The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

I trust that your Easter break has been fruitful, and involved chocolate?

Myself, I interrupt my holiday ennui to celebrate both my 100th post, and a year spent writing these weekday gems for The Blackboard Jungle.

I quote from my own generously endowed back catalogue: the second post at The Jungle. And there's swearing in it. Plus ca change.
Attempting to stem the tides of 'fuck', 'shit', and, inevitably, 'fuck this shit' in the classroom, without getting a rep for sending every bloody kid to stand in the hallway of shame, last year I developed the more nannyish admonishment: 'uh-uh, watch your language, it's Fudge or Sugar'.
Kids loved telling each other off, and giggling at someone in a total blue funk wanting to curse the heavens and bewail their outcast fate (okay, say 'shit') and being forced to interpolate the saccharinely inoffensive 'sugar' instead. But if someone really wants to piss you off, they're just going to go ahead and tell you to fuck off as normal.
So this year, in desperation, I invented a charity swear box. In absolute despair of ever getting five pee for the swear box, it was wholly fictional, but allowed me to tell kids off in a moral code they understood - cheating the charity of five pee is wrong - rather than one they didn't - that 'f' word your mum, dad, gran and dog all use constantly is wrong. The fictional swear box worked well in this respect, without ever actually collecting a penny.
Until, as ever, kids worked out the cracks in the process.
Crack 1: they asked what charity it was for. I had to admit that if I ever actually succeeded in getting five pee from anyone, we could have a vote and they could decide.
Crack 2: a kid actually gave me five pee. This meant we had to work out what charity it was for - the potty mouthers decided 'Cancer Research UK' was their charity of choice for the princely five pee they'd coughed up. Suited me - there's a Cancer Research charity shop on the way home, in eighty years time when I had a full pound, I could drop the moulah in without going out of my way.
Crack 3: now I had to find somewhere to put the damn money. I thought about a strongbox, and decided the wasteland that is my desk drawer would be fine.
Crack 4: a kid particularly blessed with Tourette's swelled the coffers mightily by insisting on paying in advance for his swearing for a number of weeks.
Crack 5: little Michael in year 7, a roughty toughty children's home kid whose worst habit is getting frustrated with not being able to write and deciding to help classroom discipline by punching anyone who disrupts my lesson in the face, found out about the swear box. Decides he feels sorry for those children whose mums have Cancer and are waiting for Research to be done. Insists on giving me his dinner money for the swear box. Won't take no for an answer.
Doesn't even want to swear for it.
If any teachers do read these words, I thoroughly - nay, actively recommend to you blogging as a reflective and productive means of reminding yourself of the real issues* of the job.
Of counting the ways in which you can make a difference.

[* That's children, by the way.]

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Many ideas continue to brew and rumble, based around a post below on bullying.

Firstly, an email, from Clarence Fisher (quoted with permission):

I had to write after reading your post about bullying.

I cried.

I've been there as well. I was a kid challenged in school by bullies and I know exactly what you and your young student feel. Living in this small town, I struggled with it up into my mid 20's. Seeing the same people who had treated me so poorly years ago still living here, wandering the streets as working adults.

I know as well what you go through as a teacher. I rarely see it. It just doesn't seem to be a problem; but I know it is....

Now what to do about it.......?

BTW; I really have to tell you that I love your writing. From this small town to downtown London is a stretch, but you bring me across the ocean with your words; it is excellent.
Another email, from Emma Clark:
After I mailed you yesterday I read BBJ, and wanted to say what a fantastic entry that was - because for some reason it reminded me that I was bullied, and how it felt. Which is a very valuable thing to remember if you are teaching.

If there was stuff like this in the TES I might want to read it occasionally (is it me or is it the most DULL newspaper ever? I read the forums online nowadays but none of the content ever...) Do you write for publication? You should.
A thought: I was tempted to ask those who had experienced bullying if you'd tried speaking as an adult - in tones of disinterest, even if feigned - to those who had once been your bullies. One thing life has taught me in repeatedly corroborated detail is that we all bully - to some degree - beyond that which we may have intended.
We simply don't think about others very often, and so fail to realise quite what our words have done.

And then a recantation: I disregarded the idea. I assumed readers would not ever agree with me that we depend more closely on our fellow man than vengeance allows us. Reading Clarence's next mail, I found eloquent confirmation:
Have I confronted them; no. But it is interesting as I lead my reasonably successful life (happy marriage, 2 kids, university educated, economically reasonably sound life) and see those same people around me fight with alcohol and drugs, their spouses, and their children.They know and I know.

It may be crass, but who once said: "The best revenge is living well."

And yet: recantation dislodged, eventually, crumbled by this verse, from the wonderful blogger Oblivio:


Nothing is uglier than
they did it to me

This has nothing
to do with whether

they did it to you,
which I have to assume

they did
Still, whatever

they did, your life remains


When you say they did it
to you

you give your life to them,

You say,
I'm damaged

and you're the reason
I'm damaged

The damage is your proof
It's Easter end of term break here in the UK. Back on the 11th April. Rest easy.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Self-knowledge is a key shield when one is faced frequently with aggressive and challenging situations. We all recall a teacher who bullied, a teacher who loved his own swagger, a teacher who delighted in the sound of her own voice.

A friend opines that it's those who 'know' they are good at something who have often become worst at it, and those who deny any skill whatsoever who largely outperform the rest.

His words prompt an unexpected reflection. I think back over this idea, in the light of the recent upsurge in violent or disruptive behaviour in my classroom.

I recall a time last summer, when the head, full of determination to make us 'celebrate' our 'positive achievements' asked me to join a working group based upon my expertise in non-confrontational handling of disruptive students. She recommended only three teachers from the schoool. I was pleased and flattered. And began to believe that I was better than most.
She went on to recommend me to wider audiences for my collaborative approach to traumatised and wildly difficult teens.

Steadily, basking in the rosy, fleeting glow of being valued, my usually sweetly-bland admonishments and self-effacing entreaties to students began to take on a new timbre: a distinct, unfamiliar undertone of 'don't you know who I am?'

