The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Monday, July 19, 2004

I don't usually post during term breaks, so this place will be somewhat deserted for the ensuing six weeks of summer holiday.
In the meantime, I shall try to get used to spotting students in the crowd at various London sightseeing spots. It's beginning to have something of an air of Where's Wally to it.
Till September.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Fascinating insight into the bullying culture in a lightly fictionalised memoir from children's author William Horwood, in yesterday's Times.
OUR school was one-third boarders, two-thirds day boys. But we day boys were made subjugate to the boarders. At the end of every day, while we travelled back to our homes all over east Kent, the boarders trained in the tribal skills of mutual survival and the moral imperative of internecine warfare.

The evil genius of this culture of intimidation was Captain Flax. Under him an anti-sneaking ethos flourished into something dangerously institutionalised.

Not knowing about the sneaking code, a fresh-faced day boy in Lower One called David Ramsey reported a boarder who had taken and broken one of his model cars. The boarder's older brother got Ramsey the next day. Ramsey became the victim of our generation. He grew pale, with rings under his eyes, and went through school with his head down, picked on by boys and masters alike.

By being our victim he taught us all how to bully. Sometimes we just hit him for no reason. Never once did he sneak or tell again.

Captain Flax took part in his victimisation. "Outside," he said to Ramsey, "where I can see you."

It was January and the sycamores were covered in hoarfrost. Ramsey stood in the playground shuffling his feet at first, blowing at his hands, glancing into the window for some sign that he could come back in. He declined slowly into a hopeless huddled shape, his face blue-white with cold. The sight of him made me feel a shame so palpable that I wanted to be sick. When break came, I led him back into school. He was so cold he could hardly move. For a time I regretted what I had done because it turned me into one of his few safe havens. I didn't encourage him or talk to him much, but he persisted in staying near. Despite myself, I became his friend.


Compare and contrast to the shock at the apparently very modern news that one fourteen year old boy loathes another enough to draw a knife on him.

The two-week trial heard that Luke was stabbed once through the heart as he chatted about football after a lesson.
The teenager disliked Luke and delivered a forceful and deliberate blow to his chest after arming himself with the flick knife on November 4. Luke's parents were tearful as the verdict was delivered. The teenager stood expressionless in the dock.
Speaking after the verdict was delivered, Gary Loveridge, the head teacher, said: "Since that terrible day in November we have all struggled to understand how this could have happened in our small rural school where violence is an absolute rarity."
Remind me again where this culture of violence is a new thing?

Thursday, July 15, 2004

I'm not trained to teach Media, but have always fancied having a bash at it. Careful what you wish for. Suddenly I have an entire GCSE curriculum to plan, with only the most random of badly photocopied resources tangentially relevant to particularly unhelpful colleagues' pet project. Thanks a bunch.
But it's exciting, in a mild manner, to be learning something new. I'm going to post this as an aide memoire to myself on the few days I haul myself from the large piles of novels I have waiting. But also in case anyone reading is in a similar position: here, largely thanks to the ever helpful Boyhowdy, are several Media links that have been fascinating to explore. Even to a lay consumer like me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

What prompted this post was marking examinations - left to the last minute, in a combination with trying to mark effectively but properly = terrible enormous amount of time.

Most teachers I know tick and flick, and I'm as guilty as anybody. Generally, I try to ascertain what the point of my marking is, before I start - is the point the test itself? Is it to give feedback? To grade? To acknowledge work done? To set targets? You can't hit all of them, and if you're specific about your motives, it streamlines the work you have to do.

So, marking nine hour's of fourteen year olds' examination scripts, I'm breaking my own spirit trying to respond in detail, ignoring all my own rules, when I come across the most heartbreakingly confessional pieces. When you're tired, it's hard not to respond emotionally to very personal writing.
There's Kyle's piece about his dog that died. Sweet. He loved the dog because 'it's a shy dog. And I'm shy too.' It's hard to give a bald grade to emotional responses. Time pressures me; I do so anyway, adding an apology at the end of the piece.
There's Joel's piece, apparently influenced by the demonic possession he's undergoing at the time of the exam. Having posted about Joel before, it seems fairly obvious that the piece of writing is a mock confessional wind-up. But it's before the long holidays, I know his father puts him under a lot of pressure, I'm his pastoral tutor - sigh. I have to investigate. It's going to require sensitive handling in a crushed, overloaded time frame, to try to work out if he's a joker, or is experiencing mental health difficulties. I remind myself how I'd feel if I didn't put down the red pen for an hour to find out, and he self harms during the holidays. Deeper sigh. Investigate.

