Using a literature based programme to engage boys with reading and writing


It seems to me all but miraculous that amid the tumult of events and the events of competing dramas, despite the uproars of wars and politics and all the bombast of the daily news, these books began, all of them, with the quiet strokes of a quill or a pen and were formed in seclusion to be sent out into a world, where a fuse was lit.  There then followed a conceptual chain reaction, sometimes of awesome proportions, which changed the way all of us lead and experience our lives.
Melvyn Bragg
12 Books That Changed the World

And so Melvyn Bragg concludes his introduction to his stunning book published a few years ago; which sought to identify the 12 most important books of all time. It is a fascinating list and it is journey from Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin to the Magna Carta and Michael Faraday. It is of course also important to observe that the book itself is not only a wonderful invention, but also the source or catalyst for inventions that define our very daily life or indeed our way of life.  My thinking on such a topic was triggered by recent conversations and my thinking on how we introduce boys to reading and learning in Middle School. There must always remain in education the art of providing boys the portals through which they pursue connection with the affectively important domains of living; insight, reflection, contemplation and perspective. These of course are actions that make us human and add light and substance to the mere act of simply being alive. Reading a wonderful book can bring alive the understanding of time, the nature of life being a journey, the reality of distance and that life presents obstacles to traverse.  These are concepts that are in stark contrast to the culture of immediacy that fills our boys' lives today.
The internet and online resources provide stunning opportunities for research, analysis and synthesis of important, valid and contemporary information. However, these are indeed opposite kinds of thinking to that which we can establish and be affected by in an enduring and profoundly rewarding collaboration with a book. A collaboration which can offer a new world, inspiring characters, insights and profound lessons.  Indeed, so powerful is this journey for some readers, they are afforded the incredible joy of "travelling elsewhere" whilst they read.  I am convinced that when boys read and explore quality literature in a classroom and that text is used to inspire discussion, collaborative projects, creative tasks, creative writing and a celebration of the sheer power of the text, those boys are so extraordinarily fortunate. To participate in such a multi- dimensional and creative classroom is so important.  The act of reading inspires deep thinking and deep learning and boys engaged in reading are being asked to flex their deeper emotions and cognitive capacities. 

That is only a good thing. These classroom reading experiences should focus on discussion, collaboration, journals, character profiling and; cooking, plunging into ice-baths and making barbed wire.  They can take weeks and perhaps not all be assessed.  The actual source of such teaching and learning need only be a page, a single page, of quality literature that a passionate teacher can recognise is filled with truths, lies, opportunities, history and debate. It does mean that reading is sometimes more about "getting away" rather than "getting to somewhere specific" on a learning continuum. So be it. An investigation of such a text in such a superior context allows for deconstruction of the connections that have been intricately woven by the author, so a boy learns perhaps a rich lesson in consequence, cause and effect and destiny, as well as artistic and creative skill.  The Year 7 boys' recent work on Titanic evokes a great example of this. It is of course a story known by boys from theatre screens; dominated by impossible love and treachery.  In contrast in Year 7, the boys were asked to see through this cinematic version by reading the final page of Beryl Bainbridge's novel on the tragic event.  This single page took the boys to the scene where the Titanic has sunk and the survivors float in the Atlantic, prior to dawn. The first sentence of this last page begins; "The lamentations rang through the frosty air and touched the stars; my own mouth opened in a silent howl of grief. The cries went on and on, trembling, lingering - and God forgive me, but I wanted them to end." Over several weeks the boys wrote, discussed, researched and made a documentary on the topic; as well as plunged into an ice-bath and created a final paragraph for an imaginary novel about another mighty moment in history.  Far from being a teaching task that asked for a single, generic response; the boys are afforded opportunities to foster their individuality and their uniqueness in their responses. 
 These are young men whose lessons in these formative middle years, we teachers aspire to ensure, will enable them to grow and believe in something, to become relentless and noble visionaries who construct a life that helps construct our world. For some boys the qualities required to create such a life are, I am convinced, initiated, enriched, broadened and made resilient by individual and guided journey's they have taken through great literature. Let's not celebrate too thoughtlessly, our new technological inventions which have the prowess to accelerate and to interconnect so much of our daily undertakings. Let us also realise the joy and importance of the private self. We must encourage boys to go off-line and immerse themselves in the civilising energies and rhythms of a fine book. 
ML Valentine