The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, July 15, 2005

And that, I'm afraid, is that.

Armed with seven scraps of paper containing the numberless illegible addresses of children who would like postcards ("from the other side of the world"), I'm off to the USA, where as the UK finishes its academic year, the new year's first term is about to begin.

I've attempted to persuade a friend who is beginning her post graduate teacher training to blog here in my absence. Otherwise, The Blackboard Jungle goes dark, now, until the point, hopefully two years hence, when I take up residence on a VSO teaching placement.

Until then, adieu. I shall be once again a learner in the school of reality. Less the teacher.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Extracts from a 1998 school leaver's book I found:

Dear Miss L
We have had quite a good teacher-student relationship for the past two years, but I'm very happy that all that has to stop.
Love Darren

Darren was gutted that his ultimate role model, Shakespeare's Mercutio, had been played as a drag queen in the Baz Lurhmann version of Romeo and Juliet. He had been near to tears watching his hero don a short white skirt and shake his thang.
I recall having to take him outside and try to explain that it was an artistic decision that reflected the director's desire to place Mercutio at the extremes of society, on the edge of things, the runaway royal. Darren sniffed heavily,sighed, and went back into the classroom, with a visibly heavy heart. Darren and Mercutio both got an A at GCSE.

Miss L
Thank you for teaching me for the last four years, for all the help you have given me, the oppourtunities [sic] you have presented to me and for trying to make Shakespeare interesting. (although Leonardo Di Caprio was more successful than you!!)

Tracey's dad worked as a photographer at the Daily Mirror, and fed us a constant stream of under the counter supplies for the unofficial, unregulated, award winning, school newspaper I tortured the governors with for four long years. Tracey didn't escape me or my obsession with Hollywood rewrites of classic texts, and suffered the full six years of the Lectrice educational method, in class and in the after hours school newspaper club, until she went to university.
To do journalism.

Miss L
I remmeber the first lesson I had with you and it was funny you've put up with me while Ive been upset and dissobedient and Sometimes very annoying, i've enjoyed being taught by you and wont forget the great english lesson which I So look Forward to each week. ok then i spose this is good bye THANX
PS I wont write See Ya around cause i aint comin back to the 6th form OK bye!!!

Sarah made it through school despite her mum dying when she was fourteen, leaving her to cope with seven younger siblings, all of whom I also taught.
Sometimes, you see life throw something like that at an individual, and without even frontal lobe thought, you automatically forgive that child 90% more of their future wrongs. Sarah was one such case. She got her pass grade C at GCSE.

To Miss L
The most enthusiastic teacher I know.
from Cecilia.

Cecilia repays that enthusiasm in droves every day I see her walking her toddler home from daycare after she's finished the day's studies and she rushes up to excitedly tell me how well she's doing in her law course. Cecilia got, and earned every single part of, her grade B at GCSE.

There are more. Many more.

What strikes me, re-reading, is that I can tell you a little story about every one of them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

It's with a little surprise that I realise how a slow slide into jaded has crept into my tone on The Blackboard Jungle.

Bitter, penetrating disaffection.
I used to love this job. It's an easy job to do well, if you put some effort into it. Though rarely intellectually challenging, (and too frequently physically challenging), it's never ever bored me.

I don't sit at a desk. I don't file reports. I don't waste my employer's time surfing the net listlessly.

And there's something rather addictive about a job that has real value. That makes a solid difference in the world.
So I apologise for the subliminal tone of regret that's insinuated itself into the Jungle. I'm not entirely certain where it has come from.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Role reversal.

I ran into Joe, aged twenty, on the long walk home from school.
As I greet him, his handwriting floats into memory. For four years, Joe had seemed functionally illiterate, adopting the pose of classroom joker, of kid on the brink of terminal stupidity, wise cracking his way to the juvenile detention centre.

