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Category archive: Brian teaches

Wednesday July 02 2008

Yesterday was the hottest day of the year, and everyone at Kings Cross Supplementary seemed to be in a bit of a mood, certainly me.  Small Boy’s disposition was particularly negative, it having been severely aggravated by the fact that his little Nintendo games machine was doing something “mysterious”.  He used this word over and over again.  I am impressed that at his age he knows such a word, and its precise meaning, but I couldn’t solve the problem, which was making the games machine work as Small Boy thought it should.  Also he was coughing a bit, and I have yet to learn the medical diagnostic skills that are evidently part of the skill set of a Real Teacher.  Was Small Boy actually ill, or just reluctant to have yet more Education done to him, after a day spent having it done to him at his regular school?

We looked at maps of the world in a map book I had brought with me, and he pointed out different countries.  I persuaded him to allow me to pronounce country names that he didn’t know.  Namibia.  Zimbabwe.  Libya.  He pronounced ones he did know.  Morrocco.  Egypt.  Then he wrote, very badly, a list of countries, one of which was “United”.  But I guess that names of countries are often rather confusing.  How was he to know that United was part of United Kingdom when the Kingdom bit was quite a lot below the United bit? 

Small Boy used interesting arguments to explain that he needed no more Education.  I can already read, he said.  He came dangerously close to saying: “I already know everything”, which is obviously blasphemy if you are being Educated, and I subjected him to a big speech about he obviously had More To Learn because Everyone Has More To Learn.  (It never ends.  It’s a permanent treadmill.  You are Educated and Educated and Educated.  Then you die.  Welcome to the twenty first century, kid.  One of the more depressing things about being a teacher is the things you hear yourself saying.)

Smart Boy and Smart Girl both prefer talking with me to having Education done to them, but Miss Head Teacher was adamant.  They must do sums in the class.

The most memorable moment of the evening for me was when Mr Maths also made a speech.  “Smart Girl, why are you wandering around?  Sit down in your place.  If everyone wandered around, there would be Anarchy instead of Order.” It was like in a movie, where the script writer has completely abandoned realism in order to explain the Underlying Point Being Made In This Scene, except that Mr Maths really said that.  I’m afraid I was not much help to him, probably because I am an anarchist.  But eventually I was able to contribute to the imposition of Order with the necessary mixture of prison guarding and maths tuition.  So I guess that means I’m not an Anarchist any more.

Seriously though, one interesting educational issue did crop up, which concerns the methods used to teach things like long division and “long multiplication”.  (I’d never heard of that one before.) Every teacher and every school seems to use a different method for these things.  There’s the “grid” method, and various others I can’t remember the names of.  Do different methods confuse, for doing something like multiplying 57 by 34?  Or do different methods throw light on the underlying things that are really going on, the way that speaking several different languages is supposed to make children cleverer by giving them an instinctive philosophical grasp of what language is (and is not) that other children are denied?  I suspect that the clever kids – and all the kids at Kings Cross Supplementary seem pretty smart to me - do actually gain a bit from having sums that they find easy taught to them in an unfamiliar way.

Just after writing all that, I went in to the Civitas Office to find out how I was doing, in their opinion.  They were nice, but the message was unmistakeable.  Less Anarchy, please.  More Order.

Saturday June 28 2008

The Civitas blog has a posting up, by James Gubb, about Frank Furedi’s publication entitled Licensed to Hug.  Gubb’s posting is sympathic to the points Furedi is making, which is encouraging to me, because I am just the kind of unmarried, childless, rather eccentric and wrong-side-of-middle-aged man who is liable to be put off teaching, or any other kind of helping or working with children, by the fear of being thought, or worse, the fear of being accused of being - a paedophile.  I have now undergone the police checking routine twice.  Fair enough, those are the rules and these are the times we live in.  Postings like Gubb’s suggest that Civitas appreciates having a man like me helping out at their schools, and all the more so because of this scarily unhealthy climate of suspicion that Furedi describes and denounces.

