An American Classic

A Separate Peace by John Knowles (1959) is regarded as an American Classic. The two main protagonists Phineas (Finny) and Gene Forrester are pupils at Devon, a New England Prep School. Gene is a quiet, introverted boy who, because he is from the South, finds it difficult to fit in at the school. He is chosen as a friend by the charming, athletic, good-looking, charismatic and good natured Finny who is from Boston. They are attending a Summer School in 1942 and Gene becomes caught up with Finny’s exuberant activities such as jumping from a high branch into the river. Gene realises that whilst Finny excels at sports and can seemingly talk himself out of any situation, he struggles with his written work. Being good at games and the superior (through hard work) scholar leads Gene to strive to be a top student.

However his innate lack of self- confidence leads Gene to believe that Finny is deliberately including him in activities to distract him from his studies. Gene’s ambiguity about his feelings towards Finny leads him to make a spur of the moment bad decision and he causes Finny to fall from the tree and badly break his leg. Finny’s core goodness enables the boys’ friendship to survive this tragedy because he comes to realise that Gene did not act maliciously.

separate peace

The action takes place against the background of the Second World War. At 16 Gene and Finny are still too young to enlist but the teachers at the school have begun to prepare the older boys for the realities of war. There is increased emphasis on physical fitness and recruiters frequently visit the school. The uncertain future adds to the usual pressures of being an adolescent.

We first meet Gene as an adult when he returns to Devon and his current feelings are entangled with his memories of his teenaged self. Because he is the sole narrator it is difficult to know if the character of Finny is an accurate one. This leads to intriguing questions which are never completely answered.  The reader must judge for themselves about the validity of  events as reported by Gene.

This was John Knowles (1926-2001) first and arguably best novel and is apparently based on his own experiences at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.

The novels The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Sixth Form by Tom Dolby, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, Old School by Tobias Wolf and the DVDs The Emperor’s Club Mona Lisa Smile  and Dead Poets Society all have an American Prep School setting.

A Separate Peace was  added to the’ Education in Literature Collection’ on the recommendation of a former member of staff. Any suggestions for books or DVDs will be considered for inclusion.


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Recently I took a look at which were the most borrowed DVDs in the ‘Education in Literature Collection’. The above is a chart of the results. There are more frequently borrowed DVDs such as The History Boys, To Sir, with love and Mean Girls. Those titles were added to the collection at the request of a tutor and could be regarded as ‘course work’ rather than leisure viewing. The  DVDs featured in the pie chart are ones which I chose to purchased for inclusion in the‘Education in Literature Collection’.

It is interesting that six of the top ten are foreign language films. Three (Monsieur Lazhar, In the house and Au revoir les enfants) are in French, The wave=Die welle is in German, Twenty-four eyes= Nijushi no hitomi is in Japanese and Like stars on earth= Taare zameen par is in Hindi. The Emperor’s Club is an American Film and the remaining three (If, It’s great to be young and Hunky Dory) are British films.

The popularity of foreign language films is a reflection of the diversity of the students and staff at UCL IOE. Perhaps it also shows an adventurous spirit amongst viewers.



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Poetry in Motion

‘High Flight’ was one of the poems read during the UCL IOE Library’s ‘Reading Aloud’ event in celebration of World Book Day on 23rd April 2015. This poem, by John Gillespie Magee Jr. (1922-1941), is an evocation of the joy of flight. The poet was influenced by his experiences as a Spitfire pilot during the Second World War. He died in a mid-air collision at the age of nineteen.

Magee, the eldest of four brothers, was born in Shanghai, China where his parents worked as Anglican Missionaries. In 1931 he moved to England with his mother to continue his education. It was at Rugby School, which he attended from 1935-1939, that he developed his skill at poetry. It is perhaps apt that he won the School Poetry Prize in 1938 with a sonnet about the poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915). Brooke had also attended Rugby and won the School Poetry Prize 34 years before Magee.

In 1939 he visited the United States where his father was now working. After the outbreak of the Second World War prevented him from returning to England he finished his education at the Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut. Despite winning a scholarship to Yale University, Magee enrolled in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1940.

After training in Canada he was sent to the UK where he was assigned to No 412 (Fighter) Squadron RCAF. Magee became a qualified Spitfire pilot. After his death Magee was buried in Scopwick, Lincolnshire.