The head put me forward for the AST programme. I scoffed, politically unimpressed. She pointed out that I was one of only two possible candidates in the borough. Quite a different response. Sudden, quiet smile.
Those children, they're just naughty, I began to think, whenever a child refused to play the game I now felt myself so good at. They're unreachable. I'm not losing my touch. I'm better than anybody at this.

Steadily, the rot set in. The feral wise cracking gum chewing wall kicking shit slinging abandoned waifs and strays who rip up my books, tear down my posters, swear at me in the corridor: sensed, unerringly, that I was not on their side.
I was on, if anything, /my/ side.
They were mere tools for my greater glory, my slide into self congratulation. Materials, nothing more.

Last two weeks of term, and pressure in the school reaches bubbling point. Incident after incident shakes my calm sufficiency: after a sleepless night, I bawl out a child loudly in the corridor.
Why shouldn't I make a scene? He's making one. He's kicking and beating a door down, at age eleven, and screaming abuse at three adults. I call him a 'silly boy' and something inside of me gives way; thinks: 'stupid boy'. Not silly.
I tell him to 'shut up' - a heinous crime in a London school. I can tell a child to Be Quiet, to Go Away, to Stop Annoying Me - but never to Shut Up.

He bursts intears and hurls himself to the floor, drumming his fists at me.
"You can't say that to me," he screams, shocked out of his argument about a lost football.
"And you can't swear at teachers, break school property or hit me, but that doesn't seem to stop you." I'm impressed by my own logic, righteous in my rejection of an eleven year old boy.

Another teacher approaches, soft voiced, conciliatory. She brushes an elbow, quietly, with inviting familiarity suggests it's a good moment to exit the corridor, to go to a room and just calm down.
"You're not helping by reacting like that. Go sit down sometwhere quiet."
Eases with soft touch towards the furthest door.
She's talking to me.

Not him. Me.

Later, a student teacher I had mentored telephones to ask if I'm okay. She'd never seen me lose my temper before.

I rationalise. I hadn't lost my temper. What is she talking about? It was that other teacher who'd been unreasonable. I'd been perfectly in control. Standing over a child and scaring him into crying. Perfectly in control.

The shame of it is, it's not until Monday morning, that I realise who I am, now.

When I shame myself into realising the kind of teacher I've become.

Not until the moment I tell a sixteen year old boy to "get out of my fucking class" in front of twenty four other children, and don't bat an eyelid, that I realise I have terrible classroom management skills.
That, contrary to my esteemed reputation, I suddenly find it hard to step away from confrontation, much less do something actively good to inspire those children with behavioural disorders to fid other outlets for dealing with challenges.

It's those who 'know' they are good at something who have often become worst at it. Perhaps one day, with this self awareness, I can survive the seductive charm of the local reputation, and learn to admit my true lack of skill with difficult children.

Then, perhaps, I may have a chance, a crack, at outperforming. Outperforming myself.

Friday, March 18, 2005

There's a small figure at my elbow, as I listen to eleven year old Jody haltingly read through her work.
He hovers, uncertain, a three and a half foot high shadow just out of peripheral view.

An age passes. I look up, and see old eyes in a tiny, young boy's body.
"Miss, can I tell you something?"
Is it about school, Michael? He can stray a little from the subject on occasion. I've learnt the dividends this question can offer.
Serious nod. Tears forming. Nervous lips ready to speak, but not wanting to say.
Is it something you want help with?
"Miss, I'm being bullied." The drama of the statement belied by the whispered delivery.

Okay, then wait while I listen to Jody read this, and I'll ask you to come back up.
"Yes Miss." Michael obediently sits back down and continues colouring his 'scary poem'.

Jody finishes the harder parts of her exercise (what is the personality of Tom like?) and goes back to her seat to write up the easier question we've also discussed (do you think you like Tom?), armed with useful suggestions on how to add a 'because clause' to her writing.

Okay, Michael, you can talk to me now. Is it a child at this school?
Silent nod.
Is it a child in this class?
Silent shake.
Is it a child who is older than you?
Shake. Eyes widening.
Do you know this child's name?
Nod. Tremble.

I'll cut the next fifteen minutes short for you: it was Joe. I'd moved him down a set from my literacy class of children with mild learning difficulties, three months ago. He'd been a sweet but very scatty boy, the sort you end up teaching sat next to, so you can place a swift restraining hand on their arm at the first sign of inveitable twitchiness. Joe's very boisterous, and very very bored by a curriculum he has not the slightest hope of being able to read or undertand. That's not the point.

Joe had walked past me at breaktime last week, and I'd been shocked at how tall he'd grown - the dizzy heights of four foot something, already, in one year. Not the point.
Michael had mentioned that Joe had hit him in an Art lesson last week. He had also recently scored abysmally low in a classroom test, and had asked me three different times if he were being moved down a set. Was I really thinking of moving him down? Really and truly could he stay in the same class? Day after day.
Harassed and hectored by the imminent end of term, I'd not noticed the conversational satellites he was sending out.
Watching the trust he was placing in me now, by saying this, knowing my impotence to help, I saw suddenly how many times he had tried to speak these words.

Michael had already told his tutor, his head of year - everyone knew that he was having problems with the now much taller, much more powerful Joe. I'd done a bullying conference between Michael and Kerry just last Friday, which had ended in amicable apologies and restored trust. The schools' anti-bullying strategies were all being utilised and juddering slowly into place. That's not the point.
I was bullied horribly at school. Several schools. I know how disfiguring it can be, how it affects liveliness, temper, grades, and attendance. I know how the victim plays a certain passively inviting role in the bullying, too - how we can make it worse by a certain response. Which is not the point.

I know how much longer than eleven years of compulsory schooling it takes to work off the effects. I was nineteen before I looked up every one of the kids who had bullied me, and turned up on their doorstep to talk, amicably, about it. In each case, not one bully was aware of what effect their words had dealt me. They had grown into reasonable, intelligent people. That's not the point.

Instead of allowing myself to carry bitterness forward through my life, I decided to listen fairly to them, and give credence to what they had to say, as, without exception, they also did for me, a virtual stranger from their past.
I believed them, their protestations of unknowing casual harm, and subsequently wondered who I had bullied without even knowing. That, too is not the point.
The point is that I don't see bullying.

