The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Walking across the playground to use the computers in the tech workshops, Will offers me a reason his tie is turned backwards today (apparently he was stressed, and in mourning).
Children of fourteen, particularly tactiturn children with borderline Asperger's, don't generally offer up conversational satellites such as this without reason, so I decided to challenge Will's normal disinclination to expand upon cryptic proclamations, and uncover the reason for the sort of stress that would prompt a boy to turn his tie the other way around, then chat about it.

Will patiently explains to me that his rock band are in trouble, to the tune of ten thousand pounds. I swallow the snort of disbelief and keep prodding for explanation.
It turns out that a year ago, Will and his friends needed money for equipment to set up a decent band. Rather than spend every weekend doing jobs till they could afford a guitar between them they took a more modern, practical route towards their futures.
They set out a business plan for world rock domination, took it to a local bank, who lent them a secured loan of five thousand pounds (around three thousand dollars?) in order to publicise the ban'ds gigs and buy equipment.
At a particularly good gig last week - possibly their best gig ever - in fact possibly their final gig ever, the euphoria of a good performance added to the pressure from the crowd, and the band decided the only appropriate ending to the set would be to smash all their instruments onstage in a squealing cacophonous finale, then crowd surf their way to the exit and leave.
(You see why I thought it important to mention the borderline Asperger's)
Therefore, Will and his band now have to pay back their five thousand pound business loan, and to secure for themselves another five thousand loan for replacement equipment if they are to make the money with which to repay the first loan.

I had to admit that if I had had such burdens at age thirteen or fourteen, I too may have turned my tie, in mourning.

Monday, June 28, 2004

A day off sick, two days of training ("insect days" the children call them), and a long weekend make for a slow blog.
Back soon.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

I just found out the startling news that (if you work at a Greater London school, if you book in advance, and you can persuade them your destination is somewhere cultural, but not sports or leisure related, if you travel between 9.30 and 4pm, if you have one teacher per 20 students) you can order free bus/train/tube/DLR tickets online to get you where you want to go to from Transport For London.
Usually, we end up fiddling the child rates on the tube, and I can't be bothered to wait the five weeks it takes to claim it back from the borough so just pay myself.
Yippee - I'd best get me writing some of the seven page risk assessment plans required to set a single foot outside the building. 'The Trench Experience' here we come.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

At some point during the Day From Inner City State School Hell, I decided to spread the love, and invited other staff to make use of my planning period to send me their most wayward students. If I'd had an awful day so far, and I'm extremely difficult to annoy, then they may be experiencing similar levels of frustration.
It worked a little better than I thought it would, and after removing Christina from the Geography lesson where she was screaming "d***head" at the head of sixth form, and Stephanie from the corridor outside Science where she was telling the thrice degreed good doctor to "shut up" in menacing tones, I sat and talked to them about the letters of apology I wanted them to write.

Noticing that all the students I'd removed from lessons were habitual non-attenders, I asked them where they go when they're bunking. The answers were as mundane as my own schoolday attempts to truant, with the girl's smoke-filled toilets the favourite answer. (Still, at least it's segregated - at my last school the favourite 13 year old's pastime was to experiment with sex with the most woefully inadequate candidates, at the foot of the school fields.)
Asking Christina if her mother knew about her truancy revealed the most startling information, though. It seems that some days, mum has severe migraines, and she asks Christina, who is thirteen, to stay home and look after the "little ones" for her while she goes back to bed.
I was sure that Christina had told me she was the youngest child in her house. Intrigued, I asked who it was she was looking after. The answer stunned me.

Christina's mother is a registered childminder. A childminder who keeps her own daughter off school to take care of a bunch of two year olds. Some of whom are the offspring of colleagues of mine.
I asked what she did if the children were trouble, as I understand two year olds generally are. "Oh, no, they're never trouble, miss, not if you give them lots of sweets".

I was stuck for any sensible response. Why is Dickens springing to mind?

