Summer Readalongs

It’s exam season here in Cambridge and I’ve been spending a great deal of time with anxious students lately. But I do feel for them so much. The pressure put on children to perform well in examinations seems to grow year on year, and given that what happens in an exam is such a poor indication of the education they’ve received, it seems entirely unfair. My son is sitting his first set of qualifications this summer, and I’ve had lots of conversations with Mister Litlove, and in fact, with friends who have children at the same stage lately. There’s a huge parental desire to make kids do their revision, to oblige them to face up to the importance of the exams they’re sitting, in the belief that these are make or break situations, that life will somehow pass them by unless they have a string of excellent grades.

I am staunchly against this, not least because I witness in my job all the damage that this approach inflicts. Children are well aware that exams are important; they have it drummed into them just about every day they are at school. And what happens at school is that the exam becomes far more important than the subject. The students I see have lost all connection with the interest and curiosity they may have once had in their studies, although it’s possible they never really cared for them much anyway, and only chose to pursue certain subjects because they felt they were good at them. Inevitably, then, the work they do will be undertaken in a sterile, joyless frame of mind, whilst their fragile sense of identity is overly dependent on a good grade. If parents have joined in teachers in exerting pressure on children, then they begin to believe that they are ‘bad’ or unlovable if they don’t get the grades they need. They no longer situate their sense of value and guidance inside themselves, but rely quite desperately on external events to prove their worth. For the worst cases, who’ve grown accustomed to being pushed by teachers and parents, they have no sense of responsibility for their own development and no independent will power to get on with work. And the bad news is that, by 19 or so, their characters are in the final stages of formation, and altering their attitudes is going to take a great deal of pain and suffering that could have been spared them, if they’d been left to make their mistakes and figure out what was important to them a whole lot earlier.

Once you put an examination at the end of a course, you effectively put up a hurdle and a promised reward. Kids know that what comes with a reward or payoff is generally a task that’s tedious or unrewarding in itself. ‘But they won’t work if we don’t examine them!’ I’ve heard many teachers wail. Not true. Human beings are innately curious and innately creative; you just need to give them the right sort of conditions in which to exercise those qualities. Thirty-five children in a class, supposed to be sitting down and listening quietly may not be the right conditions (particularly for boys). Many years ago now, behavioural scientists tried out an experiment with monkeys, putting puzzles in their cages intending to offer food if the monkeys could solve them. Before they even got that far, the monkeys were trying to work the puzzles out. The scientists could not believe it. They had wanted to know how much incentive was required, and had never bargained on no incentive at all being necessary.

These findings were replicated by a group of researchers working with young children who liked to do drawing. One group were asked to draw for a certificate and a ribbon. Another group were asked to draw and at the end were unexpectedly given a certificate and a ribbon. And the final group were just invited to draw. When the researchers returned to the school several weeks later, they found that the children who’d done drawings knowing there’d be a reward at the end of it had given up drawing now in their free time. The other two groups drew as much as they had done before. Examinations and rewards can actually be a disincentive to work, particularly when that work is playful and creative.

Do you know, I had no intention of writing any of this when I sat down? It must be on my mind more than I knew. But my point here is to trust the child, and to let the child grow up to be exactly themselves, which will be more than enough. Things work out how they must, and there is no point forcing children into situations, courses, pathways, that don’t suit them or for which they feel no genuine, motivating passion. Every parent wants the best for their child, no question of that; but getting parents to accept they might not be the best placed to know what that best thing is, is an awful lot harder. Things go wrong whether we like it or not, the best laid plans unravel; the only thing we can usefully teach our children is to roll with the punches of destiny, and to believe in their capacity for self-knowledge, innovation and resilience.

Okay, screech of soapbox being pushed to one side. With that off my chest, perhaps I can talk about the actual topic of the day which is, believe it or not, plans for summer reading. You’d never have guessed that, would you? I was going to talk about how much I’ve been enjoying readalongs lately, and wondered whether anyone fancied joining in with some (no examinations at the end!). Emily and I are going to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in the month of July, and if anyone else wanted to join in, that would be delightful.

