Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

A post about rejuvenation…

I’m one term shy of my long-service leave and have been taking the moment to reflect forwards… should that be proflect? Without ever intending the flow of events, thanks to a range of circumstances, I managed to move from school to university to a teaching job before I’d graduated from university. At the end of nine years, I changed schools and in doing, missed the first chance for long service leave that I might have earned. At the time, the challenge of starting a new job meant that I probably didn’t need the break.

Now, nearly eleven years later from that switch, I’ve decided that a break is probably a good thing. I’m one term shy of 80 terms and aside from the regular school holidays, have moved from term to term in succession. So, I have been taking the time to enjoy the looking forward and the need for time down, which I’ve decided to take over two school terms. And while I don’t want to plan too much, I thought a bit of proflection, in thinking about how I should spend the time, mightn’t be a bad thing.  I’ve got my Masters of Ed on the go, so a couple of units there are factored in and I’ll mostly be around as the kids will still be at school. We might look to go on a holiday, perhaps to Fiji. But I’m enjoying the daydream of what else I might (loosely) occupy my time with. Here is the current list:

  • Might try to build in a bit of exercise – bike riding, swimming, maybe even a bit of running. Something 2-3 times a week would be great.
  • An art class – pen and ink is something that I’d like to have a go at.
  • Or maybe work on trying to crack cryptic crosswords… at last.
  • Some regular piano time
  • Maybe a bit of writing
  • Not re-reading school text books that I’m teaching…

    setting up for a different sort of routine

    setting up for a different sort of routine

The last one leads on to my aim of reading (more or less), one book per week. Being ‘off’ from mid December till mid July means a goodly number of books. Books that I have often overlooked in lieu of school texts or waiting for a time to enjoy them fully. Which is now…

The list, only in its infancy, might include:

  • Catch 22
  • Margaret Atwood (generally)
  • Michael Ondaatje (likewise)
  • Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men
  • A Russian novel… not sure which… not even sure I’d want to do this! Perhaps Crime and Punishment?
  • More of Peter Carey, more of Tim Winton, more of George Orwell
  • Maybe some novels I ought to read again… Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying which I read in 1990, comes to mind
  • Maybe a run of a literary award… like my gaps in Booker Prize winners
  • A poem a day
  • More non-fiction. Probably some history.
  • Possibly a little literary sugar, in the form of the odd “page turner” or two, to balance out the literary “vegetables”

As mentioned, this is just a general musing as I write this post. I haven’t even visited the books that sit patiently in our spare bedroom! Feel free to let me know of anything that you think would be worthy of factoring in for the proflection, whether it be reading or recreational!

I’m in the middle of reading George R.R. Martin’s (first thought… why the need for two ‘R’s!) Game of Thrones at the moment. I’ve seen to the end of the second season of the show and am hoping to get ahead of my reading in the novels before watching any more. My main reason stems from my reading of this first book – it reads very much like it views, as if the producers of the TV version decided that they would do a scene by scene replication of the book. As a result, I feel a bit like I did as a boy, reading the film ‘novelisations’ of the Star Wars series, such as The Empire Strikes Back, which I recall getting via my school’s Lucky Book Club affiliation, replete with glossy photos in the centre of the book. The book felt very convenient as it faithfully plodded through the action that we saw on screen. There wasn’t a lot of flavour… or imagination.

Not that I am suggesting that this is the case with Martin’s epic – it obviously predates the show. It’s just that I can’t really tell. I’m not reading it particularly quickly, but I find it hard to clear my head from the action that I have seen on screen, as I read. I’ve heard that the second series starts to deviate from the book and look forward to seeing the evidence of this when I get to the second book – and as mentioned, moving on to the third before I catch up on “that” season. It reminds me a little of my reading of the Harry Potter series. I had my ‘own’ Harry Potter in my imagination before the movies came along, but I can’t recall him now. He (and other characters) have been well and truly replaced by Daniel Radcliffe et al. I find it sad that I can’t get that imagination version back… and probably never will.

