Music Soothes the Soul and Inspires the Mind.

April 9, 2017

Music Soothes the Soul and Inspires the Mind.

What is your favourite song? Can you name just one? No, probably not – it would have to be a personal top ten, maybe a top twenty. I’d struggle to keep to twenty, wouldn’t you?

On Friday driving home from Tesco’s in the bright Spring sunshine the radio played something cheerful and rhythmic – can’t recall the tune but it made me tap my fingers and wobble my head as I waited for the lights to go green and it reminded me how important music is to most of us. That it soothes and inspires, brightens and saddens, and without it we are lesser beings.

And then my mind jumps to the lunacy of an Education system that doesn’t value music or drama or Art or anything creative; ignoring the fact that Britain, London especially, thrives on culture. There are galleries all over London; the West End is full of tourists and locals going to shows; literary festivals populate the country: music festivals sell out fast wherever they are (Glastonbury) and the O2 and other concert halls remain in constant use.

What sort of madness is it that says Music and the arts don’t matter? How short sighted is it to side-line these subjects in school?

Music is for the soul and the heart – it can make you feel better, it can make you feel worse; it can transport you to different times, different places: a different life. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play or sing, you can enjoy music on your own terms wherever you are.

Art and stories make you think, challenge your views of the world, broaden your understanding and give you beauty – of an image, of words. Images and words are incredibly powerful things.

Stories can tell the truth when no other medium can. Art makes us face who we are. Music makes us feel things and rouses our emotions and makes us feel connected. Is this why the powers that be want to shut down the Arts in schools; why they blissfully ignore the plethora of evidence that shows how important music is for learning, for healing, for being human?

 Plugged in- zoned out!

I like the diversity of all the art forms but Music is the one that lives with me every day – yes, even more than writing, believe it or not! The first thing I do every morning is turn on the radio. In the car there is music – radio or CD (is that terribly old fashioned now?). When I am writing there is music – ah the joy of iTunes and a personalized selection on Youtube. I play certain music for certain pieces of writing – stuff to sooth and block out the extraneous rubbish in my brain, or stuff to cheer me up, or take me to a specific time or place – hello Australian Crawl, Split Enz, The Police!

Music can be devastatingly simple or awesomely complex – the Beatles love you, yeh, yeh, yeh and a simple but devastating hook that infects your brain. And then we have the complexity of Stairway to Heaven and Bohemian Rhapsody – in lyrics and musical movements. We have the grunt of AC-DC’s Highway to Hell (even sung by John Farnham – it’s brilliant, find it on Youtube), the madness of Florence and the Machines’ Dog Days are Over and the joy of John Paul Young’s Love is in the Air. Whenever I hear Christina Anu sing My Island Home I well up and suffer terrible longing pangs for my own island home, thousands of miles away.

John Denver has just come on the radio: back I go to sunny days in Tasmania and to thoughts of my father who loved him (we had a dog named Calypso for the song) and to my step-mother struggling to cope with her estrangement from my father and then his sudden death, and playing John Denver as we had our own farewell ceremony after the funeral.

My mother was musical – she could play the piano and I recall a reasonable singing voice. I was useless, only managing the opening of the First Noel on our piano. But all of my children can play – clarinet, flute, saxophone and cello. My mother’s despair over my lack of musical ability would have been salved by the fact that her grandchildren had all acquired her musical skills, unlike her dullard daughter. I like to think she’d have been enormously proud of them, coming to concerts and soirees all the years they were in school bands and orchestras. There you go, a little musical sadness, that she never saw them play, never saw her musical genes living on.

Chris Rea has a special resonance for my beloved and me. The Macarena will always be the song for my big girl; memories of her teaching the moves to girls in Shanghai when we were there on exchange. My baby girl is Shiny Shiny by Hazee Fantasee; a Romantics CD on constant play when she was young that made her sing along and bubble and smile. My boy is forever Sting’s Fields of Gold from when he was in all sorts of musical ensembles at school and sang this.

And my favourite song of all time? Is there such a beast? Can I choose from Bowie, Queen, Zeppelin, Oz Crawl? Yes: it is the wonderful and obscure Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins. It has the most marvelous beat and brilliant sax. It is my ring tone and it must be played at my funeral as the fires consume me.

We take music for granted; few of us can play a musical instrument, but like Fran from Black Books, we must be musical because we have hundreds of CDs, or tunes on our various machines: we take music with us wherever we go. It is part of our soul, our being, our lives. Don’t let anyone tell you the Arts don’t matter, that music is pointless. Got to a live performance of any sort and you will be transplanted to another place, deeper feelings, and an appreciation of the wonders of the world. (Images from Private Collection)

Be Nice: It’s More Important than Ever.

March 26, 2017

Be Nice: It’s More Important than Ever.

There is an epidemic of nastiness in our world. It was evident in this week’s London attack at Westminster when an innocent Muslim woman who walked by the injured/dead pedestrian on Westminster Bridge was trolled for being callous and indifferent to the suffering around her. She wasn’t being anything of the sort but the immediate and vile on-line spewing of vitriol was as ever a knee jerk reaction to an image that suggested a great many things, but was positioned as something to react negatively to. And so people did.

Why are we so happy to take the nasty position? To attack instead of saying nothing? Why do we prefer to be unpleasant instead of kind? Is it simply the anonymity of the cyber-world or is there something deeper and blacker lurking in us all?

What is disturbing from my point of view is that this epidemic is becoming more evident in the young beasties I interact with every day. There seems to be something in the air that is infecting them too. Yes, students have always had a robust relationship with each other: bullying is not a new problem, there have always been cliques, the cool kids, those on the outer. But there seems to be an increasingly callous nastiness to each other: interactions that go beyond teasing, beyond banter. There’s an edge to how they interact at the moment. A harsh disregard for the hurt that is being inflicted on others – be it physical or verbal. If I say something they look at me as if I am mad – it’s okay Miss they know I don’t mean it.

Is this true? Am I missing something here? Is it okay?

If it is okay then we are in a terrible way. Young people who don’t know how to treat each other, who think being casually rude or unkind is acceptable, who don’t actually care about someone else’s feelings, even if it is a friend. But it’s not just young people at school, it is people of all ages, from all over the place. You’re on-line, you read the articles and the comments sections. You know how rude and aggressive people have become. It’s almost expected, isn’t it – get on-line and make as outlandish a comment as possible and wait for the responses so you can get even more outraged. We saw this at its worst (best?) during the recent US election when the comments about Hilary especially were completely beyond the pale. We know of women on Twitter and other places who are trolled with comments wishing they were raped or their children killed.

When did we become some vile, so reprehensible?

The anonymity and comments boards have unleashed a monster that is now utterly out of control. The lack of accountability of these people is clear. Yes, some get prosecuted but the vast majority does not. Freedom of speech is a two edged sword and we have allowed the dark side to over-take us. We seem to have forgotten that being free to speak does not equate with being free to abuse all and sundry.

What should we be doing about this?

Parents must be more responsible for their children’s moral education, for making them into decent citizens, who know right from wrong and the importance of thinking before speaking or acting. Parents need to monitor and restrict their child’s on-line interactions. Not just because it is dangerous out there, but because it is de-humanizing them. The more time a child spends on-line, the less they are able to interact effectively with others – they lose the ability to read and understand emotions. They lose the ability to converse effectively, to listen, to share, to understand that the world does not revolve around them.

Those who run the various social media platforms need to do a great deal more about how they police and punish what is posted on-line. Hate-crimes are all very well, but the everyday hatred that is spewed on various platforms needs greater attention. I’m not sure why Zuckerberg etc don’t get it, why they obsess about breast feeding mothers and turn a blind eye to the myriad other vile and abusive images and messages on their platforms. They need to step up and exercise more moral integrity and not just concern themselves with getting richer at the expense of the moral and ethical decline of the population.

We, ourselves, need to be more vigilant. Challenge young people about their behaviour. Make them read. Yes, I know you are not surprised by this coming from me, but there is a huge amount of research that links reading fiction with being more empathetic and better at getting on with people, and more successful in life. Reading matters more than ever. As a parent take that iPad out of their hands and put a book there. You could even read along with them. Perhaps you need to read more too, more fiction not just shit articles on line that do nothing for your neurons either.

We need to turn away from the noise of hatred ourselves. We need not to support it – call it our where we see it. Not engage in on-line battles; not accept the bias of the media.