I’m also intending to read Angela Carter’s Wise Children and Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge in August. Nothing happens in the blogworld in August; it’s so quiet and sparsely populated. Again if anyone wanted to readalong, it would be lovely to have companions for both books. Let me tell you a bit about the books. Angela Carter’s Wise Children concerns two theatrical families, the Chances and the Hazzards and the crazy, bizarre things that happen to them. It’s a blend of Shakespearian romance and magical realism, written in Carter’s rich and vibrant language. The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge is Rilke’s only work in prose, and again it is a rather odd book but a stunningly brilliant one and an amazing example of the modernist imagination. It begins with the poet living in Paris and suffering from the convergence of his delicate sensibility and the brutal sights and sounds of the city. Trying to calm himself, he returns to memories of his childhood and, when that fails, to legends and parables. This one will be a reread for me, but it’s been years since I last read it. Well, I’ll be reading them anyway, but if anyone wanted to join in, that would be lovely.

28 thoughts on “Summer Readalongs

  1. I would love to read-along, but then after this post, I would follow you anywhere. I’m particularly struck by what you say about now being the time for children to get straight the what I love vs. the what I’m forced to do problem. What you’ve said about this is very wise, and because this is exam season for us too, I’m so happy to have this reminder. xoxo

  2. Good luck to your son with his exams–he’s lucky to have parents who aren’t pressuring him even more at home! I think as a society we do this to ourselves constantly–from childhood on up and for those who fall behind or don’t excel life can be really miserable and filled with the pain of feeling a failure! On that happy note, I’d love to read along–I have the Capote on my bookshelves and I think the Carter as well. I’ve never read Rilke, but I know you have enjoyed his work so I am sure I would like it as well. Just name the times! 🙂

  3. My brother always says he never would have gone to college except that he didn’t want to let my dad down…my brother was someone who never responded well to traditional schooling, tests, etc and while college for me was one big romp (oh look! a whole semester dedicated to john milton! Hurrah!) for him it was nothing less than a painful slog that made him feel terrible about himself. We need, especially in this time of exponentially rising college costs, to find ways for people to make viable livings w/out college degrees, and to be supportive of that. I am trying already to keep expectations for my daughter’s future in check – she has received no less than ten different college onesies from passionate family members and while that part is in good fun, it soon won’t be….

  4. Wonderful post (as always)! I always enjoyed school for its own sake, but I was pretty good at exams — if they’d come a little less naturally to me, I think I’d have been less enthusiastic. Whenever I had teachers giving the class hands-on activities (especially in science!), it made it way more fun. I remember in fifth grade we had student teachers who gave us the MOST COOLEST EVER experiments to do with science. We made planes. And invented habitats for creatures. I wish that had continued.

  5. Thank you for the first part of the post. It’s timely for me in thinking about my children. As for the second part, I liked Wise Children a lot, and it’s been a number of years since I read it. I might join you in the readalong. I’ll need to see how my summer shapes up.

  6. Can’t wait to read your review of “In Cold Blood,” which I read a couple of years ago. Definitely checking out the Angela Carter …her book “The Bloody Chamber” is one of my all-time favorites.

  7. Funny, when I attended school in England, I remember thinking, “How horrible it is that all students are doing after a certain point is preparing for their O Levels.” (Yes, that’s how old I am.) Even at age fifteen, I realized there was something wrong in that (probably because I was always a horrible test-taker). Well, now that’s all that American students do, and it starts from the moment they start school, because all school funding is based on students’ test results, and the students get tested every few years (as if how they perform on tests is any indication as to how much money a school deserves). All the teachers I know hate the fact that mostly what they do is teach to tests. Anyway, like you, what I really came here to say is, “Looking forward to reading the Capote with you this summer.”

  8. A great post, I really like your thoughts on education. My brother (now soon to be 50) once told me that he had hated school from day one, he felt that the system never gave any credit to the themes and subjects he himself felt important. At eighteen he failed his chemistry exam, and our mother got really upset, thinking he would never be abel to get a job and support himself … Today he is an art-history professor, doing great research on the link between medieval and renaissance art and architecture in Rome 😉
    – so no doubt I agree with you in letting the young ones find their own way and pace through it all!

    I’ve never read Rilke, I’ll try to make some time for “The Notebook …”

  9. I’ve appreciated your free-writing the first part of your post. These thoughts have to be released albeit we know well that we just can’t beat the system. Nowadays, even those serving in bistros are university grads, what can one do with just a high school diploma? Don’t blame the tiger moms, for what we have is a tiger system. Anyway, I’ve just been to my son’s university graduation. Yes, 16 years of education passed by just like that. All the work and stress, he’ll forget about them because what lies ahead may be even more trying and demanding. For him, it’s another 3 years of professional school. It’s the system again.
    About the drawing experiment you mention… I can totally appreciate that. I still remember all those piano lessons and practices, competitions and exams, finally getting his performance cert., and the next thing he went for was jamming on his electric guitar. Oh well, I believe it’s the foundation that I’ve given him in the appreciation of music that matters.

