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Category archive: Drama
It’s the age of the audience you notice first, quickly followed by the punishing volume of noise the little blighters generate.
Disney’s High School Musical, first a low-budget TV movie and now a stage-show phenomenon, is a wholesome romantic comedy that tells the story of two teenagers in love in Albuquerque.
A British touring production has been doing boffo business around the regions since it opened in January, while this sister production has just opened in London for the summer holidays.
I was expecting an audience mostly of girls aged between ten and 14, and there were plenty of those around, but there were also hundreds of far younger children, from the age of four and up, many of them boys.
The only difference is that the chaps don’t tend to get dolled up in bright red cheerleaders’ costumes and wave pom-poms about like the girls.
“He loves it, he knows all the words of every song,” observed one doting mother of her tiny-tot son, and indeed he did: he happily belted his way through every number.
This venerable venue cannot have been the scene of so much audience-generated racket since the Beatles played here in the early Sixties.
I wouldn’t have a clue about how to go about proving such a proposition, but I can’t help feeling that the extraordinary enthusiasm for show-biz that seems to be sweeping the nation, but which I mean an apparent enthusiasm to be a celebrity-stroke-performer rather than just watch what celebrity-stroke-performers do their various things while getting on with real life, is somehow related to the shift away from such things as maths and science and engineering. What will all these would-be performers end up doing? They can’t all become performers. Can they?
The thing is, shifts in popular culture often signal changes in the world which the more educated and official cultural commentators are unaware of, or prefer not to notice or think about.
One thought occurs to me, which is that show-biz is how the adults of the near future will keep children amused and out of mischief. So maybe lots of these performers will become teachers, or child-minders.
One of the key figures in High School Musical seems to be the lady teacher, Ms. Darbus, who presides over everything, played in the London stage production by Leticia Dean (above), who used to be in Eastenders. This is no out-of-touch old biddy. This is someone you’d be glad to be.
And this, I think, is all part of the same story.
Graduation used to be a rite restricted to students leaving university, but these days schoolchildren are getting in on the fun - with American-style proms to mark the end of the exam season.
The stretch limousine pulls up and out steps a young couple: he, suave in a tuxedo; she, tanned and glamorous. They stop for a photograph then saunter past the doorman.
The scene might resemble a Hollywood film premiere but none of the guests is more than 16 and the event is a school leavers’ party in Canvey Island, Essex.
Good luck turning those girls into engineers.
My main duty at Kings Cross Supplementary is one-on-one teaching of pupils who are perhaps inconvenient to fit into the two big classes - because they are too old, young, clever and impatient, slow and quiet, whatever. For those who particular like the personal attention that these sorts of lessons bestow, they can also be used as rewards for good conduct in the regular multiple-pupil lessons. If all I do is a bit of child-minding while the Real Teachers are able to get on with their Real Teaching a bit more smoothly, well, that’s a contribution. And of course I try to do better than that.
One of the techniques I am refining is the use of paper in these one-on-one classes. At the end of the class I like to gather up all the bits of paper that the pupil and I have both been writing on or doing sums on and present them to the pupil. Do with them whatever you please, I say. Perhaps show them to your parents, to show them what you have been doing (and what they have been paying for). The children all seem to me to have more than enough homework on their plates, and besides, I am too idle to be bothered with chasing up and marking such homework. I like to do the lesson and then say to them, that’s it, you’re free to go, no homework, hope you learned something, hope it wasn’t too annoying, etc. etc. And, here are all the bits of paper we used up. These are covered in such things as diagrams, writing by them and next to it the same thing by me (often better written but not always), lists of things we (alright: I) talked about, scribbled down by me. Last Tuesday it was the titles of Shakespeare plays, written out for a ten-year-old girl who wants to be an actress.
Although, as I say, what they do with these bits of paper is entirely up to them, I like to think that some of them do look again at some of these often unruly, sometimes multi-coloured screeds, and thus that some of the lessons referred to on them are reinforced.
I quickly learned that mere scrap paper, i.e. paper blank on one side but with the rest of my scandalously opinionated life on the other side of it, is not suitable for this purpose. What if a parent read the wrong side? (Most of my store of scrap paper dates from my time as the Libertarian Alliance pampleteer.) Luckily, blank paper is now as cheap as it has ever been.
Last Tuesday evening was also very pleasing to me because of what I did in the second hour. In the first hour, remember, I taught Small Boy. In the second hour, I taught Smart Boy. Soon I will have forgotten about this myself, and I want that not to happen, so I need to write all this that follows before more teaching scrubs it from my brain.
Smart Boy had been making no secret of his desire to spend time with me, rather than with the maths teacher, Mr Vora. The Mr Vora problem is not Mr Vora. He is a exemplary maths teacher, and at least as companionable a person as me. But Mr Vora teaches a batch of several children all at once, and Smart Boy really is smart, compared to some of those children. He tends to sit at the back, oscillating between quiet resentment and rather theatrical demonstrations of lack of interest in sums that he considers somewhat beneath him. But even more fundamentally, Smart Boy likes the undivided attention of whoever he is with, and from Mr Vora, inevitably, he does not get it. From me, he would. From me, last Tuesday, he did, and showed every sign of appreciating it very much. He was very happy to pay attention carefully to whatever I wanted to say him, provided I payed him the same compliment, as I was happy to do. In other words, Smart Boy and I had a good conversation.
