Reading can matter and writing can hurt

Here is bluntly what I want to say.

I think reading matters. I think writing matters. Here are some thoughts on why, based on working in a weird range of settings at the moment.

The work I am doing, with various hats on, is the context for my views. I’ve put a bit about that in italics at the bottom since we don’t need to go on about it too indulgently here (unless you want to, then by all means, scroll, friend).

As it is now, one day, I find myself sitting beside a 4 year old in the north side of Birmingham, helping them to make the right kind of ‘th’ sound. The next day, I find myself exchanging morose song lyrics with angsty Year 7s in East Ham, or reading the dystopian fan fiction their best friend created. The next day I find myself working with a group of adults reflecting on our roles as reader-teachers.

From this spread, I get a bizarre exposure to life on the English rail network and more usefully for this post, I get some two different insights to those that first came to mind whilst I was full-time class teaching, and when I was full time as an AHT in schools.

1.

READINGMATTERSREADINGMATTERSREADINGMATTERSREADINGMATTERS ad infinitum might not achieve what we would like it to

Across our schools, we hammer this message home with the same breathless intensity as a kabbadi champion, sprinting between tables, peering over shoulders, signing reading diaries, teacherfacing chatterboxes, zipping between our ‘WHAT IS YOUR TEACHER READING’ and Reading River displays, browsing the Twitters …

We know reading is important, but sometimes the way in which we frame the message around it is a bit disingenuous. For us as mature readers, do we read in the way we encourage the children to? Always striving for that which will push us beyond our tastes. Seeking challenge and breadth.

I don’t read like this, anyway. I had a period of time when everything I read related to India, and I had periods of time where I just read whatever other people gave to me. I had periods of time when I just read anything linked to Albert Camus. I had periods of time when I just re-read stuff I read in Sixth Form. I had periods of reading only kids books. I had periods just reading Will Self.

I had periods of reading nothing. Truth told, I am in that phase now. The last thing I read ‘cover-to-cover’ was a manga comic book ‘My Hero Academia’ on the insistent suggestion of a former pupil.

There is danger I’m taking too much of a Garth Marenghi approach…

All books have their place but we are well-placed to help steer children’s choices, through knowledge of their reading. It is better to have kids reading than not reading, yes, but should that mean we don’t step in if they are yet again clutching a David Walliams, when we feel strong that AL Kennedy or William Steig would probably be right up their street, be funnier, better-written, have better and more lively language and so on?

In incessantly telling that reading matters, we might give the impression that we ourselves are relentlessly reading, always striving for the next challenge that might push us deeper and deeper into literate culture.

Some of you may do this, and I have worked with some teachers who really do live an ‘incredibly literate life’, forever wielding some esteemed text about the place. I have met more who read a lot every now and again, or on their holidays, but who find themselves binge-watching trash TV on an evening instead. I know I do…

Across our fair land, whether with a carpet full of nursery pupils, blinking at their first graphemes, or on the walls of a secondary English classroom, we declare that reading matters with more intensity than we put into showing how it matters.

The ways that it matters are often more personal but more potent. It is not that through consuming with a well-curated daily regimen of reading, we suddenly discover we are living the good life.

It is far more nuanced than that.

Sometimes we read stuff we hate, and sack it off. Sometimes we persist with things we want to love, even if we don’t.

Sometimes we read stuff just because others make a fuss about it, and we don’t want to be left out. When I was nine, this was why I cherished this book so much.

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It isn’t going to win the Booker Prize, but it was reading to know stuff, to belong, and to take part in the social world of the playground. At the time, I just liked it because I liked it, but belonging was the ultimate reason.

It’s the same reason I read just enough of Milkman last year so that I could take part in superficial discussion with my cleverer and more readerly peers, despite struggling with it from the offset.

We can perhaps communicate that reading matters by being more sincere and honest about how we do it, and also, how we don’t.

Do you read on your commute, as a form of daily escape, but struggle to read over longer periods of time? Share that.

Do you lounge for hours and hours, being so drawn in and intoxicated by the worlds you read about that they more real than reality? Share that.

Do you find yourself unmoved by the storytelling that moves others? Share that.

Do you hate reading anything that is not written by one of about four authors you have just always loved? Share that.

These are the conversations that can help to get everyone into the social world of reading. It is a place where the eleven year old reading The Iliad belongs just as much as her classmate reading Billionaire Boy.

2.

Writing is not particularly pleasant most of the time

Last week I found myself sitting on the floor because the chairs for four year olds were so profoundly minuscule that I could not even fit half of my back end on. The children in Reception had been learning their new grapheme, and had been playing around with saying it and finding it in the spoken words that they know, and they were now having a go at writing it down.