It’s a huge subject, and a difficult one to write about, but one thought does occur to me about why I like working for the two Civitas schools I do work for.  (Actually, I have stopped working at Hammersmith Saturday, but that wasn’t because I didn’t like it.  It was merely that I was surplus to requirements.  I was told they had problems, which was true, they did.  But these problems had actually been solved by the time I showed up there.  Hopefully I will soon be helping out somewhere else.)

So anyway, the thought that occurs to me is this: that both the Civitas schools I’ve been teaching at consist of one quite big space, with several teaching operations going on in different parts of the same space.  This actually has a big bearing on this sensitive issue of sexual misconduct, and, more precisely, of the fear of being accused of it.

My previous attempt to help at a school didn’t involve me teaching in a big space, along with other teachers and pupils.  I was on my own, that is to say I was on my own with the one kid, not in a little room, thank goodness, but out in the open area between the classrooms.  So far as I know, nobody ever suspected me – certainly nobody ever accused me - of anything untoward or inappropriate.  But it did occur to me that if a child took against me and accused me of something wicked, it would be my word against his.  (It usually was his, at that school, rather than hers.  That’s because my job was to take troublesome boys for one-to-one teaching, out of classes that they might otherwise disrupt or otherwise be a bit of a problem in.) That was a slightly scary thought.  It wasn’t likely to happen, but if it did ...  What if I had then got caught up in some quasi-legal mincing machine which assumed all such accusations to be true unless proved otherwise?  Not good.

At the Civitas schools, on the other hand, in the event of such unpleasantness, it would not be only my word against a child’s, and any child tempted by the thought of such wickedness would know that.  For that reason alone, a child almost certainly wouldn’t try such a thing.  If a child did try it, the enormity of making such an accusation would quickly be explained, and that would be the end of it, for if a child did make such an accusation, there would be plenty of witnesses to say that I did no such thing, it was all a misunderstanding, he didn’t mean that, etc. etc.

Not only that, but if the personal code of conduct, as it were, that I follow (about such things as bodily contact, shaking hands at the end, and so forth) were to be observed by any of my colleagues, and considered by them to be unwise or open to misunderstanding, then they could straighten me out before any trouble ensued.

Nothing remotely like any of this has happened.  But in this matter as in so many others, I am extremely glad that these other teachers get the chance to keep an eye on me and to watch me in action, in among and as a natural consequence of the way the place works rather than in some kind of self-conscious inspection process.  In general, if I’m not doing what they want, they can say so.  In general, in an open space, they can get to know me, my character, demeanour, general approach, strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, and so on.  In the event of needing to reassure somebody about my good character, they’d be comfortable about doing that, because presumably that’s what they have good reason to think that I have.

Likewise, I learn a lot about teaching, and about the proper behaviour of a teacher, from being able to watch them in action.

Working out in the open like this really is a huge improvement on being on my own, the whole Licensed to Hug thing being only one of them, but a significant one, I think. 

Sunday June 08 2008

Nothing from me today here, but there’s a recent posting by me at CNE Competition, which makes use of my Kings Cross Supplementary and Hammersmith Saturday experiences.

Thursday June 05 2008

A central plank of present education policy is that school excellence can be measured.  But this has always been a dubious assumption and it is becoming more so.

Many parents have always helped with their children’s education, some a great deal.  I know mine did, as did my older brothers and older sister.  So, if someone measured the excellence of what the various schools I went to were doing when I was there, they might have missed the contribution made to my education by my family.  And now, with the inexorable rise of all kinds of out-of-hours clubs and top-up arrangements - like Kings Cross Supplementary and Hammersmith Saturday, the two Civitas enterprises where I help out - the process of measuring school excellence becomes even more complicated.

