Burgess’ Doing It or Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush? Are they possessed of the inviolable moral compass of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books? Of course, there are as many different answers as there are children’s books, or teachers, or Daily Mail columnists firing up another “youth of today” opinion piece, or indeed children.

One of the constant joys of teaching in 11-18 schools is helping young people navigate the minefield of their teenage years. They arrive as children; they leave as adults. Literature can help them vicariously try on different ways of being a teenager for size.  It helps me to empathise and explore different perceptions and conceptions of the fluid, shifting sands of the teenage experience through the filter (usually) of an adult author. Because this is what my job is about – trying to understand, empathise and sympathise with the experience of growing up from the position of having already done it. Reading the books helps me to see it better.

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For anyone that is interested, I explored the notion of childness and the treatment of sexuality in children’s literature for my MA dissertation. You can read it here. I’d also love to hear recommendations of your favourite children’s literature, either current or from your youth – leave me a comment or tweet me recommendations @chrishildrew. Thank you!

What is English?

English is a subject suitable for women and the second- and third-rate men who are to become schoolmasters” (Professor Sanday, 1893)

School Subject of English

Everyone knows what English is, don’t they? Say “I’m an English teacher” and everyone’s pretty clear what you do. But the subject “English” is an amorphous, nebulous thing. Brilliant minds have tried to quantify it for almost a hundred years, since the Newbolt Report (1921), through Bullock’s “Language for Life” (1975), and on to Kingman (1988) and Cox (1989). The first National Curriculum sprang from the work of Cox in particular, and since then successive governments have laid out what they believe English to be.

English is a vital way of communicating in school, in public life and internationally. Literature in English is rich and influential, reflecting the experience of people from many countries and times. In studying English pupils develop skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing. It enables them to express themselves creatively and imaginatively and to communicate with others effectively. Pupils learn to become enthusiastic and critical readers of stories, poetry and drama as well as non-fiction and media texts. The study of English helps pupils understand how language works by looking at its patterns, structures and origins. Using this knowledge pupils can choose and adapt what they say and write in different situations. (Introduction to The Importance of English (2000) – from National Curriculum for English (2000). See also KS3 English National Curriculum 2007 for a slightly revised version)

We are now at an important – nay, critical – juncture in the definition of English in secondary schools. Michael Gove has laid out for consultation his proposals for a national curriculum, with specific details for English at Key Stage 4. Here’s the new take:

English has a pre-eminent place in education and in society. It is a subject in its own right and the medium for teaching; for pupils, understanding language provides access to the whole curriculum. Through being taught to write and speak fluently, pupils learn to communicate their ideas and emotions to others; through their reading and listening, others can communicate with them. Through reading in particular, pupils have a chance to develop culturally, emotionally, spiritually and socially. Literature, especially, plays a key role in such development. Reading also enables pupils both to acquire knowledge and to build on what they already know. All the skills of language are essential to participating fully as a member of society; pupils, therefore, who do not learn to read and write fluently and confidently, are, in every sense, disenfranchised. (Purpose of Study from Draft KS4 English Curriculum (2013))

There are obvious changes in emphasis here. Gone is the mention of international aspects of English, reference to media, specific references to creativity and imagination. In their place a greater emphasis on knowledge, the notion of English as a carrier for the rest of the curriculum, and that deliberately political reference to franchise.

But this isn’t why this is such a critical juncture. We’ve had national curriculum redrafts before (see National Curriculum Comparisons) but since I’ve been a teacher we haven’t had the freedom and independence that we have now. As Michael Rosen noted in his brilliant letter from a curious parent recently, the new national curriculum does not apply to academies (or free schools or independent schools, for that matter). If you are a subject leader in an academy, you can start with a blank sheet of paper and you can decide what you think the English curriculum should be. Of course, exam specifications at Key Stage 4 and post-16 will still straitjacket your curriculum to an extent. But you can write your own rationale and develop a curriculum in English that’s right – right for you, right for your context, morally, spiritually,politically and culturally right.  This is an opportunity unprecedented in my career.

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I am not a subject leader in English any more – but I was. And I have been thinking long and hard about this opportunity. Here’s what I feel “English” is:

English is reading

Reading for pleasure, of course. Reading with discrimination and the ability to infer and deduce. Reading widely across genres and forms. Reading multi-modally, to understand and assimilate the web of links behind online and multimedia texts.

English is writing 

Writing confidently, fluently, skilfully. Writing accurately and clearly. Writing with craft and attention to detail. Writing creatively. Writing for self-expression. Writing for purpose. Writing in many voices, genres and forms. Writing multi-modally. Writing for pleasure.

English is speaking and listening

Speaking confidently, fluently, skilfully. Listening sensitively, thoughtfully, carefully. Speaking formally and informally. Speaking to present, discuss, perform, share, explore, explain and argue.  Listening to different voices, perspectives and views. Listening to understand, learn, and grow.

English is functional

Students need to understand the mechanics of English. They need a metalanguage to be able to explore and analyse how the language works. There is a knowledge base that needs to be taught in order to achieve this. The application of this knowledge supports the understanding needed for effective and critical listening and for powerful and purposeful speaking and writing.

English is cultural

English language and literature documents culture. Students need to explore that cultural heritage widely and with an understanding about the threads of common humanity that transcend time and place. The English cultural heritage is important, but the place of England and English in a wider British and global culture is equally so. The great richness that our history, present and future as a multicultural melting pot has brought to our language and literature is critical. And the use of various Englishes globally to express multiple cultural realities is essential.

English is humanising

In 1868 the Rev. G.G. Bradley, Headmaster of Marlborough school, said “I would give unusual weight to the teaching of English language, literature and history, to attempt to humanise and refine a boy’s mind”. Whilst I think his agenda was somewhat different to mine, there is something vital that happens in the English classroom that must not be lost. Somewhere in the collective experience of exploring the thoughts and feelings of other people through the language they use, we all learn more about what it is to be human. We learn about empathy and understanding others, and about self-expression, and through this combination we learn about ourselves and who we are.

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It’s no wonder we struggle with effective assessment in English. With a subject as diverse, culturally and politically loaded, and profound as this, any assessment can only possibly look at small fragments of it. Planning the delivery of a curriculum like this is a monumental task, and actually teaching it a staggering responsibility. But what a pleasure and a privilege it is. I wouldn’t have it any other way.