Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Titanic - stuff you should know.

RMS Titanic leaving Belfast (From Wikipedia)
As this is a subject dear to my heart, it saddens me when I peruse the concentration of nonsense around the ship and it's story.  Like most legendary events (especially terrible tragedies), it is a magnet for narrative flotsam and jetsam that has accumulated over the years, some of which so pervasive that they have become established as fact by many.  Whilst urban legends can be fascinating in their own right, I feel that an event like the sinking of the Titanic needs to be protected from a descent into this dubious genre.  Here's my tiny attempt to sort this out.  The following are five spurious stories that often find themselves shared by folk when discussing the great ship.

1. The Titanic's hull number was 390904.  It is a common tale that Catholic workers refused to work on the ship as its number was 'NO POPE' backwards (it is if you squint, a lot).  This is nonsense as the number has no connection with the ship whatsoever.  The hull number, set by Harland and Wolff, was 401.  Its sister ship, Olympic, was 400.  It's un utterly unpleasant story, fuelling the already lively and destructive flames of the sectarian problems in Northern Ireland.  It is an example of how tales can be generated from nothing, to help justify terrible acts, I suppose.

2. The Titanic was the longest ship on Earth when built.  Sadly not true.  At 882 and three-quarter feet long, it was identical in length to its sister, Olympic, which, since launch in 1910 had been the record holder.  It was not a hair longer, wider or taller than the Olympic.  What made it the 'largest' ship afloat was simply its arrangement of windows and rooms on A deck:  as part of the promenade that was fully open on Olympic was enclosed on Titanic, there was more use-able space, increasing its gross tonnage.  This is also an easy way to identify photos of the sisters - the Olympic has an entirely open A-deck, whereas Titanic's is closed forward of the third funnel or so.

3. The Titanic had the skeleton of a worker entombed within its double hull. Nonsense.  The same was said of the Great Eastern - that famous 'cursed ship' of Brunel's.  The fact is that no shipyard would be lackadaisical enough to allow such a thing.  8 workers were killed in construction - a remarkably low number, when you consider the size of the ship and the 3,000 working on its construction.  However, as a fan of ghost stories and the macabre, I can see some merit in this tall tale.  Nothing beats folklore about bricked up corpses, after all.

Ken Marshall's imagining of the wreck, observed by ALVIN
4. The Titanic held a cursed Egyptian mummy in its hold.  There is no real evidence of this in any of the surviving rosters or manifests of cargo, and firmly fits into the category of urban legend.  The mummy in question - a priestess of Amun-Ra - is still in the British Museum (it isn't, in fact, a mummy at all - just a coffin lid).  The initial 'cursed mummy' story is attributed to William Stead, a journalist with an eye for the macabre.  He went down with the ship in 1912, and so this is potentially how the two stories merged.  The manifest did include fresh feathers, two french automobiles and a prized, bejewelled copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

5. The Titanic had been foreseen in several works of fiction in the 19th Century.  Strangely, this seems to be true, though claiming any supernatural foresight on the part of the writers is possibly a little premature.  But certainly the type of disaster that overtook the Titanic was explored in earlier works.  One, "How the Mail Steamer went down in Mid Atlantic by a Survivor" by none other than William Stead, told the tale of an unnamed mail ship that went down with too few lifeboats aboard.  The similarities end there, though it is spooky to note that Stead always said he would die by either 'lynching or drowning'.  The other text - Futility, by Morgan Robertson, has many eerie parallels with the real ship.  Both were triple screw liners that struck icebergs in the North Atlantic, with the loss of between well over a thousand lives.

The fact is, the whole story of drawing-board to sea-bed is fascinating enough, without foolish embellishments such as most of these.

Monday, 28 October 2013

My thoughts on GTA Online

Good day to you all.  I've been playing a bit of the MMORPG-lite GTA Online recently, and have developed some strong and often startlingly unpleasant opinions on it.  Before I outline my violent hatred of the thing, though - a little back-story.

Around the time of GTA San Andreas (2004 - a kangaroo's lifetime ago) I spent hours daydreaming about the possibility of a proper multiplayer version of GTA.  This heady vision centred around the prospect of trying to evade a friend flying a fighter jet after me: what would I dao? What would my strategy be?  This entertained a brain otherwise fruitlessly engaged in reading Modernist literature and trying to formulate cogent arguments about the symbolism of umbrellas in A Room of One's Own.  The possibilities of a fully multiplayer map with vehicles, weapons and more seemed too good to be true.  And so it remained, for nearly ten years.  GTA IV had a game stab at multiplayer, but it was truly awful: a lazy, crusted turd of an experience, made good only thanks to the fact the single-player game was excellent.  It was this October (2013) that the dream finally came true.

And like any of my other dreams, it has essentially left me feeling frightened, miserable and totally confused.

You see, it's a terrible, frustrating and generally boring game that has still, somehow, managed to make me a total addict.  I am desperately trying to save the (fake) cash to buy the in-game equivalent of a Koenigsegg.  At $795,000, it's not cheap, even by fake-money standards; the fact that the average payout for a 'job' in-game is around $15,000 makes it a distant pipe dream, given the limited time I can invest. It's making me very unhappy.  But I feel I need to clarify to myself, and to others, what my grievances really are, so here goes...

1) Playing with other people is satisfying but hateful.

You see, it's great to have the challenge of playing real humans, with their initiative, experience, skills and unpredictability.  It's a real joy, and it's this that powers the online gaming world.  However, not only can you enjoy these positive traits of humans; oh no, you also get to wallow in the wonderful world of people's mean side.  And my word, GTA Online really illustrates the dark side to humanity.  Being shot for no reason is desperately annoying in real life, and arguably even more so in a video game.  There you are, merrily trying on hats in a clothes shop called Binco, when a guy bursts in, seemingly bypassing the game's ban on wielding weaponry in the equivalent of a Primark, and shoots you in the hat with a shotgun.  This makes me sad.  But even worse is the irritating tendency for people to stop others progressing through the loading screens.  You see, thanks to the desperately misguided touch of forcing all players in a given lobby to vote whether they enjoyed the race, or which level they want to play next, you spend hours just waiting.  Waiting for some vile little craplet to press a button.  Losing one's living moments to some imagined smirking goon who simply refuses to press the 'Y' button is probably the most egregious experience I've ever had with a video game.  The willingness of people, protected by the anonymity of the internet, to ruin others' days is terrifying to behold.

