Saturday, 23 February 2013

Units of work with overarching narratives

The council had decided it.  The beautiful village needed a bypass, and quickly.  Deaths on the main road had been occurring all too often, and it was time to act.  Three potential routes were established, and the villagers quickly decided on the route best for them, their families and their businesses.  Just as the contest between the routes  was getting fierce, the local vicar was killed in a hit and run incident.  There were rumours of murder…

So goes the storyline of a KS3 transactional writing/speaking unit of work that I have taught for several years.  Units of work that focus on the writing of news articles, letters, speeches and the like can be incredibly boring to teach and to learn from.  Endless lessons of writing different, meaningless letters to imaginary people can really wear down the motivation of even the happiest students, and are anathema to those who find school to be an annoyance.  I just couldn’t bear to put my students through this hell, so a few years back I trawled my imagination and dredged my memory for some way of making a unit of this type fun.  Year 8 English lessons from my own past swam into focus: a village, that every student is a ‘resident’ of, with careers, social anxieties, relationships, friendships and deep seated rivalries.  This was a unit of work I remembered well, delivered by my teacher of the time, Mr Fox.  And it was certainly memorable.  I barely remember any peers (apart from close friends) from my school days, but I certainly remember us all in the drama studio, acting our parts with gusto, arguing and back-biting about the pros and cons of Bypass Route A.  Happy days indeed, so it made eminent sense to steal this unit, give it some more flourishes and develop it for a full transactional writing unit.

The Village - drawn on MS Paint (I'm a masochist).
The reasons this unit work so well are two-fold.  One, it embeds character development into the scheme, giving the students open-ended opportunity to flesh out their villager, giving them traits, back-stories, motives and relationships.  This leads to very rich and detailed Speaking and Listening activities, and gives them an opportunity to add a very strong voice to their writing.  Two, it has an over-arching narrative: a story, that gives all of the written and spoken tasks a distinct purpose and flavour.  Yes, it is a fiction, and I imagine some would argue that transactional writing in a world of fiction is meaningless.  I would take issue with this, as the fictional world is grounded in reality and deals with real issues, but still: there is ample room to create narrative units entirely based in reality.

So, the story of the village and its problems provides a backdrop to a range of written and spoken tasks.  Travel guides or Wikipedia entries can be written for the village itself (writing to inform/describe for different audiences); character biographies can be drafted (writing to entertain and develop character); newspaper reports and editorials can be written, with a focus on the difference between certain newspaper types/audiences; even obituaries and epitaphs, for the poor dead vicar, can be written – it sounds macabre but the students enjoy trying this formal and prescriptive style for a change.  Spoken tasks can include speeches from characters about their opposition to council plans; drama activities based around protests and village hall meetings; full on debates, even.  There’s plenty of scope for elongating or shortening the unit as you see fit.  I found myself adding a sub-plot about finding old manuscripts in the ancient cottage - this involved the class decoding and creating a cohesive storyline from a differentiated range of renaissance-18th Century text excerpts.  This acted as a pleasant taster for the next term's unit of work - Twelfth Night.

The students love it, of course.  It’s very engaging, but obviously this isn’t the be-all and end-all.  They learn an awful lot, too.  With their defenses down, they absorb the skills and knowledge quickly, as it all makes more sense, with their writing linked to a central narrative.  It all means something, and adds to the overall story.  They can follow their tasks through, recognising that writing a sub-par news report on the Vicar’s death would show a lack of respect, and would not be print-worthy.  They make their editorials truly powerful and persuasive, as they really want a certain by-pass route to be successful.  Thus, their learning and practice of technical aspects, such as punctuation, leap in quality.  It’s astonishing how ‘real’ the whole thing can become, to the point where the students end up leading the narrative, taking it to strange new places.  For example, we ended up doing some creative writing based on animals being displaced from their homes.  A pupil had chanced upon an old episode of Animals of Farthing Wood and wanted to use it.  And it worked brilliantly, with excerpts from Wind in the Willows analysed, and the whole theory and technique of anthropomorphism explored.

Creating story-driven schemes is time-consuming, but very rewarding.  I aim to storify all of my KS3 units in this way - I'm currently sorting out a First World War unit where the progress of the war is tracked by poetry and the biographies of Sassoon and Owen - and I believe that this will create English lessons that will be remembered for a long time.  There are limits, of course.  It would be unfeasible to create a narrative line in some units, I'm sure - but be imaginative.  Media units or transactional writing units can always be given a narrative (I have a Yr 9 writing unit built around the story of a decaying amusement park), and poetry units should be given some kind of central focus or tenet.  Novel and play units have their own narrative, of course, and I feel any persuasive module, either spoken or written, should have a story or major project at its heart.  

