The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Apologies for the lag in posts here of late.

It's only when things go awry in one's personal life that I realise what boundless elasticity this job has. One or two incidences of difficult news, and I can block out the world by simply working harder.

The Sisyphean struggle can also be a boon. No limit to the needs of the students I teach here, and no limit to the depths of workaholism I can hide myself in.

That's pretty useful, at times.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Another day, another day, another day, yet another after school class.

Tonight, I worked closely with Stacy, Sharn, and Anil to improve their woeful grade E essays on Frankenstein to the degree that they appeared to have taken a crash course in Romanticist Authors.

Students are usually deeply grateful for the time taken to give them such personalised attention. In a school of class sizes of 32 or more, it's not often that they receive twenty minutes concentrated assistance in writing at any level.

The most difficult part of the session turned out to be encouraging students to improve their vocabulary and express their words in a more concise fashion. If I underlined an unwieldy sentence, offered suggestions for how it could be rewritten, or dashed out an example, then asked Stacy to rewrite the line in fewer words herself, she simply was not able.

I suggested to Stacy that her difficulties with articulating complex ideas in more concise language probably indicated one thing: that she had not been reading in the past two or three years.

Stacy blushed, and agreed. Then stopped herself. She had read two books. In two months, as well.

Really? That's more like it, I tried to reassure her, asking her to go one further and make sure she asked for some fiction for Christmas.

Yes, miss. One of them was called 'Lessons in LoveLorn ...' erm, something. By someone. And the other, I can't remember.

I sigh and prepare a list of suitable authors to move onto in Stacy's christmas break reading list.
Inwardly I curse the government initiatives of the previous five years that prioritise decontextualised grammar exercises and actively discourage reading entire texts more than one time per academic year.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Another day, another after school class.

This year, I decided not to run revision classes after school for students approaching their trial examinations. I abandoned the idea after in previous years running after school classes for every component and tier of the exam, at every key benchmark grade. This meant, usually, running 18 classes per examination period.
I would rather staff didn't exhaust themselves working a yet longer day, with the preparation that involves, for few students and little reward.
My idea was that if all delivery of core material was through lessons, then students had to attend, had to pay attention, would focus more on learning in school, than gaining study brownie points in the brain-twilit hours after.

Simultaneously, management decided that students who didn't complete coursework (thus barring themselves from formal exam entry or the higher grades) shouldn't be given catch - up time or classes after school. Instead, students with less than impressive grades should be encouraged to rewrite coursework in specific after school classes. (delivered by ... guess who?) As there are fewer after school classes to deliver, staff would not be paid for delivering them.

The work students had done previously would be regraded and resubmitted, to gain a higher grade, and students would be invited to the sessions by virtue of already having been targeted as two or three marks below a C grade.

Hence, students one mark from a D, or an A could not attend.

It all seems dispiritingly random, but staff are our strongest resources, and we can't continue to squander either their time or goodwill.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Depressing reminder that the days of the Stanford Prison Experiment are far from past.

Source: New Scientist

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

It's the [first / 2004] Edublog Awards.
Better run than a Ukrainian election campaign.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

I don't believe I've ever managed to blog my occupation all the way through November / December before.

A sample day in the life of Lectrice:

Get into work at seven thirty - half an hour before the usual start time, as I'm responsible for setting work for anyone who's away, and my colleagues feel slighted if I don't ring them in person to chat about how they're not sure what work to set and could I do it? The attention is so welcome, they even leave an answerphone message reminding me to ring them to ask about cover work - completely without irony.

I need to interrupt my registration period (aka carping at sixteen year olds about really really important things, like uniform) to go beg my manager for a board marker. Teachers are disapproved of if they require new stationery, as if, really, if we're going to do such irresponsible things as use them up, then we should pay for them ourselves. He's not in, so I use the skeleton key I stole four years ago to raid his cupboard anyway. If I had adequate supplies, I'd not need to steal, I reason with myself, like some sort of pedagogical Fagin.

The headteacher's bosses, the school governors, attend my first lesson: media. What the students really need to do is be allowed to get on with the coursework they've slaved for weeks over, but I know that the head will have sent them to me so that they can see discussion, frequent practical reference to examinations, lots of IT, and preferably a good smattering of advanced level concepts that the governors won't understand. (You get to know what you're famous for.)
The students tap their pens in irritation as I force them to discuss every possible permutation of theories about audience response at huge length, then go on to flash a lot of how-to-conduct-an-audience-survey tripe across the electronic whiteboard.
The white-bearded governors seem offended when I ask them to be subjects for the students' audience surveys by introducing them as 'plainly a different age group than we're used to in this room'.

During my marking period, I have to attend a series of formal exclusion meetings with a senior manager to deal with two physical assaults from a previous lesson. The manager is soft-spoken but extremely persuasive, and soon Jack and Mohammed are in tears and feeling thoroughly egregious for apparently making the world's most lovely teacher think twice about ever returning to work.
It's a change for violence in the workplace to be taken seriously, and reassuring, but I'd rather have gotten my marking done.