2) Money is too hard to come by.

All anyone really wants is to make tons of money and buy a fast car and a big house.  Or at least enough money to be comfortable and able to buy a new jumper when you need one.  This is a human requirement.  So why does Rockstar insist on making the earning of money in GTA Online as difficult and onerous as it is in real life?  Video games are meant to be escapes from reality.  Sure, I'll never afford an Aston Martin DBS in the real world (I'm a teacher), so I sure as hell would like to be able to get one in a video game.  What I don't want is to feel just as mediocre and pathetic inside the simulation, anything-is-possible world of San Andreas as I do in the reality of Bristol (only joking, but I'm sure you get my point).  As someone with limited time, I'm forced to race in the equivalent of a Reliant Robin whilst a dozen 15 year olds who can spend their entire lives on the game drive Bugatti Veyrons.  If nothing else, this is massively skewing their expectations of their own earning power in their real lives.  The $500,000 we were all meant to receive by way of an apology from Rockstar from screwing up the launch of the game is nowhere to be seen, so my Swedish Supercar dreams will just have to wait.

3) The missions are too hard.

Anyone who's ever played a GTA game knows that your in-game character can more-or-less take a whole magazine of bullets before expiring.  It's part of the joy of the thing.  It makes you feel like T-1000 in a denim jacket.  It's wonderful.  In GTA Online, however, my character seems to have about the same tolerance of bullet wounds as I do - essentially zero.  Before anyone says, 'Ah, but it's just trying to be realistic', let me just stop you dead with one word - Tetris.  Tetris, Pong and all the rest are proof that people don't want realism in video games.  Nowhere in the real world do the physics of Tetris actually occur.  If they did, the building trade would be bankrupt through inexplicable loss of building materials.  We want realistic graphics, yes - I'll concede that.  But we do not want realistic health systems.  The fact that the computer-controlled characters are better shots than William Tell makes the situation all the more dispiriting.  I've been shot from two city-blocks away, whilst driving, by a man hanging out of the window of a speeding Landrover.  Awful.

4) There's not enough variety.

I'm sick of racing now.  I never even began liking the deathmatches.  Parachute jumps can just sod off.  But that's it - that's the variety of jobs in the game.  No heists (yet), no utilisation of the truly incredible landscape and city they've built, nothing.  I want to see more little sub-games and treats.  Perhaps a fishing mode, or a gym, or even some more playable arcade games?  An orienteering activity or treasure hunt would be nice, or even a scavenger hunt where you have to go about with mates finding and snapping hidden easter eggs?  I don't know, but they should - it's their game and they are clearly masters of game-creation.  They should flex their creative muscles and make GTA Online the treat I always wanted it to be.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

EPQ

As you may have guessed, I've been very busy.  Not just playing GTA V - not at all.  In fact I'm playing that far less than I'd like to, thanks to work commitments.

You see, I'm now Cross Phase Leader for English, which is a new post that more-or-less combines managing KS3 (minus those dastardly Year 9s) with some really intensive outreach to primaries.  I have four primary schools currently working with me on a variety of blossoming projects, from tuition for the Level 6 exams to creative writing workshops and Spelling Bees.  I am also the Centre Co-ordinator for EPQ and the English department's PGCE mentor.  So blogging has taken a bit of a backseat this last few weeks.

But now I'm in the swing of it I thought I'd come back, all guns blazing.  As I do a lot of crazy jobs this year, I think it would be only fair for me to share these with you, so I can bore the hell out of you and possibly even discuss best practice and what to do and just how the hell I can make these things work.  So here's my first thing - EPQ.

I love the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification), and I have done since first acting as Centre Co-ordinator six years ago at my first school.  I've worked on it, as Co-ordinator and Supervisor every year since, and I'm currently doing a little of both roles.  I've seen it develop as a course; I've had terrible freak outs about not delivering enough taught time; I've had my marking lambasted and yet I still keep doing it (in fairness most of these issues have now been ironed out...).

You see, it's such an enlivening and exciting qualification to teach. It gives an unprecedented level of freedom to students just as they reach the age to really make the most of that, and the results can be awe inspiring.  I've read incredibly detailed and scientific analyses of various disorders and medical problems, seen wonderfully designed dresses and heard beautiful strains of music all created by Year 13 students who have been given the freedom to do something they love for a qualification.  But there is a serious side - the administration of looking after a thriving EPQ is hard work and often challenging, so I've put together a few top tips for anyone new to the thing:

Tip 1: Make sure you can account for the 30 hours of taught time.  AQA are very hot on this, and expect a clear outline, probably pasted into the relevant box of the log book, that gives a detailed description of exactly what they've been taught.  Failure to do this can lead to moderation and a slapped wrist at best.  Failure to deliver the taught element is even more dangerous.  Sure, your students may be able to reference effectively, but can they run the gamut of online research without falling foul of hearsay and subjectivity?  Unless they're history students, chances are their research skills would be limited.  As such, teaching explicitly how to research their topic; primary, secondary and tertiary sources; evaluation of material and even Google search terms is vital.  The presentation at the end of the course (more later) should also be explicitly taught, as should academic register.

Tip 2: Ensure you force the students to maintain and fill out their logbooks.  These diaries are incredibly important in the marking process, but also help guide the students through their project.  The temptation can be to leave them to it - it's their work after all - but it will save you a lot of horrid fuss later if you essentially force them to fill it in after every meeting.  The entries should be extremely detailed too, in order to allow the moderator to get more of a sense of the work they've put in.  Basically, they should make a note of everything they've done.  And for God's sake, sign and date it as you go along - don't end up in the position of having to post date everything using a variety of different pens for a veneer of authenticity...

Tip 3: Prepare them for their presentation.  Preparation for this comes in two guises.
1) Make sure they know that it will be happening in the future, and try to give them a rough date (week beginning, for example).  Inform them of the purpose of the presentation at the same time - it is a reflective and evaluative explanation of the project's process, not an explanation of what has been discovered.
2) Use the taught component time to teach them vital presenting skills, like creating workable PowerPoints, rhetorical techniques, coping strategies and practise. This will vastly improve the nature of their presentations, which should be almost degree-level in their professionalism and content.  There can be no temptation to think that the A* grade descriptors for Speaking and Listening in English are of any use.

