Tag Archives: education

Michael Gove- The Little Grey Man of Literature

Michael Gove- the little grey man of literature Image by new3dom3000 under creative commons

I tweeted a few days ago that Michael Gove’s reforms to the English GCSE curriculum reminded me of Putin’s Literary Canon pronouncements a few years back– nationalistic, narrow-minded and reductive. For anyone who hasn’t heard, the head of OCR’s head of GCSE and A-level reform claims that Michael Gove has personally intervened to ensure that where novels like Of Mice and Men and To Kill A Mockingbird would have originally been studied, students will now be examined on a work of fiction or drama originating from the British Isles since 1914.

I am deeply concerned that the education secretary has been allowed to interfere in the English Literature curriculum without consultation with teachers and universities about this. There is no university department which teaches an English Literature degree without reference to writers from outside the UK, for the simple reason that literature is not something which is restricted by geographical borders- it is designed to challenge and breakdown barriers, not to reinforce them in such an arbitrary and mindless way.

And, to steal David Cameron’s favourite phrase, let us be perfectly clear, while there are plenty of students who could and would engage with the works of Jane Austen and Dickens, there are plenty of students who would find the language and volume of reading a struggle. Lower ability students will be penalised as they will require extra support to access the lexis, syntax and context of these novels in the limited contact time that they have with their teachers. So this latest reform will do to the novel what his plans to have primary school children learning and reciting poetry by rote will do- turn more and more students off Literature.

Students used to ask me why I chose to study English Lit at university- and I would tell them it was because I couldn’t decide what subject to study. When studied properly, literature allows you to study history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, politics, religion… it broadens the mind. That’s what worries me about this latest announcement, it’s so incredibly reductive it makes me wonder if Gove isn’t one of those little grey men from Michael Ende’s Momo, ripping the colour and fun out of education for every child in the country because they are at odds with his personal values.

Whatever he is, he’s a very dangerous man.

Save Money on Books – Tips for Cheaper Reads

Untitled design
Let’s face it, books aren’t cheap and they can really hit your pocket if you buy a lot of them. A few years ago I posted some eco-cheap tips about how you could read more, spend less and save the world but given the current financial climate and some extra tips I’ve learned in the three years I’ve been blogging since I decided this didn’t go far enough. So if you consider books to be luxuries rather than essentials, here are my top money-saving tips for you.

 Borrow and Swap

1. Libraries

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- making use of your public, school or university library is probably the easiest way to get hold of the books you want for free. Sign up for a library card and you can rent a selection of books (and DVDs, and CDs) for weeks at a time, just make sure that you renew or return by the due date to avoid fines. My local library has a great community of readers around it and hosts storytelling, author talks and reading groups so it can work wonders for your social life as well. Bonus point of libraries- authors receive a royalty for books loaned through libraries, so even if you aren’t able to support your favourite author by buying their books, you are still supporting them by reading them.

 

2. Set Up a Swap Table

At work we have a swap table where you can leave your books when you’ve finished reading them and pick up a new book in exchange. This doesn’t even need to be limited to books. Our table is fairly book dominated because of the nature of the publishing industry, but I’ve also seen CDs, DVDs, cake and in the summer a glut of allotment fruit and vegetables. It has all the benefits of swapping with a friend of family member but with much greater variety, and you can spring clean your bookshelves and know that your unloved paperbacks are going to a good home.

 

3. Ask a friend for their book

If you see a friend reading an interesting looking book, don’t be afraid to ask to borrow it. It’s always nice to see what you’re friends think of a book that you’ve loved (or hated) and it will help you bond over a shared interest. I love lending my friends my books as I know they always pass on something exciting in return.

 

4. Book Mooch

If you aren’t able to set up a swap table in work and your friends aren’t big readers, then there are great websites like BookMooch that allow you to swap with readers all over the world for the cost of postage. Though you do have to be patient while you wait for the book you want to appear, there is an immense sense of satisfaction in hunting down that little gem. It is especially good for classics such as The Great Gatsby or set study texts and you can decide where you’re willing to send the books, though you do get more points if you’re willing to agree to international swaps.

