Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Collection

I'm just back from doing the Christian Aid collection with my pal Mrs Heathbank. Because we are relatively lithe and active (I know, but that's church for you...) we undertake an area with a hill in it. On the very outskirts of town. This year's collection included not only the hill, and its strangely bleak little community in a new development which is unfinished and half empty, but also some new houses on the shore that we'd never visited before, so the afternoon promised some variety and a bit of interest.

In the event, there was much with which we were all too familiar. The people who had no money (it's Sunday). The man who said "I'm afraid I'm the only one in," and shut the door. The people who had already been given an envelope by their own church (come on, chaps, they're for door-to-door collections, you know - not for an easy way out for all concerned). Less familiar were  the lovely people who gave us these envelopes for our bag notwithstanding, and the people who invited us in for a chat regardless of our hiking boots (you go prepared for anything in this part of the world). Most annoying moment of the afternoon was reserved for four persistent and  very rude small boys who dogged our way round one group of houses making such a racket that we were sure the forewarned denizens of the place lay low as one man. It's the difficulty of remembering that I'm a Christian Aid collector and therefore must bite my tongue that really gets to me in these moments.

And then there were the dogs. I don't care for dogs. Fortunately Mrs H does, and fielded most of them. I had one great success in ordering one beast back into his house; it went, and its owner offered to hire me to complete the animal's training. I declined.

All this time it rained. Most of the time it was a fine, wetting drizzle, with occasional outbursts of something more substantial. As we trailed up the half-made road to the last houses in our patch, we reflected on how different it is doing this sort of thing in a city. I once helped a friend in a residential area of the Edinburgh suburbs; she did one side of the road and I did the other and the whole operation took us half an hour and yielded a heavy haul of filled envelopes. Where we collect in Dunoon, we have to reckon on at least two hours to get round our allocated houses, and will be lucky to have half the amount of the city collection. But I'm not complaining - not really. Except about the churches who make our journey a waste of time.

And next year I'd like it to be warm and sunny. Please?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Climbing through the past

Familiar stair
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Well, that was fun. Two hours spent in a building that seemed (predictably) to have shrunk and (less predictably) to have become an unfamiliar maze reduced me to giggling exhaustion - though the giggles didn't come on till after this photo was taken, as I hadn't met someone I used to know by then. The stair I'm on here actually looks much as it always did - worn, glossy stone treads, tiled walls - though in the 50s the paintwork was cream and there were no pupils' paintings on the walls. But elsewhere, dreadful things have happened in the name of safety, and whole staircases have been dismantled and moved to places that don't fit at all with the architecture. It was, as I said in my last post, always a challenging place to find your way round the central stairwell, but now it's impossible.

Upwards was the clue. If we kept climbing, we arrived first at the top landing under the glass cupola, a space now sadly diminished by a new partition wall and the addition of fluorescent lights round the Parthenon frieze (replica). Beyond that, I knew, was The Attic, where I used to go for sewing classes between 3 - 4pm Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I saw a dingy stair heading up into the gloom and followed it - only to find that we seemed to be in a building site, linked to the rest of the school by a corrugated iron corridor with a wonky floor. We crept carefully along this, and emerged on the Attic landing: it was the fire escape. And of course we'd all have died hideously in the 50s if a fire had happened lower down in the school, as there was only the one exit, down the central stairwell. We never gave it a moment's thought - and neither, presumably, did our parents.

Because of the nature of Hillhead until the mid-70s, the returning FPs of my generation tended to share a pretty recognisable set of characteristics, including self-confidence and articulate self-expression. I was totally amused to meet up over a mass school photo with someone whom I remembered, with increasing clarity, from the 2nd violins of the school orchestra. She'd been in the year below me, along with Alison, and her hair had been very dark. I now realise I also knew her brother - even after we left school. Her pal I knew less well, but remembered her big sister - and their father had been a colleague of my own. She knew several people in my life, including one ABF who comments on this blog. It was all very incestuous and great fun.

I am grateful to the mother of a current pupil, who let me out into the shed apparently closed off because of an unsafe roof - her daughter assured me the pupils still go into it. And I was amused by the closed-in area under the school which used to be the boys' shed, open all down one side and used when it was just too wet for footie in the playground. I don't know how they got on playing footie round the pillars - I imagine it led to increased ball skills.