So back to the title of my post… I love literary page turners. Those books that you are almost apologetic about reading. In Australia (and perhaps more broadly internationally now) we have Matthew Reilly. 25 words or less for the uninitiated: super hero defies (multiple) deaths from super villains and overuse of exclamation points while solving international mysteries!!! (more or less)

The boys I have taught over the years have loved Reilly’s work and when asking my opinion of it, have been surprised by the fact that I haven’t jumped on board more enthusiastically. It is a certain guilty pleasure and I enjoy it every now and then, while I am consuming the work. But like eating the fairy floss/cotton candy (love the international use of alliteration to describe spun sugar!), one feels strangely unsatisfied (read ill) sometime after completing the work.

Not like some of those authors who present works that are more like a fine dining degustation dinner. Writers like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, or even the short stories of Alastair McLeod. You might not want to have this level of readership every day, but when you sit down, one can feel sated with the beauty of the words… how they are chosen and placed on the page, in a short period of time.

For now it is George and I am on page 461 of 780 (before we get to the House history stuff). So it is Friday night and, for now, I’m still at sideshow alley and the junk food abounds… and I’m happy to give in to it for the time being.20130816-213642.jpg

How many times, as a child, have we heard this phrase?

Illustration by Warwick Goble to Beauty and th...

Illustration by Warwick Goble to Beauty and the Beast: the heroine is the youngest daughter in her family. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I get you to think about what it means in your mind, like a Pavlovian response, you’d have your imagination firing off possibilities. Quite possibly incorporating images of Fairy Tales, Fantasy, stories set in an indeterminate past. Princes and princesses and simple moral codes. Quite possibly it suggests other or further ideas for you. It was only when my daughter was watching Play School on TV recently, when a presenter began a story with this well-worn phrase

Once upon a time

that I gave it closer scrutiny. And I realised that I, for one, had not really given much (any?) thought as to what this actually means. My own coding sees my mind shift straight away into the premise that I am about to be told a story, quite possibly with an authoritative voice and my own position as listener being that of (or similar to) a child. But thinking about this phrase more closely, it struck me as odd. It sounds like a point being placed on a timeline, when the event that you are about to hear takes place – surely this is not a particularly striking idea to put into a child’s mind? At worst it sounds too clinical – like some kind of science experiment, rather than a story involving flights of fancy and fantasy. Perhaps this is the reason that teachers soon steer students away from using this cliched start in their own writing.

A few years ago, I recall hearing an actor discussing his role as Richard in Shakespeare’s play Richard III. The opening lines will be familiar to many:

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York;

What made this interview noteworthy was his observation that he (and I apologise for being unable to remember the actor’s name) had, for some weeks, been rehearsing these lines without actually understanding what they meant. My memory of the interview was that having admitted to this and saying that this was, it appeared, a not uncommon mistake, he did not go on to clarify what the two lines meant. This set me musing on them, and wondering whether it involved the use of double negatives, which often confused people at the best of times (the “I haven’t done nothing” kind of thing). My understanding of the line is that, from Richard’s perspective, he means the following: If it is the winter of your unhappiness, then are the times actually good for you (the opposite being the summer of your happiness, rather than the summer of your unhappiness, if that make’s sense). Thus the “glorious summer” is a real downer for Richard – who revels when the times are bad, making the most of his own political run when chaos reigns.

What other phrases do we take at face value, rather than giving them the necessary scrutiny?

But why…

Posted: November 1, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Most of my students seem to get the other ‘w’ questions when considering a text (who, what, where, when and, if you like, how) but why seems most likely to stump them. We are close to exams and the ability to analyse a text is being called into question. They are good with spotting examples (we are looking at poetry and novels in two separate ‘areas’) and, nowadays, I’ve found that being able to identify a technique is a straightforward process for them as well. However, giving consideration as to why the technique has been used, can be a different matter.

Therefore, getting a well intentioned student saying something like ‘ In Mending Wall, Robert Frost uses the simile “like an old-stone savage armed” to help us imagine the neighbour more clearly’, is not an uncommon thing.

Mending Wall

Mending Wall (Photo credit: Bill Ward’s Brickpile)

It can be hard to move beyond the “spotting” of the technique, to consider why it has been employed. Sometimes, to highlight the situation, I might say “in exploring techniques, you could say that the poet uses words to help us understand the poem”. In being deliberately facetious, the students are able to reflect back on what they are offering in their own writing.