 

Beg

5. Make the most of wishlists for Christmas and Birthdays

If you’re a reader on a budget and you aren’t making use of some kind of wishlist for birthdays and Christmas then you need to start, pronto. My boyfriend always asks for a wishlist for my birthday and Christmas (they’re exactly a fortnight apart and he panics) so I always stick a few books on my list and he’ll pick a selection of them. You still get a surprise because you don’t know what you’re getting, and they have reduced pressure. There are tools for this on Amazon, Play etc. but I find it just as easy to send a polite email or text when someone asks what I would like to receive.

6. Ask for national book tokens or gift vouchers for your favourite bookshops

If you’re not sure what books you want when a big occasion is coming up, you could also ask very nicely for book tokens. I often give these to readers (my father especially) for Christmas with a stocking filler because I know he’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of a book, but I’m never sure that he hasn’t already read the book I’m picking out for him.

Buy or Acquire (for a fraction of list price)

7. Charity Shops

As well as clothes that don’t suit or fit me, I take books that I’ve read to my local charity shop to make room for replacements on my shelves. I have pretty regular clear outs (because my boyfriend complains that the house is overrun with books) and not only do I get the exercise benefits of lugging along some pretty weighty tomes on the way there, but I invariably end up finding something I haven’t read but want to. My local charity shops sell paperbacks for about 30p and hardbacks for 50p-£1 so I sometimes end up coming away with more than I’ve left.

8. Second Hand Bookshops

As with Charity Shops, second hand bookshops are a great place to search for hidden gems surrounded by likeminded people, but be warned, this can become addictive, especially if you start scouring places like Hay-on-Wye for beautiful antique books. This happened to me when I started collecting Wuthering Heights books. It may end up costing you more than you save!

9. Green Metropolis

If you are searching for a particular book but want to avoid Amazon (for whatever reason, now’s not the time for a soapbox) then Green Metropolis is a great site which allows people to sell their old books for a flat fee of £3.75 and at least 5p from each sale goes to The Woodland Trust so it boosts your eco-credentials at the same time. Green Metropolis also lets you list your old books for sale, and while you’re not going to make a huge profit when the cost of postage is deducted, you can earn a few pennies towards a new book or to cash in for real world money.

 

10. Sign up for the Newsletter

If you sign up for newsletters from your favourite publishers, they will not only send you information about new releases, but very often special offers and whopping discounts. One of my favourites is the Penguin newsletter which pretty much offers a 25% off discount code every month which I can use to treat myself or buy something nice for other readers in my life.

 

11. Make friends with your local bookshop

My local bookshop runs a loyalty scheme where I get my card stamped for every ten pounds I spend. Once I fill up my card, I get to pick a new book for free. It is addictive and I do have dreams of one day owning a gold loyalty card. It’s not just indie bookshops who do this (though obviously, it’s good to support them if you can) high street chains like Waterstones have a points based reward system which lets you spend points instead of pennies.

 

12. Electronic versions

If a book is out of copyright (usually 70 years after the death of the author, but it varies depending on international law and publishing history) then you can often find it LEGALLY free through websites like Bibliomania or Google Books. If you want to buy an eBook version of an out of copyright book, then these can often be found for nothing or next to nothing through major online bookshops, though please remember you should only do this with books that are out of copyright.

 

13. Special Occasions

Keep an eye out for special events in the reading character, like world book day or world book night. School children will be given tokens for a free book on world book day, and publishers give away millions of adult’s books for free as part of World Book Night. You can even sign up to spread the joy and hand out copies of your favourite books.

Win

14. National Book Token Competitions

Remember the National Book Tokens I was talking about earlier? Well they often run competitions in which you can win tokens to buy whatever book you fancy. Sign up to their newsletter and details will be emailed to you whenever they run a competition.

 

15. Blog Giveaways

If you follow book blogs, you’ll see that many reviewers will offer giveaways of books they’ve reviewed if they have been given an extra copy by the publisher. I sometimes run such giveaways myself and I occasionally buy books to giveaway for the occasional competition. You’ve got a better chance of winning if you know about the competitions, so keep reading those blogs!

 

16. Publisher Giveaways

As with the discounts, if you follow publishers on twitter or subscribe to their newsletter, you’ll get to hear about the competitions they are running to promote their new releases and will be in with a better chance of winning.

