Monday, 31 December 2012

Customer Complaint #1

My email to East Coast Mainline:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I was disgusted by the treatment I received from your ticket inspectors at Peterborough station.  A male inspector was incredibly rude to me as I tried to get through the barriers to catch my train, which was about to leave.

He checked my ticket and informed me that, as I had no reservation for the Peterborough-London leg of the journey (it was a single through to Bristol TM), then I could not pass.  I calmly explained to him that I was booked onto a First Capital Connect train, and that reservations could not be made, but he totally ignored me, repeating loudly that I should check the ticket machine for reservations that I'd left behind.  I told him this was unnecessary, as reservations could not be made for that leg.  He continued to loudly repeat that I should check the machine.  I asked him to stop, as I wanted to discuss it properly, at which point he accused me of rudeness.  

He then snatched my tickets and went to 'check with a supervisor'.  Bewildered at his lack of understanding of train tickets (at one point he told me my reservation for the First Great Western train from Paddington to Bristol TM was a 'return', which it obviously wasn't, nor could it be) I turned to his partner, and showed her the booking on my phone.  She ignored me completely.  The man then returned, silently handing my tickets back.  I thanked him as he let me through, but heard him say to his partner 'they had no reservation, we can't do anything now', implying that we were somehow still in the wrong.  I managed to catch my train with seconds to spare.

I find this behaviour totally unacceptable.  It added a layer of stress to an already stressful journey (Spalding-Bristol is a long trip), and showed how little some employees of your company care about customer service.  I will avoid using ECM trains wherever possible until I get an apology.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

4 Teaching Tweaks for 2013

Christmas has happened - the 30th in my life, which is a milestone of sorts - and now it's time to think about the coming year and all the things that need to be achieved.  Teaching's an odd profession, in that your entire working life is broken into set chunks on various levels - academic years, terms, lessons - which offers great potential for 'fresh starts'.  Every teacher, I'm sure, sees each new term as a fresh start, solemnly promising themselves that they will keep on top of the book marking and spend a little more time planning decent plenaries.  But a new year (a proper new year, rather than the September shenanigans) is a great opportunity to make promises that you deeply intend to keep.  I'm not going to make a list of 'resolutions', as in doing so I am guaranteeing failure, as I have no respect for such trifles.  Instead, I am going to identify several areas of my professional life that I intend to tweak and improve, to make me a better teacher and also a happier man.

1. More time spent planning lessons that I'm proud to teach.  When the going gets tough, it's easy to fall back on the tried and tested lessons that you've taught variations of for years.  These lessons may well work ok, and they may even get you through Ofsted with ease if you're generally confident, but they don't make you enthusiastic and excited about your job.  In fact, they spread a terrible ennui about the profession that can be difficult to shift.  I feel that the comfort zone needs to be left behind, possibly 3-4 times a week to start with, probably with Year 7,8 and 10.  Hopefully I can design some really interesting, well-differentiated and enjoyable-to-teach modules/lessons that will get me bouncing again.  I will use Twitter as a resource base for this, and existing tools such as the 5 minute lesson plan, marginal learning gains and technology (Edmodo is already in place with one class, but needs far more work).I'm a big fan of KS3 modules in particular having some kind of narrative or central thread that holds it all together, so I will be playing around with this over the next week or so.

2. Keep my classroom in a great state.  I am keen to improve my use of displays in my classroom, but frankly haven't really considered this aspect of teaching very much at all over the past 5 years, seeing it as a necessary evil rather than a gateway to learning goodness.  It's such a small victory, though, having students' dead work on display: surely there's a better use for all those boards?  Vic Goddard mentioned his teachers' displays at the Clevedon TeachMeet back in November, but I never followed it up with research.  So - how do we make the best of classroom displays?  I like the idea of having them as working documents, built up over a term with student and teacher input, but does anyone have more concrete advice?

3. Get stuck into school life.  I started a school club at the tail-end of last term but didn't have the energy to make it happen properly, so my Ghosts, Myths and Legends club will be far more aggressively pushed in January.  The idea behind it is to get students of all ages to discuss their interest in all things supernatural or quirky.  I try to share a love of folklore and strange tales whilst keeping the fire of rationality and intelligent skepticism alight at all times, which has worked wonderfully well in the past.  So I will get this up and running properly to begin with, but then I am going to try to get involved in more school-wide activities.  Being ensconced in my classroom is a great panacea on a rough day, but again leads to a terrible sense of isolation and boredom. It can be so tempting to sit on your laptop, putting together a lesson or marking a few books, every break and lunchtime, but this invariably leads to a sense of disenchantment.  It's time to get out there and start organising things.  I can get my tutor group (Year 8, so keeping them on the straight and narrow is vital) to get on with charity events and such, and I could get stuck into some clubs and extra-curricular activities.  This will lead to a greater sense of well being, and will increase my overall enthusiasm.

4. Get all marking done on time.  Enough said.

Well, there we are.  Four things to focus on, all of which should boost my cheerfulness and contentment, as well as my professional ability.  I'll let you know how it goes.  Wish me luck.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

I'm offline for a week... have a very lovely Christmas and a splendid New Year.

I'll be blogging about the following when I return:

More stories
Minecraft in/out of schools
Mini-Teachmeets (in-house ones)
Part 3 of my Mastermind odyssey
Some stuff about the Titanic

Don't eat too much turkey or drink too much sherry, but do plenty of both all the same.

Christmas at the Zoo

Christmas 2012 looks like being a real corker.  Major, unprecedented flooding in most areas, transport chaos, and a sequel to 'The Snowman'.  All three of these things are likely to make tomorrow very difficult for me.

At its core, whether you're religious or not, Christmas is a Very Good Thing.  A chance to spend time with family, relax, eat well and practice some generosity and joy-giving before it gradually seeps away as the year progresses, with the evils of the outside world slowly turning your heart into a lump of charcoal.  There's nothing wrong with what lies at the heart of Christmas at all.