Monday, June 21, 2004

In the absence of most of my students (exam season), and inspiration (exam season), I've been reading the introductions to some of our set texts. Last Saturday I saw Willy Russell giving readings from his work, and wanted to see if I could read his introduction to 'Educating Rita' in an approximation of his broad liverpudlian accent, when I was struck by an aside of his about how 'silent reading' lessons in his 'poxy state comp' gave him a weekly hour of refuge from the jeers of a peer group who did not do books, and therefore saved him from a future in the local warehouse.

You see, we've outlawed 'silent reading' here. We're to teach a range of reading skills, which seems to involve exclusively reading extracts from photocopied sheets, from projector screens, and from comprehension books (which were a dirty word when I trained to teach, indicating an impoverished, partisan, abridged experience of great truths.) It's thought that 'silent reading' isn't really teaching, that few staff take seriously their responsibility to keep up with children's literature, or to offer tailored recommendations to children.
I miss the days, though, of enjoying books with classes. The accusations about teaching are valid - but school is not in this case about teaching. It's about learning.

Being myself from a 'poxy state comp' with an anti-boffin culture, and also having escaped via adult education and realising almost too late the living death sentence of the unchallenging job, here are some of the books that changed everything for me before I hit eighteen:

Diana Wynne Jones - Drowned Ammet - taught me that the balance of power is not always what it seems, that reality as perceived may not be reality as lived. Important and empowering message for a teenager.

Shakespeare - Macbeth
- where I first found out about pathetic fallacy, and to look for clues about the nature of things in nature. This play showed me there are patterns in everything, if you can be bothered to look hard enough for them.

Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird - taught me it's possible to love something you hate, just for its familiarity. It also taught me tolerance of others is its own reward. Which greatly aided my fast burgeoning teenage solipsism.

Thomas Hardy - late poems - taught me that the shape of things is sometimes the message. I recall basing a theory on the fact that the layout of a poem reminded me of the Titanic's iceberg. And therefore showed me how the study of literature is a great, bona fide way of legitimising silliness.

Kurt Vonnegut - Breakfast of Champions - the first book I'd read with a truly associative narrator. Taught me the distance you can gain by looking at your own culture as if it were a hive of insects, and analysing it as if you're an anthropologist. Gave me distance, at an age where everything seems a little too important.

William Faulkner - As I Lay Dying
- switched me on properly to how American writers were quite literally exploding the novel form in the mid twentieth century, and revealed to me ways in which literature can suggest the heart of the human experience - (here revealed in Addie's sublimation of a life lived for others through a grim and steely selfishness in death.)

I couldn't honestly describe to you a single lesson I sat in prior to age thirteen and three quarters. Yet these books remain with me.
Obviously, regarding all educational experiences as parallel to one's own is a blind alley that prevents us from seeing alternatives. And I can't speak for the lesson plans of the teachers who allowed me the space to develop this love of words, but I can tell you that, in those lessons, through those books, reading those words, I learnt.

Friday, June 18, 2004

My sixth formers have finished this year's course and their AS exams, so we're starting the A2 course now, and running it as a sort of enrichment curriculum for the texts we'll study next year. It's lovely, utterly lovely, in these times of league tables, performance pay, inspection cycles and endless bloody raising achievement plans and performance reviews, to be teaching a text because it's beautiful, and because it says something noble and uplifting about the human spirit, instead of for an exam.

Discussing resistant readings of Sebastian Faullks' representations of France in 'Birdsong', several really good nuggets of ideas came out, and students began to really exercise their minds by building upon each other's theories. Kevin criticised Stephen Wraysford's character for juxtaposing anatomical beauty into scenes of horror and carnage. One of those lovely paradigm shifts when one student stands back and applies another whole layer to the text occurred, when Sarah put it to him that it was exactly what we were doing as readers: holidaying in the misery of the Battle of the Somme, and calling it art.

In my craven, administrator's heart, I knew we should be writing notes, cribbing symbols, robbing details from each other's words to steal and squirrel away into a revision file. As if it were escaping the crab clutches of expediency, the whisper came from inside my head: 'but it's not a core text, there is no exam.'
We put our notepads away, and continued talking, discovering, learning.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Major crisis today - major, major crisis.

There were no biscuits in the English Department barrel.