 

17. Foyle’s Book Game

If you’re really clever, you might be able to win the Foyle’s book game run by the London bookshop from their Twitter account each Friday, but competition is fierce and the real reward is a well-crafted book  pun.

 

Is there anything I’ve missed? What are your tips for saving money on books?

 

 

Image adapted from original by @Doug88888 under the terms of the Creative Commons License

100 Artists for Literacy

 

100 Artists for Literacy

100 Artists for Literacy.

I loved the above post on Anni Cardi’s blog, which links you to a charity Doedemee selling posters of redesigned book covers to help raise money to fight illiteracy.

Guess where I’m shopping this month! I think I’ll probably get the Wuthering Heights design for myself,  because it’s completely gorgeous AND one of my favourite books.

The posters for Alice’ Adventures in Wonderland, Anna Karenina, Wind in the Willows, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atonement and Northern Lights are also amazing. I might ask for some for my birthday/Christmas.

What-the-Dickens by Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is probably best known for his Wizard of Oz spin off, which despite its flair, owes some of its fame to the cult status of The Wizard of Oz and the runaway success of the musical version of the book, Wicked. However, in his modern fairytale What-the-Dickens: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy, Maguire shows that he has the ability to craft his own fantasy world securely within the familiar confines of our own.

Ten year old Dinah waits with her big brother, little sister and adult cousin for her parents who have left the house during a deadly storm to find insulin. Their neighbours homes have been evacuated, but the family’s strong religious conviction has made them attempt to weather it out. With little food and no power, their older cousin Gabe tells a story to pass the time.

The story, he says, is a true one which happened to him during his child hood, and explains how What-the-Dickens, an orphaned skibbereen, or tooth fairy to you and me, comes to find his place in life, facing deadly challenges and making friends along the way.

Even as an adult I found the story charming and funny. If I was still teaching, I would include it in a scheme of work for 11-13 year olds. It’s an excellent starting point for exploring fairytales and mythology, as the modern setting takes us away from the traditional men-in-tights-and-women-in-need-of-a-bloody-good-haircut scenarios children expect from a fairytale. It’s also a lovely little tale about culture, identity and self belief.

If you have a small person between the ages of 9 and… well I refuse to stick an upper age limit on it, then you should get this book for them. Read it yourself first though!

Ancient Books and Library Closures

If you tolerate this…

I’m sure that any keen readers out there are following the campaigns against library closures which are going on across Britain, as library users desperately try to highlight the vital role their libraries play in their communities before it is too late. I live in Oxfordshire where the closure of 20 public libraries is threatened, and have been following the UK wide proceedings with some interest. I think my favourite campaign so far has been the library in Stony Stratford, outside of Milton Keynes, which simply invited the users of the library to take out their entitled allocation of books in protest – with over 24 hours to go to the date of the protest the entire library had been emptied. Not that it’s just books that libraries provide.

Have a look at what the author Phillip Pullman and Nicky Wire of The Manic Street Preachers had to say on the subject, they say it better than I can, but I think we should all be vocal about this important subject.

I watched The Beauty of Books on BBC 4 last night. There were copies of ancient bibles which had been safely held in churches and libraries for over a thousand years. Image that, a thousand years. Empires have risen and fallen, worlds been discovered, space travel invented and these books have quietly existed alongside all of that telling the story explicitly or implicitly of the people who made them. Who will look after these resources and this knowledge if we close our libraries?

What will happen to the millions of books they contain?

 

The Problem With Poetry

My friend, who likes reading, just told me she hates poetry. I was shocked. I am always shocked when someone tells me they hate poety, not just because it’s a sweeping dismissal of an entire literary genre, but also because… well, how can you not like poetry?

I get that some people don’t like the complexity of the language some poets use.  Was it Nietzche who said that poet’s muddy the water to make it appear deeper? To me that’s bad poetry. Bad poetry is complex to give a false impression of depth. Good poetry is like a literary strip tease, the slow removal of doubt and the tantalising glimpse of understanding. A detective game, in which you solve the poets clues to reveal the truth at the end, or have you?

For me, poetry is a game, and I enjoy playing the game well. I think that a lot of the problem is the way poety is taught. Either people are numbed young as children by being forced to learn some bloody poem about waving daffodils by rote (he nicked the idea for that from his sister’s diary…) or they are told what a poem means, when really poetry should be as subjective as any other form of literature. You bring your own interpretation to the table.