What annoys me is all the extraneous bullshit that's been tacked on, imperceptibly changing Christmas into something weird and horrific - an increasingly cultish affair, where odd new ceremonies crop up like mushrooms after a storm.  We may not have noticed it happening, but Christmas runs the risk of being more about these pseudo-traditions than what it should be about - caring and sharing.  Here I will outline four odd rituals that now seem to dominate Christmas.

1. A new one, only into its second year, but showing signs of really having legs is the John Lewis advert.  This has become part of the national zeitgeist so quickly that I can't help thinking they put something in the water.  The first one was a monumentally tacky and sentimental glimpse at the life of the World's Least Realistic Child, and had the nation in tears.  The second has snowmen in it.  How it can be that people eagerly await an advert like it actually matters is beyond me - adverts exist solely to increase sales; end of argument.

2. The Top 10 Toys list has been around for ages - I remember it from when I was a kid - but it nevertheless deserves to be fired out a cannon into the sun.  Is there any more pervasive, dastardly way to promote one's own products, whilst simultaneously breaking the hearts of parents and children across the land?  Think about it - what purpose can the list possibly play other than making parents feel inadequate and children feel insecure about the fact that they really don't like Furbies (they're really scary) and would rather get some Lego, or a bit of bone and a stick from Santa?  It is foul and it is evil and it must be stopped.

3. Television is the king of Christmas.  It is the magnet to which we are all drawn every year, like hyenas round a rotten buffalo, so we can honk and squeal at the colourful offerings provided by Auntie Beeb and Weird Uncle ITV.  Occasionally something worth watching creeps onto the screen (like the original Snowman, for example), but mostly it is a parade of twerps, gurning and jumping around period sets or snow-filled warehouses, whilst we watch agog at the show.  Shouldn't we be playing monopoly, or telling stories, or just be getting mightily drunk?  I've persevered so far this Christmas, and some real treats so far have included Take Me Out Christmas Special, a very depressing experience, where G-List celebrities hook up with some women for no apparent reason other than they were forced to; and the all-consuming Text Santa, which was so awful I watched it all the way through, as it seemed to be justifying my growing misanthropy.  Even the likable Ant and Dec couldn't save that mess.

4. Reports on the economy now try their best to ruin Christmas, with endless news stories about how the major retailers have only sold two lollipops since November and that Curry's, Comet, Cupid and Prancer are all now defunct and penniless because YOU DIDN'T SPEND ENOUGH MONEY.  You bastard.  There is a real sense of blame to these stories.  Yesterday they were bleating about how it was so important that people spend inordinate amounts of money that they couldn't afford, but how the rain may keep us all inside, shivering and sobbing into our empty stockings.  How insulting is this?  If I need to buy my Dad a Christmas present on the 22nd, I damned well will, rain or no.  And I'm not doing it to make the coffers of some business more healthy.  Let's face the facts: economic reports to the general populace are rather pointless, as we are all too concerned with our vile, petty lives to give a damn about 'growth'.  So they're being used to spread a vague sense of creeping fear, which leads to spending.

And isn't it fascinating that they always use data from VISA sales - VISA being the god of debt and penury...

I've got to stop now, as I'm making myself so angry I can barely see.  I'm off to enjoy a mince pie and cup of tea whilst reading some MR James.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Minecraft - a revolution for students Part 1

I play Minecraft.  There, I've admitted it.  I play it because it's fun, cheap, provides endless leisure, and allows me to utilise my imagination in a different way to writing.  I've been playing it for around a year now, endlessly tinkering with my own personalised world, adding buildings, bridges, churches, castles, underground lairs - whatever I can think of.  After a stressful day's teaching, an hour in this electronic sandpit can wash away all my troubles, allowing me to get on with life with a bounce in my step.

A market square in my map - all built by me out of cubes.
But though there are a huge number of adult players (it was designed by, and for, adults), it is the school age kids that have really run with it.  As you may have noticed, corridors and classrooms are now rife with talk about creepers (baddies that explode, destroying your handiwork), redstone (the Minecraft equivalent of electronic wire) and diamonds (the ultimate find when mining, deep underground).  and the thing is, these guys can play.  A student in my tutor group was telling me how he'd designed a working calculator using the redstone - a hugely impressive feat, and one that shows that he has somehow taught himself the rudiments of electronics, using a video game where you can ride pigs.  Another student was talking about traps he'd built, using this redstone - floors that disappear, hurling you into a lava pit, and doors that require a code to open.  I understand that to many of you this may mean nothing, but believe me, it's the equivalent of a 12 year old confiding that they have constructed similar things in real life - it's that complicated.  They can certainly do things on that game that I can't, and I'm quite capable on games.

So, students are learning about electronic circuits, logic gates, even electronic memory storing.  They are also learning about architecture.  I overheard some older students talking about their construction projects, and discussing the merits of different column shapes, or roof pitches.  I mean, when the hell did that get cool? And here's the final thing: though the game is obviously the preserve of the geeky, all other sorts play it too.  Girls and boys, geek and popular kid.  In my boys Yr 11 class, all but one student plays the game.  These are tough, naughty and tricky lads, but they all love to talk about mods, texture packs and blowing stuff up with in-game TNT.  The single lad that doesn't play tries to mock the game, but can't manage it, due to the weight of popular opinion.  I give him a week until he gets on-board.

I haven't yet mentioned the thriving modification (modding) community, mostly children, and those who draw and paint their own texture packs.  This game is a genuine phenomenon, and I feel we need to make some use of it.  But it will require imagination.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Why the Hobbit will be good.

I'm going to see The Hobbit on Monday.  I am very excited, as I'm a slight obsessive over anything Tolkien - The Lord of the Rings books are likely to be my next Mastermind specialism, after all.  The Hobbit is a wonderful book, filled with well-painted characters and excellent passages of action, humour and fear.  It is also a very short book, in contrast to it's younger, big-boned sibling, and this is where most people's issues lie.  'How can they make three films from such a slender source?' folk scream, waving their hands and crying onto their iPads, 'how could Jackson be so foolish to let the moneymen persuade him to spread it so thin?'