It was the prologue to a catalogue of disasters:
Someone had stolen the wall stapler.
The milk had gone off and there was only powdered granules left.
35 copies of The Canterbury Tales had gone missing.
The cups were dirty and no-one had cleaned up from the day before.
People were convinced there was a cartel hogging the lovely new orange textbooks.
All the teatowels were damp and smelly.

I'm sure all those events have some sort of symbiotic dependancy.

Talking to sugar-deprived colleagues at the start and end of lessons, you begin to notice how many staff simply need you to acknowledge that they've had a really really hard day.

Perhaps what we all need, here at the jagged chalkface, is a teacher of our own. Someone to say 'well done', 'never mind', and to give us a tacky back star once in a while.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

My Best Teacher 2 John

John was just that to us sixth formers: John. Never Mr H, never Sir, never a master. Just John. We were giddy with power.

He took great care to catch us doing something right, and to quietly let us know about it. My first, terrified essay gained a D, but the introductory paragraph was the best he'd seen - did I mind if the upper year studied it?

Flattery worked for John. It generally does with seventeen year olds. In the face of a tantrum on my part, or an agitated tirade about the state of the world, or Marxism, or how the other fools in the class just didn't understand seventeenth century religious cults in the same way I did, or any of those other things that couldn't possibly wait, becalmed, or hold a civil tongue about, he would preface his words carefully, inclining his head rather donnishly for such a liberal: "of course, you are more intelligent than I will ever be ... " [pause to allow seventeen year old head to swell to gigantic proportions] "... but have you considered this interpretation?"
It worked (and continues to work) infallibly.

Then he moved in for the kill, metaphorically speaking, by appearing to give us power. John wrote his own life into the lessons. He managed to appear to be following every trial and conceptual tribulation in each text with a similar dilemma in his own life. Could we assist him? Could we help him along this journey to find the truth?
Never explicitly saying that his marriage was in trouble (and as an adult, I doubt now that it was more than a matrix to draw us out of our self regard and into an adult world) nevertheless every lesson began to feel like a marriage guidance session. Generously admitting that our own seventeen years of experience was limited, we desperately searched for the meaning of life in the texts we were set, so we could bring it to him, help him out. To teach him.

Teachers of sixteen to eighteen year olds tend to assume restricted roles - the expert, the encourager, the dispenser of knowledge, the worldly adviser, the fellow explorer on the quest. John adopted the style of the patient questioner, and I've never been able to even hope to match his skill in doing so.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Weird that when I'm in the staffroom marking, the teachers who interrupt with a million and one little, niggling, problems for me to solve abruptly drops to one, prefaced by an apology.
If I have a heavy markload, I feel entirely justified in explaining I have a deadline to meet - can it wait?

Yet, if I'm reading - you know, reading, the meat and two veg, the nuts and bolts, the heart of the darkness, the raison d'etre of being an English teacher, the glistening centre - if I'm reading, I feel somehow I couldn't possibly shoo them away with a "sorry - I'm busy. I'm reading."

Monday, June 14, 2004

I spent two hours collating web images of fourteenth century pilgrims for a class of fourteen year olds to use in their word processed team presentations about Chaucer. All assiduous preparation was as nothing, however, the next day.
We finished reading the Wife of Bath's Tale somewhat early, [read by Jack (as both Amanda and the Old Witch), Jon (as the chauvinistic Arthurian knight, Sir Codsbrain), and Kieran (as the much married feisty narrator.)] I hadn't yet decided what our 'modernising activity' for this tale could be.
Breaking into a delicate, fourteenth century style sweat, I searched in vain for an animated video of the tale - one that I'd previously decided a little too risque. Chaucer's apologia for the coarseness of the Miller had convinced me, however, that we needed to see the brutality of the circumstances that surround the Tales, if we're ever to achieve our objective of deciding each narrator's hidden intentions. Fate intervened. The video, along with several other items, had been stolen, and there was nothing for it, but to think on my feet.

Disastrous move.

I asked them to analyse whether our society had grown more sexist or less sexist than the Wife of Bath's era, by devising and reporting on a survey that aimed to find out what women and men truly desire.
Disaster. Disaster. I could tell even as I spoke the words aloud.