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Ofsted Report: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

Inspection Judgements:

The Achievement of Pupils is Satisfactory.

Pupils at Hogwarts have access to a reasonably wide range of esoteric qualifications, suited to its key demographic.  As an independent school, it does not have to follow the National Curriculum closely; however, it is disappointing to note that basic requirements such as English, Mathematics and Religious Education are all lacking or entirely missing from the school's syllabus.  This has had adverse effects on all students, many of whom have never even been taught basic KS1 or 2 literacy.  A few students have attended state or independent primary schools, and these students typically perform very well in contrast to their peers.

The majority of students appear to be under-performing, with most pupils struggling in all their lessons, most of which appear to be set at too challenging a level.  One particular class, which seemed to be based on A-Level chemistry, proved too difficult for even the most proficient students.  Only one pupil managed to complete the lesson objectives, mainly thanks to his use of an annotated text book.  However, certain subjects appear to be either very short-term, or far too easy for the majority of students.  An outdoors lesson was observed where students made very little progress over several lessons, simply performing the same repetitive tasks again and again, counting and feeding small maggot-like creatures.  Clearly the curriculum requires an overhaul to bring literacy and numeracy levels up to the appropriate level for such a prestigious establishment.

Extra-curricular activities are well-established at the school, with chess clubs, animal care groups and 'duelling clubs' all vying for popularity.  There is a definite sense of social responsibility among some students,  with evidence of a student-led campaign to get the canteen workers more breaks and holiday time.  The school library is underused, and often totally empty.  The librarian has no idea why this is the case.

The sixth form is indistinguishable from the main school, as the students all remain on to study to the age of eighteen.  The subjects offered remain the same, though with more rigorous examinations.  End of KS4 results are generally average, whereas end of KS5 results this year were disrupted by unforeseen and external events.  Students typically go into government posts, journalism or remain unemployed.

The Quality of Teaching is Unsatisfactory

Teaching at Hogwarts is generally very old-fashioned and lets the students down considerably.  Lessons are formulaic and, other than the occasional impressive display of skills from teaching staff, are dull and lifeless.  Lessons all too often revolve around tedious rote-work and use of text books.  The study of History is particularly poor, with very little teacher interaction and no group work of any kind.  Students were frequently found to be asleep during these lessons and, on one occasion, the teacher was also sleeping at their desk.  Clearly this is not good enough, and suggests that Senior Leadership need to have far more rigorous CPD in place for struggling teachers, alive or dead.

Teachers have very high expectations of their pupils - often far too high for their age and ability.  Again, during chemistry, the teacher was seen to display entirely unfounded expectations of a Year 7 class who could barely keep up with his description of various chemicals, poisons and antidotes.  Students in this class were often punished for their lack of prior knowledge - a worrying trend that the senior leaders of the school need to counter as soon as possible.

Assessment for Learning is not well implemented at Hogwarts school.  In fact, students seemed only rarely to be given assessments of any kinds, and homework tasks are often over-long and irrelevant (usually essay based).  Starters and plenaries are very rare, and usually students enter classrooms with a genuine fear of what they may be expected to achieve.  Tasks within lessons are often over-long and repetitive, lacking anything other than brief modelling from the teacher.  Lessons all appear to be two hours long, but it is hard to say exactly what fills this time, with lessons often dedicated to a single activity with little teacher feedback beyond simple criticism.  As such, the pace of learning is very slow in most subjects - most notably chemistry, biology, PE (which seems to disappear after Year 7) and charms.

The Behaviour and Safety of Pupils is Unsatisfactory

 Frankly, the quality of safety provision for students at Hogwarts is totally unacceptable.  Despite having a highly qualified, capable and over-worked school nurse, many severe and significant injuries have occurred in recent years.  The main sport played by the school, entirely internally, is incredibly dangerous and should be reviewed by the HSE immediately.  Several injuries from wildlife have occurred in recent months, with trees and large flying animals usually to blame - these hazards are not successfully monitored or kept safe by any member of staff other than the groundsman.  This kind of Health and Safety brief is not usually in the remit of a groundskeeper, and it is our recommendation that more staff are drafted in to help with this task.  There have been several deaths in recent years, all on site.  The recent loss of the previous headteacher was a severe blow to the school's reputation, and many parents have removed their children from the premises.  The headmaster's death went entirely unexplained, though rumours that a pupil murdered him are almost certainly hyperbole.  The death of a Year 12 student during an international competition was also kept from the newspapers, and the effects are still being felt across the school.  This summer, the school was disrupted by riots and pitched battles between rival sectors of the community.  Whether the school was an incidental victim of this outburst of aggression, or an active part of it, is unknown to the inspectors.  Significant damage was wreaked on the school buildings, with certain wings now closed for repairs.  In short, at present Hogwarts is a very unsafe environment for all students and staff.