Three films?  Of The Hobbit? Three years of looking forward to a festive slice of Hobbity goodness (Christmas dinner at the Shelob household, you know)?  How could anyone not enjoy this?  Even if it's a cynical ploy, designed to make the sort of money not seen since the robber barons of the industrialising USA, then who the hell cares?  Why would I dampen my pleasure with the thought that I'll have to pay around £30, over three years, to watch three wonderfully directed films about wizards and dragons?  People seriously need to lighten up.  £30, spread over three years (add a bit for popcorn, yes, and a small fortune for Ben and Jerry's, if you lack willpower), is less than I will spend on bleach in the same period, or scourers.  And what we get in return is a series of films made by the most Tolkien-friendly bunch in the business.  Peter Jackson loves his source material, as does Fran Walsh and Pippa Boyens.  They live and breathe Middle-Earth, and would rather live with Tom Bombadil* than deliver poor quality films.

The casting is perfect, with Martin Freeman born to play the role.  Tim Canterbury more or less was Bilbo Baggins, only transported to a Slough paper merchant.  Ian McKellen is the finest person in the world, and I'm fairly sure Tolkien somehow anticipated him when creating the character.  As for the rest, what more could you want?  And if anyone else is short-sighted enough to moan about the 48fps, they can kindly remove themselves from the passage of history.  It's a revolution in far more ways than 3D ever could be.  Before long, the old 24fps will strike us all as blurry, foul and dirty, and we'll refuse to watch it out of sheer disgust.

Let's all chill out, enjoy the extended content, in all its Necromantic glory, and look forward to seeing Smaug get all kick ass over Laketown.  That scene in itself, reported in a mere 2 pages by Tolkien, should fill about 20 minutes of film if Jackson knows what he's doing.  And he does.

*Just imagine it.  You'd go mad and batter him with a candlestick after only the third 'rim bim bam billo, Tom Bombadillo...'

Thursday, 13 December 2012

What happened to the DoE last night?

Last night I noticed a few folk on Twitter were guffawing at the antics of the Department of Education's twitterfeed (@educationgovuk), so I went to have a look.  I've seldom been so astonished!  It was churning out Orwellian epithets like besmirched, fetid sausages, one after the other, a constant flurry of grim tidings.  'Teachers participating in the NUT/NASUWT action are likely to be in breach of their contracts.' it opined, followed swiftly by the even more irrelevant 'Setting out a long list of activities that teachers should refuse to do doesn't empower teachers as professionals.'  Indeed, I thought...and nor does berating us over the internet like a deranged troll.  Then came the real doozy.  This actually made me smile, so banal and parody-friendly was the tone: 'We will support any school that takes appropriate sanctions against this irresponsible industrial action.'

So says Mumra, arch nemesis of the Thundercats.  Honestly, who on Earth do they think they're talking to?  Just about every teacher I follow on Twitter (must be nearly a thousand now) seems to be a dedicated, hard-working, imaginative and clever individual.  As such, what's the purpose of haranguing them over Twitter, the very tool they are using to improve their practice?  Absolute madness.  Obviously I accept that they worded it in such a way as to try and gain support from hard-working teachers, and yes, there are some in the profession who don't really help the situation much, but still: using Twitter in this way was misguided and ultimately foolish.  It also made the Department for Education sound like it was run by daleks. (Thanks to @Wonderacademy for that one...)  People tend not to enjoy being talked down to, and a Twitterfeed that could have been used to share good ideas and connect us to the government has now lost many teachers' respect.

So where now?  Now that Big Brother has warned us all, and scared us back into Victory Mansions, what will happen next?  I daren't even guess.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Modern Life is Rubbish

Me, in the cold.
It's time for a new post! This is quite a quick one, but it was something that got me thinking about the mayhem of the modern world.  Earlier today I was trying to write on a PowerPoint slide (I'm such a cool teacher) the concept of a 5x5 table.  I was, as always, in a rush.  Outside, the freezing fog pressed itself up to the windows of my comfy classroom, presenting a bleak grey outlook.  I stared at the keyboard in growing annoyance.  Where on earth was the symbol for multiplication?  My eyes ranged over the arcane scratches on the right hand side keys of the keyboard, and even briefly alighted on the never-before-noted button that makes this happen: ¬ .  In despair, I studied the numerical keys and their multicoloured offerings.  It took me minutes - literally - to remember that it's just an x - one of many examples of a symbol collection we like to call the alphabet.

Obviously this implies that I am quite a stupid man, and to a point this would be a fair assessment.  However, I believe it to be indicative of something bigger than this: the overwhelming nature of modern life.  The reason I couldn't find the x key is that I expected it to be somewhere funky - somewhere where it could fulfill its role as simply a multiplication mark.  I hadn't considered it to be a moonlighting letter.  So totally immersed are we in instant, specific, wonderful gratification (I'm thinking chocolate hob nobs and Google Chrome here, as examples) that we (well, I) end up unable to see the woods for the trees.

There's too much going on, and too much that I can simply demand, like a deranged Pharoah of decadence, to be delivered to me right now.  A website I over-use considerably is Just-Eat, which acts as a kind of friendly meta-takeaway, enabling you to peruse a billion of those fast food menus in digital form (saves opening the top drawer, I suppose) and then order a takeaway, using a credit card.  Yes, gone are the days where an illicit kebab was only achievable if you were lucky enough to have some cash on your person.  Now you can run well into your overdraft with Egg Fried Rice and Shish Lamb Special.  And all from the sorry comfort of your living room.  What hope does poor old 'x' have in this climate?

Perhaps I need to return to simplicity.  Buy digestives, find an old typewriter and go back to Internet Explorer.  Perhaps.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Story...part 4

He exhaled heavily, and his heart began to beat more steadily, giving him a little more courage.  It was comforting to know that his heart was still functioning, even if his mind was reeling.  With this happier thought beginning to bolster his reason he had a sudden and disorientating lapse into terror, as if his mind were punishing him for  his lack of vigilance.   He became aware of the fact he had stopped listening.  At some indeterminate point in the last few minutes he had become so fixated on decoding the sounds that his ears had turned inward, listening to his own thoughts only.  Still standing motionless by the river, he tried desperately to remember when he had lost awareness of the sounds around him, only to realise he had absolutely no idea.  Time had become meaningless anyway, and the sounds may have been a minute, or an hour ago.  Painfully aware that he had been standing exposed for a substantial amount of time, he left the path and sheltered by a low bush, finally gaining the nerve to peer into the darkness down the path he had trod.  Guiltily, he strained his ears, listening for some reprise of the steps, but heard nothing.  His mind wandered as he listened, at once conjuring images of horror in the black, and imagining the warm and vibrant party that was almost certainly drawing to an end by now.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Punctuation Pets - going all Pokemon on them.