Reporting back their anticipated answers, my heart sank. I had to interject. I tried to rein in the sarcasm, but some still showed.
"Natasha, I really don't think that when Margaret Thatcher performed economic miracles she was motivated by her eternal love of flowers, do you?"
"No, Hayley, when Benazir Bhutto led her nation to become the last nuclear power in the developing world, I hesitate about whether that was prompted by her love of chocolate."
"Okay, Jack, I can see you're responding to the story's theme, but somehow I'm not sure that Jeanne d'Arc led whole armies into battle so that she could find a faithful man."

Moving onto the issue of what do men truly desire, I was no less appalled.
"No Hugo, women who pay for the jiggy jiggy is not an appropriate answer. I suggest you rethink your words before I become annoyed with you."
"You really think a man's life is motivated by the pursuit of beer, Ricky? Is that not a teeny weeny bit superficial?"
"Okay, Will, I'll accept that men may search through the years for generosity, but I do suspect you of trying to give random non-chauvinistic answers simply because Miss is becoming exasperated."

The children's conclusion? That today we enjoy equality in our low expectations of either gender. They ended the lesson chattering good humouredly about the 'good old days of the Wife of Bath', when we were only chauvinistic, stereotyped and narrow minded about one gender.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Have you ever sat somewhere very quiet and still and listened? We used to have a poetry exercise with eleven year olds, who still needed to be trained out of crucifying every poem in the futile effort to discipline it with rhyme, where we sat, quiet as dust, and listened for residual sounds.
Today I tried it at a warmy, balmy break time, and during the morning migration back into class, a different story altogether. The sounds of the children charging as one herd to see if a rumoured fight were really going to break out reminded me of wildebeest. Some of the steps and screams sounded predatory, but most were reactive, energised by the herd.
The continual 'knock down ginger' taps on the staffroom door, followed by giggles, shrieks, and disappearing feet reminded me of those tiny red monkeys in their glass house at London Zoo.
The sounds of the more recalcitrant stragglers humming their way up the stairs to be late for class reminded me of over excited young pups, on a group dog-sitter's walk in Hyde Park.
It was relaxing, for once, to think of the sounds as so benign.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

My Best Teacher: 1 Phil

Phil was my English teacher from age fourteen to sixteen. He was a bit of a hippy, but a smartened up, yuppie version. He made us read, read a lot. We covered twice the number of texts we were set - read double Shakespeare for fun (although I couldn't understand a word, at the time, and struggle, now, to remember this feeling of a text that's a locked code, a secret that excludes me utterly, to better understand how to guide my own students through it).

What Phil did that placed him far and away the best teacher I ever had, was to talk to me as an individual. At fourteen, it was four years since I'd last spoken to a boy, half the school were bullying me, and I was the strange new girl in the class, in a new school. I was an excruciatingly shy and quiet child at the time, and any attempt by a teacher to spark a conversation was doomed to failure.

But Phil was clever. The first approach was through marking. If I did work that showed good insight (and only if), Phil would leave casual comments in the margin. Not formative assessments - an in formal observation, or a question. If, the next time I handed in my book, I had added a reply, he would notice, and he'd add a further reply. It became a conversation.
Gradually, I became braver, and able to question his authority through the comments in my work (as children always always do). He responded generously. "You're right. That was a harsh grade. Sorry."

I had never, ever seen an adult admit they were wrong before. I had never seen an adult accede that I could be more right than they.
For a teenager, it was a stunningly generous thing to read.

From that point on, I became one of the kids who hung around after class, waiting to ask questions, to chat, to ask what Phil thought about all sorts of issues.
"Which is the hardest Shakespeare play in the whole world?" is a particularly embarrassing example. (Phil's answer, after his characteristic mock pause to consider, then delivered cool as ice: King Lear)
It was the beginning of a trust in Literature that took over my life, and led me right here, now, today.

As a teacher, Phil had the confidence to give over a little of his power to the powerless.