During the penultimate lesson with my top set fifteen year olds (before their mock exams begin), I rattle through revision strategies for each exam. Four boys are too hyper to shut up, so I decide to speak more quietly each time I'm interrupted. It works at first, then I have to go further: sit down, wait, give out the evils, send people out ("but I won't know how to revise?!" "yes, but everyone else will"), and finally give up, tell them to write an essay.
We question alternative coexisting interpretations of the ending of Brathwaite's Limbo. Nathan decides that the poem reminds him of Vietnam.
Jason tells me his uncle didn't like that we watched an extract from 'Roots' to contextualise the descriptions of life on board a slave ship. He says his uncle says 'Roots' is racist, and it's disrespectful to all his poor ancestors to see their suffering.
I point out that Jason's uncle is white, that Jason himself has no ancestors involved in the trading of American slaves, that actually, Jason's ancestors were politely invited to work here one generation ago, and he changes his mind.

Another marking period, so I get to type up six examination papers. The exams officer lost 2000 of them last summer, and it's taken me a fortnight to track down a copy. IT would cost hundreds to photocopy 2000 seven page exam papers, so they need to be entirely retyped to a smaller scale.
It's mindless and stupid, and if the AQA exam board didn't insist that every order takes four weeks unless I pay a fifteen pound surcharge, I'd not have wasted my time on it. Still no marking done.

At lunch and break, I work with Media students on a police drama storyboard. Anyone who can't draw well is disadvantaged by the format, so we mostly spend the time designing better layouts for each frame. No time for lunch.

The remedial class of sixteen year olds emerge late, still munching burgers, cussing and shouting. They're not evil children, though, and they eventually settle, though I have to explain to several why they can't refer to the teacher as 'some bird'.
They follow the same work as my top set (actually, they were a second set, but I decided to test teacher expectations by lying to them about being a top set for two years solid - so far it's working like a dream, all expectations raised), but at a different pace. Today, Les can't sit still or stop kicking / swearing at other children. Most of my lesson is spent 'encouraging' him out of the room to be dumped in some other unfortunate's classroom. I don't have the resources to speak to the other children while this is going on, and have to hope that the two support teachers in the room (one voluntary, leaving at Christmas; the other retiring - at Christmas) are able to get round and explain things to the rest of the class. 90% of my time is taken up in dealing with removing students from the scene of their crimes.

I have a meeting after school with my head of department, in which we decide to hold another meeting next week. I finally get to mark a set of essays - all good. Except one, whose errors are so low level, I don't have the heart to add an encouraging target at the end. I know I'll see him later and point that out, and why. I hope he'll be mortified by the contrast.

A sixth former who was meant to help me sell 65 revision guides to parents this evening turns up to say she won't be doing it. She points out that it's actually my fault, for setting her coursework deadline as tomorrow.
I weigh it up: coursework deadline missed, my results go down, her results bodged for the remainder of the year by me seeming to allow bad study habits.
Or, my managerial targets missed? One of the outcomes involves only me looking bad, the other both of us, so I agree her work is more important than my line managers pet revision guide project.

I run downstairs to beg some fourteen year old boys to sell revision guides for me. Three are ex students, so I know I can probably persuade them, but we have to set up signs, a stall, a float, a safe to store the cash after, shifts, etc. I promise them letters of recommendation if they stay all evening on the task. They start hawking the things loudly at that, and swipe my coloured pens.

Two hours of parents' evening. That means two hours of repeating almost the same thing over and over without pause for breath. You have to conserve your voice, so it's important to bribe the fourteen year olds who bring round water. I get the emphasis wrong, and end up with a gigantic plate full of biscuits in front of me, and one tiny glass of water all evening.
Ricky's brother is furious, absolutely enraged by the discovery that Ric's vocational course is vocational. He insists that higher standards be maintained.
I can't in any honesty defend the course, as I don't myself believe it's worthwhile. It's social exclusion, done quietly, without the students' or parents' full awareness, in my opinion. I don't think work experience brick laying is anything other than labelling theory in action, and if Ric were my little brother, I'd probably have the same reaction.
I can't say this, though, and be quoted, so I stick to 'I accept that criticism'. Big brother demands that Ric be challenged to gain a grade C in his exams.
I can't lie to him. It's not going to happen. "If he does everything he can, if we push him to the maximum, the top grade he can aspire to is a D, sir. Ric has a chance at a C if he retakes next year. That's only a chance."
Not what he wants to hear.

I sneak over to the last person Ric's brother had screamed at in public. "He's trying to blame someone" she assures me.
Maybe so. But he has a point. His brother's been forgotten because he doesn't look good on our results. I make a long note to myself.