Hello everyone.  It's a cold December 1st, and now the joy I gained from my advent calendar has waned, it's time for another post.

An endangered Apostrophe
Yesterday, trying to engage my Yr8 literacy-boosting group with the idea of apostrophes, I hit upon the idea of presenting them as an endangered species, struggling to survive in the modern world.  I led the students along a while - one of my favourite techniques - wanting them to think we were going to talk about snow leopards or minke whales or something.  Then I hit them with the apostrophe, and a suitably cute illustration of what an apostrophe looks like under a magnifying glass.

This had them hooked.  Now, I understand that engagement is not the same as learning, but it is certainly a damn good foundation to it.  Over the course of the session, I instilled in them a sense that missing out an apostrophe was a little like saying 'I don't believe in fairies'.  After they'd stopped sobbing at the thought of the needless murder of hundreds of little apostrophes, we decided it was time to act.  So, every time an apostrophe is placed in their own natural habitat (possession/omission), we will make a point of adding another line to the tally of happy, healthy apostrophes living in the wild.

The rationale behind all this childish madness is this: students usually understand apostrophe rules (and those for capitals, commas, full stops and connectives); the issue is that they just forget to use them as they write at speed, usually under pressure.  It is this forgetfulness which needs work, and what better way to help them remember than giving punctuation personality?  In our school, with the help of literacy-freak @letterland123, we are hoping to create a Pokemon-inspired 'points gathering' affair, whereby punctuation is very cute, collectible and a source of small prizes.  Watch this space...

Friday, 30 November 2012

Bendy Phones and other Blights

Today the internet has been heaving with the news that mobile phones will soon be bendy, like a bit of old elastic you find behind the wardrobe.  This will mean that we could, for example, wear them like a funky, time-wasting bracelet, or use them to prop up wobbly restaurant tables, or run around bending them around, laughing and crying at the fact that the technological might of our species – this awesome, collective, gargantuan knowledge amassed and perfected over the centuries – has finally allowed us to wrap a telephone around a stick.

I should, perhaps, apologise for my facetiousness, but I am fed up with the endless touting of ‘tweaks’ on existing items.  My joy to see that Dyson has made a bladeless fan was tempered by the fact that flinging shit at it would now no longer have the desired effect.  The unveiling of the iPhone 5 was marred slightly by the fact that they’d forgotten to make any changes to the iPhone 4 (or 3…etc).  Everything’s being tweaked to death, and nothing new seems to be being invented anymore.  I’m sure something must be being invented somewhere (they’ve got to get on with hoverboards and Jaws 19 for 2015, after all…), but we never seem to hear about it.  We only become aware of these endless ‘improvements’, and it’s all about money, of course.

I’m no social philosopher, but sometimes I remember that civilisation is an unprecedented experiment, led by no-one, and with no real hypothesis.  When in these moods, I contemplate the fact that we have absolutely no idea – no idea at all – what the outcome of all this technological tweakery is.  We know why it’s happening: money.  Profit drives the eternal tweaking of existing models, as it’s hugely cheaper than the development of an entirely new idea, and far safer too.  But if that’s all that is driving it, then what will the eventual outcome be?  If ‘progress’ is going to boil straight down to profit, is there any hope of a highly developed, highly successful, ‘Type III Civilisation’ being realised?  Risk, inherent in any development of totally new technology, is very expensive and not particularly enjoyed by big business.  As such, new things are less desirable, to business, than tweaked things.  In short,  I fear that we could end up coming to a halt, endlessly poking around with existing ideas, and never doing anything truly new.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Masterminding a coup...part 2

I did not have to wait long to get the final big phone call.  I was at work, having finished teaching for the day, trying to get my ridiculous pile of marking down to something merely the size of a wardrobe, rather than the house-sized mess I had in front of me.  The producer was very nice, informing me of possible dates, the rules, asking me about my specialisms, and confirming the order I would want to do them in.  I came off the phone feeling very happy, looking forward to telling my friends and family.  It was only later (about twenty minutes or so later) that I realised that this all meant that my frankly half-assed idea of getting on the telly for a giggle had now actually come to pass, and that the chances of making a royal moron of myself in front of several million people were fairly high.

Not wishing to waste time computing how long the odds were against me, I decided to set about constructing a revision timetable, to fill the 4 months or so I had to prepare.  Happily, I had the summer holidays in the middle of it – some quality time to get stuck into some reading without the spectre of 10E breathing down my neck like an angry fart.  However, no Arnold Rimmer am I.  My timetable was sketchy at best, and basically consisted of a list of dates, with a general topic next to it:

This photo was in the local paper - honest to God.  The shame.
4th July – classical opera
11th July – British prime ministers
Etc etc ad nauseum

So, I spent my summer holiday reading reams and reams of mostly net-based documents (mostly Wikipedia, if I’m going to be dangerously honest), trying to absorb the knowledge of millennia.  I learned loads about the prime ministers and British history circa 1800 – I can still remember that Castlereigh committed suicide over some failed diplomacy in Vienna, and that Lord Liverpool was in charge during the Peterloo massacre of 1819 (but wasn’t actually there,  of course).  But revising general knowledge is like trying to fill a small pot with millions of bees – no matter how hard you try to cram them in, they won’t stick, and you’ll probably get badly hurt too.  Deciding I was essentially allergic to bee stings, I changed tack, and focused nearly all of my attention on my specialism – the Titanic.

