Reading from the outside in

A new term usually signals a new text we have to ‘teach’. In many cases there’s a 90% chance that your students haven’t read the novel in advance and if they have, well, that’s a bonus.

Over the years I’ve tried lots of ways to try and get students involved with the class texts. I’ve sat in on meetings where teachers decide which novels their students should read in which year level and during which term. I’ve been in on discussions as to whether to allow the film version to be studied and what the sparknotes might have to offer.

I’ve had occasion to actually introduce novels in a few classes over the years with great success (usually as a CRT or while on a short term contract) even though I’m not a trained English teacher. This is what I have to offer…

Reading the novel from the outside in

There are many students who don’t like to read, especially not books that are prescribed by their teachers. However, until we change our ways and actually allow the students themselves to choose their own novels  – now there’s an idea – we need to find ways to engage them. We need to ‘hook’ them into learning.

Blue book

Blue book

For a student to connect with their novel we have to tease them into wanting to know more. Therefore I never begin with the Forward or the Introduction and nor do I begin at Chapter One. In fact, I don’t even do this in my own reading, which is probably why I was a little disappointed when the book I put on hold last week turned out looking like this (Blue book). I know I’m going to need to make some effort in reading it over the coming weeks (sighs). So what is it that would engage my students and I into reading a book? What’s the hook? For me it’s going to be the cover – front and back.

For this experiment, I’d like you to grab a novel or any book close by and follow the prompts while simultaneously developing a mind map by hand or using any brainstorming apps:

Here’s mine;

One version of the cover – ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night-time’

  1. Have a good look at both the front and back, and write down everything you see (use adjectives to really help describe what it is, e.g. 6 red cars and extend the mind map). This is even more interesting if your students have different editions.
  2. Ask questions of the students – What does the colour ‘red’ represent? Extend the mind map as students respond – red, love; anger…

    beginnings of mind map

    Beginnings of  a mind map

  3. What of the awards? Google and add info to mind map
  4. Keep going – accept all responses as students begin to engage with your questions. They may have some of their own. Ask.
  5. They may want to add colour or other images which they can draw or download.
  6. Now get them to read the blurb
  7. Who is the main character?
  8. What do you know about this character from reading the blurb? Explore further the idea about not understanding human beings. Do they know anyone like this in their own lives?
  9. What more have you learnt about the dog?
  10. Keep building the mind map…Are there any other characters mentioned? Who are they?
  11. What kind of novel is this? Mystery – who likes mysteries? Tell me about something mysterious…
  12. What mysteries might the main character unravel in this novel? Write a paragraph we can compare later…or draw a picture…or record your idea on your device…

Let’s find out what happens shall we?

And so only then do we turn to Chapter 1 – ‘It was 7 minutes after midnight.” #hooked

Try it; I’d love to hear how it goes.

The mind map can be updated, re-designed, discussed, and dissected as they go through the novel – extending and comparing their first thoughts and developing ideas for later analysis. Some students might like to follow along using the audio version as they read through the book. Did you know that there is a stage production of the novel and even an overview?

So, how did you go with your book? Do you think this could work in your classes? Are you willing to have a go? I’d love to hear about it.

Thanks for reading 🙂


Playing the Picasso hook

In response to the great #tlap chat had the other day led by @timneedles I felt compelled to write this post. Here goes…

creativity important

As an art teacher I have always pretty much approached my teaching through the visual arts lens. If I can find an art work or visual of any type to hook my students into the learning, it makes for a much more interesting lesson.

I’d like to share some of these ideas in no particular order.

Symbolisms in RE

One of my favourite paintings is Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini and his Bride (1434).15arnol

It is one of the most fascinating paintings with plenty of ways to interpret and discuss its content. I have used it as an introduction to Religious Education classes covering symbolism – both secular and religious.arnolfini_worked

I even used it in a job interview to explore leadership and commitment. You may even recall having seen it before – especially if you ever watched the opening credits of Desperate Housewives – I hadn’t, but the students had at the time and they are the ones who pointed it out. Have a look here. The show actually uses many works in their 40 second opening. I just thought of another introductory class just re visiting that clip!

With all artworks used I try and have it projected onto the wall so students can freely interact with it, come up to point and to explore it in detail. I back this up with smaller visuals in colour for them to have in their book and again on a shared platform so they can digitally manipulate or follow up any after thoughts.

Who is Voltaire?

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

dali'_voltaireA great way to introduce the tragedy Oedipus, written by Voltaire and first performed in 1718.

Bayeux – the Battle of Hastings

BayeuxI was asked to be a special guest in a junior History class that was beginning their study of the Bayeux Tapestry. Having just returned from seeing the real thing, I brought along the pull out book I’d bought which was about 1/4 the length of the real tapestry. We laid it out on the ground outside and then proceeded to place the students at intervals up the driveway to establish the actual length using a click wheel we borrowed from the Maths department. The students we astounded by how long it was compared to its width. They were then asked to take a lucky dip to collect their personal scene from the tapestry – their task was twofold, find out what is happening in the scene and come up with a modern twist. Hooked.

A little French Revolution?

Why not begin your study of Marie Antoinette using this?

The History Teachers website has many others. You can check them out here.

Who am I?

I like using Picasso’s portraits to introduce personal development sessions or introductory ‘get to know you’ projects. There are always two sides to everyone – reveal your true self through symbols, through poetry, film or anything else that takes your fancy.


Before we begin we discuss who we think this woman is, what her personality would be like,  how she’s feeling today and why. Or, we might use one another student produced revealing his ‘learner selfie’!


 Of course I could go on but I think you get the idea. Students love every opportunity to be creative in their own right and as educators we must endeavour to supply the time and space for them to be creative. In the words of Dave Burgess (the pirate himself) from his book Teach Like A Pirate, “Creative inspiration is constantly at our disposal, but we will never see it unless we actively and consistently attempt to create” (p 37).

My challenge to you: plan your next topic using a Picasso hook.

Here’s just one more for those who doubt that art can be used in pretty much EVERY subject

Mona’s Golden Rule

Mona_goldenI’d love to hear about your ideas so drop me a line – photos would be great too!

Thanks for reading 🙂