Archive for the ‘Books & Reading’ Category

Time to Read, to Know and Understand

February 19, 2017

Time to Read, to Know and Understand

Reading is always the way to knowledge and wisdom – often there is more truth in fiction than in anything else you read – especially in these worrying days of alternative facts and fake news. Yes in this post truth world you will find more honesty and truth in novels. So now is the time to remind yourself of the classics you should have read, or to reacquaint yourselves with those novels from your past that have – perhaps sadly – more resonance now than ever before. Here’s a rundown on some of the more pertinent classics that reverberate even today.

 

Dystopian ‘Realities’

1984, George Orwell

Animal Farm, George Orwell

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

The Handmaiden’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

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Now, more than ever you need to take on the brilliance of Orwell – too much prescience for one writer. Return to 1984 and Animal Farm with horror at how the world changes and shifts and learns nothing. Too much has come true, too much of what we thought was outrageous fantasy is coming true. Revisit the under-rated Brave New World (an easier read that 1984, as I recall) and Atwood’s classic and tremble. There is, of course, The Hunger Games and many other novels who explore ideas of totalitarianism gone mad but these are excellent and relevant starting points.

 

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

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Not going to say that these are my favourite reads of all time but they tell classic tales of desire, love, lust, abandonment, injustice and the excessive amount of suffering love causes us all. You need to know the classics of love and loss – at least they should make you feel better about your own love life. Emma Bovary will certainly cheer you up, as will Anna Karenina – none of us could be as miserable and bereft as those two, and you need to get over Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and actually experience the original 1813 version. And if you’re going to read only one Bronte, Wuthering Heights is the one: you need to see what a bastard Heathcliff is and how unworthy Cathy was too. You can’t go passed Great Expectations for one of the bitterest spurned lovers in literature – the demonic and manipulative Miss Havisham: if you want to know about revenge she is the go-to oracle. Poor Pip, he never had a chance with Estella. No, what we think love is from the classics probably isn’t …

 

Angry (lost) Young Men

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis

Hamlet, Shakespeare

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We have too many angry disenfranchised young men in the world at the moment – they’ve always been there, a lot of them going off to die in war, or flinging themselves about recklessly on the sporting field. Now they have grown up and are running the world. Remind yourself of what happens to boys alone on an island without rules, adults or girls in Lord of the Flies; how utterly bereft and miserable Holden Caulfield is, almost as mad as Hamlet, but none as mad as Patrick Bateman. Yes, American Psycho is a difficult and offensive read, but it shows a chillingly dark side of men gone seriously off-course and what damage can be done by those who think they are above the law!

 

Shitty Pointlessness of War

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

Catch 22, Joseph Heller

Sophie’s Choice, William Styron

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Poetry of Wilfred Owen

Gallipoli – yes, I know it’s a film but it is bloody brilliant

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War is shit, war is stupid, war kills and destroys and never solves anything, yet war is one of the enduring features of mankind. We are aggressive, destructive creatures, we would rather wage war that negotiate a peace. War rages on our planet still, we learn nothing from history and despite this literary collection from different wars and countries, we keep on going. Read and recoil with horror – war may have led to technological advances and helped the status of women in some countries (and absolutely screwed them over in others), but mostly it leaves a trail of intergenerational damage that echoes and reverberates over time and place. Watch Europe implode in the wake of Brexit, forgetting the very reason for the European Union in the first place.

 

Stolen Generations (Oz)

Capricornia, Xavier Herbert – don’t just watch Australia

Radiance, Louis Nowra – great play and excellent film too

Rabbit Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington Garimara – based on a true story, watch if you don’t want to read it

My Place, Sally Morgan – personal history but you need to read it!

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All Australians need to know more about their history – yes we do have a shameful past and we need to know about it and acknowledge it. Capricornia is Xavier Herbert’s classic story of the far north, of how Aboriginals were treated, how we built our national character – the lone, tough bloke of the outback. Have a read, it’s not the novel you think it is. Radiance is a brilliant play about the complexities of the Stolen Generations issue, and Rabbit Proof Fence and My Place give the issue heart and substance.

 

The American Dream

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

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We all need to understand the American Dream, it isn’t just part of the American consciousness but ours too, given how dominant American culture is. The American Dream is akin to the Oz idea about being The Lucky Country. It is a capitalist construct, a belief in the power of the individual – if he (usually it is he) is driven enough, ambitious enough and hard working enough then he can have the life he dreams of, no matter how big. America is built on being the New World, the place where you can begin again, re-make yourself and be whoever you want to be. Status and class (fixed entities in European and especially British society) do not matter: hard work and ambition does. Witness true life American Dream winner, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gatsby is the best known example of the AD, but you need to read Of Mice and Men too, it shows the other side of the coin; men with small dreams but destined for failure. Is the AD simply an illusion, something used by the powerful to beat the weak with? If you worked harder, believed more then you would be successful… so if you fail it’s your fault too, despite the massive amount of entities ranged against you. It takes away the responsibility of the state, of government to look after anyone. If your life is a failure it is your fault. Read both novels, they won’t take you long, but they’ll give you a handy insight into what makes large bits of the US tick.

 

The System Always Wins

1984, George Orwell

The Crucible, Arthur Miller

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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Perhaps this is the nastiest reading list for modern times. Justice and fairness and the truth are not part of these sad stories. The hero loses, every time. The system is ranged against them – not interested in truth – definitely not in The Crucible, where hysteria reigns and common sense is outlawed, or in 1984 where there is only Double-speak, and the Ministry of Truth, simply isn’t. Fairness and justice is never on the table for Tess or the characters in The God of Small Things. Ivan Denisovich will die in the gulag, after being beaten, starved and worked to death. You just can’t stick it to the man, when he has everything on his side and you are the size of an ant.

