Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Stifling comment

An interesting development in school sites caught my eye after I read in The Sunday Herald how schools are banning student access to RatemyTeachers. A quick trawl through the (largely illiterate) comments on the page devoted to my former place of employment showed that while the medium may change, the content does not. As far as I could see, this was the usual stuff, writ not large but potentially widely. But who will read it? Other kids in that school? A few. Their parents? Fewer still. Future employers of the staff concerned? Well, they might, I suppose - but I would hope that they would take the info with a pretty big dose of salt. Who will post? The usual suspects.

OK - I'm not involved. I don't work there any more, and as far as I can see there is only one (very positive) comment about another retired colleague. But did I listen to what pupils thought of me and my colleagues while I was in the classroom? Occasionally you'd get a misguided child attempting to tell you something unpleasant that a wee friend had said, but it's a foolish teacher who pays much heed to that kind of stuff - or indeed goes so far as to encourage it.

But it happens. All the time. You can't stop it because it's part of school life. One of the problems about using computers at all in school is keeping the kids on track, and that doesn't involve writing comments on teachers - just as when I was at school one was discouraged from filling up the boring moments by writing scurrilous notes to a pal on the other side of the room. Or - as I did, every year - writing a colour-coded key to the efficacy and likeability of my teachers for that session. I don't think there's much to be said for banning access; that merely gets the school's name added to the "Wall of Shame".

And another thought: when you live and teach in the same smallish community, you are never under the illusion that you're not discussed. You are assailed by parents in the Co-op; sometimes they phone you at home; on at least one occasion a disgruntled but misinformed parent even turned up in the dark of a November evening on our doorstep. Everyone over the age of eleven knows who you are and has an opinion of your worth - and talks about you loudly in public when the mood takes him/her. Websites? Nae bother.

But I'm out of it, and you can shout me down. Comments, please, in this public space!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

3D peak

I'm indebted to Ollie Bray for this info about a new plug-in for Google Earth, which allows you to see the Matterhorn in 3D. I spent several happy minutes last night navigating round from the Italian side - where it is called Monte Cervino - to catch the view (see pic) from Zermatt, familiar to me from a couple of visits. My fave peak in the whole world - who could ask for more?

As they say in Glasgow - it looks just like itself.


Wild seascape 1
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
This photo - of the Firth of Clyde on Thursday - gives an idea of how difficult travel can suddenly become in these parts. Actually the ferries were running, and we had just crossed from Hunter's Quay, but here we were driving through quite big lumps of sea on the coast road to Largs. A trip which appeared simple when first planned can so easily turn into a problem, and a civilised shopping spree in Ayr become a sodden scamper from one shelter to the next. Elegance? Forget it.

Another good reason for virtual communication? Absolutely. Except that there is no virtual substitute for the wind blowing the spray in your face, or for the glow when you return from a walk in the wet wilds with the rellies whom you are visiting.

Or for the taste of the wine shared at the end of your journey!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Progressing nicely..

I'm delighted to have Progress Report back online and to be able to join in SS's Higher preparation. It's interesting that she feels so happy to be blogging again - and brings it home that I am able to work with her even though I am actually away from home at the moment. Mind, I could do with having my books around me - Higher work is always that bit more demanding on the teacher! - but I can still ask the questions that a good student can use as a springboard, even if only to say "no, no - that is not what I meant at all".

Meanwhile, can I invite other edubloggers to take a look?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Younger every day

I'm away from home tonight, and had not expected to post till I return on Saturday, but I have to record that today my brain was ... 46! And what is more, I was doing the test on the Western Ferry as it heaved across the Firth of Clyde in a high sea with interruptions from the man who wanted a ticket from me. I told him I was old and didn't need one, but he still insisted on seeing my pass. I was irritated, but I suppose I should have been pleased that he didn't just look and say "Old person".

46, eh?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Brain training, anyone?

Further to my acquisition of a Nintendo, I can report that addiction is gaining ground at The Blethers. No, I'm not playing games - at least, not in the sense that Duffy meant t'other day - but I am doing 100s of wee sums and reading swiftly aloud, drawing camels and rhinos from memory and realising that there are skills I once possessed which have fallen lamentably into the sere, the yellow leaf. Like multiplication tables, for example. I'm as bad at the middle bits of the middle tables (6x and 7x especially) as any struggling nine-year-old - walking speed, according to Dr Kawashima. On the cheerful side, I'm at train speed in my reading aloud, and pretty hot at remembering words - as, I suppose, you might expect.