Teachers never see bullying.

If there's one thing that is important for a bully to succeed - crucial to the task of bullying, in fact - it's to keep it out of the teacher's view.
As a child, I literally could not conceive of a world in which the adults around me could not see how swamped my world had become by violent, sustained attack. I used to wonder if they were testing me, judging my resilience, before they finally, eventually would intervene.
As an adult, and an adult with a responsibililty to stop bullying amongst 250 students a year, I see nothing.

Not a single whisper. Not a dirty look, or a shove.

No pencils taken, no books grabbed and ripped up, thrown away. No friends from outside of school roped in to spit or claw scratch. The poison in the apparently friendly question, the menace in the apparently lukewarm tone.

No stealing or name calling, or sexual aggression. I never hear the nasty nicknames. I never see the trippings up outside the classroom, the explicit notes scrawled across a bag, the smears of fetid substances left across the back of a uniform, the missiles lodged in the hair.

I can't confront the dehumanising of the victim, because I can't see where it happens.

I know that 95% of schoolchildren say that bullying - serious bullying - occurs in front of them in their schools.

I sit in the same rooms, and I don't see any of it.

It's one of the reasons I became a teacher, and it's the hardest thing to fail at.

I told Michael to keep a diary of the bullying - that teachers and families often don't realise that it's not the pencil he snapped, or the poke with the ruler, or the crude vigour of a nasty name that sticks in the memory and keeps you awake at night - it's the horrifying repetitiousness of knowing these minor infractions will continue every day.
A diary of events - no names, no glamourising, no showing off, just flatly recorded simple events - can show a disinterested adult in one swoop how long and how demeaning a bully's words and actions have become.
It's hard to argue when a child has documented that this is happening every day.
Can you get yourself a notepad, Michael, to write this in?

"Yes Miss."

Good boy. Now sit down, but let me know in two weeks how you feel about this.

"Miss?" Ten minutes later, another tug at my sleeves, and my heartstrings.

"I don't have a notepad." Barely audible whisper.

I'll get you one, Michael. I'll bring you it tomorrow. Is that okay? Have we done with this now, for the time being?

Silent nod. And I feel, rightly or wrongly, for this kid, for this incident, and for the kid who's been accused, just today: at least I tried.

Some bullying resources. Just in case.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Extremely interesting post over at Remote Access about the lasting power of the narratives we weave:
"When I was working on my master's degree, I had a professor that made me crazy. She was into the type of qualitative research that is known as Narrative Inquiry. I called it story time. This very well respected, brilliant lady almost made me pull the little hair I had left, out. People in her classes that understood her and what she stood for laughed and cried together, knew each other for years, and seemed to be working together to get their degrees done.

I felt like an outsider.

But now I listen to stories. Now I wonder about the stories we tell about our classrooms, our schools, and our lives. The stories we tell, tell us a lot about what we believe. Our lives are filled with these stories about what we believe education should be. All of the stories we have internalized about what schools are "like" inform our practices deeply. Our students and their parents have these same stories. They are often framed as expectations, but they are stories. "Schools teach kids how to read, write, and do math" is a powerful story. "Kids sit in rows, are quiet, the teacher tells them what to learn and how to do it" is a story which shapes our classrooms.

We need to write new stories about education and about what we want it to be."
I'm minutes away from the smarting indignity of having just told off a girl who was barricading herself in a food technology practical space (= kitchen, people, kitchen). Her teacher was completing the last week of forty years of substitute teaching in the same school before his retirement next week. Leanne alternately ignored or screamed at him, and complied quietly with me. Meanwhile, in my classroom, a similarly aged boy did the opposite of everything I asked him to do. (question: "why are you eating, Lawrence?" reply: "I'm not, I just finished it. So there.")
My final words to Leanne: why do you think there's a problem with getting teachers to work in London schools, if that's how you treat people?

Remote Access' post makes me wonder just whose is the more powerful, most influential story here: Leanne and Lawrence's story that teachers are the enemy? My story: that teachers get burnt out and leave? My colleagues' story that society is changing, and with it, all attitudes to authority?
Or the sub's story, given after the lesson, as he came in to apologise, and to thank me for stepping in, that he has 'lost his touch'?
It doesn't actually matter which story is true. Which story influenced the day the most?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Once a year, I get to oversee the collation and standardising of literary coursework submissions for the final examinations.

Today, and only this day, I am the Academy, and I give my awards.

Adding to the sheer disorientation of reading 1750 essays rapidly while mainlining instant coffee and choccie biccies, I was up till the small hours, drafting forms for my own 75 examination coursework folders and organising the mundane details of standardising of 350 others. I did mention it's a large school?

Onto the awards: the usual gems of shining wit and scintillating insight turned up:

Most Unwittingly Lascivious
"Mary Shelley thought the wilderness and glaciers were a beautiful physical example of wild loveliness, and Percy too."

Most Unexpected Topic
The media essay entitled "A Consideration Of Why Austria Is Afraid to Show The Sound Of Music." (Which got an A, you know.)

Most Culturally Confused [joint winners]
"The 1950s was a time of backstreet abortions of black babies and the Wind Rush",

... so it seems logical that ...

"gay black men, as well as homosexuals were frowned upon, just like other forms of sexism."

Most Dramatic Opening
My favourite short story, 'The Tooth Fairy' (which plagiarised Mo Haydar's 'Birdman' outrageously - do they think we teachers too cerebral to read modern horror?) contained the classic opening lines:

"The man who hacked up women and kept putting their teeth inbetween the treads of the tyres on his car pulled up next to a prostitute on a grimy street that night."

Flakiest Attempt at Cheating
When I announced to a (different) class that two boys had been suspected of copying each other's work, the entire class instantly named the boys in question, which pieces were copied, and stated the exact fee charged by Boy 1 for these services to the rather inept copyist Boy 2.
I'm afraid that the subsequent overdone air of righteous affront when I finally confronted said culprits lost just a little of its dramatic impact as a consequence.

