English Teaching Online - Teachit's half-termly e-newsletter

The one with all the
Summer (2) 2009 / Term 6

The whole book | Malorie Blackman

Austen, Lee and Steinbeck – the enduiring surviviors | Ian McNeilly
The importance of narrative | Kate Thompson Teaching the novel | Harry Dodds
A love of literature | Geoff Barton Dramatising novels with students with SEN | Andrew Buckton
Struggling with the great | Phil Beadle Webwatch | Rhiannon Glover

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A novel is a mirror carried along a main road.


Think of this as an end of term treat. First, three lovely articles about the power of books – just as summer stretches out ahead, with time, at last, for your own reading. In the mix, some pieces to get you mulling over what you might want to read with your classes next year, and how. And, of course, some practical classroom pointers that get to the heart of why we 'do' novels in school. It's a feel-good issue – just the thing to inspire some summer holiday resolutions, and ones, at that, that you might actually keep.

Press print, pull up a deckchair, and read. Nice work if you can get it.

Katie Green

The whole book | Malorie Blackman

Malorie BlackmanNovel … that word implies a lot.  It suggests something new, original, fresh, exciting.  That is the wonderful thing about  each and every novel, its potential.  Opening a book is like opening a door.  And what a door! Here is the reader’s chance to visit new places, new worlds, to meet new people.But I would argue that it has to be more than a ‘hi and bye’ visit. Just as in real life it is so easy to gain a mistaken first impression, so it is easy to not fully experience everything a book has to offer if the diet children are offered consists mostly of extracts and sections and not the whole book.

Reading a book is like rewriting it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.

Angela Carter

I’m a great believer in the power of stories. Stories unite us, inspire us, stimulate and challenge us. There is no culture on earth which does not boast some form of storytelling tradition. Stories show us that we are not alone in our thoughts, our feelings, our behaviours. Stories teach us to empathise and/or sympathise with other people. I would argue that stories teach us from the earliest age that for everything in life there is a reason and a season, some kind of beginning, middle and end – even to life itself. It’s a valuable lesson.  

I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been into schools and spoken to teachers about the books they read with their class. Too many times, through no fault of their own, I’ve heard teachers talk about the ‘extracts’ they read with their students. With the excessive demands and pressures on teachers nowadays, it seems the reading of whole books as a class activity has been regrettably relegated to a back burner, if it’s on the cooker at all. Hopefully with the recent and welcome government rethink regarding the excessive testing of students, the reading and enjoying of whole books will come into its own again. I believe our children deserve nothing less.  

And the definition of ‘a novel’ doesn’t have to be the narrow one it used to be when I was at school. I have loved comics and graphic novels since I was a little girl, but some of my teachers (and one teacher in particular as I remember!), would always snatch my comic out of my hand and order me not to ‘read that rubbish’. Big mistake. I was reading. I was immersed in the world of stories with ongoing characterisation and cliff-hanger endings and plots that had to clip along at a fair pace to ensure the reader bought the comic the following week – so what was the problem?

I can still remember the pleasure I felt at reading books at school, whether it was quiet reading where everyone in  the class read the same book but to themselves or where the reading was shared with each person taking a turn to read a page or two. The love of reading stories led to my desire to write my own. Writing is my way of making sense of people and the world around me. I LOVE writing. But I know I would never have become a writer if the love of reading stories – and entire stories – hadn’t come first.

The importance of narrative | Kate Thompson

Image © 2005 Random House Publishers

Yes, oh dear, yes, the novel tells a story.

E.M. Forster

Kate ThompsonAnyone who has spent time around young children will recognise that there is an innate hunger for narrative which becomes evident at a very early age. Children want to hear stories, and want to hear them again and again and again. Stories are entertainment, yes, but they are a lot more than that. They are a way of learning about the world, and good stories promote healthy psychological development – a set of maps for finding the way through difficult situations in life.