Magee wrote ‘High Flight ’on the back of a letter he sent to his parents. His father was the curate of Saint John’s Episcopalian Church in Washington D.C. and reprinted the poem in church publications. The poem became more widely known through the efforts of Archibald McLeish then the Librarian of Congress. McLeish included ‘High Flight’ in an exhibition of poems called ‘Faith and Freedom’ at the Library of Congress in February 1942.

High Flight is popular with many aviators and astronauts. It is the official poem of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force.

In the Library’s Curriculum Resources Collection is the book High Flight written by Linda Granfield (1950- ) and illustrated by Michael Martchenko (1942- ). It is perhaps fitting that this lovely book, about the life of John Gillespie Magee Jr. and how he came to write ‘High Flight’, is the work of two people who also moved to Canada from elsewhere. Granfield from the USA and Martchenko from France.

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Our overseas statistics of education and social science

Where do I find data on literacy education for women in Latin America? Where do I find maps of poverty and development in Africa? Does the Newsam Library have tables of educational systems, data on teacher training, statistics on pupil enrolment in Europe before and after the Wall came down?


Map by Turn685:

Actually, the Library at the Institute of Education had a whole section dedicated to ‘Overseas Statistics’, so that our readers could find background material for their research, whether it refers to educational institutions or to the social and economic conditions under which people live, learn, teach, grow up, have children.

I am writing in the past, since we are integrating the overseas statistics collection into the Comparative Education Collection. By the end of the summer, you will find the socioeconomic data right next to any other books about the country or region of the world, down on Level 3.

Where the material is in a language other than English, we sometimes offer you a printed or electronic translation. You can consult ‘The state of education : 30 indicators on the French education system’ in French or in English.

Naturally, you can search for your fields of interest in our library catalogue, for instance ‘literacy’ or ‘poverty’ – but that will not lead you to comprehensive statistics which do not have these words in the title or elsewhere in the record, yet may offer you precisely the table or map you need. ‘Literacy education’ may be hidden in ‘Educational development’, ‘Africa’ may be hidden in ‘Developing countries’.

I suggest looking up the following terms which we often allocate to social science facts and stats: ‘Socioeconomic indicators’, ‘Economic and social development’, ‘Economic conditions’, ‘Statistical data’ and ‘Statistics of education’.

And naturally, you can use a search engine – but it will not always give you the same resources as quickly, or in fact, at all! Over the summer, we are also updating the links from our records, for instance to current issues of annual reports. So you will find the most recent figures from a government department or an international organisation online, but also older editions in paper, some of which are not even digitised and may never be. We have got, for example, the ‘30 indicators on the French education system’ from their first French issue in 1992.

These books are on our shelves, from where you can fetch and borrow them (turn left at the bottom of the stairs), or in our Stacks, from where you can request them to be studied in the Library (click on the link ‘request from store’).

When you look for background information on countries round the globe, do try our Library Catalogue and our Library Guides. Our International Collections Librarian, Barbara Sakarya, has compiled the following guides for you: International Education Links and Statistics of Education.

I wish you fun with facts and figures! And perhaps your research will change your, and our, perception of other countries fundamentally!


Map by Poulpy:

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Reading aloud as a way of learning a language

At the Newsam Library’s first ever reading aloud session on World Book Day, IOE lecturer Sam Duncan listed, from her initial research, many occasions on which reading aloud still forms part of our culture, amongst them family life. Yes, it certainly forms part of my family life – although our family consists of two adults only.

Reading a novel by Colette over a coffee in Albi, France

Reading a novel by Colette over a coffee in Albi, France

First of all, there would not be a family without reading aloud, because my partner and I met at a poetry reading…! During the first years, we read our way through a number of poetry anthologies, usually at a dose of one poem a day. Some of those poems were rhymed and others were not, some of them scanned evenly and others went with the flow of the language, some were in English and most in other languages: but we would always read them aloud, at least twice.

When my husband and I meet up or go out now, there is still a threefold motivation, and I am not sure which is the strongest: spending time together, having a cup of coffee, and reading some French aloud. It is a foreign language for both of us and laborious to get through – ordinary sentences are as complex as a Rubik’s Cube, verse does not seem to scan, fiction does not seem to boast a plot, and newspapers are so learned that you would need a doctorate in Classics to get the allusions. Yet it is all worth the labour – to discover a new country and nation, enticing and multi-faceted, through print on paper… and a new language and literature, elegant and melodious, through reading aloud.

