Back in May I fell into conversation with @atharby (Andy Tharby, he’s a secondary English teacher) about the power of reading. We talked about the interesting notion in this post, that one of my children knew (or thought he knew) about sailing through reading. Swallows and Amazons, in particular, figured highly. One thing led to another, and this post was born.
An interview with – two – teachers.
Nancy: Which was the first book/series of books you remember getting really excited about?
Andy: It’s strange. I can remember the moment, but not the book. It was one of Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven. I was sat with my mum on her bed. I’m not even sure if I was reading to her or reading alone. The first page was tense, but I can’t remember why, with a description of snow and a crisp full moon. It’s funny how I remember the experience the most, the sense of leaving the bedroom and entering completely the frozen world of the book. It did not feel like an escape or a release, more like an awakening.
Do you believe we can teach our own children to love books or can we only hope they will take to them?
Nancy: My poor children (I have three) have to put up with a lot. I drag them round cathedrals, art galleries and the like, my husband takes them to aircraft museums, constantly presents them with rc flying things of one sort or another. And from an early age, I, especially me, have read them bedtime stories. We have cuddled up, snuggled up, journeyed across forests and rivers, to the moon and back and discovered that we do indeed, love green eggs and ham.
These days Sam, my eldest, likes nothing better than an evening of Which Bus, or Camping and Caravanning Monthly. A, at 11, has to be reminded to turn the light off as he devours book after book after book. And L, my baby (an 8 year old baby, so I shouldn’t refer to her as such, but there you are) has a decided bottom lip thing going on if I try to duck out of the nightly reading ritual. I read her that Secret Seven book. All snowmen and making camouflage suits out of sheets. She loved it and was on the edge of her bed (in the absence of a seat).
Whether this is to do with the sharing, or the stories, though, remains debatable. I think the best we can hope for, as parents, is that we give our children opportunities, lay the best foundations we can, and hope they take them up on their own account.
What do you think is the purpose of teaching children to read?
Andy: Ouch, that’s a hard question!I’ll start by rewinding to the two years I worked as a bookseller before I became a teacher. I read more widely in those two wonderful years than I ever did in my three years at university, or have done since becoming a teacher. If you had asked me then why we should teach children to read I would have said something along the lines of ‘to immerse them in great literature’ or to ‘inspire a love of the written word’.
I still believe this by the way, but the wider worldview afforded by my eight years as a classroom English teacher have made me more realistic. When I said goodbye to my year 11 bottom set a couple of weeks ago there were a fair few who still could not read or write to the level of an eight year-old. After 11 years of schooling they left with nothing. This must be wrong and we must do more as a profession to stop this. Even though they did not have serious learning needs, they will enter an adult world they are not able to fully take part in.
So, if you ask me now why we should teach children to read, my answer is simple. Because it is their basic right and entitlement. However, I cross my fingers and hope that my son, just shy of three, will share the love of books that I inherited and is, in a funny way, his inheritance. (I met his mother at the bookshop!)
How have books influenced your decisions in life?
Nancy: Where to start with that one? I think, since I learned to do it, that I have been hugely influenced by the books I read. As a teenager I was perpetually confused as to why reality didn’t seem to have anything in common with the world I read about. I think I thought that secondary school would be like some sort of Mallory Towers experience. Unfortunately, Devon in the Eighties was anything but.
Later, I turned my attention to romance reading – but strangely, this had the opposite effect in that I knew from an early age that these type of relationships (where the prince rescued Cinderella etc etc) weren’t for me. If I needed rescuing, I’d do it myself, thank you very much. I knew, from a young teen, what kind of relationship I didn’t want, and, I put that down, in large measure, to reading all the books.
I’ve always been a bit of a runner-awayer. When I haven’t been able to absent myself from a difficult situation, books have given me the headspace I have needed to get away, if only for a short while.
That’s a sort of answer, I think.
Next question – how would you characterise your bookshelves?
Andy: Overflowing! When my partner and I first got together we had religiously separated bookshelves; over time, they have infused and become starkly incongrous. They are a perfect metaphor for life. The top row is devoted to 19th Century fiction – Dickens and Collins in particular. The middle shelves are a mismatch: Alan Partridge sits shoulder to shoulder with Doris Lessing. The cookbooks on the bottom row have been partly eaten away by our ever-greedy dog.I once spent a summer working in a book factory; booksellers would send back damaged returns to be pulped. I became a book thief, squirreling away these sorry, unread beauties in my rucksack, evading the non-existent security and curling up with them in the evenings. I still have a few on my shelves even now.
Which book would you be most prepared to steal of you had to?