We need to be nice – a terrible soft pastel word, much under-rated but incredibly important now. We mustn’t just think that we are, as many people do, but act as if we are. Indulge in acts of kindness, for strangers, but especially for those you love. Say something thoughtful, something kind.

Be positive, see the good in the world as much as you can. (Yes, I know it’s hard but it’s worth trying.) Smile, believe that things will get better, actively work towards making things better; grow things, encourage others, read more; be fully informed, don’t make snap judgments.

If we don’t do something to stem the tide of nastiness, of hatred and vitriol then the world will drown in violence and fear and that’s not a world I want anyone I love about to live in. (Images from Private Collection)

Education: Crap for Teachers and for Students Too. Part 2.

March 5, 2017

Education: Crap for Teachers and for Students Too. Part 2.

And so to part 2 – the crapiness of an education system that suits no-one at all, let alone the poor clients – the students. Think about that for a minute – if we were to adopt a business style of model and had to sell education to students how do you think that would work? Would the client – the student – buy what is on offer today? No, they would not. And perhaps that is a good place to start.

What student would choose to be tested from the moment they arrive at school? What child would choose to sit still all day long having a range of information shoved into them that they struggle to connect to? What child would choose to be measured against others and told repeatedly that they are failing in one way or another from the age of 5 to 18? What student would choose to have no choice about the way they learn or the subjects they want to take on their way to a meaningful career? What child would choose to sit in a room of 30+ other students experiencing a one size fits all education, that doesn’t cater to their needs or interests? What child wants to be invisible in that class of 30? What child wants to put up with the poor behaviour of others who don’t want to learn, who are never consequenced enough by the school system to make them behave? What child wants to spend a year with a teacher they don’t like or respect?

Pal's pals@GCSE

The answer is too obvious. No-one does. Yet this is what education is about for too many students. Too many of them are not getting a fair go in our schools. This is not a surprise to teachers, they, as mentioned last week, have their own suffering to endure, but that does not mean that they are ignorant or unsympathetic to the plights of many of their students – except the ones without pens!!

Most of us know what a good education looks like. Most of know that what is currently on offer is not even close. Students know this too. They know what a good teacher is, what they like about learning, what they don’t like and they are all too aware that what they get too much of the time is not what it could be. They also know, because they are not fools, that most teachers (yes, stress on the most) are doing their best and care about them.

And no, I am not going to talk about those teachers who don’t give a shit who should have been axed years ago, or never come into the profession in the first place. Shit teachers are not identified purely by age.

 

So, let’s to a few specifics of how the current government sector (especially but not exclusively) is failing young people:

 

1.Relevance of the curriculum – a good education should prepare a young person for the world – as a worker and a citizen. It should offer them opportunities to succeed, to take risks, to learn about things that are relevant to their world and then take them beyond that. The challenge is to mix the classics and basics of learning and the constancy of the new. It is difficult, especially in our changing world. Who’s to know what bit of learning occurring today will be relevant when they end up out the other end of compulsory education? So, relevance is tricky. But it is clear that some sectors of education, some subjects, are not being as relevant as they could. Take my subject – take English. We could be doing so much with how the media presents itself, how language is being mangled and manipulated, or reading some very fine modern relevant literature. But what are we doing aside from his royal dead-white-male-Godness Shakespeare, who will be done in perpetuity, even as the final flames of destruction engulf the earth? We are doing 19th century literature, specifically Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, mainly in truth because it is short and like its predecessor on the Literature curriculum, Of Mice and Men (that evil American text) can be read in class if need be, and with many students across this land, who won’t read on their own, it needs to be. J&H is a misogynistic tale of self important/self indulgent privileged white men who think they can play God, where women barely rate a mention. Where’s the relevance in that for your average English child? Oh, no, stupid me – totally relevant after all!!!

 

2.Relentless change – how many times can you change a curriculum? How many times must successive groups of students be the latest victims of the whims of a politician? This current debacle of 100% external exams is unfair and will achieve nothing – only hurt schools and students. Several years ago when shifting the goal posts of assessment became the main game, I had a group of bright and able GCSE students who completed the 20% Speaking and Listening assessment in year 10. But by the time they had got to year 11 the 20% had been abolished and added to the exams and now their assessment was 60% exam and 40% course-work. All their brilliant speeches no longer counted. How is that fair? Just as the year my daughter and her mates had the grade boundaries shifted from the January to June series and made harder for those not doing early entry. How is that fair? How can schools predict accurately and how can students have faith in their teachers or the system when the shifts occur arbitrarily and within an academic year? Certainly my current year 11s who are the latest victim of unjustified change (to 100% exam assessment) are bewildered by this and do see it as terribly unfair.

 

3.Excessive examinations – as they start school, throughout primary, as they end primary school; throughout secondary on their way to GCSE’s, where students can have up to 10 subjects many of which have multiple exams and then onto A levels. Every stage an exam. Every stage a life ending exam. How can students be assessed so often and not feel pressure and anxiety in the run up, and like failures afterwards? The pressure is intense. Students are told repeatedly how this particular set of exams will determine their future, that it is the most important thing in the world. Really, every exam they do is the end of the world? Of course it’s not but the system is designed to make them think so, to make everything a ridiculously big deal. No wonder many of them opt out, or find other dangerous ways to cope. Why would you want to be told repeatedly that you are a failure?

 

4.Teacher turn-over and inexperience – last week’s blog was about the recruitment crisis in education and no-one knows about it better than the students. In some subjects – usually Science and Maths from my 10 years here, but English too – have an extraordinary high turn over: just like a revolving door. The difficulty to attract and keep science graduates is also well known, what is lesser known is the impact that has on students. Consistency matters to them. They want quality and care in their teachers but a very close second to that pair is consistency. A teacher who is there for the year, or even the entire time they are at school. For many young people school is the only stable part of their life and knowing the same teachers will be there matters a great deal. Clearly teacher turn over affects their learning and equally teachers with limited experience also have detrimental effects on students, in terms of their confidence and progress. But when an experienced teacher leaves they are invariably replaced by inexperience. Some students have years of change and inconsistency and we wonder why they turn off….

 

5.Lack of responsibility – Students are not held as accountable as they should be. I realize this point seems to run counter to the last one but there is an issue here. Students fail, sometimes it isn’t their fault – and as said the system is too geared around progress and targets, not learning – but at the end of the day teachers carry the can. And some students in their naïve ignorance think that’s a good thing. If they don’t work then they will fail and the teacher will suffer. But of course in the long term the student does. They fail to reach their target and go onto the course of their choice, or a job, etc. In the end the student fails. They haven’t taken or been given the necessary responsibility along the way, they haven’t learnt through their failures in a safe environment and are in terrible danger of making terrible mistakes that will make a terrible difference to their lives. Responsibility is important, we want responsible citizens, we want resilient citizens and the current system where teachers are always expected to do more does not bode well for robust young people able to take appropriate responsibility for what they do and what they say. Does the world owe them a living? Will someone make excuses for them all their lives? The current school system is telling them it will. This is the origin of the snowflake generation and it does nobody any good.

 

6.Lack of awareness of your average teenage beast – this relentless pressure on exams, homework, targets and progress does a brilliant job of ignoring the life of your average teenager. They aren’t consumed by a passion for learning, they do not want to spend every waking hour thinking about their future, about how to make progress in each and every lesson. They care, to an extent, about education but it is not the centre of their lives and the educational powers that be are fools to think that it is – yet their policies and systems behave as if it is. Young people need a life – they need to play if they are young, be with their friends, be outside, play sport, relax, socialize, be with their families. They are entitled to their own lives, not one consumed by school. Really, why do we pretend that school is all there is to their lives?

 

6b.Lack of awareness of your average teenage beast and the dark side – yes life is radically different for young people these days. Bullying has not gone away but as well as stalking the school corridors it now hides in the dark of their rooms. No parent alive now can be under any illusions about how traumatic a place the on-line world can be. Bullies, sexting, harassment, gangs and Youtube videos: all sorts of nastiness is there preying on teenagers. And as they carry the world in their pocket so they can be monstered every hour of every day and you, as parent, as teacher, may never know – might not know until it is too late. Not to mention the lives of those for whom getting to school in itself is an achievement. Where does homework, or meeting a target or passing an exam rate alongside actually staying alive, of coping with the neglect or abuse that happens at home?

