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.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

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This is the first text that I’ve read with a view of how to teach it – ie how to use my ‘expert’ knowledge that I’ve gained during my degree and life experiences to teach a novel. Of course, a key part of Subject Pedagogical Knowledge, as defined by Quigley, is knowing and adapting teaching to your class and the students you are speaking to, which is something that I cannot yet do! However, I have tried to look at this novel with an idea of teaching it and what it can teach me in the process of breaking it down. There is, of course, far too much to go into one blog post, mostly because I will bore you, but I’ll briefly spin through a small number of ideas.

Background

Lord of the Flies (henceforth LOTF) was published in 1954 by William Golding, a member of the Royal Navy, present at the sinking of the Bismarck who taught in universiteis and colleges and was knighted in 1988. The influences of WWII and the Cold war are evident in the opinion of the boys  that the world as they know it has ended, that ‘they’re all dead’ (p. 9). Golding presents the children of a society which is poised to destroy itself, and as a result it is no wonder that the young boys in his tale descend into madness and anarchy.

Dehuminisation

The huminisation and dehuminisation of the characters throughout this novel are stark reminders of the degeneration of their makeshift society. Initially, after the crash, the boys are described as ‘the boy with the fair hair’ (p. 1) or ‘the reverse fat boy’ (p.2), until finally a name is given on p.3 – ‘Ralph’. It is clear from the fact that he doesn’t ask Piggy’s name until much later that he does not appreciate or understand how names can create and make a a person so that they cannot be harmed. By adopting Piggy’s hated nickname, Piggy, Ralph initiates the destruction of his humanity which ultimately leads to his death when others see him as nothing more than a source of fire (because of his glasses).

After the initial pause in giving names and creating the characters as human, Golding allows them all to retain their names and individual preferences. Jack and the choir start to hunt, while Ralph and the ‘littluns’ set up home. It is clear that there is little desire to know about anyone – Piggy gives up trying to make a list of all the names, the ‘littluns’ are bunched into a group called just that. There is a slow and steady decline towards not viewing the others on the island as human, or equals. However, those characters that enforce these stereotypes (Jack, Ralph) are given personalities, responsibilities and ideas that make them stand out as individuals, humanising those who will later become enemies in an equal and effective manner.

The worst dehuminisation comes when Jack’s new ‘tribe’ lose their names and their status as children and become simply ‘the chief’ and ‘savages’ (p.186). In taking Piggy’s glasses from him, they take his humanity and his necessity from the island, and the inevitable slide towards his death begins.

Roger, armed by the rock, looks down on the two boys who are challenging the leadership of his tribe. But he doesn’t see them as boys. Instead ‘Below him, Ralph was a shock of hair, and Piggy a bag of fat’ (p. 199). Piggy is no longer a person to the minds of the ‘savages’ and so his death means little.

However, there isn’t an irredeemable ending, despite the shocked views on the society that Golding created. The Naval Officer who arrives as their rescuer sees them as children – ‘a little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles at his waist…’ (p. 224). For the past three chapters, Jack has simply been referred to as the chief or, rarely, by his name, or as a mask behind which he hides. But the reader is reminded that these are young boys, that to the world outside they are vulnerable and need protecting. The reader knows the darkness and fear that overtook them, but they are still children and still need rescuing. So, after an entire novel dehuminising the group of boys, Golding offers that hope at the end that despite what they have witnessed, perhaps they can become people again.

Pathetic Fallacy

Of course, to teach English you must be willing to express your ‘expert’ knowledge in the themes of technical language, as well as literary and contextual understanding. Here, I will focus on Pathetic Fallacy. From p. 1, the island and nature show outwardly the damage and harm that has been done to the boys on their crash.

‘The Scar’ (p.1) is automatically named as such because of the damage the falling plane has done to the island. The use of the noun ‘scar’ implies that it will never fully heal, that there will always be this damage and harm caused human kind on the island.

When Simon is killed, the children are fuelled by the storm and their fear of the night. The lightening that should have lit up the sky enough to save Simon and remind them that he was human instead are the motivator for their actions – the close weather and the heat and the storm are all a part of what drive the group into a frenzy. The storm shows the weather echoing their mental state, which is fragile and at the same time, powerfully harmful.

When the boys find the Naval Officer, ‘the sky was black’ (p. 223). This represents that their rescue has come too late. They have committed murder and turned on the vulnerable in their society. They have proven themselves no different from the generation of adults in their lives that are fighting a war that could destroy the earth. The black sky takes away the final beauty of the island, because between the fire and the deaths, there is nothing beautiful left to admire.

Overall

Of course, there are many other themes and ideas buried in LOTF. The degeneration of language which represents the degeneration of society. Fragmented speech and the twins, samneric, becoming one person. The conch and what it represents. The parallels between the attempted killing, eventual killing and chasing of the pigs, and the deaths of Simon and Piggy. The parts of humanity that really matter, and why those aren’t always the bits that the boys try to keep. It is a rich and full text which offers plenty of teaching material and some memorable quotes.

A few activity ideas to finish

I know that I’m not yet a teacher, and I know that I’m not yet the expert that I need to be. But, whilst reading, I have had a few thoughts, and I thought I’d share a few of them here.

What if you set a class a task and just left them to it, before even starting teaching the novel? Let them see how hard hierarchy and order can be to establish.

Drawing ‘the beast’. Fear is a key theme throughout the novel. Have pupils take all the ‘descriptions’ of the beast throughout the novel and draw what it would look like.

Design your own rules for the island in groups, and then narrow them down to a shared class sheet.

Pick a side – whose ‘tribe’ would you join and why? – Debate.

