Ostrich Boys, Keith Gray

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I had never heard of Ostrich Boys prior to attending placement days in my school were I’ll be starting work as a trainee teacher in September, but on hearing that I would be teaching it to year 8 in the first half term of teaching, it became quite the priority to read. Keith Gray was also a mystery to me. A quote from The Herald on the back of the copy of the novel that I’ve read said ‘one can’t help thinking that if there were more writers like Keith Gray more teenagers would read’. I can’t help but think that it’s quite an accurate statement, as towards the end of the novel I was turning those pages as fast as I was the first time I read Nancy Drew.

The Premise

Blake, Sim and Kenny, disappointed by the funeral their best friend Ross received, decide to steal his ashes and take Ross to Ross, a small village in Scotland. Their spur of the moment decision results in them being immediately chased by Ross’ family as they head to the train station, and eventually being chased by the police. What should have been a simple train journey with plenty of supplies turns into a bit of a nightmare when Kenny loses his back, which contained not only all his cash but also his train ticket. The boys do what they can to continue heading north, from getting a lift with young men with a taxi, to bungee jumping to stealing scooters. As they travel, more is revealed about Ross and the role that each of them played in his death, which is later revealed to be a suicide. Angered by Ross’ sacrifice of life, Sim abandons the mission, but Kenny and Blake succeed in taking Ross’ ashes to Ross, leaving a part of him there as their final farewell.

The Verdict

Ostrich Boys far exceeded my expectations. Instead of the normal, sugar coated reality that teen fiction often portrays, this was a brutally honest portrayal of life, death and mourning. The first person narration of the smart, overweight and straight forward Blake meant that the reader didn’t discover all that had happened to Ross straight away, or from a removed third person perspective. As Blake came to understand his own part in his friend’s suicide, the reader slowly came to realise that the perfect painting of a life that his friends put forwards was far removed from the truth. Each member of the group played their own part in Ross’ death, and whilst they struggle to come to terms with that, it is obvious that they had no idea how bad the rest of his life was or how difficult he was finding it. The first real indication to me that they were ‘protesting too much’, to paraphrase Shakespeare, was when they talked about a story that Ross had written about a boy being torn apart by his parents’ different expectations. Up until then, I believed, along with the boys, that it was just the driver making up stories to assuage his guilt, but it became more obvious that Ross was actually a very troubled character. Gray doesn’t sugar coat any part of the suicide, or the boys’ reactions to it. It is a very real, very raw and emotional scene when they discover the truth.

The tried and tested trope of boys going on a physical journey that runs alongside their emotional journey is a little over done. Each barrier that they face physically is matched by an emotional one. Whilst for a young person reading the novel this might not be quite so tiresome, for me it was a little too much parallelism. However, it worked for Tolkein, so I supposed I can’t complain too much.

Overall, however, I can see how this is a valuable text for study by tweens and teens. Whilst the subject matter is quite challenging and heart-wrenching, actually it could be used as a therapeutic way of teaching them about suicide, friendship and depression. I’m a little stuck on how I would teach it, I’m going to have to put a lot of thought into it over the next couple of weeks. We’re often told as teachers to ensure that pupils know the story first before we teach it, but I don’t think I actually want pupils to read it with the knowledge that Ross committed suicide, as the revelation is quite important to how you review the story after you’ve read it.

Gray is an exciting author for young people, and I’ll definitely be looking out for others books by him to read. I’m looking forwards to teaching this novel, although I am going to go and read something a little happier in the meantime!

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An Inspector Calls, J.B. Priestley

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Another curriculum text under my belt, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually really engaged with this play, despite year 8 ruining the ending for me unexpectedly! As is commonly the theme at the moment, I read it for the purpose of potentially teaching it during my training experience, but I have come to like it in my own way.

The Premise

Eva Smith has committed suicide, and Inspector Goole is determined to lay the blame at the feet of the Birling family. He questions each member of the family individually, guiding them to see their culpability in the death of a young girl with no where to go. But who is Inspector Goole?

The Verdict

Priestley writes with a social conscience that cannot be missed. His anger at the class divide, and his passion for responsibility, are clear through his mouthpiece – Inspector Goole. He condemns the rich for their blind existence and their thoughtless actions, and pities the poor for their lack of a way out. I have found it really interesting to consider who Inspector Goole is. My favourite idea is that is Eva’s brother who, on finding her suffering and knowing there was nothing he could do, went to those responsible to prepare them to take responsibility for their actions. However, Priestley muddies this water by questioning whether it was the same girl they all treated that way, meaning that any solution, however plausible, is never totally proved.