Behaviour of students is very poor indeed.  Staff seem to maintain their grip on the school using threats of violence, and yet student disruption is at high levels.  Most of the worst behaviour seems to be focused around one particular 'house' within the school's pastoral system, but despite this clear correlation, no positive action has been taken.  Bullying is a very common occurrence  and is not dealt with very well by the pastoral team, which consists of some of the strictest staff members in the school.  Often the bullying between students can become physical aggression very quickly, with some students causing each other actual bodily harm.  The bullying of students by staff is at unacceptable levels, with some students singled out from an early age for grudges that seem to date back decades.  Most of these issues stem from the high levels of insular relationships that form in the school, between staff and pupils.  Much of this stems from the unsatisfactory usage of a house system, which seems only to make the students more insular.  Cross-house friendships are very rare and often mocked by other students, and even staff.  One house in particular seems to be very isolated, with students from all other houses declaring them 'evil', 'sly' and other derogatory terms; with a common room located in a cold and damp basement, and a Head of House who spends a great deal of time out of school, it is perhaps no surprise that the students are struggling.  Looking at the records, the House Championship has been corrupt for some time, with clear preferential treatment given to some houses over others.

The Leadership and Management of the school is Satisfactory

Until his death, the previous headteacher had a very strong reputation in the local community and had steered the school through some difficult times.  However, accusations of favoritism dogged his career, and his lack of investment in quality teaching led to some very poor staff choices, including the appointment of unskilled staff for Divination (a spurious subject that has no academic rigour) and the constant poor selection of teachers for the difficult role of Defence Against the Dark Arts (a PSHE subject).  After the headteacher's death, the school was run by the Chemistry teacher, rather than the established deputy.  The reasons for this are unclear, but it is certain that it had a detrimental affect on the school and its students, many of whom were impossible to locate during our time at the school, suggesting serious problems with the school's safeguarding procedures.  Since the death of the last headteacher, there has been no clear line of authority for child-protection matters, with the issue usually left to arcane and vague concepts such as 'love' and making sure students are 'sent to live with relatives until the age of 17' to keep them 'safe'.  Middle management is a tier that seems not to exist, with the headteacher taking sole responsibility over every aspect of the school.  This is not an efficient model, and it is recommended that the school create a new tier of management to help the current headteacher with her workload.

Hogwarts School is awarded a grade of 4 (unsatisfactory)

Buy me a coffee! Buy me a coffee!

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Science on the Telly

Hurrah for Sir David Attenborough.  In a benighted world, he still calmly presents the facts of life in his wonderfully honest and sincere voice (easily the nicest voice in the world, after perhaps Ian McKellen’s Gandalf).  This is good, as the rest of the telly-world seems bent on providing mis-information, dogma and foolishness.  ‘Science’ is the abstract noun that gets the most punishment.  For whatever reason, the realm of science is treated as just that by the media – a fairytale kingdom, unknowable to the masses, and only really comprehended by a lucky few who possess the magical properties required, like jumping into an enchanted lake or breaking the back off a wardrobe.  ‘Science’ is a mystery, a bizarre concoction that seems to consist of huge, blinking machines, intimidating men and women wearing goggles and looking stern, huge explosions and Brian Cox.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in a recent episode of The Year of Making Love – a deeply misguided TV ‘experiment’ that attempts to prove that ‘science’ can match people up and make them fall in love.  Now, at first glance I thought this meant they would take people’s initials, plonk them on the periodic table and set them up that way (‘So, Annette Goon – you’re paired up with Alec Umbrella, and what a beautiful sight they are together!’).  But no.  The ‘science’ that is so mystically invoked by the utterly unlikeable Cherry Healy is, in fact, a few questionnaires, compiled by a couple of boffins who calculate what people’s hobbies are, and match them up that way.  If this is science, then so is putting forks in the correct section of your cutlery drawer.  There was nothing remotely scientific about the approach taken in the programme.  There was no concern at all about the incredible number of variables at work in this experiment, or the terribly subjective nature of the ‘scientists’, who shrieked happily whenever a couple were first introduced: “Ooh look, they’re smiling! They’re going to get on just fine; oh, these don’t look happy – look, he’s not impressed by her webbed fingers at all – this won’t end well”.  Hardly an unbiased observation.  The impact of having a camera crew slavishly follow these poor singletons on their dreadful dates  wasn’t considered at all.  I always thought science was about minimising the intrusion of the observer; having a camera lens right in your face when trying to enjoy crème brulee in a gastropub with someone you’ve just met doesn’t really suggest CERN levels of scientific rigour when testing their likelihood of getting all sexy.