My interviews are over, but the evening is under my area of management, and I have to wait until all my colleagues have been seen. I suppose I could sneak out earlier than half past seven, but it's always the tired and aggressive parents who stay past the seven pm finish line, berating staff, and it's not in my nature to leave them alone to face the music.
I edge around the outskirts of an interview between a teacher and the parent who complained about her setting the same standards for her own precious flower as the other students. Try to eavesdrop for raised voices, conflict or stress.
To make certain, I chat with the teacher afterwards. If she's upset, the likelihood, after such a long day, is that she won't return the next morning, and we'll all be placed under extra pressure as the 32 students she teaches will have to be added to our own full classes.
She's fine.

Then I walk home, trying to work out along the way what to do for my three hour upper sixth form lesson tomorrow morning. It's a full day, with no marking period or breaks (fire alarm drill through lunch), so I have to sort it out now. There won't be any other thoughtspace for two days.

I read a study once, that said that teachers do no more work than any other equivalent profession. It's just that they have twelve weeks holiday a year, so they do all the work in half the time.
Days like this, I can well see how that could be.

Monday, November 22, 2004

I don't know if outside of the pressure cooker environment that is an inner city British comprehensive school in the last three weeks before Christmas, the same conditions operate. Here, on an annual basis, we're in the second of the three hardest weeks of the year.

The fights, assaults, mayhem, chaos, ridiculousness, pressure, deadlines, the insanity that infects every class and every teacher, and every child - even the quiet ones whom you've never seen speak loudly before, let alone with a bloodied nose..?

Perhaps it's just here.

Or more likely, it's just Christmas.

Spare a pause (if you teach, and your blood is boiling), for the kids who are giving ructions because there's not going to be a christmas round their house.
I'd estimate that's a third of my classes, who are dreading the holidays. Simply dreading them.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Conversations during a spate of parents' evening interviews led to much repeated variations of the stance: "has talent; talent is curse; talent makes above mediocre performance effortless; therefore talent being squandered."

The pattern is so familiar that I ended up printing out an action plan solely suited to these students.
I ended up awarding them to eleven talented no-hopers in the same (final year) class.

Refreshing, then, to read that it's not a phenomenon restricted only to my classroom, but recurs in the world of competitive professional sports.

Reading a Spectator book review of sports fiction, of all things, I recognised both some of my students and my lessons:
Baseball is not a fair game. Money helps. The New York Yankees — the game’s aristocrats — have a payroll three times bigger than the impoverished Oakland As. The Yankees simply buy the best players. The As had to come up with a different way to win. They had to find the flawed champions whom the sporting village underestimated and hence under-priced. They needed to find a scientific method for picking up bargain athletes on the free market.

Talent, they discovered, is rated too highly. One cliché that bounces around most dressing-room walls is, ‘He’s got the talent, so he’s bound to get better.’ In fact, talent only matures when harnessed within a personality that is capable of self-improvement. And talent, ironically, has a nasty knack of protecting the talented from the urge to self-improve. Super- talented young sportsmen, never having needed resilience thus far, often lack the psychological capacity to develop it when life gets tough in the big leagues. Like high-school beauty queens, they crumple at the first adult rejection.

Conclusion one: the As stopped signing high-school prodigies who looked great in a baseball uniform and just had to train on, and started signing college players who had a proven track record of being able to score runs — and something going for them beyond baseball. Everyone said the As were mad. But the runs kept coming.

If talent was overrated, the As discovered that personality was too often ignored by scouts and managers. The baseball community overestimated its own capacity to graft real psychological resilience on to inert, talented young men. But it also suffered from a reflexive fear of players who operated outside the predictable range of jock-sportsman routine behaviour. Many coaches wanted clay models to mould with their own imprints of what a champion should look like. The difficulty, of course, is that real champions want to be themselves. So while show ponies were patiently indulged by the baseball community, independent-minded performers were written off as difficult ‘eccentrics’. Principle two: we’ll have the eccentrics, you can keep the show ponies.

The As also re-examined how a game is won. Received wisdom — such as the truism that games are won by pitchers not batters — proved not to be so wise after all. The As stopped generalising about large chunks of the game that were too complex to analyse statistically with any accuracy. Instead, they broke the game up into tiny pieces with definite outcomes. They did to baseball statistics what derivatives traders did to the financial markets, and struck gold by exploiting market inefficiencies in exactly the same way.
Source [my emphases]

The students with talent but poor self-discipline: check.

Ignoring those who don't fit the mould: I've spent two years trying to identify and encourage the wilful eccentrics I spot - students whose behavioural patterns may break the standard for bright children, but whose IQ scores and verbal ability show far more potential than is evident in subject tests, and trying to develop their abilities in analysing media and literature.
With limited succes - the process is largely individual - I have to happen to spot them; I have to effectively mentor them out of school hours to get a result.
Making a system that identifies these children is an increasingly fashionable idea where I work.

The only part of this analysis I score well upon is my lesson planning - seven years back, like most UK teachers, I stopped planning projects, and began the process of demystifying and breaking down examiners' expectations, breaking the 'game' up into 'definite outcomes'.
Plenty of times it feels reductive to have done so, but it impacts so strongly upon examination results that it's undoubtedly a method that's here to stay.