Jason's folder won the prize for Most Tortuously Inexplicable. Each page had ten different marginalia, themselves accompanied by further footnotes. Added to a compulsion to get ideas down the absolute second they occurred - rather than, say, finishing the sentence you're on before your next outburst - produced the most marvellously contorted logic I've ever seen anywhere.

Trunchbull Award For Special Achievement
Not to be selfish with the satire, though: kudos also to Mrs L, whose summative comment on one essay reached the warm, nurturing heights of "AWFUL. Do it again!"

Most Promising Newcomer: Charles Dickens
Finally, a tip for coursework producing students: if you write badly, it's the worst idea to pepper your writing liberally with long quotations from Dickens. His writing is good and that only makes your writing look more bad.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The siege of the doughnuts.

Dwain has had a bad day today.

Miss B has had a bad day today. She asked Dwain to stop selling doughnuts to other boys at a profit in her classroom when she wanted them to leave. She picked up the bag containing two doughnuts and held it, asking the boys in her room to vacate.

Miss H has had a bad day today. She stepped into Miss B's classroom to encourage the waiting crowd of fifteen year old onlookers to leave the room and wait for Dwain at the stairs a short walk away, and was sworn at for her patience. She was subjected to a torrent of doughnut-related abuse.

Miss J has had a bad day today. She stepped into Miss B's classroom when she heard the screaming and shouting of Dwain, who wanted his property back. She stepped inside at exactly the moment that Dwain decided that he really, really wanted those doughnuts.

Miss J, Miss H and Miss B were then physically held hostage in the room for twenty minutes; by Dwain, who refused their exit until he got his two mouldy doughnuts back.
Mister B is having a bad day today. He didn't bother to turn up when radioed to come calm down the situation in Miss B's room.
He didn't bother to turn up when informed of the siege situation that had then arisen.
He later didn't bother to turn up or to apprehend Dwain over this matter, so the teachers and the students are all full of red-eyed, victimised grumble about how it was dealt with, about what we say to our students when even good boys like Dwain are allowed to do as they wish to such a degree.
Mister B's name is now mud, and he will bear the brunt of the blame for the matter of the doughnuts.

In the spirit of initiative and free enterprise, meanwhile, Dwain got a half day in the choky, and his doughnuts given back.
The school positively encourages free enterprise and bartering of sweets for profit.
If only we could devise a way to allow them to convert good grades into immediate gratification, just as the doughnuts do. Imagine what they wouldn't do to get a good teacher, like Miss B, or Miss H, or Miss J, if that were to happen.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Godwin decided to perform one of his 'specials' for me today: minutes after bouncing energetically into my final period class, he bounced energetically back towards the door again.
"I need to go .. get a .. hat ... yes, a hat ... from my sister! yes, a hat from my sister," he asked, just a tad unconvincingly.
Godwin's routine is an old one, and I tired of it sometime in late 2003. I raised a palm at chest height, left it wordless and flat in front of him, then added the Look of Death to my narrowed eyes.
"Okay!" he bounced, pinging up and down all the way back to his seat.

Two more fruitless tries at the hat story, and Godwin settled down into the lesson's main task of beating the luckless Jason about the head with his exercise book, and throwing small objects at girls.

It being the final lesson of the day, my general tactic is to try and get as many noisy children out of the room on errands as is humanly possible. This meant that at several points, the classroom door was left open to the corridor.

Big, fat, Godwin-sized mistake.
As I sat, thrashing aimlessly at the computerised register, a slight movement flickered in the corner of my eye. Looking up, I noticed Godwin's tiny behind wiggling across the floor.

He was slowly, silently, crawling out of the classroom.

Stunned, I watched until he reached the door.
As expected, he paused and turned to what he without the slightest shadow of a doubt perceives as his daily audience, waiting for recognition before his moment of exit.
Never mind the croaking, enfeebled husky voice: I leapt up and roared.

Brandishing the same clownishly broad grin he's waved merrily at me on - I calculate (regularly) - 560 different occasions since joining the school, Godwin leapt up high to beam at me a carefree, sing-song, "I'm sorry!"

"Get out. Get out now. You are banned from my sight. Banned from my classroom. Banned from my world!"
It's a mutual performance, you understand. I'm not really angry. He doesn't want out. We both know this. The twice daily matinee is entirely for the purpose of preventing others from mimicry. The pantomime crimes, and the grand guignol punishment. All for effect.
At a classroom near you, every few minutes. Thank you, ladeezngennulmen, and try the chicken.
After ten minutes, Godwin wanted in. I affirmed in serious voice that he must promise me something before he may be readmitted.

"I promise I'm sorry."

Wrong answer. Out you go. The ritual determines that the first three tries will all be the wrong answer, regardless of content. The object of the game, you see, is for him to pretend that he really does want back in.

Downcast and cursing, Godwin flounced out, and in five minutes tried again, radiating renewed bright optimism.

"I swear to you I want to come in and work."

No. Wrong answer.

A huge mock-affronted grin as he gets to flounce again.
The audience, working, relished their distance from the drama: "Worse luck, Godwin! You'll never get back in!"
Third time lucky?

He tried a different tack. This time, Godwin the consummate performer made his stage entrance on his knees. Raised the intended broad smiles from the front row.
"I swear to you on my soul that I will sit still, and be good, and do all my work."

Correct. You may enter. Godwin acted the conquering hero. He had beaten the odds, and returned to the land of milk and honey, the room where his audience sit. Waving his arms in a jubilant gesture of gladiatorial victory, he marched, ankles flicking high, to his seat at the back, seating himself down with authority, sure of his place.

"But, Godwin," I continued, in a quiet voice, "you do know what you've just promised me, don't you?"

"Yes miss!" Automatic teacher-deflecting yes-miss rays battered me into near-submission, ricocheted across the raised witheringlook shield, and were swallowed safely by my protective silver-space-suit of sarcasm.
"You do know that you promised on your - " pause to place hand over heart, " - eternal soul, don't you? That if you break your word after a promise like that, your soul will be lost for ever, and you'll suffer an afterlife lost in the fires of hell?"