Tip 4: Force them to focus their topic into a question that can be answered by a Yr 13 student in about five months.  They must word their title in such a way as to give them this opportunity.  'What causes cancer?' is far too broad and impossible to complete.  'What treatments are used in the fight against breast cancer, and what appears to be most effective?' is better and more workable. 'Can I make a guitar?' is cute, and sounds lovely, but isn't focused enough.  'Can structural and electrical elements of a Fender Telecaster and a Gibson Les Paul be merged to create a successful and usable guitar?' is much more useful.  Of course, large swathes of this last title will need to be clarified in the write-up, but so long as this is done, there should be no problem.

So there we are, four tips that may or may not be useful to any EPQ people out there.  Now I'm off to cry over the amount of marking I have to do.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Things to do on Results Day

Hello.  It's that time of year again - the fortnight of horrible Thursdays.  Results day scares me a great deal.  It is partly the importance of the grades on the students: have they achieved what they have to achieve in order to progress through life happily and fulfilled? This weighs heavy on any teacher's mind this next two weeks, and yet is probably outstripped by the more selfish, yet arguably more important (to the teacher themselves) question of 'how do these results reflect my ability?'  Like it or not, the grades awarded to students after one or two years of teaching from you do reflect your teaching ability.  Yes yes, I understand the old adage about horses and drinking but still - ignoring your input on their grades is foolish and would lead to a logical conclusion of removing teachers altogether if gone the full distance.  We can bleat as much as we like about the little terrors ignoring us or not revising, but ultimately, your ability to teach and aid them learn has a huge, huge effect on their results.

So this is quite a lot of pressure.

I am terrified of letting the students down, you see.  It keeps me awake at night, sometimes - the very idea that I could have explained something more clearly, or used a more effective activity to practice a skill.  This is the torture of any professional left to their own devices - I'm sure doctors and lawyers recognise the feeling.  It's an integral part of reflective practice and is, therefore, ultimately a good thing.  However, it still remains a fact that the whole thing is horribly stressful.

So, here's my tips on what to do on results day 1 or 2 (you know what I mean):

1. Only go to one of them, unless you have responsibility in that area.  This is obvious - don't go through it twice if you don't need to.  I know this seems a little uncaring, or even unprofessional, but it isn't.  Your presence on results day is far from vital, especially if you only teach Year 12 - you'll see them in September.  Wait for the email and do your analysis in comfort at home, at your own pace.  This will give you the breathing space you need to work out how the students did and what comes next.

2. When you do go in, spend most of the time talking to the students.  This is the only worthwhile way to spend results day if you're in school.  Analysis and worrying can come later at home with a glass of wine.  If you trouble yourself to go into school, you're only really doing it to see the kids, so chat with them, advise them, console them if need be.  That's the way forward.

3. Be on holiday.  If you really can't cope with the stress in the midst of your mega-downtime, then wait until September before you engage with it at all.  Unless you're a HoD or higher, you can get away with this - do it if the alternative is losing your mind.  Being away (preferably abroad, away from the British media) is the perfect way of making it so you don't even know it's results day.  It's not cowardice - just self-preservation.

4. Do not read the papers on the day.  Don't even be tempted.  It'll only make you angry and belittle your years of hard work as they bleat about rising standards, as if they're a bad thing.  Honestly, it's as if all that money and expertise spent on improving education over the last 20 years was meant to yield no results at all, isn't it?  The logic of the papers (and the Daily Hate Mail in particular) is astonishing.

So there we are, four ways to help maintain your professional sanity today and next Thursday.  I do hope they help.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Reading Festival?

This started off as a pun on the name of a fairly damp and uninspiring town in the UK, known for its vast music festival every August.  Once I had noticed the potential hilarity behind this pun, nothing could stop me beavering away on this poster for a fairly embriotic Reading Festival in my school in the autumn term.

Now I have my title, and my poster, it's time to start thinking about what a reading festival would actually consist of.  A festival suggest chaotic life and many activities occurring simultaneously.  This can be hard to arrange in the strict environs of a secondary school.  However, I am now responsible for primary transition and recruitment in English, with close working links with several primaries, so I see potential there for something really quite large scale.

What would be the aim of a reading festival?  Well, primarily it has to be a celebration of books and the joys of reading and learning from fiction.  Every teacher knows the pitfalls here, and the sadness that encroaches on us when students fail to share our enthusiasm, so I must tread carefully.  Reading challenges and competitions are a staple of such affairs, and I will endeavour to include many of these crowd-pleasers.  Public readings are vital too - potentially from teachers in role, masquerading as Dickens, Shakespeare and Jane Austen.  This would lend a sense of Horrible-Histories excitement to proceedings.  Tutor time activities and lunchtime diversions are a must, for the whole week (or two days, depending on my energy levels), and some kind of grand finale is required.

I am going to sit and ponder ideas that will be added to this blogpost, but in the meantime, if you have a cool idea please let me know.  Similarly, if you've attempted anything similar and have stories to share, I'll be happy to add them to this blog!

Monday, 12 August 2013

Lego

I just bought a Lego set, the first one paid for by myself for many, many years (my parents, bless them, got me the VW Camper van a few Christmasses ago as a surprise).  It was the brand spanking new DeLorean-from-Back-to-the-Future set, and due to its pedigree, I simply couldn't resist it.
It not the finest representation of the vehicle in Lego form, I will admit that, but it is now mine, and an official Lego product.  And this is the thing: it was designed and submitted to Lego by a member of the public, not a Lego employee.

In recent years Lego have managed to stall a rapid downturn in their affairs and have managed to turn their company around in a startlingly efficient fashion.  They have diversified their model range into movie franchises, the most popular and lucrative being Star Wars and Harry Potter, both of which display great ingenuity and quality (the Star Wars range in particular becoming a huge success with adult fans).  They have backed up their traditional stock with fantastic electronic media, including the insanely addictive platform games, at least one for each major franchise (Lego Star Wars is a true classic, worthy to join the pantheon of finest video games ever).  They have also gone for the obsessive's jugular with the mini-figure range, now up to series 11, based on the basic newsagent-collectible business model (unknown contents of silver bag, whole range to complete, see Panini stickers in 1990s...)  But I believe their finest move was to realise that adults still like Lego.