6c.Lack of awareness of your average teenage beast and the growth of mental health issues – self harming and depression are on the rise. As is teenage suicide. Students are under more pressure than ever to achieve, conform and belong. Social media has not helped young people, it has made their world more competitive and threatening. Schools are not equipped for the many students with mental health issues, counseling can be difficult to get and in the meantime many of them drift along in haze of hopelessness, believing there is nothing good or worthwhile about them or their lives. We make a mistake if we think their lives are like ours were – yes we had all sorts of problems but the dangers were easier to spot and the world was kinder and less mad. Today, in an uncertain world young people are angry, frightened and powerless. Not all of them see a bright future.

 

7.Not letting them think – this is the serious and present danger of our education system. Gove’s emphasis on facts and exams means things like thinking and exploring and taking risks are verboten. We don’t want creative subjects, Gove says, because they’re soft, they can’t be properly measured. But the creative arts and English as it used to be before the exam Nazis took over, are what create a thinking, moral, questioning society: subjects that foster curious minds and bright futures for all of us. But, hey we don’t want that in the government systems because we’re too busy teaching a load of nonsense in exams that advance not knowledge or the person or anything. (Note: all subjects allow for thinking and problem solving, I know…)

 

8.One size fits all – despite all the emphasis on differentiation, on planning for differences, in support staff to help a range of students, the reality is they all have to sit the same exams and they are all taught like cattle. Our system still looks to the days when teachers had class sizes of 40 and coped. Well the behaviour was under control and those who failed wore the consequences – namely they were held back, or dropped out because their learning needs were not diagnosed or considered. You sank or swam in the old days on your own. And sadly, to an extent you still do. We all sit in this room because we are the same age and supposedly at the same stage of learning. Even though we know we’re not. And so it goes that many children get lost. They have to be assessed in the same way, regardless of where they are developmentally, of their ability or needs. Never mind that so many children (grown adults actually) can’t cope in exams, that they cannot perform to their best – no they shall all be assessed in the same way. Our friend Mr Gove, and Nick Gibbs seems to be joining in now too, calling that rigor. Most of us call it idiotic. But what do we know, we’re only teachers, and they are only children who have no say at all.

 

So, the next time you feel contempt or disdain for a plugged in teen in a hoodie or wearing a skirt that’s too tight and too short beneath a face trowelled in make up, step back and feel some compassion. For a great deal of our young people school is anything but the best days of their lives. Essentially a succession of politicians and bureaucrats has made it that way and they need to hang their heads in shame. (Image from Private Collection)

 

 

Education: Crap for Teachers and for Students Too. Part1.

February 26, 2017

Education: Crap for Teachers and for Students Too. Part1.

Only people living under rocks, or politicians in their infinite ignorance, are under no illusion that Education in many parts of the world is in melt-down crisis – the UK, the USA and Australia, to mention a few relevant systems that are entirely unfit for purpose and sadly in no danger of getting better any time soon. Who is suffering here: students and teachers. Whose voices are dismissed and not heard: students and teachers. After all, who in their right mind would ask those who know the most about anything what they think!!

Swiftie globe

This week in the UK stories are out again about the crisis in teacher recruitment – that for the third year in a row targets for recruitment have been missed. No teacher in the country is surprised by this – not one teacher in Oz or the US will be either. Too many experienced teachers are leaving before retiring and not enough young enthusiastic tyros are coming in the other end. The reasons for this, for both ends of the shortage problem are no surprise, have been clearly articulated for several years now, yet none of those in power are listening. They seem to think that slick advertising campaigns, bursaries for study and the much vaunted Teach First program will make a dent in the problem.

The powers that be seem to willfully ignore the issues and while they do, and continue to blame teachers for the ills of the world then nothing will improve.

Which makes me believe that perhaps they are quite happy with the parlous state of state education in their various parts of the world. After all, we aren’t really talking about private education here … No, we are talking about state funded, government education for the masses. The masses who voted for Brexit and Trump and brought Pauline Hanson back and even returned an Australian Liberal government that has continued to screw the worker and the less powerful since re-election. Think about that for a moment… If you think that right wing, conservative politicians care about the masses you are a fool. You need only look to the appointment of Betsy De Vos in the US to know that things are going to dramatically worsen in the States for students and teachers alike. She’s already said she believes teachers are paid too much…

If they cared, they would do something about funding state education so that it worked (yes, and the health care system too). So that repairs to buildings occurred, so that school supplies could be purchased for all, so teachers could attend Professional Development – especially in this massive time of change (yet a-fucking-gain) and so teachers were paid what they are worth. Yes, state education is a massively expensive enterprise and increasingly – as with health – governments are refusing to spend what is needed to make it work.

Teachers – maligned, over-worked, vilified – are what keeps the whole embarrassing mess from toppling over the edge of the abyss.

Teachers who care. Teachers who consistently go the extra mile. Who work all hours, who spend their own money to make things better, who ignore their own families and lives and even their health. If it wasn’t for caring teachers who go beyond their job descriptions again and again the whole creaking straining edifice would have crashed to the ground years ago.

 

Why is recruitment such an issue? The government here in the UK knows – God knows the teachers’ unions do enough surveys about work conditions and teacher ‘satisfaction’ for want of a much better word. The powers that be know, they just don’t want to face up to it. But let’s spell it out one more time in a simple, easy to read list:

1.Constant criticism from all – politicians, parents, celebs – essentially anyone who went to school and therefore thinks they are an expert on Education. This has been going on for years and continues – it is relentless and then ‘they’ wonder why people leave and why no-one in their right mind wants to step inside a cess-pit of blame and criticism. Really, would you choose a job where you are blamed for everything – where everything you do is wrong, but not the other people in the system?

2.Constant, relentless change to everything – curriculum, exams, assessment, Ofsted criteria – nothing has a chance to bed-in, let alone last long enough to be reviewed and assessed as to it’s worth. Change is not a new thing – I remember sitting in a meeting in around 1998 about the latest changes about to be introduced in the NT and thinking that there’s no point in getting as upset by this as my colleagues were, as by the time the ink was dry on this approved change, something else would be in vogue. I was right – it was an epiphany and it helps me cope here – to an extent. But what is killing teachers in England is the constancy of change – in the 9 years since I’ve been in London we’ve had 4 changes to the curriculum in English – no nothing has bedded in and the kiddies get caught out by it and they suffer more than we do. I won’t even mention the plethora of changes Ofsted has cascaded through to us…

2b. Test, test, test and then test some more. When did education become a series of tests and exams at every stage? What do tests do – tell us things we already know in different ways but what they do more significantly is raise stress levels in students and tell them they are failures almost from the moment they set foot inside a class-room. Oh, and tests/exams/SATs/NAPLAN – whatever you call them – tell teachers and schools that they are failures too. This bit of madness needs to stop too. 100% external exams means teaching to the exam. You ask any GCSE English or Maths teacher in England at the moment and they’ll tell you that’s all they are doing. Seriously, is this the sort of education we want? A legacy of yet another egotistical politician, our dear Michael Gove – dear in this sense meaning expensive and costly NOT beloved.

3.Levels of responsibility – somewhere down the line it went terribly wrong. Teachers are responsible for it all – for students’ progress, for having the frequently mentioned fucking pen, for tissues, for them having breakfast and a good night’s sleep. Oh and we’re responsible for the exam boards whims. Oh, yes we are, as an Ofsted inspector pointed out to me 18 months ago when the grade boundaries were suddenly shifted and we missed our projections. According to him I should have predicted that and taken it into account. Yes, I had to so bite my tongue. That’s the nonsense level of responsibility we work within. Every other bastard in the system has an excuse, so classroom teachers carry the ever increasing can of shit. Accountability is all well and good and fair, but being responsible for everything that moves and shakes and sneezes and shits in your working world is plainly nonsense.

4.Life-work balance – we’re back in the dark ages of vocation, where people became teachers because they were ‘called’ to it and it would be their life and therefore nothing else mattered. When I first began teaching it was a lovely normal sort of job, where I had time to plan good lessons, kept my marking up to date and had a lively and interesting social life. I worked in the evenings or half a day at the weekend to make it all happen but it didn’t stop the rest of my life. When I had small kids I was Head of English and seemed to manage it all – family, friends, extra study, a husband. But now there aren’t enough hours in the day. The expectations are extreme. A number of my team struggle to keep all their balls in the air and it’s not because they aren’t good teachers who aren’t working hard enough. It’s because the system wants too much from them.

