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Book Diary 2014

March 2014:

In the Shadow of Papillion – Frank Kane

Animal Farm – George Orwell

April 2014:

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard – Kiran Desai

Out of Shadow – Jason Wallace

May 2014:

Beloved – Toni Morrison

Poetry in motion

The world and his wife won’t see me dead.
For this little girl smashed up her own head. 
And if this time ticks softly away
She’ll only speak when the wine’s gone dry. 

And God won’t cry when the wine has gone:
Just snigger and judge till He’s sure He’s done. 
Casting aspersions till the sun heads west;
Breaking my face, my smile, my head. 

I want to swallow it whole; the universe and it’s goal. 
Fractions of glass tiny and inviting my soul. 
Fragments of disjuncture and holy peace;
Captivated solely on my whole-hearted disbelief. 

Tears grounded in my guarded scars;
Your happiness written in the stars. 
And as the nails dig deep into the flesh
A calmess unknown becomes my true best.  

Take me to a place where I know I won’t feel. 
To a place I can scream and no one can steal. 
Because when I walk with you I walk tall
And I won’t scratch, or steal, or fall. 

I’ll keep reaching and hissing and squealing
Till all I hear is your imperious silence;
Until all I feel is the shadow of your dust
And the realization of my ingrained distrust.  

As I tried to get to sleep on the penultimate day of last term I had visions of a new classroom layout. I started to think about where I would move furniture to and how I could arrange the tables to better support learning for all the different types of learners I accommodate in my room. Needless to say on the last day of term I could not leave until I had realised my vision.

In a mad panic I plugged the iPod in and set to work moving furniture and tables in alignment with my ideas. I have moved from a symmetrical double horseshoe layout in which the tables relentlessly marched forward, effectively cutting off whole corners from me. These days are over.

My vision sprang from an understanding that the majority of classes have students who are quiet but need individual attention and others who are loud yet relatively independent. I wanted to create a space which catered for both types. I have therefore divided my classroom into two. On one side I have rows and the seating plan will enable facing and side partners and on the other I have ‘islands’. This also supports those who are more comfortable in group settings and those who are better facing forward and who need their own space. The idea is that I can swap each side depending on if a task can help the quieter students gain confidence in working with groups.

It is certainly an experiment and the room looks a little unconventional, and I will have to tweak the seating arrangements depending on students’ performance, but in my mind it should create an holistic learning environment where all my students feel safe.

I have also moved my desk from one side of the room to the other so that I can now see the entire learning landscape and everyone in it.

It feels like my space now; it has my mark on it. And I am certain that no one will be totally cut off from me anymore, even if the desks do all march forward over time!

I realise this blogging malarkey should be regular; I’m painfully aware that I have not blogged in what feels to me like a lifetime. ‘Painfully’ because as a writer (in a previous life) writing used to be a way of life; a way to vent frustrations, catalogue and celebrate successes, self indulge and hope that one day you could write that piece that would catapult you into the literary elite. Alas, with little persistence and regularity as a writer I was forever destined to be merely part of the amateur self-publishing clique – whose writings stay housed within personal journals or the archived local press pages.

Since retraining to teach writing, along with all other facets of myself, has taken more than a back seat – it’s all but been cancelled out by the daily grind of teaching. Teaching as a profession often feels like being fossilised; trapped under the immense daily pressure and never-ending list of things to achieve. As such, I have become far too engrossed in the daily machinations of being a teacher – planning, marking and reporting. But this isn’t a blog about the tribulations and troubles of a teacher; a topic heavily documented, especially this year due to the educational climate in the UK. This blog is about my own journey as a human being over the past year and a half as a fully-qualified and as I see glimmers of a life-once-loved slowly returning to sight.

One such glimmer is the ‘me’ as writer. After a particularly care-free and hedonistic Christmas break I was skillfully ignoring the mountain of marking staring at me from my desk and the hours of up-skilling I needed to do ahead of the next term as a still relatively-new and inexperienced teacher of English and media. Drastic measures were needed if I was to avoid the inevitable last-minute planning panic that was about to ensue if this state of semi-ignorant bliss continued. Those drastic measures involved me booking a quick two-day trip away from the comfort of my reclining chair and BT Vision box.