And the purpose of all this? Well, when I asked for my "brain age" on yesterday's showing, it was 56. Today it's 52. The target is 20. And there's the competitive element - Mr B is reckoned to have one foot in the grave, brain-wise. I have a feeling that geekery comes into the equation, however, and it doesn't have any criteria for measuring musical activity. But Mr B is now talking about doing homework on his tables and has disappeared to read aloud. Madness may be just round the corner - or perhaps not.

Amusingly, the Nintendo saga (or Nintendo for Saga clients) was picked up and blogged over at ds fanboy, where many of the 11 or so comments revealed the fact that moms - as they touchingly call me - are not expected to enjoy this sort of thing. Tough.

And the Nintendo has just told Mr B; "Chris did better than you today." See what I mean?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Nintendo, not nursing homes

I had a day off yesterday - visiting Edublogger, collecting my fabby birthday present (too precious to post), lunching at the excellent Shore restaurant and coming home just in time to watch Spooks. Over lunch, we discussed, inter alia, the reasons for someone to blog. Mine are obviously different from the work-based agenda of many of the blogs I read, but I decided that as far as I was concerned I was aping the essayists whose work we used to study in school - Addson, Steele, Bacon. Maybe a touch of Pepys as well.

Actually I loved Bacon's essays, with their terribly quotable lines - "Revenge is a kind of wild justice"; "Men fear death as children fear to goe in the darke" (I'm sure I remember archaic spelling - I must have been an odd child). I once unearthed a set when I was starting off a top Credit class at the start of S3; we read a few and then I set them to write their own essay "Of Homework". The results were amazing - and the class never looked back, accepting from the off that they were going to be challenged because I thought they were up to it. The two year course was one of the best periods of my teaching life, most of it having been spent in a very ordinary comprehensive - these pupils showed how extraordinary they could be.

I look forward to seeing how far my new Nintendo DS Lite can rejuvenate my aging brain - an obvious investment in keeping me (and Mr Blethers, apparently) functioning mentally well into our old age. I shall report on my progress.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Light transformed
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Just returned from the Singing Workshop in the Cathedral of The Isles, with the Sanctus of the new Kilbride Service ringing in my ears, it is difficult to recount what the weekend meant for me. I organised it, partly to share an experience of singing, working hard and living in a wonderful place which I have enjoyed for 36 years and partly to widen the circle of those who know about the cathedral and want to return to it. I did it through and for another important element in my life, though a more recent one - Cursillo in Scotland. It seems to have been a success - and the results were pretty impressive.

Put together a group of 20 people from all over Scotland - Moray, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Argyll dioceses, from South Uist to Dalkeith - ranging in ages from 40ish to 80ish, who have never sung together before and who in some cases have never done more than sing hymns in church congregations. Work them hard for a day, with vocal exercises, with unison singing, with harmony and with plainsong. At the end of that day, before they stagger exhausted to bed, involve them in singing Compline, entirely in plainsong. On Sunday, they fill the choirstalls and sing a new communion service, on which the ink has just dried, by John McIntosh (aka Mr B, but here operating very much in his own hat) who has by now brought them to such a pitch that they barely recognise themseves. They sing Arcadelt's Ave Maria, in Latin, as a communion motet, and they realise they are achieving a unity.

It was an unlikely thing to do - but it worked. I'm really glad I thought of it (she said modestly) and that I can call on such great musicians as Mr B and our friend Alastair at the cathedral. Talking of modesty - the reading at Morning Prayer (yes - we had that too) today was from Thomas Merton, about humility. About feeling comfortable with the reasons you had done things - at least, that was one angle. This weekend felt good, to me

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Not blogging but singing

Every teacher knows the sinking feeling when they have a great idea or - if you're an English teacher - a super text and it falls like lead in the class. That's frustrating enough; you feel depressed or challenged depending on the time of year, but you have to keep going. Even worse, however, is when you have a bright student who hasn't realised what hard work is - or who simply isn't interested in improving. Many bright pupils can survive on their wits till about S3; after that success tends to involve application as well as natural ability.

I'm feeling a bit disenchanted today. I know blogs work as a great way of keeping work in English interesting and fresh, an answer to the old question "how do you prepare for an exam in English?" But like everything else, they only work if the pupil produces the original posts. The blog illustrated above, wildbank, has been grinding along in fits and starts because its owner had yet to grasp the concept of "little and often" - and the idea that, as footballers practise ball skills, writers practise writing skills.