I was hugely impressed by the amount of work obviously done by the present teachers, and by the quality of the work on display. And I realised early on what a nightmare the building has become, with the cramped conditions imposed by the alterations and the leaking windows and unstable stonework in the attic. I had a vision of some of the classrooms as they had been - large, square, well-lit by tall windows, 40 pupils sitting in rows at desks with flap-down seats attached and the teacher at the front at the high desk - and realised I was in another world.

Take it for all in all, I think I prefer where we are now..

Note: I've had to repost this, as it vanished during Blogger's recent sickness. Hence the wrong date - it belongs, like myself, to yesterday.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Time travelling today ...

Today I'm going to visit the school this grinning child attended: Hillhead Primary School in Glasgow. (And if you follow me on Twitter you'll recognise the young Mrs Blethers - the photo was taken when I was about six, I think, or maybe seven. My pigtails vanished when I was ten.) At the time, the uniform was strictly adhered to; the school was one of Glasgow Corporation's grant-aided selective schools for which an entrance exam had to be sat, a consequence of which being that you could be asked to leave it you were deemed unsuitable in any way. So there I was, in my navy gym-slip with the box pleats and the badge; the cream blouse (never, ever white for the girls); the navy tie with the gold and brown narrow stripes. My hair ribbons were navy blue and my knee-high socks an unpleasant brown.

But I loved school; I loved it wholeheartedly and was as sad to leave at 18 as any heroine of a girls' school story. I never even noticed that the outdoors toilets were a barbaric and chilly idea - and they froze solid in a cold winter and we were all sent home - nor cared that the arrangement of stairs in the Primary School was such that some classrooms could only be reached from the left-hand stair. (I did, however, quail at the idea of asking the fierce teachers in the middle landing for passage through their classrooms if I got it wrong - I preferred to sprint downstairs and start again.) We played all the traditional games in their proper seasons - skipping, ball-games against the wall, scrap-swapping (a winter pursuit, carried out in the shed) - and wildly dangerous ones, like first dreeping off a ten-foot wall and then learning to jump off it without breaking anything. I still remember the concussion of landing on the concrete - and I was a skinny wee thing.

I shall doubtless return to this topic after this evening. The school is to be moved to another site, amalgamating with two others, and I have yet to discover the future of the building in Cecil Street. I shall take my camera, and there is a chance that the visit might destroy some memories. But I doubt it.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Revolution: a traditional English teacher’s take.

It's that time of the year - exam time, when suddenly the seniors have vanished and the tired teacher has time to reflect but finds she is too jaded to string together new ideas, finds she is thinking of sunlit beaches and cool drinks instead of technology in the classroom. It's still "that time of the year" for me, but now, having retired from the classroom, I find myself thinking about the job I left - and the job I wish I could be doing. This post is the result of that reflection.

"Poetry, like all the arts, is useless."

Thus began an introductory note, written in the 1940s for Higher English students on the subject of poetry – a wonderful note which went on to demonstrate that although a knowledge of poetry would not clothe or put a roof over the heads of those who knew how to approach it, it was nevertheless one of the most fulfilling cultural activities for students of English.

The question for an English teacher who is sensitive to the need both for the cultural aspects of the subject and for the transactional writing that underpins half the subjects in the secondary curriculum is how to achieve a balance within a revolutionised school curriculum. This is one vision – the vision of an English teacher who has bridged the period between “Projects in Practice” and Higher Still, and who sees Curriculum for Excellence as a half-baked attempt to have a bloodless revolution.

1. Transactional English in immersion learning through a central topic:
If a whole school were immersed in a core topic such as Climate Change, dealing with everything from the Physics and Chemistry of the process through the social aspects and physical impact of change to the politics and journalism of dealing with it, then English writing and comprehension would be an integral part of the study. English specialists would have to be timetabled to be present in the area where such work was going on, to be a constant resource on the ground, to enable the best possible communication and expression of what was being done at all levels.

2. Expressive and cultural input – especially from S3 upwards – in English:
This is where the biggest change might be seen to take place. It would be perfectly possible to deliver the kind of lesson that has always brought, say, a poem to life to a much larger group than has been traditional since the days when partitioned classrooms used to be opened up to allow one teacher to take 60 pupils in time of absence of staff shortage. I’m thinking Big Lesson, followed by group work by pupils with teacher participation, followed by plenary feedback with some kind of projected backdrop showing the results of the discussions. This would free up timetable time to allow for more flexibility.
[It always seemed a waste to me to have a whole year timetabled to be doing the same course at the same time when some of the work was suitable for this kind of treatment. It also seemed a shame for some pupils to be stuck with the one teacher for the two years, say, of S grade, when they could easily have a shot of someone who inspired them. There were often instances of pupils of one teacher coming to another for advice which was lacking in the class they were in]