I spent a small fortune completing my library of Titanic books (and some of them were very large), and set about reading them.  I learned that the toilets were manufactured by Armitage, before Shanks ever got involved, and that the piano in the smoking room was a Steinway.  I learned that its call sign was MGY, for some reason, and that cruelly the first news of the disaster reported that the ship was limping to Halifax harbour.  These were happy days – having an excuse to totally immerse yourself in a topic you love is a wonderful thing, and I even built myself a scale model of the damn thing, so I could visualise all the locations.  In short, I over-prepped like a maniac, and all but neglected the general knowledge.  This was to be my downfall.

To be continued…

Sunday, 25 November 2012

A School Vignette...part 1

The general consensus in the room, agreed more by atmosphere than by speech, was to keep it to ourselves.  Conversation eddied around the usual subject of the experiences of the day so far, the triumphs and failures and the inevitable savage humour of the tired teacher.
                “We were discussing the garden of Eden, and its role in literature,” someone started, as they settled into their chair in the manner of someone anticipating a reaction, “and the class, well, most of them, were OK with this and we had a reasonable discussion about the apple and so on,”
                “The apple? The type of fruit’s never specified,” said Eric as he was marking with his mauve pen.  Eric had this way of listening to discussions in stealth, then diving into the fray at strategic moments to bomb the hell out of whatever ignorance he had targeted. “I’ve always imagined it would have been a papaya, or maybe a pomegranate.”
“Symbolic,” muttered Jane.
“But not an apple,” Eric continued, “Not in the Middle East.” He rubbed his chin slowly, exploring the budding beard that had been sprouting there since Half-Term.
“Fair enough.”  The someone was Steve and he was not willing to let his tale get derailed by such pedantry.  “Anyway, then Carrie pipes up: ‘But Mr. Hedges, Eden and that didn’t happen though, did it?  It’s a myth,’ to which my only reasonable answer could be, indeed yes, Carrie – it is a religious belief and so didn’t necessarily happen.” He paused, and we stared at him, waiting for the punchline in the same way as you wait for the bus to work.  “And then Kathy says, just like her, ‘but isn’t everything to do with God true?’  Isn’t that just like her, a Year 11 thinking that?  Typical Kathy, primary school beliefs at 16.”  He chortled softly to himself.
“Poor Kathy, she has such a hard time at home,” Jane was unpeeling an apple, “but she doesn’t help herself at school either,” the apple was peeled, “and saying that kind of thing, well, what does she expect?  The kids laughed, I bet?”
“There you are.”  And thus was our psychological profile of Kathy.  It was amazing how we could deconstruct an entire human child and, intently studying the pieces, could come up with one of three stock answers every time.  It was home’s fault, it was school’s fault, or it was a mixture of the two.  This would be done in all of thirty seconds.  In a twenty minute break we could break down and analyse an entire class in this way, and we often did.
But it did keep us from discussing applications.

English and Boys-Only Groups.

When I moved to my current school, I was given an all-boys Yr 10 class.  They were the disinterested, naughty, often hostile students that had been a bit of a nightmare in Yr 9, plus a few quiet lads who'd flown under the radar for three years.  I was the only male teacher in the English department, and so it was believed that I may have half-a-chance of getting these students on track, and maybe even wring a few grades out of them.

A year and a half on, and these boys are in the middle of year 11.  They are benign, funny, talkative, opinionated and often hard-working, and I wouldn't swap this group with any other.  It seems to have worked.  They are mostly on course for their targets, or above; their behaviour is generally very good indeed, and their attitude to learning is incredibly positive.  I think biting the bullet, and including gender in your differentiation to this quite extreme extent is a good thing, and not to be shied away from.  So, what are the benefits of this segregation?

1. No distractions.  This is the obvious one, and its been debated to death in the larger debate about segregated schools.  But within a mixed school, taking the boys away from the 'charms' of the female students seems to have a positive impact on their attention span and their learning.  They have no one to show off too, and as boys are usually pretty intolerant of idiotic bravado when women aren't around, this can become a positive cycle.  It helps if the teacher leads the way on this, highlighting foolish behaviour by labelling it using the student's lingo ('weak', describing poor quality humour, has gone down a treat!).  They latch onto this pretty quickly and the class benefits immensely from it.

2. Toilet humour.  There is no better way to get a gaggle of malcontented boys on side than making jokes about (and sometimes actually demonstrating) farting.  With no girls in the room to temper such grotesque behaviour, the potty-based 'banter' can reach disturbing new highs, with the level of trust within the room increasing with every foul joke.  Soon, every student feels comfortable in the classroom, knowing that banter is redirected from personal attack, to general 'blokish' silliness.  The teacher has to set boundaries, of course, and they will be stretched; persevere, though, and you can end up with the class wrapped around your little finger.

3. Similar interests.  I'm not going to say that all boys share the same interests, but it is reasonable to suggest that many discontented young men, around year 10/11, do have some interests in common.  In a group such as this, these interests can be made full advantage of.  Video games, films, football - these can all be used as starting points into modules, or even assessments themselves.  Recently, my Yr 11s completed a GCSE S&L discussion based around the future of video games, and it was fantastic!  Wonderful debates abounded, and lots of marks were awarded, as they actually wanted to listen to each others' ideas.  We have a 5-minute chat at the start of every lesson, before the starter, where we share our experiences - films we've watched over the weekend, Saturdays' football scores, video game highlights.  This leads to bonding and a sense of community, and before long, everyone's pushing in the same direction.

4. Camaraderie.  My group have really achieved this - they are 'all in this together', and are very happy to help each other out and offer new ideas to the lesson.  This could happen in any group, of course, but I feel that it has happened more quickly, and more strongly than in mixed groups, as the boys feel special.  They know they are in a boys only group, and a low one at that, and this has brought them together.