I need a new metaphor along the "you can lead a horse to water ..." lines. Suggestions welcome! Meanwhile, I shall remind myself that I have a life, about which I shall blog when I return from another sojurn at The Cathedral of The Isles, where I have organised a weekend Singing Workshop for Mr Blethers to share his magic. I expect we shall all be working hard there, 'cos it's more fun if you do things properly.

Who needs to teach English?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Is there anyone out there?

Dunoon Community Radio
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
A strange morning, that - a sense of recording stuff that may never be heard, never read. Going out at 9.30 on such a gloomy, misty morning reminded me of going to work, especially as the Community Radio bods had set up shop in Dunoon Primary School - it seemed small enough to be a cupboard, but may have been an intimately small teaching space crammed with equipment (pictured). I spoke about myself, read some of my poems, played some of my choice of music, sold a couple of my books and had a coffee bought for me - an agreeable way to spend a dreich morning. Small kilted children came and went in pursuit of their competitions (The Mod - remember?) and as we left I could hear the next programme going out in Gaelic.

And then? the stuff that no-one may read? Well, there's always this blog, but I've also put my morning on the One Day in History blog, urged on by the exhortations of Neil Winton. I read the other day that no government had yet fallen through the activities of bloggers, but who knows what future historians may make of such minutiae?

And the day is only half over. I don't know .....

Monday, October 16, 2006

Ego again

The ego stepped smartly in today to prevent me from saying "no" to another job - and as a result I find myself preparing to appear live on local radio tomorrow (can you "appear" on a radio programme?). Apparently the tie-in with Mod radio means the local chaps (a genderless word in my current vocabulary) have been given more air-time than they know what to do with, so they quickly hunted round the voluble and the brass-necked and there I was! If you want a wee insight into the Mod in Dunoon, by the way, you can find it here, courtesy of Brian Morton.

I'll be talking about writing poetry, reading some of my stuff, and, I think, having some of my choice of music played, if I can find the relevant CDs in time. The prog goes out at 10am on 87.7 fm - but I think you have to be pretty close to Dunoon - or maybe in a Gaelic area - to get it.

But meanwhile I have a dinner party to cook for!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sailing in Fidelio

Flying again!
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up all at sea. After all, when your best pals acquire a boat (a Freedom 21 called Fidelio, to be precise) it's only a matter of time before you discover a need to join them on board, and today was that time. It was unfortunate that the mist never really cleared, though if you click on this pic and look at the rest of the set on Flickr you'll see the wonderful pale pink sunset over the Holy Loch, but I'd made up my mind that I needed some boat photos for possible use as background to a poem which I intend putting on a postcard.

Actually taking photos on a sailing boat isn't easy. For a start, there are a great many ropes (sheets?) and bits of metal which are a vital component of the sailing mechanism, and then there are the welly-clad feet of The Boss, aka Rob, which threaten to land on your head should you move too far from your allotted space. It is difficult to get far enough away from anything to take its picture, so you end up with half mast photos. There is also the small matter of a great deal of water which must not be allowed to come into contact with the camera - you get my drift. But enough of these half-baked puns.

For drift we did not. We were under sail the whole way until the moment of re-entering the marina at Holy Loch; slowly into the wind towards Gourock and then careering gloriously back with the spinnaker out and the boat keeling over and making great gurgling noises. All very exhilarating.

But I may live to regret having my photo taken wearing edublogger's Waverley hat.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Life before death

I was involved in a street collection this morning, not something I do very often but much less awful in reality than in the imagination. The Christian Aid collection had me rattling my tinny (can't call it a plasticky) and occasionally adding the words "Life before death" to call attention to myself. The "pitch" I had chosen from those allocated to my church was outside the betting shop - I had wondered if anyone would be there before 11am, but I needn't have worried.

As it turned out, I finished the hour with more in my can than any of the other collectors I met. The betting shop is a great pitch, and the best contributors are not the sleek passer-by from the nearby car park but the patently obviously desperate, the old, the ordinary. Two well-dressed young women passed with no more than a faint smile, while an elderly man, coming out of the shop, said "Ah've nae change - Ah'll be back" - and returned, ten minutes later, to put something in the can. I also give honourable mention to the man who, in response to a rattle from me, said "I'm a good Jewish boy" - but gave me a contribution nonetheless. On the down side, I saw the spectacle of the enormous men - there were several - who would heave themselves from their cars, march into the pub next door, reappear to place a bet and stuff themselves back into the driving seat to leave - all without sparing me a glance.

Life before death is a great slogan - but I wonder what the people we were collecting for would think of our lifestyles?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Compromise and an offer I could refuse ...

