Category Archives: teaching

The Reading Teacher: 3 Ways to Sneak ‘Reading for Pleasure’ Recommendations into GCSE English Classes

I think (hope?) many of us can agree that GCSE set text lists do not inherently encourage students to become readers. By exposing young teenagers to  books deemed ‘classics’ or ‘great’ and requiring detailed analysis, we often in fact risk putting them off reading. This is, unfortunately, especially true for those not from a reading background whose only exposure to books is in school and who are left with the impression that the set texts they are given is what all books are like.

It is important, therefore, to try to share with pupils good examples of recently-published, engaging fiction for Young Adults (YA novels or Teen Fiction – although these are not interchangeable labels; teen is generally a little ‘younger’ and less likely to feature romance or tackle gritty issues). Here are some suggestions for ways that this can be achieved without going too far off-piste – especially if your school doesn’t have a school-wide initiative like Drop Everything And Read time.

  1. Use YA novel extracts when teaching writing skills. I know we often reach for the classics here, but especially now that this skill is tested in an exam and not as a CA, the boards are no longer looking for pre-1950s-style (and currently unpublishable) purple prose. More modern exemplars are likely to be useful to students.
  2. Offer extracts from YA novels as early practice texts for reading skills before moving on to the more demanding types of texts set by the boards (e.g. the 20th century lit set by AQA).
  3. Share recommendations, possibly supported by extracts, or simply blurbs and covers on slides for topical reads or good reads linked to students’ interests (including the canny use of TV shows and films as genre guides – here‘s my sizable list from the summer). This makes a nice plenary as a ‘how do these link to the lesson?’ or an end of half term task: choose one or two to look out for and read over half term (it’s always worth promoting libraries – kids don’t have to BUY books to read them…)

As of today, over on Twitter I’ll be sharing  daily #ReadingTeacher recommendations, which I’m hoping will be of use and interest to other secondary teachers. I’ll be using recently published YA and occasionally MG novels, and will link them to: curriculum possibilities such as teaching particular writing/analysis skills; broader curriculum issues such as SMSC/the four ‘R’s of Learning Power; themed months/days such as Black History Month or World Mental Health Day; students’ interests/TV/film to allow easy recommendations. I intend to use books I’ve personally read (although I may occasionally rec something based on reliable intel 🙂 ), but they won’t always have already been reviewed on here.

If you don’t yet follow me on Twitter, I’m @BethKemp (and I talk mostly books, but also dogs, so be warned!)

The Reading Teacher: Summer Recommendations

Screenshot 2016-07-10 23.31.26I’m sharing the summer recommendations that I’ve been working on for my classes this year below as a pdf. I thought it would help if I based them on students’ likes and dislikes in terms of TV/film, hobbies and issues of interest. I’ve included a few ‘easy reads’ and also a few ‘challenge reads’ (CR) to make it suitable for the full ability (and motivation!) range, and have also included advice on where to look for reviews and further recommendations, with some of my favourite blogs.

Bear in mind that this is primarily intended as a reading for pleasure list and is all about enjoyment of books. It’s 4 pages and includes 170 different titles (although some do appear more than once), organised in clusters of 3-7. I have not personally read all of these, but if I haven’t read it myself, I know someone who has enjoyed and recommended it.

Feel free to adapt/share with your classes.

Summer Reading Recommendations

The Reading Teacher: Fiction for Resilience

We’ve been hearing rather a lot about resilience lately. It’s one of those ideas that’s filtering through from business into education and, while I rankle at some of the ways the word is being used (like the recent suggestion that we train new teachers to improve their ‘mental toughness’), there is no doubt that being resilient is of direct personal benefit to young people as they grow up.

Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s ever been to my blog before, I think stories are a rather fabulous way to help foster resilience. There is no story without conflict, and it is in the (incremental) resolution of that conflict that the story works. ‘X wants Y. X gets Y’ is not a story anyone would publish and with good reason. Therefore, effectively, any story gives some kind of lesson in resilience, in determination, or persistence.

It all starts in the grand folk tale tradition. There must be three attempts to win the quest, pass the test, retrieve the treasure – two is unsatisfactory and four is a travesty. And after centuries of this, it is what we expect. So, any story is likely to offer a lesson in resilience if you look for this angle, but I thought I’d offer three I’ve read relatively recently which might be of interest to UK teens and also allow a suitable moral to be drawn.