But I could put up with all of this foolishness if the programme didn’t keep insisting it was all deeply ‘scientific’.  It got so deluded that it put me in mind of a crazed drunkard sobbing that he is really sober, whilst miserably urinating all over his duvet and staring, teary- and bleary-eyed at a photo of his dead dog.  ‘Remember’, Healy says, ‘that science has put these two together’.  Even the pudding-faced contestants kept insisting that their romantic successes and failures were all down to ‘science’, as if this was simply the name of the lead researcher.  Perhaps it is.

Hearing it so often ends up having a powerful effect.  There will be people who believe that it has now been proven, beyond reasonable doubt, that science can hook people up. To most, this will suggest that potions, or weird blinking machines can act as cupid.  They will take this misapprehension to the grave.  Yes indeed, it’s fine when it’s about something as ephemeral and pointless as this TV programme, but when the same thing occurs with science that matters, such as inoculation or nutrition  (read anything by Ben Goldacre to find out just what kind of egregious misinformation is out there) then we surely have to blow the whistle and demand that science is taken more seriously.  Surely?

People could argue that Brian Cox is the perfect saviour of this grim situation, but I would have to disagree.  His new series, Wonders of Life, is an exploration of biology by a physicist - odd and not altogether helpful, but then what do I know?  Maybe cross-discipline stuff is all the rage now.  Maybe I should start designing skyscrapers or performing brain surgery for a giggle.   But my real problem with this show is the man himself.  He's being hailed as the natural successor to both Attenborough and Patrick Moore.  How dare these faceless folk suggest such a thing?  If Brian Cox ends up 'replacing' Attenborough once he's gone (after what I hope would be the most wonderfully extravagant and beautiful state funeral humanity has ever seen) then I will set fire to my television and sit in a corner, grumpy, for the rest of my life.  He's just too there.  Here's a zebra, look at it's pretty stripes and happy face.  But wait, Brian Cox is standing right in front of it, gurning and bubbling like a moron about how awesome it all is.  Too much effervescence, too little information and far too much of Brian Cox's face.  Attenborough only rarely pops up to speak to us face-to-face, and that's the right way to be.  Cox just can't get enough of his own teeth on TV, and that's to our detriment.

We need proper, informative, classy science shows on the TV; all else is just fluff. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Haunted Asda

Residents of a suburb of Gubley are astonished this week with the revelation that their local supermarket is haunted.  The Asda store on Great Fleshy Road has been plagued with a myriad of reportings of ghosty occurances over the last few weeks.  It would seem that ghosts have been seen, heard and even smelt in the warehouse area, the canteen, and the area round the big bins.

Batch Loaf

The first ghostly sighting was in November of last year.  Asda employee Jessie Cake had been hosing down the counters late on a Thursday night when he heard the unmistakable sound of a large unseeded batch loaf falling to the floor.  Cake (24) had rushed to the source of the sound and seen something incredible: “It was just this huge thumb,” he cries.  “It was slowly thumbing through the different loaves of bread, as if it were somehow trying to choose between them.”  Cake had run straight to the boss’s office to report his sighting, but fell foul of his own hose, cracking his skull on the sluice.  He was found the next day, and recounted his story to horrified onlookers.

Managers have stated that ghostly sightings, of thumbs or otherwise, do not fit under normal Health and Safety laws, and that the case with Mr. Cake is still under review.  His store manager assured us that he would be able to return to work as soon as his instep was healed.

Mysterious Cloud

This should have been enough to close the store, but short-sighted bosses demanded that the store remain open to the public.  The second sighting came soon afterwards.  Security guard Andy Hornbill had been watching the rear entrance when he saw a mysterious cloud heading towards him: “It were right weird.  I was standing and looking at the shutters when this cloud of mist came at me like a fox and made me worried.  It had no hands but it seemed to have thumbs that were threatening me.  It came right near the bailer and then disappeared by the gas taps.”  Hornbill (40) had been bewildered by the encounter, but was most shocked by the smell left behind by the entity: “it were like dirty rubber plimsolls” he opined, grimacing at the memory, “but not the right kind – the wrong kind.”