It would seem that the Scottish Episcopal church- or at least the bishops thereof - have been slowing down to a walk over the matter of priests and bishops in same-sex relationships, waiting for the next Lambeth Conference to reach its decision on how to proceed. Bishop Martin, over on Following Columba, writes "How can anyone compromise when injustice is being done? Perhaps for some justice seen to be done is more significant and important than the future survival of the Scottish Epsicopal Church as an Anglican Province." I feel that we put our bishops in a very awkward position - it's as if once someone becomes a bishop he/she has by definition to compromise in order to hold all the flock more or less in the same field. I wonder how it'd be if we trusted them and the Holy Spirit a bit more and let them be themselves?

On another tack, I turned down a job today. Two months' work in my old department. I sometimes feel it'd be good to try my new ideas on a class instead of one or two pupils, but realised very quickly how I've come to value my freedom to do what I want when I want. I was also reminded that I would no longer be the well-known scourge of the recalcitrant that I had been, but would have to expend all that energy on re-establishing the persona.

Nope. I reckon you get too old for the job - the full bhoona anyway. Besides, I'm too busy having fun and tussling with moral dilemmas.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Discipline and despair

Classroom 404
Originally uploaded by raymond_kram.
I’m going to drift away from specifically English teaching comment today to take a wander into the area of discipline – or rather indiscipline. I’m thinking of the kind of class that makes a young, talented teacher despair after a few years in the job and decide that she simply can’t put up with low-level indiscipline for another forty years. The kind of S2 class where some little madam thinks it’s ok to say “no” when the teacher tells her to get on with some work, and where a handful of such children can ruin the learning experience for the others and the rest of the day for the teacher.

I believe this is one area where a really good PT (subject) makes a huge difference. I don’t know what it’d be like if the line manager was a more distant figure in charge of several departments – I suspect there would be a dilution of effectiveness. But there are PTs who, as with subject teaching, regard the newly-qualified teacher as being on their own: shut the door, dish your own dirt, make your own discipline. Now, up to a point, that’s what you have to do. You can’t always rely on someone else to bark for you. But there are moments in the most experienced and most able classroom practitioners’s life when she simply has to get rid of a pupil or two so that order can prevail, and that’s where the sensitive and effective organisation of the departmental approach comes in.

I personally recommend the routine organisation of a department – or group of smaller departments – so that every teacher in it knows which colleague at any given moment is free to take in a single pupil or a couple at the most, to work in silence within another class – preferably of another year group. That benefits everyone, and means that every teacher has something to give as well as to receive.

However, there are other strategies which require more specific collaboration. When a class is divided between those who want to get on – with the teacher as well as the work – and those whose only intention is to disrupt and intimidate, it can be a good strategy to divide them physically. The first stage here is to remove the disruptors for one period to another room – preferably the PT’s – to work silently on relevant work which requires only close supervision. The class teacher then has the chance to demonstrate to the rest how a class could be when free from the disruption which has dominated it so far, and in so doing make progress in getting the majority “on side” and confident that in fact they are in the majority. Peer pressure to misbehave is lessened by this recognition, and can in fact be redirected towards the troublemakers.

On a subsequent period it may be possible to reverse the division and take the disruptors on their own - because they are (a) likely to be curious and (b) less likely to carry on without an audience. Whether or not this is done, the end move of this stage is to segregate the disruptors within the class – seated together, however unlikely this may seem – and to address only the cooperative pupils. If disruption occurs in the “ignored” side of the room it must be swiftly and dispassionately dealt with by class exclusion – because they are already at the stage of having been moved within the class. (The nonsense of “three verbal warnings” still seems to prevail in some schools – a management cop-out if ever there was one)

I’ve put all this down here because I happen to have been talking to the despairing young teacher I postulated at the start. This particular teacher is going to be a loss to secondary education – for she sees little future for herself in it. The solutions I suggest have worked for me over the past 10 years or so – but I worked in a department blessed by an extremely pro-active PT who would not allow her staff to suffer at the hands of ill-mannered pupils or ineffective senior management.

I know subject PTs are a dying breed, and I know that not every teacher plays the same cards in dealing with indiscipline – but is there a case in this area as well as in subject teaching for the kind of mentoring that protects the young teacher from the most irritating and soul-destroying aspect of the job? All you promoted staff out there – any comment?

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

There she blows....

