Private Peaceful, Michael Morpurgo

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Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful is a surprisingly beautiful eulogy to those WW1 soldiers who lost their lives, not to enemy fire, but to the death sentence.

I am only familiar with Morpurgo’s work through the film War Horse, and whilst I am aware that War Horse is a far superior play, and probably book, I have never got round to watching or reading it in those forms. Seeing Morpurgo’s name on the reading list surprised me – I suppose I’m a little out of date on books such as this which came out when I was 13, and so weren’t really considered valuable reading till a little later in their lives, and past when I would have read them for school. That said, I’m really glad that this was given to me as a ‘must read’ text and can see its value in many areas of teaching.

The Premise

Private Tommo Peaceful is waiting for something, In order too keep himself from the pain of what he is waiting for, he decides instead to relive each memory of his life so far, all the important points which have brought him to this moment.

Through the use of flashback, the reader experiences Tommo’s childhood, the traumas and joys of which culminated in him lying about his age and joining the army just before his sixteenth birthday. His experiences in the trenches, alongside his brother Charlie, all lead to the end moment, where his brother is shot for cowardice, after which Tommo goes back to war.

Value for Teaching

This is, of all the recommended reading I’ve done so far, by far the type of novel I imagined I’d be reading more of when I decided to become a teacher. Not only is is valuable in a literary sense, but it has historical and social content which will relate to other parts of pupils’ education. I believe that education must be taken as a whole; whilst our individual subject is important, nothing in our lives as adults is really separate from other parts of our lives. Pupils need to be allowed to connect across subjects and disciplines early in their academic career in order to not become fixated on one thing, and this novel allows that.

Private Peaceful, aside from its obvious historical content, contains within it a powerful philosophical debate. Should Charlie have been shot? Was Tommo responsible for the death of his father? Did Charlie shoot himself in the foot? The answer to the first question seems contained within the physical book itself; Morpurgo inserts a summary of his historical research and makes it clear that in November 2006 a conditional pardon was granted to all those soldiers killed by firing squad. This seems to imply that Charlie’s death was unjustified. However, an interesting debate can be encouraged to take place, encouraging pupils to verbally express their views, or perhaps views that they don’t actually hold themselves, in a safe space. I look forwards to the reactions to this novels from pupils, and the discussions that will entail.

From a literary point of view, it has plenty of technical aspects, such as the use of flashbacks, which can be analysed to further pupils’ understanding of the effect of such writing techniques. In the 100 anniversary of the battle of the Somme edition of the novel that I read, there are historical facts at the book, and a well written afterword which describes how Morpurgo chose to write in first person. This gives pupils plenty of information and an author’s insight into his technical choices which will only enhance their analysis of this and other texts.

Overall, this is the first novel I’ve read that I’m actually really hoping the school I get placed in teaches. Its content, and its development, hold a lot of rich and valuable fodder which pupils can run with to analyse, discuss and, most importantly, engage with.

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Holes, Louis Sachar

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I vaguely remember sitting in front of Disney Channel when I was younger and watching a movie based on this book. I remember nothing of the content of the movie except that there was a hot, sandy camp and the boys there had to dig holes. That was my introduction to this recommended reading in preparation for teaching, and it wasn’t hugely inviting, I have to say. I’m not really sure how Sachar managed to sell this novel on the premise alone (as I’m sure he must have done), but someone must have seen something in him and agreed to publish his book.

And, whilst it doesn’t even break the top ten of my favourite novels, I can see how it would benefit a class to study it.

The Premise

Stanley Yelnats comes from a family of bad luck, and his being in the wrong place at the wrong time results in him being sent to a correctional facility for 18 months, in spite of his innocence. Whilst digging holes to build his ‘character’ alongside 6 other boys, Stanley discovers his familial connections to Camp Green Lake and his unlikely friendship with Zeor (AKA Hector) leads to the breaking of the generations old curse.

Alongside the story of Stanley’s punishment, runs the history that has led him, Zero, the warden and his family to their current situations, thus making the final overcoming of the curse (if it even existed) far more exciting for the reader.

The Verdict

Sachar does a good job. Whilst most of the characters are two dimensional, Stanley is well developed as a flawed but genuine boy. His relationship with Hector experiences the ups and downs of any relationship for teenagers. Sachar does a great job of creating a realistic figure, overweight and bullied and sent away. He doesn’t so much seem to have a grasp of the genuine correctional processes or the legal process when it comes to children without parents… but as this makes for good reading and ultimately saves Hector from the camp, this can be forgiven.

The setting is potentially the most effective part of the book. Sachar does an excellent job of forming the arid landscape the camp is based in, using sand and cold showers and the endless sun to create a tired feeling of desperation. I could close my eyes and really picture the landscape, better than I could picture any of the characters.