In societies without writing, stories and songs carried a huge amount of the information necessary for the continued existence of the community. The history, mythology, moral codes, and sometimes information about the physical environment of the group were transmitted from generation to generation through narrative. This may go some way to explaining the apparent existence of a template for story within the minds of young children, and the willingness to become quiet and listen. Because, although there might have been some separate stories for men and for women, the majority of the stories would have been told and retold at communal gatherings, and were for everyone, children and adults alike.

The novel, being dependent upon printing (initially, at least), is a relative newcomer as a means of transmitting a narrative. It took stories away from the community and turned the consumption of them into a personal and essentially private occupation. With its arrival, the common audience for stories began to be separated into children and adults.

The adult novel has taken narrative in entirely new directions, and in some cases, dispensed with it entirely. The children’s novel, however, remains much closer to timeless forms of story-telling. At its best, it unobtrusively transmits important moral and psychological information, and where narrative is concerned, a strong, fast-moving plotline is essential. It must have a beginning, a middle, and a satisfying ending if it is not to disappoint young readers.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is no easier to write a novel for children than one for adults. Each has its own attractions to writers, for various reasons. The novel for adults leaves space for reflection, for the setting up of moods and the examination of character. Although these things can be done in children’s novels as well, they need to be done much more sparely, and without sacrificing narrative drive. What the children’s novel offers writers is a wider palette and a more flexible medium in which to explore ideas. The conditions, or the world, which a particular idea needs for its elucidation can be readily created. Provided it has an inner logic, this setting is limited only by the extent of the writer’s imagination.

A good children’s book can be read on many levels, and adults who choose to read children’s fiction can testify to this. Although there are novels for adults which satisfy the psychological hunger for traditional story-telling, they are perhaps more difficult to track down and identify, and the children’s shelves probably provide a more reliable source. Because the desire for story does not end when childhood ends – it stays with most of us throughout our lives.

We use narrative to express ourselves, explain ourselves, make sense of our pasts and our possible futures. There is reliable evidence that children who read have far better prospects in life than those who don’t. While factors such as class and education will inevitably bias statistics like this, there may be something more to it. If we accept that our children are born with a hunger for stories, then we must give attention to how we address that hunger. The literary equivalent of junk food is prevalent in the market, and difficult to resist. But with care, an appreciation for good reading can be stimulated from an early age and, if the statistics are to be believed, will give children a very good start in life.            

A love of literature | Geoff Barton

Geoff BartonWe’ve made it. Another summer holiday is upon us. It’s time to rejuvenate ourselves, to slough off the stresses of a long year, and – if you’re like any English teacher I’ve ever known – to immerse ourselves in reading.

This novel is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force.

Dorothy Parker

As my old Professor of English used to say, 'There’s nothing like curling up for an afternoon with an old friend'. He was talking about reading.

And that’s precisely what many of us will do in gardens and on beaches, as time slows down and our minds and bodies begin to remind themselves what life is like without a thousand interactions a day, without bells, without deadlines.

But if the reading habit is something we take for granted, let’s be mindful of our responsibilities to the pupils we teach. Many of them may need reinfecting with the same reading bug. There’s lots of evidence that the love of literature we have isn’t being transmitted to a younger generation. Take the PIRLS international study which regularly compares pupil performance across different countries. In their 2008 report they said:

There has been a significant fall in the proportion of children in England reading stories and novels on a daily basis. The proportion of children who reported that they very seldom read stories or novels outside school increased significantly between 2001 and 2006 in England.

Then there’s the rather bleak paragraph on reading in Ofsted’s subject report English at the Crossroads, published in the last few weeks:

At secondary level, the approach to independent reading remained largely unaltered since the previous English report. At best, specific plans to develop students’ independent reading were confined to Year 7. Some schools persevered with ‘library lessons’ where the students read silently. These sessions rarely included time to discuss or promote books and other written material and therefore did not help to develop a reading community within the school. 

Rather than beat ourselves up about all of this, let’s use the summer to remind ourselves why many of us became English teachers: we had an English teacher who inspired us, enthusing about books, making difficult texts accessible, provoking in us a love of language and literature.