5.Behaviour and student needs – this is linked to the responsibility thing. An increasing amount of students are less and less inclined to own their own behaviour. They are not, for want of a better word, socialized – they do not know how to behave and have to be contained and controlled all the time. What do you think happens to learning then? And there is an increase in the needs of students – of students being identified as having ‘special needs’. There is an argument that this is progress, that students are no longer labeled at thick or stupid because they don’t understand or can’t learn in a particular way. Yes, that’s very nice but what about the poor teacher who already has 30 in her class and no support and has to plan for that child too? How do you think that happens? How do they find the time to plan for all the needs in the classroom??

6.Pay – while many teachers down-play this angle, I think it is significant. Teachers carry the future in their hands – we shape the future, for better or worse. So, if the future matters and if you want smart, driven, caring people entering the profession then pay them what they are worth. Education is at the core of a productive, intelligent, creative caring society. Teachers are the centre of that core – the magma of it all, so pay us what we are worth. Increase the status of teaching and people will stay and the right ones will chose it as a career. Remember Walter White from Breaking Bad would never have ended up wreaking all that murder and mayhem had he been paid a decent salary and was able to access affordable health care…

7.Trust – the system does not trust teachers – read this to be clear about that https://debrakidd.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/a-broken-system-progress-gcses-and-sats/ … Hence the constancy of criticism, the constant changes to stop us cheating or ‘gaming’ the system, the odiousness of observations and Ofsted, the prescriptive nature of the curriculum and assessment regimen. I am not trusted to select texts or topics suitable for my classes. I am not trusted to assess them fairly. I have to be observed frequently, my marking checked, paper work submitted to those further up the food chain. I have to have meetings to explain and justify what I am doing. And now, as mentioned in 2b I am preparing students for 100% external assessment by exams. Yes, because I am not trusted to teach and assess fairly and objectively. Never mind that the system created the cheating, no, blame the teachers (and the senior management who endorsed and encouraged this) who have to meet ridiculous targets and so cheat. What other profession suffers under such scrutiny, such a lack of trust in their professionalism??

 

This list is not a secret. It is not something I know and no-one else does. Teachers are unhappy people, their hands are tied by systems and people who know nothing about education, about children and their world. Our education system is run by people who don’t have the first idea of what it is like in a classroom. Most of them wouldn’t last 5 minutes in a secondary school – they would find your average teenager frightening and not know how to speak to them, let alone control them for 45-60 minutes and actually teach them something.

 

Where education is thriving in the world several simple things happen: 1.Teachers are respected; they are valued and important members of society and usually paid accordingly.

2.They are not blamed for the ills of society. The education system is centred on knowledge not testing, on the child learning at its own pace, on sound educational pedagogy – remember that, Piaget, etc??

3.And, importantly, the education system is about the relevant society, what it needs, what its aspirations and desired future is.

This is Singapore and Finland, the places we look to for inspiration. They are not cherry picking bits and pieces from other systems and mashing them together. Their education systems are thought out, considered, be-spoke for their needs. Changes do occur, but not with the whirlwind destruction and rapidity of ours.

Why don’t we stop this constancy of change and listen to teachers, the ones in the middle of the mess, the ones who have had enough, who know what should be happening? Why don’t we ask the students what they want, what they need?

*Next week: the student perspective. (Image from Private Collection)

Time to Read, to Know and Understand

February 19, 2017

Time to Read, to Know and Understand

Reading is always the way to knowledge and wisdom – often there is more truth in fiction than in anything else you read – especially in these worrying days of alternative facts and fake news. Yes in this post truth world you will find more honesty and truth in novels. So now is the time to remind yourself of the classics you should have read, or to reacquaint yourselves with those novels from your past that have – perhaps sadly – more resonance now than ever before. Here’s a rundown on some of the more pertinent classics that reverberate even today.

 

Dystopian ‘Realities’

1984, George Orwell

Animal Farm, George Orwell

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

The Handmaiden’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

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Now, more than ever you need to take on the brilliance of Orwell – too much prescience for one writer. Return to 1984 and Animal Farm with horror at how the world changes and shifts and learns nothing. Too much has come true, too much of what we thought was outrageous fantasy is coming true. Revisit the under-rated Brave New World (an easier read that 1984, as I recall) and Atwood’s classic and tremble. There is, of course, The Hunger Games and many other novels who explore ideas of totalitarianism gone mad but these are excellent and relevant starting points.

 

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

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Not going to say that these are my favourite reads of all time but they tell classic tales of desire, love, lust, abandonment, injustice and the excessive amount of suffering love causes us all. You need to know the classics of love and loss – at least they should make you feel better about your own love life. Emma Bovary will certainly cheer you up, as will Anna Karenina – none of us could be as miserable and bereft as those two, and you need to get over Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and actually experience the original 1813 version. And if you’re going to read only one Bronte, Wuthering Heights is the one: you need to see what a bastard Heathcliff is and how unworthy Cathy was too. You can’t go passed Great Expectations for one of the bitterest spurned lovers in literature – the demonic and manipulative Miss Havisham: if you want to know about revenge she is the go-to oracle. Poor Pip, he never had a chance with Estella. No, what we think love is from the classics probably isn’t …

 

Angry (lost) Young Men

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis

Hamlet, Shakespeare

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We have too many angry disenfranchised young men in the world at the moment – they’ve always been there, a lot of them going off to die in war, or flinging themselves about recklessly on the sporting field. Now they have grown up and are running the world. Remind yourself of what happens to boys alone on an island without rules, adults or girls in Lord of the Flies; how utterly bereft and miserable Holden Caulfield is, almost as mad as Hamlet, but none as mad as Patrick Bateman. Yes, American Psycho is a difficult and offensive read, but it shows a chillingly dark side of men gone seriously off-course and what damage can be done by those who think they are above the law!

 

Shitty Pointlessness of War

All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

Catch 22, Joseph Heller

Sophie’s Choice, William Styron

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Poetry of Wilfred Owen

Gallipoli – yes, I know it’s a film but it is bloody brilliant

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War is shit, war is stupid, war kills and destroys and never solves anything, yet war is one of the enduring features of mankind. We are aggressive, destructive creatures, we would rather wage war that negotiate a peace. War rages on our planet still, we learn nothing from history and despite this literary collection from different wars and countries, we keep on going. Read and recoil with horror – war may have led to technological advances and helped the status of women in some countries (and absolutely screwed them over in others), but mostly it leaves a trail of intergenerational damage that echoes and reverberates over time and place. Watch Europe implode in the wake of Brexit, forgetting the very reason for the European Union in the first place.

 

Stolen Generations (Oz)

Capricornia, Xavier Herbert – don’t just watch Australia

Radiance, Louis Nowra – great play and excellent film too

Rabbit Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington Garimara – based on a true story, watch if you don’t want to read it

My Place, Sally Morgan – personal history but you need to read it!

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All Australians need to know more about their history – yes we do have a shameful past and we need to know about it and acknowledge it. Capricornia is Xavier Herbert’s classic story of the far north, of how Aboriginals were treated, how we built our national character – the lone, tough bloke of the outback. Have a read, it’s not the novel you think it is. Radiance is a brilliant play about the complexities of the Stolen Generations issue, and Rabbit Proof Fence and My Place give the issue heart and substance.

 

The American Dream

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

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We all need to understand the American Dream, it isn’t just part of the American consciousness but ours too, given how dominant American culture is. The American Dream is akin to the Oz idea about being The Lucky Country. It is a capitalist construct, a belief in the power of the individual – if he (usually it is he) is driven enough, ambitious enough and hard working enough then he can have the life he dreams of, no matter how big. America is built on being the New World, the place where you can begin again, re-make yourself and be whoever you want to be. Status and class (fixed entities in European and especially British society) do not matter: hard work and ambition does. Witness true life American Dream winner, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gatsby is the best known example of the AD, but you need to read Of Mice and Men too, it shows the other side of the coin; men with small dreams but destined for failure. Is the AD simply an illusion, something used by the powerful to beat the weak with? If you worked harder, believed more then you would be successful… so if you fail it’s your fault too, despite the massive amount of entities ranged against you. It takes away the responsibility of the state, of government to look after anyone. If your life is a failure it is your fault. Read both novels, they won’t take you long, but they’ll give you a handy insight into what makes large bits of the US tick.