 

There are other classics you should know and read – a whole raft of Shakespeare, one for every occasion! To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind as does Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. All relevant to the difficult times we are currently experiencing. This is just your set to start with.

What will you re-read to help you make better sense of our sense-less world? What would you add to this list? (Images from Private Collection)

Shakespeare the Immortal: But is He Really God of English?

May 7, 2016

Shakespeare the Immortal: But is He Really God of English?

If you live in the English speaking world there are a couple of things you cannot escape at the moment – one is the US juggernaut that is Donald Trump, the other that it is 400 years since William Shakespeare popped his clogs. The differences are startling – one was the master of words, the other mangles them on most outings. One lives forever in the heart of poets and romantics, and perhaps one could venture that the Donald has an equally romantic impact on some Americans who long for some version of the US that isn’t the current one.

Today I will spend time with the Bard. The truth is I spent a great deal of my working life with the Bard – as a secondary English teacher you have no choice, especially in the UK. He is everywhere; he is God of English; the truth, the light and the way. Indeed I exaggerate dear reader, but despite all sorts of anguished cries from the young ones in schools across the world, it is impossible to deny his importance on language, on how we speak today and how we make sense of our world.

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Is he loved and enjoyed by the kinder in the classroom: well, on the whole not a lot. He seems rather to be endured that enjoyed and sadly that makes teaching any sort of Shakespeare a bit of a challenge. Over the years I have grown to hate, loathe and detest Romeo and Juliet. It is not a text for 13 and 14 year olds in year 9, yet persistently that is where they first encounter it.

Students notoriously cannot cope with the language; they lose the plot and story in the jungle of words that make no sense. Stopping to read the annotations and explain everything does take the pleasure out of reading the text. There are a couple of traps there – one is that you do not need to know the meaning of every word to understand what is going on and the other, most significant point is that Shakespeare’s plays should not be read by semi-illiterate, resistant students in freezing or stuffy classrooms. No, they should be watching a performance, seeing it live, experiencing the Bard that way.

Several years ago I had one of my many desperate bottom set year 9s – we were doing Macbeth, which was some relief from the tedium of R&J but still, as you can image, it was a trial. But my school was a stroll from the Globe Theatre on Southbank, so we took the whole of year 9 off to the theatre for a schools session. It was remarkable – the players were much more than merely players strutting and fretting their stuff upon the stage signifying nothing. They did their job: they brought the whole thing alive and on returning to the classroom we were able to have the sort of discussions about the play that helped them understand it and appreciate it. The significance of live performances, of action befitting words, of words made meaningful by actors who understand the nuance and wit of Shakespeare cannot be under-estimated.

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Today with the new changes to the curriculum the students are expected to read whole texts again, instead of the key scenes nonsense. And while I agree with the whole text being important, the point about drama is still missed and the opportunities to get students to performances is limited – mainly by schools constrained by budgets that cannot afford such luxuries, either to go out to the theatre or have troupes come in.

Students need live performances to get what’s going on: their unworldly vocabularies, coupled with their limited reading skills simply mangle Shakespeare and deny the magnificence of the writing and the action.

I thank the many and wonderful film makers who have done their best to bring the wonders of the Bard to the screen so we can at least give some feel for how the stories really do go along. You cannot go past either Lurhmann or Zeferrelli for Romeo and Juliet; Polanski’s Macbeth may be a bit dated but it remains one of the best; The Tempest with Helen Mirren is brilliant; A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Kevin Kline and Calista Flockhart is wonderful, as is Much Ado About Nothing with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. You can’t go past the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor version of Taming of the Shrew and you should compare that to the wonderful 10 Things I Hate About You, with the lovely late Heath Ledger.

This brings me neatly to my next point, about the enduring nature of Shakespeare. His plays are continuously produced and performed across the world; his stories are made into modern films, accessible to a younger audience; his stories are remade for modern times. Look up the different versions of Macbeth – Japanese, set in a kitchen, on a rubbish dump. And of course Romeo and Juliet is West Side Story. Jane Smiley’s One Thousand Acres is a reimagining of King Lear.

Why is this? His stories resonate because despite being mostly about noble people – or as my university lecturer famously said about Antony and Cleopatra; ‘it is a great play, about great people, doing great things, in great places’ (the 1963 film Cleopatra owes a great deal to the Shakespearean play A&C) – they are stories about human nature: greed, ambition, desire, pride, foolishness, deception, lust, love. We recognise these things when we see them on stage, we see ourselves or people we know. We watch with horror as characters cannot escape who they are. We watch with joy as problems are solved and everyone lives happily ever after.

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And the language is wonderful. He did have a wonderful ear and as we know was quite inventive. His words and phrases are part of our everyday speech, our idioms come from him; our expectations about romance come from him; Freud looked at his plays as a basis for his theories.

It is well to remember as we celebrate and laud this man, who has stood the test of time, that he was writing for the common man and woman. The theatre was the television of his day and he wrote the equivalent of dramas and soap operas – he catered to the masses. Perhaps that’s part of the secret of his immortality – he spoke to the ordinary man, he wrote the sorts of things that they were interested in. His sonnets are things of beauty and cover all manner of topics too.

So, is William Shakespeare God of English, should he hold such a prized place at the heart of English school curriculums?

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You cannot dispute his influence on theatre, on language, on literature. He is not the only immortal we have (Chaucer, Marlowe, etc), but he is one of the most significant. He should be taught in schools, but perhaps we need to reconsider when and why. This year I have finally enjoyed Romeo and Juliet. Why? – I hear you ask. Simple: it was with A level students who can talk about the text, interrogate it, appreciate it, read it with meaning and nuance, find new things in it. My girls weren’t just getting through it, or reading it for exams. Wonderfully and reassuringly they were enjoying it. And with their enjoyment so came new insights and a new appreciation of the text and of good old William himself.