Joel's highly amused at his own cheek. He apologises for being such an idiot in a formal situation. I get back to my examination scripts, seriously behind time now.
Kerri comes in, wanting extra help with her examination coursework. I do what I can, but I'm annoyed to break from the marking, and I'm afraid I don't hide it that well. Still, she works hard (she's lost her entire folder of work, and has a week in which to rewrite a year's worth of essays), and I give her and her chum a lift home after.
During which she asks me if I've read her exam script yet. No. She chats to me about her family. They're moving to Spain soon. Mum can't wait to get out of this 'place'. I sympathise heavily with mum, but a part of me wonders at the phrasing. Parents who confide as equals in their children are A Bad Thing.
When is she moving, I ask? After the big examinations at sixteen, Kerri reassures me. It turns out, though, this was her own decision. Mum had wanted to leave a year ago.
Seems a heavy decision for a child to take, to stand up against her mother and insist on finishing school.
I drop Kerri off, and return to school to my marking. Turn over her script. It's a highly confessional piece about her alcoholic father, about her efforts to keep her family together. About the agony she went through when she realised she had to tell her mum to leave her dad. Again with the too much responsibility for such young shoulders.
It ends with a plea not to talk about what she's just written.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The Unused Stage

Natural light shows the creases and dust on the blackout curtains.

The backdrop seems scuffed and greasy, littered with blu-tack and spitballs. The red velvet wall of fame seems paler, shows its seams. Treading the boards is suddenly unappealing if they're chipped, worn and ridged with years of waxed dirt beneatht he polish. They sit complacently before the ranks of empty chairs.

The daylight reveals the actors to be peacocks. The magician's tricks don't stand up to the less forgiving spotlight.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Somehow the more I try to distance myself from serving as a counsellor
to troubled teens the more problems I encounter, and the more
responsible I feel for their well-being. I know I'm not able to solve
their problems, I also know that my interference is neither needed nor
asked for, but I do find it draining on the old heart strings when
faced with real pain from a child.

It happens too often. I nearly roared at the inequity when a
colleague mentioned that she'd never had a child threaten suicide or
self-harm. I get at least one every two years.

There's a niggling sense of worry that perhaps somehow I invite such
confidences, albeit unwittingly. Watching Clueless again, the lead
character determines how to change the grades on her report card by
feeding each teacher the line that will best work - to the butch PE
mistress: a guy used her cruelly, to the ditzy English teacher: a boy
broke her heart forever... wait a minute - ditzy English teacher?

The fact remains - children's confidences can be emotionally
coruscating. I make attempts not to get too close, too near speaking to
children on their level. I protect myself from them, and in a sense
them from me, just in case these confidences speak partially to my own
needs. (my highest pile of ordure is reserved for those teachers who do
the job simply as a post-adolescent means to get attention.) If a child
is upset, I ask other students to remain present, or for their
assistance in counselling their friend. If they show signs of mental
collapse, I urge a medical appointment.

As far as I can, I try not to be some sort of martyr to whom anyone can
turn. More a clearing house for problems which I won't have to carry
home with me. Does that sound cold?

And still they confide. And still I find it draining to know the details of young
lives made so hard so early.

I guess it's a stressful, strange world.

Friday, July 09, 2004

A local school, for local people, part 2

Of course there are occasions when living locally can be of immediate benefit. Not least popping home at lunchtime, and gaining a little more perspective on the hothoused chaos of life in an institution.

Wandering into the local supermarket to pick up fresh vegetables which will no doubt be thrown away in perference to a ready meal eaten with a spoon while hovering over a set of marking, I come across many a belligerent soul, transformed by the presence of an equally tired and harrassed parent into recaltitrant trolley-slave, their eyes registering a desperate, mute plea not to give their misdeeds away.

The greatest benefit, however, is a feeling of safety in an unsafe environment. Sitting inside a badly broken car, awaiting vehicle recovery, I will be besieged by swarms of helpful twelve year olds, eager to gain extra credit with me by informing me of exactly how to kick start the engine, or hotwire the ignition. Older students will wander over to cluck sympathetically at your problem, no matter how obstructive the behaviour that had ended the day's final, heat-paralysis of a poetry lesson.