Seeing the ingenuity with which he dodged work, dodged lessons, sent teachers to an early nut house, I'd tried to convince him otherwise. Learnt that there was an active, questioning brain in that head, though dampened by a family background that allowed too much freedom, too few boundaries, that actively promoted the casual drug use that could kill his future.

I recalled many meetings where I'd sat him down to explain why he'd got a grade G every time: his handwriting was awful. An examiner would not read it. Write less, massively less. Let his brain shine through. Spend two thirds of the exam re-reading, checking, mitigating his own terrible handwriting, disguising the thing that was screaming 'G' at the unknown exam marker.

Joe isn't stupid. The honesty worked. He followed the prescribed plan of attack. And miracle of all miracles, did pretty well, in the end.
A glance at his eyes reveals he's still smoking too much weed, but a glance at his tattered and plaster spattered clothing reveals he's in gainful employment.
The slow spiralling ocular refocus means he takes a moment or two to recognise me. Could be the genuine tiredness of a difficult day's graft, could be the grey fug of soul-sating marijuana that clouds every council block in enervating under achievement by five o'clock every day round here.

"Miss L, you're not still bloody working at that place, are you?" Joe jerks his head uphill towards the massive sixties block of the school against the afternoon sun.

"Ain't it time you got out, yet? I mean, you could go somewhere else. You can actually teach, y'know."

Monday, July 11, 2005

I once set a group of children this homework: find out who is in your family tree by asking two people in your family.

Kelly brought in a note instead of her homework.

"Kelly don't know who her dad is.

And I don't want her asking no questions."

Friday, July 08, 2005

"Fazio, why are you walking so slowly? I'm an old lady, and even I can walk faster than you. You're thirteen, the peak of your youth, the world is there for you to run to it. And yet you walk so slow."

Fazio is from Sao Paolo. His voice forms a langorous, rolling Coelho drawl.

"Miss L, have you ever considered that it is not I who walk slowly, but you who walks too fast?"

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Updates on the London Bombing

Staff were calm. Resolutely unpanicked. Radios were on everywhere, amidst clusters of quiet adults, listening. One guy was reprimanded hotly in the staffroom for joking that perhaps the french had done it.
Soon, the problem becomes not communication with loved ones, but transport.

We waited for the big boys at head office to tell us what to do with the children.

By lunchtime, they all knew, and the thirteen year old girls were attempting hysteria.

With some reason - a huge number of our students have family who work in central London. Just three parents rang the school to order their children home, against all government advice.

Final period, thirteen year old boys, bottom set, low comprehension of what had happened, and there was no way we could get on with that essay we'd planned. We pulled up the BBC news onscreen, and I answered their questions in a slow calm voice, having first established who in the room had relatives in the bombed areas, who had contacted their relatives, who still felt worried.

Experience teaches you to take things carefully and take their concerns seriously. Children very easily take one misunderstood detail and run off with the impression that world war three has started.

We checked what transport lines were affected, read the statement from the weird sub Al Quaeda organisation who had claimed responsibility. Thought about what a 'crusader nation' might mean.

Lenny said "it's weird, 'cause none of us live up London [that's what children south of the river call central London] but all of us know someone who's up there."

John said "we'll never get bombed down here, because we're not economically ... er ... valuable."

Thali said "will we have to stay at school all night?"

John said "as soon as I get home I'm going to change into my army gear, get my water bottle, and go down to the TA centre and offer to help."

Fazio, new to the country, said "How am I going to get to north London now?"

To take their minds off it, after a while, I gave them a choice of videos. We watched a Hitchcock disaster film from the past (The Birds).
Chatted quietly about the possibility of international disaster if all the ants joined together to attack humans.

Ten minutes till hometime, and a tannoy crackles into aged life.
None of the trains in London are running. There might be buses. Go straight home, and walk if you can. If your phone won't work, come downstairs and use ours to check if your parents are picking you up.
If you can't get home by walking, stay here, and we will look after you.
If you go home and your family don't get in contact, come back to school. We will still be open. We will look after you.
The children are calm, their eyes are wide, the thing is still, as yet, an adventure. I repeat the key points for them.