I am a little less forgiving towards the adults in the novel. Parents who won’t hire a lawyer to help save their son, camp counsellors who discuss killing boys at risk by being stung by poisonous lizards and camp directors who withhold water, a basic human right, as punishment. The only adult character I garner a little sympathy for is the warden, Miss Walker, and that is simply because of her passing comment that ‘even on Christmas’ she had to dig holes to try to find the ‘treasure’ that was buried somewhere in the dried up lake. However, her almost comical poisonous nail varnish, and lack of humanity mean that sympathy is outweighed by hatred. It’s the same problem I’ve had with most of the boys at the camp – there’s just no real character development there. According to Amazon, this is a novel written for teenagers, and I think Sachar should have given them the benefit of the doubt that they could understand more complex characters.

To Teach or Not To Teach

I have less of a problem teaching this than I do Great Expectations. It’s not a GCSE text, it’s aimed at younger teenagers, and as a result it’s shorter, more manageable as a whole class text – I would expect a class to read this in a few short weeks (I have literally read it in a day…).

The simplicity of the other characters allows a real focus on Stanley and his character development. Pupils will be able to study other characters in relation to Stanley, giving them an idea of how to compare characters in literature and discuss the impact of each actions on one person.

The novel is packed with simplistic but effective descriptions, and the language used is analysable by younger years.

The story itself, whilst seeming lacking to me, should hold the interest of a class to see what happens, and the use of male protagonists means that boys should engage with the text with special interest.

Finally,  the use of flashback and story-within-a-story techniques give openings for discussions and essays written about their use and how effective they really were.

All of this means that Holes, whilst not a work of literary greatness, is a great text to teach and should engage pupils of a variety of ages and walks of life.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

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I remember doing an Independent Research Project in my second year of university on Dickens… and I’m embarrassed to say I just had to look up what novels I used, as I barely remember writing it! Turns out, this must be my third or fourth Dickens novel, as I wrote on Nicholas Nickleby and Hard Times previously and I’m 90% sure I read Oliver Twist at some point in my past. A Christmas Carol doesn’t really count as it is just a short story, and by far Dickens best work of course (thank you Muppets!).

So why is it that I have found the novels that I have read so forgettable, and why have I struggled so much to get through Great Expectations? And most importantly, since this is a GCSE curriculum text, what are my views on teaching it? Rather than analysing the story a bit, as I normally would, I’m going to focus on these points of discussion, as for me at the moment, they seem much more relevant.

The Great Struggle

Dickens is a fantastic story teller. His characters are full of life, flaws and honesty, and his endings are far from fairy-tale products churned out time and again. Much of our preconceptions concerning Victorian England, and London especially, come from Dickens’ portrayal of the county and the industry within it.

I love the story lines of his novels, and the fact that we are still producing new and innovative media from them, such as BBC’s recent show Dickensian which took hold of characters before their stories truly start in Dickens’ writing and showed you their implied histories.

So why has it taken me weeks to read Great Expectations? I believe the answer is simply this: we don’t write like that anymore. We don’t even talk like that anymore. Take the Wheel of Time series, for example, that I am currently taking a break from. Each book is far bigger than Dickens’ novels, and yet I haven’t struggled to get through them. We just don’t write like Dickens anymore, and as a result we don’t have the patience to persevere.

It seems to me that Dickens will use 20 words where one would suffice. He takes his time describing every inch of a room, or a street, and his characters are thoroughly described from the outset, rather than allowing the reader the process of getting to know them themselves as the novel progresses. Take Mrs Joe Gargary, for example, who within the first few pages is shows as ‘bringing up by hand’ Pip, and who doesn’t change except for a massive bump on the head which totally changes her personality. Dickens tells, rather than shows, what people are like and as a result I find it harder to connect with them, because I haven’t been allowed to form my own opinion. With these basic story telling ‘faults’ (I use the word ‘faults’ cautiously, because perhaps it is more a fault of our society that we can’t stand to read like that anymore than a problem of Dickens’) is it any wonder that I have spent weeks trying to read this, and each chapter was a struggle?

But the story is beautifully crafted and moving. Pip’s progression up society, the bumps in the road that lead to his illness, the side stories of Miss Havisham, Estella and Joe, all form a beautiful narrative that shows both the best and the worst in society. There are no characters that are truly one sided, except for possibly Compeyson, whose destruction of Miss Havisham and manipulation of Magwitch are the source of the wrongs that throw everything into turmoil. This variety and development of the complexity of human nature really add to the story, making this a classic well worth reading.

Teaching?

I’m in two minds about addressing Great Expectations as a curriculum text.