It may just be that we’ve allowed such things to get squeezed out of our day-to-day work. The emphasis on data, on accountability, on APP, on reporting progress … perhaps some of the best things we could do once the new term begins are:

scrap silent reading and develop student book groups around different novels
get whole-school literacy back on the agenda, with teachers across all subjects teaching students how to read the texts they use in their subject
make sure students see the library as central to learning, not just a place to retreat for comfort on wet breaktimes
celebrate novels, endlessly, through displays, through school newsletters, through deals with the local bookshop, through teachers in all subjects telling pupils what they are reading at the moment.

Most important of all, let’s just make time in our own lessons, tutor time and assemblies to celebrate the stories we read in novels – to make a very deliberate effort to pass on the pleasure we may too easily take for granted to pupils who may be out of the habit.

It might be the best summer holiday resolution we make.

Happy reading!

Struggling with the great | Phil Beadle

Phil BeadleWe patronise the kids we teach. Throw abridged versions at them, simplified language, decimated plot structures: (Lamb’s Tales instead of Big Billy Shakespeare – for Christ’s sake). 'But they wouldn’t understand them,' we lie to ourselves. 'It’s too long for their attention spans,' we protest, gun in hand, pointed directly our foot and that of society as a whole.

So we grope in the direction of the modern. 'Kids really identify with the gritty social milieu of Benjamin Zephaniah’s street Face,' we convince ourselves. 'Robert Swindells is a great way of teaching Dracula in a culturally and age appropriate setting,' we waffle. 'Two Weeks with the Queen examines notions of loss and allows children to vent their own experiences of it, at the same time as debunking some of the stereotypical myths about HIV and AIDS,' we recite, hoping that we have got the script right and that our HOD has noticed how well we are taking to this English teaching lark. 'The problem with literature in schools is that it’s entirely monopolised by dead white males,' we spout; and we catch the truth somewhere just outside the reach of our eye, and though we’re sure we know his face from somewhere, we can’t quite put the right name to it.

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.

G.K. Chesterton

And that truth is … that if you want grit, poverty and a human soul trapped in extremes of anguish, you’d do a lot worse than The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The best way of teaching Dracula in a culturally and age appropriate setting is reading Bram Stoker. And for the full experience of loss, madness, man’s futile journey, everything there is in the world ever, and probably a bit more besides, Moby Dick is worth a good, long, hard look.

A very bright student from a problematic background (no money, antecedents whose idea of doing well at school was bunking off without getting caught) – who will one day study English at university – told me this year, as we finished Heart of Darkness, that he’d struggled with it (they always do). The main reason it was so difficult is that he had never read a whole book before. He is sixteen.

“Well,” I replied, “It’s a bloody good job that the first one you’ve read is a good one.” I say again, we patronise the kids we teach. In trying to avoid being the dead handed, culturally imperialist, Leavisite promoters of the weighty text written by the dead white male, we fail to give our students the life-changing experiences of reading the best stories ever written. As a result literature in schools is no longer the seriously long, underwater swim in a magical ocean, more a quick paddle in the shallows and 'Where’s that media text? Let’s do Tellytubbies next.' The quintessence of crass.

Next time you are looking at selecting a class reader, lock the PC dictates of others in the cupboard, padlock it shut and reach for something fat, heavy and brilliant. It’ll be a struggle, but get to the end. The look on the combined face of the class after you have taken on a great work together and beaten it, is one of the finest moments any English teacher ever gets. Go on. Buy a class set of Moby Dick. See what happens.

Austen, Lee and Steinbeck – the enduring survivors | Ian McNeilly

Ian McNeillyMany of us will feed our addiction to English education this summer by having a look at what the different examination boards have come up with for teaching at GCSE level from September 2010. OK, I know that many of us will wait until the summer of 2010, but the draft specifications are available now if you’re committed/sad (delete as applicable).