Looking at the Stars, Jo Cotterill

looking at the starsThis marvellous novel about refugees from an oppressive regime offers hope through the determination of young Amina, who keeps her family focused through the stories she tells as they gaze at the stars at night. [NB: For anyone worried about sensitivity with a ‘refugee’ book, this is beautifully handled. It’s really powerful and is set in a fictional place, with a fictional regime, so it’s clearly about the experience and not ‘aimed at’ any political or religious group specifically.]

The Bone Dragon, Alexia Casale

The Bone DragonThis beautiful, lyrical novel is magic realism for teenagers. At the start of this novel, Evie (the narrator) does not seem very resilient: she has been hiding the pain of her past from her adoptive parents and is struggling to break this habit. She has a fragment of her own rib, left over from surgery to repair her old injuries, and she carves this into a dragon as a talisman. This is a beautiful, if somewhat unsettling, read that could be used to open up debates about resilience and recovery with older teens.

Bubble Wrap Boy, Phil Earle

bubble wrap boyOne for the slightly younger secondary students, this hilarious and warmhearted tale features Charlie Han, whose overprotective mother causes him considerable social problems. The novel follows him as he gains a new interest and uncovers a shocking secret about his mother. It’s brilliantly told and will definitely offer opportunities to discuss Charlie’s strategies for coping with school, his Mum and setbacks to his plans.

The Reading Teacher: Two Extracts from Recent Teen Fiction to Teach Writing

I have written before about the tension between writing ‘rules’ taught in primary school and advice shared with those who seek publication. Today, I thought rather than rehash that rant, I’d offer something a bit more concrete. So, here are the openings of a couple of recent UKYA novels that classes could explore to discuss some ways in which good writing works.

With less time for ‘reading’ lessons in KS3 and none with older students, it’s a good way to be able to push books in front of them that they might be interested in reading. I’m always happy to make stealth UKYA recommendations to my classes, convinced that this is a much more likely way to gain an extra reader or two than only ever showing them the classics.

I’ve happily used these (and others) with classes from KS3 to A Level. The novels are marketed as Young Adult, but in practice will be read by about 12 to adult (I enjoy them, so I’m not putting an end age, OK?). I’ve chosen a contemporary story and an urban fantasy for today, as I would pair these together in a lesson in order to meet different tastes in reading (and to show that genre writing matters too).

Teaching Dialogue: Emma Hearts LA, Keris Stainton

Orchard Books, 2012

‘Most girls of your ageemma hearts la would jump at the chance to move to California,’ my mum says. She had been standing in front of the fireplace to make the big announcement, but, thanks to my reaction to it, she’s now sitting on the sagging sofa next to me.

I stare at her. ‘You are joking, right?’

‘No. No, I’m not joking,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry, Emma, but this is a great opportunity for me. And it’s a great opportunity for us as a family.’

I glance at my sister, who’s sunk deep in a beanbag in the corner of the room. She’s fiddling with her phone, a half-smile on her face.

‘Bex!’ I say. ‘You can’t be pleased about this! Tell me you’re not pleased about this!’

She glances up at me from under her floppy fringe. ‘I think it’ll be cool to live in Hollywood.’

‘Well, it won’t actually be Hollywood,’ Mum says.

‘Near enough,’ Bex says, grinning. She’s a drama dork, my sister. I bet she thinks she’ll be talent-spotted at the airport and have her own Disney XD show by the end of the year.

‘It’s a new start,’ Mum says.

This extract is brilliant for exploring pacing in dialogue and the technicalities of using dialogue in story writing. Here are a few of the things I’ve had different kinds of students do with this text:

  • Highlight/underline all the actual speech to look at how the author has spread it out, using commentary from the narrator to provide additional information and stretch out the tension.
  • Explore why authors rarely actually vary speech verbs (better to use said/says, which becomes invisible rather than ‘bogging down’ the text; speech can be attributed using other comments e.g. ‘I stare at her’, ‘She glances up…’ in this example).
  • Examine the tone and language of the speech to see how it has been made realistic, perhaps then asking students to rewrite or produce a dialogue-heavy piece of writing of their own.
  • Explore specific features of the dialogue and speech-like aspects of the narration:
    • grammatical: why contractions are mostly used but then not in ‘you are joking?’
    • grammatical: minor and incomplete sentences such as ‘near enough’ and
    • lexical: repetition, discourse markers and recycling/repetition.
  • Discuss the way dialogue and narration are used together to create a voice which speaks to the reader and firmly places us on Emma’s side (e.g. the suggestion of mum’s ‘staging’ of her announcement and the focus on Bex’s unrealistic expectations).