So, get those troubled boys together, add a dollop of poo-humour, chat about Grand Theft Auto, and then sneak in a bit of learning every now and then.  The results can be very good indeed.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

A story...part 3

These stories belonged, he knew, in the minds of the young and simple, and were not fed or watered by the hard reason of his adult mind, strong and secure in belief of the broken earth and of simple friendship.  But nevertheless they took root, snarled under a stone, and began to grow, and then to thrive.  The heavy darkness began to hide a multitude of unnatural and busy beings, all of whom were distinctly aware of the man’s presence and wanted, for whatever reason, to mean him harm. His mind coloured them, gave them detail, drew horns and foul hair and tails onto them and made them deeply real, moment by moment.  His mind racing, filled with images of childhood’s worst fears, he sat up sharply and hurriedly shot glances around him, hoping not to catch a glimpse of shining eye or glistening scales.  A deep breath and he slumped once more onto his makeshift sheet.  Rationality was needed, he reasoned.  The vague forms and glows subsided as he wrestled with his mind, and he stood up again.  The village, he knew, was only a few more miles down the path.  If he kept walking then the lights and festivities would soon begin to pierce the blanket night, giving him hope and, he thought with shame, safety. Resolve was building within him as he set off, quietly and carefully following the beaten path ahead of him.  Occasionally he would quickly and slyly peer into the gloom around him, like a rabbit near a fox’s burrow, and then regret the action.  He knew that the more he gave into these childlike fancies, the worse he would feel.  The fens were merciless, and it wasn’t a good idea to give in to them so easily.  Another peek over his shoulder, expecting to see a nameless fear, and he picked up his pace.


Silence.  For a second everything in his body stopped.  His breath stalled in his throat; his eyes fixed on a point, taking nothing in; his right foot halted in mid-air; his heart gripped onto the blood within it and refused to plunge it back out. His body had stopped but his mind was firing, considering options both reasoned and irrational.  There had only been two, and they had matched his footsteps perfectly.  He lowered his right foot and stood steadily, his heart still and his lungs aching.  But they couldn’t have matched his own steps – then he would never have heard them.  They had been very slightly out of time with his.  It had been this slight discord that he had noticed – a subtle unsettling variation on the steady rhythm of his feet as they moved on.  But there had only been two.  He was still standing in precisely the spot where he had stopped.  The irony wasn’t lost on him, even in his fragile mental state, that if something had been following, it would have easily caught up with him now.  He laughed quietly at the thought, and fixed his attention on the practicalities of the situation.  If he accepted that there had been extra footsteps, then why were there so few? Perhaps only two of them fell out of the regular rhythm, before urgently matching the tempo again. Perhaps this mysterious follower had been pursuing for some time, and only gave itself away in that brief, clumsy moment.  Or, of course, perhaps he had simply imagined the sound, or they were some peculiar echo. 

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Should we teach rhyme and rhythm?

I expect that I am going to get pilloried for this, by the four people who read this blog (hello mum!), but it is something that has been troubling me for years.  The situation is this: several lessons spent exploring rhyme and rhythm is exciting, ground-breaking ways:  borrowing drums from the music department to patter out a bit of dactylic tetrameter, or whatever; having students scurry around with letters to identify rhyme schemes; students marching around the room to iambic pentameter.  All of this just to get the basic premise in their head.

You then spend time applying it – identifying what effect the various schemes have.  And this is where it all goes wrong.  You tell them that iambic pentameter was used by Shakespeare as it is the closest approximation to normal speech patterns.  You tell them that it echoes the sound of a heartbeat, which links with the tension in Romeo and Juliet.  You tell them that the rhythm of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was designed by Tennyson to echo the sound of horses’ hooves.  And all the time, the part of your brain still devoted to your subject is screaming ‘but this is bullshit!’ at the top of its interior voice. 

At an academic level these things can be, and are discussed.  But they are discussed at a complex level – that is their nature.  It is hard to say anything clever about rhythm when you are a C grade GCSE student, and yet we try to foist it on them, believing it to be the only way to get them thinking about that most mysterious spectre-on-the-markscheme: structure.  Trouble is, they invariably write absolute bobbins about rhyme and rhythm.  They spend half the task time on diligently writing ‘ABABCDCD’ next to the lines of the poem, and writing in their essay ‘this poem is written in couplets, which makes it sound like a song’.  No marks for that, fella.  They may approach something approximating insight: ‘Tennyson makes the rhythm sound like horses to make us feel like we are there’, but this is still pretty poor stuff, especially when their work on language is often so detailed and clever.  The contrast can be upsetting.  And it’s our fault.

This over-teaching of rhyme and rhythm is totally unnecessary.  By all means, make them aware of it – do the exciting, kinaesthetic lessons.  Just don’t expect them to analyse these techniques convincingly, especially in your average group.  To get them engaging with structure,  focus on the order of events and key words at the beginning and end of lines.  Caesura and enjambment can be analysed effectively by almost all students, so encourage that.  Discourage slavish identification of rhyme schemes and rhythms, and any attempt to make a bland statement about their use.  They won’t get any marks in the exam, but crucially, wouldn’t be of any use anywhere else either.


  • ·         Rhythm and rhyme can be great fun to teach, but often pay back very little in return.
  • ·         Even the brightest students tend to write obvious and fairly empty comments about them.
  • ·         There are possible ways to engage them with structure:

o   Narrative/event ordering
o   Words in obviously prominent positions
o   Caesura and enjambment
  • ·         Probably time for a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A story...part 2