Sheila is the character who undergoes the most development through the play. From her doe eyed, childish attitude, she seems the only one capable of effecting real change. She owns up to the impact of her attitude and entitlement, and whilst it isn’t clear whether this is lasting (with other characters suggesting she’ll forget in the morning, and her never truly ending her relationship with Croft), she does hold onto the lessons she has learned even after it is revealed that Goole was, in fact, not an inspector and no girl had committed suicide.

I find the conclusion to the play fascinating – the phone call informing them that a girl has just been brought into the infirmary and that an inspector is on his way to take their statements. It opens up the play to so much more interpretation, as it’s never explored any further.

Overall, I can see why pupils love this play (which has been fed back to me by several teachers and a university lecturer). It helps them to question themselves and society, to look at it and debate whether the world has changed from Priestley’s perception of 1912 to the present day. Priestley uses cultural references to place his characters’ attitudes on a spectrum which allows the audience to make their own judgements. I look forwards to teaching this play and seeing what it can bring out.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne

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Well, considering that the next text I have to read is Romeo and Juliet, it certainly seems like I am in for a depressing weekend. I’ll be glad to get back to work on Monday! But emotional instability aside, it’s time to take a more critical look at this harrowing piece of literature.

The Overview

Bruno returns home one day to find his maid packing up his room, and his whole family relocating to the remote and unfriendly ‘Out-With’. Whilst he hates the idea, he eventually resigns himself to living in a house of only three stories (his last one had five) when he meets a friend – the mysterious boy in the striped pyjamas. Their secret friendship develops over the period of a year, and its tragic ending is an indictment of war, anti-antisemitism and ignorance, all at once.

The Verdict

I find it hard to believe that schools are teaching this novel to Year 7. I’m a grown adult and it reduces me to tears and is emotionally traumatising. I have seen the film previously, and I think I may have read the book and then decided I was never going to want to read it again and given it away, as aspects of the narrative were really familiar to me.

Boyne writes from the perspective of a nine year old boy, and occasionally a twelve year old girl, with skill and finesse, despite using the third person narrative. Simple techniques such as ‘Out-With’ and the ‘Fury’ for well known words immediately draw the reader into Bruno’s world of ignorance. Boyne’s skill in story telling is well honed, and the reader embarks on Bruno’s journey as if they are alongside him.

Boyne writes a difficult subject with sensitivity and honsety. Too often we try to hide from children how violent and horrid the war was, but it is important that people feel uncomfortable when they read Holocaust literature. It’s like the opening to Saving Private Ryan, it’s only so memorable and effective because it’s so believable and gruesome. Boyne doesn’t try to hide from the reader that horrible things went on. Any ignorance we maintain is only because, as a child, Bruno can’t give us the information because he doesn’t have it himself. I really respect Boyne for sticking to the honest truth of the Holocaust.

The characters are well thought through, and again, as they are described from Bruono’s point of view, they are necessarily two dimensional. Only Gretel is really released from Bruno’s bias, and that in the final chapter, where she is seen to mourn his absence from her life. Otherwise, Bruno is loyal and looks up to his father, is coddled a little by his mother, sees the ‘bad soldiers’ as separate to his father and Shmuel as his friend. Their lack of in depth character development is necessary, however Boyne does address this by saying things like ‘Gretel was going through a phase – Mother’s words – and tended to keep out of his way’. Through his perception of events, we can fill in the blanks and follow the character changes.

Bruno himself does not seem to change much. He is delightfully ignorant, yet I feel awful saying that. So many of the atrocities of WW2 happened because we were ignorant and closed our eyes to them. But Bruno is only nine. His ignorance, his friendship with Shmuel and his rose tinted view of the world, remind us of the innocence of children. It is only through the development of this innocence that Boyne is able to shock the reader with the death of the two boys at the end without coming across as hateful.

Overall, I’m a little worried about teaching The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas because it is such an upsetting and harrowing novel. But I appreciate that we are not shying away from the horrors of war, and agree that ignorance is no excuse.

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!