Friday, August 24, 2012

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

Added recently to our English teachers' reading list is The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. The distractions are all the obvious ones in our electronic age - the web, social networking, texting and so on. Jacobs, an avid and fluent reader, found himself increasingly stymied when attempting to read the long texts which he once devoured, and this book is his response to this dilemma. It is also a passionate defence of the importance of pleasure in reading, and casts a sceptical eye on worthiness. It's a greatly pleasurable read itself, and Jacobs is an affable and intelligent companion. It should prompt plenty of thought on what is one of the central issues of our vocations.

A key word for Jacobs is 'Whim'. Reading should not be programmatic, and we should take ourselves where we fancy. As he writes, "the child who reads with a pure enthusiasm, signaling nothing to anyone, is beautiful": it is this kind of enthusiasm that is easiest in childhood, and which is very hard to recapture. He also discusses the way the Kindle rescued his 'pure enthusiasm', the importance of marking certain kinds of books ("Reading with a writing instrument in hand is an unnatural act for many readers, yet I think in most cases it is necessary to attentive response"), the pleasure of 'upstream' books (those which have come before, influenced and shaped our current reads) and much more.

Three quotations of particular interest to English teachers:-
  • The“pedagogical challenge” for teachers, in the foreseeable future, will be to combine hyper attention with deep attention and to cultivate both.
  • What reading teaches, first and foremost, is how to sit still for long periods and confront time head-on.
  • In school, then, reading gets linked to a zig-zagging alternation between empowerment and anxiety, an alternation that for some people can last a lifetime
Below, Jacobs discussses the book and answers questions on his ideas.
Alan Jacobs discusses 'The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction' from The New Atlantis on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Leaving Certificate results, 2012

Congratulations to our recent leaving VI form, who last week gained an outstanding average of 451 points per candidate in their Leaving Certificate results. See full details on the College website here.

All 68 candidates sat English, 61 of them at Higher Level, which amounts to 91% (65% nationally).

  • 7.3% of all our candidates achieved an A at Higher Level (nationally, 6.7% of all candidates achieve this).
  • 27.9% achieved a B (nationally, 17.3% of all candidates).
  • 35.3% achieved a C (nationally, 25.6% of all candidates).

See previous results by clicking on the years for 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

'Wonder' by R.J. Palacio

R.J. Palacio's new children's novel, Wonder, is making a big splash at the moment, and it's not hard to see why. The 10 year-old central character (and the first of several narrators), August Pullman, has a rare and extreme genetic facial disfigurement, and we join the story as he faces into his first school (he has been home-schooled so far). In the first paragraph, he tells us: "I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse" (later, another of the narrators, his sister Via, does give a vivid physical description of a face that looks as if it's been badly melted in a fire). The story that follows rips along, tugging plenty of emotional strings as Auggie faces this new world.  As Auggie tells us "It’s like people you see sometimes, and you can’t imagine what it would be like to be that person, whether it’s somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who can’t talk. Only, I know that I’m that person to other people."

'Faces' is always the appropriate metaphor here. Eliot's anxious J. Alfred Prufrock says that "There will be time, there will be time / To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet", but nothing Prufrock has to face comes anywhere near Auggie's daily challenges as he heads out daily from a very loving cocoon of a family (including the dog Daisy), and no-one he meets has the time to prepare a face responding to Auggie's (almost everyone flinches, and he always notices). Hallowe'en is the best time of all: Auggie can wear a mask like everyone else and be free of the mask that is his own face. And 'face' is also a metaphor that will chime with young readers; central to childhood and adolescence are uncertainty and self-consciousness, and the difficulty of fitting in. Palacio takes her readers skilfully through the ups and downs of friendship ("nothing tests friendships like high school").

