School texts

Book Review of Angela Duckworth’s Grit

gritThose of you who know me, know that I generally prefer fiction to non-fiction when it comes to my reading.  Although there is plenty of great non-fiction out there, and I have certainly been enjoying the books on Positive Psychology I have been picking up lately.

But when it comes to Grit by Angela Duckworth, I have no hesitation in saying that this is a book everyone should read.

Duckworth’s work was of interest to me as the longer I teach, the more aware I become that talent isn’t enough.  Time and time again, especially in my Year 12 classes, the most ‘talented’ student – the one with the greatest natural affinity for language – is trumped by one who works hard and works SMART.  The question I had was – how can I help each of my students to become that smart worker?  The one who succeeds in a way that surpasses their expectations?

Duckworth’s key mission here is to break down for us how some people achieve high levels of success – much higher than the average person.  She is particularly interested in understanding how they were able to do this, and how we can actually teach this to young people.  So it’s a great book for teachers and parents.

The bottom line is – Grit.  Those with Grit go further and do better than those that don’t.

But Grit does not just mean perseverance.  To truly have Grit – Grit that will lead us to success – she concretely discusses four things we need. The first is interest – high levels of interest.  We can only be truly gritty about things that deeply matter to us. But she tells us we can stimulate and develop interest, giving terrific advice for how to do this with children and even as adults.

After interest, we need to practice.  But we need to practice purposefully and strategically.  It’s not enough to work hard – we have to really consider what strategies will actually lead to improvement.  As a teacher we often see students working hard, but completing tasks that do not develop the needed skills.  Instead, Duckworth talks honestly about how painful practice can be and how to do it well – how to embrace negative feedback and seek coaching and set powerful goals.

After practice, she suggests that purpose helps separate high achievers as well.  If you have both passion and a sense of purpose about your work – if you love your chosen field and thin that you are making a difference – you are almost unstoppable.  Your motivation levels cannot be higher.  Sometimes even a few tweaks in thinking can assist us to re-evaluate and find the purpose in our work.

The final quality is hope.  This links in pretty strongly to Carol Dweck’s work about the Growth Mindset. We have to have hope – the belief that we can improve through the strategies that we have put in place.

Each of us will find some of these things difficult.  For example, having hope at times is hard.  Overcoming failure with a positive attitude sometimes relies on self-talk rather than a natural response.  I like how Duckworth acknowledges this – it’s all part of the process.  You don’t just HAVE Grit, you can learn to be grittier.  And that’s the message for us all.  We can all be better at those things we care about.  And what is more empowering than that?


Book Review of The Bonsai Child

finalcover7-31-15Clinical psychologist Judith Locke is visiting my school next term, so I figured it would be a good idea to read her book.

After doing so, I’d have to suggest it is very good reading for anyone who has, or who works with children.

The Bonsai Child of the title is a child whose growth is hampered by over-parenting – or in the case of teachers, over-reliance on others instead of themselves.

Locke gives really sensible advice on how much help to give in order to raise – or help foster the talents of – young people, in a way that helps them to be self-sufficient and empowered young adults.

It gives concrete strategies to accomplish this, and clear discussions of the ramifications of what happens if you do not take her advice.

Easy to follow and something parents and teachers can easily look back on.

Exhausted Book Review of Island

9780099422327Alistair McLeod’s collection of short stories Island begins well – the opening two stories, The Boat and The Vastness of the Dark capture McLeod’s key concerns beautifully.

The whole collection is centred around the geography and people of Nova Scotia, the isolation of such remote areas and in many stories, the lack of connection young people feel to the traditional lifestyles.  This collection encompasses stories written across the broad span of McLeod’s career – so naturally there are some shifts in focus and conception.

After that promising beginning – you can read The Boat here for example – I got lost in the stories in the middle of the collection.  The yearning of the characters got lost amongst far too much detail and I found it very difficult to stay engaged – as many VCE students may also find (Island is on the text list for 2017).  While The Road to Rankin’s Point is a poignant moment in the middle, I had difficulty reading the descriptions of animal slaughter in Second Spring, amongst a couple of stories that suddenly had a focus on farming that I didn’t see elsewhere in the collection.