Ours is a defiantly secular school. But a lie is a lie, and he'd just sworn to do some damn work for me.
"No! No, miss! I don't want to go to hell!" Rapid head shakes, accompanied by worried nod down at the open book, the raised pen, at all the clustered evidence that his eternal soul should be reprieved.

Disgusted, Toyo piped up. "You can't do that!" I kept my hand over my heart, and Godwin's hand unwittingly crept up to cover and protect his own, as he mugged fear, obediently projecting worriment.

"Teachers shouldn't be able to do that!"

Toyo was not going to let this one lie.
"You should give us detention," Toyo's voice resonated and rose as he continued in tones of the highest umbrage, "you should ring our parents, and write incident slips, but never, ever, ever should you get to damn our eternal souls. Teachers shouldn't be allowed to send our souls to the fire. That's just not right."

My head sank, defeated, to the still locked register, shoulders shaking in mystified, helpless laughter.
Laughing at the heavens-sweeping authority that children give us, without question, at the same time as the smalltime day to day banality of the authority they deny us.

Toyo spread his arms wide, looked expectantly to his audience.
Godwin didn't notice. Busily clutching his heart, he was doing his work as fast, as frenziedly as he can.

Friday, March 11, 2005

It's Red Nose Day, and the children have been ordered not to participate.

No sponsored anything, no dressing up, no collection buckets, and most of all: no red noses allowed.
The 17-18 year olds were allowed to be exceptions to the rule; breaking the cardinal diktat of state schools: do what you like, to whom you like, when you like - but always be fair
They turned up to school in full fancy dress, and spent their breaktime waxing boy's legs for charity. (What fun, explaining to a local visiting dignitary why I had to go rescue little red riding hood and the mutant ninja turtle from the JCR to come do some work.)
The little ones, though, had no such rumpus permitted them. They had a day full of lessons as usual, uniform as usual, tedium as usual. And so they amused themselves by making a few large scale gang fights every breaktime.

What we'd forgotten to legislate for, though, was hair colour.

It was a reassuringly creative trademark of teenage rebellion to walk into assembly this morning and see a sea of spray painted hair, pillarbox red, matted, icky.

It wasn't for charity, it was just in the spirit of rebellion, the spirit of remembering that this, for our consumers, is childhood - and despite what the teachers think the priorities are, it's supposed to be about having a good time.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The latest mad craze is knitting.

Watch out, American teens, you may be next. France, Belgium and Scandinavia have already fallen.

In the space of two weeks, the fashion for knitting bits of cheap plastic string into a pointlessly coloured piece of cord has invaded and utterly overthrown my students. There is no child in the school - not one - I'm including the sixteen year olds here - unswathed by bunches of brightly coloured plastic 'laces', and desperately knotting together some improbable pattern in the hopes it will hold till the next lot of colours can be swapped.

Children are drowned by pocketfuls of badly hidden string bunches, trailing fat neon feelers, seeking the next victim.

They're focussed entirely on threading and winding and bartering for new laces. No looking up. No tension whatsoever.

They can't do anything else. They can't talk about anything else. The school has gone scooby doo mad.

I know we're not the only ones, either.

Me, I don't mind it. They sit, in silence, learning no more than previously, knitting away with the stringy stuff, intently focussed for hours. It's less expensive than the 'fur coats & fur boots' craze of January. It's way less annoying than the texting, or than the 'downloading mobile phone porn' craze of October 2004.

Lisa assures me it's already becoming slightly unfashionable amongst the sixteen year olds. Once you've got one ugly plastic keyring, what do you do with the other ten? Madame Lisa predicts: making scooby doos will be 'so over', by the end of next week. Shame.


Guilt at the number of increasingly desperate search hits forces me to show mercy: if you're looking for the laces, it's spelt 'Scoubidou', and you can buy them for silly prices on ebay, or you can learn to knit with them on the Scoubiland site, wherein lie the secret meanings of the scoubidou code ....

Colour Meaning Colour Meaning
red Best friend red + white I'm all yours
blue I'm sorry red + blue Secret friends
yellow Let's be friends red + yellow You're the only one
green Let's make up blue + pink Girlfriend
white Friends forever blue + purple Boyfriend
black Let's hang out red + orange Together forever
orange Groovy gal orange + white Heart broken
pink Babe orange + yellow It will never end
purple Fab friends pink + pink Beautiful eyes
white + white 100% Angel pink + black You're my teddy bear
black + black 100% Devil blue + black Muscle man
red + yellow It's a girl thing blue + white Brain box
blue + yellow Your secret's safe yellow + yellow Cheeky monkey
blue + green All girl team yellow + blue Daft as a brush
blue + white Girls together green + black Bees knees
purple + black Don't Stop pink + white Soul Mate
green + white Be mine black + yellow Busy bee
green + green Nature lover orange + orange You're a tiger

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

In honour of Boyhowdy's last term at his current school, and in reparation for the negativity I expressed about his beloved Media Studies a day ago, I quote from a fascinating post on how we rewrite and reinterpret written language to include a tonality we assume we can infer as easily as we can from spoken.
Seizing The Virtual Teachable Moment 

Having had quite enough of watching poor literacy and adolescent mindsets make a total hash of their online discussion folder while no other teacher in the school seizes the teaching opportunity, after years of tidbit-here, one-line there niggling at the edges of guiding the conversation in General Student Discussion, our school's intranet free-for-all space, I finally decided to step up as de facto teacher for the virtual space as classroom today.

Below, the cut-and-paste that marks my formal acceptance of the virtual gauntlet, including the exchange that, for me, was the ultimate last straw.

Student A on Thursday, February 24, 2005 at 6:20 PM -0500 wrote:
What if, say, political discussion was banned in GSD... forever. What would you all do with your time instead?

To which Student B writes:
Ok you complain about how you don't like political discussions, so don't read them. This isn't complicated, no one is forcing you to read. If you don't like it don't read it, or start a new thread. But don't complain about how you don't like it, its more annoying than the discussions that you complain about.
My response:
Interesting. I hope A and B don't mind being a teaching example for a moment.

