Thursday, 29 May 2014

That's Rich

I remember this image from my School days.  It's certainly quite powerful.  Given the likely scale of the 100th anniversary celebrations (books, magazine articles, newspaper columns, historical dramas, things starring Benedict Cumberbatch, programmes beginning 'The Real...' on Channel 5), it may well be the case that in twenty years time children will be asking their fathers what they did during the Great War festival of remembrance. It may go on for so long that you'll get trench foot sat in front of the TV or neuralgia from squinting at Max Hastings' latest tome.

I wonder if anyone in years to come will ask the question 'What did you do during the great Of Mice and Men debate?'. Twitter has been pretty red hot on this issue since the published changes to GCSE English Literature were made public last week.  Hashtags so ridiculous they would have made Robin Thicke wince were developed such as #govekillsmockingbird and #getgovereading. Celebrities as well as us normal folk jumped on the bandwagon, without bothering to read up on the detail of what was actually happening; the bandwagon swiftly gained momentum and wild assertions followed that books from outside the UK had been banned. Familiar Gove-bashing themes such as his (supposed) obsession with C19 literature, the Little Englander mentality etc didn't take long to be trotted out. It is amazing how quickly things snowball when people know what they want to believe. Even when people had the good grace to apologise later, it still came with a but...

If you were unfamiliar with the texts under discussion, you might have believed that Of Mice and Men in such an essential text that it trumps all others.  Once you've read this book, essentially you're done, because no book encapsulates racism/sexism/economic hardship and cultural change in the way that OMAM can, and all in around 100 pages too.  Hey, there's a film too, and a stage play, and if you're really lucky, that chap from Stars In Their Eyes might be playing Lennie.  OMAM is very good; it's relatively easy to read (and short); the characterisation is strong; it deals with fundamental human issues.  I can see why people would want to teach it, but surely it has become something of a crutch if around 9 of every ten pupils studied OMAM for their GCSE English Literature examination last year.  This can't be right can it?

I remember reading the book as a double-header with Cannery Row and I found the latter to be far more powerful, in particular with its depiction of maintaining dignity despite poverty and the strength that can be gained by being part of a community.  OMAM is not the only book that allows pupils to explore the issues it touches upon. A widening of the texts to be studied, an appreciation of the great literature produced in this country, with no text from anywhere being banned.  Not that controversial, surely?

The problem of teaching time was cited by many as a key objection to the new syllabus - there simply isn't enough time to cover the material, they say. Given that many Schools took advantage of the modular approach to GCSEs by sitting exams in year 10, thus voluntarily diminishing teaching time, this argument is specious. The other main argument was that the changes to the syllabus would harm the 'lower grade' pupils, or as I also had it put to me, the 'disadvantaged' pupils. Now I suspect that the latter comment referred to pupils who are less rich, economically speaking, though I was assured that it referred to the 'disadvantaged reader' (you may work out for yourself what that means). I believe that is it the most common and most dangerous fallacy in education that cultural capital is the preserve of the wealthy. Education should be the greatest driver of social mobility, but as long as well-meaning though misguided individuals continue to perpetuate the myth that great works of literature, Art, music are for 'Them not Us', we will continue to preserve this schism in education. We should be ambitious and expect our pupils to show ambition. We should not shy away from the seemingly difficult texts just because the language isn't modern. After all, Twilight has a larger vocabulary than Sense and Sensibility.

Bank account wealth does not equal cultural wealth, but education can be the key to both. A weekend in Dubai will set you back a four figure sum. A weekend spent reading Orwell won't cost you any money at all, but your eyes will be opened that bit wider. I noted a petition with 50,000+ signatures demanding a volte-face on the new GCSE specification. It is these petitioners that will hold back pupils, through a lack of ambition and a misguided sense that academic education isn't for everyone.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Some reflections at the end of the School year

Writing this on 19 May will undoubtedly irritate some people.  It's not even close to the end of the School year.  In my defence, the Upper Sixth and Fifth Form have gone (gone into exam overdrive, certainly) and the sun is out, which means that it is summer.  I have also taught 26 Saturdays this year, so in terms of days taught, my 19 May is your 1 July.

The end of the School year approaches, and this means cricket and exams.  Some other things happen at this time of the year too, but these are the most important.  There are just over 1100 pupils at my School, and as each pupil group shifts up a year, the current Upper Sixth will drop off the end and are let loose into the real world.  Around 10% of the 155-strong teaching body will spread their wings and fly (or fold back their wings and retire).  So the School prepares for its 459th new year, and everything changes.

I play a part in the lives of others, and I neither under nor over-estimate my impact.  My abiding sense of guilt means that I try to ensure that I could have done no more to help any pupil that under-performs.  When such a poor performance occurs, I like the line (delivered to the pupil): I suppose it is fair to say that we have both failed.  I, at least, have tried.  I've never used this line of course, and I don't suppose I ever will.  Taking responsibility for the performance of those you teach is one of the fundamental parts of getting teaching.  There are teachers who trumpet the part they played in the excellence of grades achieved, but explain the poor results with a they get what they get shrug of the shoulders.  I like the approach which involves stepping into the shadows when the result is excellent and stepping forward with a comforting arm when the result is poor.

I was 17 years old when I left School and I am 37 years old now.  This is my 20th year out of Schooling from a pupil perspective, though I will complete my 16th year of teaching in June.  I have been hanging out with School pupils for roughly 30 of 37 years and the longest time I've ever spent not in School was the first four years of my life.  Maybe I should find out what the real world is like some time?

Can one ever become friends with pupils they have taught?  I think it depends on the nature of your dealings with them.  As a senior manager, it is hard enough to make genuine friendships with colleagues let alone pupils.  Many of us like to put people in boxes and from a pupil perspective I think I'm well and truly in the person who tells you how hard you should be working all the time in assemblies and there's no way I want to listen to that any more than I have to kind of guy.  Perhaps the thought of a drink with me the year or two after leaving School isn't all that appealing.  We can't turn our perception of people on and off like a switch, and I don't resent that italicised perception.  How I really like to be perceived is summed up quite neatly here:


In every year group there are a select group pupils in whom I take a real interest - these are the ones I wonder where they will end up in years to come.  They are sometimes the ones who don't quite get it right at School and you want to know whether the extra freedom will allow them to shine.  Open the cage door and some fly, others fall and some can't seem the leave the perch.  Or they happen to be the pupils I think have genuine deep human qualities and I hope that others allow this to be realised.  I stay in touch with some, but it should be more; after all, it's easy not to lose contact, but I'd quite like them to want to stay in touch too.  Maybe I should teach the last lesson with my Twitter handle and Facebook address on the board, but then suppose no-one followed or added?  

I think many friendships are a matter of convenience.  How many friendships survive because of geography or dwindle because of the hassle of keeping them going?  Many friends are quite tangential - brilliant fun to play cricket with during the summer but put back in their cricket box come September.  Anyway, it's possible to have fun with almost any individual for a short amount of time: most people bring out their best stories upon first meeting.

I think I'll post this now, just as it is.