Teaching poetry was my favourite aspect of teaching and I conciously avoided forcing my interpretation of the poem on a class. I like to think this allowed students to gain confidence enough to provide their own analysis. When they see there is no right or wrong, they enjoy pulling out words and thinking about what the word means to them, how the poem relates to their own experiences of life.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say there’s no such thing as bad poetry, there’s plenty of bad poetry, just like there are plenty of god awful novels out there. But there is also brilliant poetry, and people shouldn’t be put off by bad experiences. I only wish it was afforded a greater status and made more accessible.

I’m attaching a video of a girl I used to go to a drama group with performing her poetry. She’s amazing. I think it would be great if slam poetry had some kind of television profile so people can see how much fun it can be and that it isn’t some high brow elitist medium.

Chinese New Year: Top Five Fictional Rabbits

In honour of the Chinese year, the year of the rabbit, my list of my favourite rabbits in fiction are as follows:

1.       Velveteen Rabbit The Velveteen Rabbit Margery Williams

2.       Br’er Rabbit from The Uncle Remus Stories Joel Chandler Harris

3. Peter Rabbit The Tales of Beatrix Potter

4.       Hazel and co. of Watership Down Richard Adams

5.       The White Rabbit Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll

Special mention to Rabbit of Winnie The Pooh fame.

Lettice Reading

To me, rabbits have always had a certain pluck and are far from the insipid little beasties they always seem to be portrayed as. That might just be as a result of my pet rabbits having bullied me through the years, but I’ve chosen my rabbits to reflect this, with the White Rabbit thrown in for a bit of variety.

I will never forget hearing the story of The Velveteen Rabbit when I was about four years old and how sad that made me. If you haven’t read it yet, then you really, really must. If you’re in the mood to weep over rabbits (well, you never know) one that has the potential to get me going is a poem by Roger McGough Rabbit in a Mixer Survives based on the true story of a little rabbit who fell into a cement mixer.

My Two Pennies Worth

Doubtless anyone who reads the news will have heard about the recent outcry about the censorship of racist language in the latest version of Huckleberry Finn from New South books, in which the n- word has been replaced with “slave” and “injun” with a more standardised spelling, which they doubtless feel will be less shocking to parents on the boards of schools which they feel shy away from studying the text because of the racist language.

My two pennies worth? Aside from the fact that it is a satirical novel which criticises slavery (a pretty decent reason in itself not to censor) what is this sanitized version of history teaching children? I’m sure there are things in the past we would all like to airbrush away, unpleasant things we would like to sweep under the carpet, but I don’t think an oppressive period in history should be one of them.

When I was teaching I taught Of Mice and Men to my GCSE groups, and rather than shying away from the racism, sexism and prejudice against disability that are used in class, we tackled it head on. For example, which vocabulary did the students feel was appropriate to use? Why did they think that the author had used it? This gave rise to meaningful discussions which lead to the student deciding that Steinbeck’s portrayal of Crooks did not make him a racist, but reflected the attitudes towards black people in the era the novel was written. We discussed the Jim Crow laws. The students learned about the Ku Klux clan. We listened to Billie Holliday singing Strange Fruit and the students learned more about the historical period than they otherwise would have by avoiding the use of the n word.

I think it is more useful to teach young people and readers in general to open their minds to what they are reading and allow them to feel comfortable in challenging the attitudes and values presented in the text.

Banned Books in Schools

I was browsing the BBC website at lunchtime today and came across this feature on banned books in schools. I never encountered this kind of thing as a teacher, but I have always been profoundly amused at parents who believe that by stopping their children reading books they can somehow shelter them from the more unpleasant aspects of life.

Does anyone have any thoughts or feelings on this? I like to think when I have children I will be able to trust that they are mature enough to read the books and discuss themes like race, sexuality, drugs, violence or religion in an open and supportive way. That’s what my Dad always did with me. No books were off limits. Somehow I’ve managed to avoid ending up pregnant or addicted to narcotics. Go figure.

Seriously though. What do you think of this as a reader? Or as a parent? Or as a child?