Without So

Clearly there was something nefarious at work here.  The Asda store occupies the site of an old tyre factory and broom warehouse.  These were demolished soon after being sold to the Asda parent company, Walmart, and indeed some employees believe there was something fishy going on here.  Aging coffee shop customer Agnes Pinecone (67) believes that there were plottings afoot: “It just seems strange that as soon as they bought them buildings, they go knocking them down without so much as a second thought.  What were they hiding from us? Then they go building an Asda right on the top of the, no repect or owt for what was there before.  I tell you, it’s no wonder there’s summat going on in that place.”  The mystery has been compounded by the discovery of a broom in a cubby-hole in the gent's changing room.  No-one has as yet explained why it should be there, or why it has such a mucky handle.


The ghostly smell has been smelt several times since Mr. Hornbill experienced it for the first time, and always somewhere around the bailer.  As for the ghostly thumbs, they haven’t been seen since.  Some say they are waiting for the right moment to strike.  Others say they were just thumbs.  All we know, here at the Herald and Jerkin, is that there’s something sinister over on Great Fleshy Road.

Friday, 1 February 2013

On Tallness

I am quite a tall person – roughly as tall as a garden wall, or a little shorter than a ceiling.  I duck under doors and get cooed over by old ladies in chip shops.  It is a good thing, a lot of the time.

Being tall is a permanent state of being, of course. This means that I have always seen the world through the eyes of a tall person, as I can’t really remember any times prior to being around 13 in any meaningful detail.  To me, an eye-line at roughly 6’4” is the norm, and my perception of the world hangs upon it.  After all, tall people get a unique view of the world, much like worms or fleas do. We see the hidden places – the places where people put things to forget about them, areas in towns where no graffiti has been daubed, spaces over and above things where secrets lie.  I can see the top of the lockers at school, for example.  Fascinating hoards of miscellany can be discovered there – old pens, bits of paper, ragged lumps of food, mouldering old doughnuts.  They all inhabit this dead zone where no normal people visit.  They belong there.  The tops of vans are equally intriguing.  Rarely seen by human eyes, apart from those souls that linger on motorway service station skyways, they offer a fascinating glimpse of the unknown:  there is nothing particularly to see, you understand; it’s more that you are glimpsing virgin territory when you look at the roof of a transit van.

The deep recesses in train’s over-head shelves can’t escape my gaze, and nor can top shelves.  Top-most shelves are always the best of all.  That’s where we put all of our least wanted paraphernalia – things we can’t quite do away with, but things we don’t want to consider in a meaningful sense.  It is a relegation zone far more potent than the bottom shelf (that’s where we put our guilty pleasures), and yet I see them in every house I visit.  As a fan of the forgotten and abandoned, these bleak spots are an endless source of fascination – a top shelf filled with books offers a glimpse into the psyche of an individual that years of intimate friendship cannot beat.  A shelf lined with dusty ornaments and trinkets paints a picture of a long life of endless unwanted Christmas presents, and their associated cocktail of emotions:  guilt, disappointment and fury.  A top shelf of records points to a careless obsessive, a nostalgic clutz clutching his vinyl, but no longer interested in ever playing it again.  To tall people, this is all on display.  Beware ever inviting a tall person into your home.

But height is not always a blessing.  Often it causes pain, discomfort, a certain sense of injustice.  In the same way as a world designed for people of average height affords us illicit joys, so too it can ruin our day.  Washing dishes is a painful chore, marked with tremendous pain in the lower back and shoulders.  The pots and pans are far away, you see.  Manhandling them is tiring, especially when bent-double over the sink.  My head is so used to being whacked into things that it no longer hurts when I do.  Rather than a searing jolt of pain when I crack the top of my head on the hood of the oven, I get a mild tickling sensation, twinned with a quizzical glance around the vicinity.  I’m confident that if someone shot me in the head I would simply give it a quick rub and move on.  Food is a constant issue for the very tall, too.  Calorie intake is around 3500-4000, and this can be expensive.  Vast piles of pasta, whole pizzas, massive steaks and whole gallons of water can be a very pricey breakfast.  The trouble is that for someone around 6’7” to lift their arm to take a sip of coffee requires so much more energy! My left arm weighs around the same as a chest of drawers, and my legs weigh as much as three times this amount.  It’s a wonder  I get around at all.

So, next time you see a freakishly tall person, consider their lives.  Think about all the strange things they’ve seen, and pity their pained, endlessly hungry lives.