Teaching Atmospheric Writing: The Night Itself, Zoë Marriottthe night itself

Walker Books, 2013

Stealing the sword was a bad idea. I can’t pretend I didn’t realize that at the time. I wasn’t even supposed to know about the thing, let alone sneak up and snaffle it from the attic where it was carefully concealed in the dark, under layers of cobwebs and rotting Christmas decorations. I was fully aware that if my father found out about the sword or about me taking it, he’d pop a blood vessel from sheer fury and kill me. Or die. Maybe both.

If your family’s priceless heirloom is some ugly vase or painting, like on the Antiques Roadshow, the worst thing that can happen if you mess with it is that you’ll smash it or ruin the patina or something. My family’s antique is a different story. Sixty-two centimetres of curved, single-edged steel, designed with a single purpose: to kill. You’d probably call it a samurai sword. But its proper name is katana.

And I needed it for my Christmas party costume.

I’ve used this extract as an example of a strong opening, creating a sense of both character and of plot. Something exciting is clearly going to happen. Here are a few activities I’ve found useful with various student groups in exploring this text:
  • Highlight/underline the descriptive phrases to explore the balance of description and information. There are some effective descriptive details, but too much at this point would swamp the story and slow it down too much.
  • Printing the extract out with a space after every sentence for the students to write back. This could be a question to the narrator (what sword? why did you steal it?) or their own journal-type musings (hmm, I’m interested now). With some students, making it a live-tweeting-type activity has worked well, with a sentence at a time on a powerpoint and ‘tweets’ written on mini whiteboards to capture their reactions. This leads nicely into a discussion about how the author manages (manipulates is such a harsh word…) reader emotions and expectations, especially if you can save some of those ‘tweets’ for discussion at the end, once the whole has been seen.
  • Examining sentence and paragraph length. Students too often write very long sentences and very long paragraphs. I have made students count words, list the words in each sentence and paragraph and then edit a piece of their own work to these rules:
    • no single paragraph longer than the first paragraph here (in number of words)
    • no single sentence longer than the longest sentence here
    • only one ‘long’ sentences (calculated as mean of three longest sentences here) per paragraph
    • at least one very short sentence per paragraph
  • Discussing tone: highlight/underline parts that fall into these categories, in order to show how more impressive vocabulary is balanced with more colloquial language to avoid an overly distanced or alienating tone. The separation of the final sentence is also worth discussion in terms of its punchline-like effect. With older/more able students, I also discuss how the syntax creates a spoken feel, focusing on:
    • unusual high-register/’fancy’ words
    • unusual colloquial/’slangy’ words
    • sentences that ‘feel’ chatty/casual
  • Exploring how to set up a story without over-explaining. Students list what we learn from this extract about:
    • the narrator
    • her family
    • the plot
  • Examining how the motif of conflict is seeded in this opening, by pulling out all the contrasted ideas and words.

What do you think? If you enjoyed this/found it interesting/useful, please do let me know. I’d love to feature further ‘popular’ fiction extracts that I’ve used in class along with what I’ve done with them.

The Reading Teacher: Some Books I’d Love to Read with Students

Reading Teacher 1

In my other life, I teach English at GCSE and A Level – and (mostly) I love it. I also love being able to recommend great recent YA books to keen readers of all abilities – it’s a real perk. But wouldn’t it be great if I could just pick books to share with classes for my own reasons? Although I will defend literary analysis to the hilt and do not believe we English teachers invent meanings and symbolism (you know, that ‘curtains are blue’ thing…*), I would welcome the chance to discuss books in a different way with students from time to time. Here are a few recent reads I’d choose.