Maybe, in reflecting on this, we should look at that time when very young children start to question everything in the world. That moment when every answer you offer to their initial question (such as “Why do dogs bark?”) seems to elicit the same response of “But why?” Four “But why” questions (responses)  later, parents (and others) feel compelled to bring it to an end. How often have we heard (or perhaps, just perhaps said ourselves) “It just is” or an equivalent?

Is this the point, as parents and educators, that we should be most alert to? Not that I am suggesting that a halt to the path the conversation is taking isn’t necessary (even if only as a sanity circuit breaker!),

But why can't I?

why not? (Photo credit: hannah8ball)

just that we should be conscious of  the thought processes that are going on with that young mind grappling with the “reading” of the world.

I’ll give you one instance to finish off with. When much younger (and learning to read and count), my son walked up the street, reciting the even house numbers as he went.

All good for 2, 4, 6, 8 etcetera, until we got to the “teens” (14 in this instance). Here the mixed process of reading and recognising the number stalled, as he tried to apply the “one” instead of the “four”. Result? Dad, why is it fourteen, if the number starts with a one? And he’s absolutely right – all the numbers ‘work’ except for the teens.

Sometimes it takes a student to raise the good ‘why’ questions… the ones we’ve learned to overlook.

What is the aim of a dictionary?

I am certainly my mother’s son. There are times when, as a teacher, I find myself channeling my mother, also a teacher herself. Growing up, this would usually arise when she would hear the destruction of the language. One example would be the word “vulnerable”, which was often (and still is) pronounced as “vun-rable”, thus doing away with the “l” sound altogether. At the time, I recall the way that she would enunciate the word carefully, precisely.
Come forward to more contemporary times and I am having to decide my own reaction as my two children, aged 8 and 5, have started to use the word “versing”. Versing, as in, “Who are we versing on the weekend?”
This clanger has been around a while now in Australia. Having taken a number of sporting teams over the years, we were often versing this school or that, or, after the event, who we versed on the weekend (clearly, the past tense usage of the event). The fact that there is only one form of the word, versus, has not got in the way of this level of functionality. For a while, having failed to correct its use, I tried a different tack. I’d say, “Okay, I’m prepared to accept the word versing, if you are prepared to alternate with againsting“. While they could recognise the discrepancy, they weren’t prepared to opt out of versing either.
And, I suppose, why should they? Am I the dinosaur who (admittedly mixing my metaphors) is tub thumping in order to force an unnecessary rigidity into language usage, thinking and application?
So, if U.S. president Warren Harding can cheerfully bring ‘normalcy’ (apocryphal tale or not)  into mainstream usage (the word does not even prompt the red-squiggly line as I type this), should I be reconciled to my fate and brought into the present day as an accepting acolyte…
What about the contrary position? If we are adding words to the current “lingo”, what about the words that are taking on archaic status? Year 8 students are the first to ‘do’ Shakespeare and I am often presented with queries such as “Is this old English (or sometimes, middle English)?”, despite most of the words still being recognisable, if not commonly used, today.
In writing this post, I “recalled” that the size of the complete Oxford dictionary was massive. Of course, completely underestimating what ‘massive’ meant, I decided to check online and ended up at the Dictionary Facts page of the OED. The totals are nothing short of stupendous, with such mind boggling elements including that it would take 60 years for one person to proof read the 1989 version, containing 291,500 entries and weighing in (in paper form) at over 60 kilos! It is wonderful and horrifying in equal measure. The average (whatever that means!) person today makes use of between 5000 (high school educated) to about 8000 words (college educated). I say about, as in looking up this question alone, the range of answers, depending on your choice of sources, varied quite wildly (20 000 was quoted by one optimistic site). If Shakespeare uses 17,677 different words in all of his works, what on earth is going on with the other 270 000 odd (give or take a few between friends!) words?!


Words (Photo credit: Southernpixel – Alby Headrick)

Which brings me to another idea – perhaps heretical to some – Should we look to remove words as well as add them? Is a dictionary more of a historical document? A record of language (and thus society and culture) through all ages rather than just a device for looking up (at its most mundane) the meaning of the word you are now presented with? Going back a few posts of mine… does Orwell’s 1984 Newspeak Dictionary ironically help modern humanity with removing the morass of ultimately redundant words? This would at least give us a living dictionary, pertinent to all using it today.