Seeing as this issue of ETO is dedicated to the novel, I thought I’d have a good look at the set texts within the new English Literature specs from the four major exam boards (AQA, Edexcel, OCR, WJEC). Only three commonly taught novels have survived the transition to appear on the lists of all four boards – Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

I’m not sure what this says about the profession but it’s a good staffroom trivia question, if nothing else. All the exam boards have done a huge amount of market research with thousands of teachers and ‘other key stakeholders’ and NATE has been involved in reviewing specs before they’ve reached this stage. 

A novel must be exceptionally good to live as long as the average cat.

Lord Chesterfield

The research from one examination board concluded that 'teachers are very passionate about the subjects they teach … English teachers were the most passionate of all'. More specifically, one senior examination board staff member told me, "We would have been lynched had we ditched Of Mice and Men."

Austen appears under the banner of ‘English Literary Heritage’ whilst the two American novels now find themselves as representative of a different culture.

A question I’m asked on at least a termly basis by my pupils is 'Do you teach this book every year?' The response is ‘no’ but depending on the text I might qualify it, by saying 'But I have probably taught this book ten times now.'  This is then followed by a 'Don’t you get bored?' 

When it comes to Austen, Lee and Steinbeck, it appears that the profession retains its enthusiasm for these texts. It helps that many of us have a transit van load’s worth of resources on at least one of them, of course.  But if you are bored with them, now is a good time to change.

Ian McNeilly is Director of NATE

Ready for a change? Join the discussion about New GCSE draft specs in the Teachit Staffroom

Teaching the novel | Harry Dodds

Harry DoddsWhat are we trying to do when we teach the novel? More than anything, perhaps, we’re trying to legitimise the idea that reading fiction is a worthwhile pursuit, and that it might just be carried on outside school as well as in the classroom. Possibly, too, we feel that we’re providing opportunities for pupils to develop their capacities both to reflect and to engage with something for periods longer than their normal attention span. However, we need to specify our learning intentions with more rigour than that.

How about suggesting that every school leaver should be able to:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

W. Somerset Maugham

      • talk and write about fiction in ways that demonstrate not only their ability to follow a story but also to show that they have responded in ways that make the text part of their lives
      • have something to say about how writers shape stories and about how they use language to create meaning
      • be able to make connections between the novels they have read with narratives from other media.

In order to achieve any of that, we have of course to get their attention – and that, in the post-Strategy classroom, in which teachers seem to have put in more effort than pupils, is easier said than done. Some ideas.

Choose the right texts. Texts that ‘go well’ at Key Stages 3 and 4 seem to be about identity; choices and consequences; how to manage what your hormones are doing to you – or some permutation thereof. Think Holes, Face, Of Mice and Men and anything by Judy Blume and you’ll see what I mean.
Encourage pupils to look for questions, and to carry the questions more or less unresolved as they work through the text. For example, if you’ve speculated about the state of the relationship between man and wife as described in the first half-dozen paragraphs of The Mayor of Casterbridge, then you’re much better prepared to understand what Henchard does with his wife after the furmity.

Use the technology. Divide your class into groups, and set each group a task or set of tasks based on the text, or collection of texts, to be tackled collaboratively, and to be presented on your VLE / wiki / blog or whatever you have at your disposal. Not only will you get them talking about their reading, but you will also be asking them to tell their wider peer group about it.

This will need some structuring and differentiation. Bloom, as ever, will help. ‘Remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating, creating’ – that should suggest a range of tasks to suit everyone. (More guidance is available in the document Bloom's Revised Taxonomy Planning Framework from the Thinking Skills section of the website of Kurwongbah State School in Australia.)

Keep away from written responses with your least able. For example, if you give them a chapter and want them to express their understanding, give them a digital camera and ask them to storyboard their part of the text – use PowerPoint to show the results.
Don’t over-complicate things, especially at KS3. The core of the novel is the narrative; the flesh is the depiction of the relationships between character and character, between character and event, environment, situation … going too deeply into things is to risk reducing the text to a set of examples of deployed skills, devices and techniques, at the expense of the narrative. It’s narrative that hooks the reader.

