John the Reader

Like many other English teachers, I spend a lot of time thinking about what texts I should study with my classes. All English teachers, I believe, care deeply about their students’ reading, and are keen to develop a love of reading, so that students will read for pleasure throughout their school careers and beyond. So how do the texts we choose to study reflect this ? Do we choose to read a text in class that the reluctant readers will love, in the hope that they will rush down to the library after lessons and devour books by the same author? Do we avoid texts we think will ‘put them off’ reading?’ Do we have compulsory reading in our lessons? Compulsory reading lessons?

I’ve come to the conclusion recently, that whilst I can encourage reading for pleasure until I’m blue in the face, the only books I can guarantee my students read, and think about, are the ones we read in class. At KS4 we are a little bit constrained by the books on the syllabus, but at KS3 there are no limits. We have freedom and choice.

Recently, in exploring this question. I’ve been thinking about one of my ex-students. For the purposes of this blog, and for his anonymity, I’ll call him John.

When I taught John, he was in year 9. He was incredibly popular, and often could be soon walking the corridor with a different girl on his arm, depending on the day of the week. He found school difficult, but conducted his social time with an impressive sense of confidence. He regularly fell out with teachers, received a wide range of demerits, detentions and isolations, but never really seemed to care. Sanctions were meaningless to him.

John’s behaviour was notorious. Like his brothers before him, he could derail a lesson in minutes. He swore with aplomb, and no student was ever far enough away in the room for him to engage in a loud, crude conversation. John got moved around in my lessons. I’d tried sitting him at the back, at the front, on his own, with a quiet student, with a confident student. Ultimately, all failed. John didn’t make much progress with me as his teacher. Part of this was my fault. I was inexperienced, and didn’t really know how to handle him. For most of the year he simply drifted, disengaged and disruptive, through my English lessons.

Despite all this though, there was one particular moment where I thought I had made a massive breakthrough. John had lost his phone (this was in the dark days, before phones were banned on the premises) and was engaged in a very public search for it, interrupting one of my lessons to look for his phone, when he should have been in a lesson himself. It this wasn’t until later in that lesson, that a younger student found this phone in the classroom and handed it to me. I kept the phone locked up in my drawer so that I could return it to John later, ready to take my rightful place as John’s teacher-hero.

Just by chance, before I gave back his phone, I happened to nudge one of the buttons. As the phone lit up, I saw a sight which knocked me for six. His screensaver, behind the ‘locked’ screen was quite clearly the front cover of Cirque Du Freak, the very book we had been reading in class! I checked again and the cover was still there, a beautiful sign that John was enjoying reading.

What a result! I had turned reluctant, low-achieving John into a student who actively took an interest in reading. I had to contain my excitement when I saw him later and returned his phone. I knew John well enough to know that if I mentioned this in front of his entourage, my next lesson with him would be hell, so I kept it quiet, for now.

I did tell my colleagues though, who were equally shocked. John never really took an active interest in anything school-related as far we were aware, so for him to exhibit some interest in reading seemed pretty amazing. When I managed to find a moment alone with John, I spoke to him about Cirque Du Freak and what he liked about it. He was pretty sparing in his praise, but I let him know that there were many other exciting titles by the same author in our library which he could take out for free.

Cue the tumbleweed. Cue the look of utter disdain. Cue the fading dream that I had ignited his spark for fiction. Reading in his spare time, according to John, was simply not going to happen.

But…. but your screensaver? But….. you liked it!

I protested. John thought I was ‘mental’.

A few months later, I tried again, reminding him of the book, getting him to tell me what happened in CDF, getting to him to predict what he felt might happen in the next book in the series, doing all in my power to tempt him into reading for pleasure. A month or two later, and we had the same conversation, as I desperately tried to cling on to my victory. Alas, it was not to be. Cirque Du Freak stood alone as John’s book of the year, with no others being read to contend for the title.

John left the school mid-way through year 10 to a different provision, even before they started reading the books required for their GCSE English. Cirque Du Freak, as the only full book he studied in year 9, may have been the only book he read for about two years.

I have no doubt that John liked reading Cirque Du Freak. But despite this, the text seemed to make absolutely no impact how much John decided to read fiction out of his English lessons. John was probably only ever going to read one book that year – the one his English teacher read with him. With that in mind, can I really be happy that Darren Shan’s Cirque Du Freak was the best choice? I don’t think I can. On first reading I thought it was good and I knew my students would probably enjoy it. But, the writing itself was not challenging. It didn’t broaden my students’ experience of style or vocabulary. I didn’t have to teach any context, because there wasn’t really any to teach (unless I was missing something). There were no deeper moral questions to engage with. It was, well all’s said and done, a reasonably enjoyable piece of teen-vampire fiction. The type of book where on the second reading, you don’t discover anything new.

I know that this is only one example. John was just one student. But as far as I could tell, even choosing a book he enjoyed did nothing to promote his reading for pleasure, and I think the same is probably true about all of my students. I will never give up trying to promote a love of reading and reading for pleasure. But, I will always remember that the only books I can guarantee my students read, are the ones I choose to read in class, and this choice is not to be taken lightly.

I certainly don’t have a definite answer to exactly what books students should study at KS3. But if my experience with John has taught me anything, it’s that choosing books because the students will like it, or with the belief that it will increase a student’s reading for pleasure, is a probably a poor way to make the decision.

If you could only read one book this year, what would it be?

Other blogs which discuss which texts we might study at KS3. I’ll add more when I come across them:

Alex Quigley’s ‘A new English Curriculum.’

David Didau’s ‘Principled Curriculum Design’

9 thoughts on “John the Reader

  1. Great blog post, you raise an excellent point through John’s story.

    What happened to books like Animal Farm, 1984, and The Great Gatsby. Are we allowed to use them for that age group? 🙂

  2. A very good question, tricky. Torn between ‘at least he knows there are books he might enjoy’ and ‘it would be better to read something more challenging as it’s school’. I think you can raise interesting issues out of any book – eg, look at representation of gender through the narrative structure (might be good in a vampire book), even just understanding the concept of narrative structure + being able to map this. But you’re right, John prob won’t ever ‘read for pleasure’ but at least he’s enjoyed a book at school.

    • Thanks for the comment Penny. I think there certainly are interesting questions to raise out of lots of books – we were discussing this very thing in the staff room the other day. But, I think the problem arises when we select books for the wrong reasons. For instance, instead of picking a book and saying “hey, wouldn’t this be a great book to explore the representation of gender” we tend to say “hey, they’ll really like this book.” I think most students like being challenged and being able to feel progress. With John’s book, every single student in the class could have read it home without any teacher input, so I feel I probably let down a lot of the more able readers.

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