Shakespeare is our Titan of literature but we do him and the hapless kiddies no good by forcing him down their throats before they are ready for him. Yes, it’s that old educational concept of ‘readiness’ – when the student is ready the learning is good, and easy and fun and lasting. My fear for Shakespeare is that too many are turned off him because they meet him too soon and never find the joy and magic in his considerable works. (Images from Private Collection)

Reading Takes You Many Places – Forgotten & Reclaimed

April 2, 2016

Reading Takes You Many Places – Forgotten & Reclaimed

In the midst of holidays one should be in the midst of reading but I am struggling with books these days – not a confession a writer and English teacher should make! However, as I re-opened To Kill A Mockingbird last night I was reminded of many things, not the least being what a fabulous book it really is and why I do not want to read Go Set a Watchman.

Moreover I was taken back to a previous time of reading. To a place I barely remembered but on beginning the novel I found myself in a sparse room in Larrakeyah Lodge on Myilly Point in Darwin, on one of my first trips into Darwin from Nhulunbuy. Larrakeyah Lodge had many incarnations – then it was a hostel type accommodation for visitors from far flung parts of the NT – usually teachers on PD courses. Then it became the student accommodation for NTU, and now it is gone – well it has been gone for many a long year, in the name of progress and expensive town-houses. But I remember lying on my single bed in my stuffy room reading into the night, reading about an equally hot and stuffy place, troubled by racism, trying for justice in an unjust world.

Illywhacker

So I got to thinking that this is not an uncommon phenomenon. If I think about Peter Carey’s Illywhacker I am instantly transported to my verandah on Klyn Circuit in Nhulunbuy, sitting in an old cane chair, behind the privacy of the cannas and tomato plants reading one of my favourite books of all time. I am hot and sweaty, but still and happy as I read and sip iced water and escape to Bacchus Marsh and a 137 year old liar. If I recall Oscar and Lucinda (also by Carey) then I find myself poolside in a Bali resort, my baby boy splashing at the edges of the pool with his father, while I’m on a barge with a glass church in outback Australia.

Monkey Grip by Helen Garner is a modern Australian classic and something about Melbourne, not just the setting resonates in my head as I read. I suspect I was there for the first reading of the novel. But I read it again when I was in hospital just after having Pallas. Indeed her name came from the novel – a small section where Pallas-Athena was mentioned and the name hooked and took and so our baby, who very nearly became Paris, ended up Pallas-Athena, all from reading in Darwin hospital in the quiet time between sleeping and feeding.

Monkeygrip

If I think of The English Patient then as well as the locations of the novel – pre-war desert and war riven Italy – I am in Shanghai at the time when Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese. Re-reading the novel takes me there, as does any thoughts about Schindler’s Ark – so many rats in the book, so many rats in the school!

As you would expect I read a great deal at uni – well you have to with an English degree. Two sets of reading stick in my head. DH Lawrence’s Women in Love and The Rainbow. I loved those books – dense and intense, full of fecund images and words and when I think of reading them I am at ‘the farm’ – a family place in the deep south of Tasmania, on the banks of the wide deep blue Huon. Then it took some time to get there; there was no internet of course but also no telly and only a scratchy radio. I’d set the fire and read for the weekend, late into night, barely able to tear myself away from the intensity of the relationships in the books. I had a boyfriend who promised to visit me there. He never did, but like Ursula and Gundrun I believed in the centrality of love and passion in my life.

At the end of every year at uni I read The Thorn Birds. It was a guilty pleasure, but one I indulged for several years. It was summer, exams were over, the sun was out and the cricket was on. I’d set myself up on the banana lounge, slather myself with sun-cream and settle for a day of indulgent reading, another story of passionate love but not so intense writing. I figured a bit of pulp fiction was deserved after the year of reading academic and classic fiction and writing less than wonderful essays.

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And I did read Death in Venice when we went to Venice and it felt the right thing to do. I certainly recalled the large cold rooms of HMC (Hobart Matriculation College) as I re-read the slender volume. But it was quite wonderful to sit on the beach that von Aschenbach had sat on to gaze upon Tadzio and be reminded of his desperation, his unrequited but deadly passion. So now when I think of the novel I am again in Venice and it’s a beautiful place to be.

When I finally go home a large list of books will take me to France, because that seems to be my main reading place these days, not just books for study but a bit of Agatha Christie, Geoffrey Eugenides (you must read Middlesex) and the wonderful Night Circus. Of Mice and Men will forever take me to classrooms and a variety of students, as will Macbeth and bloody Romeo and Juliet.

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Books are transport machines – inside them you are in different worlds in different times, exploring, experiencing, imagining. Outside, the where you were when you were reading is another place you travel to as well – a place where you remember who you were, what you were doing and feeling at the time of reading. Who’d have thought a book was better than the Tardis? (Images from private collection).

6 Reasons Why Reading Literature Matters More than Ever

January 9, 2016

Obviously as a writer and English teacher I would believe and promote this statement: that reading books matters. But why more than ever you may ask?

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Well, as we also know the world has turned very dark – threats, lies, rampant untruths, offence, dissent, violence and death abound. We are bombarded with a litany of disasters every day on the news – wherever we get it – and while some might argue it is no worse than it has ever been it simply does seem to be worse. Our senses are assaulted almost minute by minute by the latest disaster, the latest atrocity.

Indeed, Ted Turner (winner of the Sydney-Hobart Yacht race and the America’s Cup, but significantly here, the man who brought us CNN) has a lot to answer for in making the news a 24 hour event – giving us trash and trivia as well as doom and disaster on a never-ending loop.