The collection ends will with the eponymous Island looking at how easy it is to give your life to the area and wonder where it went, but I was pretty exhausted by that point.  This would be one more to pick and choose from than to try to read as a whole collection.


Book Review of Shane Maloney’s Stiff

stiffI am very much overdue in writing this review, having finished the book more than a week ago. My reading has been very interrupted recently as the need to read for the 2016 text list at school has kind of trumped any personal reading. This book sat right in the middle of that process – one I was considering for school, but eventually finished even after I went in a different directon.

Stiff has a lot of things going for it. I enjoyed reading a book set in Melbourne for a start – and it does have a terrific sense of place and local flair. And not many writers can make the world of politics interesting – although pretty much everything the main character Murray Whelan does is interesting. Smart but somehow still a disaster-area, Whelan turns every situation into a black comedy.

Whelan is an ALP member and right-hand man of a sitting member. Somehow, he gets embroiled in the death of a factory worker, which leads him into the path of union corruption and migrant gangs. A few brushes with death later, and he can’t imagine what has happened to his life. Although he would probably prefer all of this to a visit from his estranged wife.

A solid read, particularly for young men who will find much to relate to in Whelan’s character.

Book Review of Bird and Sugar Boy

Bird and Sugar Boybirdsugarboy (or James and Craig) are outsiders who have found each other. Bird in particular is troubled – his mother left him alone with his father years ago, and all he cares about are birds. But life works when the two of them are together. Then Sugar Boy reveals his family is moving to Broome – and Bird’s life falls apart. The one person who supported him is going away, and he feels more abandoned than ever.

Bird takes off to try to find the one person who never let him down – the author of his favourite book on birds. But the world is bigger than Bird imagined, and in his time of need, he finds out who really cares about him, and how he can show his caring to others.

Quite moving in places, although not a lot of action. Might be a struggle for reluctant readers who need a lot of plot. This is more quiet and introspective. Sofie Laguna is one to watch for though – I’ll be looking for her Miles Franklin Award-winning The Eye of the Sheep.

Book Review of To Kill a Mockingbird

to-kill-a-mockingbirdAs a teenager, I read this and found it dry and dull. Now, after really enjoying Go Set A Watchman, I felt I owed it to Harper Lee to take another look at this classic.

The most memorable thing about this book is the court case – where Atticus takes a stand and defends a black man against the charge or raping a white girl. To a modern audience, the accused man is clearly not guilty – but the course of the case shows exactly how far we have come in terms of civil rights in the last century.

This is powerful stuff – and I think the reason why this book initially frustrated me so, is that is it actually a very small part of the text. This is a story about family and growing up in the South. Scout lives through several significant moments in the book which are sure to shape her character – the character that was so evident in Go Set A Watchman.

I still think – perhaps controversially – that this isn’t a perfect novel. It’s too long – there are too many meandering stories of Jem and Scout’s childhood adventures. But it is an important story that the follow up novel makes us review. Atticus is still a great man – but it really doesn’t say anywhere in To Kill a Mockingbird that his defence of Tom Robinson is motivated by the Civil Rights movement. It’s motivated by justice. Atticus does what he thinks is right – he’s just “colour-blind” enough to do it for a black man too.

These remain a terrific pair of texts and I certainly have deeper respect for To Kill A Mockingbird as an adult. But I loved the grown up Scout in Go Set A Watchman too. Definitely have a read.

Book Review of My Life as an Alphabet

my-life-as-an-alphabetThis is a fun and positive young adult fiction novel we have been considering for our booklist. It is striking when you think about it, how few YA fiction books end happily. So many of them involve loss and tragedy. It’s important to balance all of this with more positive views of the world.

So this is a fun and uplifting read about Candice Phee, a very unusual girl who sets about to improve the lives of those around her; her parents, her new best friend (Douglas Benson from Another Dimension), her uncle who has been estranged from the family – even the girl who bullies her in class.

What starts as a class writing task turns into a bit of a mission for Candice, and gives her a chance to expand her personality and social skills as well.

Although the main character is female, a boy could easily read and enjoy this. A good choice for parents who want to make sure their child is exposed to happier books as well.