But what to do with the holy fools of talent? Education isn't, in an inner city comprehensive, selective in the way a professional baseball team has to be. Students aren't hired or rejected according to a type.

Or ... perhaps that's it? Perhaps selection of streamed classes strictly by ability / previous performance alone is the issue?

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Difficult, difficult day.

A few moments from today's second lesson, with thirteen and fourteen year olds:

The moment just after Louise had stopped punching me and released her grip on Jez's throat, ceased pounding his head against the wall...

The moment just after Mohammed stopped shoving me while pretending to cry, badly, till I flipped, lost my cool, and used the 'serious voice' in an attempt to compel him to step backwards away from me ...

Just after Jack finished swearing at me, then throwing his weight hard against me to push his way out of the room, or turning up after work to swear at me again, or stopping to articulate to me that it didn't matter what I did to punish him, as management never follow up on things, anyway ...

After Sharise required approximately one hundred interactions all involving the words 'sit down' ...

After the last two requests to remove a student who was being violently abusive to me and to other children had been ignored ...

After James, zonked out of his mind on drugs, screamed and screamed the words 'you're unfair' at me for pointing out that when I watched him throw metal objects at other students, I was definitely going to do something about it ...

The moment just after five kids got up and circled the Sri Lankan boy, and picked on him for being 'indian' ...

Just after I realised that this was Fabio's first morning in an English school, in fact Fabio's first morning in England, but because of the rioting I've just described, I wasn't able to even speak to him, much less explain (in words a non-English speaker can decipher) what his media project was meant to be about ...

After I got so wired, so fed up, so threatened, so out of my depth that I sent for another member of staff and begged them in tears to just stay in the room for five minutes, to let me go stand in an empty office and pull myself together, because I literally couldn't stand to be in there any longer ...

After I had to send two notes begging management to actually read this 'incident report', or after they admitted they hadn't bothered reading the last one ...

I didn't feel that much like a superteacher.

Turn, depressed, bored, to the horoscopes, to find under 'Leo':
"You've always been a child at heart, which is especially evident today. You tend to throw tantrums when you don't get your way. And while it's understandable that you are angry over frustrating circumstances, that doesn't give you the right to make an embarrassing scene. Resist the urge to lash out."

Okay. Tomorrow, then, last period (just before my twelve hour day closes with three hours of parent interviews) I shall try to resist the urge to lash out.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

On some occasions, you simply have a really bad strop on.

Another year, another five exam classes, another chance to teach Edward Kamau Brathwaite's excellent multilayered poem about slavery, 'Limbo'.

Usually, I sing the thing to them, to demonstrate that not all the hideously boring tomes of 40 examination poems they're set are actually poems.
This year, however, I felt cruddy. "I'd usually sing this to you." I say, deflated. I sing a line, feeling mean. Tap out the background rhythm. Ask if any of them would like to sing the poem?(as if! At sixteen? Social death!)

Sudden brainwave. "If Andre were here, he'd sing it. You know he would."
Andre's been remanded in a juvenile detention centre for the last few months, and the next few, too.
He's a livewire, and we all miss him. The classes' faces light up imagining how eagerly Andre would have taken to this task, how he'd be the only one with the verve to actually try it properly, and face down any comments or ridicule with a good humoured grin.

And then it simply feels good that we're thinking about Andre without a heavy sense of regret at what's gone wrong, or worry about what's going to happen to him next, whether he'll even make it as far as the exams on his release. It's nice to remember what we enjoy about his company, and to recall his infectiously catching grin.
It all suddenly feels a little better.

Perhaps I'll sing it next lesson.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

I can't recall if poor behaviour in inner city schools was always so overtly sexualised, or if it's a recent adaptation.
Standing watching fifteen year old Joe happily and frenziedly miming sexual congress with a wooden chair one foot away from me, I apply the fixedly evil eye, grimly judge which comments will shame him into ceasing that particular hobby, and try hard to contain or disguise my utter disbelief.

Actually, thinking back to my first week of teaching, when a class of thirteen year olds blew a condom up until it became a fifteen inch diameter balloon, then batted it playfully around the class in front of me, perhaps it's not changed.
More likely, as I've grown older, adolescents begin to seem younger, and their inevitable obsession with sex more outre.

[weary irony] So that's alright, then.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Jason, Coral, Stacey and Mohamed are doing extra study every break and lunchtime, and after school, for their Media GCSE. I'm fairly certain that the indignity of the freezing cold weathering endured by the remainder of the playground has more to do with their sudden dedication to the subject, but their pre-production projects are slowly beginning to look quite masterful, so I try not to complain.

Today, Mohamed, a recent migrant from another continent, decided he should use the opportunity to acquire himself a webmail address. Jason protested that sitting at the PC is a waste of time - which indeed it is, as my district bans any access to email for all staff and students alike, along with other dangerous sources of perversion, such as google, or any DfES (ie, government) documentation.

