Let me admit here my bias from the outset.
I love books.
Not altogether surprising in an English teacher. Or in light of previous blog content. Or in light of the name of my blogs!
But I do.
The Hobbit by Tolkien was the first book that gripped me. And writing in general has never let me free of its grips. Books kept me sane through the long interminable holidays I was forced to go on with my parents – canal boating – cramped up in a 65 foot space with brother, parents, occasional other family members with no space to escape except into the books I had brought with me. Books gave me an escape from worries about money. Books have taught me and nourished me and protected me.
As a teacher, the biggest horror I face is that population (sadly ever growing) of kids who can read but who choose not to. For whom reading is just “too much effort,” “too long,” too hard, “too boring”. There are no graphics! It takes perhaps weeks for them reach a moment of high tension in a book whereas their Calls of Duty and Modern Warfares can give them the same thrill every seven minutes in handy fun-sized pieces.
So it was that I surveyed my Year 9 group. A bottom set. I surveyed them all with a sinking feeling: I knew these kids; I had taught some of them in one capacity or another for both their previous years in the school. I quickly surveyed them at the start of the year anyway:
How many had books at home? 3
How many had ever read a book for pleasure? 2
How many had never read a book at all out of class or parents making them read? 18
How many had never read a book from beginning to end at all, even in school? 1 – who I hasten to add had not been in our school for a year having entered half way through Year 8.
And so it was that we embarked on reading A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I won’t regurgitate my previous praise for this book which can be found here but I found it fabulous! I have sung its praises at school and among friends and family for months! I even bought in a class set of them for reading at school. And it was these which were distributed amongst a very definite class of mostly male non-readers.
Many of the fears and threats that books pose to non-readers were absent from the book. Written from the point of view of a teenage boy, its language is mostly simple, almost monosyllabic and robustly Anglo-Saxon; it is puntuated by the most wonderful and muscular illustrations by Jim Kay such as these
And it alternates between three worlds: the familiar world of school where Conor negotiates bullies and teachers with varying degrees of success; the emotionally traumatic and horrifying world of home where Conor’s mother is struggling in her fight against cancer; and a mythic world in which a monster, some ancient personification of all that is wild and untamed appears.
We finished the book this week. As all teachers do, we alternated between reading and working on it but this week we got to the climax: Conor was finally forced to tell the truth of his own nightmare and the mother’s battle with cancer comes to a head.
I read these final pages to the class.
They were silent.
Absolutely transfixed by it.
At least two students were openly (although very discretely) crying.
The emotion that a lot of them felt was not covered up with showing off or playing up as might have been expected.
They sat. They listened. They felt.
And they started yesterday to ask about books. One of them had brought in a book from home to show me. His first one ever. Another asked me to recommend him a book similar to A Monster Calls – plumbing the Carnegie Medal 2012 I went with Annabel Pitcher‘s My Sister Lives On the Mantlepiece.
For the first time in most of their lives, they felt that they could read; that they were able to get books; that books were good.
It really is moments like this that remind us what it is like to be a teacher.
So, to Patrick Ness, I salute and thank you for this wonderful inspirational gift of a book.
And now I turn to the pile of National Curriculum levelling, reporting, planning I have to do and sigh…..