    I look forward to your summer reading posts as you write about the books. I have a film to suggest as you finish reading In Cold Blood, the movie “Capote”.

  10. I’ve read a lot of Angela Carter but not this one. I don’t think I will have time though as my August readalong book has 800 pages. I have read the Rilke. It’s one of those books I wouldn’t want to re-read for fear of spoiling the wonderful memory of it. I’m tempted by the Capote but July is a bad month work wise. I’ll be happy if I can come up for air occasionally…
    The drawing experiment is very interesting and the outcome so typical…

  11. Everything you argue here makes complete sense, and now I’m thinking about how to motivate students when one is a teacher and is required to give exams and grades! There are ways, of course, of giving assignments and grades and keeping an atmosphere of adventure and fun at the same time, but I know I could do a better job of it. In the spirit of your post, I’m not going to create an assignment for myself by committing to read along with you, but if the spirit moves me, I’d love to read the Rilke!

  12. I could not agree more. I have seen this with my own teenage son. He tells me that he feels like school is the place where you learn to take tests. I wish the schools would enjoy more curiosity and critical thinking. I tell him he has to do what he has to do at school but at home I encourage him to be curious about all subjects and we have great discussions. It is sad that the emphasis has shifted so heavily to these exams as students can feel like a failure when they don’t do well.

  13. Can I make a poster that says “roll with the punches of destiny, and believe in (your) capacity for self-knowledge, innovation and resilience.” ?

    Ah, In Cold Blood. I read that in high school because it was set in Kansas. I have the opportunity yearly to visit the very small town in the middle of nowhere western Kansas that the farm was near and it still chills me. But it is a fascinating book and is important for its groundbreaking style (so they say?) I loved (enjoyed? appreciated?) the movies they made about Truman and that book, too.

  14. Lily – and the way you state that opposition is brilliant – that’s exactly it: figuring out real passion from enforced servitude. Would you really like to readalong? It would be wonderful to have you as part of the group. 🙂

    Danielle – yay! Fantastic! As soon as I work out a reasonable schedule for the books, I’ll post it. And you are so right that we DO do this to kids from childhood on. We’re always setting hurdles for them to jump over, and inevitably the pressure to jump means feelings of failure if it doesn’t go right. I really think that in education, we ought to spend a lot more time talking about mistakes and the benefit that comes from making them. How could that possibly hurt?

    Courtney – exactly. We’re facing exactly the same problem in the UK with costs of college spiralling beyond the reach of a lot of students. There are so many jobs that need to be done that don’t require college training, all sorts of vocations that are essential to the way we live. It’s so much better for us mentally to work with our hands rather than with our heads, why push so hard for everyone to be cerebral? I’ll bet you’ll be perfectly supportive of Evangeline and allow her to find her own way – you’ve been brilliant so far in letting the circumstances dictate your response and I can’t see that changing.

    Deborah – thank you for that endorsement! I loved the stories of Scott Fitzgerald so I think our tastes are very similar!

    Jenny – those lessons sound wonderful! I remember that I enjoyed chemistry primarily for the experiments (and was not particularly science-oriented otherwise). I’m right behind the Montessori approach of learning through play and getting children involved in creative activities. I don’t mind exams per se, it’s making them more important than anything else that really bugs me.

    Lilian – I’m so glad you enjoyed it – and if you can manage to join us, that would be wonderful!

    David – I’m really looking forward to In Cold Blood – if that’s the appropriate phrase for the book, given its content. And I am also a big fan of The Bloody Chamber. I also loved Nights At The Circus – no one does rich language quite like Carter.

  15. Emily – I was one of those kids sitting O Levels! (And I still think of the exams that way, although I do try to remember they are called GCSEs….) It is a shame when education boils down to those exams, because what educational purpose does the examination serve? Well, at best it teaches children to think under pressure, but if the pressure becomes too great for them to think, really, what IS the point? And I am thrilled that you suggested a readalong – such a great idea.

    Sigrun – oh I love that story. We professors are so often odd ducks before we find our niches in life. This is the thing – education, if it deserves that name, allows us to find out what it is we can do, as well as what we can’t, and there ought to be space and opportunity to do that searching. It’s the sausage-machine aspect of schooling that I dislike the most. And I would love for you to join in with the Rilke if you can – it’s such a strange and wonderful book.