The blurb says that (cue gravelly voiceover) "in a world where bullying among young people is an epidemic, this is a refreshing new narrative full of heart and hope" - as crass and badly written a description as you could hope for. Wonder is better than this, with a powerful examination of identity - how we are seen, how we see others. However, it does point to a fault some may find: the arc of the story turns out to be somewhat predictably one of triumph over darkness, with perhaps too many saccharine markers, and some of the later narrators are not always as interesting as Auggie or Via (such as her boyfriend Justin, and his friend Jack Will). But these caveats are likely to be a long way from the minds of young readers who will be cheering through their tears by the end.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Reading for English Teachers

The holidays are the best time for refreshing ourselves intellectually, so here is a list of good reading for English teachers (it will be regularly updated). You can contribute by the comments section below, or via Twitter to @sccenglish.

This blog has always been (amongst many other things) about putting our own learning as teachers openly alongside our pupils' learning and achievements (including our use of Twitter). Click here for over 50 English teaching posts.

While we're on the subject, here's an interesting recent post from Darcy Moore, an English teacher in Australia, on the interesting new world of 'social reading', a world which presents us with new opportunities for direct and intellectual engagement with others (including authors) about our reading. 

[updated February 2013]

Recommendations, in no particular order:
  1. The Art of Slow Reading (2011) by Thomas Newkirk : outstanding short book that, appropriately, should be read slowly, to absorb its considerable practical and philosophical wisdom.
  2. Prefaces to Shakespeare (2010) by Tony Tanner. Most of us spend a lot of time with Shakespeare. This could well be the single most intellectually stimulating book on the playwright. Originally introductions to the Everyman series, they are now thankfully collected in one volume. 800 pages of pure gold.
  3. I Is An Other (2011) by James Geary. A book about one of the most important elements of language, metaphor, packed full of examples and ideas we can use in the classroom. Particularly strong on 'real world' use, such as in economics.
  4. The Learning Game (2002) by Jonathan Smith. The autobiographical reflections of an English teacher looking back on a career. Very readable.
  5. Readicide (2009) by Kelly Gallagher. Subtitled 'How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it), this book was prompted by Gallagher's dismay at how American schools are approaching reading, but has a huge amount of material relevant to other countries. It is also consistently readable.
  6. Write Like This (2011) again by Kelly Gallagher. Again, the subtitle summarises: 'Teaching real-world writing through modelling and mentor texts'. Lots of practical activities. Gallagher reminds teachers how important it is that we model writing for our pupils, as 'the best writers in the room'.
  7. How to Teach (2010) by Phil Beadle. Not confined to English teachers, but written by one. On marking: 'Make no mistake: this is the most important thing you do as a teacher.' Read his story in Chapter 5 about Cerise, and the tragedy (yes, really) of her unmarked book. 
  8. The Language Instinct (1995) by Steven Pinker. The intellectual underpinning of Pinker's thought can be controversial (see several articulate caveats in the Amazon comments), but simply on the level of rich material and examples this is a terrific book for the classroom. See also his book on verbs, Words and Rules.
  9. On the same subject, The Unfolding of Language: the evolution of mankind's greatest invention (2006) by Guy Deutscher. 'Linguistics for laypeople' ... as with Pinker, a great bag of stuff for the classroom here.
  10. Old Friend from Far Away (2009) by Natalie Goldberg. Plenty of good prompts and exercises for the classroom, but also a reminder that we should be writing away from it, too, and memoir is a good place to start.
  11. The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson (2012) by David Didau. A short book with lots of good sense (and plenty of value for those of us who don't have to undergo the British Ofsted inspections).
  12. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011) by Alan Jacobs. The changing nature of reading in the electronic age is something all English teachers should think about, and Jacobs's attractive and sensible book helps us to do this, as well as providing a lot of pleasure in itself.
  13. Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a world that can't stop talking (2013) by Susan Cain. Lots to think about here, especially for those of us teaching a subject that requires quietness (reading) and also oral engagement (discussion and debate).
  14. Finally, Drive (2011) by Daniel Pink. Not about English teaching, (though teaching is often discussed), but its lessons about motivation at work should be at the core of our vocations, what we do in our classrooms, and why we do it.