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There are six compelling reasons why reading literature is more important than ever:

1.Escapism. Have you noted the rise of thrillers, fantasy, erotica and romance? They are all escapist fiction, allowing us to enter a world nothing like ours, where we can forget the rest of the world, its ugly big problems and our own worrying smaller problems. Other fiction has the same effect – we like to immerse ourselves in different worlds, escaping to the problems of others, which invariably make us feel a bit better about our own life. Series fiction is so popular because of this – we get caught up in the characters’ lives and we want to stay with them for as long as possible. (Yes, films too, and Peter Jackson understands this better than almost anyone else on the planet!)

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2.Truth. There is, to be clichéd, more truth in fiction than anywhere else. Writers of fiction are freer to tell their truth through stories and characters, than reporters and journalists. Through stories we learn the truth of relationships, of how the world works, how things don’t tie up in neat bows – think of Jay Gatsby, Gone Girl, Madame Bovary. Great Expectations tells us how foolish it is to hold onto bitterness all your life – that it kills you.

3.Knowledge. We can learn about things in fiction – how the world was – history and bits of it, how different cultures operate, how people behaved in certain eras and that some behaviours were okay then but not now. Think of Of Mice and Men, where Crooks is called the n* word repeatedly which leads to a discussion of how racism works and how language shifts and changes. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas tells us about the idiocy of the Holocaust. Xavier Herbert tells of the challenges and problems of life in early northern Australia in Capricornia. Hilary Mantel gave us a whole new insight into Tudor times and Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.

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4.Thinking intelligently. Reading good literature that explores ideas and issues – like The Life of Pi, The Slap, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, The Kite Runner, The Satanic Verses, 1984, Lord of the Flies, etc – challenges our views of the world. Reading makes us think and consider ideas that make us feel uncomfortable, enable us to accept different views of the world – which is vitally important at the moment. Discussing ideas and searching for the evidence in the text to support our ideas enables us to think at a deeper level, it takes us from the emotional response to the considered intellectual response – which we really need at the moment. Which is why literature in schools cannot be under-rated.

5.Reading makes us better people. You may laugh, but there are several studies that show that people who read fiction – especially literary fiction, where the writing and ideas are more complex – are more empathetic, more attuned to others, and more successful in their careers and relationships.

6.Reading is a simple pleasure. Reading is one of life’s best bits. You can do it anywhere, anytime. It pleases me to travel on the trains and see the amount of people reading – novels, kindles and the papers. Reading is cheap and easy – it needs nothing special for it to work – just you and the book and a comfy space. Do it now!

Life Happens

Reading teaches us how to think, how to move beyond our own experience, how to engage with the world in a considered, thoughtful way. People who don’t read really are missing out on so many things. Parents who do not encourage – no, parents who do not MAKE their children read should be put in jail. Reading fiction – picture books as kidlets, then the various age appropriate books (see previous blogs for books for various ages) on the way to bone fide adult fiction – is not something to be brushed over or given up at the end of primary school. It is a vital experience, an essential skill for life.

Let me make this crystal clear: reading makes you a better, more rounded, educated and thoughtful person. And we desperately need more thinking people in the world today.

What are you reading these days? Are you reading or have you stopped too? (Images from Private Collection)

End of Term Blues: Why am I still teaching?

July 11, 2015

Why Am I Still Teaching?

It’s nearly the end of another teaching year – too many to count now! But I end this year sad and uncertain: what is my purpose, what am I actually doing as an English teacher in this country, under the latest changes?

Up until recently I have been confident about the importance and purpose of my subject and my job. English is central to the life opportunities of the young, as is Maths (yes, and other subjects are important too!). English is about the basics: reading and writing, but it is so much more than that – it is about communicating, thinking, creating, exploring, arguing; using the imagination. Well, it was, and maybe it still is at home, in Oz. But in the UK, with every change that is implemented English becomes an impoverished subject; ironically like most of the students whose life chances it purports to support.

In the reaction to the endemic cheating or gaming of the system through Course Work and then Controlled Assessments, key questions were not asked. No-one scratched their head and said: Hey, why are all these schools and teachers cheating to get better results? Why is this happening? Dots were not joined and so we have a subject that should be about nuance and thought, time and consideration, about planning and editing and drafting that is being wholly externally examined. My subject has been bastardised by people who have no idea about English and certainly not the first idea about young people. My subject has been hijacked by people who did not struggle at school, who have not listened to teachers or parents, who reside in some sort of alternative universe where education is stuck in the 1950s.

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Here are some questions that should have been asked before the latest changes were made.

1. What is the point of English in schools?

2. How can we make this subject relevant to non-readers, to those who don’t write, or see much of a future for themselves?

3. What skills and knowledge do we want them to have?

 

I used to think the point of English was to foster a love of reading, to encourage students to read for information, for pleasure, to develop their own language and ability to extract meaning from a text, to think about ideas and meaning and come to their own considered opinions. Fiction’s purpose was to start a dialogue, to tap into their experiences and move them beyond that, to consider other views, other world’s, other ways of being and seeing.

Reading lead to discussion, exploration, arguing, justifying an opinion. It led to accepting there were other points of view, other ways of seeing and understanding things; it also showed you were not alone, not the only one feeling the way you did. Reading lead to writing – personal responses, essays, critical analysis and creative responses, a story, a letter to a character, an extra chapter, and alternative ending, something original using an element from the text. Writing meant thinking, planning, writing, experimenting, crafting, drafting and editing before producing a final product worthy of ‘publication’ or assessment. Not a tick box exercise about triplets and wow words and as much punctuation as you can shove in to get an extra mark.

How many skills can you identify from that paragraph?

There is a large body of evidence that shows that reading fiction, especially good quality well written fiction, is good for us. It enhances empathy, our ability to connect to others, to understand people and how to work with them. Reading also develops our ability to concentrate, to sustain activities, as well as develop our vocabulary and understanding of how language works – the nuts and bolts of punctuation, sentence structure, vocabulary choices and effects. We learn how to be good writers from being good readers.