Back in the pool

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These past few weeks I’ve been working really hard on trying to improve my day to day health. I have gone gluten free to see if that helps with my absolute exhaustion and fatigue. I have been feeling slightly better, though whether that’s because of the gluten or not will only be confirmed once I go back on gluten for a while. I’ve been trying to cycle to work twice a week, walk to church when it’s at the church near by and encourage Jack to take walks with me during his lunch break when I stay at his.

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We are ridiculously adorable sometimes!!

This morning I took another step, with Jack’s support. To start with, I woke up at 4am and worked until 7am, so I was feeling super productive anyway! I woke Jack up at 7am with a cup of tea and a banana. And, an hour later, we went swimming.

I haven’t been swimming properly since June when I was visiting my big sister in Australia. I did a triathlon in July, with no training whatsoever, and swam 400m in that, but aside from that I haven’t been in a pool except to supervise children. I have run since the half marathon in September. And cycling to work takes 8 minutes – I really don’t feel I can count that as exercise! But this morning’s escapade was something different.

We paid our £4 entry fee and wandered round like fools for about 5 minutes, totally unable to find the changing rooms and, for a while, the pool itself! But we found it eventually and before I knew it we were standing at the edge of the pool’s medium swimmer lane and it was time to get in.

I LOVE swimming. It is one of my all time favourite things to do. It’s a form of exercise with minimum pain and it reaps great benefits. But I was frightened. I was really scared. My anxiety was sky high as I looked down the length of the 33m pool (bearing in mind that the pool I had been training in last year was only 18m long!). It seemed endless and vast and totally unconquerable. But I’ve learned recently that there are some things you have to take a day at a time. I decided to take this a length at a time.

First length, front crawl

Second length, breast stroke

2 lengths, front crawl

2 lengths breast stroke

3 lengths front crawl

2 lengths breast stroke

4 lengths front crawl

2 lengths breaststroke

A length at a time worked. Some were slow, some were speedy. For some I did backstroke, for others I doggy paddled the last 10m. I took 10 second timed breaks when necessary and stopped a couple of times to chat to Jack.

Actually, let’s just take a moment here to dwell on how wonderful Jack is. He is not feeling well today, and when I woke him up he really, really struggled. We walked down the wrong street to get to the pool because he was so tired. He’s resting right now, well deserved. And you know what? Before we even got in the pool he told me he was proud of me, and reminded me not to do a typical me and overdo it completely. Every time we paused for a chat he told me I was doing ‘amazingly’ and encouraged me to keep going, within reason. The walk home he couldn’t stop telling me how proud of me he was.

Jack understands what a big deal today was. It wasn’t just a swim. It wasn’t just exploring a new pool. It was facing a fear. It was standing up to my illness and saying ‘no, today, I will not be beaten back down’.

And I swam just over 1km. Slowly, with breaks. But I did it. I came home and literally in the time it took Jack to find sausages for his breakfast in the freezer, I had fallen back sleep in bed. I woke up half an hour later, refreshed and excited.

It wasn’t a great workout. It wasn’t up to the standard my swimming was at this time a year and a half ago. My back hurts and I have water trapped in my ear :p But today, I took a step in the right direction.

It’s funny really. I hadn’t realised how intertwined all aspects of my life are. The depression separated me from this blog after only 1 post. It took away my exercise, my sleep, my health, my books. It kept me in bed, knocked me down time and time again, until I had forgotten what enjoyment and non-despair felt like. Starting back on this blog was a small step. Reading books again, that was a massive step. Seeing doctors. Taking medication. Explaining to friends. And now trying to get back into exercise and taking control of my diet. Maybe, just maybe, the depression isn’t running my life anymore.

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Exercise??!!

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Funnily enough, this blog is called ‘Read Exercise Repeat’ and yet I have managed so far to avoid talking about any form of exercise! There are several reasons for this… when I first started the blog I almost immediately hit a rough patch and ended up taking a lot of time off from running. Now, a year later, I’m struggling to get back on the wagon. I’ve gained weight, exercised less and am mostly pretty unmotivated.

That said, I did do a triathlon this year. I did 2 last year, and they were both faster and better, but I decided that since I was signed up for 2 half marathons later in 2016, I should probably do something to get my head in the game! (*insert High School Musical soundtrack here*). I completed the triathlon, a 400m swim, 21.5km bike and a 5km ‘run’ (walk) and was pretty proud of myself for that. My boyfriend was amazingly supportive and was there cheering me on for the whole 2 hours it took me.

And now, in 17 days, I am supposed to be running a half marathon. Yesterday I ran 5km for the first time in months.

I’m worried. I’m nervous and frightened and scared. Most of me wants to pull out of the run and just wave the money goodbye (it’s in Disney Land Paris so it would be waving a lot of money goodbye).

The remaining part of me is constantly asking ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ I injure myself. I permanently injure myself. I have to get picked up half way round the course because I’m running too slow (gotta be doing a 16 minute mile). I can just about run 5km at a 15 minute mile. How am I going to feel after km 10? 15? 17?

The thing is, I’m stubborn, and no matter how small the stubborn part of me is right now, it won’t be overlooked. I AM going to go to Paris and I AM going to give the half marathon my best shot. For the next two weeks I hope to be able to train myself to run 15km. The remaining 6km will just happen. Or they won’t. But I need to give it a try. And when the necessary intensity of this training is over, I want to go back to really training. Cycling, running, swimming. Exercising because I want to, and I love it. But for now, I gotta run.

I will in the future talk about the apps I use and the programmes I follow. But today, know this.

A 12 minute mile is just as far as a 6 minute mile.

I am a runner.

And I will run.