I think, as a toy, Lego is second to none.  My happiest moments as a child involved Lego in some way or another (often in fairly imaginative and sometimes unpleasant ways), and this memory sticks around.  I still get a jolt of wonder whenever I see the newly released products and, given my druthers, I'd buy them all (especially the Haunted House model from 2012 - a model I crave).  Lego seemed to realise this in around 2003 with the Lego Creator range and more so in 2007 with the advent of the Lego Modular Houses range.  These wonderful models were a response to feedback from the well established Adult Fans of Lego (AFOL - any organisation that ends up with an acronym must have clout) and have been developed ever since.  This has been supplemented by other incredible models, such as the green biplane, the carousel, the TGV locomotive and more, all found here, under 'Expert': http://creator.lego.com/en-gb/Products/Default.aspx.  These intricate models are expensive, yes, but beautiful.

Then came the Lego architecture range, bringing Lego into the realm of legitimate ornaments for homes.  This range represents famous landmarks built on a micro-scale, but keeping the requisite level of detail.  I have no idea who they have working on this range, but their eye for detail and sheer design ability is eye-watering.

But their finest move yet, in my opinion, was the Cuusoo website, which enables Lego fans to design and promote their own ranges of models.  This is precisely where the DeLorean had its birth - the model was uploaded to the site, and gained 10,000 votes of support, meaning that Lego had to consider making it a purchasable product.  Currently doing very well is the Ghostbusters range, designed by some genius of the highest order (go here to vote for it!!).  With this level of creativity, I can see Lego enjoying  their renaissance for many more years, meaning that if I ever get round to having kids, the company and their products will still be around - a prospect that was by no means certain at the turn of the century.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Headaches

I seem to get headaches a lot.  I get them so often, that I'm starting to view them dispassionately, trying to figure out what caused them, where the sensation actually is, what positions/movements affect them and why/how they eventually go off.  As such, I feel I can now publish my Headache Spotter's Guide and help out all fellow sufferers of the malady.

Headache #1

The Eye One

Centered around one of the eye sockets, epicentre usually seemingly in the very bone of the skull, in mockery of your vain attempts to massage the pain away.  A constant, dull soreness, no throbbing with occasional flurries of excruciating pain when looking at bright light or laughing.  Affected by light, thinking hard about difficult matters, blocked nose, poor eyesight.  Cure: glasses, closing eyes, time.

Headache #2

The Neck One

Centered at the base of the skull and top of the neck, epicentre is apparently your very spinal column: the very think that makes you a vertebrate fighting back.  Pain also spread around muscles in that area. Muscle pain, mostly, but with an insistence that is frankly rude, and prevents you from doing anything useful.  Affected by sleeping position, weight of head, amount of nodding, dancing wildly to anything pre-1984.  Cure: Neck brace, sleeping with only one pillow, neck massage, decapitation.

Headache #3

The Brain One

Floating freely around your cranium, epicentre is everywhere at once and makes you sad.  The entire dome of your head becomes an upturned basket of pain, spilling agony out into the rest of your head and often, if you're lucky, your teeth too.  Pain comes in many forms, but usually throbbing and inconsistent pain that will continually kid you into thinking its gone, before striking you down with a bolt of fire when you try getting out of your seat.  Affected by everything, but especially aggravated by thirst, lack of sleep, lust and needing the loo.  Cure: painkillers, silence and sleep.

Headache #4

Migraine

Different for everyone, and probably less common than you'd think.  People who've had one are obvious - you can sense it in the clear fear they show when discussing the subject, and their avoidance of anything that could possibly lead to another episode.  Pain is intense and debilitating, making you disinclined to socialising, reading or being alive a second longer.  Can be accompanied, or preceded by aura, which is an impossible term to define but basically consists of the brain going haywire and fooling the key senses into thinking nonsense, such as talking bees spreading from growing cracks in your vision, to the all-pervading smell of garlic invading your entire head.  Or just blurriness and discolouration in what you look at.  Affected by continuing to exist and all its trappings.  Cure: unknown.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

An excerpt from my travel journal:

Day 1

Having the sick bucket beside my leg is no qualification.  Upon rumour of sickness at the front of the bus, the bucket was passed nonchalantly away from me, to remove any possibility that I may become embroiled in the ensuing affair.  Sadly, I still had to report the incident to the self-appointed vomit-manager - catchphrase, 'I can do sick'.  Confused by the ambiguous nature of the verb in this sentence, I simply nodded and retreated back to my seat, humbled and strangely sad.


Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Another unfinished scribble...

Grey coffee.  Proof that the glorious revolution of Technicolor of the 1930s was, in fact, simply a scheme designed to drain colour from the real world to then haphazardly paint it onto Judy Garland’s face.  This left only grey outside the cinema’s doors – a grey that had matured and spread like spilled milk over the years to the present, resulting in this grey coffee, in its grey cup, on this grey station platform, underneath this glowering grey sky.  Well, thought Jacob as he stared into his latte, fuck Judy Garland and all the glorious blue in her dress. Today was a grey day like all the rest, and there was little to be done about that.  He glanced again at the departures television, a 16-inch curved screen from the mid-1980s, and saw that his late train had been erased from it, the television naïvely assuming that since its departure time had passed, the train must have set off on its way filled with happy travellers.  A sigh, a frown and a sip of coffee.  Weather was just so aware, it seemed.  Aware of our moods, aware of our fears and most of all aware of the fact that the 09.47 to King’s Cross is late and is probably never going to turn up at all.