Asking For It, Louise O’ Neill

asking for itI’d love to be able to read this with a class, in a ‘class reader’ kind of way. It’d be great to set chapters for at-home reading but also explore some revelations in class. This brilliant and necessarily uncomfortable depiction of rape and further violation-by-social-media deserves a slow class dissection, with plenty of chance for discussion. I’d love to bring this book, which unflinchingly and carefully examines complex social issues without preaching, into classrooms. It’s well known that fiction is an effective tool for empathy building, so just think what this could achieve.

Seed, Lisa Heathfield

seedMy reasons for wanting to share this with a class are quite different. Simply: I think it is so far removed from my students’ lives, and is such a good story, that it has the power to enchant and to engage and would just be great fun to talk about. The novel is contemporary YA set in an anti-technology and anti-modern cult. Characters grow their own food and live close to nature and in tune with her workings, which I think would fascinate many of my students. The story gradually reveals corruption and problems at the heart of the cult.

This one I imagine would be less of a class read and more of a book group type approach. I’d read the first couple of chapters aloud (this is my fantasy reading curriculum, remember?) to get the students engaged, and then we could chat about possible directions the story could take, and discuss the community etc. Students would then willingly read the rest at home with just a couple of lessons at key points to talk about how great it is, how the structure works etc and perhaps do some creative work inspired by it.

Bomb, Sarah Mussi

bombThere’s been some talk about anti-radicalisation in schools lately and this all-action, high-pace thriller about a girl who wakes to find herself strapped into a bomb vest would certainly facilitate some interesting discussions.

I work in Leicester, in a school with a relatively high ethnic minority population (over 50% of our students), many of whom are Muslim, but even those who are not Muslim are (or have been) at risk from Islamophobia if they happen to look Indian as a result of radicalisation and its perceived effects.  A book like this, therefore, which shows the kind of people who really are susceptible, would allow a lot of discussions to take place that are actually quite difficult for a white teacher to start on her own, however well-meaning she may be.

Joe All Alone, Joanna Nadin

Joe All AloneInterestingly, this book would be a great discussion starter for the typical student in my school for a different reason. Yes, many are from ethnic minorities, but they are also from a middle-class part of Leicester and often have little understanding of poverty in the UK. This book, with its beautifully well-drawn working-class main character Joe, would be brilliant to show them – especially those who assume that those ‘chav’ or ‘gypsy’ TV shows have the whole story on working class culture in the UK.

I loved Joe All Alone, and think that it offers – and provokes – a lot of empathy for 13 year-old Joe, left behind by his Mum for a week while she goes on holiday with her boyfriend. He has quite a lot to cope with: budgeting with £20 to feed both himself and the meter; bullies; the unexpected non-return of Mum; men seeking out Mum’s boyfriend none too gently…

The Last Leaves Falling, Sarah Benwell

last leaves fallingA bit like Seed, and a bit like Joe, this would be great to explore with my students because, for many, a lot of its content is unfamiliar. It’s set in Japan, and the main character is a young man called Sora, who has ALS (of controversial ‘ice bucket challenge’ fame). At the same time, Sora’s attempt to create normality by living online is one that many of us can relate to, so I think it would be great to explore issues around online identity and constructed identities with the early part of this story as a starting point.

I’d take a ‘class reader’ type approach with this one as well, since different opportunities open up as the plot shifts into debates about suicide and particularly differing cultural attitudes towards it. I think my students would enjoy following Sora’s exploration of Samurai ideals and concepts of honour as well as this being a very rich novel for discussion of a range of contemporary, relevant PSHCE-type issues. Of course, it’s also incredibly well-written and I’d love it put it in front of students as an example of a powerful, contemporary story that I think many of them could relate to, even though, ostensibly, it’s about someone very different to them.

So those are my fairly ad-hoc choices for now, none of which fit the curriculum or the exam specs, but all of which offer many valuable things to teen readers. There will probably be more posts like this, as there are so many books which would be great to explore with students.

*In case you didn’t know, here’s the meme:

curtains blue Just so we’re clear: authors often do pick colours/symbols deliberately to carry particular meanings. And sometimes even if it isn’t consciously intentioned, those meanings are there because they exist culturally . It really grates that some students will accept that the tiniest detail in an Avengers movie has meaning and yet will argue that Steinbeck can’t have meant anything by giving Curley’s wife red lips or red shoes with feathers on (Feathers on her shoes! On a ranch! Not a practical woman, ok?). Yeah, sure he didn’t.