Within 4 hours of arriving in the sanctuary of Llangollen (with laptop and marking neatly stored in my luggage) I had achieved: (in no particular order) a two-course meal, two pints, over half my marking done and written two poems, including a sonnet (the first creative writing I have done in a good many years). Proof be, if proof be needed, that breaking the cycle is healthy and was indeed, much needed.

As I reflect on the past year (an annual past-time in December, I believe) I am spurred into a renewed sense of excitement for myself as I embrace these glimmers of the old me – as writer, as traveller, as woman even. You see everything stopped for me while I adjusted to my new vocation. Wanting to be able to do something well is all-encompassing, no matter what it might be, and, as you will see from this year’s book diary, I have struggled to find time to do anything else.

Becoming a teacher was my final calling, but in answering the call I ceased to be good at anything else: I failed in my relationship, turned my back on my family and friends, scarcely wrote but a few lines in my journal, gave up on choir, and instead found myself in a relentless cycle of term time (hard, emotionless and focused) and holidays (letting hair down excessively). Somewhere in all of this I forgot to be me. So it was with relief and vigour with which I enjoyed writing my sonnet yesterday – not only was it a moment in my own history but a turning point in what could have shaped up to be a pretty pathetic and sad year.

The proverbial jury is still out on whether I have made the right decisions giving up everything I once knew to commit to this career; God knows I adore what I do – the students, the ‘light-bulb’ moments and the literary research I do – but there is no denying it is not just a job. I have felt moments of turmoil this past year that I recognise from the shaky and unknowing years of my youth. I have felt hopeless, and tired, and often questioned whether I have what it takes (and it takes a great deal). But north Wales – hoorah! you have restored in me the me I longed to see and speak to at this critical time. God bless you.

The moral? A change is as good as rest.

The sonnet? Well, seems only fair to pair the renewed blog-writer with the renewed poet:

Ode to Berwyn

Oh pink heart that lasted, rivers of tears.

A dark blinded silence, broken for years.

And in that sound she did long and forget

Those still waters ailed and old troubles met.

For I will not believe your muffled cries

That wallow shyly under rivered eyes

In hours of lost stones, trickled and tumbled.

For o’er the bridge she irked and stumbled

And listened loud for shadows of the past

For in her proud silence her thoughts could last.

Was in her merry melancholic heart

That weighted darkness brought the world to pass

In an age, not lost, but long remembered:

Her truth and spirit worn but not severed.

Book diary 2013

January 2013:

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

February 2013:

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

March 2013:

Something Fresh – P G Wodehouse

April 2013:

Around India in 80 Trains – Monisha Rajesh

May 2013:

Shakespeare in his Time – Ivor Brown

As They Slept – Andy Leeks

June 2013:

You Had Me at Hello – Mhairi McFarlane

July 2013:

Winter in Madrid – C J Sansom

August 2013:

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

The Universe Vs Alex Woods – Gavin Extence

September 2013:

October 2013:

November 2013:

YIPS – Nicola Barker

December 2013:

Pandaemonium – Christopher Brookmyre

 

I’ve been on a one-woman mission to try and get my students passionate about reading for some time now. Through showcasing my own passion and love for literature, and talking to students about their interests and hobbies I have slowly been opening up avenues of reading for them which they will hopefully enjoy and stick to. I was thrilled to discover last week that our department have put reading firmly back on the agenda for our year 8 and 9 students specifically in a bid to boost reading ages for all. We’ve been tasked with trialling and reporting back on the effectiveness of a variety of reading strategies with all of our classes but have been given total autonomy on how we approach the task.

I set out with my lower ability year 8 group to stage a series of reading activities based on a short story that I read to them. They took to it considerably well, so bouyed by our success I’m sticking to this strategy with this particular group.