Asking Jason why he preferred lessons in the classroom to lessons like today's, when students worked on library computers to present their evaluative reports, and he explains his history of geek addiction. He informs us all that you may well sit down at a computer thinking 'just ten minutes surfing will be enough', but that frequently hours and hours will pass, and soon enough, you'll have achieved nothing and be even further behind on all your homework to boot.
He finished with a resounding moral: 'so there's no point to computers at all. Ever.'

It seems educational theorists are catching up to Jason's way of thinking:
Doubts about school computer use
Students who use computers a lot at school have worse maths and reading performance, research suggests. [...]
The belief that there is an educational benefit - and not just better work skills - has underpinned huge investment by governments, and many parents, in information and communication technology (ICT).
Fuchs and Woessmann found that the more computers there were in students' homes, the better their test performance.
But more computers went with more affluent, better-educated families. So they took this into account in the statistical analysis.
'Not related'
The result: the more computers in a student's home, the worse the student's maths performance.
Source: BBC News / Fuchs and Woessman's Research, CESIFO.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Ahaaa, just remembered the joys of a ten hour day tomorrow - the 120 sixteen year olds I teach have a parents evening. It's approximately five months before they leave compulsory education forever, and the events of the evening generally follow a very predictable path.

In the two preceding years, when puberty first began to rear its aggressively disruptive head, most parents seem surprised that a teacher would have a bad word to speak of a child who may by all accounts still be able to maintain a facade of 'lovely' at home.
Or perhaps 'incensed' is a better word than surprised.
It's a rare parent these days who will transgress the evidence of their own experience and tackle their child over reported poor behaviour elsewhere.

But the final parents evening, a year on, when sixteenness has established its truculent, disgruntled hold over even the most placid child, becomes a radically y different narrative.
The evening becomes wave after wave of overtired, hollow eyed parents wailing.
"But he was lovely, and he's horrible and moody and evil no-o-o-w", often accompanied by bursting into humiliated tears at the sheer strain of dealing with a teenager so moody as to sit openly insulting their parent in front of me.

I calmly point out that once the exams roll around, my responsibility for this child ends, and try ineffectually to calm their rising panic at their slumped progeny's future.
And me smugly remembering that when I'd pointed out the hormones coursing in anti-social formations a year ago, they'd not believed a word of it.

Perhaps a whisky filled walking stick would improve matters.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The events of the other morning, and a conversation - one of many - with a student who believes that the school needs to tighten up its discipline, reminded me of something I'd written in the comments about the idea of consistency in behaviour management, over at Tangential Thoughts:
To be assertive with your class means to change from the inconsistency of the parent/guardian role to the strict consistency of the teacher. Children listen to what your behaviour says more than your words. Their parents love them, and can get away with inconsistency. They have no such investment in a teacher, and will test your threats to the limit.

I remember when the crunch time came for me to tackle classroom management properly, as a beginning teacher, around four or five months into my first year.

During the morning a colleague to whom I'd referred students said to me 'you can keep passing these kids on to be punished forever, but you'll never solve the problem till you just decide to do it yourself.'

I thought her patronising and went off to a training afternoon, where the workshop leader said this: 'To act assertively in the classroom means you will have to change. Every day you will see people in your school who are willing to put up with a living hell in their classroom, day after day, year after year, because for them it feels safer than the fear they feel of change.'

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

My Media pre-production coursework project is finally coming together. Having spent forever over-complicating course plans, messing up the arrangements for a trip the students couldn't then go on, and feebly failing to explicitly outline what it is I wanted students to do, I finally hit upon the idea of using the electronic whiteboard to complete the coursework myself.

Bingo. Every time I try doing the work I blithely set children with no thought of the consequences, I learn something. It's the steepest learning curve, to have a crack at doing the task yourself, lends me far more sympathy for the inherent difficulties I've already failed to iron out, and without exception always sends me back to the drawing board to ask less of the students, but done to a higher standard.

And yet, every single time, I forget what a great idea it is, and fall back into my old muddy explanations and over-complicated 'help' sheets.

Regardless, my storyboard of 'Undertow', and new police drama serial set on the police cruisers that patrol London's River Thames, however badly executed, is a thing of beauty. Let me not forget this feeling again, please.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The behaviourally 'challenging' sixteen year olds whom I teach once a fortnight, for forty minutes, who spend the rest of their time on a 'vocational' building course .... have finally been developing a working relationship with me. It relies on my agreeing not to be shocked by them, and their agreeing to cool it, and settle down to some work at some point.

Today, James returned from eight weeks' absence, therefore had social codes to satisfy before he could begin to apply himself to the demands of my classroom. He established himself by proudly showing around the pornographic snuff movie clips he'd downloaded onto his mobile phone.

Playing my part in the behavioural trade-off that prevents the boys from sucking the air out of the room and succeeding in creating a major conflict, I swallowed the absolute stomach lurching sickening shock I truly felt when he waved the phone images of degradation and torture in my face; the other lads crowded round him to see if they were 'really cutting it open', etc. I excused myself from the room a second, and made as if to collect some paper from next door.