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But the new curriculum is not about love of anything – certainly not books or kids. There is nothing modern or particularly accessible on the new list for GCSE – a raft of Shakespeare, as to be expected, 19th century texts that many will never access – Great Expectations is a great story but too long; Pride and Prejudice a bit too much romance and marriage; Jekyll and Hyde may be short but its language is impenetrable. Most of the 20th century texts stop short of the 1960s. I’m not sure what these texts bring to a modern child, how they will find reading less of a chore, a king-size bore from the xenophobic list created by Michael Gove, the master educationalist.

I’m not sure what future the politicians see for young people, I’m not sure what they think they will achieve by a retro Sabre-tooth Tiger curriculum that takes no account of the modern world, of the impact of technology on language, on the way we create and receive information. I wonder what world these students are being ‘prepared’ for.

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I wonder how I will connect texts and tasks to their experiences, to make them see the relevance of what we do for 5 hours a week. I wonder how I can resist the pressure to make everything we do about exam skills and preparation, because that will be the push, the fear from above about exams now that we have nothing else to tell us how students are progressing.

I wonder how much longer I can do this job, dictated to by idiots and fools who have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager, to be at school, to be constantly tested, to prepare for a future from within an education system that is not fit for purpose. (Images from Private Collection)

A book: the best present

December 13, 2014

As the holidays loom for us all on both sides of the world I wonder how many of you are planning some lovely indulgent reading time. Perhaps in bed, as the rain howls and the snow flutters down, or on the beach, baking yourself all crispy like the Christmas turkey.

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For several years when I was at uni wading my way through English and Psychology and reading books that were chosen by their thickness of spine I rebelled at Christmas and read and re-read Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds. I actually loved it. And like others was not impressed by the TV mini series that eventually followed. But for a few summers it was my un-wind and de-stress book. Indeed I took my banana lounge out into the sun, turned up the cricket on the radio and read for hours. It was bliss.

So when I went anywhere, traveling, even if only to the beach for the day, I packed a book. It seemed to me a book was an essential item. Needless to say I packed a ton of books when we went to China for three months and read my way through Schindler’s List amongst others. My poor boy had a list of classics he was expected to read given his age and greed for knowledge. I am pleased that he remains an avid reader despite his predilection for the Sciences. He was less than impressed by not getting a book for Christmas last year.

One of the best present for me, forever has been books. You will not, dear reader, be surprised by this as I am an avid reader and writer as well as seasoned English teacher. I can’t remember my first book but I know books have been part of the business of gifting all my life. I used to get an annual of some description – name completely eludes me – but it was expected and enjoyed for many years. Birthdays are also great times for books.

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What surprises and saddens me is that if I tell my students that we give books at Christmas many of them look at me in horror and amazement. A book – as a present – why? Well, clearly they would be aghast given it seems to cause them physical pain to open a book in class. To read a book outside of class wouldn’t even occur to them. It absolutely does not. What has happened to the world?

I wonder at a world where books don’t exist. It reminds me of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s book where a future society outlaws books and any that are found are burned. Ironically many of my students would approve of such a world. Reading for them is a sort of medieval torture, something they must be forced to do. Worryingly this attitude does not reside only amongst the bottom dwellers of our fine educational establishments but abounds amongst many of the brighter stars.

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Disclaimer here: not all students are anti-reading, not all hate books, but a worrying amount do.

I wonder why so many are profoundly anti-reading, anti-books. It’s not just the screen-generation; it’s not just the attention spans of the much derided goldfish. It has to be in the home, it has to come from parents who also don’t read, who don’t value books or quiet, or the imagination. (It’s what’s called a trans-generational effect.) Ah, and there’s the thing – too many of our young people lack an imagination. Too many have no inner worlds of their own based on some magical place they read about and appropriated for themselves. They like a book on the screen: they know the stories of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings but they only know them as imagined by the producers of these films. Peter Jackson’s imagination dominates the world. How sad is that?

I am reminded of my China experience here. I’d read The English Patient not long before we visited in Shanghai and it was out on DVD. One of the exchange students offered to get it for me but I knew it was too soon between reading and viewing. I knew that the DVD would disappoint me, it would not be true to my version of the book, and worst of all, the book would be diminished for me. So, I waited, and for a number of years before I watched the film of the book. And I was not disappointed. I ended up loving both versions. I re-watch and re-read and am happy that my version is still in tact.

A Christmas book story. Last year my beloved big girl bought my beloved the first books of The Game of Thrones and the first two series on DVD. We entered into an agreement: that we would not watch the shows until the books were read. My husband was encouraged to re-boot his reading through this slightly briberous (sp!) arrangement and so we have been true. Books come first. Always.

xmas & books

Reading is not just about the imagination, about the writers and the readers. It is about many things that make us human, that reinforce our humanity.

 

Here is a brief list of why we should read and encourage those around us to do the same-

1.Reading helps your vocabulary, and understanding of grammar and expression

2.Reading fires the imagination, it enables you to think and dream

3.Reading enhances your empathy through getting into the heads and lives of characters and traveling with them

4.Reading tells you about life – its magic, its beauty and its tragedy

5.Reading tells you you’re not alone – there are others out there like you

6.Reading allows us to experience things we might not dare try in life

7.Reading enhances your ability to concentrate and focus on matters

8.Quite simply, reading makes you a better person, a more compassionate person, a person who makes the world a better place

books

I know books speak to us differently and that’s as it should be. Books from different times of our lives mean more to us too, but there’s always a new book out there waiting to be discovered, devoured and shared. Make sure you share the books you love. Buy books for Christmas and keep your fingers crossed that Santa has one for you too, so you can sneak off after all the festivities and escape to another world of wonder. (images courtesy Private Collection)

Reading Lists for students… dare you write your own?