Nancy: Now, you’re a sneaky one. You keep asking me questions that go right to the heart of me. And I keep wriggling and trying not to answer!
I wouldn’t steal a novel or a book of poetry. I wouldn’t steal a great play or a fix it manual (although that might depend if I were stuck on a desert island with only a bookshop for company). A coffee table book of seminal photographs? Nope.
For me, it would have to be the Bible. It never ceases to amaze me, the lengths people will go to to get their hands on it, and yet I have several: different translations, ones with stickers in for my children, a beautiful illustrated one from my own childhood. My bookshelves overflow with plenty, and yet, this old, old book, full of strange stories and poetry, fantastical beasts and miracles is the one that springs to mind, the one that informs my heart, tells me to love my neighbour and reminds me to put others before myself.
Anyway, that’s enough of the deep, philosophical hand wringing. Time for something lighter.
I haven’t had much time for reading since I started blogging, and I intend to remedy that this summer. What’s on your summer reading list? Virtuous teacher manual or steamy bonk buster?
Andy: Is there a book that combines the two? Perhaps The Hidden Loves of Learners
or… 50 Shades of Hattie
might serve up us novel slant on effect sizes. I haven’t quite put together my reading list yet, and I think that’s the point. Having spent an academic year in thrall to the clockwork of the school bell, I can’t wait to read what I feel like when I feel like it. I do have a book on action research in education to get through but after that, I’ll let inclination be my guide. I will probably read a Dickens and I have yet to finish Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow
. After that, who knows?
I imagine I will also read Topsy and Tim Play Football over and over again until my little boy moves on to something a little more nourishing. (Or the book succumbs to a horrible accident in our open fireplace.)
Another deep one from me, I’m afraid.
Is life too short for bad books?
Nancy: Bad books. Well, there’s a term. Not so long ago I aspired to be a writer of Mills and Boon romances. Did you know they publish over 20 titles a month, and, at around 50000 words I reckoned I could be into a nice little money spinner.
So, as you do, I got to work reading around the genre, and you know what? I quite like ’em. I’m not overly keen on the very steamy ones (there’s only so much cliche this girl can handle), but the sweet ones are, well, quite sweet. They don’t take long to read, and, in the hands of a writer like Fiona Harper they are funny and, well, heart warming.
And yet, many many many people would condemn them, and all light fiction aimed at women as Bad Books. Yes, there are badly written ones (please, please stick to simple words like ‘said’ and phrases like ‘took the juice out of the fridge’ and if one more heroine twirls her hair atop her head while she has YET ANOTHER shower….), but I have found myself immensely entertained at points in my life when a worthy tome is the last thing I wanted to read.
That said, I do think there are books out there that I wouldn’t want on my house. These books are those that purport to be liberating, and yet speak insidious ideas into our minds. Like the Twilight books, or Fifty Shades. Mills and Boon has come a long way from submissive heroines like these.
So maybe I’m saying that the concept of a bad book is in the mind of the reader, and that what I would want (as a teacher, a mother of a daughter and two sons, and as a reader myself) is readers who think and reflect critically upon the stories they read, so that they can decide for themselves whether it is bad or not.
I like a story; the narrative of a book carries me along. I don’t like books that tire me out with their intricate language and density of prose.
What do you like in a book? What is it that makes it a good one?
Andy: Narrative is important to me but it’s not everything. I like books that help me to think things I’ve never thought before or to visualise things I have not imagined before.I struggle with stories that are not rooted in reality; I love it when a book augments or enhances my perception of the world. I read a lot of books in translation. Independent People by the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness was wonderful. About 10 years ago I read the work of the German author W. G. Sebald: he weaved such strange yet lucid webs of prose that even now I sometimes feel that I am looking at the world through his eyes.
In a similar way I’ve read lots of books about teaching recently. My assumptions have been challenged and I thrive on that. I am wary of simple answers and the best books I read tend to ask questions but provide few answers.
On a lighter note, here’s my next question. Which literary character would you most like to be and why?
Nancy: At first thought, easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Rather stereotypically, an old favourite, a character I have known for all of my adult reading life, Elizabeth Bennett.
Not because she gets to wear flattering clothes, goes to parties and gets the rich man in the end, no. (Honest.) I like her because she knows what she wants and she sticks to it. I also like her because she admits when she has made a mistake, and makes amends. I wish that I had her turn of phrase – although I wouldn’t wish her family on myself! Or her social milieu. Or the attitudes or understanding of medicine. Or the diet. Or the, you know, reality of living in that age.
But hey, a girl can dream.
This post forms part of July’s #blogsynch