The effect was so electric that I can still recall many of his comments, even visualise them on the page, today.
Another point I remember well is him stopping by my desk to ask about an author I'd reviewed. He'd never read anything by Diana Wynne Jones, could I give him a list of recommendations? (Shamefully, as I write this, I realise that my response today would be to ask the student why they were reading material that is not challenging enough, and to give them a list of three 'harder' books to try.) This, too, became a dialogue - I returned to the school years later to ask Phil's opinion on a paper I'd written about Vonnegut, knowing that he had met him.
Once, he replied "You like Cormier? You fell for all that exaggerated violence and crap? I'm disappointed in you, Lectrice" - and I still remember the sinking feeling.

What remembering Phil can teach me: to treat kids as if they are already adults whose opinions are interesting. We forget, as adults ourselves, how little power we need to transfer, how symbolic that power is, to gain an extraordinary response.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

We're auditing the Code of Behaviour at my school. The usual problems are occurring - sanctions are not being consistently applied, management are failing to support staff in the manner in which they need to be supported, staff lose faith, and stop filling in paperwork, leaving management's hands tied. In an inner city school, it doesn't take long for students to cotton onto this state of affairs, and things escalate quickly.
Example: yesterday, Craig, aged eleven, threw a blackboard rubber at a teacher, hard, then screamed "I hate you! I am going to get you! I am going to fucking --" (he slammed the door on the next thrilling instalment of what would be done).
After he wandered the corridors a while, he was picked up by an assistant headteacher. She checked the facts of the case with the classroom teacher, then took him away to cool down. Ten minutes later, he was sent back to the classroom, to apologise.
Most classroom teachers find this sort of ineffectual assumption that violent attacks and threats - whether from an eleven year old, or from a six foot sixteen year old - can be solved with a verbal apology deeply insulting. In extreme cases, you begin to fear for your personal security, and your job motivation suffers considerably if you begin to perceive that management don't care if you live or die.
Craig desperately needs behavioural help. But without the paperwork, it's hard getting it. If this is the seventeenth time in a row that Craig's outbursts have been trivialised and dismissed, the paperwork will be pushed aside for the teacher to spend a few moments shaking and crying instead. Teachers are human, and assaults at work are serious, however stressed by paperwork the management seem to be.
Therefore, no paperwork means no exclusion, no referral to educational psychologist, no assessment of behavioural need.
I wish I were exaggerating.

So, the preliminary documents for a consensus-structured Code of Behaviour are floated in the staffroom. All very positive and precise and helpful.
Except for one line.

"Our school does not believe in a tariff of sanctions."

I beg to differ. All classroom teachers believe in a tariff of sanctions. The country's legal system operates upon a tariff of sanctions. Our school currently - where a student cheeking a manager results in exclusion, but a student actually assaulting a mainscale classroom teacher is ignored - is, effectively a tariff of sanction, one that is merely determined by the social standing of the victim.

The meeting to discuss this will be interesting.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Thirty three degrees in London, and the uniform issue is becoming, well, an issue.
Daily, hourly, by the minute, we struggle with each other to get ties on, to take ties off, to ban all water fights, to cool ourselves off, to ease the load, and, somehow, to add to it. There's no sense in the uniform regulations on a day like this, but experienced teachers know instinctively that the uniform battle is less stressful than those other, more dangerous battles which wait behind.
A class enters the room, the lines are drawn - shirts buttoned, shoes changed, ties on! Barking peremptorily makes your inner self cringe at how petty you've become, but hard experience tells you to get it over with quickly. You are the voice of authority in this room - if you abnegate that authority, you need more energy than the stifling heat can give you deal with what the loss incurs.
"Why do we have such a stupid uniform?" moans Christina.
It's less stupid than other schools' uniform. You don't have to wear dingy turd coloured sweaters. (As if that helps.)
"Miss can we not change the uniform rules?" whines Hayley, flopping into her seat in the full streaming sunlight.
It's not an issue I have control over. It would be a good idea to put it to your student rep, though. (Who will never do anything about it.)
Across the hall, Kyle barges late into Pat's classroom - "Miss can we not change the uniform rules?" he announces loudly enough for us to hear.
"Black blazers aren't very realistic, though, are they, Miss? Not in this weather," points out Matthew. I have to concur.
Hayley scrutinises me. Loose shirt, wide linen trousers, scuffed boots, glasses.
"You can wear anything you like. Anything!"
Sigh. Yes, but I put in eleven years of uniform too. (More than you buggers have.)
"And what do you decide? You wear black. All black."
I look down.
"You're mad you are. Black." Hayley slumps to her desk, shaking her head in disbelief.
I feel the sweat dribbling down the small of my back. I could go for the angry response, tell her not to speak to staff in a disrespectful manner. But hell.
I think she has a point.