The platform was busy, as usual, and filled with the sort of people you get on grey June days, waiting for a delayed train. All the benches had been filled, some to overflowing, by large families, overweight men, endless bags, suitcases and rucksacks, all stationary and wondering why they were less comfortable than they would be standing. Jacob didn’t see the point in trying this out for himself: he’d waited in enough stations to know that the seats would be uncomfortable: metal and unyielding, rather like the brilliant yellow train frontages that whizzed by occasionally.  So he stood and waited, his grey coffee going cold, his thoughts shifting as he peered down the tracks at the approaching yellow lights that would either continue down to his platform, proving it to be his train, or deviously slink off to the left to Platform Two, a feline manoeuvre designed to sap the soul.  A man wearing a hat walked past him to get a better look at this phenomenon, holding a magazine very tightly rolled behind his back.  The man peered down the tracks with an eager leaning stance and, not for the first time, Jacob considered the outcome should the old man fall from his ludicrous cranings onto the track.  This was something that sometimes held his thoughts – the reaction of your average man (Jacob was kind enough to himself to accept ‘average’ status) to such a disaster.  Would he help; could he help?  Would he spring like some kind of super hero onto the tracks, lift the man up, grunt heroically, push, heave the man from the rails; jump up at the last minute landing squarely on the platform to be worshipped by the audience - the fat man on the bench? No.  Jacob had made a decision before, some years ago.  He’d do nothing as he reasoned that he wouldn’t be able to do anything.  He’d heard things about how the human mind fails to cope with these disasters, how heroes either didn’t exist or had been around once but were now no more, dodos of humanity.  The man stopped craning and stood, rocking happily on his heels.
  The lights got closer, lighting the dark rails and breathing a tired life into the scene, life that had been fading for some days now, as far as Jacob was concerned.   Edinburgh had been interesting and even enjoyable on occasion, but it really was time to go home when you found yourself quietly ranting to yourself about the quality of your station-bought coffee, and suffering a vague feeling of discomfort whenever you thought about home, with its associated life and future.  As the lights stayed on course and Jacob gathered his bags this subtle anxiety clawed once more at his stomach, but was drowned by the last of the lukewarm coffee.  The cup, crushed and crumpled, fell beneath the wheels of the carriages; Jacob opened the door and climbed aboard, knowing that his reserved seat would be occupied, and knowing just as well that he hadn’t the wherewithal to effect any change should this be the case. He noticed the old man with the hat had got onto the same carriage as him and was sitting at a table seat, eagerly covering the table with items that were utilized to speed the journey.  Jacob sat heavily opposite him, got a quick smile – interesting smile, almost scared yet backed up by gleeful glittering eyes – and stowed his bags under his seat.  Gazing from the grimy window at the vacated platform with its innocent display boards he got another jolt of nerves in his stomach as he thought of home and the inevitable.
                “Grey day it is, isn’t it?” Waverley station began to slide by as Jacob looked back at the hat-man opposite, surprised by the sound. He replied,
                “Yes, really gives the place a charm.”  The man stared. “You know, Edinburgh’s got that quality, hasn’t it: looks good when it’s bleak.” Jacob felt a little stupid for explaining his pithy first comment but the man’s look had drawn it from him.  Evidently satisfied, the hat-man smiled again – that odd smile – and continued,
                “Was grey yesterday too; did you see the sky yesterday, about three?  Furious, it was.  Expected a right downpour, didn’t come though”.  A pause.  “Might come later, way it looks.”  Jacob nodded.  He felt uncomfortable in this exchange after imagining, in gratuitous detail, what would have happened to this man if he’d fallen in front of a speeding train.  He cleared his throat to reply, but too late, “Yep, might come later,” the man continued, gazing at the sky over Arthur’s Seat.
                “If it does at least we’ll be miles away from it,” tried Jacob, “shouldn’t cover the whole country, I doubt.”  At least this is what he hoped. This greyness, all colour sapped by Dorothy Gale and her Technicolor friends, was getting him down. “It’ll be twenty-two degrees in London, I bet, thanks to that heat-island thing.”
                “Heat island?”
                Great, thought Jacob.  Committed to prolong and intensify this conversation indefinitely.  Conversations didn’t happen on trains in Britain unless you were mad, very old or drunk and today Jacob was none of the three. “Yeah, heat islands, it’s the name given to the way large towns and, uh, cities soak up heat.  All the people, and buildings, they create their own ecosystem with their own winds,” the man was leaning on the table, truly interested by Jacob’s halting description, “and, uh, weather, almost.  Means that places like London – really huge cities – are a lot warmer than the surrounding country.”
                “Warmer, but could still be grey, eh?” was the man’s retort.  “Just because it’s hotter doesn’t mean it won’t be humid, overcast and damp.  Me, I’m going to Peterborough, a place that certainly has no heat island,” snort of laughter, “more a nasty dampness.  You’ll have to let me know about the London heat.”  The man settled back into his chair, removing his hat in the process.
                Let him know.  Yes, of course.  Jacob waited a moment, expecting more anecdotal gems from the man and, when none seemed imminent, he too settled into his seat, which was now picking up speed outside Portobello.  How would I let him know, he thought
.



Sunday, 7 July 2013

Of Colds and Summer

I have a cold.  It settled upon me on Thursday evening and has clawed deeper into my being since then.  I assume I will either recover, painfully and weakly, over the coming months; or it will kill me and probably eat me to boot.  It's a nasty cold.

I'm not going to waste my time, or yours, decrying the injustice of a summer cold.  Viruses care little for seasonal preferences.  Instead, I'm going to consider why we persist in calling it a cold.  It really is a most unsatisfactory name for the illness.  I would argue, in fact, that it removes even the connotation of disease, due to its very bland and vague nature.  What use is a name for a viral disease that makes it sound as if you simply need to put a jumper on?

Because of this, people everywhere have to pretend to be fine when they've got a cold.  They have to soldier on, and act as if nothing untoward is wrong at all.  Society, combined with linguistics, has left us powerless and guilty on those occasions where we 'catch a cold'.  I see this as wrong.  Catching a cold is horrid.  It's one of the more common viruses out there and it really lays into the victim, often for periods of a week or more.  It is usually more debilitating than a bout of tummy trouble (which, at least, people give you sympathy for as you waddle to the loo looking fraught), and is far more of a regular occurrence than, say, typhus.  It makes you feel like a slovenly furry animal has taken up residence in your sinuses and is steadily sandpapering the walls in order to redecorate.  It makes you very sleepy, and a hazard to other motorists.  It forces you to grimace apologetically to an audience of indifferent bastards as your nose transforms into a weir of snot and you desperately grasp for the loose end of the bog roll you're now forced to carry around with you.  It's a bad illness.

So, its name needs changing as a matter of some urgency.  People need to be allowed to look and feel horrific during the course of the illness, and they need to be able to garner sympathy from the multitude.  'Man flu' has had some vogue recently, mainly due to questionable pseudoscience seemingly performed by GQ magazine, but I fear that it lacks the punch required (and is still, clearly, a derogatory term).  I think most of the worst diseases have a hint of Latin or Greek about them.  Diphtheria - ends in a vowel, good move.  Typhoid - ends in an '-oid', making it sound like a killer robot.  Gonorrhea - hard to spell, a definite plus.  Legionnaire's Disease - slightly seedy sounding, with extra connotations of the French, excellent.

I think we should begin to call the common cold 'Fisherman's Grehbuloidia'.  That would work.