Looking for wisdom in the Rue Voltaire in Arles, France

Looking for wisdom in the Rue Voltaire in Arles, France

The best way to learn to use a foreign language actively (short of being five years old) is obviously to live in a country where it is spoken, and the next best way is to listen to and talk to native speakers. But there is no excuse for not persisting anyway: you can always listen to radio and recordings; you can always talk to other learners; and you can always read aloud!

So why not turn to the vast foreign-language collections of the Senate House Library and University College London – or to our own collections, starting with dual-language picture books and story books? There is a search for Curriculum Resources only, which includes children’s literature, and you could look up “bilingual” or “dual language”, “Spanish language texts” or “Text in Spanish”. I am staring at the big bright picture of a banana as I am writing, labelled “banana = plátano”, and I hope it will help me find a banana one day when I need it…

Sculpture by Jaume Plensa in Bordeaux, France

Sculpture by Jaume Plensa in Bordeaux, France

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S. F. Said writes about the opening of the Children’s Book Corner in the Newsam Library at UCL IOE

On 30th March, the children’s author, S.F. Said, opened the Children’s Book Corner in the Newsam Library at the UCL Institute of Education.  The brain child of Sue McGonigle, Tutor in Primary Education and Sally Perry, Curriculum Resources Librarian, the Children’s Book Corner, was set up to encourage student teachers to look at ways in which they can motivate their students to read for pleasure, and to experience first-hand what a children’s book corner could look like in a school or in the classroom.

As you can see from the photos, the event was a great success!   In his inspiring and heartfelt opening, S. F. Said emphasised the importance of reading for pleasure and the importance of teachers and librarians, “Teachers and librarians have never mattered more. They’re the ones who keep the flame of literacy alive; they shape our future!” We couldn’t agree more!  The author’s views on the power of fiction to bring people together and heal differences can be heard on this Radio 4 recording for the series Thought.  S.F. Said writes:

“I’m a huge fan of libraries.  I write my books in them, and I couldn’t do my work without them.  So it was an absolute honour to be asked to open the new children’s book corner in the Institute Of Education Library!

The Institute Of Education trains student teachers, who then go out and apply what they’ve learned in classrooms around the country.  This book corner offers them a brilliant resource, to help them learn how to bring books to life for young readers.

It supports the idea of reading for pleasure, which is something I believe in very strongly. Reading should be fun, and books should be a great thing to display in classrooms, as this book corner shows!

It was also wonderful to hear about work that teachers have done with my books.  I’m always humbled and inspired to learn that Varjak Paw or Phoenix has been shared and enjoyed in a school.  So a huge thank you to the Institute Of Education, to the brilliant Sue McGonigle for inviting me – and to all teachers who have kept the Way alive!”

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Far East Educational Experience

In the ‘Education in Literature Collection’ there are several novels which portray different aspects of the educational experience in Japan.

Botchan by Natsume Soseki (1906). Translated by Joel Cohn 2005. The first-person narrator is proud of growing up in Tokyo where he graduates from the Tokyo Academy of Physics. He takes a job teaching mathematics in Matsuyam on the island of Shikohu. There he runs into difficulties which are mainly the result of his own personality. Ultimately he tries to do the right thing.

Natsume Soseki (1867-1916)was a Japanese novelist of the Meiji Period (1868-1912). He was also a scholar of British Literature and a composer of haiku, kenshi and fairy tales. In 1900 the Japanese government sent him to study in England as ‘Japan’s first Japanese English literary scholar.’ He spent two years at UCL.

A Rabbit’s Eyes (Usagi no me (1974)) by  Kenjuro Haitani (1934-2006), translated by Paul Sminkey (2005). A touching novel about a first-year elementary school teacher and her tough class of outcasts, and the eventual reward for her belief in them. Set in the city of Kobe.

The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003) by Yoko Ogawa (1962- ),translated by Stephen Snyder (2008). A famous professor of mathematics develops a relationship with his housekeeper and her son. Difficulties arise because he only has eighty minutes of memory after suffering brain damage as a result of a car accident. Filmed as ‘The Professor’s Beloved Equation’ (2006),directed by Takashi Koizumi.

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