Learning to Teach English in the Secondary School, 4th Edition

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Wow, it has been a while since I’ve actually finished a book enough to write a blog post on it, hasn’t it! And I haven’t actually finished this one yet, though I feel I’ve made my way through enough of it to put some opinion out there! Between this and wading through Great Expectation, which I have almost finished at last, there hasn’t been much time for reading anything else, but there’s nothing like a bit of studying to get me excited about starting my teacher’s training! Only 5 weeks to go now, so it’s really not long. But, enough about that.

It’s been a while

I graduated university in 2013. It has been a while since I have picked up such an intensely academic book. I got overexcited and thought I could read it cover to cover, and that was my first mistake. This is a book of entries written by a variety of authors about a plethora of topics. From the development of the curriculum we have now, to teaching media in English, this book is packed with useful tips, fascinating facts, and a lot of teaching theory.

I got cocky after the easy reading of ‘The Confident Teacher’ by Alex Quigley and assumed that I would love all teaching books. But this is an effort to read. Not only that, but it’s filled with activities and tasks for you to do with a fellow trainee teacher, or to talk with a qualified teacher about, and I have none of those things around me at the moment. As a result, I skipped over a lot of the tasks, and as a result have probably missed out on a lot of the value of the book as a whole.

Because it is very coherent, it moves swiftly but carefully from topic to topic, author to author. Each chapter is linked to ones that have gone before, and they are all filled with expert knowledge that is invaluable.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t the right time. This is a book that needs to be worked through as part of a teacher training course, where you attend lectures and break into seminars, and have colleagues around you to help you work through it as well as the practical experiences that go with placements in classes. This isn’t light reading before bed or in preparation for teaching, this is to have in your bag constantly while you are learning to teach.

I have read 7 of the 14 chapters, and have learnt a lot about reading, writing, curriculum and critical practice, but there is so much more knowledge to be gained from this book. For now, I’ll pop it on my book shelf, and perhaps, once I’ve started my teacher’s training and have a little more experience, it will support me in my learning more than it has now.

That said, each article is well written, thoroughly researched, and comes from an expert in the field being discussed. I definitely feel that every trainee teacher will benefit from having this on their bookshelf, and I look forwards to using it for its purpose rather than forcing myself through articles I just don’t have the practical experience to benefit from!

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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.

The Confident Teacher, Alex Quigley

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I suppose by writing and posting a review of this book, it makes it a little bit official. I have been offered, and have accepted, a place on Teach First 2017 cohort, where I will spend the next 2 years from July 2017 training in a school to become the very best Secondary School teacher that I can be. I am really excited to take on this adventure, but I have a lot of reading to do before I get started! So, reading for fun will probably just take a side seat for a little while now. But this blog is for things that I have read, and they don’t have to be popular, or fictional, for me to be able to enjoy them and share a bit about what I’ve learned. So here we are, the first book that I have read as a start to my new career.

Overview

This was  fantastic book, filled to brimming with great ideas and good advice, all mixed in with science and research to back up each point. Quigley is a competent and engaging writer. I believe that English is the subject that he teachers, which was really helpful for me as this is the subject I’ll be undertaking, but he takes a range of examples from a variety of subjects which means that this book is relevant and educational for teachers at all ends of the spectrum.

That said, I would say that this book would better serve a teacher with a minimum of a year or two of experience. Whilst it does sell itself as ‘an essential resource for all qualified and trainee teachers wanting to reach their full potential’, I can understand why ‘qualified’ is referred to first. The Confident Teacher requires an extent of experience that trainee (and future trainee) teachers might not yet hold, especially those on the younger end of the spectrum. I have thoroughly enjoyed and learned a lot from reading the book, but will return to it in a year and see how much more it will impact my work then.

Why I Bought It

I purchased this book because of its tagline: ‘Developing successful habits of mind, body and pedagogy’. I had very little understanding of the role of the teacher as pedagogue (which essentially boils down to not only understanding your subject, but being able to take that knowledge and package it up and hand it out as a teacher). I’m still not a hundred per cent confident that I have a full understanding of the role, and that is something that I’m going to continue exploring in my reading as I am well aware that its a deficit going forwards. But Quigley really does bring to life the importance of the role of a pedagogue, and offers some interesting perspectives on it.

I found interesting his take on the setting of a classroom. He is well aware of the difficulties for teachers in less well-funded schools, where sometimes the classroom isn’t as well equipped as might be preferred, but he is adamant that ‘no matter the setting, learning happens’. (p. 169)

His references to ‘Subject Pedagogical Knowledge’ (p. 172) helped me to better understand that it isn’t just the subject knowledge which is important. In fact, ‘once you reach a certain degree of subject knowledge expertise, beyond what the students are required to know, the returns in the classroom begin to diminish’. (p. 172) Subject Pedagogical Knowledge is ‘a combination of knowing the content matter, the students, and a wide range of teaching strategies’. In short, the same subject matter will require different techniques, explanations and examples to be taught depending on the students, and as ‘expert’ teachers, it is our job to know as many techniques as possible in order to be able to educate those we teach. It’s a daunting task.

Other things I liked

So, other things I liked about this book, aside from the descriptions and definitions of pedagogy which I very much needed to be broken down.

Quigley describes teaching as a series of steps. The task would be insurmountable if we took it as a whole, but he describes just making one small change, such as pausing longer between asking a question and giving the answer, which will have a huge impact. (pp. 107-198) His suggestions are small and manageable, and you can see how in the long term, they will bring a satisfying return.

There is a huge focus on school leadership. Not yet working as a teacher in a school, I can only hope I have the support and leadership that Quigley suggests throughout his book.

There were a lot of small, bullet pointed lists of suggestions for teaching, feedback exercises and many other areas. These were great as I’ve already been able to note down some of my favourites and plan how I might put them into action.

Overall

I really enjoyed reading and engaging with this book, and would definitely buy other books by Quigley to study in the run up to commencing my teacher’s training. I am hoping that he has other books which are aimed more at a student teacher audience, as I feel I would definitely benefit more from that in the first instant. But overall, this is a must read for any developing teacher, and a great introduction to some of the difficulties I may face in the coming years, and how to overcome them.