Top 40 albums of the 1990s

Hello everyone; I haven't blogged for months for many reasons, but feel perhaps it's time to crack on a little. There's a bit going around Twitter at present about top 50 90s albums, so thought I'd throw my two penn'orth into the hat.  The order is fairly arbitrary, and is subject to change as I progress through time.

40. Hope is Important - Idlewild
39. Definitely Maybe - Oasis
38. Bring it On - Gomez
37. Wowee Zowee - Pavement
36. Mothers Milk - Red Hot Chili Peppers
35. Urban Hymns - The Verve
34. Ten - Pearl Jam
33. Nevermind - Nirvana
32. Parklife - Blur
31. In Utero - Nirvana
30. It's a Shame About Ray - The Lemonheads
29. Up - REM
28. Everything Must Go - Manic Street Preachers
27. OK Computer - Radiohead
26. Dog Man Star - Suede
25. In It For the Money - Supergrass
24. Unchained - Johnny Cash
23. Placebo - Placebo
22. Diva - Annie Lennox
21. Pinkerton - Weezer
20. Grace - Jeff Buckley
19. If You're Feeling Sinister - Belle and Sebastian
18. Odelay - Beck
17. Weezer (Blue) - Weezer
16. Trompe Le Monde - Pixies
15. Beautiful Freak - Eels
14. The Sophtware Slump - Grandaddy
13. Daydream Nation - Sonic Youth
12. Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine
11. Automatic for the People - REM
10. Doolittle - Pixies
9. Very - The Pet Shop Boys
8. Siamese Dream - Smashing Pumpkins
7. The Colour and the Shape - Foo Fighters
6. Electro-Shock Blues - Eels
5. The Soft Bulletin - Flaming Lips
4. The Holy Bible - Manic Street Preachers
3. Different Class - Pulp
2. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness - Smashing Pumpkins
1. The Bends - Radiohead

Thursday, 11 April 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Bristol Old Vic

The haunting, insistent tapping music created on a load of old planks, carried by a young and inventive cast, proved a high point in this inconsistent yet memorable production at the Old Vic.  The planks of wood are the central props in the show, playing a myriad of roles from Oberon's fairy hordes to the jaws of a hunting dog, all controlled by the wonderful choreography of the Handspring Puppet Company (War Horse) and the clever movements of the cast.

Having large hunks of wood in a central role is a brave move in any performance, with the possibility of cliched puns groaning from all quarters.  However, it pays off admirably, and I would argue that the work done with the 2 by 4 is probably superior to that done with the more conventional puppets.  Their use as instruments, elements of large scale dioramas, creeping tides and waves and forest pathways shows a real creative spark, and lent the whole show a sense of delight that it may otherwise have lacked.  The traditional puppets, all creaking joints and mischievous faces, were often lacklustre and even redundent.  The acting started reasonably and got an awful lot stronger, leaving the odd homunculi-like doppelganger puppets seeming unnecessary and forced, dragging the attention of the actors (and audience) away from the complex language and plot structure of Shakespeare.  Oberon and Titania were stronger - the sparse puppetry used well to create ethereal and otherworldly characters that are very difficult to successfully portray in the usual manner.  But it was the planks that stole the show.

The Mechanicals were wonderfully played, with the play-within-a-play of Pyramus and Thisbe a manic and super-detailed romp: the wall getting, perhaps, the biggest laughs, which is an impressive achievement.  The vigour and timing of the Mechanicals was great, bestowing the script with the skill required to make it truly hilarious.  The teenagers in the audience laughed even more than the adults.  The love square of Helena et al was reasonably portrayed, but bogged down in the wholly gratuitous puppetry.  Attempts were seemingly made at presenting the puppets as external souls, or perhaps the second part of a dual personality - at one point, Hermia and Lysander swap puppets - but it never quite seems to work.  Puck was, for me, the true highlight.  Portayed using ony a mallet, hammer, basket, saw, chisel and blowtorch, the inventiveness behind one of Shakespeare's most inventive beings is a joy to watch.

And so, before I stop - Bottom.  It needs to be mentioned, but I will not give the game away.  If nothing else, you have to see this production for the porytrayal of the Ass-form Bottom.  The actor playing the role imbues him with an excellent cod-Grecian accent and attitude, but after his transformation, you'll never look at a bicycle the same way again...

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Randomised Trials in education?

The big question here is 'why not'?  Ben Goldacre is completely correct in saying that if we want to be treated as professionals, then it may be an idea for teachers to actually partake of some rigorous trials into what interventions really work.  As I tweeted earlier, in my experience of teaching most 'evidence' of working interventions are anecdotal, biased and often totally unrepeatable.  Yes, every child is different and yes, we don't want to have prescriptive methods foisted upon us, but I don't believe either of these arguments should prevent randomised trials from being, well, trialled.

The main reason RTs are so highly regarded in the world of cold empiricism is because they remove bias and  variables and allow us to identify exactly what works and what doesn't.  For drugs testing this is an obvious boon, as it allows researchers to identify the effectiveness of chemical interventions without any other issues muddying the water.  But in medicine, RT go beyond this - it isn't all drug trials.  RTs into the behaviour, style, language and techniques used by doctors and nurses have been carried out, with their effectiveness measured and analysed.  Tests such as doctors converging their language to that of their patients have been measured and the results published (see here).  If these patently non-pharma tests can be run, published and respected, then why can't similar trials be done in schools, on either a local or national level?

Obviously there are concerns that somehow children are a mysterious and vague concept, that no amount of scientific analysis can comprehend.  I view this as utter nonsense, as I see no reason, other than the deliberate mystification of the profession, for it to be the case.  Children are all different, yes; but as Goldacre said in his report: they're not that different.  Anyone who's ever written a class set of reports will know this.  If all children and their behaviour were utterly unique, teaching would be totally impossible, as no-one would have any benchmarks to set things by.  Of course there is variation - as there is in patients - but not enough to stop us from giving RT a go.

As I said, prescription from on high is feared, too.  But this misses the whole point.  Goldacre's entire idea is based on giving us as a profession an arsenal of solid, trustworthy evidence to throw back in the face of bureaucrats trying to tell us our job.  It would give us the intellectual clout required to seriously question the wisdom of policy without sounding like spoilt brats, over-mystifying the whole job by making it sound like only the chosen few can cope with teaching.  Rot.  RTs would enable us to trial techniques and ideas, to see if they actually, objectively work better than not doing them at all.  This harms no one.  For example, trialling mini-plenaries to see if they have an effect on learning would involve analysing book work, classroom participation, questionnaires, and yes, even data.  It would take time, and real focus, but over a set period would provide us with a picture of whether they are useful or not, in general.  This, multiplied all over the place, would give us an invaluable understanding of pedagogy that we currently lack.