    Arti – I think that the job of parents is always to love and support their children, the best they can, and I’ll bet you’ve done that. But for people in education, like me, if there’s something not right with the system, then we really have to stand up and say so. After all, we’ve beaten far worse systems in the past – apartheid, patriarchy, etc. This is asking just for a step or two to one side, not the sort of overhaul our ancestors had to face. You’re right that a degree can’t guarantee a job. Look at me – I’ve got a PhD and that in itself disqualifies me for far more jobs than it qualifies me for. The higher up a student goes in education, the more specialised he or she becomes, and if there aren’t enough spaces in the profession for them, then they do need more than just the degree: they need genuine passion, committment, love of the subject, the sorts of things that shine through at interview and motivate the student to get work experience and so on. That’s why I think it’s important that students find out what they really do want to do thanks to their education. Looking forward to your film recommendation, too! That’s wonderful.

    Caroline – having 800 pages of something else to read is a reasonable excuse, I think! 🙂 And glad to know you loved the Rilke when you read it. I read it several times as a student, but that’s a while ago now. I can quite see why one experience of it might look like something you want to preserve.

    Dorothy – lol! Absolutely – keep the pressure off. You’re very welcome to join in if it fits your schedule at the time. It is hard to get the balance right as a teacher, isn’t it? I tend to throw my energy behind teaching the books and authors, and then focus on exam technique when the time comes, hoping that the students like what they’ve read enough to carry them through. I doubt it’s perfect, but I’ve sort of fallen into that.

    Kathleen – I really love the sound of the Oscar project you’ve begun with your son, and think it must be so satisfying to both of you. Getting behind your child’s interests and engaging with all the things they think and feel about them is just wonderful. And thank you for catching up with my blog – I was so touched that you did that.

    Care – it’s so lovely to have you visit! Thank you for dropping by. In Cold Blood seems like an important book in lots of ways – I’m really looking forward to reading it because it seems to leave fairly potent memories behind. Fancy being able to visit the actual location where the events take place. That makes my blood run cold just thinking about it!

  16. I’ve had Wise Children on my shelf for a while now so it’s great to have a target for reading it. August it is. Very wise words about the exam-taking vs doing what you love. Oh, and I’m really tempted to join in the Truman readalong too. But my reading pile is already way too high so I’ll just have to read what you say about it instead.

  17. Love this post. So true that kids don’t need to be examined to work and explore. I do think there are some thing we need repetitively pushed into us so they’ll stick, because we do need them in later life (times tables for example) but must the process of kids repeatedly revisiting and revising be so linked to Success or fast food futures?

    Anyway, really I came to say I’d love to join in for Cold Blood in July. I’ve got a copy around, but have been a bit squeamish about starting it. Are you setting dates, or just going through it by end of July?

  18. So much to respond to…
    Lots of my students (and my friends, when we graduated) say that either they never read for pleasure, or had given up reading for pleasure because study had ‘ruined’ it for them. Either the volume, or the process of becoming a critical reader. I found it worked the other way round: being able to see how a text worked (yes, I like structuralism) made reading even more enjoyable.
    Wise Children: we made that an introductory text on our first-year literature module. They always hated it. I’ve never, ever been able to understand why.

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  20. Good luck to your son on his exams. I always hated exams and would get so stressed out about them I’d end up doing badly on them. So glad that’s all past me. And I know what you mean about parents putting pressure on their kids. My boss has two kids, a boy age 9 who is talented in baseball and a girl age 12 who is a talented stage performer. She puts no pressure on them but the stories she tells about the other parents attending the various events! It is really frightening. As for the readalongs. I might join you for Rilke. in August. Please remind me in July though otherwise I will completely forget 🙂

  21. If it weren’t for the occasional mistake I bet we wouldn’t be as far advanced in so many things as we are! A coworker told me about a book called the Geography of Bliss which talks about countries where people are happy–somehow they ranked them and each country was discussed. I can’t remember which country it was, but the population was very happy and there was a lot of attention paid to the fact that people were allowed to fail–as a matter of fact it was even somewhat encouraged if I recall what my friend told me–that being able to fail and not made to feel a failure went a long way to creating a sense of happiness. Now if I could just remember which country that was…I plan on reading the book, but it was already checked out from my library!