3. Technology as the glue as well as the instrument:
If pupils were not isolated in the womb-like classroom of individual teachers (I’ll speak for English classes now) for up to 6 hours a week, but could because of flexible working spaces have access to technology and subject specialists when they needed it, provision of an adequate number of computers should be less of a problem – and the maintenance of them might be made simpler if 20 computers were not buried in the room of a cack-handed technophobe who didn’t ensure they were properly functional. I think the formative assessment of students involved in both the cultural and the transactional stages of English could be transformed by their doing all their working-out online, so that both the process and the input of the teacher could be publicly visible (whether in the wider world or on a closed school site). This would save teacher-hours in repeating the same mantras (eg about the embedding of quotation in a Critical Essay for Higher English) and allow learning to take place through study of past materials (something I always did, but which was limited by having limited copies of exemplars). Incidentally, it would also facilitate staff CPD - for teachers are not equally skilled or indeed educated in their field, and the open nature of the work I advocate would allow for continuing but not overt acquisition of new skills. Final work could be submitted on paper if required, but I like the openness and accountability of the blog/ning model for ongoing assessment and appraisal. If twitter or other short-form communication were to be built in to the system, the resulting flexibility would expedite learning, mentoring, teaching, assessment and feedback – and none of these would be limited to the physical classroom or the 9-4 day.

4. The integration of the extra-curricular:
When I taught in Dunoon Grammar School, I ran a very successful magazine. Its operational heart was my classroom where the iMac lived, and almost all the work was done at lunchtimes, after school, and in evenings when we were often racing to escape from the building before it was locked up for the night. But before we were deemed sufficiently successful to purchase our own computer, we relied on the machines in the Business Studies department - a situation fraught with the potential for strife.  It strikes me that if something like The Pupils’ View had been a more collaborative activity, we would have had the Business Studies people onside teaching effective skills in typing and layout instead of fighting over when we could use their computers – and there was much useful learning going on with phone skills, advertising, layout & design, sweet-talking advertisers, selling papers. None of that was ever recognised.

Obviously timetabling and resources, school buildings and staffing are at the heart of this, but it seems to me a way of developing new ideas so that the interesting and purely cultural aspects of the subject are not subordinated. And I have taken no account whatsoever of the matter of discipline and the disaffected pupil.

In my experience, there is a great deal of slack time and wasted effort in teaching as it currently stands.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

And now it's all over ...

SNP Manifesto at a glance
Originally uploaded by Ewan McIntosh.
Wow. In the rainy aftermath of the Scottish election there's time to think, to read the papers and the blogs, to realise how different life feels. I hope Ewan's cool with my use of his wordle, because it - and the manifesto it sums up - says it all: it's about Scotland, and it's all positive.

I love an election. I love it when the lampposts bloom with placards and you find George Galloway orating in the middle of Buchanan Street when really you're looking for your lunch. But this election did more, didn't it? And when Kelvin Mackenzie opined on last night's BBC News that the sooner we held a referendum - and let him and his fellow-English off the hook of having to prop us up - the better, I no longer felt the kind of impotent rage that the Thatcher years engendered. Suddenly the people running my country are recognisably the kind of people I know - and I like that feeling.

Things have been looking up for the past eleven years, and this election set the seal on it. Here's to the next five years, and to an exciting future.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Doomsday without spoilers

If I tell you that the copy of Connie Willis' Doomsday Book in the photo was one I actually ordered from the US because Amazon UK was no longer selling it at that time, and that I therefore paid more for the postage than for the book itself, you'll perhaps realise that I really, really wanted to have a copy. I'd actually read it once already, but in the school library, in a rush, when I should have been doing something else, like teaching/correcting/preparing ... anyway, I wanted to enjoy it in peace.

And now I've re-read it, wondering if it was as good as I had remembered. I guess it was, as I'm once more suffering that lost, bereaved feeling common to all who lose themselves in novels and don't want to return to their own life. Not that the life described in this story is an easy one - but it is convincing. Pay no attention to the absurd cover illustration on my copy - it bears no resemblance to what is within.

In mid-21st century Oxford University, a young historian - Kivrin - is sent back in time to the fourteenth century, despite the misgivings of her tutor who worried that the preparation for such a long "drop" - so far back in time - has been inadequate. We then follow the two parallel stories: Kivrin's experiences in an Oxfordshire village in the 1300s - interspersed with her first-hand description in the "corder" implanted in her wrist -  and Mr Dunworthy's struggles in 2050 as a crisis links the two time-zones and puts everyone in danger.