 

The System Always Wins

1984, George Orwell

The Crucible, Arthur Miller

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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Perhaps this is the nastiest reading list for modern times. Justice and fairness and the truth are not part of these sad stories. The hero loses, every time. The system is ranged against them – not interested in truth – definitely not in The Crucible, where hysteria reigns and common sense is outlawed, or in 1984 where there is only Double-speak, and the Ministry of Truth, simply isn’t. Fairness and justice is never on the table for Tess or the characters in The God of Small Things. Ivan Denisovich will die in the gulag, after being beaten, starved and worked to death. You just can’t stick it to the man, when he has everything on his side and you are the size of an ant.

 

There are other classics you should know and read – a whole raft of Shakespeare, one for every occasion! To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind as does Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. All relevant to the difficult times we are currently experiencing. This is just your set to start with.

What will you re-read to help you make better sense of our sense-less world? What would you add to this list? (Images from Private Collection)

2016: Traumatic and Toxic

December 28, 2016

2016: Traumatic and Toxic

Well, it was a year wasn’t it? A catalogue of death and damnation and one wonders, given we still have a few days to go, what else might befall the planet?

Many years are much the same as others, and pool and blur into an indistinct hue once the moment has passed. Some years we remember: those where we succeeded; where lives started; where we met important people; where we traveled; changed jobs, and yes, lost loved ones.

2016 could be called our global annus horribilis, just like the good old queen had a few years ago, when amongst other things Windsor Castle managed to go up in flames. 2016 has seen the passing of many of the greats of the entertainment world – we kicked off in January with the death of David Bowie, followed swiftly by Alan Rickman and the floodgates whooshed open. I am not about to list the plethora of passings – it is too many to mention. Some celebrity deaths bit harder than others and in our celebrity saturated world it became impossible to keep up with the tributes and the ceaseless march to immortality. Once rock n rollers died young or faded into obscurity, this year they died in greater numbers than before and not the young and not from celebrity excess. No, we lost them to cancer, and illness and oddness (Prince, what actually happened there?) and to a more limited extent old age – Leonard Cohen was in his 80’s.

There must be something in the air, some cosmic disturbance of the energy surrounding the planet, something that has shifted us off orbit and decreed this a year of death, disaster, and disturbing changes.

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Has this been a particularly savage year or is it just a symptom of age: of the age of the departing celebrities, our own ages and of our modern age of instant information? Once the spread of such news would have taken longer. But we knew within minutes of the public announcements that our beloved stars were gone. George Michael died on Christmas Day – we knew about it Christmas night. I was just getting used to Rick Parfitt (Status Quo – the morning music of my youth thanks to my brother, blasting it through the house as he ate his cornflakes, toast and Vegemite) being gone when there was George Michael, one of the iconic music figures of the 80s & 90s, gone as well. And, as I write, Carrie Fisher has died too.

Some deaths will effect some more than others. Yes, there was so much about Bowie, it was hard to ignore and yesterday BBC Radio2 was devoted to George Michael with a bit of Status Quo thrown in. Some of these artists had a massive impact, their songs marked people’s lives; they meant something beyond just great music and amazing performances. Celebrities matter these days and ones that were around for key moments in our lives are mourned like friends, are missed like friends. So, for some it has been like being in the ring with Muhammed Ali, whom we also lost this year, or the like – going the twelve rounds, getting knocked down, getting up only to be knocked down by the next death blow.

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Celebrity deaths are traumatic things but the increasing toxicity of the media is perhaps far more to worry about this year. Several brutal and vicious elections were contested. And to continue with the boxing analogy, the gloves were well and truly off. The EU referendum in the UK was vile and ugly. It marked a low point in an area of life where we have come to expect gutter like behaviour: politics. As you well know I am no fan of Michael Gove, and everything I loathed about him was on display; arrogance, lies, contempt for all and sundry, no care for ordinary people, only ever about his own agenda. Never mind that both sides ignored the consequences of a campaign run on sound-bites and misinformation, never mind that a politician was murdered and that hate crimes and racism has spiked since Brexit, all that seemed to matter for Gove, Boris, Farage, Cameron and Osbourne was their opinions, their agenda, their egos; no, nothing really concrete or honest about what was going to happen next. I guess the best thing was that many political careers were wrecked in this democratic farce but what are we left with in this brave new world of looming UK independence and the lurch to the ultra-conservative right?

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Across the pond the unthinkable happened and an ‘unelectable’, sexist, racist, hatred spewing geriatric was elected. How did the world get Donald Trump as president of the most powerful nation on earth? Would Hilary have been better? Who knows … But at least she had some experience and has spent her life in public service. The Donald seems only to have spent his life in service to himself. And why did so many people who were not his natural constituents vote for him?

No, I would not have voted for him, just as I did not vote for Brexit but the fact that so many did and effectively voted against their own self interests (you too, Australia) does make me wonder about democracy and the blatant lack of consequences for those elected on ridiculous promises they have no intention of keeping.

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Regardless of your feelings about Brexit or Trump, or about who deserves to win, what is most reprehensible about both of these elections has been the unprecedented level of vitriol, misinformation, false news and outright lies. But no-one seems to really care. Hey ho, another politician has lied. More tax breaks for the rich, more pain and restriction for the poor and less able, in the US, UK and Australia too. Do people get the government they deserve when they are so deliberately misinformed about what is happening and what will happen when the election is over? Do ordinary people really deserve this level of toxic contempt from those who govern us?

And let us not ignore the media in this – the legit media – whoever they are these days and the alternative media, who may or may not be giving a thoughtful alternative to the gate-keeper news of the big papers and big networks. Where does this level of bullshit come from? Yes, the various media and tech barons across the world. Do you really think Rupert Murdoch or Mark Zuckerberg aren’t influencing the masses, making normal folk vote the way they want? Mr Face-book himself needs to take a long hard look at the amount of acerbic vitriol that was parading as news on his platform, his octopus like platform with tentacles across the world poking into the impressionable minds of all sorts of unwary, unwise people. Does he think Face-Book did not influence the US election, does he really think his locks and bars stop the shit getting through? As to Murdoch, why is such an odious old man allowed such power, enabled by slews of policy making wonks to do his bidding?

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How do you tell real news from fake news? How do you tell what is a toxic real story and a toxic made up story? Why are we buying into the slanging matches that are the comments on various articles, where we seem to prefer to ignore the argument and go straight for the personal attack? If people disagree with our view then clearly they are stupid, and should die or be raped, etc. Yes, these are the sorts of comments that are now common-place. There is no space for disagreement, you are either with me or you are the enemy. And so we scurry to safe places, behave like snow-flakes, ignore unpalatable truths and live in an ever increasingly dangerous world.

Perhaps this year’s gaggle of dead celebrities have seen too clearly how the world is turning to the dark side and have got off?

It’s been a shocker of a year. Not one to be repeated, but I fear things will not suddenly be better in 2017. Perhaps the death rate amongst the talented and exalted may slow, but the toxic state of the planet is not going to suddenly turn and shift to the light, move back to some sort of balance.

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Your job, dear reader, is to learn from this horror show of a year. Hold your loved ones close. See your old bands and favourite musos before they go. Do your best to behave with honour and decency. Do not get pulled into the vortex of bile and slander, on-line or in life. Teach your children well, lead them to truth, let them discern the lies, enable them to stand up for themselves and what is right without resorting to violence and verbal assault. In the old Aussie Rules parlance, let’s play the ball and not the man. (Images taken from Private Collection)

Silly (Sound) Advice for Serious (Scary) Times

November 13, 2016

Silly Advice for Serious Times – up-dated in light of recent events

It’s dangerous out there, so take care. Watch your back, shut your mouth, don’t post and be as kind as you can. If you can’t then here’s a few bits of advice, some silly, some worthwhile …

Don’t swim with the sharks (or the crocodiles). They can take nasty great chunks out of you, rip your limbs off and kill you. This occurs in deep water, shallow pools and on dry land. Dry land sharks are the most deadly, especially ones at work and in the pub – you should avoid wolves too. The problem with swimming with sharks is if they don’t eat you, you could just as well become one of them and that maybe much worse.

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Don’t play in the traffic. Keep to the paths, avoid cyclists, women with prams, teenagers with iPods, hoods, scooters, old people who dodder along and get in your way, anyone with a phone. Don’t cross the road without looking, use traffic lights but still look, listen, look again. There’s too much traffic, most of it going too fast and not remotely interested in pedestrian rights. Navigate skilfully and you will not get hurt. Get off your phone – look up once in a while and you’ll see what’s about to hit you and get out of the way.