June 7, 2014

Aftre Michael Gove announced the ‘banning’ of several iconic books for GCSE students a predictable and not entirely unwarranted torrent of abuse ensued and then alternative lists popped up – including the Guardian’s selection from notables. Oh, dear, what lists – full of self indulgence (Russell Brand) and complete ignorance of the teenage beast (nearly everyone else except for Hilary Mantel).

It is worth considering – what books should be experienced during the high school years, what should you read and know about as you grow and become who you are? After all those of us who dwell in the world of books know how we learn about ourselves and others from reading, as well as all the osmosis language skills we acquire simply from reading.

Should we agree with Michael Gove and eschew books from other countries, other cultures and be utterly xenophobic in our canon for the kiddies? What sort of citizens would we be brewing if we follow such a path? Others are asking this question and it is an important one to consider, given there is more truth in fiction than in history, given there is mandated focus on socio-historic-cultural baggage of the texts studied in school.

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In my time in Australian schools we taught a broad range of texts from writers across the world, although perhaps we could have done better. But, there were a slew of excellent YA American novels by the likes of SE Hinton, Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier – so many kiddies loved The Chocolate War and I am the Cheese. I taught To Kill a Mockingbird alongside The Lord of the Flies. We had Animal Farm and Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy. But some of these dated – notably Colin Thiele and Lord of the Flies, or perhaps it became too English as we became more Australian and hade more home grown stuff to choose from, including Nick Earls, John Marsden, Isobel Carmody, Sonya Hartnet and Nadia Wheatley.

We were not starved for choice and indeed many of my happier moments were raging arguments in my departments about which books needed to go and which ones we now wanted in our book-rooms. Yes, schools where I chose what we would teach and then my teams chose from the range. Good times.

 

So, what might an All-Australian list look like?

Classics

For the term

For the Term of His Natural Life, Marcus Clarke

Capricornia, Xavier Herbert

We of the Never Never, Jeannie Gunn

The Eye of the Storm, Patrick White – there must be one White at least, as he is our only home-grown Nobel winner, no matter how inaccessible you think he is!!

A Fortunate Life, AB Facey

My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin

Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay

Walkabout, James Vance Marshall

The Harp in the South, Ruth Park

A Town Like Alice, Neville Shute

The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead

Ride on Stranger, Kylie Tennant

Poetry of AB Paterson

Short stories from Henry Lawson

 

Modern Classics

Monkey grip

Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey

Gould’s Book Of Fish, Richard Flanangan

Monkey Grip, Helen Garner

Lilian’s Story, Kate Grenville

Maestro, Peter Goldsworthy

Fly Away Peter, David Malouf

Unreliable Memoirs, Clive James – entertaining memoir

My Place, Sally Morgan – important memoir

Fly Away Peter, David Malouf

Cloudstreet, Tim Winton

Carpentaria, Alexis Wright

Poetry by – Les A Murray, Gwen Harwood, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Bruce Dawe, Judith Wright, AD Hope, John Kinsella, John Tranter, Dorothy Porter

 

Drama

radiance

The One Day of the Year, Alan Seymour

The Club or The Removalists by David Williamson

Radiance, by Louis Nowra

 

YA

looking f Al

The Obernewtyn serties, Isobel Carmody

48 Shades of Brown, Nick Earls

Looking for Alibrandi, Melinda Marchetta

Tomorrow when the war began, John Marsden

Lockie Leonard – Human Torpedo, Tim Winton

Sabriel, Garth Nix

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

 

Classic Films (because films should be included too…)

rabbit proof

Rabbit Proof Fence (based on true story)

Gallipoli (based on letters from the front)

Mad Max (just because…)

 

What would this highly personal selection tell us about being Australian? That women are valued in our canon, that there are Aboriginal voices (although there is an argument there should be more). There are few immigrant voices, but I have been away from home for a while and not as up to speed with recent developments… What would these stories tell us about ourselves? Do we not need texts from other countries, other voices in our heads to tell us about the world and how to live?

When I taught English Lit in the NT the texts were King Lear, The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night and 1000 lines of poetry, which was taken from an Australian anthology. So there was representation from three countries, different times and places, classics and moderns. Perhaps there should have been more classic Oz-Lit at that level, perhaps there is now. When I taught English Communications in Tasmania we embraced other cultures much better and taught The God of Small Things and Jhumpa Lhahiri’s collection of short stories alongside Radiance and some non-fiction texts.

GG

From my list – extensive but not exhaustive you can plainly see we have as Australians a rich and long standing literary heritage from which to create a bespoke English curriculum but I am not sure this is wise. I think it would shame us in many cases, it would reinforce some of our less admirable characteristics and much and all as people might breath a sigh of relief at the absence of Shakespeare or the Romantic Poets, or Dickens, what would an English education be without a smattering of good writing, of the classics from across the world?

It is always wrong to ban books, or attempt to modify people’s reading, be they teenagers or adults. Reading books, reading fiction is one of those activities that is dying fast amongst the young. What is beholden on the powers that be is to promote texts that engage and excite and mix in the classics, from across the world. A country like the UK should be outward looking, to learn from reading, to be anything but xenophobic and nationalistic in your curriculum.

Remember there is more truth in fiction than in any other book, perhaps that’s why people want to burn them and ban them and why writers are often considered with suspicion…

What do you remember from your school days? What would you want students to be reading in High School? (Images courtesy Google Images)

Mothers: 11 from Literature and History

March 29, 2014

It’s Mothers’ Day in the UK this weekend: time to appreciate the woman who brought you into the world, or the one who brought you up. A time to stop and think about all that love, all that unconditional love that made you who you are.

I’m going to stop there. Mothers’ Day is one of those things, a bit like Christmas Day, that looks lovely and sounds sweet and offers joyful abundance. For some. And for those for whom it is a happy day, good on you, enjoy the warmth and love of your family – either being appreciated or appreciating. Fortunately, I will be appreciated as I’ve managed to be quite a reasonable mum for the last 25+ years (I hope and I like to think!).

me & the babies

But as a child it’s not the same. And I know for some of my friends out there that Sunday is not going to be a good day. Instead it will be a sharp pointy reminder of what is now gone, or what never was. Being a mother, along with generally just being a woman, has been a highly fraught role through history and literature.

