by Jill Berry
As those of you who know me will realise, apart from an occasional guest blog, I don’t write a regular blog of my own. I’m often sorely tempted when I want to comment on something I can’t easily do via Twitter, or in response to someone else’s blog. But I’m in the final stages (allegedly…) of a four-year part time EdD course, and I’m at the point of drafting the 60,000 word thesis. I HAVE enjoyed it, and I AM pleased I chose to do this, but I really need it to be finished, now, and any other opportunity for displacement activity ought to be resisted, so I promised myself that starting a blog would be my reward when the final version is handed in.
However, reading the summer #blogsync posts about various educators’ experiences of reading and how books have helped to shape their lives has made me think deeply about my own experiences, and I really wanted to write something in response. Chris Waugh kindly said he’d host a blog post on this subject for me.
It’s interesting to read of other bloggers’ childhood exposure to books and positive role-models among their family members and other influences. I have to say, this wasn’t the case for me. My parents were very supportive and loving, but they weren’t avid readers as I grew up – both had left school at 14 (pre the 1944 education act) and apart from a few ‘Readers’ Digest’ titles (and how unappealing did they look…?) we didn’t have books around the house and I can’t remember either of my parents, or my two elder brothers, ever being absorbed in a book.
I do remember receiving books occasionally for birthdays or at Christmas, and I read the same, few, favourites, over and over again – books like Heidi, What Katy Did, a few Secret Seven books (I didn’t discover the Famous Five!) I liked the comfort and familiarity of rereading a book I knew I’d enjoy, rather than the ‘risk’ of trying something new which I might not like. I find this odd, in retrospect, as I haven’t turned into that sort of adult at all! I love trying new things – a new restaurant, or holiday destination, for example, rather than staying with an old favourite.
So it’s interesting to reflect on when things changed. I moved to secondary school in due course and English was probably always my strongest and favourite subject. I (generally) enjoyed the books we read in lessons (though David Copperfield at 12 was a chore. I’ve written about that here: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2012/feb/07/dickens-teaching-resources-200) but don’t remember using the library very much, and extending my reading repertoire. However, when I was in Year 10, I remember seeing a pile of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in an English classroom. I knew the story and I was interested. I slipped it unto my bag and took it home and read it. And I enjoyed it, and understood it, and felt pleased with myself. I think that may have been a bit of a turning point. (I did slip it back onto the pile in the English classroom when I’d finished).
So I chose English A level, and then an English degree, and I started to read avidly. Now, I can easily read a book a day, and sitting in the sun reading a good novel is my idea of heaven. I have eclectic tastes and enjoy a weighty Victorian tome, a gory Revenge Tragedy, a book of poetry or a well-written contemporary novel. I enjoy fantasy fiction too, and have loved becoming completely absorbed in the Game of Thrones series.
As a teacher of English for 30 years, sharing books I loved and passing on recommendations for wider reading was one of the greatest pleasures of my career. Preparing to teach new texts was always a joy. Reading books recommended by pupils and discussing our response was enjoyable and satisfying. Books have been such an important part of my life now for the past forty years!
Interestingly, my mum, at 91, does read a lot now, and I love sharing books with her and talking about what we each think (a select Book Club of two…) I’m also in a Book Club with a group of local women. Quite often the books which this group chooses are ones I’ve read before, but I have to say I’ve enjoyed rereading a number of texts, usually getting more out of them than I did the first time round.
Books, for me, educate our imaginations and enrich our lives. They open up a world of experience and help us to develop empathy and tolerance. I love the line from A Clash of Kings (in the Game of Thrones series): ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one’. I go to Trinidad and Tobago on Friday to do a week’s work with 40 school principals there who are supporting the teaching of literacy in their schools – a vital way in which the country can beat the cycle of illiteracy/unemployment/poverty/crime and drug abuse. I came across this, in ‘An A-Z of School Improvement’ (Brighouse and Woods) and I’m going to use it at the start of my week with them:
“From Evidence submitted to ‘The National Commission on Teaching and America’s future’
I was supposed to be a welfare statistic…It is because of a teacher that I sit at this table. I remember her telling us one cold, miserable day that she could not make our clothing better; she could not provide us with food; she could not change the terrible conditions under which we lived. She could introduce us to the world of reading, the world of books, and that is what she did.
What a world! I visited Africa and Asia. I saw magnificent sunsets; I tasted exotic foods; I fell in love and danced in wonderful halls. I ran away with escaped slaves and stood beside a teenage martyr. I visited lakes and streams and composed lines of verse. I knew then that I wanted to help children do the same things. I wanted to weave magic….”
This sums up, for me, the power of reading, the importance of literacy and how crucial the role of the teacher is.
Thanks, Chris, for this #blogsync topic and for giving me this opportunity to contribute.
13 August 2014