The main things to bear in mind is that medicine and education don't have to be that similar.  All they need is to both be about results (whether data, engagement, behaviour, whatever) and RTs will give us some feedback on the efficacy of the techniques and interventions we use.

I would say that RTs done locally, with teachers leading them and analysing them, would be a good place to start.  They certainly shouldn't be top-down (they're not in medicine, after all - one of Goldacre's other big point that has been totally ignored by some) and should empower teachers to do some proper academic research into their own techniques, or new ones they fancy trying.  This would soon build a corpus of evidence for different intervention and teaching styles/techniques that would enable teachers to actually argue their points against the government with actual evidence to back them up! How invaluable that would be!  And what a change it would make, creating a more reasonable, logical profession and hopefully helping to dispel some of the ridiculous dogma that surrounds the profession (a pet hate of mine is teachers who act like there's something inherently 'different' or 'special' about teaching, as if it absolves teachers of any criticism at all.)

Look, I'm not saying that it's the be all and end all, and I obviously can't be sure that it will work, but I just hate the knee-jerk anti-idea culture of teaching sometimes.  Think about these considerations - maybe Goldacre is onto something.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Of Mice and Men - Character Ideas

I love Steinbeck's novella about two guys so much, that I fancy writing about it on a grim grimy morning. So here we go.  If this is useful for revision, then that's obviously very good news indeed.  If it's useful for teaching, then all the better.

Character - beyond the basics

George is a very complex character who suffers from a permanent clash of motives.  He is a young man, working itinerant ranch labour, and yet he is also essentially a parent of a very difficult child.  This is a totally impossible situation which tears the man apart, as he simultaneously loves and hates Lennie.  His flashes of temper, as seen in part one, are a symptom of this internal strife.  His self-isolation is another manifestation of this.  He plays solitaire at all times, never seeming to play a competitive game with others (the game of euchre in part three never really gets off the ground, due to the tension building as they wait for the gunshot) and speaks in terse, thin sentences to the majority of characters (especially Curley's Wife, Carlson and Whit).  Despite this, the novella gives us a fascinating window into a transitional phase in George's life: he meets new friends in Slim and Candy, and his long-held pipe-dream seems, startlingly and disorientatingly, to be on the cusp of becoming reality.  As such we see glimpses of warmth, sorrow and shame in George: particularly when talking to Slim in the opening pages of part three.  His decision to kill Lennie is not inevitable, though.  There are other options open to him, and I believe there must be some sense of relief in pulling the trigger.  Relief that is submerged under a tide of misery, but it would be a simplistic reading to assume there was no sense of final rest from the stressful life he's been forced to live for so long.

Lennie is scary.  There can be no doubt in anyone's mind that when Lennie gets annoyed, he is a tremendously intimidating character.  The 'fish'-like flopping of his victims, and the repetitive 'bear' imagery present us with a monstrous being - a Jekyll and Hyde - that is usually docile and calm but occasionally lethal and wantonly aggressive.  Simple readings of Lennie as a victim are inaccurate.  It is fair enough to a point, but his disability (whatever it is) makes him something of an anti-hero who does choose to do horrific acts of violence.  Evidence for this is in the petulance with which he 'hurls' around the dead puppy: the intense flash of hatred that the dead animal sparks is an insight into a deeply troubled character who is far more than just 'stupid'.

Candy is a troublesome gossip, and not as great a guy as some may suggest.  His glee at sharing his disgusting information about Curley's glove shows a man who thrives on rumour and scandal, and his reaction to his ticking off by George in part two - 'He had drawn a derogatory statement from George.  He felt safe now' - shows a man comfortable in the role of disciple rather than leader: he is very easily led and has little power of his own.  This is most clearly displayed when the men bully him into killing his dog, though Candy's insistence on keeping it alive could be viewed as selfishness.  Candy's relationship with Curley's Wife is fascinating.  He clearly hates her, behaving brutally when she joins the three 'weak ones' in Crooks' room.  He changes when addressing the only woman in the tale, becoming more assertive and aggressive.  Clearly, this emphasises the level at which women operate in this story - below even the weakest of the 'weak' trio.

Curley is a simple plot device, really - a simple antagonist with a coincidental hatred for the very physicality of Lennie.  George is right about him, in that there is nothing Lennie can do but wait for the boot to eventually drop onto him.  Steinbeck offers a little more insight, but it is all third hand: the vaseline glove, the boxing...even his position as boss's son is never fully explored.  He is, therefore, unknowable, which is exactly how Steinbeck wanted it - a mysterious, blank presence whose raw energy and hatred acts as a catalyst for the plot.

Curley's Wife is the only woman in the book, apart from the hallucination of Aunt Clara and the mentioned floozies and jailbaits of the town.  She is an exotic addition to the novel, multi-coloured and feathered like a rare bird ('ostrich feathers' on her 'red mules'), and so she is always centre of attention.  Her posture and habit of standing in doorways adds to the idea that she is inescapable: it is impossible to avoid her as she moves randomly through the ranch, like a ghost in Pac-Man.  The danger signified in her red colouring and her 'brittle, nasal' voice means that she is a source of incredible tension - totally unpredictable and capable of causing infernos of anger wherever she goes.  Every major bout of aggression has Curley's Wife at its core somewhere.  Despite this, she is not an antagonist.  Instead she is misunderstood, but prone to bursts of childlike and petulant behaviour, just like Lennie.  And just like Lennie, she cannot simply be a victim, though as a woman she is certainly prejudiced against.  Her naivety in believing the man from 'the pitchers' create some sense of culpability, but as a whole she is simply a bumbling character, desperate for love and warmth in a world where these things barely exist.  Her treatment of Crooks is fascinating, as it shows a more assertive side to her character.  Again, though she is low down the pecking order, she is still higher than Crooks, and enjoys her moment of power in part four.