But then the chance to come across that lovely, colourful and hopelessly archaic word would be lost forever.

PS: Thought I would close by mentioning a discussion that took place in my department yesterday about another ‘term’ doing the rounds with the students. The phrase “Don’t dog it” (and variations thereof) are in vogue – the word dog signifying Sir-you-are-being-slack-and-how-unfair-is-that! An example might be an attempt for a student to give me a high five, which, if I don’t respond within milliseconds, might elicit the “Don’t dog it!” The irony here is that dog seems to have become a verb or an adjective, while the usual idea of the noun has gone.

What current lingua franca are you facing in your locale from students conversing with you and other students? Would love to hear…

All Libraries Great and Small

Posted: August 3, 2012 in Uncategorized
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How can we develop online borrowing without fully fledged owning?

I should start by saying I love libraries. I grew up with my parents taking us to get books out every three weeks when the loan period was up. They were, and still are, voracious readers. That discipline and sentiment has been a significant factor for me over the years.

As I write, my local council is looking to build a 22 million dollar library in the area. I teach high school English in this area. The idea of building a new state-of-the-art library should excite me, and certainly would have done a bit over a decade ago. Now, following a petition that came around and the changing nature of reading, I am wondering about the vision of such a building and the fear that such an enterprise could lead to a white elephant being created. Not that I quibble about the variety of public uses such spaces can and ought to generate.

In addition to loving reading, I have also enjoyed owning books. When young, I admired the collection of hardbacks, dusty softcovers, new editions and classics my parents possessed. I even went so far as to emulate a library in my pre- teen years, putting smaller stickers to identify the elaborate co-ordinates that the books came from on my shelves (Dewey had yet to make an impact on a 9 year old). Later, having moved out of home and with the excitement of a salaried income, I took a certain pleasure in buying up books, whether it be buying up a handful of 2nd hand classics that I had always desired, or forking over larger sums to buy a first edition. When going to a person’s house for the first (or even subsequent) times, I would draw interest in the choices that their shelves offered and what it said about the thoughts and values of the owners. A personal book collection often gave a good indicator of the character of a person.

However, behind all of this, my love of libraries stood as equally, if not more, important. Libraries satisfied the various pangs that I might have, from the trashy fairy-floss page turners that I could read in a night, to curious desire based on a recommendation that a friend or librarian might offer. There are books that I am quite happy to read and not own. I bought my wife a Kindle a couple of years ago. The idea that you can have a book, as the thought or remembrance of it occurs to you, within seconds, is enticing. Having watched Graham Hill’s liberating TED talk on removing the ‘stuff’ in our lives, the idea of having a “library” of hundreds of books in your hand, without the cheap paperbacks becoming moth-eaten and dusty, was compelling. I found my basis for reading and owning books had changed.

Thus the nub of my post – the need for a better library system for the online age we currently inhabit. Libraries are generally “free”. Certainly tax and rate payers pay for this system, but in terms of a greater societal good, it is ostensibly free for all to use thereafter.
In the United States, Amazon has its Prime service, which for 80 odd dollars, offers the lure of free shipping within two days for purchases, the ability to stream television and movies and the ability to read a “A Kindle book to borrow for free each month from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library“.
Currently we have nothing comparable in Australia and I am not sure when Amazon (or other providers) are looking to bring the game to Australia. Not that I am suggesting that Amazon has it ‘right’ either for US customers and readers. The $79 cost seems reasonable enough on the basis of purchasing, say 4-5 “regular” novels at a book store. But compare this to my local library – my children can borrow up to 30 (yes thirty!) items at a time, including books, DVDs, music and magazines. The only issue I face is ensuring all of it gets back by the due date to avoid the overdue fines. However, I think a ‘subscription’ to a library is infinitely sensible and practical.

So to all those developers out there, I am wondering if we can bring about or consider the following: –

  • Being able to access books, on a ‘device’ to read without having to ‘buy’ the book.
  • Perhaps having a limited period to read it for free (or a ‘stepped’ price, like a rental, for the longer you possess it – thus encouraging you to read it more quickly)
  • Ensuring that author’s continue to get royalties, as they would via systems like the Public Lending Right that currently operates

Of course, one could still choose to purchase a book, as now. But what other options could we use? I would love to hear other viewpoints that further or even challenge these sentiments!