It’s fair to say I was nervous about tackling ‘reading’ with my year 9s. They are reluctant learners at the best of times and the very prospect of asking them to sit quietly with book in hand for half a whole lesson filled me with dread. I was forced to face my fear last week off the back of an IT issue where I lost my planned lesson. “To hell with it,” I mused, and armed myself with my self-made box of books and magazines and walked briskly and purposefully into our classroom. I told them straight up what the plan was, and as I called their names on the register they were to come and select reading material from the box. One by one they all became armed and returned to their seats to fumble and finger through pages of pictures and text.

I told them they had to read for 10 minutes in silence and give their books “a good go”. If after that time they really couldn’t get into it then they could swap it. I took up a book myself and sat in the back corner of the room watching my wristwatch and passively reading. 5 minutes – still quite. 10 minutes – still quiet. 15 minutes later and the room was still reading. I decided to time them; leave my readers undisturbed until they naturally became restless and started to chat to each other. Taking this as my cue I then asked them to talk to their neighbour about what they had read whilst I circulated the room and asked them for their opinion on the lesson. By and large they all said they were happy but would be happier if we could have short bursts of reading segmented by different activities, not unlike the structure I had tested on my year 8s. It was a wonderfully co-operative period and my fears were more than allayed.

Now I have the students on board, but I had more of a struggle with colleagues. I was disappointed to learn that 3 students had been returned to my room empty-handed from the library. The librarian had turned them away because she could register loans due to the aforementioned IT failures – all computers and networks were down. If I’d have been able to leave the room I would have challenged her about this: what’s wrong with a good old-fashioned pen and paper to record loans? Surely it is better to have students with books in hand than not, particularly with our department focus? I’m going to take this up with her when I see her, because I just think it’s sending them the wrong message. And I don’t want to feel like I am once again on a one-woman mission to get our kids reading.

Turning a corner.

I’m starting to get things right. Inevitably, there are still vast canyons filled with room for improvement, and I’m still not sure how Ofsted will feel about me when we finally meet, but I’m beginning to see the fruits of my labour come to fruition. (Oh come on, who doesn’t like a mixed metaphor?)

I drove home on Monday on the verge of tears. Tears of happiness, of joy and serenity. I finally felt like I had cracked it. My students were safe, happy, engaged and learning and I was energised and on form. I even had a colleague suggest that I had the makings of a good head teacher. I’ve never even considered it; when you work at the coal face it’s hard to imagine being the boss. Besides, I think I’d miss the kids too much. But it was my greatest compliment to date in my teaching career because she claimed I ‘got them’ and my way of thinking is ‘good for them’. I’ll never claim to have the best subject knowledge; I’ll never say my teaching is flawless and that I tow the line every minute of every day, but I can say I’m there for my students, and from what they tell me and other members of staff they know I am there for them.

Above all else that’s why I’ve ended up here. Sure, I care about the considerately placed comma and the poor abused apostrophe, these things are important and any day now I will stop comma splicing! But being a constant for a young person who faces difficulty is what gets my out of bed every day.

I am always amazed by the resilience and tenacity our young people show; the things they have to deal with on a daily basis are remarkable, I don’t know where they find the strength but they do, and they inspire me because of it. It’s so easy to holler at a student and challenge them “Why are you late?” and when they reply with alarm didn’t go off, mum didn’t get up, ran out of electric, I had to get my brother to school, etc etc, it’s easy to see how we should be patient with them. It’s plain to see that it’s a miracle they even get to school at all some days. It’s simple to understand that their lives are bigger than the school day and getting to registration is not always going to be their most pressing priority, and often for good reason.

Tuesday saw one of my more reluctant readers asking about ’1984′ after I’d mentioned it in class. He wanted to know if it really was as good as I’d said. I told him I’d lend him my copy and he smiled. It was a simple yet brilliant moment in my career so far. He’s fired up about reading again and he enjoys coming to English.

My students think I’m fair and that is a good thing. They know I am investing in them. There was a moment when I was concerned they didn’t think I meant business, but they do. And I’m content with this balance. I’m proud that my natural strength is my relationships with my students and that they feel they can come to me and be honest. It’s a privilege to earn their trust and enjoy their company each day.

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