Suppose a regular school has a seriously bad maths teacher.  But suppose there is also a very fine Saturday maths school in the immediate vicinity, to which many of the pupils of the bad maths teacher go, to be rescued from utter maths confusion.  You can easily see how the incompetence of the regular teacher might be missed by the official testing regime.  He might not even realise himself what a crap teacher he really is.  Likewise his school might miss what was really going on.  After all, there are his kids, lots of them learning lots of maths, sailing through their exams.  Hurrah, he’s a great teacher.

The more supplementary privately-paid-for education there is, around the edges of the regular school timetable, the harder it will get for the schools or anybody else to work out how well they are really doing.

So, who should be deciding on school quality?  No prizes for guessing that I think it should be the parents.  At the end of last Tuesday night at Kings Cross Supplementary I had a quick chat with Small Boy’s Mother.  I asked: Am I teaching him anything?  I can’t tell. He is definitely learning things. But it could be you (Small Boy’s Mother is herself a teacher), or his regular school, and not me at all.  Oh yes, said Small Boy’s Mother, he is definitely learning things here.  It isn’t easy to get here, and I wouldn’t keep bringing him and keep paying if it wasn’t doing any good.

Small Boy’s Mother is my personal OFSTED inspector.  A better, less nerve-racking and more efficient version of the real thing, I think.

Wednesday May 28 2008

A few days ago the dog ate my homework.  Remember that?  Probably not, because, who reads this that devotedly?  (If anyone does, feel free to comment to that effect.  By the way, don’t you think that this dog, a real dog this time, is very amusing?  I do.)

So anyway, what was this metaphorical dog?  Basically, what happened was that as the deadline for posting here approached, I got stuck into a domestic housekeeping job.  Arranging my embarrassingly large collection of movie DVDs recorded from off the telly in alphabetical order, as it happens.  And I found myself enjoying it.  Something about the fact that I wasn’t doing it for anybody else, and thus nobody was bossing me, and the fact that I’d been meaning to do this for ages, and knew that the sense of increased order and driven-back entropy would please me greatly, once the task was done.  So, instead of breaking that off and writing some piece of drivel for this blog, I carried right on into the small hours of the next morning (not that small actually) and only when it was done did I put the posting for what had become yesterday, to the effect that there would basically not be a proper posting. And that was the dog that ate my homework.

I permitted this canine consumption because I was treating myself the way I believe that children should be treated.  The most depressing thing about regular school-type schools, such as I help out in, is the way that children are constantly interrupted.  There they are, often concentrating on something else with amazing completeness, and they are interrupted, and told to do some “work”.  If they allowed their extraordinarily expressive bodies to communicate that they would much rather not be doing this “work”, insult is often added to injury, in the form of a teacher telling them that they must “learn to concentrate”.  I sometimes think that this is the most damaging lesson that schools ever teach.  Someone who can and did concentrate is turned into someone who not only doesn’t, but who ends up believing that they can’t.

We all know how to influence humans, small or big.  Wait for them to do what you want, and then thank them, praise them, compliment them.  I recall one of my early sessions with Small Boy, where the body language in response to all my “suggestions” about what we should do was deafeningly hostile.  He did it (probably because he feared a scene with his deceptively small and charming mother if I snitched on him) but made it clear that he was not amused.  In the end, in sheer desperation, I got him to just draw something.  Anything.  What he drew had, I thought, little merit, and I said, well, I don’t much care for it.  If you like it, then great because at least one of us did, but I’m not impressed.  I don’t believe in lying about things like this, which may make me a pompous swine, but there you go, I don’t.  But nor do I believe in withholding praise where praise is due.  I also told Small Boy that he had concentrated on his task superbly, and I now knew that his powers of concentration were considerable.  My goal is now to have him choosing activities which he knows I regard as appropriately educational, from an ever expanding menu, as it were, so that he is able to get that little bit more into the habit of doing concentrated work, of a sort that he finds not uncongenial.  (This is a compromise between the authoritarian ethos of the school, and the anti-authoritarian ethos of yours truly.)