Er, sorry about that. It’s been a long week…

Happy New Year!

Here’s hoping that 2014 is fabulous for all of us. There are certainly plenty of cool book releases to look forward to.
I’m less excited to see what the New Year will bring for us in the world of education. It’s been a while since I heard an education news announcement (or more accurately education news leak via the press) with anything other than a heavy heart. But there is always hope.
However you mark the turning of the year, here’s wishing you all the best for the year to come.

Joining in: the online teaching community

There is a thriving online teaching community, a lively collection of educators with a host of ideas and tips. I was going to say that I’ve learnt more through Twitter in the last twelve months than in the last three years of whole inset-type provision, but that’s probably not fair. I’m thinking of the whole-school/whole-college inset stuff whereas of course the material I see on Twitter is already filtered according to the particular teachers and experts I choose to follow. And that’s the point, really. There are so many tweeting and blogging teachers and education leaders that it’s relatively easy to find people with ideas that appeal to you.

Anyway, for anyone interested in finding their niche in the online teaching community, here are some of the people whose words I generally appreciate:

Geoff Barton (@RealGeoffBarton) – a model of good sense and grounded views

Joe Kirby – some interesting and practical ideas (his suggestions for speed-marking books in a meaningful way are brilliant)

Christopher Waugh (@Edutronic_net) – founder of the fabulous blogsync project, bringing teacher bloggers together

Michael Rosen (@MichaelRosenYes) – interesting and outspoken views on education

Alan Gibbons (@mygibbo) – libraries campaigning and sensible discussion about reading and literacy

Isabella Wallace (@WallaceIsabella) – author of ‘pimp my lesson’ – some quick and dirty ideas for livening things up

Calderstones English Dept (@CaldiesEnglish@LucyD1237 – author of the fabulous GCSE persuasive writing ‘Boxing to argue’ resource)

TES English (@TESEnglish)

Guardian Education (@GuardianEdu; @GuardianTeach)

This is just a small selection to get you started. Feel free to check who I follow – don’t feel you have to follow me! (I’m @BethKemp)

#blogsync: Wasted Investment? Why do so many teachers leave the profession in the first five years?

The simple and somewhat glib answer is: because teaching is a harder job than many realise.

At this point in the term, I’m only capable of a slightly more complex analysis and that, I think, is part of the answer right there. Teaching is a cyclical profession of intense, focused periods of activity, during which times many routine tasks are pushed to one side. We often think we’ll get these done during those famous teachers’ holidays. However, many teachers spend a good proportion of those holidays sick as, exhausted, they crumple once out of the classroom spotlight. In many ways, getting through a half term can feel like sprinting a marathon.

Add to this the mental stress of  ‘keeping control’ in a classroom: both of the pupils and of oneself, and the improbability of taking a real break during the day (break duty, detentions, setting up the next lesson) and, really, why are we even asking this question?

I think the loss of new teachers is at least partially down to the relentless nature of the job. Perhaps, in the PGCE year, and in the NQT year, people expect to be busy and tired and stressed. But after a couple more years, when the pressure isn’t easing, maybe that’s when it finally dawns that it’s not about being new at it; it’s not about getting used to the curriculum requirements and the latest teaching ideas; it’s not about inexperience making things harder: it’s just hard. And there comes a point when accepting that your working life will be hard forever is just a step too far.

Edited to add: visit the blogsync website for more perspectives on this topic, including more hopeful ones and some suggesting solutions.

Top five things more likely to make me quit teaching than equal marriage

I was quite startled last night to discover that my profession is being used as a political pawn once again (no that’s not a shock in itself – quite used to that!). This time it’s being claimed (by the Coalition for Marriage) that the very idea of Equal Marriage is causing a shortage of teachers in the UK.

Just for fun, we’re going to ignore the first and very obvious fact that there is no shortage of teachers, and the second fact that sharing any nasty little homophobic views you have has been against the law for teachers for some time, and I’m going to share my ‘top 5’ things that just might make me (in some cases, have made me) consider quitting the job I’m passionate about. I needed to limit it to 5 since, as I’m sure you’ll realise, there are rather more factors that would come higher up the list than the Equal Marriage Bill.

