How Children Succeed, Paul Tough

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I can”t quite believe that I have spent the last few days devouring a book whose basic conclusion is that if children receive adequate parental care, a good education and develop character, they are more likely to succeed. But Tough explores these issues in an intelligent and sympathetic way and his meta-analysis of years of data and research, provides strong biological and psychological arguments that can help to turn around the lives of even the poorest and most delayed of children. Tough’s book focusses on the American education system, something I have had little to no exposure to, but has far reaching consequences, especially when I am soon to be working in some of the most most disadvantaged schools in the UK.

Poverty and Education

Tough suggests in the final chapter that the political discourse on poverty and education has rolled into one, whereas in the 60s they were two very separate issues. Educational disadvantage is extremely difficult to distinguish from poverty because that simple lacking in early life leads to less successful schools. But Tough explores more than simply that.

Tough suggests that poverty leads to far more than just disadvantages in education, and in fact isn’t necessarily the primary cause: ‘It wasn’t poverty itself that was compromising the executive-function abilities of the poor kids. It was the stress that went along with it.’ (p. 20) His discussion of ‘Executive-function’ highlights the deeply biological nature of stress, and how we deal with it, and his in depth discussion of the ‘licking and grooming’ rats experiment takes the growth of Executive-Function back to the childhood management of it by parents.

Most importantly, however, Tough explores the research on developing ‘character’ – whether that’s 24 point character report cards, or 7 simple characteristics for success, he explores and analyses the literature and research that claims that ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ and ‘perseverance’ are stronger indicators of success that GPAs or exam results. Whilst Tough doesn’t dwell on opposing research, he does touch upon it enough to create a convincing argument for his point of view.

Personal Stories

Tough’s book is based upon the collection of personal stories he hasdeveloped from the researchers, and the workers on the ground. The charm and the easy reading nature of the book come from accessible figures (chess teachers, teenagers in programmes, teacher telling of their successes and failures) who tell their stories, the ups and the downs, with a brutal honesty. This helps to put even the less successful interventions in a positive light, and has really made me strongly agree with his hypotheses. There seems to be the empirical evidence held within the book to back it up, but I would be interested to read further around this topic before making any firm judgments.

Wider Applications

Whilst Tough focusses on the stories of children, and the success of children, the book also contains a lot of research into how to improve character traits such as ‘self control’ and gives some level of advice on how this can be managed. This was part of why I enjoyed this book so much, because not only did I learn a lot of ways and techniques to help struggling pupils, but I also learned some things that I can apply to my life, even now as an adult. The research that Tough explores and summarises has wide reaching applications.

The quote on the cover of my version of this book says ‘every parent should read this book’. I wonder whether it was a bit dense for the newly expectant parent, or those caught up in raising multiple children. However, I certainly can see the value of having such knowledge as this in raising children, and would strongly recommend it for a teaching – audience. We can never know enough about the psyche of children and how to adapt our teaching and education to improve their learning experiences.

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.

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…

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!

Success Against the Odds, Brett Wigdortz

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I’ve known about Teach First for a long time, and I’ve always known that when I did eventually do my teachers training, it would be with Teach First. There’s just something about it. Simon Sinek’s ‘The Golden Circle’ basically sums it up for me… ‘People don’t buy what you do, but why you do it’. Teach First has a clear vision and passion – that no child’s educational success would be defined by their socio-economic background. This is something I can get on board with, something that I have always felt passionately about. So, her I am in April, starting the Teach First summer institute in just 3 months, and I decided that reading Brett’s book about how he came to found Teach First, why it looks like it does and what, exactly, his vision is, would be a great stepping stone into the training. This is especially poignant as I am aware that I am a part of the last cohort to go through Teach First with Brett as CEO, as he has decided to step down to follow another venture. What he has created, though, will stand firm even in his absence, because people didn’t so much buy into Brett himself as the concept he had – he is no longer the only one passionate enough to hold Teach First together, and I’m really excited to start my journey with them at this time of transition.

Starting Teach First

Brett is a great example of the idea that you can have no idea about something, but if you feel passionate enough, you are able to make a difference. Whilst his family were educators, Brett himself worked in marketing, had the majority of his experiences in business in South East Asia, and is an American. How he came to run the leading teacher’s training in England, then, seems a little improbable. But Brett saw a problem, developed, as part of his role, a way to begin to address it, and because he was the one with the vision and the drive for his project, remained in the UK to see it through. 15 years later, I am about to commence on the training that he developed! This isn’t just a book for teachers, educational professionals or those with a special interest in Teach First. It’s an inspirational tale of a man who decided to make a difference, and did.

The layout

I actually really enjoyed the layout of the novel. I am not an entrepreneur. I have no desire to start my own business or charity, and I am in this to be the best teacher that I can possibly be. But Brett’s book isn’t as exclusive as that. There are helpful parts throughout in which he takes his practical experiences of Teach First and morphs them into a guide which can be applied to anyone starting anywhere, in any sector. Whilst for me, the tales of teachers and pupils were the highlight, I would recommend that anyone who has a vision for a charity take a look at the book as it contains some really handy entrepreneurial tips.

The motivation

The tagline of Success Against the Odds is ‘five lessons in how to achieve the impossible’. It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago, the vision that Brett had was laughed at, or dismissed out of hand, by so many, when now it is a force to be reckoned with throughout the UK, and places thousands of participants in schools every single year.