Once again, I don’t believe I have to explain much of this to the home-educators.  They know all about the almost superhuman powers of concentration that an uninterrupted child is able to wield.

And just as I don’t like interrupting children who are concentrating on something, almost anything, so too, I thought, I would refrain, that evening, from interrupting myself.  I’d put up a holding post saying: sorry, nothing here today.  And then explain the very educational principle being upheld later.  I.e. now.

Good night, and back to arranging my embarrassingly large classical CD collection into chronological order by composer.  Which I am actually not enjoying that much, and from which I needed a break.

Saturday May 24 2008

Today I was at Hammersmith Saturday again.  Apparently there was some confusion in parental minds about whether this was the half term break, which for Hammersmith Saturday is not this week (as it already is for regular schools) but next week.  Present were a mere five pupils, and five teachers (assuming I count), plus one teacher’s daughter, who joins in as a pupil or not as she pleases.  So, I was pretty much surplus to requirements.  I myself will not be attending Hammersmith Saturday for one Saturday in mid-June.  When I revealed this news to Other Man Teacher today, he hardly panicked at all.

So, what did I actually do today?  One thing I did was sit down and, as a pretend pupil, do some of the arithmetic tests that Miss Maths sets her charges.  I did this because (a) it will make me better at teaching arithmetic, which I want to get better at, and (b) because it does the children good, maybe, some of them, the ones who care, to see just how very very quickly, compared to most of them, mental arithmetic can actually be done by someone who is quite good at it.  As I told Miss Maths, Rachmaninoff used to teach the piano by just himself playing the piano to his pupils.  He didn’t make his pupils play, or tell them how to play.  He just played.  He set a standard.  I was, in a somewhat more mundane setting and far more mundanely, attempting the same technique.  It didn’t work, though.  The ones that didn’t care didn’t care.  The ones that might have were busy doing their own sums.

But the main thing I did was just get to know a few of the children who were there that little bit better.

I have long held to the theory that one of the Great Educational Divides in Humanity is between People Who Were Confused At School, and People Who Were Bored At School.  Education Theory, for instance, is either elaborated to solve the problem of Confusion, or of Boredom, the Traddists being the ones who were Confused and the Progressive being the ones who were Bored.  Two of the girls present were classic “I’m bored!” pupils.  “I’m bored,” they said.  “This is boring.” But one of the boys in particular is a classic Confused type.  He doesn’t mind being bored, so long as he knows what he is supposed to be doing, and is left to get on with it.  Children are different from each other.

Talking of children being different, another basic divide in educational theory concerns whether education means focusing on strengths, or on weaknesses.  Are teachers supposed to bring out spikes of super-achievement from their pupils, while those same pupils continue, e.g., to do sums by counting on their fingers?  Or are teachers supposed to home in on weaknesses and try to correct them?  Miss America, who is a very capable and much loved teacher of English at Hammersmith Saturday, is, so it appears to me, a weakness correcter.  My lazy, fun-loving instincts tend towards playing to strengths and dealing with alleged weaknesses by just going around them.  My understanding of a lot of home educators is that they feel this way too, not just out of laziness and not wanting to have perpetual fights, but because they think it’s for the best.  (I recently read an HE-er’s posting about a son who learned to hand-write very well but in his own good time, without being pressurised.  But, I can’t now find this.  It has a picture of his writing.  Anyone?)

So, for instance, those two Bored Girls were being driven almost foetal-position with the tedium of the sums that Miss Maths was giving them.  So after their ordeal, to cheer them up, I just sat down and had a conversation with them.  This worked well.  They are both highly witty and stimulating conversationalists, and conversing with them is playing to one of their strengths.  (Women love to talk.) They soon cheered up.