In fact my most heart-warming, if odd, local anecdote concerns an occasion when I stupidly left a hire car, engine running, windows open, and handbag strewn temptingly across the front passenger seat, to dash into a local greengrocer's for supplies.
True to expectation, I exited the shop to find four hooded, hunched youths surrounding the vehicle, late teenagers arranged oddly like a pride of young lions in an attack formation, beginning to test out its alarms by rocking it against its bumpers. The graduation evening's pink suit and corsage felt oddly out of place in this familiar inner-city scenario.
I walked as purposefully as I could towards the car.
Some of the boys looked up at my approach, shame and embarrassment flickerd over their features. They banked sharply away towards the pavement. "Sorry Miss".
I'd taught them all since they were eleven years old.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

A local school, for local people, part 1

I used to have a strict rule never to live in the catchment area of the school I worked at. In fact, if I could live the other side of London, preferably with the river Thames dividing us, all the better.

This antipathy towards out of hours dialogue with students was never shared as strongly by my colleagues, although it's true that few teachers would live in the same estates the children hailed from, preferring the more middle class areas a short drive or cycle away.

I can date my abhorrence of the superstore parent-teacher conference right back to my very first teaching practice as a student, in leafy, suburban Surrey. After a late night in class trying to keep up with my record keeping (I wonder, now, why nobody bothered to stop and tell me that updating a personal diary on the progress, grades, and emotional development of every single child on a daily basis was somewhat more than required...), I decided to pop into Carshalton village before catching the train home to south London, perhaps pick up a bottle of wine to share with my partner.

Walking to the village, I enjoyed the peacefulness, the row of elizabethan cottages, the village pond and accompanying swans. An appropriate end to a day of hard work, I thought, as I stepped into Thresher's to choose a bottle of fruity red Sicilian Sangiovese.

Stepping back out, bottle in its green tissue paper, a stage whisper floated across the street. "She's got wine."

I looked about me. The street was not busy. Nobody I knew was there. Nobody even looking at me.

Shrugging, I carried my wine to the bus stop, to speed up the journey back to the station. Embarking, I moved to my customary seat - lower deck, rear row, on the right hand side, and noticed a few of the students from my girls' school also onboard.
Another whisper: "It's her. / It's Miss."
If David Beckham had been more than a grubby preteen at that moment, I'd have felt like him. I realised now that the whispers outside Threshers must have been from students, unrecognised out of uniform. I laughed to myself about Monday's inevitable rumour campaign that was bound to elaborate upon the alcoholism they'd detected in that one bottle of red. And sat as far back as I could.

Two stops and I was ready to alight. I made my way to the exit. Stage whisper - at least three voices, from two different aisles of the bus, getting louder as the bus shuddered to a grinding, squealing halt.
"She's getting off."
Somehow, it was becoming less 'local celeb' and a tad more Midwych Cuckoo.
I jogged to the station, half expecting to find a net over the entrance ready to speed me off to live inside a Wicker Man.
I resolved then and there never to live on the doorstep of where I worked, to keep my self separate from the character I 'play' in the classroom.

And it nearly worked.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Reading here and here about (no doubt well intentioned and sensitive) proposals for how to assess the measure of learning done in a classroom, either via testing, or time and motion studies, doubts always surface in my mind.

I hesitate about most systems of measuring something that is basically a process, a qualitative exchange, because of necessity it is difficult to measure - difficult, but not impossible.
The fact that it's not impossible is its undoing, because those performance indicators which are easiest to quantify tend to assume importance, simply because they are easier to quantify. But they do not represent much part of the lesson, nor even any part that should be a focus. They are not in themselves important - they're simply easy to count.

Yesterday I was handed a piece of paper which was proposed as a checklist in assessing pastoral* staff's performance and the value of their performance on students' progress. Top of the list was reminding students to take hats off inside the building. Second was signing a daily planner. Third? Making sure their shoes were black, not white.
While I agree that these factors play a part in school life, they're not innate to a process of learning or encouraging learning to take place. Yet somehow, they have become target number one in my pastoral assessment.
Why? Because they can be answered with a tick or a cross.

Assessing how I talked a teenage girl out of suicide two weeks ago after a local pederast had attempted to bully her into sex, and had promised to wait for her on the way home - can the quality of that exchange be judged with a tick or a cross?

[* UK teachers act as tutors, or counsellors, to the same 28 students, for the duration of their time at any institution. This is separate from any subject teaching.]

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

An interesting article - a transcript of a middle school lesson can be downloaded here. Thanks to Lordy for asking me my opinion of the piece.

The situations in the transcript are recognisable to me from the school in which I work. The teacher responses are not.