“Too dark...” he muttered to himself, forgetting the last time he’d experienced a night quite like this one.  “Damn it, walk in this?  Not a chance, end up in the river...”  The prospect of a warming pint of ale was fading fast, as was his mood.   The river continued its sluggish flow, making barely a sound, oozing stubbornly around the brown plants that persevered in its shallows; it was now impossible to see the water, ten feet away, and even the edge of the river bank was obscured by the dark, so the man made the decision not to move any more.  He spread his cloak out on the dead grass, sat upon it, and stretched his aching legs.  For a time he occupied himself by remembering all of the songs that would be sung at the party, imagining the dancing, drinking and flirting that he was now missing.  He had been hoping to see Edith again tonight; perhaps have a dance.  He hadn’t seen her for some months, but he was sure she would be game for some fun.  The taste of the freshly brewed ales and meads hung heavy in his mouth – what he’d give for a nice reassuring pint!  The food, cooked by all the women in the village, would have been excellent.  There would be pies, steaks of aged beef and fresh veal, and venison taken from the woods over by Ewerby Fen. A roast pig would be crackling harshly over a fire with onlookers, expectant for apple sauce and roast pork.  But his mind began to wander. The heavy darkness, empty as it seemed, made him feel very isolated.  Up until this point his thoughts had been fixed on the possibilities of the evening; he had not considered the night-time, which had been creeping like the tide around him, cutting him off from security.  This tide was high now, completely surrounding him.  In response his ears strained, heard nothing, and strained again.  The silence was swelling as quickly as the dark and he struggled to remember the last noise he’d heard.  His own voice, muttering.  Before this it had been a startled animal, he remembered with some comfort.  Probably a rat or vole.  But that had been some time ago.  His mood faded entirely as he considered his position.  He was safe enough where he was – the weather was mild, he was well above the water level and the area was deserted - but he felt uneasy. His heart made itself known, beating a little faster than it ought.  Looking around, he looked for a visible point, something to latch onto.  In the utter black, he felt a little drunk as his vision had nothing to hold onto.  A whirl began behind his eyes and deep within his ears.  There was nothing that could be seen, other than the ground he lay on.  So he focused on that.  Even so, the darkness began to change into a glaring, thumping mass that surrounded him. His mind began turning easily to childhood tales of demons who lived glumly in muddy water, swathed in thick grey weed, waiting for someone to make a fatal mistake and slide helplessly into their slimy clutches.  He thought of the tiny folk who carved homes from the rocks near the church and harvested flowers and moss; folk who bewitched people with their music and dance and stole them away in the deepest parts of the night, never to be heard of again.  Tales of iron-toothed beings lurking in dusty barn-lofts and the soft keening of the washer-at-the-ford bubbled up from his past, like marsh-gas.  An ancient story that he hadn’t been told for thirty years, of the strange stones that littered an area around Ewerby church and their fairy origins, lodged in his mind.  The story told of malicious boggarts that planted stones in the fields in punishment for the farmers’ hold over the land.  The description that his mother created for the boggarts, in answer to his childish questions, was now stuck firmly in his imagination, after all these years.  They were grey, hairless and ill-proportioned, with blank eyes and no teeth, and twelve fingers that were long, sharp and brittle.  They had populated every dark corner and murky patch of forest in his youth.  

Masterminding a coup...

I was on Mastermind the other day, which was quite good fun.  It was rather unsettling, too: watching yourself on TV is a strange experience that I’m not sure I’d recommend.  However, I would recommend actually being on the show, as it was a very enjoyable way to spend an evening and a day.  So I thought, this being a blog, that I could write a few thoughts about this in case anyone fancies giving the old black chair a crack.

A chair.
Getting onto the TV show is a long, though fairly straight-forward process.  The starting point is to fill out the online application form.  I did this for a chuckle, about a year ago, after playing around with the interactive Mastermind quiz game on the BBC website.  It was a shock to find it so rigorous; the form demands a great amount of detailed research into your four potential specialisms: book titles, authors, ISBNs, etc.  I nearly fell at this first fence; being a spur-of-the-moment activity meant that I was not primed to sit down and actually work for an hour, and I fancied a cup of tea and a lie down.  I persevered, though, and that was stage one complete.

I then forgot all about it, for about 4 months.  Then a phone call, with a man at the other end informing me I was through to the next round.  It took me a little while to figure out what was happening – I was just boarding a train – and before I knew it, a barrage of 20 General Knowledge questions exploded in my face.  I did my best, whilst struggling through the ever-spacious aisles of First Great Western, through a dodgy connection and low reception, until that was that.  Assuming that rolling a heavy suitcase over the toes of businessmen was not a great context for excelling at a quiz, I decided to pretend to not be excited by the prospect, even to myself.

On receiving the phone call about a month later, inviting me to a proper audition at BBC Bristol, I realised that I could now be excited, and decided to add a feeling of terrible fear to the mix, too.  I never knew how well I did at the train-based quiz, nor did I discover had badly the businessman’s toe was broken, but I knew I had made it through another barrier.  The auditions were during the Easter Holidays, which was good, so I had plenty of time to relax beforehand.  Impressed by the gleaming BBC, and its ranks of fresh faces, I entered my audition on a grey Thursday morning, and was greeted by another salvo of viciously barbed questions designed to make me cry.  I stumbled through this, proud that I remembered the word ‘Nimrod’, and left, after a brief chat about my specialisms and their availability.  Sitting with a boisterously strong coffee at Boston Tea Party, I contemplated waiting for yet another phone call.

To be continued…

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A story... part 1

A smudge of blue stained the horizon surrounding the scene, a contrast to the black of the sky overhead. A weak, bored river, guided to the sea by its arrow-straight course, sat still and silent in the gloom; it was surrounded by bare black fields, vast and wide as the sky, unfurling forever into the blue tinge of the distance, broken by occasional low, lone trees. Starless and dense, the sky crumpled heavy over a man as he walked, following the weather-beaten track.  A small animal rustled in the scrub by the path, scurrying away home from the approaching figure.

                The distance between towns in this area meant that journeys between them were long and tiring, and in this case had progressed late into the autumn night.  The stony track, dry after a summer without rain, was rough and rutted, and the figure had difficulty progressing at any reasonable speed.  With a sigh, he dropped his bag and slumped to the ground, exhausted and beaten by the day’s travelling, whilst the darkness seemed to creep up to him now he was still, like animals approaching a campfire.  Another sigh lifted the silence, and he stared down the track, trying to make out the slightest dart of light from the village he knew to be in that direction.  His destination was an engagement party held for a friend, and it promised to be an event that would be remembered in the area for some time; the last party held in Shadwick had been a great success, and had gone on into the early hours of the morning.  He would be lucky, now, to get to the village in time to see it end.  He spat, the only moisture the road had known for months, and once again rose to his feet, determined to reach the party before the kegs of ale were drained by over-zealous revellers.  As he began to walk - a little faster than before - the blue smudge on the horizon faded until it was gone.  The night had finally gained possession of the entire scene. The traveller found himself in a binding blackness and, cursing the lack of a moon, he once again sat on the rough track, contemplating his options.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

They're afraid of Virginia Woolf?