The school will stay open. If you need help, come here.

We will look after you.

Updates on the London Bombing

Today's bomb blasts in London appear to be linked to al-Qaueda, and inevitably cause thoughts to fall back to the blasts in Madrid, and years ago, to events on 9/11 in New York.

Currently, most of London is closed, in the sense that all transport is down, mobile networks are not functioning, and only slowly is internet access to news sites being restored.
The news this morning was dire: many blasts, all in central banking areas / transport hubs / tourist and student areas ... but as with any terrorist event, it takes a while for news to calm down to report reality, as opposed to hearsay.

There was an olde worlde, WWII feel to the news at first, as staff huddled in rooms trying to raise news on old fashioned radio sets, or compared notes on how to get through to friends and family working in the affected areas, most of whom had been confined to their offices all morning. We stood in silent circle to hear the prime minister's speech at noon.

Only later do we tell the children that something has happened. The government has advised that parents do not pick up children, that they do not travel, that children stay in schools as long as is practical.

We're safe here, on the south side of the river, but cheap housing and fast transport links into the city mean that many of our 1700 students have parents who work in the affected areas.
I was trying to get LBC radio to route through the electronic whiteboard when a student receptionist wandered in, saw what was on the screen and panicked. His mum works in Trafalgar Square, travels in from London Bridge. It's important to take worries seriously, while still playing down the possibility of disasters. The nearest blast to London Bridge was north of the station, I reassured him, whereas his mum would have to have travelled west. She's probably okay, but best not to ring her yet, while the network is down. Best to wait for her to contact you to tell you she's safe.
State of uncertainty.

None of us quite sure how to teach today, but all of us knowing that we need to keep the safety jacket of routine solid.

Just in case.

Updates on the London Bombing

The unfolding of events, the media tenterhooks, though events themselves are thankfully much less serious in scale, are reminding me of September 11th.

The best thing about blogging for any long period of time is that one's memories are easily indexed.

Who needs to remember? Google can remind you.

So here's an extract from an earlier blog of mine, written a year after 9/11, explaining what hearing the news about 9/11 was like at a north London school:
I didn't know anyone in the building or in New York, and I didn't lose any friends or family. It seems slightly odd that something a continent away had so much effect on us in Europe, but it was massive. Everyone was astounded by it ... like watching an accident that you can do nothing to stop.

I was teaching in North London. I finished the last class of the afternoon at around 4pm, and was packing away my stuff to get upstairs to afternoon registration, when Panayiotis, a generally hysterical greek drama teacher in his fifties, burst into the room sweating and all wild eyes. He burst out with "Pakistan have bombed New York City! Everybody is dead! Look on the news - this time tomorrow Pakistan won't exist any more. The Americans will wipe them out!"
I couldn't really understand what he was trying to tell me, but as a child of the eighties I'd hidden behind the sofa during 'Threads' and'When the Wind Blows', so a huge chill went down my spine at the words 'Pakistan won't exist any more'.
I went upstairs where I usually registered a sixth form class in a computer room, and asked them to log onto CNN to find out what was happening. That was the second scary moment - when we realised that CNN was down.
Nobody could raise any news. We all agreed to go home and listen out for what was happening. Some kids decided if America had been bombed, there'd be a war, so they wouldn't have to do their exam projects or come in tomorrow. I wandered in to the empty staffroom, and scoffed at the latest rubbish that Panni had come out with, and one or two stragglers interrupted to tell me it was true.
I decided to go home and find out. It was a two hour drive, and I heard the real story on Radio 4 as I sat in various traffic jams. I'd been up the WTC the year before, and was thinking about the photographs of us all standing and waving on the viewing platform. Later on, when the buildings fell, I thought more about the pictures of us in the malls deep below.
I'll never forget the moment when they interviewed a bystander who was describing the scene before her, the confusion - then she screamed and screamed as people first began to jump. I had to pull over then. It was too horrible - a situation where people were alive, but had so little chance of escape that they would choose this.
They replayed that sound clip again and again, on into the next day, and the next. It's the sort of thing that sticks with you way beyond the sell-by date.