Another first for me today - I saw a whale blowing at the entrance to Loch Long. (No - I didn't take the photo; it took me enough time to run back to the car for the specs to let me see it) By late afternoon there was a small crowd along the Blairmore shore road, all peering out to sea, some with binoculars, and passing drivers narrowly avoiding catastrophe as they tried to see why.

I was struck primarily by the volume of water involved - like an ornamental fountain suddenly being turned on in mid-channel. In a frenetically busy day, a rewarding moment.

Monday, October 09, 2006


The Oratory, St Mary's
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
Having (more or less) recovered from working on team at a Cursillo weekend, I spent today re-engaging with normal life. I was reminded of the way I felt after the first time I spent a week in hospital having my No.1 baby - I came home and felt I'd been away for a year. Little things like the changes on the telly: in 1974 the Waltons had appeared and I couldn't believe such a saccharine programme existed; this time they've changed the linking sequence on the BBC with equally disorientating effect. (I never really liked the dancers - the two athletic guys on the roof were ok, and the leaping Masai , but the others left me cold.)

I'm not going to talk about the actual weekend here, but you can read the benefits of such an experience on the Cursillo in Scotland blog if you're interested.

The photo here is of the oratory at the Redemptorist monastery at Kinnoull where the weekend took place - a wonderfully peaceful place.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Drawing a veil ...

I'm going to be missing from the blogosphere for a few days as I vanish into a monastery in Perth with, among others, my pal Di. We'll be senior members of team on a Cursillo weekend, and one thing we'll have no opportunity to do is blog. If we were on a similar weekend in the USA we wouldn't even be allowed to have our mobile phones with us after the first evening - I fear I would have to resort to deviousness. Instead, we'll be busy looking after people and running up and down several flights of very hard stone stairs.

When I return I may well have lost any shreds of educational thought, but I write this now to remind myself that I would like to blog soon about some of the aspects of English teaching that I learned the hard way. I think I would have been a better teacher much earlier in my career if someone had pointed me in the direction I now favour.

But first it's the monastic life. Now where did I put the hot-water bottle?

Monday, October 02, 2006

On the shoulders of the past

I was asked the other day what I would suggest to prevent the situation where probationers and less experienced teachers seem to have to re-invent the wheel in order to arrive at an equilibrium between creativity and the demands of the curriculum. Having been in an unpromoted post throughout my career in English teaching, there is a sense in which I’ve never had to think about this, but I shall try to do so now.

Rather than publish a massive entry which rambles through all the areas of English teaching and administration, I’m going to break this problem up a bit. This post will look at how I would structure the administrative set-up to assist the development of new teachers.

In the case of the PGCSE student, with a subject degree, doing a one-year post-grad course in teaching, I would suggest that a straightforward approach should be made to ensuring that they know exactly what they will be expected to do when they find themselves in their own classroom the following year. (Remember – I still don’t know exactly how this is taught, merely the outcome). Such entrants into the profession already have the academic qualifications in their subject – it’s vocational training they need at college.

When the newly-qualified probationer arrives in his first school, there seems to me to be the tension between the teacher as authority figure as far as the pupils are concerned (teacher knows best – otherwise why is he teaching me/my wean?) and the teacher as absolute beginner who needs considerable support and encouragement. The new teacher hopes the pupils can’t spot the rawness, but it’s there. It’s like the newly-qualified driver taking to the M8 in the rush-hour – perfectly legal, often done, but not a particularly good idea.

Two things might need changing here. The first is the mentoring available in school. Is the PT necessarily the best person to do this? Is there a Senior Teacher (ie promoted post) from another subject area looking after our English teacher? (Because they might not always be able to address all the problems of departmental know-how and keepy-uppy). Is there in fact someone else in the department who could, if given the time specifically to do this, be a more effective “soul friend” for the new teacher? And is the school smart enough to recognise this? Is everyone in the department aware of the need to support their new (and perhaps temporary) colleague – and are they willing to do this?

The second is the attitude of the new teacher. It is difficult to mentor someone who puts up barriers. It is not out of the question that a new teacher – especially one who had been in, say, business, and has not come straight from his own education – may well behave as if he knows it all already and resents any implication that he doesn’t. This may well be a hangover from the “super-teacher” mentality, when you shut your door and triumphed over any adversity which might assail you. However, this was always a convenient fiction. Colleges of Education, in my opinion, need to remind students of how much they will still have to learn – and about how to ask for assistance.

Disclaimer: remember that I was never in a position to implement any of this, and know little of what is done in colleges now. All I have said here comes from the other end of the process, and is based on observation in one school.

More to follow…..