Returning, I stood further away from James' toy, and quietly asked him to try not to distract people. Busied myself in an effort not to give the obviously provoked response, walked around the room offering stationery and help, avoiding James' miniature display and objecting quietly if I could hear the tinny sound of mp3 screams.

The lads slowly settled, did all the work they'd been set, expressed pride in what they'd achieved, demanded ticks, sweetie prizes, public praise. Asked spellings, and tried to meet the expectations of the task, for once.

I kept to the unspoken behavioural contract that has enabled us to co-exist, to begin to work together, to open the path to learning, and it paid off.
So why do I feel so sick that I felt unable to challenge what was happening?

Monday, November 08, 2004

Re: delays in this blog.

The week from the underworld prevented me recording any of it. I'll have to travel back in time to give the appearance of regular postage, I'm afraid.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Matthew's dictating his story to me, as it's the only way he's going to settle and do some GCSE coursework for his exam.
"The boy was terrified of the head teacher, because he had DEATH BREATH! It was worse than eggs, it was worse than gone-off coffee, it was worse than ... Miss, tellim!"
Joe had wandered back upstairs from the library, and appeared to be trying to sit himself down on Matthew's shoulder. Matthew, squealing, falls into Nathan, who kicks off with the mega-fussy fussiness of the temporarily innocent, and Joe, rear-first, slides down them both.
~ Joe, stop it and go get your folder. No, go around the other side.
"He farted! Ugh!" shouts Matthew.
~ Don't be silly. Joe wouldn't do anything so disgusting. What's the next line?
Joe turns up again, points his rear at Matthew, then 'accidentally' falls again, squashing both him and Nathan all over again.
"He is!" Matthew's tan has purpled in embarrassment and fury. I drag Joe off him, and physically move him away from the boys. "He's doing it on purpose!"
"No I never!" pipes up Joe.
~ Exactly, nobody would do that. Matthew, the story! I half pray as I say it.
He walks past Lisa, then falls against her, in reverse, and lifts his blazer flaps as he does so.
~ Joe! Stop being stupid! No, Matthew, he's NOT farting.
"Ahhhh. That was a wet one."

It's good to know I'm losing all these brain cells and pumping my stress valves for such a noble cause.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

I'm frequently in a state of utter amazement at how fast institutions do what they do best - institutionalise.

While I meet clever students every day, it's rarer to encounter young people with genuine, native intelligence and quick wit. Students who look at the world with fresh eyes, and see what's actually there, what's real, and what's fake.

Students who are precocious in this particular sense can be a real problem in the classroom. In the overstuffed hothousing 'A' streams of a school where all focus is upon material reward - upon gaining those 'A' grades - then the classroom becomes a tool for mass control which often literally cannot cope with the wayward spanner of innate intelligence thrown in amongst its unthinking engines.

Case in point. Aisha stormed out of her English lesson yelling twenty minutes before the end of school yesterday. Knowing that she'd be sent to me eventually, to repent of her sins and be made to recant, she stormed up to my classroom herself, wanting to be represented properly. She told the truth about what had happened, about how she'd yelled back at the teacher who'd yelled at her repeatedly to stop talking, reasoned that she was unable to ignore a social transaction designed to humiliate and quell, and wanted an ear for her sense of powerlessness and injustice at having felt so without recourse that she walked out.

I let Aisha rant for a while, then tried to make her see the interaction as a conflict between two fallible people, rather than between authority source and authority subject. Her point, essentially, was that the teacher had lost it, had wigged out, had lost her cool, and lost her rag, and lost her professionalism with it (the latter was Aisha's phrase).
As a human, she could understand how to react to this, without taking on board the negativity that had been projected towards her. As a pupil, she had no way of dealing with the base inequality that defined her teacher's hunger for conflict as acceptable, and her own shaky form of conflict avoidance as beyond the pale.

Aisha calmed herself by outlining to me her plans to stand for Young Mayor next term, explained what she saw as wrong with the parents, schools, government and facilities of the surrounding five mile catchment area (her instinct was unerring in all cases), and acted as advocate for another pupil who'd recently been sent to a juvenile detention centre, arguing how we might rescue his GCSE exams from his incarceration.
Calmed further, Aisha was persuaded to formulate the obligatory action plan for how she might deal with future conflicts. She accepted that she talks constantly, when she's thinking something through, and is unable to deal with public reprimand comfortably. She reasoned that a 'time out' facility that allowed her space to calm her own temper would be useful.
I agreed. By now, Aisha had spent forty five minutes after school, working to resolve the problem.

One of my roles is to mediate between furious teachers and perhaps falsely accused/perhaps intractable children. It always involves pointing out that there are more ways for adults and children to interact than through dominance, conflict, and obeying.

I discovered today student teachers who have no idea that UK schools without spine-crumblingly strict and pointless rules exist, who've never even heard of Summerhill. Who assume that children are naughty because they're bad, rather than bored by what we're putting in front of them.