It wasn't till I got home that I saw the images on the news. Most people I know recall it as a visual thing, and certainly, when the second plane crashed, it was as chilling as watching the first smart bombs explode onscreen in the first Gulf War. But, it was radio that told me about it first, and that really humanised it, because it was all ordinary people, standing in the street, just like Londoners do when there's yet another bomb scare, and chatting about what might be going on.
When the second building went down it was horrific. There's a beauty and majesty in watching buildings being demolished at any time, and in a horrible sense that fascination was mixed in with the realisation that this building was full of innocent people. The scale, the occupants, the symbolism of it all - it was really tangibly a 'big' moment, and I remember stuffing my hands into my mouth in horror.

That was the start of a really really hard year at that school. The anger felt by everybody at what had happened was palpable. For us that was a problem, because the majority of our students were immigrants, recent immigrants, many of them from Afghanistan. They hadn't bombed America, and it became a matter of urgency to avoid a religious war happening at the school. Fearing a riot, we took care to hold our two minutes silence for the victims of the four plane hijacks, the people killed, and for victims of terrorism everywhere.
The next day, the personal attacks on the children travelling to school began. The school was situated in an opulent, middle class area, and the students were by and large bussed in from areas like Haringay, further into London. My 17 year old female students often stopped coming in - if they wore a headscarf in public, they would be spat at by fellow bus passengers, and told that the deaths were their fault. Young girls, told that they'd killed thousands of people because of a piece of cloth that represents piety and religious faith. It was incredible, really.
For the next six months, the whole school had a bomb threat almost every week. At one point we'd be stood shivering on the sports field every other day. Because there were Afghani refugee children at the school. One particular afternoon, the police who by now regularly patrolled the place deemed the threat real, and we were all told to leave the site and go home, as it would take six hours to secure the building from any threat. It was raining, October, kids had no coats on, no money, and lived ten miles away. The teachers had no money to give them to get home, either - all our cars were trapped in the car park, and our car keys stuck inside the school. There was nothing for it, but to ask children to look after younger siblings, and to walk home in pairs and threes; make sure they weren't in public alone. I recall that time sitting down in the playing field to wait the six hours, unable to walk the 16 miles home, watching these little kids shivering as they set off. Because some of them were Afghani. Incredible how some people's minds work.

This year, I tried not to memorialise it at work, although I had last year. Today I chatted to one student with learning difficulties who had been in NYC at the time - his memory of 9/11 is of being grounded for no reason, being unable to fly home for an extra week, and being stuck with a family who didn't dare to let him out of their sight for an instant. His feeling about 9/11 is simply that he hates America, because he got grounded. It's sad and kind of innocent, at the same time.

This morning I started to wonder about the reasons that it had felt so shocking, given that we in Europe were so far away.
(treat as a given that it felt shocking because it was shocking - yet it's not the only such carnage in living history - look at the entry titled 'Have You Forgotten' on 3rd September on here for a reminder of times when we were the terrorists.)

I think obviously the increase in global media meant we witnessed a visual record of tragedy as it happened in a way that had never happened before.
But it wasn't just that - it was the sense that this was not a media event. If anything, it was the first truly unmediated media event. You could see that the picture behind the newsreader wasn't meant to be doing that. You could see that the newsreader was as stunned as you were; he just didn't know what to say.
And you could also see too much. I never want to see the pictures of those people jumping ever again.

Each year I have to give seminars contrasting American and European cultural attitudes. This year was the first I had to specify we were discussing a time and a culture that was 'pre-9/11' - to an outsider, American attitudes to themselves and the world seem to have changed irrevocably since then.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

What a difference a day makes.