  22. Sorry, I’m going to digress a bit from your post, although not that much as it is related to pressure put on students.
    I have been thinking about your post on the Chinese mother a lot lately. The reason is that my new housemate is a Chinese girl in her early twenties. I must say that it is a bit of a culture shock. Not especially Chinese/European shock, but more concerning the education we have received. She seems to come from a wealthy enough family and according to a friend of mine who taught in China has probably spent most of her life studying. The result is a person, although she is absolutely lovely, has no interests and no notion about life. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so naive; it’s quite strange. She also has no interest in anything, or at least doesn’t seem to enjoy anything except sleeping. She is working for the 1st time in her life and hates every minute of it. Now, I understand that as the place where she works is not the most thrilling. but she doesn’t seem to enjoy her days off either, even when she goes to visit her boyfriend who lives in a different town. I am baffled! and I feel quite sad for her really…

    As for the readalongs, I would love to join, but I doubt I’ll manage. You never know though!

  23. Excellent reflections on exam pressures for teenagers – especially as it justifies my somewhat laissez-faire approach with my kids. There’s a really interesting looking Festival of Education on 25/26 June at Wellington College ( that questions many aspects of education in a wider sense – I can’t go but would love to (as a mum and as a school governor, all in the state sector).

  24. Hello
    I want to read The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, it’s been on my TBR since a few months now. I’ll be glad to read it along with you, it’s always interesting to have someone read the same book at the same time. I’m on holiday in August and I’ll have the necessary time.

  25. Pete – Yay! So glad you’ll join in for the Carter! I’ll post dates for the readalongs in a bit. And I quite understand about the Truman – we’ll try and think of something interesting to say about it!

    Jodie – I’m delighted you’re in for the Capote! I’m intending for it to be laid back. I’ll post a suggested date for when we might all start to put up reviews – probably the last weekend in July, something like that. But people can post at their own time and speed – I’ll link to reviews as they appear. Yes, I know what you mean about repetitiveness – the way for instance that grammar has to be practised over and over before it sticks. Oddly enough that’s the sort of thing that schools hate to make pupils do these days. I can’t really talk about those early learning stages as I’ve no experience teaching them, and I’m sure it’s really hard. But I do believe it’s possible, well, desirable, to focus on getting children to understand why it’s important to learn certain basic things, and to make those lessons quite practical, too. Kids are so locked into objective reality and really know when they’re being forced into an illogical situation.

    Plashing Vole – I know, I hear that sort of thing a lot from students, too, although not the ones that I’ve taught. I think you have to process stuff a bit for students, show them the exciting things they’re headed towards, rather than hold them fast against a text for so long that they tire of it. I wonder why your students hate the Carter? Sometimes obligatory things hit a raw nerve, although what to do about that, I’ve no idea. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to Wise Children. 🙂

    Stefanie – I would love for you to join us – I’ll nag nearer the time, no doubt! And I empathise about the exams; I never did very well in them either. Understanding how to sit them and how to get around their demands have been realisations I only came to years and years after I’d done with them completely. That was the best bit about doing a PhD – no exams to sit! 🙂

    Danielle – what an interesting book that sounds! I really do think there is the most dreadful culture of no-mistakes that has arisen in schoolchildren. I can’t quite understand where it comes from, but I see students who are absolutely terrified of making mistakes. Well, Cambridge doesn’t help much with that sort of fear. But I completely agree that it solves all sorts of anxieties to make it completely permissable to get things wrong from time to time. And after all, it’s only realistic to know we’re going to make mistakes – it’s what humans do!

    Em – I’m so sorry to hear about your friend! What a difficult situation she is in if she’s lost access to her basic enjoyment of life. She actually sounds like someone who might benefit from a brief period of counselling – just to get her feelings flowing again. It’s a shame to be so young and so out of touch with pleasure. It would be great if you could join us but I’ll quite understand if you can’t. I’ll mention the readalongs again, I don’t doubt, so you can see how you’re going.

    Sarah – I am completely behind a laissez-faire approach with teenagers, not least because hopping up and down is hardly effective with them! Actually, to be serious, I think that showing teenagers you trust them and respect them is the most powerful thing you can do. My parents always showed me a lot of trust and I would have been absolutely mortified to let them down. That does sound like an interesting conference – what a shame if you can’t go!

    Bookaroundthecorner – hello and welcome! I am thrilled if you can join us for the Rilke! I’m so looking forward to reading it as a group. I’ll post up dates and times very soon – must get myself organised. 🙂

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