So, today, instead of ranting about the rampant commercialism, that floods the high street and your local supermarket, in an attempt to avoid the hovering clouds of expectation and disappointment, let us have a little trawl through the past to see how Mothers stack up – are we more Mary or Medea??

 

Gaia – whom we better know as Mother Earth, was the first goddess of Greek mythology. She created herself out of chaos and then brought forth Uranus, the starry sky out of nothingness. No wonder we still consider Mother Earth as powerful woman.

Grendel’s Mother – the she-monster who wreaks havoc on Beowulf and his followers for killing her son. An epic bit of mother love. An epic poem too.

Lady Capulet – who wasn’t really very concerned about Juliet, just wanted her married off to Paris and threatened to disown her if Juliet went against her father. And we know how that all ended!

Mary – of course, the virgin mother, the one who gave us the Saviour. How can we get passed her for goodness and sacrifice?

Medea – who killed her children to punish Jason (of the Golden Fleece) to punish him because he had betrayed her.

Snow White and Cinderella’s step-mothers – evil, scheming, nasty old bags, doing their best to eliminate their rivals. Evil step-mothers are legion in fairy tales but we’ll content ourselves with these two.

3 bewsherswans

Borte – wife of Genghis Khan – who had four sons, and several daughters. She was chosen by the young Genghis – Temujin, supposedly because of her strong legs and flat face. She was immensely powerful and influential and helped keep the great Khan’s empire running.

Catherine De Medici – it took her ten years and she was married to someone in love with another but she become the mother of three French kings, and had a large hand in the running of France in the 16th century

Eleanor of Aquitaine – another mother of kings, and a formidable woman in her own right. She was married to Louis VII of France, and therefore Queen of France but with only bearing daughters her marriage was annulled and she went off to marry Henry II of England and had eight children, five sons, two of whom went onto be kings – Richard the Lion Heart and the more infamous John of Magna Carta ilk.

Ammu – from The God of Small Things, who loves her children more than anything, except perhaps Velutha, who she cannot love at all. Ammu runs away from a violent marriage back to a disapproving home, where her children run ‘wild’ but feel safe and strong in her love. Until she is taken from them and then they are lost too.

Sophie Sophie’s Choice has perhaps the worst experience for any mother in the world. Choose between your children. Oh, how can you choose, how can you possibly do such a thing? The fact that Sophie partly brought the hideous scene on her own shoulders does not excuse the vile callousness of the young German soldier. Choose. You cannot. No wonder she committed suicide, what else can you do as a mother after such a terrible-terrible thing?

 

my3

There are so many ways to be a mother, to have a mother. The truth is we are all ‘of woman born’ whether ‘untimely ripped from our mother’s womb’ or not and perhaps even if we cannot celebrate the day, we can pause and be grateful for the mother we had, because without her we wouldn’t be here, or more importantly, the people we are today. (Images from Private Collection)

Character is Destiny

February 8, 2014

We like to believe in hard work getting us places, that a bit of talent and perseverance tossed in with perspiration and persistence will get us what we want in life, will make us successful, happy and perhaps rich. But we know that luck also plays her part. But more and more, dear readers, I am coming to the conclusion that our character is more defining that we realize.

As you know, I spend my working life with the teenage beast in all its glorious incarnations – amazing to awful. But what I have noticed over the years is that some kids are destined for success, in whatever field they choose, not because they are the brightest, the cleverest, the hardest working but because they have an excess of self belief, not ego per se, but a willingness to take things on board, to accept responsibility for their own lives, their own way in the world and get up when they get pushed down.

We see this sort of thing everywhere when criminals and other losers in life blame their background, their parents, their poverty and plethora of disadvantages for their lot in life, and make it their excuse for a life of crime and damage, for a life less lived. They spend their lives lost in blame and injustice – if only someone else had… what?

Successful people take responsibility for themselves. They have ambition and drive and they don’t give up and they’re out there, making their dreams come true, working hard every day to get where they want to be. They take the knock backs, dust themselves down and get up and fight on. And on and on. Not just once or twice but repeatedly. Stories of successful people are littered with set-backs and failures: no-one gets an easy ride.

me

Recently two things have brought this idea about character being destiny home to me. One was reading about the work habits of well-known writers: how, despite their disparate backgrounds and genres, they worked – wrote – every day and not for half and hour but for several hours and up to 5000 words or so. Every single day. Athletes follow similar regimes, training hours every day of the week, hours and hours of practice for miniscule time performing. But to be successful in any field you have to devote the time. Remember Malcolm Galdwell’s 10,000 hours, blogged about here in the past?

The other thing that happened was that a writer visited our school. Not a young self published wunder-kid but an older gentleman who has a best-seller on his hands that’s about to be made into a Hollywood A-list blockbuster. His story is somewhat incredible and except for the fact that publishing is full of incredible stories it would have been too fantastical to believe.