I notice Chloe is sitting at her desk, doing nothing. "What's up?" I ask her.
"I don't have a pencil." This must be the twentieth time this year she has come to my class unprepared to do anything. She knows that I am going to tell her that it is her responsibility to come to class prepared ... this is the seventh grade not kindergarten. Before I can say anything, she says, "I had it! Somebody stole it from me." This is, of course, the fifteenth time that this has happened to her. The must be a fabulous black market for stolen pencils and notebooks. What makes this theft even more amazing is that even though this is a fifth period class, because of a rearranged schedule, this is actually happening the first period of the day. I know no one stole her pencil. I have two behavior problems, first that she is constantly unprepared to work and second the lie. If I provide a pencil, no one will bring any material to class again. Today I choose to work on the lie.
I tried providing pencils ... I went through 144 in three weeks!
"Chloe do you think when you have a job in the real world your boss is going to keep accepting these lame excuses?"
"Somebody stole it!" She's sticking to her story.
"Come on, does anyone think someone stole Chloe's pencil?" I ask the class. Of course one or two agree but most know she's lying. "Well what will your boss say when you keep coming up with these excuses?"
The class knows and yells out, "You're fired!" Chloe begins a high-pitched giggle that goes on for 15 seconds. The laughing also reassures me that she is in fact lying. This sets the class off, everyone starts to talk or laugh. Steven Berdell gets up and walks directly in front of me like I wasn't there.
"Sit down Mr. Berdell!" I yell. He is one foot in front of me and doesn't even flinch. He can't hear me. People in the next room can hear me, but he ignores me. I'm not there. I don't matter. He has a purpose, to talk to someone on the other side of the room. He has to. I'm not there. He has a reason. Who knows; maybe he too needs to borrow a pencil. In his mind he is justified to get up and walk across the class. I take a step and block his path.
"Sit down" I say.

The narrator seems to have forgotten they're children. I teach classes similar in make up to this, but I use different behavioural management skills to prevent any trouble escalating. This man, according to the transcript, patronises them, tries to trap them, and humiliates them publicly.
I can understand how he might feel he's doing his best, but there are other ways of handling confrontational situations than yelling at people to shut up.

I don't doubt that in many situations the narrator can prove himself an excellent teacher. In this situation, however, he is not.
He employs zero active learning techniques, in fact at the end, he describes learning as a punishment for them. The methods we use to get across skills and information are equally as important as what we decide to teach.
What he wants them to do in essence is to shut up and sit still for an hour while he treats them like criminals (the tape recorder), then humiliates them if they fail. The worksheets weren't even new, they'd done them once already. Plus, instead of teaching them, he was trying to skive off and do his marking instead.

He excuses this by saying he is usually involved in 'Socratic' Q&A teaching methods (which are often more suited to older students) - but there's lots of behavioural teaching to be done even while a class is working in silence. This class is crying out for better behavioural direction - we see that in their constant testing of his rules. I'm tempted somewhat to go through with a marker pen and pick out all the signals these children are sending him - indirect verbal and non-verbal signals that they're upset by his approach to them, and his apparent dislike. The frequent references to the tape recorder are merely the most obvious.
Teachers need to be alert to these signals and pick up on them, because they are the adult communicator in the room. In a chaotic classroom, this can be the most difficult thing to stand calm, be still, and notice these signals. But it's the most effective thing you can do.

The clue to his negativity about the children is in him actually bothering to transcribe the tape at all. There's no way it could have made him feel better, or help him reflect on his methodology, or implement better ways of interesting those children. It was an exercise in persuading himself they were unteachable, to salve his own conscience.

Why didn't he go see them in other classes? Why didn't he vary the tasks set, or the pace? Why didn't he use their energy and noisiness - say in a debate?

If you ask an adult to sit still silently without fail for an hour, while you publicly humiliate them, then... well a driving test is the only comparable adult experience, I think. And even then, the inspector isn't allowed to patronise, ridicule and belittle you, or tape you. Children find it harder to slump still than adults.

I feel for the man, he's obviously not very happy. But I don't think that's caused by his experiences at school.
He's in a job where you can't stay a control freak and also gain control.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Today was the first occasion in a while that I was called upon to moderate a student's articulate creative writing, and marked it down for being lacking in talent, rather than lacking in accuracy.
So much of my time is taken up with explaining the uses of the apostrophe, the appropriate spellings of they're/there/their, with advocating planning twists to fool examiners into seeing your originality when in a tight spot - we rarely ever touch on natural talent.
This child's writing showed facility with language, but was doggerel. The sort of purple prose one writes when aping great writers without understanding even once that someone has to actually read it.

But how can I mark someone down for something as innate as talent? The thought that raced through my mind was: how could I defend this decision should the child's disappointment escalate? There's only vague, nebulous platitudes in the examining body's criteria for grades. They're far more usefully specific on the missing apostrophe, frankly, or the lack of a compound sentence.

