Paris. Thursday. Late afternoon. Rush hour. Packed Metro. Southbound from the airport. We’ve stopped at Sevran Beaudottes (is this an anagram, a code, a message?) I’m wedged in a seat in a crowded carriage. We haven’t moved for almost a quarter of an hour. Something is wrong, I feel it. I know it. I am trained to know subways for they, too, are spies. They come and they go, not staying still for long yet not moving without a reason. They weave in and out of the crowds and tunnels, snakes chasing in the underbelly of the Gallic jungle. Like spies, they are known yet are instantly forgettable. They like the dark. They are fast, dirty, focused. It’s the destination not the journey. And they are seldom good at relationships.
Finally, an announcement, in French, of course but I must use my language skills well if I am to survive. I listen. J’écoute. I am particularly good at food words and asking for directions. Frustratingly the driver’s speech is rapid and mentions neither left nor right nor onion soup. But, in the message, I do manage to pick out the words personne, gare and possibly something about being late. And blessé. That’s a false friend! I remember. We did that in third year once. No-one has been blessed, of course. Quite the opposite. They have been… injured! As I thought. Death, violence and pain all around, wherever I go (but not always in that order). Must it always be so? Wither man’s compassion to his fellow man (or woman)? I so hate public transport. I much prefer the parachute drops.
I look around me. My peripheral vision is sharp. It sees this way and that (how others envied me this at the academy). At the announcement, there are gasps and groans some in French and some not. Some do not react all, mainly because they are wearing headphones and haven’t got a clue what is going on. But I do. I know. My hearing and my French are as good as my eyesight. I definitely heard the word plonger. Someone has dived onto the rails at the Gare du Nord and is seriously injured. Or dead. And if they’re dead, you don’t get more seriously injured than that. Jumped? Suicide? I don’t think so. Pushed, more like. Oh yes. Poussé. Poussé Galore.
So, it seems they know I am here and they are close. I am next. But I’ll die when I’m good and ready (yay, that’s the title!). They are coming for me. Just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean you’re not being followed. That’s not my training. My gran taught me that. Those were her last words before she electrocuted herself with the garden strimmer. I am ready. I was born ready. Actually, I was born choking on fetal phlegm with my lips turning blue, couldn’t breathe and nearly died, but I was ready eventually.
I look in my pockets for a gadget. All I find is my small green box of mints. To the human eye, it looks just look like a regular small box of mints, but when you look at it under a microscope, it’s… a lot bigger. I press down on the dispenser. A mint pops out and bounces straight off my hand and onto the floor. Not cool. So I pretend it’s intentional and curl my lip menacingly. I suspect this looks a bit like Elvis or the onset of Bell’s Palsy, but I carry on regardless (or rather with regard, haha). My face is saying “I am discarding the first one recklessly yet purposefully because it could be poisonous”. Gran would have done the same. She was the best. Gran liked mints. She liked jam, too. She made lovely marmalade with no bits in. Everyone loved her. She was beautiful. Shame about the botched nose piercing.
I press for a new mint. This one does not miss. It drops expertly into the palm of my hand and I toss it into my mouth. My aim is as good as my French. Now I am looking around meaningfully, sucking on my own Metro minty freshness, safe in the knowledge that it is not chewing gum, and so, if I accidentally swallow it, it will not stick to my insides like Gran said it would.
Paris once more. City temptress, urban minx. How long has it been since my heels and toes licked your saucy pavements?
And how long since Maxine? Sweet, lovely Maxine (old flame, not the restaurant). Such a very long time ago. So very much eau sous le pont. We were young and gay (ok, not gay, just happy, but it wouldn't have mattered if we had been gay, because that's cool, don't judge, I'm just using an old word for jolly, so grow up and leave it alone). Were we in love? Possibly. Drunk? Definitely. Before all this maddenning Metro madness. Before the dark days, long delays and train track suicides. When mints were mints and did as they were told. Before this sick, sick world became so goddamn crazy with all these headphones, bobble hats and ear-piercings. Maxine. Where is she now? What is she doing now, I wonder? Why did she leave so suddenly? And why did she take my toaster?
We've made reading boring
And yet so many teachers wonder why students think reading is boring.
So I’m asking you, begging you, don't wait for the system to change or for someone else to change it, because you are the system. Don't hide behind "Oh, well, it's school, isn't it? That's how it is” or (and I really don’t like this one) “We don’t have a reading culture in this country”. Cultures can be influenced and changed.
In my thirty years of visiting and talking to teachers and schools in over forty countries, I've known very, very, very few disagree with my views here, yet they do not incorporate even simple reading systems (especially at secondary) where students do have to read but they can also read whatever interests them and not be tested all the time. A system. Student re-training, if you will.
Parents aren't teachers
Don't listen to parents demanding that you give out more and more tests and boring books following a system which is only familiar, yet not proven to be effective (otherwise all young people would leave school loving reading). Sure, parents went to school for twelve years, but that doesn't make them teachers. I drive a car but it doesn't make me a mechanic. I brush my teeth every day but it doesn't make me a dentist. Parents only want you to give their children what they had, but they are not qualified to tell you what to do (even if they are paying for the education) and it didn't work for them either (how many parents actually love reading?)
How to motivate students to read
Maybe you feel it can't be done at your school, but have you considered the logic and research and tried? Have you read about methods and ideas to explore ways to balance the compulsory curriculum elements with free and easy reading? If you're now thinking that students won't read or you cannot monitor them if they have a choice of titles and hardly any tests, it's because they've already been programmed to think reading will be boring and tested. Re-programme them. They're young. They'll adapt, and fast, especially when encouraged to just enjoy themselves and learn on their own. It won't take as long as you think.
Most hard-working and dedicated teachers, over a period of about twelve years per student, programme eager, curious young minds to believe that reading is difficult and boring. Accidentally, maybe, but it happens all the same and millions of new adults leave school each year, relieved that they no longer have to read. It's absurd and so destructive. And it's been this way since I was at school forty years ago, since my parents were at school, and since their parents, and so on. When will it stop?
Successful reading at school is about staff room mindset not money
If this resonates with your teaching situation, I don’t want you to feel bad or think that I have not seen the obstacles and your stress. I simply want you to not give up and to rethink what you are currently doing and work with your colleagues to change the system from within. Help is out there. I’ll help. There are lots of us who will help you. It's not about money, it's about mindset. It's about wanting things to be different, because if we do what we've always done we're going to get what we've always had.
The preparation is done and the evidence for success is there for all to see. Change your lessons, change your school and, in doing so, you will change your students. It's never too late. You might even change your country. Because if English teachers can't create a national reading culture inhabited and promoted by minds drawn to love reading, then who will?
Sign up for news, tips and materials!