In some ways, I feel like Wigdortz wrote this to be studied by Teach First members. Each chapter very clearly relates to an aspect of the 5 key elements of leadership: Commitment; Integrity; Excellence; Leadership; Collaboration. He writes it almost like an A Level essay, trying to hit the correct number of times in relating the story or point back to the original question, or in this context, element. It was, in many ways, really helpful as an incoming participant to see how Brett had to both learn about and learn how to apply these skills in his development of Teach First, and also to come to understand the high expectations of leadership that Teach First has. They can preach at us as much as they want, but seeing their expectations in practice by the man who developed their model, is a far more effective way of helping them to sink in. I wonder whether this will become compulsory reading once I begin my course, as I do feel it offers insights that they simply won’t have time to give us in the 5 weeks of training before we begin our careers as teachers.

Conclusion

I was doubtful as to how much use Success Against the Odds would be for me, having already been accepted on the course and knowing that I want to be a teacher, but actually, I have come away feeling that I know far more about Teach First than I did initially, and with a far greater understanding of the fight they had to make the route in teacher’s training as successful as it is today.

However, the wider reach of the book ensures that it is useful not only for those of us embarking on Teach First, but for anyone who is starting a business or charity, and needs to learn the value of positive and effective leadership. I strongly recommend this book, as it is quite light and easy to read, but certainly provides interesting perspectives.

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.

Skellig, David Almond

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I never read Skellig as a child. I suppose as a result of moving round a bit and having parts of my education in a different country, I must have just missed it. And I can’t say that I feel like I missed much, having finally read it.

Maybe because I’ve come to it as an adult I can’t quite embrace the magic that children and young people feel when reading it for the first time. I would be more inclined to believe that if I didn’t love fantasy literature. I have an imagination and the ability to, in literature, accept the impossible as entirely possible.

Maybe it’s because I don’t like uncertainty. I want a definite answer, not a debate – was Skellig an angel or wasn’t he? But at the same time, I adored the ending of The Life of Pi where the reader has to decide whether what happened was the animals or humans killing each other. So uncertainty certainly isn’t an issue for me normally.

Perhaps it’s because because I don’t like the character of Skellig because he goes against the traditional form of an angel that I, as a Christian, would look for. Then again, I absolute loved Susan Ee’s Angelfall and the angels in that series could not have been less angelic if they tried.

So what is it that I haven’t taken to in Skellig? I’m not really sure. I feel in a way that it’s kind of like James Joyce’s Ulysses. Part of the reason Joyce wrote the novel to be so complex was because he wanted academics scratching their head over it for years to come. Skellig, to me at least (and I’m not saying this is unequivocally the case) seems to be written for children to study. Almond was a teacher when he had the idea for and wrote Skellig. He knew what children were reading and the content and value of the texts they were studying. I read that the idea came to him as a whole, that Almond wrote Skellig as an entire story. Perhaps it was because of the influence of the teacher in him.

That said, I can see how Skellig is a useful book to study with Key Stage 3 pupils, and shall endeavor for the rest of this blog post not to continue moaning about why I didn’t like it, but to explore why, as a teacher, it could be valuable.

Skellig as a Curriculum text

Almond successfully explores the childlike confusion, pain and horror surrounding sickness and death. Michael’s name for the doctor caring for his sister, ‘Doctor Death’ shows a child’s inability to separate the state of death from humanity – he was to give death a figure, a being, to make it manageable. For children who are, hopefully, unfamiliar with sickness and death, and even for those who have grown used to it, Skellig brings a sense of hope to the hopeless, and life to the sick.

The conclusion was very Mary Poppins-esque: ‘”Someone else might find him now” said Mina’ (p. 162). The idea that Skellig was present in their lives simply to save the baby kind of undermines the supposed confusion over what he was. With wings and healing powers, the ability to sense the spirit in a child and his relationship with animals, surely it is obvious that he is angelic. Certainly his attitude might contrast with what we would expect, but I’m pretty sure you’d be annoyed at living on earth if you’d ever seen heaven! But the uncertainty of his identity does introduce pupils to the concept of an unreliable narrator, and the idea that not everything fits neatly into the box we might suppose.

Through the novel there are a variety of literary techniques, useful for close study of the text. Smilies, metaphors, rhetorical questions… there’s a plethora of analysis for the taking.

One of the things I did enjoy about the text was its relationship to art. Whilst on a week long school work experience for Teach First last week, I looked through the text books of a few year 7s. They had been studying A Christmas Carol last term, and the first few pages were filled with drawings of Victorian London, Marley and Scrooge and other little parts of the novella. I can see how teaching Skellig using such creative expression would be really helpful – drawing what we think Skellig looks like, what Mina looks like from Michael’s description, what the garage looks like will all help pupils to engage with the text in a visual and practical manner.

The Verdict

I don’t like the book. The story isn’t for me, the delivery isn’t for me and the underlying tensions of good book to read vs good book to study pulls me away from the story. However, that’s not to say I  can’t see its merits as a curriculum text. I have listed just a few above, and can see how going into this novel would be a good introduction for younger key stage 3 pupils to close textual study and analysis. It does also explore some difficult topics, and with a child protagonist, this makes the much easier to approach.

Personally, I still prefer The Book Thief for those things. But Skellig will do for now!