The Problems

I struggled reading this novel. How on earth am I supposed to motivate a GCSE class with 10 other subjects, 15 poems to remember as well as Shakespeare plays and modern drama, to read an entire novel of this density? How many hours of class time am I supposed to dedicate to simply reading together to ensure that all pupils have read the novel? How can you teach such a tapestry of writing from just extracts, if you are not going to read the entire thing, and hope that pupils will engage enough with the story to be able to remember huge chunks of it for examination? What about those of a lower ability, who will struggle simply with Joe’s manner of speaking, let alone anything more complex? I skimmed over anything Joe had to say because I just couldn’t find the energy to try to translate it. And it’s just so long… it will literally take pupils hours and hours to read, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable teaching such a complex piece of literature from extracts alone. All of these problems, and that before the pupils get bored, struggle with the language or just the complexity of the story line. Yes, there are movie versions and BBC adaptations to help, but it’s English… it’s the English literature heritage… if we’re going to study it, we should be reading it.

It total opposition, however, are the characters, the story and the complexity (both a blessing and a curse!). Just take Miss Havisham: victim or perpetrator? eccentric or reasonable? Exploring her motivations, her desires and her upbringing of Estella is going to be full of rich discussion. Great Expectations is a novel that will allow you take sides, to form firm opinions and be able to back them up. There is a character rich cast to choose from, there are incidents and twists to discuss. If a class has the ability to retain the information, the quotes, and put it all together, then Great Expectations is an ideal text for an exam.

So, I both dread and look forwards to the opportunities of teaching it in the future. I suppose, since I’ll be going in as a trainee teacher, if my school does have this on the reading list then I will take from the expertise of my colleagues and learn from them the best way to handle such a classic, difficult yet beautiful text.

Only time will tell…

Stone Cold, Robert Swindells

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There is nothing I like better than going into a book with absolutely no preconceptions or idea what I’m getting myself into and this was one such example. Whereas with the previous curriculum texts I’ve been reading (Lord of the Flies, Skellig) I have read them with the singular purpose of learning to teach them, I had no idea what this book was about and so decided to keep it that way, as with reading for fun. I’m really glad I did, and actually I think I’ve finally found a book that I would be genuinely excited to teach for its content as much as for its literary value and societal implications. It’s hard trying to prepare to teach when I don’t even know what local authority I’ll be in, let alone what school I’ll be in, and as a result no matter how much reading I do I still might miss the text that my school will teach. So it’s hard to control the excitement regarding the novel when there is a distinct possibility that I might not even end up teaching it! That said, I am excited to blog about this as a book I have enjoyed, and not just one I have had to make myself read.

The Premise and the Golden Circle

Throughout the training days with Teach First that I’ve had so far, and the wider reading and research I’ve done, I have come across ‘the golden circle’ several times, the concept that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Robert Swindells is very clear in his final appeal that this book was written as the result of many personal interactions with homeless young people in London, and a desire to help them. The support the novel has received from the charity Crisis supports this, and gives the novel a much deeper meaning and purpose than simply telling a crime story, expanding its reach to tryiing to make a change for the few young people that it can. As a result, the story telling feels more poignant and I can absolutely see how the fact that this could be a real person the age or only slightly older than the pupils I would be teaching, would make a personal response to this novel much more viable.

Link, our protagonist, leaves home after his abusive stepfather and oblivious mother become too much for him to handle. At first he stays in Bradford, but shame and necessity cause him to relocate to London where he thinks that pickings will be a little bit easier to gain. After his first two weeks staying in a dirty, expensive bedsit, Link ends up on the street.

Running parallel to this sad tale of a teenager with no support or love to see him through, is the story of an older man who has also been kicked out of his home. Shelter served in the army for many years, and, having been discharged on medical grounds, he has lost his purpose of taking the young trainees sent to him and turning them into effective and disciplined soldiers. He has taken it upon himself, therefore, to rid the streets of London of those young people he considers in need of training, killing them and creating his own army corpses.

Some Analysis

Gloomy, I know! But actually, very effective. It’s obvious from the start where the stories are going to collide, and as an adult reading the novel, it was predictable and basic. However, the heart of the story is Link, and I was genuinely very distressed reading about his treatment by other humans. The novel certainly achieved Swindell’s purpose of warming the heart towards those nameless figures we so often hurry past and ignore on our way to so much more important things.

Paralleling Links’s rejection with Shelter’s rejection from the army ensured that there was a modicum of sympathy for the antagonist, whose back story of service and war created a figure who was to be pitied rather than hated, a fact often missing from ‘villains’ in literature for young people.

Aside from the standard literary techniques that you would study with a class, this novel is especially effective because it gives a character that everyone can relate to. As an adult reading, you feel sympathy and sadness for the young person thrust into this situation. As a young person, whether it’s Y7 or Y11, Link is close to their age, and the situations that he experiences at home, or out on the street, are stark and realistic and totally accessible for the target audience. Perhaps if every class read this novel, there will in a decade or so be an adult generation in a position to help and with the motivation and desire to do so.

Conclusion

As I say, this is more a review than an analysis as I enjoyed the book sufficiently that it didn’t feel like work reading it! I would definitely recommend anyone with teenagers give them this novel to read in order to appreciate the struggles that come with homelessness and poverty. That said, I would also recommend it for reading as an adult, as I can guarantee I will think twice before walking past a homeless child again.