What you see above is a prime example of how things get so out of hand so often on SWIS. One person says something, without explaining his context or reasons for saying so...and then another, "hearing" that text played out in his own head, ascribes context and tone TO that something BASED ON HIS OWN UNDERSTANDING of why or how HE would have said that something....and then goes on to confront the original author for a tone, context, or reason for writing which may be entirely imagined by that respondent.

Of course, then we all make the same mistake, and jump in quick with the same silliness. This makes us all defensive, and confused.

In this case, I myself am making assumptions about Student B's reasons for writing -- although I believe his tone makes those assumptions pretty obvious. However, I am writing because I want to point out that Student A did not in any way suggest what Student B is saying he did. Student A didn't say "Political discussion should be banned," or even "political discussion in GSD is annoying," or "it is annoying that GSD often devolves so quickly when we're discussing politics..." (In this case, in fact, I can see someone writing exactly what Student A did merely in response to how much TIME people seem to be spending on political discussion when they should by rights have far too much homework to do.)

B instead used A as a straw man. He took away Student A's ability to let his question speak for himself, and made it imposible for someone not to write in and say "hyy, wait a minute," as I am doing now.

And we all do it.

I'm doing it now.

So don't think I'm singling out Student B, here.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about virtual and digital communication is the way in which we accept e-speech as equivalent to actual speech, though one in which tonality is replaced by textography...despite the fact that text is not the same kind of carrier of tone as normal speech is. In other words, it is endemic to the medium that we develop habits like the ones which Student B both decries AND exemplifies...and which Student A may or may not have been thinking of when he wrote his perfectly innocent, theoretical question.

Unless, of course, we teach ourselves new habits.

Which is what I am advocating for by writing this.

I mentioned a day or two ago that it was long past time to begin spending my political capital now that I'm due to leave at the end of the year.

Welcome to the new me, kids. If you learn anything at all, I win. Here's hoping that another teacher will be willing to pick up the glove when I'm gone.
I don't know how many adults, let alone students I see make this mistake, who 'gloss' the written medium and read what they assume is there, not what they see.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Teaching Media Studies is introducing me to the heady delights of the peripatetic optional course teacher. After ten years of teaching core subjects, it's a breath of fresh air to be considered unimportant.

At a parents' evening, I watched family after family plod straight past me, on their way to grill the 'serious' teachers, the core curriculum.

I had to wander around the hall soliciting interaction with parents. Even when I did, what was there to say? They've made a movie of their own, they've created storyboards, they've analysed a dvd.
"Your son's really good at drawing, and he played a corpse exceptionally well. Next year I'd like him to really put his all into fulfilling his potential in Watching TV Studies."

I feel a disloyal splitter, and a charlatan, too, for saying it, but Media Studies is So Easy. I look at the A grade portfolios sent by the exam board, and this stuff would have problems grazing a C grade in English.
If only I'd known how mickey mouse this subject could be, I'd have taken it at university, gotten myself a double first and relaxed for three years.

There, now I've offended at least one reader.

At the moment, I'm teaching textual analysis of Hitchcock's 'Psycho' (I phrase it to students as 'watching tv', but they're told to make it sound really academic to outsiders). One of the least intelligent homeworks I've ever set was asking them to find out about Ed Gein, to see who most US movie serial killers are based on.
The student teacher observing looked stricken and waved her pen around hastily: "are you sure that's a ... it might be a little adult for them ...?"
Backpedalling swiftly, I ask them to focus on uncovering facts about Gein's relationship with his mother, and to see if they can find parallels in Norman Bates' fantasy matriarch.
Student teacher is nearly puce by now, sensing the dangers.
"And don't look it up on the internet, either," I add, "there's two crime records in the library, you have to look it up in those. If you looked on the internet, heaven knows what you might find."

I'd practically advertised it by saying so.

A week later, several queasy faced students file in, visibly in shock.
"You never told us he was so sick!" "He made suits out of skin!" "Miss L, this course is weird!"

Hastily, I remind them they were told not to look on the internet. I explain the dangers of believing everything you read online, of stumbling accidentally onto fansites and image archives that present a less than objective account of events.

"Oh I didn't do that," pipes up Leo. "There's a special feature documentary on Ed Gein on a dvd I found. It was great."
Encouraged, I ask Leo to report back to the class his findings. Where did he source this hopefully learned and dry documentary?

"It's on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre dvd."

This course is so academic. So broadening.

Monday, March 07, 2005

I accidentally called a child - twice - by their fictionalised blog pseudonym, today. He did look rather non-plussed.

I must stop viewing the trials and tribulations of the day as grist for the blog, and get back to viewing it as staffroom material.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Groundhog Day, South East London.

I've smashed my watch, and have to rely on the classroom clock for the precision timing that teaching involves. Except we've moved to a computer suite, and the clock's in an unfamiliar place.

After what seems like an age, I notice the time: 9.47am. Three minutes to the end of the lesson! Crikey! We've barely started; nobody's moved onto formatting their work the way I wanted, let alone inserting and manipulating images.

I start berating the eleven year olds panickily.
Save your work! Print one copy! Don't send it through more than once! (this line's crucial; it means they'll only send a print instruction fourteen times, instead of the usual thousand)

Shut your machine down! You, boy, what in god's teeth do you mean by coming in this late to a lesson: get out and keep out of my sight till you have a decent excuse!

Get those chairs tucked under the desks! Pack your things up, what is this, a zoo? Why are we not silent, heels together, arms folded, chins up?
And so on and so on. Army sergeant delivery, cursing my own ineptitude.

Until Hayley - rather sarcastically, I think - points out the clock has frozen for two months in that position: it's 9.15.
Oh. Ah. Sorry.

Back to the typing! Hurry up! Log in! Come on, come ornnnnnnn! Get the right program up! Why are you printing? Are you mad? Are we made of paper? Do you think it grows on trees?

You, boy, what are you doing outside the door? Nonsense, it's no crying matter - you silly boy! Get in here! Faster, boy!
& c. & c. & c.

I ask Joanne why she hasn't started. Does she not realise we only have one single lesson in here?
Joanne sighs heavily, casually lifts her arm to wallop Jamie (hard at work on his own piece) and hisses: "hurry up, you muppet! We only have one lesson!" before turning back to stare idle and inert at her own blank screen.