I arranged a meeting with the beleaguered teacher - a talented, dedicated, strict teacher, whose relationship with the class as a whole was under threat by constant conflicts with the popular and articulate and frankly uncontrollable Aisha. She has been teaching two years, and is mature, deeply empathetic; politically a committed socialist, a person with noble ideals, and a strongly philanthropic instinct for helping others.

Explaining the situation, and Aisha's suggestion of a time-out facility, Beleaguered Teacher's response was this: "Aisha's problem is that she doesn't know how to shut up. If she just learns to shut up, we'll all be happy."

What flashed through my mind on hearing this was the certain knowledge: Aisha will never shut up.
Aisha is way too intelligent to shut up.

I understand the frustration and anger that prompts the odd cynical outburst from staff.

What amazes me is that in just two years, the institution I work for can so beat the patience and dearly held principles out of an adult that they begin to believe that we, as teachers, are here to make children shut up.

The longer I stay in the mainstream education system, the more skewed my sense of reality becomes. This type of institution cannot benefit any of its participants, surely?

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

I've seen so much poor advice to writers on blogs of late, that it's extremely refreshing to note a blog that achieves its aim. Jack Fear breaks the mould in that he doesn't seem to be advising writers on how to become soullessly hackneyed or lose all individuality of spirit; his advice is absolutely worth reproducing / publicising right here - the gems from beneath the mire of swill .

An example:
The inherently slippery nature of language has paralyzed some writers. The early-20th c. German writer Hugo von Hofsmannthal famously moaned that every simple word has so many possible connotations to different readers that it’s impossible to be sure one is communicating anything.

In despair of ever being able to make himself understood with any certainty, von Hofmannsthal eventually gave up poetry, concentrating instead on writing plays on folk themes—counting on the familiarity of shared cultural signifiers to overcome the vagaries of language. We don’t need to go that far; But we do need to be aware of the weaknesses of language in expressing abstracts, and to compensate for them by playing to its strengths.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, points us towards a solution. He invites us to imagine a table. On the table is a red tablecloth; on the tablecloth is a cage; in the cage is a white rabbit, eating a carrot; on the rabbit’s back is the numeral 8, marked in blue ink.
Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shade. ... Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome—my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

Likewise, the matter of the cage leaves quite a bit of room for individual interpretation. ... [The passage] doesn’t tell us what sort of material the cage is made of—wire mesh? steel rods? glass?—but does it really matter? We all understand that the cage is a see-through medium; beyond that, we don’t care. The most interesting thing isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not a nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth, and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room... except we are together. We’re close.
D’you get the kicker here? King acknowledges all of Hofsmannthal’s discontents and objections, and then shrugs them off. Does it really matter? Obviously not. It is a crude magic, this telepathy, but with a passage like King’s, at least, it is pretty goddam effective. Why? Because King is talking in pictures—in sense-impressions, rather than emotional aggregates.

There, at last, is the crux. The great paradox of poetry is that specific, concrete, sensory images are a far better tool for conveying abstract emotional states than are the words for the abstract things themselves. Eliot called it the objective correlative: Uncle Bill summed it up as "no ideas but in things." It amounts to the same hard truth—that you cannot effectively describe a thing in terms of itself. When you say, "I am me," what you say may be technically correct, but you’re not actually telling me anything. But images, comparison, appeal to the senses—now you’re talking.

To say that the grind of work "cancels out all of my positivity" is a nothing-phrase, because it is so subjective—positivity may mean something different to me than to you. Specific sense-impressions, though, tend to be universal. When I say that the day sucks the iron out of my spine, you know what I mean in a way that doesn’t come across when I baldly state that it "neutralizes my ambition." An image will get the job done even (perhaps especially) if it’s fanciful, or funny. My heart, a fluttering budgie in the birdcage of my ribs, however risible a line, at least makes me feel something, while an idea-word like love—or days, or thoughts, or dream, youth, life, or half-a-million others—just hangs there, like vapor, and has no impact whatsoever.

This is what we mean by "Show, don’t tell"—a phrase uttered by every writing teacher, but rarely explained properly.

Source: Letters to a Young Poet, By Jack Fearick, Volumes I, II, III, IV, and V.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Yesterday evening I watched a five year old dancing in such excitement around a bonfire that the only words he could express his energy with were "Fuck! shit! willies! bum!"

I apologise in advance if you're reading this blog from an educational institution, and the following post provokes your net nannies to wipe the content, but the time has come to devote an entry to "fuck".

He wasn't trying to shock the adults (and the hippie liberal content of those congregated was such that we'd all have rather ignored it than draw attention to it by reprimand).

This morning, teaching the somewhat lary sixteen year old lads on the remedial Learn-How-To-Be-A-Builder-Because-We've-Already-Given-Up-On-You course (do excuse my cynicism, I mean Vocational course; do please attempt to ignore my dripping sarcasm for any programme that decides a child's future chances based on whether they were impossibly naughty at age fourteen), we finished the lesson with a five minute treat - which was intended to be in the form of freestyling on a tape recorder with a hand held microphone, and listening to the results.