I watched a girl who had very confidently succeeded in all the rest of the session suddenly change her disposition. She slid a chunky pencil between her now-gnarled fingers and had a go at dragging it around the page. She was wincing a bit. She wasn’t enjoying this.

I found myself looking at my own hands with a new kind of objectivity, remembering them at different points in my life. I conjured up sixth form, which was the peak of my manual labour, since university championed the use of laptops for everything. In sixth form, I would be writing so much that – because of my odd pencil grip – I would erode the skin off my finger in the same place every day. It became a slightly shiny callous. A glossy pride scab. A tattooed testament to my productivity.

I remembered university and how, somehow, I would stay up through the night typing and reading and retyping and editing. I remembered how my shoulders ached, and the webbings between my fingers would chafe and my wrists would start to feel like bad ankles. I’d recall that odd moment in the library at around 4am when everybody’s bodies seemed to break in harmony, and people began emerging from little desks and around shelves, hobbling and stretching like extras in a George A Romero film.

Writing is really physically annoying and we don’t account for this enough. Five minutes of continuous writing led to some frankly bizarre noises in our Writes of Passage session with the secondary school pupils. I saw hunching and gritted teeth. When we called time on that writing exercise, it sounded like when you clip the bike pump onto a wheel valve, before you snap the black thing down. It sounded like the Bisto advert.

We so infrequently write alongside our pupils and perhaps because of that, I think we can easily forget or disregard their protests when they say their hand hurts or they need to get up and stretch. If, on the odd occasion, I hit a flow with my writing and find myself writing by hand or typing at a screen for an hour or more, I emerge out of it not as a butterfly, but back as a scrunched contorted pupa, creaking about as though I had been arm-wrestling rather than writing a shit reimagined version of Reservoir Dogs with actual dogs.

Be authentic about your reading and writing

The unifying thread here is one of authenticity. We don’t need to pretend that we have rarefied reading habits if we don’t, and we don’t need to perpetuate the idea that writing is always a feather-quilled festival of expression. Instead, we might gain something different ourselves, and provide something more accessible for our students, if we show that reading and writing is fundamentally human, and therefore liable to be just as flawed, annoying and inconsistent as we all are.

When I finish writing this, I am not going to read the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. I’m not going to read anything. I’m going to watch videos of people throwing exercise balls at each other on Youtube. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever read some more Tagore, and it doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed reading ‘acclaimed literature’ recently. But I’m not in the mood, and that’s ok. Can we make that OK for the kids too, and if we did, do we think that would encourage or discourage their relationship with reading?

Humbly, I reckon it probably helps.

What is this work context you were going on about then?

I’m not working as a full-time teacher in a school now. Yes I am working full time. Yes it is as a teacher, mostly. And mostly it is done in schools. But that isn’t the same thing as working as a full time teacher in a school, and I know it.

I don’t have one group of students for whom I am responsible for 39 weeks of the year. I  don’t have a book corner to cherish and embellish, and whilst I am by no means living the high life when it comes to 5pm, I am not marking. I don’t generally have to do things in a particular way, as agreed or dictated by one particular approach or institution. I am not seen as ‘accountable’ for the writing of the pupils I work with in the same way as in a school.

As one of those millennial Pick and Mix professionals, I have several things on the go at once, and enjoy how each enriches the other.

With my OtherWise Education hat on, I run poetry retreats, creative writing networks and a project geared towards supporting the more vulnerable pupils through developing oracy, communication and writing. These projects work across primary and secondary schools.

I am also a lead trainer with a new publishing organisation that is seeking to bridge the high quality teaching of systematic synthetic phonics, with a playful and contextualised approach to teaching vocabulary, early reading and the provision and enjoyment of beautiful books. In this role, I am working with staff and pupils in four of the schools trialling the programmes.

I am doing some occasional other CPD too. I am lecturing on the teaching of poetry with the Essex and Thames Primary SCITT. I do some of my own CPD as well, like a day focused on what is good and what is bad about Reading for Pleasure, with teachers in Derby.

And I write. I have plenty of notebooks on the go, and whilst some of them are filled with crap notes, indecipherable scribble and listless ideas, there are some things in there which are promising at least. I write funny poetry for children, and can try it out on them in school, and I write filthy poetry for adults, and try it out on them at Open Mics in northern pubs. I am starting to write children’s books, but also spend a lot of my time writing in lots of other ways too – reports, reviews, guidance etc.

And this blog, too, which you have got to the end of. Have a golden star.

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