What authority could I call upon to defend my rejection of this descriptive passage, should a couple of unhelpful parents turn up at my class room door? Surely there had to be some discrete statement of worth, some reference to the literary ability of a candidate in the reams of goverment papers sent every week to plague and protect me?


I had only one defence. I'm a reader. I read good writing every day. This trawl through a half memorised mental thesaurus wasn't it.

I felt like the Wicked Witch of the West. And jotted down a line of advice.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Re-reading yesterday's post about fashions in student names, it strikes me how culturally specific our responses to them are. For instance, I knew that one of our South African set poets, Tatamkhulu Afrika, had changed his name in response to a government ban on his pro-ANC writing during apartheid, but it took a lesson with an African student who spoke Swahili for me to learn that Afrika's first name means 'Grandfather'.

Sometimes I wonder about the massive cultural specificity of what we teach students as a whole, particularly in my subject, Literature. Oh , I know of all the sociological theories, Popper et al's ideas of what social function education serves. And depending on how rebellious or hard-done by my morning has panned out to be, disagree accordingly.

But sometimes - no, often - I feel as though I'm teaching my students to be middle class, rather than to think. I teach them to speak Standard English, and mark them down for inappropriate use of dialect forms, yet never investigate with them the usage and rules of those forms. The examination syllabus compels me to spend two months teaching them 'A Taste of Honey' - a poorly written text, I believe - but any analysis of the descriptive skills of Stephen King must be an unrecorded one-off side project, and graphic novels aren't allowed at all.
I teach them to distrust political bias in a right wing media, but don't dissect the far more powerful popular culture which has spent years subtly disenfranchising them of their vote.

I take special pains to establish an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, equal rights atmosphere in my classroom, because that's the world I live in, that's the lip service paid by my peers, and disregard their background.
Why don't I show them how to actually deal with a racist attack? Why are all the single mothers represented in the literature I push at them either whores, disaffected or victims? Can I not actually work towards something more truthful - yes, motherhood is fulfilling, and these children have more experience of it than I. No, sometimes muttering dark and gloomy forebodings as to the consequences of unwanted pregnancy is not enough to help a child deal with the complex power negotiation of a sexual experience.
Why must I always advocate the inappropriateness of violence? There are times and occurrences when a child leaves me lost for words, as they almost convince me that there was no other response available to them. Faced with potential violence against my person, I would defend myself. Yet I continue to push upon them the middle class fabrication that I would have lost face, or be less of a person.

What's so 'wrong' with working class culture - is it so powerful we can't even acknowledge it in our schools, much less deal with it head on? Do we consider middle class culture as so frail and easily bruised that we cannot speak truthfully about it?

It's not so much the Canon of English Literature that I question, here. It's the Canon of Teacher's Words.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

During today's cover lesson, I encountered a bright young thing named Ariel.
At least I hope he was called Ariel, as it appeals very much to my liberal sensibilities, and my entirely predictable love of The Tempest.
However, I may have misheard, he may equally have been called Uriel, of Blakeian fame (I can never recall what he's the embodiment of - I only ever remember Urizen = bad, Albion = good).
He may have been called Arial, which over here is a particularly good brand of washing powder. Or Aerial, for that matter. Although perhaps in the days of satellite, broadband, mobile masts, GPRS and cable connections, that's a little rusticated now.

Teachers come across more weird names than you can shake a stick at. Some jewel bright, some lovely, some plain daft, others cursed by their owners. You learn to recognise your particular cultural group response to certain names, and restrain it (it's hard to look at a class list of Darrens and Kellys without anticipating something).
African religious names often provoke an involuntary smirk. It's hard to tell off someone Charity, or Sweetness for being a selfish little monster.
Televisual heroes and influential pop stars always come to us ten years out of date. We've just finished one rash of Kylies, and are expecting in four years to see another.

Misspellings are difficult - you never quite know if you're allowed to say. I recall a student whose parents had been deeply entertained by the sitcom Roseanne to the extent of adopting the name of Roseanne's son for their own youngest son. Except the character D.J., surely, is a shortened form of his father's name - Dan Junior.
Still, D'Jay has a slightly exotic, French sound to it, if you don't work out your dates.

My favourite oddly named ex-student was Marvellous Johnson. He was a very cute, very beaming, very very naughty child in a rough Southwark comprehensive state school when I met him. The sort who knows his 'christmas present smile' will get him off too many crimes.
But no matter how serious his infractions, it was always difficult not to raise a sly grin whenever the headmaster would bark angrily over the school's intercom, "Marvellous! Marvellous Johnson report to me right now! Marvellous!"
You can't disassociate a word from it's meaning. Somehow I think Marvellous' parents were in full possession of that fact....