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...