Crooks is the only black character in the novel.  This highlights the unusual nature of racial relations in California at this time.  It would be dangerous to assume that California was akin to the Deep South of Alabama and Kentucky (the racism in Of Mice and Men is of a different nature to that in To Kill a Mockingbird).  As Crooks himself says, he grew up on his 'old man's chicken ranch', in a position of reasonable security.  Racism in the North and West was generally de facto, rather than enshrined in law.  The infamous Jim Crow laws were only a factor in the Southern States, where racism was an institution.  In fact in the 1930s California was most famous for its prejudice against the Filipino population that led to scenes of terrible violence in Watsonville in 1930.  This is not to say black people were not prejudiced against: they certainly were, and California had a system of segregation in place.  The Ku Klux Klan had a great many members in various areas of California at this time, too, with Orange County alone having 1200 members in the 1920s.  This lends weight to Curley's Wife's threat of lynching - it would probably have led to that.  Crooks is a quiet, embittered man who reads to pass the time when not working.  He literally shares his home with the animals, to the point that his medicine, and the medicine for the horses, are stored in the same container.  His collection of books is fascinating.  It contains an out of date copy of the California Civil Code, presumably to create the impression that he is familiar with his rights.  He has some ambiguous 'dirty books', suggestive of pornography.  Considering he can't go into town with the boys, this is not unreasonable to presume.  His tattered dictionary is the most interesting possession, as it is 'tattered', suggesting great use.  His interaction with Lennie and Candy is an emotional high point in the book, as we see the three misfits bonding over a common dream after initially hostile posturing.  Steinbeck seems on the verge of creating an Eden for these loners and 'weak ones' when Crooks asks to join them on their ranch, and society seems on the verge of inversion, with those on the periphery becoming those who have succeeded in the pursuit of happiness.  Of course, Curley's Wife's intrusion destroys all of this, as this Eve is placed below even them, worthy only of scorn and distrust.
More later on...

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Saturday, 2 March 2013

Ghosts

I saw a ghost last weekend.  Or at least, that's what a noisy, irrepressibly excitable part of my brain is shouting.  It being my birthday, I was watching Skyfall on Blu-Ray (a tremendous experience).  Glancing toward the open door leading to the hallway I saw a whiteness pass from the open, darkened bathroom door beyond, into the hall and away from my field of vision.

I do not believe in ghosts at all.  As a youngster I think I hoped that they existed, but due to my scientific bent I have short shrift for anything supernatural.  This does not mean I don't find it all fascinating: I have a very deep-seated interest in all things ghostly and mysterious, as I feel it tells us a great deal about the human condition.  But I never thought I would see a ghost.  And the majority of my brain still insists that I haven't.  It was a trick of the light, or even an hallucination, asserts the side of my mind most closely aligned with Occam's Razor.  Imagine the implication of actually seeing a spectre in my bathroom: it would firstly mean that my flat is haunted and, quite frankly, sod that.  Far too stressful.  It would also suggest that there is perhaps life after death (if floating meaninglessly in someone else's bathroom is 'life' in any true sense), and this goes against all of my intuition and education.  Far easier to say that it was simply a sham - a trick, amplified by my silly brain.

But here's the thing: how easy it was for my brain to be fooled!  I would say I am a fairly sensible chap, with a keen sense of scepticism.  I always seek out the most realistic and reasoned arguments for or against anything.  And yet, last weekend, just a fleeting peep of something strange has led me to wonder what my waking eyes have seen.  I think this, in itself, suggests an answer to the big question: what are all these paranormal witnesses seeing.  All those thousands of men and women who have seen ghosts, UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, Pikachu and all, all of them have been fooled by their brains.  What they saw was something immeasurably dull - a stick, or a cloud of steam, or a little yellow rat - and their brains, their over-evolved, high-perfomance brains, have filled in the rest of the story.  The stick becomes an anachronistic plesiosaur, the cloud of steam a baleful spirit and the yellow rat is suddenly a fictional pocket monster from Japan.

Our wonderful brains are flawed.  All you need to do to witness this is see a face in the wood-chip wallpaper round your gran's house, or a smiling clown in the pattern of clouds above you.  Your brain wants to see things that aren't there, as it is programmed to seek out movement, forms and most importantly faces.  All it took was a mote in my eye, or a gust of wind, to fool my brain into seeing ghosts.  And, the trouble is, once its in the mind, it's hard to shake the terror...

And this is the other thing at work, of course.  Deep inside our psyche is a strange urge to be terrified.  We all merrily seek out things that scare us (I watched Lightfields the other night, sequel to the excellent Marchlands, and spent the whole time peering through my fingers, waiting for a terrifying shock that sadly never came), to the point where we create or invent whole scenarios just to freak ourselves out.  On a global scale this leads to theme parks and a thriving horror film industry.  On an individual basis, this means telling exaggerated creepy stories and adding malign intention to everyday occurrences, like a fugue in a bathroom.

The myriad ghost stories and legends that litter the UK in particular are testament to these dual drives of wanting to be scared and the brain being able and willing to scare us.  The endless reports of ghostly figures, hideous demons and frightening alien encounters are, perhaps, all a product of our own fevered imaginations.

Either that, or they're real.

Part II - my favourite 'real' ghost stories:

1. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, with her eyeless sockets and habit of floating down stairs.  This photo was taken by a photographer for Country Life magazine who was taking a nice shot of the staircase when he noticed this shape descending the stairs:
2. The Monk of Newby Church, which is just a photo really, with no associated tale.  But it's really tall and incredibly freaky.  Estimates suggest it to be around 8' tall, and no evidence of fakery or deception was ever discovered.
3. The hauntings of Pluckley, Kent.  This is the most haunted village in England, with at least 12 roaming spooks.  My favourite is the screaming workman in the old quarry.  He was crushed by a load of stone, and his scream is still heard on moonless nights...
4. The ghost bus of Ladbroke Grove: this was a terror in the 1920s, as it blared down the streets, lights blazing, with not a soul on board.  Not even a driver.  It apparently caused several car accidents.
5. The hairy hands of Dartmoor.  These critters materialise in or on your vehicle as you drive down the B3212.  They often appear over your own hands on the steering wheel, forcing you off the road.  Or, they thump and pat on the walls of your caravan, looking for a way in...

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 after knowledge harvests - a worrying trend that the SLT 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.  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 occured 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 occured 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.  Siginificant 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.  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.  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 headteacher with his workload.

Hogwarts School is awarded a grade of 4 (unsatisfactory)


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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.

Thumbs

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.