My playing-to-strength way of teaching arithmetic would be to find out what a kid really, really cares about, and find the arithmetic in that.  Miss Actress, for instance, would be asked things like: how many lines are there in this Shakespeare play?  How much money did Angelina Jolie get for her last film?  If she got this for her last film, and this for the one before, and this for the one before that, etc., how much did she make in the last decade?  Things like that.  And as for all those boys who are going to be international footballers ...  (By the way, the England team is going to have thousands of young men in it in fifteen years time.) Well, the Premier League is an absolute hotbed of arithmetic.  I learned a lot of my mental arithmetic listening to cricket commentaries on the radio, and reading the scores in the newspaper.

Well, that is what I would do with the Bored ones.  With the Confused ones, I simply let them get on with their arithmetic, helping them with any confusions.

Tuesday May 13 2008

The most exciting thing at Kings Cross Supplementary earlier this evening was a squirrel, which had inserted itself between one of the windows and the grill that protects the window, presumably from missiles thrown by the Underclass.  One of the children pointed it out to me, and my digital photography instincts cut in at once.


Click to see bigger pictures.  The snap on the right was taken first.  What was happening was that the squirrel tried to climb out from behind the grill by climbing upwards, found that this didn’t work, and so had to come down again.  That’s the squirrel on its way down.  And the one on the left is the squirrel back at square one, wondering what to do next.  It was soon gone though.

I wish that, instead of merely photo-ing squirrels, I could comfortably take pictures of all the children, and then print their pictures out in a card index, and write their names on all the pictures.  Because, you see, I have a real problem remembering all their names, yet doing this is basic courtesy.  Teaching good manners, which we try to do, is a whole lot easier if you are being polite yourself.  With photos, I could be more polite.  But, the times we live in say you have to tread carefully about things like that.

As you can perhaps see from these pictures, the physical conditions at Kings Cross Supplementary are fairly basic, with everything painted in institutional puke-yellowy-green.  Which does not matter at all.  The children are all very nice, to us and to each other.

Monday May 12 2008

I think I am glad about this, not because I hate literature and art and all that, but because I love it, but a lot of them don’t:

For generations, the study of literature has been a pillar of liberal education, a prime forum for cultural self-examination, and a favorite major for students seeking deeper understanding of the human experience.

But over the last decade or so, more and more literary scholars have agreed that the field has become moribund, aimless, and increasingly irrelevant to the concerns not only of the “outside world,” but also to the world inside the ivory tower. Class enrollments and funding are down, morale is sagging, huge numbers of PhDs can’t find jobs, and books languish unpublished or unpurchased because almost no one, not even other literary scholars, wants to read them.

I can still remember a one-to-one lesson (more of a conversation really) which I did with Smart Girl (who is Smart Boy‘s sister) in which we discussed how she might set about choosing a boy friend.  One way, we agreed (and I think we really did agree – I honestly don’t remember this as just me telling her and her staying quiet), to check out boys is to put them through ordeals, of the sort that happen to Young Men in Literature.  As Author, she would put her Young Men through dramas and disasters and triumphs, and her Young Ladies would thus be able satisfactorily to choose between them, on the basis of more than mere charm and good looks.

If they wrote about things like that in Literary Criticism, maybe people might want to read it.

The author of the piece quoted above thinks literary criticism needs to become more like science.  I suspect that this belief is more like the problem than the solution.  The desire to produce “theories” of literature is, I feel, the problem.  But his point is that these theories can and should be tested.  It is worth reading, as we bloggers say, the whole thing.

No one wants to read literary criticism
Lecture notes for Law Boy
Giving them the paper at the end
Fine weather teaching
Kings Cross Supplementary Headmistress gives the thumbs up to Nintendo Maths Training
The death of Irene Hogg
Sugar pushers
Me teaching very young children and me teaching slightly older children
Smart Boy looks up Don Bradman on the internet
Small Boy is definitely being educated
Talking maths with Michael Jennings
Busy doing education stuff but not education blogging
What use is maths?
Getting better at teaching Small Boy
Learning by assisting
Butterfly Book in short supply
Going through the motions of good manners
Schools as germ sinks
In praise of the pencil
Coffee House education