I began by showing off my favourite proof of Pythagoras’s Theorem. This is the one where instead of having one right angled triangle in the middle, with squares attached to each side, you have four identical right angled triangles arranged to form a square with another square gap in the middle. Through the magic of the internet, I am able to tell you that it is Proof number 4, here. And moments ago, I was able to learn of an even more cunning Pythagoras proof, namely Proof number 5. (I love the internet.)
Well, Smart Boy wasn’t that impressed by my Pythagoras-ing. Nor was he that excited by me telling him what little I knew of pi, i.e. the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, or whatever it is, which in any case he also knew. I told him that pi r squared is the area of a circle, but I couldn’t prove it, and that is now my homework. I don’t know quite how that happened, but it did.
Then we got onto the subject of averages. How would you work out the average height of all the children here? That’s right, you add up all the heights of all the children and divide that by the number of children.
Then I took a chance, hoping merely that he would indulge me. I found myself talking about Don Bradman’s last innings as an international cricketer, which is a story about an average. What happened was that Bradman went out to bat, at the Oval right here in London, in 1948, to play what turned out to be his very last test match innings. It was only the first Australian innings, but they were already heading for an almost certain innings victory by the time Bradman went in, so both Bradman and everyone else present were pretty sure that this would be Bradman’s very last innings. At that point, his test match batting average was just over a hundred, which is about thirty or forty more than any other international cricketer then or since, which shows you just what a supreme batsman Bradman was. This is a far more telling number, for instance, than the mere total number of runs Bradman scored, which has often been surpassed since, because in those days there were far fewer test matches per year, and there was also the small matter of World War II getting in the way of everyone’s careers, including Bradman’s. So anyway, Bradman goes in to bat, and all he had to do to walk off the pitch and into the history books with a batting average that remained more than a hundred was to make just four runs in his final innings, and, of course, it was pretty confidently anticipated that he would do a lot better than that, perhaps making yet another hundred. He did make a hundred in the previous game at Leeds. 173 not out, as I recall.
Guess how many runs Bradman made in that last innings of his. If you know, you know, but if you don’t, I’ll tell you. Zero. He was out second ball. For a duck. It was the only seriously memorable thing that a certain England spin bowler by the name of Eric Hollies ever did. Bradman bowled Hollies 0. And Bradman’s average was forever set in the aspic of cricket statistical history at 99.94.
So, I told this story to Smart Boy, my point being that here was one average that was truly dramatic, and this time I had his attention completely. This was the kind of thing he wanted! I don’t know why exactly. Perhaps he liked the arcane nature of the story, the fact that most of the people he would later tell it to (to prove to them how smart he is) wouldn’t know anything about it. (Smart Boy’s ancestors all come from a very non-cricket country.) Pythagoras and pi and all that stuff was too routine for his purposes. All maths teachers would know about this, and many maths pupils. But not many would know about Don Bradman’s batting average, and how it was nearly a hundred, but not quite. Whatever his motives were, he wrote down the name “Don Bradman” and added some notes to remind him of the key facts of the case, and declared that he would chase it up on the internet.
Then we talked about Shakespeare. Smart Boy is doing Macbeth at school. I did Macbeth at school too, so we had plenty to talk about. Miss Maxwell, the school boss came by right at the end of our “lesson”. I said: “We’ve been talking about Shakespeare.” Would she approve? (No mention was made of Don Bradman.) For a long moment Miss Maxwell was silently inscrutable. Then she said: “I recommend Othello.” Phew. Cue for me to show off my knowledge not only of Shakespeare but of Giuseppe Verdi, then pronounced with superbly Italianate relish by Smart Boy. Verdi, I said, wrote an “opera” (cue further explanation of that) called “Otello”, that being how the Italians say Othello.
Was this teaching? Was this education? Should I instead have been dinning more complicated sums into Smart Boy’s head than he was used to? Were Smart Boy’s parents getting their money’s worth? I think that it was education, and that they were getting their money’s worth, although they might dissent. My meta-lesson, so to speak, that I have been trying to convince Smart Boy of ever since I first talked with him, is that he doesn’t need other people to ask complicated show-offy questions to and to learn complicated show-offy answers from or for. The world now, especially the world now, is full of stuff you can just dive into.
And if he’d rather ask me complicated questions, and gouge obscure stuff out of me, rather than out of a mere book or a mere computer, well, I love that. The quality in a pupil that I most value when I’m teaching is that he’s driving the agenda forward. He’s the one supplying the energy. He’s the king and I am but the respectful counsellor. He’s running his own life, and I’m just helping. When I “taught”, if that’s what it was, Smart Boy, that is exactly how it was.
Or, to put it another way, my fantasies about what truly consenting education should be like - which in that Small Boy posting I oh-so-subtly implied are an impossible dream - are in fact anything but.
I was forever endeared to Grange Hill in 1994 when they filmed a scene betwen Mr Robson and his illicit love interest outside the house I grew up in. This was, however, a sign that the emphasis of the show was moving dangerously away from the lives of the children towards the lives of the staff. Who cared? And then the balance switched back rather too far the other way, concentrating more on extra-curricular romance than the back-row futility of double chemistry. Big mistake. Because Grange Hill’s great strength was the mundane everyday world of history homework, field trips and petty bullying. And that’s the golden age we all remember.
Not me. But I do like this comment:
When I was about 13, my class went to see the English Shakespeare Company’s Richard III at Hull New Theatre. We were most impressed that one of the actors was the man who played Mr Baxter.
A chap called Michael Cronin, apparently. Scroll down here for more about him.