Gradually, I realise I haven't paid attention to the time for quite a while. A shock awaits in the lower right hand corner of Michael's screen.
Bloody hell! 9.47! This can't be right.

I check Tony's terminal: 9.47.

And Jack's: still 9.47.
And still I don't really trust it.
"Listen kids, either I'm mad, or the room is accursed, or it's 9.47. Get a move on, will you?"
And I wonder why Joanne isn't organised?

Thursday, March 03, 2005

It was a surprise to see Aliye, snorting a damp fag heavily as she mooched alongside her bad-girl friends, anywhere near the school.

A permanent fixture in the school's mock mini 'prison' area, she'd been told never to come back around six months ago. Been enrolled - against her better judgement - on a vocational course at the local trades college. LAsted four weeks before they threw her out also.

I have a soft spot for Aliye, since she was fourteen and used to wander into my form class to pointlessly scream abuse at me two times daily. Not the abuse, although, that's merely lessened, switched to different perpetrators, now - but the regularity of her visits, the clear indication that she felt she had nowhere else she felt like she needed to go.

When she was placed into my exam class at fifteen, I feared the worst. Yet, actually, as long as I allowed her to wander off rather than beat some provocative boy to a bloodied pulp, we coexisted happily. Her sendings out were always a perfunctory affair - a sad, wistful, 'okay Aliye, I think we've reached our limit now' was enough to have her mooch to the girls' toilets and smoke for the rest of the lesson. The difference between her behaviour and that of other troubled students, I think was that where they just wanted attention, and saw confrontation as a means to that end, she felt genuine disaffection. Aliye wasn't really concerned if you shouted at her or not. She wasn't really concerned if you noticed she was in the room or not.

Her sole contribution to lessons was an occasional "will you shut up, Miss, you been talking for thirty minutes now, and it's jarring me." Like all teachers, I hear the sound of my own voice a little too warmly, and I - unexpectedly - I found I appreciated the honesty. Her written work was competent, sometimes verging on good. anything else nonexistent.

I might have let her slip beneath the radar, left it at that, if I hadn't taught her brother, Haydar. He'd been a difficult person to place in the right tier of examinations, and his incredibly bolshymother had given me hell for underestimating him.

She'd been exactly right: Haydar secured himself an A. I learnt my lesson - teach to their potential, not to their performance.

So Aliye's disaffected grumpy slouch confused me. I didn't push the issue, but quietly, continually made it clear I thought her capable fo the top grades.

Until she was disappeared.

Nowadays, Aliye mooches around sitting on walls and smoking, getting up in the afternoons and waiting for her friends to finish school to mooch some more. She's sixteen and has no hope of gaining any qualifications at all.

Chatting to her in the street tonight, I point out that an appeal from her father to the DfES or to the local council would probably gain her access to the school just to take her examinations. Why didn't she appeal? There was still time.
For that matter, why hadn't mum said anything? Mum would have raised merry hell if Haydar had been treated like this.

But Alliye is Turkish. And a girl. Culturally unimportant. Aliye's mum is not at home any more, and nor is her brother. Aliye's dad isn't confident with authorities. "He gets confused," she says. "He doesn't know what to say or who to ask."

Social engineering. I can see it's behind the brilliant results reached by this year's crop of sixteen year olds, but it hurts when you see the kids it leaves behind. If Aliye were middle class, she'd be getting A grades right now, not skulking around council estates counting the days till she's pregnant.

I made her promise to ghost write a letter to the local borough of education. Get her dad to sign it. Conscripted her friends to make sure she got reminded. Promised to take up her case with the head.

But with a heavy heart. Kids like Aliye don't fall into the 'matters' bracket. Whateer we do now, we've told her that very very clearly. And that's the sort of lesson it's especially hard to unlearn.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

I've spoken of Lawrence and his unpredictable, sub sentient misbehaviour on several occasions.

The one thing I can use to bribe Lawrence is playing speed rally games on the class computer. Not in class - he mimics epileptic fits for two hours if he's not allwed on the computer in a lesson - but after school.

The other children are as repelled by Lawrence's gummy grin of idiocy as the staff, and his repeated erratic, uncontrollable swearing, farting, cussing, dancing ensure he's banned from most shared areas of the school - homework clubs, computer clubs, library - they've all finally hit their limit and closed the door.

You can't help but feel sorry for him, even as he drives you wild: by throwing raisins at you, 'punishing' you for asking him not to scream swear words, or spinning crazily around the class throwing shaken cola at other students.
Ask him about fairness or politeness, and he literally does not understand the concepts. Ask him why I threw him out of the room when all he had done was start a fist fight, or scream cuss words in a high pitched voice for fifteen minutes, and the only possible answer is 'because Miss L is a bitch'. He's quite literally not cognisant of his own behaviour.

Fat lot of good that is for the victims who are forced to share a classroom with him.

But still. He's a child.

A sixteen year old, thirteen stone, six foot child who is isolated. Still.

So when Lawrence asked if he might play on the computer for a spell after school, I saw my opportunity for a quiet life broaden.
I agreed, on condition that when asked to do something, he did not fight loudly or make a fuss for more than five minutes maximum.
That may sound easy to you. You don't know Lawrence. Since September, he's achieved this feat of moral rectitude precisely twice.
Today he achieved the impossible, and won himself twenty minutes of playtime after school.

Sitting close by as I drew up a list of student reports, I listened to Lawrence swearing under his breath rapidly. I threatened to switch the computer off if I had to listen to any more. The attention prompted his venality to fizz into overdrive. He swore ever faster, trying to get my attention. Stole my bag in an attempt to ward off the impending disconnection. I tried to ignore it. Tried.
We compromised on the words 'shoot' and 'crap'.

Eventually it was time to go. I reminded Lawrence that if he shut down the programme without moaning and shouting, or becoming angry, he was much more likely to get to use it again. He threw smarties at my head, but giggled, happily, and did as instructed with only a little direct address in the vulgar mode.

