Friday, March 30, 2012

At a loss for words - morality and philosophy with children

Listening to the news with your children can be a dangerous thing. The headline a few days ago on the radio was: 17 year old sentenced to life in Florida for murder of two.
My son’s face was shocked. “17?” he said. “He murdered two people and he was only 17?”
Then my daughter joins in:
“Why did he murder those two people mummy?”
“I don’t know sweetheart”
“Was he a good guy or a bad guy?”
It is 8.30 in the morning, I am barely awake and my daughter is asking me about morality. I wish my brain would function more quickly, that I could think of the best thing to say to an 8 year old and a 6 year old as they ponder the realities of lives around them, of dangerous streets and disturbed people doing horrible things to one another. They are 8 and 6 and I want to love and protect them and keep them safe from harm but...
This is the real world...a world where bad things happen and I can’t pretend that it’s not true
Me: “I don’t know, but it sounds as if he is a bad guy”
My son is 8, in 9 years' time he will be 17. I look at him and hope that when he is old enough he won't ever want to hold a gun and won't ever wander, lost and drunk in an unfamiliar city and be cnfronted by a person with a gun. I hope that the world he lives in will be safe. They are both eating their breakfast, my son remains little overawed:
“17, he’s not even a man yet.”
And that seems a fitting end to our philosophical consideration of the news for the day.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Teachers leave them kids alone...

I’m a teacher. Sometimes that feels like a hard admission to make, since teachers seem to be universally reviled by the British press. Only today, Boris Johnson links bad schools to rioting. It doesn’t seem to be long before teachers will be blamed for the current economic situation (probably because we didn’t teach maths properly!)
For the last ten years, it seems that the teaching profession has been systematically abused by government and media agencies. Schools have been criticised for not being good enough whilst at the same time examination results have improved...but that’s been explained by exams becoming easier. Literacy and numeracy are quite consistently rated as not good enough with no headline space for the number of children in schools who speak English as a second language and whose only contact with English is through school. Meanwhile the current government has scrapped the investment in school buildings that started under Labour, so if children are being educated in damp and cold and overcrowded spaces, then that’s unlikely to change in the near future...but that doesn’t matter does it? Teachers and children working in decrepit buildings aren’t as headline grabbing as teachers causing riots!
Unfortunately, many people seem easily convinced by the media and government propaganda, believing that teachers have an easy life, work short hours and deserve the cynicism heaped upon them. Many people remember the dark sarcasm of their own classrooms and will never forgive their teachers for the suffering they caused.
So, let’s just look at the day in the life of an ordinary teacher:
Although school starts at 9a.m for most children, teachers will be in school at least half an hour before, photocopying, preparing materials, marking and responding to emails.
In the course of a school day, a teacher will come into contact with between 100 and 150 children.
Each class of children will be unique. Some children will work quietly and quickly, some will need plenty of additional support. Some will behave, others will not.
Can I just say it again....most teachers come into contact with 150 children every day.

150 children every day

The majority are lovely, some aren’t, but on any given day, 150 children are not going to be EASY.

On any given day, 150 children are not going to be PASSIVE (nor would you want them to be)

On any given day 150 children are not 150 adults following instructions

150 children will ask questions, will need help, will complain, and will shout (with excitement or frustration) will laugh, sigh, cry (sometimes), will hit out in anger, and will have a bad day.

150 children will swing on chairs, lose their books, forget their equipment, suffer bereavement, be ill, be happy, be unhappy, have fallen out with their friend...will love you or hate you...

150 kids will not let you, EVER, lose your focus because the moment your focus slips, someone is crying or shouting and you have a riot on your the WHOLE of your day is spent on maximum alert, monitoring every nuance and comment in the classroom- every potential conflict or joy.

And it’s your job, every day, to make sure that they are o.k. to make sure that they learn, to make sure that they can walk into the world with confidence, to make sure that they can pass an exam that will possibly have an impact on the rest of their lives...and you probably spend at least some of your summer getting ready for the new year ahead, planning and reading and resting your brain for a while.

As well as the 150 children, the teacher may also come into contact with their own ‘tutor group’; the teacher will closely monitor the tutor group students’ needs, socially, educationally, personally. It is the tutor’s concern if children in their group are under performing, unhappy or celebrating their birthday!