How can it be that Virginia Woolf is missing, or under-represented, from the majority of A-Level English Literature specifications, ?  True, OCR, AQA and WJEC allow a tiny smidgen of Woolf in one of their units, but never for the independent studies, and usually as a single choice amongst many other texts.

Woolf is a vital date in the timeline of English Literature.  She is one of the more accessible 1920s English writers, and provides a useful transatlantic counterpoint to those mainstays of Literature syllabuses, Fitzgerald and early Hemingway.  Her writing is a wonderful 'way in' to Modernism (which should be a module on any Literature course!), and fills the gap between the Victorians (who are amply represented) and the mid-late 20th century poets, such as Heaney, who also fill the syllabus.  Her writing is structurally unusual, and she did things with the form of the novel that all students could get their teeth into.  Let's face it - Woolf's writing is something all students of literature should get a taste of.  But they don't.

A student reading Mrs. Dalloway would learn a lot about individual writing styles, about character development, about train-of-thought, about biased narration, and about structure.  They would also learn a great deal about the nature of writing, and its tribulations.  Sure, students discover something about the difficulties women faced in the world of literature if they check out the Brontes, but studying Woolf (with, perhaps, Plath as well) would flag up the less rosy side of literature, which, I believe is something worth highlighting - it's not easy, being an artist.

With the release of the new KS4 curriculum, I was hoping there would be more room for Woolf, but disappointment was the inevitable result.  The focus of the literary side of the syllabus (which is certainly full, if nothing else) is on pre 1918 work, with only a tiny possibility of inserting any 20th century prose (British fiction, poetry or drama since the First World War - pretty harsh either/or choice there...)  Thus we get more and more Shakespeare and less and less Modernist or Postmodernist texts.  The way the world's going, and the need for every student to be able to make rapid links in a modern world, makes me very sad that this is the case.  Woolf's modernity, flavoured with some delicious Mansfield and then some postmodern garnish, would have created a tasty chunk of GCSE fare.

Show students The Waves, and you'd simply blow their minds with what novels can actually be.  Give them a snippet of Orlando, and they'd never be the same again.  Get them to read A Room of One's Own, and see them understand the literary process as never before.

I first came across Woolf in my second year and University, and she blew me away with her style, technique and imagination.  I don't think it should be left that late.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

In defence of...the semi-colon

It may only have a few more years left.  This seemingly-unpopular punctuation mark is suffering from a terrible fate - death by confusion.

It is easily the most vilified punctuation mark in English classrooms across the English-Speaking world.  However, there appears to be no good reason for this.  Commas are far harder to teach, as their rules and rituals are varied, complex and often mystifying.  Speech marks are easily forgotten and misused by all students, all the time (essays and fiction). Exclamation marks are just evil.

No, it seems that the death of the semi-colon is going to be brought about by nothing more than willful negligence.  And that, folks, is not on for such a pretty and happy little mark.  Now, I doubt the tide can be turned at this late stage, but here are my rules for teaching semi-colons:

  1. Remove the mystique that surrounds them.  Be down to earth and gritty when discussing them.  Be off-the-cuff when recommending their use, like you're asking the student to try breathing for a change
  2. Use them in your learning objectives and modelled work, but don't make a hoo-hah about them.  That'll initially confuse, but ultimately delight the students.
  3. Illustrate the power of semi-colons by comparing them to train couplings - they have the power to create infinitely long sentences, after all.  Then show them an extract from Mrs. Dalloway to really blow their minds.
  4. Play the punctuation point game, where students peer assess with a competitive edge.  A correct full stop is a point, and a correct comma 2 points; a correct semi-colon bags you 5 points.  I've tried this many times and it works really well, as they argue about the niceties of punctuation.

  5. Above all, remember the simple rule for semi colons. They are an optional upgrade for a full stop, if you wish to indicate a subtle link between the two sentences.
And, of course, it's lower-case after one.  And yes, you can use them in lists where list-items contain commas themselves.

I hope that helps.  They deserve saving.

The best laid plans...

I'm going to write a blog.  Everyone else is doing it, so I suppose I ought to join in and see what happens.  I cannot say exactly what will appear here, but its likely to be a mash-up of reflections on the career I've chosen, bits of intense geekery from the world of films and games, and probably some stuff about books too.

It's Sunday morning, I'm hounded by flu and my tea is not of premium quality, so my first blog will be a straightforward explanation of why I think those people who decry the simplicity of Of Mice and Men are missing the point.

In March 2011, and seemingly once a week ever since, Michael Gove bewailed the paucity of novel-reading in schools.  He 'questioned' the popularity of Steinbeck's book, which suggests he has much better experience of the whole teaching thing than we do, and also implying that our choice of it is due to its brevity and simplicity - in short, suggesting that we teachers will do anything for an easy life.  Of Mice and Men is a short book, granted.  It has to be, as it is a novella, and a conversion from a playscript to boot.  So we can't very well hold its length against it, can we?  It is also simple.  This is because it was written by Steinbeck, whose writing style, like many in the 1930s-1960s, was sparing, careful and concise.  Hemingway was similar, as was our own George Orwell, and I don't hear Gove belittling them.

So, its shortness and simplicity are a result of style and form - it is not short and simple to help teachers or students.  In fact, its simplicity hides huge depths of content, great oceans of emotional interplay and character development that elevate this book to its rightful place in the canon.  It is the kind of text where you can spend a whole lesson on the final line, with a top set group, analysing the myriad interpretations that can be made of it; or you can spend a happy lesson with the bottom set, writing tweets that the characters may have shared, given the chance (@princeoftheranch if I see ya with my wife agin youll git it #imtheboss).  It can be analysed for months, and still keep giving.

This is not an 'easy' book.  It is simple.  There is a huge difference (no-one would accuse the Old Man and the Sea of being 'easy').  The reason we teach it? Because it is excellent, it fits in with our schedules, it is efficient and it gives the whole spectrum of abilities the chance to get their grade.  Should we be hounded for being clever and choosing the best text available to us?  Obviously not.  Change the assessment style, change the focus, change the timings, and no doubt we may find a different text; but again - we will do it cleverly, choosing the best book for the job.  Don't hate us for that.