Summertime, and the behaviour is plummeting ... yesterday I felt tired, overheated, worn out and demotivated. Huseyin had spent earlyMonday morning following me to school chanting 'lesbian' alternately with 'what? It wasn't me! You didn't see me say it, so you can't prove it', then looked more than alarmed when I insisted on walking with him the rest of the way.
Chezney talked all through my lesson, Charlie and Charlie threw pens, and when Huseyin deliberately hit me in the face with a pen, I'd simply had enough.

I walked out, instructing Chezney to follow me, walked to the calm, cool, and above all silent office to collect my thoughts.

Nobody should be standing there being hit by missiles while trying to teach, but at that precise moment, I knew I didn't have the wherewithal to react calmly. If I lose my temper, I lose the game. I needed space to respond.

A new idea: drop the teacher act. Speak as one tired over wrought person to a human who is capable of understanding.

I explained to Chezney that I was upset ("for real, Miss?"), that he'd been making things hard for me, and then something had happened that had upset me even more. I spoke to him in an adult tone, and suddenly there was rational response in his eyes, instead of the sing song defiance that characterises the London classroom.
I asked him to go back in the classroom and tell people to pack up in time for the bell for me.
"Was it me, Miss L? Was it me who upset you?"
No. It wasn't you.

Cue ten minutes solid of thirteen year old boys worried they'd gone too far.
A small thing, but at least one wrinkle in the sheeting shower of disillusionment.
One day later, and I'm ready for the fight to resume.

Chezney talks all lesson - I tell him he sounds like a subtitle track, and set him a minimum requirement of written work. He makes it. I make time to tick the work of kids who are actually doing what's been set, and pass out ceritificates to those who've done their utmost in the last week.

Huseyin starts throwing things, and he's out of the door clutching a pre-written letter home within four minutes. Charlie and Charlie throw pens around the room before, during and after being reprimanded for doing exactly that, so I write home about them, too. Consequently, the other students ignore the disruption, are careful not to add to the noise.
"Yeah, so what, you always do that! You always write home about me. See if I care."

And there it is. I always do that. I always provide consequences for poor behaviour. The one energising detail that tells me what I'm doing will work, some time, some lesson, some day.
Fight the good fight. I didn't win one battle, but I'm still fighting the war.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Here at The Blackboard Jungle, we're big fans of ex-pat american blogger Colin Gregory Palmer. One of the most talented British bloggers (though adopted from rough colonial soils, we took him to our hearts as native talent; hell we don't need the likes of Palmer as competition), he gained an extra special place in the pantheon when he began a year of teacher training in a London school.

Damn, not even tourists are that silly.

After a year of off-blog slog, Palmer's back, and as prolific as ever. (Now with extra added Londonist swearing, too. Bless. It's like he belongs over here.)

Don't miss him.
While watching over an experiment in class, I noticed one of my year nines wearing a band I had not seen before which read: 'stand up and be heard'.

"What's that one for?" I asked.

"It's against racism, Sir. I think it's a bit vague, though. 'Stand up and be heard' could mean anything."

"Well," I said, always trying to encourage my students to think, "what would you have it say to make it more clear?"

He paused a long while before saying: "I'd have it say 'don't be such a fucking racist'. That's much more to the point."

Friday, July 01, 2005

Blessed release.

Once a week, I have to do a break duty; I stand outside the kids' toilets at playtime, and deny them entry. It's a more efficient lock-down than a prison. Of course, it doesn't make any logical sense, and the hour after the nineteen screaming arguments tends to be somewhat unproductive, but this is the way Everyone Else In The School voted it should be, so who am I to point out that there's no need for it?

Today, 308 fifteen year olds had to stand by the toilets gearing up for a practice examination. And forty twelve year olds stood in a row selling their angel cakes for charity.

My function - saying NO - was invalidated.

Armed with seven butterfly cakes, I retreated back to the kettle to recoup.
The twelve year olds showed an unerring instinct for the british sales technique as they took my sixty pence. "You're greedy."