There. I'm not going to say any more, for one of the interesting things about a third read was that I realised exactly what was going on and the reasoning behind the suggestions that cropped up through the plot. No spoilers, eh? But what I am interested in this time is how science hasn't developed quite as Willis, writing in 1992, envisaged. In fact, much of the development has occurred since I first read the book, as I was hardly aware of the discrepancies first time round.

A major flaw is obvious in that people in 2050 don't have personal cell-phones. Indeed, many of Dunworthy's problems arise from his never being able to get hold of a phone, or contact vital people on the phone. It adds hugely to the tension, and I soon slipped into acceptance of this mode of thought, but it made me smile nonetheless. The phones, however, are cordless and have video. People don't seem to have personal computers - not portable ones anyway. Medical practice seems slick, with "temps" that give temperature readings when swallowed, though aspirin still seems to be a remedy of choice. And Kivrin's medical knowledge, such as it is, is of little help when she seems to be stranded in the past.

Of course, I was interested in the portrayal of religion - a huge part of 14th century life, but still very much a feature of 21st century Christmas. Willis is obviously keen to show the reality of faith in the past as well as its failings, and the way in which she does so is convincing and very moving. But above all, she creates a grim picture of life in a village of the time, with its filth, brutality and kindness, where people lived and died and loved their children.  She apparently spent five years on the writing of this book.

 I hope you lay your hands on a copy.*

*Of course, if more than one person reads this post, you'll need many copies. Good hunting!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

One for the flight bag

I finished reading Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace just before the busyness of Holy Week began, and now wish I'd saved it for a holiday. Based on a true story, this book has all the ingredients that make for a joyful picking-up of the thread every time the reader has a moment, making for yet another bereavement when I finished it.

Grace is in a penitentiary in Canada. She is a notorious murderess - or is she? Her story is told partly in her own words, as well as through the third person experiences of Dr Jordan, who is allowed to interview her in an attempt to find out what exactly happened that dreadful day in 1840 when Nancy and Mr Kinnear were killed and Grace's mind went blank. Or did it?

And this is the interesting thing about the book. Despite learning of Grace's childhood in Ireland, the family's hellish journey to Canada, her becoming a servant and escaping her drunken father, despite a first-hand account of the day her employer and housekeeper died, I never felt sure of the extent of the narrator's guilt or innocence. Neither does Dr Jordan. The outcome is satisfying without being conclusive.

Atwood writes so wonderfully that I was immersed from the start. Brutality, cruelty, sexuality and murder are all dealt with in the same clear, consistent prose of what the Independent on Sunday called "a sensuous, perplexing book". If you haven't read it, take it in your flight bag.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Still singing after all these years ...

Are we all ready?
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Readers of this blog will know that I sing a bit. Yesterday the group with which I have done more singing than any other came to Dunoon to perform in Holy Trinity - my church. It is something that rarely happens - we do most of our performing in the Cathedral of The Isles - and it meant a great deal to me. To make "our" music in "our" place, at last, felt as if a story was being completed.

The story began 42 years ago - and that horrifies me, when I write it. In 1969 the St Maura Singers formed and sang Evensong, as I mentioned in my last post, and we've been at it ever since. Our soprano - wearing a purple jacket in the pic - moved away and mutated into an alto; her place was taken by a teenager just out of school (dark green jacket). Yesterday we were all together, along with another bass (white beard) and an instrumental ensemble, giving a re-run of our 40th birthday programme.

It was a lovely afternoon. The weather was perfect, the afternoon tea on the lawn unsurpassable, the audience a good size - and mostly drawn from outwith the HT congregation, which was healthy for the coffers. The church itself proved what we who worship there have always known: it has a superb acoustic and a wonderful atmosphere, peeling paintwork notwithstanding. It doesn't suffer from the curse of wealthier churches - thick pile carpeting and cushioned seats - and the hassocks had all been piled away to increase resonance.

Personally, I was soaring on adrenaline. A combination of singing first alto in "When David Heard" and making a decent job of John McIntosh's* settings of Dave Whyte songs left me wrung out after it was over - and starving. I was as high as the proverbial kite, and as always found myself wondering how long we'll be able to do this.

At 65, I realise it can't be much longer. Our soprano is the only one not in that age range. But what a privilege still to be performing like this - I only hope I'll know myself when it's time to give up!

*OK - he's Mr B. But he has another life ...