1: Arbitrary and dishonest goalpost shifting, aka the #GCSEfiasco. Do you have any idea how hard it is to talk to GCSE English candidates about their options and likely outcomes now?

2: Rushed overhaul of examinations without listening to consultation. Yes, like Guardian’s “Secret Teacher” column of a couple of weeks ago, I accept that A Levels could do with reform, but sort of  – not entirely – removing AS levels, and focusing exclusively on how and when the exams are taken (once, after two years – no modules, no resits) hardly seems the best way to achieve this.

3: Fear of teaching the new GCSEs which are not tiered (no ‘higher’ and ‘foundation’), which we’re somehow claiming is fairer and gives everyone an equal chance, and which are at the same time harder. I cannot for the life of me picture how one exam can test the A*-G range.

4: More concrete (read pay-enforced) responsibility for students’ results. Of course I accept that I have a role to play, but my input is far from the only factor – merely the only one I personally have control over.

5: Consistent and systematic rubbishing of my professionalism in the media. I’m responsible for riots, family breakdown and the country’s economic decline, apparently.

Clearly, as I said, there are more. I was quite tempted to simply put “Gove” as my top potential reason for quitting, but that particular factor is a hundred reasons by itself…

And just in case anyone’s wondering, I’m in favour of equal marriage and feel that its presence in the news has given me more opportunities to challenge homophobia in teens (which there is a lot of by the way – many teens are immature, after all). It’s also made it possible to show that homophobics are in the minority, which I’ve never been able to so easily claim before.

Sylvia Plath and me: negotiating and teaching Ariel

Today marks fifty years since Plath’s death. I’ve seen lots of pieces in newspapers: interviews with people who knew her, extracts from books exploring her life and works, links to interpretations of her poems and plenty of discussion of the new cover image for The Bell Jar. Personally, I think there’s a strong possibility the new cover will attract new readers to the novel; hard to see how that could be a bad thing, even though at first glance the cover looks like it trivialises Plath’s themes. This Telegraph piece explains rather nicely how the cover fits the book.

But anyway, I came here today to write about my own experiences of working with Plath’s poems, having taught Ariel as an A Level text many times.

More than any other writer whose work I’ve had the pleasure of teaching, Plath herself gets in the way. It’s nigh on impossible to get students past their fascination with her life. There are no absolute answers, and therefore we want to know, damnit! But then, isn’t that a large part of what A Level English is about: the lack of immediately reachable answers?

What fascinates me is that my opinion of her life and her problems has changed, and not just once. Don’t forget also that this is in the middle of my attempts to get students past her biography and into the poems for their own sake. I can’t have students continuing to claim, as some will at the start of the course, that Lady Lazarus “proves” that Plath didn’t intend to kill herself fifty years ago (believing herself able to rise again), or that Daddy tells us that she was a Jew and her father was a Nazi. It’s very difficult to teach Ariel as a collection without any reference to biography (she says, never actually having tried it). And even her most clearly fantasised poems – like Lady Lazarus which she told us was about “a woman who has a great and terrible gift of being reborn” – intertwine with her own life so much that it’s difficult to discourage students from looking for bits about Hughes or her father.

And yet. For all the frustration, I’d still choose Ariel any chance I had. Yes it explores dark emotions that some suggest it’s immoral to ‘expose’ teenagers to, but I’d argue that many teens are exposed to those emotions anyway, and a safe distance to discuss and explore them might be just what they need. And yes, some teens will almost worship Plath and practically make a cult out of her perceived suffering, but again, those who react so strongly to her would have found something else to ritualise (and again, discussing those feelings in class at a safe third party distance may be helpful). When there’s time to go there, it’s also interesting to discuss the phenomenon of this fascination with her and what she’s come to represent. Frieda Hughes’ poem, My Mother, published when the Gwyneth Paltrow/Daniel Craig film Sylvia came out is great for stimulating this.

In many ways, for all its extremity of emotion, Plath’s work offers us something that everyone can relate to on some level. Who hasn’t had frustrating relationships with their parents, been jealous or had thoughts which they know are destructive?

Lastly but absolutely not least, the poems have such a savage beauty. I love her use of sound – she clearly enjoyed the performance aspect of poetry – and some of her imagery is strikingly original and just gorgeous.