Don’t pet strange dogs. All dogs other than your own are strange and can be relied upon to behave strangely. Always ask the owner if you can touch their dog before doing so. Don’t presume anything. If you are a post-man keep clear of all dogs, they know you hate them. If you are a representative of any religion or political party and you get too close to a strange dog then expect the worse. Dogs have an uncanny sense for shit people and will bark and bite, as they should.

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Don’t tweet, email or FB rudeness about your boss or colleagues, or use your work email for other ‘stuff’. Oh God it is so tempting but you will regret it, sooner or later. So slag them off in the pub, loudly and then claim you were drunk and can’t remember. The spoken word can be denied; the written one will always bite you on the bum. Nothings changed here – keep your work-place nice, keep your electronic communications relevant, and keep your thoughts and fingers under control. Think about how much trouble emails have caused poor old Hilary.

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Don’t work with children, old people, sick people or criminals. The caring professions suck, you don’t get paid enough, are blamed for the ills of the world and you are more likely to be abused by your charges than appreciated. You have no authority, are constantly told what to do by others and are expected to take responsibility for other people’s shit – literally and metaphorically. Don’t be a banker either, find something that makes you happy and keeps you afloat, financially speaking and doesn’t cause the planet any more pain. And for God’s sake don’t be a politician – yes, they have becomes the scum-bag profession of our time.

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Don’t believe that books are dying. The publishing industry is alive and well, just diversifying. People will want to hold a book in their hands a bit longer; students will want to scribble and underline key points; people like to unwrap books on Xmas Day. Video did not kill the radio star or the movies so e-books are not killing real books. So, as you start to gear up for Xmas put some books on your list and save the life of an impoverished writer.

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Don’t believe that the end of the world is nigh. It’s been grim for some parts of the world forever – think Africa and Indigenous peoples of the world. It is a time for caution, for not being greedy or reckless. It’s a time to take stock of what you’ve got, look after what’s important, shed the rest. The world is rich enough for all of us – it’s greed that’s killing us and the planet. Do your bit to make your corner of the world a kind and hopeful place. Grow flowers, help others when you can, always be kind – small words of care go a very long way. Don’t under-estimate your own power to do good and make a difference.

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Trump is not the end of the world. But he needs to be the end of the way political campaigns are run – on lies and sound-bites and hostility. I do not recognise this as the world I was expecting to grow old in. Politicians and the Media need to be accountable. They need to take responsibility for the mess we are currently in: for the divisions in society, for the hatred that has been unleashed on both sides of the Atlantic in the wake of Brexit and the US election. Now it’s time to make those in charge, those who make decisions for all of us, accountable. We need to shout at our law-makers, our politicians and demand better. Bravo Lego for disassociating yourself from the Daily Mail because you no longer will be associated with their Hate.

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We need to take a step back from the noise and the flashing lights and the hysteria and breath. Things need to change. We need to take personal responsibility for that change too – protest, lobby, get involved in positive actions. But you know, sometimes what seems to be a disaster turns out to be a new beginning.

 

Fingers crossed, world. xx (Images from Private Collection)

Stop. Think. Don’t press ‘Send’ just yet …

October 29, 2016

Stop. Think. Don’t press ‘Send’ just yet …

I am compelled this week to consider the state of electronic communications and the ease with which people take offence, misread information and then, and this is the killer bit, post some excessive, out of all kilter bit of vitriol that somehow – somehow – is okay because we all know it’s okay to be offended and outraged and to say so in the strongest possible language.

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Many years ago when on-line forums were new and before FB really got going; there were no Blogs, no Twitter or Snap-chat, etc etc, I joined an on-line writing community. I thought this would be a good thing – post some of my stories, the odd chapter of an odd novel and get some feedback from like-minded people. It was a reputable organization over-seen by someone big and respected in Hollywood. In order to get feedback you had to read and comment on three stories. The more you commented the more you could expect feedback on your stuff. All good, I thought. But you know where this is going…

I dutifully read my quota of stories. Most were pretty ordinary, some had potential and some should not have been published, even in such a forum – they weren’t ready for the light of day. I read some erotica, well it was presented as that, but it really was some horrid bit of porn masquerading as erotica. I ummed … I ahhed … and then I commented, saying that perhaps for it to be more appropriate to the genre it needed to be more nuanced, more subtle, less objectifying of the female character. I cannot tell you how bad it was but how kind – relatively speaking – my commentary was. I did the teacher thing and said what worked in the story, what didn’t and what I thought could be done to improve. I thought very carefully about what I wrote.

And then the gates of hell opened.

This guy, and it was a guy, and it was not clear from my non-de-plume that I was female, accused me of all sorts of things; of being some up-tight frigid bitch who’d never enjoyed sex and had no idea how a real woman might feel, and that I had no idea about men or writing, was clearly miserable in all aspects of my life, so why was I commenting at all. I was clearly too stupid and sexless to understand his wonderful work. Yes, he had missed most of what I’d said, which was that the sex was fantasy cliche, the characters were wooden and the situation was not remotely credible – but in nicer, more helpful words.

He had, as often happens, attacked me personally instead of engaging with my critique. I had responded to the work, he had responded to me, his ‘attacker’.

Needless to say, I got off that forum before he could look at any of my stories and rip them to shreds in a revenge-response. It cured me of on-line writing clubs and taught me a salient lesson, which has stayed with me through my later and current on-line writing. I keep away from the personal criticism unless they are public figures like Gove and Wilshaw and I am pretty much unidentifiable on places like fan-fiction and some of my e-books. Yes, this is to protect my professional life but also to protect me. I do not want to endure the merciless self-indulgent, vile criticism of strangers ever again.

shennay a ‘balanced’ student critique!

I have been reminded of this matter this week through the unfortunate story of the Oz Mummy-bloggers bitch-fest. Notorious Mum posted, what from my reading, was quite a fair comment on the ‘queen’ of the mums-sphere, Constance Hall. Now, I am well out of the demographic for either blog but from the side-lines it has been a sad story to watch. Notorious Mum didn’t say anything outrageous; she was quite complimentary about Hall but then made a couple of fair and soft criticisms that unleashed hell for her. I do think it is disingenuous of Hall to write about panic attacks and collapsing and not realize that her posse will respond, will take the high ground and attack on her behalf, which is what they did. Rather like wolves circling in an ever increasing pack they went for Notorious Mum and trolled and spited and vitrioled her beyond belief.

This is the ugly side of the internet, the dangerous side of tribalism; this is like football hooligans going on a rampage after their team loses, smashing and trashing all in sight. This is the anonymity of groups, of the herd; the danger of the pack, that lets terrible things happen. One person wouldn’t do this; one person face to face would not say the things that are said on-line. This is mob-rule and it is incredibly dangerous.

We need to talk about this. On-line bullying happens all the time. It is the dark-side of electronic communications, of all of them. Adults bully adults – on Face-book and Twitter. We all know that the lovely but sensitive Stephen Fry takes himself off Twitter when the bitching gets too much and who can blame him? Children and teens bully all the time – indeed it may be less in the real world but it is greatly increased in the cyber-world. Have you not read the tragic stories of teen suicide from on-line bullying and trolling?

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Why do otherwise sane and normal people think it’s okay to be as vile as possible on-line? Is it because you can’t see people’s faces? Is it because you are hidden in another place behind another name? Is it because electronic messages (texts and emails can fall foul here too) can be so easily mis-read – that humour, or banter, or something nuanced and subtle cannot be judged effectively?

Is the meaning lost because people are too busy reacting and feeling hurt or out-raged to read the text/message/blog correctly? Are we not allowed to make valid criticisms of some people or subjects? If the language of the text is reasonable, if the comments are sound but simply offering a different point of view, are we not allowed to say such things anymore? Are we not allowed to respectfully disagree?

Why is it okay to be as bitchy as possible about Clinton and Trump – how does the plethora of cruel memes and unsubstantiated stories about both of them add to the debate, to electing the right person? How has everything become so personal and vindictive? One only has to think of the Brexit campaign to know that facts and reason were lost in the face of the personal and unsubstantiated bullshit flying from both sides.

Why are people so ready to react with nastiness and venom? Have we all become Edward Hyde, our dark and mutated selves full of blackness and evil allowed full reign by the anonymity of the internet, buy the lack of face-to-face connections?

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Perhaps it’s time to think long and hard before we comment on a post, before we reply in haste to a text that has upset us, before we send off some hastily composed email that might not be read in the spirit it was sent. Perhaps it’s time we took ownership of our words as well as our actions. Perhaps it’s time we realized the power of communication and took responsibility for what we write and how we write it, with a heightened awareness of how those words might be received. And yes, I am with Notorious Mum, grammar and spelling do matter, especially if you have a large on-line presence.