Dramatising texts with students with SEN | Andrew Buckton

Andrew BucktonOne of the key ingredients I have found for supporting pupils who have SEN to get really engaged with different novels has been dramatisations. There are so many great novels that the pupils I’ve taught have, I’m certain, loved – Of Mice and Men, Holes, Lord of the Flies, Goodnight Mr Tom ... the list is endless. There are film versions around of many novels as well as theatrical adaptations and productions, and of course the opportunities every week to unpack scenes and explore characters through drama in the classroom.

The ideal story, I have always felt, is a narrative spoken aloud by an illiterate man to a group surrounding a fire in the forest at night, or told by a man to his friends in the pub, or at the table during dinner-hour in a canteen.

Alan Sillitoe

I am a firm believer in the value of drama. Getting pupils to see and hear dialogue in context helps make the language more concrete and the novel more tangible and memorable. Drama involves visual as well as auditory input and gives a kinaesthetic element to their learning. Reading the text aloud and dramatising it through tone of voice and facial expression can help support meaning and gives visual clues to the pupil, and of course seeing a whole production or dramatisation can give a very valuable context and reference point that is a visual cue too.

Novels may seem very long to some pupils. It can be extremely beneficial to ‘chunk’ it into manageable pieces. This can be done through time-line sequences, character exposes, themes, scenes and by highlighting key moments. It may be that some pupils need to sequence those key events into a simple order of, say, six main events. For them, this may be sufficient as their own abridged version that is reinforced with visual prompts.

On Teachit’s Very Big Day Out at the British Library last month, we explored using Google images to create visual points of reference for characters, places, seasons, times of day. This is also useful when studying novels as pupils can create their own resources for sequencing events and contextualising the language.

Teachit has plenty of fab resources on just about every novel you are likely to study with your class, so get tweaking them for your pupils with SEN by scaffolding the language (rephrase a question to only demand the completion of a sentence) and creating opportunities to explore the text with visual prompts, films and plays. They’ll love it.

Webwatch | Rhiannon Glover

Rhiannon Glover I recently and rather surprisingly convinced myself that I needed an iPod. Surprising, because as soon as I became aware of the existence of MP3 players I have complained about them. My students transport them ever more covertly, up sleeves, for example, and turn out to be listening to some pop star when I’ve been thinking that they’ve been concentrating on Charles Dickens and then, when they go home, the MP3 player vies with Facebook and Wii as yet another distraction from the essay which of course I think should be their priority.

So what has converted me to this demon gadget? Firstly, I realized that the iPod takes up a minute percentage of the paraphernalia that usually comes with buying and listening to music. No CDs, no cassettes, no having to visit record shops. No clutter. Secondly, I can download educational games onto my iPod for my children which suddenly make times tables and phonics fun via the App store. Thirdly and most relevant to the theme of novels, I can download thousands of audio books from Audible and listen to them while doing much less interesting things like getting from A to B or getting nowhere at all on the treadmill. 

Listening Books is a UK charity which also has a fantastic selection of high-quality audiobooks and distributes them to over 7000 people across the UK who find it difficult or impossible to read due to illness or disability through the post on MP3 CD or via the internet. 

Technology has also changed the way we can read via sites such as Arthur's Classic Novels where you can read 4000 classic novels online for free and with the new e-reader that stores up to 160 books that you can then read on the go or thousands more if you use a using a Sony Memory Stick Duo™ or SD memory card.

If you prefer the look and feel of the real thing the Guardian has compiled a database of independent bookshops by region and if you know of any that have been overlooked you can email your suggestions to books.editor@guardianunlimited.co.uk.

Of course, you can get lucky and find exactly the book you didn’t know you were looking for by visiting charity shops, but Oxfam has now made sifting through less edifying texts easier by creating its website through which you can order any book you can care to think of second hand and you can also find out more about how to donate books.

But what to read?  You can compare the Modern Library’s choice of 100 best novels with readers’ choice or browse the Guardian’s list of 1000 novels everyone must read helpfully separated into genres  

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