An English Teacher’s Tale

Extreme Reading – A story for modern times.

Once upon a time there was an English teacher who had lost the will to live. She had been teaching for more than twenty years and in nearly all of that time had loved her job, enjoyed the kiddies, but most of all had rejoiced in reading: in teaching books to students. Reading novels with them: discussing character and plot; setting and atmosphere; themes and ideas. Most of all themes and ideas: all the things you could learn and think about just from reading.

She loved that reading took you to different places, where wonderful things happened, where you met interesting characters, travelled to different places and times, where words were beautiful and magical, where the imagination was king and all things were possible.

She had loved reading to her own children when they were young: bringing them the beauty of words, the possibility of language and the power of reading and discovering things for yourself. She still read for herself: life was incomplete without a book to read. It was not a proper birthday if there wasn’t at least one book amongst the present pile. When she had moved across the world she had brought many of her books, collected over a whole lifetime, with her. How could she live without reading?

But now her energy had gone, her life’s work rendered meaningless in the face of too many students who did not give a shit about books, who did not believe as she did. Who came from homes where reading was a chore not a pleasure, where books barely existed. Who did not care as she did about books and reading.

She tried all her usual tricks – read to them, chose a class novel that was interesting and accessible, shared the reading and the discussions, set engaging assessment tasks. She took them to the library – the new shiny library with the new shiny wonderful librarian. She let them choose books they were interested in.

She did not force them to read classics or anything at all – Manga and cars and football stars and vampires all the way. All she asked was that they read. But still too many wandered the library listlessly, picking over the books like vultures over carrion. Or sat with a book only pretending to read.

She was tired of the negativity: Reading’s boring, Miss. She was fed up with the passive resistance: My book’s at home; I left it in my locker; I didn’t get it renewed. She was irritated beyond belief by their ignorance: Why do I need to read? Reading novels won’t get me a job. My brother says reading’s stupid.

It was too late for her prince to rescue her: he’d come years ago and had not been rich enough or famous enough to save her from a life of work. But it hadn’t mattered then. Once, not all that long ago, there had been joy in teaching English, in a classroom where everyone read something and knew books were the key to their future and wanted to talk about their experiences of the text.

And so, one night towards the end of her Spring half term holiday she awoke from a frenzied dream where Michael Wilshaw (the saviour of Ofsted and defender of all students who deserved better teaching) was casting her out, having her sacked because none of her students would read. ‘You are a failure,’ he boomed at her. ‘And so you must be gone. Do not darken the doors of schools in this country ever again. You should be ashamed of yourself.’

Alarmed and afraid she rushed outside into the cool of the dark night. ‘Oh,’ she cried to the black sky, ‘help me. I have lost my way and don’t know what to do. My students hate reading and I hate them because they hate reading. It’s true I am a failure. I no longer care. What can I do?’

The sky rumbled for a moment and then said, ‘Get a grip. You’re meant to be intelligent, you’re meant to be imaginative, think of something. Get over yourself, woman and do your job. Think like a teenager, not one from your generation but one from now. Even your own daughter only reads that Twilight rubbish and loads of Manga.’

‘But what?’ she wailed. ‘What can I do?  I have no idea.’

The sky seemed to laugh. ‘Well, I guess Wilshaw will have you sacked if you can’t out-think a bunch of fourteen year olds, and deservedly so. Get competitive, remember you’re tough, don’t let the other guys win.’

In the morning the sun was bright in a pale blue sky and she had the answer. Extreme Sports – Reading for ENA2. Select your teams, read your books, discuss your books, earn daily points; win weekly Vivos and the big end of term prize. Which team is the best at reading?

She imagined the teams in her head, saw them at their desks, reading every lesson, no books forgotten. Then on Friday a lesson spent discussing in detail one aspect of the novel – begin with central characters, ask challenging questions. Share each book, decide which character was the best, award points for each response, share with the class. Vote on the most informative and engaging speaker. Award team points, declare a weekly winner. Set up a league board – see the points amassing. Raise the stakes for the next week…

She would make them readers if it killed her. And it probably would, but she would rather die trying than give up altogether. She was not about to let her nightmares come true! (Images from personal collection and courtesy Google Images)

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2 Responses to “An English Teacher’s Tale”

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