So, comment fairly, dear friends … (images from Private Collection)

Why Do Boys Fail in School?

October 23, 2016

Why Do Boys Fail in School?

Warning: this is long and ranty!

I want you to take note of how I have titled this blog. I could have said, as do much of the media – Why do schools fail boys? – but I want to step back from the constant blame-the-teacher, slag-off-the-school culture that is endemic across the media in both the UK and Oz (and the USA). I am pushed to write this blog in response to an article in last week’s Times Magazine (My Son and Britain’s Boy Crisis, 15-10-2016) where a father of a white British boy waxed damnation against the current education system that according to a raft of statistics is failing boys.

He is correct: the stats are worrying. Girls out perform boys at every level on their way through school: by 8 years 83% of girls achieved level 4+ in reading, writing and maths, as opposed to boys achieving 77% (2015); at GCSE level (15/16 years) girls have out-performed boys for over 25 years, with girls achieving 61.8% 5 A*-C grades compared to boys achieving 52.5% (2015). At university in the UK there are 90,000 more women than men. Add to that there are 65,000 more unemployed male NEETS (not in education, employment and training) than there are females.

The stats are of concern for white British boys across all measures and, in what is no surprise to many of us, a quarter of boys start reception (aged 4) struggling to speak a full sentence or follow instructions. (These stats come from the magazine article but are widely known in this country.)

Education in too many parts of the world is not fit for purpose and the current push in Tasmania to make students start school earlier will not help address some of the issues faced by a range of students. In the UK there is an alarming trend to diagnose boys with ADHD more and more, and for them to be labeled failures before they even finish primary school.

The father in the Times article blames teachers and the education system. He states boldly: ‘The gender education gap has been in existence for at least 30 years and is no secret… It is unacceptable that governments of all colours, the education sector and the trade unions have willfully continued to turn a blind eye to the issue.’ These are the words of an angry father.

Understandably he doesn’t know what happens within the education sector or what teachers have to deal with on a daily basis. He sees education in a limited way, as a parent, albeit a worried parent but one with enough clout to have his opinions and ideas published in a large circulation newspaper.

The issue with failing sections of the community is not a secret in schools. We are constantly being asked to cater to particular cohorts; for many years it has been Black-Caribbean boys in the UK; at home it has been Aboriginal students. Now things here have shifted and it is white British boys who are failing most dramatically. In schools we know this, we have them in our sites and are bringing to bear a range of interventions designed to stem the tide of failure.

But, in all honesty, by the time they get to secondary school the rot has well and truly set in. Some students can always be inspired and turned around but to think that schools can do this alone, or single teachers are somehow responsible, is somewhat delusional.

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Let’s unpack some of the issues facing boys (and many of our girls too).

1.School structures – the way education is delivered has not really changed over time: one teacher delivering information, setting tasks, assessing tasks, to the many. Students are expected to co-operate, do their best, ask for help and actively engage in the work. It’s a nice idea but in practice it isn’t the reality. Once upon a time students were governed by fear and corporal punishment; the teacher free to dispense whatever justice they deemed necessary to control the class and get the learning done. Yes, class sizes were much bigger. But teachers had more control and there were consequences for failure – you did not progress willy-nilly through the grades just because you were a year older. No, you could be 14 and sitting in a class with 8 year olds – a bit of an incentive to pass.

These days there are very few consequences for students who neither learn nor behave. While I do not endorse corporal punishment, the powerlessness that teachers have to contend with does make controlling the unwilling and unable a challenge on a daily – sometimes hourly – basis. The amount of paperwork a school has to amass before a student can be excluded is obscenely excessive. A lot of pain has to be endured by many before a student is removed from education. Students do not need to pass anything on their way through school and in fact in the UK we call anything above a C a ‘good pass’. You can get as low as a G and that’s somehow okay too – it’s a result!

2.School starting age. Students start school very young here and, as noted, there is a push for that at home too. I wonder at this indecent haste to push young people into what could be described as a factory system of education… what are we hoping to achieve? The most successful systems in the world – yes, the Scandinavians – start school later and there is overwhelming evidence that starting school before 7 is more likely to be counter-productive. (see article: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/discussion/school-starting-age-the-evidence) Yet, those who have no understanding of how learning occurs, through play, through a wide range of activities; who don’t understand how development works, (hello Piaget) believe children should be forced into more formal learning situations sooner.

So, why do governments push for early school ages? Because so many children, mainly boys, are already educationally behind, because they believe in the holy grail of formal factory style education?? Because you can blame schools for failure but it’s harder to blame parents?

But the truth is that many kids aren’t ready for the sit still, be quiet and comply regime of primary school. Young children need to be playing, learning consequences, discovering boundaries and books in a more relaxed, informal setting. But the family unit is under pressure, families need two incomes, or more often there isn’t a father: we need to face that problem too.

But, back to early starting – which gender suffers most from being forced to sit still, from not playing rough or outside enough? Oh, yes, it is boys. And so they find it harder to conform, to behave. They are being asked to do a range of things before they are ready and are being failed as a consequence. And then labeled. Failure. ADHD. There is a huge range of research that shows that boys tend to develop later than girls across a variety of skills. This doesn’t mean they are failing, or stupid or have some condition. It simply means they aren’t there yet. But most of them will get there: they will make it, if they are given a fair chance.

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3.The testing regime. I’ve never worked anywhere that loves a test as much as the British Education system does. Let’s test them right from the start, which means, let’s fail them right from the start. The range of tests in Primary school takes little account of the variations in student readiness, in the fact that students – regardless of gender or ethnicity – learn at different rates and just because you can’t do something at 4, doesn’t mean you won’t have caught up by the time you’re 7 or 11.

How would you feel if you were being told you were a failure every few years in school? Wouldn’t you turn off, give up, accept the label? This is what the British system is doing to children, and yes, especially boys. Do you think teachers don’t know this? Do you think they are happy about this?

No, teachers are NOT happy about this, they do not support the plethora of changes that are constantly sweeping through education, that do nothing to help students learn and achieve, that demoralize staff and fail students. But teachers are not listened to. The father from the Times article needs to realize that: teachers do not have a voice when it comes to educational policy. We are silenced. Union bashing is used to silence us. Demonizing us is used to silence us.

4.Recent changes – the Gove changes – do not help under-achieving non-academic students. The focus on academic subjects, on facts, on exams, does nothing for modern students. Gove’s changes fly in the face of a modern world. He has denied the Arts, ignored vocational courses; made the curriculum narrow and mean (rather like him, some might say). He, along with many others, has ignored the needs of the students, those who have to cope in a modern world.

We are told to cater to student differences, to differentiate in our planning, while all the time working towards the same final assessment – exams. Never mind if you can’t cope in exams, never mind if you can’t remember quotes or facts, never mind if you are more creative, you still get to sit the same exam. And we all, from primary school through to A level, have to teach to the exam. How wonderful is that?

Yet we teachers have to implement these changes, despite knowing they are not educationally sound. I teach dead-white British male writers (mostly, with a few token exceptions) to classrooms stuffed with students of all colours, cultures and ethnic persuasions. How do these students connect with such out-dated writing, with experiences that they struggle to make sense of? How do they read out-dated language structures when they don’t read anything modern, other than text-speak on their phones?

How can you encourage a love of reading when a xenophobic Oxford educated white man has taken English back to the 1950s and willfully ignored the modern literary world?

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Yes, it is my job to make the connections, to point out the relevance of Shakespeare today, to show that Jekyll and Hyde still resonates today despite the torturous language and the complete lack of female characters. But my job would be so much easier if there was something a bit more modern that Lord of the Flies, or An Inspector Calls. Yes, the classics matter, but some of them should be from other countries too…

5.The importance of reading. Boys need to read. But a lot of boys can’t. They can’t recognize words or pronounce them. They can’t sit still long enough to read a page, let alone finish a full novel. Is reading really seen as a girly pursuit, as something unmanly? Sadly you would think so in schools. The resistance to reading is palpable – yes, all genders, but especially boys.

Men need to read, to be seen reading, fathers need to read to their sons; head teachers need to support their English departments when they want students to read silently in lessons and not tell the Head of English that ‘silent reading doesn’t show adequate progress, so it must stop’. Yes, I am quoting an actual head-teacher – a man, who told me silent reading was a waste of time, never mind the educationally sound evidence and research.