Today I'm wearing white jeans, marker pen smears on the pockets, and a sky blue cotton shirt, with gravy drips.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Further to previous posts about Gifted and Talented children, this article is interesting - it describes how the English system of identification of G&T kids now depends on three factors: subject skill, commitment, and finally creativity.
The crux of the argument seems to lie in how do we define creativity?

Creativity is often equated with the production of something - be it an artefact, system or concept. The discovery of a scientific or mechanical principle is as creative as its application and 'creation of the level that changes the theory of a subject is relatively rare' (Mac Donald, 1971). It is also highly unlikely in a primary school. Artistic endeavour may also produce a new idea or personal style, which is the hall mark of a particular individual. This can be apparent if the child is given the opportunity to display it. The proposition that without intelligence it is not possible to fully realise creative ability (George, 1971) has led to pupils of average intelligence but who had verbal fluency being considered highly creative. Those pupils who only have access to a restricted linguistic code, through culture or class, are disadvantaged. The confusion of 'culture' with art galleries and concert halls or the equation of creativity with 'art' adds to the confusion.

Creative thinking is concerned with personal decision making and should not be restricted to art (Green, 1917). It is also intimately connected with critical filtering; it is a misconception to assume that creativity does not employ analytical thinking skills (McAlpine, 1988). Any ability can be classified not only in terms of the process of thought presumably invovled, but also according to the material that is being thought through about the nature of the material that emerges. Creativity could be interpreted as a process on a continuum in addition to its more usual 'artistic' sense (Guilford, 1971). In everyday life and for the majority of problems there are no unique solutions so divergent thinking is usually called for. The importance of memory is emphasised as a good memory increases the ability to utilise insight (Shaughnessy, 1990).

Divergent thinking, as epitomised by a battery of tests of 'divergent' thinking, has been investigated within a group of students already selected as highly intelligent (Getzels, 1962). They were teh children of academics and therefore from an advantageous background. Although the study was much criticised on procedural grounds, it became clear that high intelligence was not synonymous with high creativity. Similarly, the use of divergent tests did not really measure creativity, but divergent thinking.

Creativity is also concerned with the formation of value judgements and concepts. The child creates his own constructs through internalisation of the tensions generated by interaction between himself and his environment (Wolverson, 1971). The factors that condition the individual's response to his environment are intensified by habit and by the tangible achievements. The inhibition of curiosity can occur more quickly in a gifted child. They are liable to realise that the dominant adult does not welcome their questioning. If socialisation does not reward curiosity then it will degenerate.

The socialisation by parents can also restrict the development of creativity. Initially, the child perceives a new stimulus and can respond with curiosity, the intelligent child adapting their response to the outcome of their investigation. A negative reaction to the child's curiosity is liable to dampen the creativity of the gifted child.


The creative impulse is difficult to extinguish. It is more likely to result in anti-social behaviour (Lewis, 1991). The destructive behaviour of the highly creative child who shows behaviour problems in the early years of school can be transformed by creative activities that motivate (Torrance, 1962). The expression of creativity brings its own tensions. The sense of disharmony and incompleteness aroused by the creative process can be very stressful."

'Refining the Focus on Talent: Talented Children on the Able Child Register', Judith Lazell, NACE paper, Autumn 2002. [My emphases]

Let me reiterate that key sentence: If socialisation does not reward curiosity then it will degenerate.

Now you must excuse me, it's the first day back of the final term, and my sense of disharmony and incompleteness is raging.