David Albert is the epitome of character being destiny. He and school weren’t that well suited and he left without any seriously useful qualifications. But after a while in the workforce it became apparent he needed to up-skill if he was going to get anywhere, so he went to night-school, (it was hard going back to school and working) got qualified and moved onward and upwards, from the rag-trade to stock-broking across the world. People told him no along the way but he believed in himself and was a worker and a bit of a charmer, as well as a chancer so he pushed on and was highly successful.

tentacle

His book, Tentacle: Chameleon 2012, is an action thriller centered on the 2012 London Olympics and has an involved plot covering drugs, espionage, politics, murder, terrorism, spanning the major continents, finally converging on London for its climax. No, it’s not my sort of book but so what. It’s a Bond-Bourne mélange and it’s selling big time and getting great reviews, so good on him. But this is the interesting bit for me and I think for you. He wrote his book, almost got published, then got knocked back and then rejected a great many times – yes more fingers and toes than he has. But he didn’t stop. He believed in his book and himself and then luck struck. He met a man out walking his golden retriever, Honey. Well, don’t we all? But David Albert is a chatter-box, he likes meeting people and getting to know them. So he chatted away to this man, the owner of a chocolate brown Labrador, about dogs and David’s book, because it was the thing he was most passionate about and, yes, the man knew a person who could…

So David Albert got published and now he’s a best seller with a big movie deal on his hands and more books to come. And yes, dear reader, as you will have guessed, I am beastly jealous.

Why, I asked my David, didn’t you chat to a man with a Labrador when you walked Zanz in the very same wood? Why didn’t you have a casual conversation about your amazing wife and her amazing books, that would sell like hotcakes and be great movies if only she got the chance?

Simple answers:

Zanz

Labradors and German Shepherds don’t mix and I don’t push myself forward and share my stories beyond my circle. I don’t have enough front to be David Albert and so I don’t have Hollywood on my doorstep. And, I think I have to face the fact, from the writers’ stories of work habits, that I simply don’t write enough. I don’t work hard enough; I’m not devoted enough to my passion. So, David Albert has the charm and push to get himself noticed. Other writers write every day.

Something in my character can’t push far enough. I have won prizes. I am published. I’ve been writing all my life. But I’m not where I want to be and I fear I never will be. Good on David Albert for making it with his first book, he had the range of skills needed to make a big break-through. And you’ll be able to say you read about him here, on my blog. Remember the title when the movie comes out next year and look out for the dashing older gentleman, with steely grey hair and glasses, smiling gleefully on the red carpet. That’ll be David Albert, who never gave up, who never blamed others for his fate, who got lucky because of his character, and is now giving some back through his talks in schools and helping students make connections too.

Is it too late to be the person you want to be? Can you make the small adjustments to get what you want? I’m hoping I can. Change your character a bit and change your destiny a lot!! (Images from David’s book and Private Collection)

If you want to know more about David Albert and Tentacle: Chameleon 2012 follow these links:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tentacle-Chameleon-2012-David-Albert/dp/0956510965

http://www.bomojo.com/bomojoproductions-davidalbert.html

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10784631-tentacle

Let’s talk about reading, baby, let’s talk about a rich life, shall we?

February 1, 2014

It’s that time of year in the UK, kiddies starting to panic about their exams, about their GCSE C grades and wanting it, but not actually being prepared to work for it. There are many serious problems in Education, too many and too depressing to consider here, but the daddy of them all of them is Reading.

Fitzg

As an English teacher of extensive and considerable experience it is my considered opinion that the epidemic of non-readers is growing and will strangle the world, immuring us in illiteracy and idiocy. Forget global warming and the increasing divide between rich and poor, the divide between readers and non-readers will define the planet.

To read is to know, to understand, enjoy, think, consider, imagine, explore. To read is to be empowered. At its most basic and fundamental level reading = knowledge. And you must know by know that knowledge = power. Does anyone really think that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the guys from Google and Amazon don’t read, weren’t readers?

bookshevles2

It’s time to face the facts. Reading is magic. It does all sorts of tricky and scary things to you. It helps your vocabulary, it helps you understand how language works at a fundamental level – grammar and all that lovely stuff – and at the higher level of images and contradictions and challenges in ideas, and concepts. Reading takes you on a journey, to unreal places, to facts and information, to ideas that challenge and confront; to new worlds, both imagined and real. Reading is the fortress for the lonely, for the outsider, for the lost, for the vulnerable and for the smart. Reading fiction helps you understand the world, it makes you more empathic, more able to understand and read others: it helps you to be more successful in business. Oh, yes, there are studied about this.

Smart people read. They know its power. Dumb people, stupid people would rather have their fingernails pulled out than read a book. Oh, yes, it’s true. Stupid people don’t know how stupid they are, because they don’t read. Believe me, I have met too many now – students and parents who actually don’t know what a book is – other than something they had to interact with at school.

bookshevles3

But, more incredibly, there are schools that don’t think reading in class is a sound thing to do. Schools that think silent reading is a waste of time. I know this sounds like insane rubbish but it is true. Reading silently in class (because so many of our students do not read silently or otherwise anywhere else) does not show evidence of progress, means that some are day-dreaming, are not concentrating and simply wasting time.

These are the very schools whose results are on a knife-edge, where students can’t read for meaning or answer anything other than the most fundamental questions about the content. How can they pass an exam worth 60% (soon to be 100%), where half of that mark is based on the ability to read and understand unseen texts? Even the better students aren’t reading a wide and eclectic range of texts, a rich and varied diet of fiction that feeds them and encourages them to go onto A levels and thence to university.

But senior administrators fearful of the might of Ofsted and the madness that mandates evidence for everything cannot abide the quiet, soft, gentle world of silent reading, of a child sitting still, simply reading. Because, you must know by now, if you can’t measure something in English education then it obviously isn’t happening.

bookshelves1

Too many young people do not have the habit of reading. It is easy to understand, there are so many distractions, so many other easier more entertaining things to be doing, why sit quietly reading a book that will take hours or days to finish? What’s the point?

Indeed, I wonder too. Why am I beating my brains out to make fools and morons understand that reading matters, that it makes a difference. Fail your exams, have an utterly impoverished life, know nothing, at all ever.

But you know what, you aren’t in the majority. People read all the time, on the trains, on the tube, on buses and planes – they read the papers and books and e-books and you know what, these people are going to work, to jobs that earn money. Reading got them there. Reading enriches their lives and they know it. (Images courtesy Google Images and Private Collection)