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6.Fathers need to step up. Whether they are part of the family unit, or weekend dads, they need to take responsibility for their sons’ educations. This means things like reading, like accepting the rules, playing fair, owning their own behaviour; respect for women, especially given that schools – especially primary schools – are full of women. Fathers need to work with schools as mothers do. Fathers need to set good examples for their sons. (Yes, I know, many fathers do and I have known many wonderful fathers, so don’t get offended out there.)

7.Not enough male teachers. Without doubt there is an issue with the gender balance in most schools. Primary schools are traditionally the province of women but secondary schools tend to be female heavy too. In both cases the men tend to hold the senior positions and are not as present in the classroom. This is an issue. Boys do need to see more men in schools. It was similar in northern Australia where Aboriginal people needed to see themselves as teachers, to see themselves in such important positions to help get the message that education was for them too, and significant programs were set up to enable this to happen.

Ask yourself why teaching remains such a female dominated profession. Why do so few men choose not to become teachers, especially primary teachers?

There are some very simple answers here. There has been too much down grading of the profession by politicians (and others) over the years. Teachers are persistently blamed for the ills of society. In English schools teacher are held responsible for the progress of all their students. The students are somehow not responsible for their own progress: no, it is the teacher. How can that be? It doesn’t matter what you have done, you could always have done something else.

The man in The Times article subscribes to this view. The teacher is the problem, the reason he fears for his son’s future. Yes, there are crap teachers, of course there are. But there aren’t as many as you would think. There are also crap students who do not respond to anything, who do not care about their own education or others and who, sadly, are supported by their parents in their destructive ways.

The problem is that young teachers are not staying in the profession and older, experienced teachers are fed up, or being forced out because they are too expensive, regardless of gender. The much lauded Teach-First program has a 50%+ drop out rate after the obligatory 2 years are completed.

The big problem in recruiting male teachers is that the profession has been so demonized, so devalued and relatively under-paid that no male in his right sense would become a teacher, or if he did, remain in the classroom with the students any longer than need be. In primary schools it has been worse, with scare mongering about pedophiles and foolishness about men being too near young children, as if all men are sexual predators.

Men don’t choose teaching because it is not a prestigious or valued profession. If you want more men in teaching then you have to pay more. Female professions are traditionally paid less, and valued less in society; thus it is with teaching. If you want to recruit men and keep them you have to value education in society and stop trying to pull it apart.

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Think on this, those who blame teachers – our Times father who claims to ‘know what bad teachers look like’ – for the ills in education, for failing to meet the needs of students, especially boys. Most head-teachers are men, most PMs and Education Secretaries have been white British men; Ofsted chief inspectors certainly are white British men and yet, as the man in the Times says, the state of education for British boys is a state of national disgrace.

Who should really shoulder the blame for British boys’ chronic under-achievement? This fed up female teacher is happy to point the finger… (Images from Private Collection)

The New 3R’s of Education

October 16, 2016

The New 3R’s of Education.

As the world shifts and changes and becomes both more amazing and more disturbing we need a new focus in schools, a big focus on becoming decent people; citizens of an ever-changing world, able to survive, manage and even thrive in whatever is to come. So today’s schools must focus more explicitly on Respect, Responsibility and Resilience. Once upon a time this used to be the covert curriculum, and much of this rested in the hands of parents. But now it needs to be front and centre in schools too.

 

Respect covers a range of sins and must be paramount as we become a more uncertain world with borders shifting and changing, identity and gender being more fluid and more open, with religious and cultural differences more defined as we become a global community. It is as simple as respect for yourself and for others. But it is so much harder in practice.

There was a time where we embraced the ‘live and let live’ ethos of a more tolerant and accepting view of each other. But now we seem to feel free to abuse, vilify and attack on the slenderest of reasons. Indeed Social Media and the constant streaming of ‘news’ has to take some share of the blame for the rise in hate in society, but it can’t be that simple, can it?

Why do we feel free to berate and abuse others? Where did that ‘freedom’ come from?

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Schools must be vigilant about respect, and in truth, many are trying to address the constancy of social issues that ever creep into our crowded curriculums. Respect is about tolerance, patience, consideration and kindness. It is being aware that others have different beliefs, customs, ways of living, attitudes and ideas. This is important as we don’t really want an homogenous society where we all think the same and parrot platitudes and dangerous ideas that are never challenged. Oh, yes, too much agreement and similarity is a very dangerous thing.

Thus instilling respect as a central tenant of how to live a decent life is crucial. 1.Respect for yourself, so you keep your body safe, so you can express your ideas freely but thoughtfully without hate and vitriol.

2.Respect for others, so they can get on with their own ways of life, be it of a different colour, different religion, different sexuality, different beliefs and ways of doing things.

3.Respect means understanding that there is no right way to do things, that there are many voices, many ideas, many people and we all have the right to exist peacefully in this world.

 

Responsibility is perhaps the thing in schools and society that does my head in most. For fuck’s sake, get a pen, learn how to cook, stop buying sugar-laden shit and expecting to be healthy, vote in elections, accept when you make a mistake and stop blaming everything and everyone else for your shitty life.

Being responsible for yourself, for your life can start early. Simple things like making your bed, putting your clothes in the wash, doing your homework, packing your school bag for the day ahead. Parents do need to build in these little pathways to responsibility early and naturally. It doesn’t mean you make them self-sufficient by 11 but by the time they get to secondary school most kiddies should be able to do a great many things for themselves.

Responsibility means being responsible for what you say and how you behave – under pressure and under normal circumstances – organizing your own life; owning it and making things happen.

Not being responsible is to expect all sorts of other people to make things happen for you and blaming them when things don’t fall the right way for you. So teaching responsibility early is vital for a human being who is self sustaining, accepts that sometimes things are their fault and doesn’t spend their life blaming, in no particular order – their parents, their teachers, the government, politicians, God, ISIS, Pauline Hanson, Trump, Clinton, etc, etc – for all that is wrong with their lives.

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Loving parents and good schools (even when the system is against them – whose GCSE results are they??? Just ask a failing school…) ensure that young people take responsibility for what is theirs and do the right thing in owning both the good and the bad that they say and do. Responsible youngsters become responsible citizens who take on more than just managing their own lives, who take responsibility for making the world a better place.

 

Resilience became a fashionable term a few years ago and there were various programs designed to help make students better able to cope with their worlds when things went wrong. For my mind responsibility and resilience go hand in hand. A responsible person can accept their own short comings and face up to them and do something about them. They are able to work through the tough times and stay afloat.

A person who blames others, a child who is so cosseted by their parents (and yes, schools too) that they cannot cope with slights, or failures is going to have a very tough life. All this helicopter-parenting, this Tiger-mothering of the young does them no good in the harsh light of the real world.

Resilience is perhaps more important than ever in this world of cyber-bullying, trolling and stalking. Young people are more vulnerable than ever to the slings and arrows of others, piercing their young feather-light hides with barbs and poison that stings to the core. Teenagers are horrendously sensitive creatures, their self esteem balancing on a pin head. Of course they are vulnerable and in the glow of their screens, in the dark of their rooms they are more vulnerable than ever. Recent studies deplore the levels of self-harm and unhappiness that young people feel, not to mention the constant stress of exams and that old faithful, peer pressure.

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If there was more respect for others, more tolerance of difference, of the outsider; if we took responsibility for our words and actions from the youngest age, there would be little need for resilience training for the young. But we must be aware that not all of us have the capacity to deal with the tough times, that not all of us have people who care enough to hold our hands and keep us steady through failure, rejection, self doubt, illness, bullying and harassment.

Resilience doesn’t make you callous, it doesn’t stop you feeling, it allows you to deal with the darker side of life and we need to prepare students in dealing with those things, the things that de-stabilise young people – lack of friends; ill, dead or absent parents, abusive families, drugs, bullying, failing to get the grades we expect, or into the uni course we so desperately want.

 

As a parent and a teacher I can bring these three elements to my teaching, to my dealings with young people. Honesty, integrity and authentic relationships with young people matter enormously. They need people they can trust – parents, teachers, coaches, other adults; people who will listen to them, be there for them, tell them the truth, and offer support in a practical and useful way.

Surely at the end of every day what we want is a better world, full of people who care about each other and themselves and are bringing good to the planet. God knows it needs it! (Images from Private Collection)