As I packed up the room and waited for him to pull on massive padded jacket and heft his way to the door, Lawrence reminded me of a threat I often use on remedial classes. The Hug Reflex.
The Hug Reflex.

I explain to kids immobilised by furious indignation that if they misbehave, I'm going to hug them. That I'm a very lonely old lady with no dignity left, and I'm quite frankly desperate. Therefore, if they continue to misbehave in front of me, I have no choice but to guess that really, underneath the angry face, they're saying something different - they're asking me to hug them.

Finishing with the matter of fact statement that, frankly, it'd be quicker for all of us if they cut short the tantrum, and just said: 'Miss, I need a hug'.

It's usually met with giggles or breaks a tense, sulky mood. If not, a few further remarks succeed; thank the reprobate in question for the flowers last weekend, or mention how nice it is to see they spend their Sundays helping old ladies across the road for a penny.

Once - just once - I couldn't get beyond the kid's fury, and had to actually give Courtney a hug.

News spread fast; I've never since needed do more than open my arms threateningly while wearing a dopey smile.
Lawrence calls my attention back to the threat, as he bundled up his things. "You know when you threaten to hug Wes if he's not a good boy?"
Wes's always a good boy, I snap, impatient to get out of there. Pelted with smarties is not the best way to end the day.
"Well, if you was to do that to me, ever, I wouldn't mind." Lawrence lurched through the doorway, heading off home.
"In fact I'd quite like it."

You see, it's not just that some days they surprise you.

"I'd quite like a hug you know."
That - right there - is the group identity of students at my school.

Naughtier than anyone could imagine there being a point to, and all of it done for just one dominating reason: attention.

A hug.

I threw a halfhearted smartie at his retreating back and gently closed the door.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The sixteen year olds have reached that stage in the year where they turn up after class and beg three hours' extra help with literature coursework, on a daily basis.

Yes, that's right, two weeks after the final deadline.

Tonight, while waiting for me to rush mark 8000 words of essay (religious allegory in 'Frankenstein', film meta-genres, a Chandleresque spy narrative, and an analsyis of audience response to kitchen sink drama), Rami decided to tell me what he'd done about his failing grade in a spoken assessment.

Rami's a very persuasive public speaker, accustomed to getting A grades, but he really, really doesn't know when to shut up.
Unfortunately, railroading your partner in an oral exam so they can't speak more than a line at all means that I didn't witness him 'listen with discrimination', 'develop a point further, or 'identify ambiguity' in another person's argument - any of the things that allow access to the upper grades.
Moreover, he'd fallen victim to the easy meat of encouraging his audience's laughter. In a persuasive appeal to an audience on the topic of poverty and homelessness, that's not really on: merely to pass, he has to match his speaking style to the topic and the people who listen.

So he gained an E grade.

He was horrified.

I pointed out at the time that he had several other A grades to select his final scores from.
Not good enough.

Tonight, Rami explained to me his fiendish plan for erasing that ignominious E grade from his record altogether. With a friend from another class, he has been videoing another speech, delivered to camera, but also incorporating interviews with people who have suffered injustice.

Yes, Rami's been interviewing the local homeless gentlemen. He narrated to me the difficulties of finding a time when said gentlemen are happy to be interviewed, and of keeping a morning appointment to film when one's interviewee has clearly come off somewhat the worse in a fiery exhange with a can of Tennant's Super.

He explained his problems with lighting and sound, too; some of the interviewees had sported massive facial bruising, or spoke haltingly through a marked nervous stammer.

I wondered if Rami might perhaps be telling me this out of alarm at such a strange, new experience. Children don't often meet adult strangers these days, much less interview them in their hostel.
I was actually a little worried about the safety of what he was undertaking.
When he referred to an mpeg video clip he wanted to intersperse, from the illegal bootleg video 'Bumfights', my alarm only grew.

I guiltily recalled the days when an eleven year old Rami had had to be moved from my class for consistent attention seeking, immature behaviour, even bullying, and feared the worst.

Until the sympathy and maturity in his voice began to slowly illuminate such dark cynicism.

Rami explained how difficult it had been for the men he'd interviewed to organise themselves to speak clearly and confidently, and explained that it was their circumstances that had reduced them to the early drinks, the fights, the nerves.
He informed me authoritatively of how hard it was to get off the streets, how many homeless succeed in holding down jobs - in situations where housed individuals without employment might find it hard to survive.

He described how he'd wanted to use a clip of 'Bumfights' to satirise not the homeless victims of the video, but the heartlessness of the consumers who propagate such things; to persuade them that their humour rests upon the pain and misery of other human beings. He wanted students to look at the homeless and not see a gaping chasm between themselves and one of society's less fortunates.

I asked him when his video would be complete. Apparently, emailing clips back and forth with his friend is proving time-draining, so he's going to spend his pocket money this weekend on a CD writer to speed up the editing they share.

He'd spent last week's money on a Bob Dylan CD - after watching the sequence in 'Dangerous Minds' where they dissect 'Mister Tambourine Man' as poetry, he'd thought it the perfect sound overlay for the sequence of homeless men fighting.
But, in the end, he added, he probably wouldn't use it, as the visual look of the sequence reminded Rami more of the cultural ideas he'd found in 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds', so that needs changing yet again.

Then, Rami continued, if I watch it, and I like it, could I possibly change the grade, and let him show it to the class? He'd really like to try and change their minds about these people whom they laugh at every day.
Stunned, I asked if Rami were studying Media at GCSE. No. Drama? No. ICT? No. Sociology? No, never.

I asked if anyone knew what he had been doing, filming this video. No.

I asked if, when he goes to his interview at Prestigious Local Sixth Form next month, he'd thought about telling them the lengths he'd gone to in order to change a lowly E grade on a topic that didn't much count. Not really. Why, do you think I should?
Kids like Rami don't come along often.

And it's heartening to see that when they do, they emerge butterfly-like and radiant from the same obnoxiously, loudly, misbehaving, recalcitrant cocoon of childhood as any number of other apparently irredeemable bruisers in our schools.

Rami, I asked, do you know how much you've changed since you first came here?
Yes, Miss L, he replied. I've really grown up a lot, haven't I?