Without exception, they found the new toy so quaint and so exciting that the only words they could bring themselves to shriek into the mike were 'fuck fuck fucking cunt fuck fuck'.

(Accompanied by a descriptive narrative which to spare your browser's history folder's shock, I'll not reproduce here.)

They weren't concerned about my response (these are social exclusion students who don't really worry about any adult's disapproval), so the word didn't signify a transgression. Yet it still contained the power to express their energy and excitement and involvement in what they were doing.

Watching a particular song in the musical Jerry Springer the Opera, a character trills for a good five minutes that his opponent should "fu-fu-fu-fu-fu-fuh..."

"It was fascinating to see how much of the power of the word relied upon the explosive ending. The merely plosive softness of 'fuh' did not do the power inherent in the word justice, robbed it of its propensity to shock.

So, I wanted to find the source of that energy. Knowing the sheer age of the word, I signed into the work PC on my boss's username, and did a little digging. I'm surprised by how few of the meanings are sexual. Intensity seems to be what this old anglo saxon epithet allows us to feel.

fuck Audio pronunciation of "fuck" (fk) Vulgar Slang

v. fucked, fuck·ing, fucks

v. tr.

1. To have sexual intercourse with.

2. To take advantage of, betray, or cheat; victimize.

3. Used in the imperative as a signal of angry dismissal.

v. intr.

1. To engage in sexual intercourse.

2. To act wastefully or foolishly.

3. To interfere; meddle. Often used with with.


1. An act of sexual intercourse.

2. A partner in sexual intercourse.

3. A despised person.

4. Used as an intensive: What the fuck did you do that for?


Used to express extreme displeasure.

Phrasal Verbs:

fuck off

1. Used in the imperative as a signal of angry dismissal.

2. To spend time idly.

3. To masturbate.

fuck over

To treat unfairly; take advantage of.

fuck up

1. To make a mistake; bungle something.

2. To act carelessly, foolishly, or incorrectly.

3. To cause to be intoxicated.

[Middle English, attested in pseudo-Latin fuccant, (they)
fuck, deciphered from gxddbov.]

Word History: The obscenity fuck is a very old word and has been considered shocking from the first, though it is seen in print much more often now than in the past. Its first known occurrence, in code because of its unacceptability, is in a poem composed in a mixture of Latin and English sometime before 1500. The poem, which satirizes the Carmelite friars of Cambridge, England, takes its title, "Flen flyys," from the first words of its opening line, "Flen, flyys, and freris," that is, "fleas, flies, and friars."

The line that contains fuck reads "Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk."

The Latin words "Non sunt in coeli, quia," mean "they [the friars] are not in heaven, since." The code "gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk" is easily broken by simply substituting the preceding letter in the alphabet, keeping in mind differences in the alphabet and in spelling between then and now: i was then used for both i and j; v was used for both u and v; and vv was used for w. This yields "fvccant [a fake Latin form] vvivys of heli."

The whole thus reads in translation: "They are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely [a town near Cambridge]."

Origins: Webster.

Fuck, verb hence noun, is a Standard English word classed, because of its associations, as a vulgarism. The derivative expletive Fuck derivative agent fucker and verbal noun and participial adjective fucking, except when literal (then, they are likewise vulgarisms), belong to low slang.

Fuck shares with cunt two distinctions: they are the only two Standard English words excluded from all general and etymological dictionaries since the eighteenth century and the only two Standard English words that, outside of medical and other official and semi-official reports and learned papers, still could not be printed in full anywhere within the British Commonwealth of Nations until late 1961.

That fuck cannot descend straight from Latin futuere (whence Old French-French foutre) is obvious; that the two words are related is equally obvious. That it cannot derive unaided from German ficken, to strike, (in popular speech) to copulate with, is clear; it is no less clear that the English and German words are cognates. 'To fuck' apparently combines the vocalism of futuere + the consonantism of ficken, which might
derive from fucken (only dubiously attested).

Now, Latin futuere is formed similarly to Latin battuere, to strike, hence to copulate with a woman. With both, compare Irish bot, Manx bwoid, penis; battuere, says Malvezin, is borrowed from Celtic and stands for bactuere; and futuere recalls the Celtic
root buc, a point, hence to pierce (malvezin); compare also Gaelic batair, a cudgeller, and Gaelic buail, English/Irish bualaim, I strike. Both Latin battuere and Latin futuere (compare Latin fustis, a staff, a cudgel: ? for futsis) could have got into Latin from Celtic, which, it is perhaps worth adding, had originally no f: basic idea. 'to strike', hence (of a man) `to copulate with'.

Nevertheless, the source probably long antedates both Latin and Celtic: a strikingly ancient etymology one is apparently afforded by Egyptian petcha, (of the male) to copulate with, the hieroglyph being an ideogram of unmistakably assertive virility. The Egyptian word has a close Arabic parallel.- A Mediterranean word?

Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Greenwich House (c) Eric Partridge MCMLVIII.