The teachers will also need to work together to ensure that they are aware of difficulties or problems, marking criteria, new government strategies and if there are biscuits in the staff room.
The teacher will make sure that the children have the knowledge and skills to pass exams, as well as the knowledge and skills to function in society. We try and make sure that the students we come into contact with every day are pleasant, can listen, can co-operate and treat each other with respect.

Lunch times are often spent helping students with work, offering lunch time clubs, spending time supervising the students on their lunch break, marking, catching up with e mails and planning.

More lessons after lunch

Schools finish at varying times, but most teachers will do some sort of work after school, either at home or at school. This may mean meeting with parents, planning, preparing the lessons, writing reports, marking or reading the new exam criteria to make sure everything is covered. know, if you worked with 150 young people every day, trying to help them to learn, to pass exams and to behave appropriately for the society they will eventually be a functioning part of, despite their indifference, or antagonism or social disadvantages, then perhaps you too would appreciate a week off every now and is exhausting.

And sometimes, you know that the children you teach will find it very difficult to get a job, that the economic climate will be unfavourable for them, that their family will not or cannot pay for the cost of university.

And you hope that any small thing that you can do with those children will help them to cope with the world they are about to travel into.

And you sometimes spend your evenings and your holidays helping those children to find work, suggesting voluntary arrangements that may help, giving advice, researching every possible avenue to help a child who gets help from nowhere else.

And sometimes you know that the students you teach have no hope that their future will be filled with learning. That school will be forever, the best part of their life because after school there's the dark future of unemplyoment and nothing to do.

And you’re probably not paid very much...but it’s a lot of fun

And exhausting

And you love it...because the children that demand so much and need a constant focus are also the warmest, most wonderful and enthusiastic and funny people that you know.

They are full of cynicism and greed for knowledge.

They love you and hate the system or they hate you as part of the system.

They love the time you give them and love or hate the books you make them read!

They make you laugh probably every day with their wry observations of life. They are the wisest and most naive people you know and you hope and fear for them in equal measure.

They thank you for their lessons and sometimes write down things that make you cry.

They are the future...

It’s just a shame that the British public seem to think, after every headline and every bit of bad journalism, that you do an easy job and you do it badly.

Thanks Boris, I hope that every single London teacher refuses to vote for you in the next mayoral election.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy

It’s poetry, it’s wonderful. In this anthology Duffy deals with motherhood and life and loss. A mother herself, Duffy covers the sadness of the death of her own mother and ‘Premonitions’ holds the desire of everyone who has lost a loved one to unspool time backwards and experience those laughing moments in a shred history again.
The anthology also holds a love of Britain, its nature and geography, the poems The Counties, The White Horses and John Barleycorn drawing a nostalgic picture of a Britain deeply brewed in the honeyed history she creates with her word pictures. As an expatriate living in Spain, her words conjure the beauty of British landscape deeply imbued in our collective cultural memories. There are nods to Wilfred Owen in Last Post and Passing Bells, using the terrors of WW1 to look, perhaps, at the continuing wars that we are living through now with another’s eyes.
As the title suggest, Duffy is also concerned with bees, both as a symbol of what we may have to lose should our environmental destruction continue, but also as a symbol of the potential human ability to co-operate towards a better human good.
Finally, there are plenty of moments of laughter too, with Achilles a reference to David Beckham and plenty of poems in celebration of childhood and the delights of motherhood. Sometimes just celebrating nature and words themselves in a cacophony of assonance, alliteration and rhyme that Duffy is a true master of.
It’s a lovely anthology and one which I will return to with great frequency over the years to revisit the joys and the tears contained within.

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

This is a terrifically funny book and it is wonderful to be presented with modern fiction which doesn’t think that the word ‘feminist’ is one to be avoided at all costs. The book is an autobiography covering Moran’s life to date and although some reviewers have belittled the fact that she does not mention some significant aspects of her life (such as winning writing competitions in her youth that allowed her to plough the lonely furrow of journalism with some support), they are overlooking the fact that autobiography has to be edited and of course Moran is not going to include every single aspect of her life. Our stories are self edited and adapted every day, every year. We tell people what we want to in order to fashion our stories and create our own personal narratives. Do I really care if Moran has adapted her truth? Not really, because the book still stands alone as a funny look at modern womanhood and the need for women to embrace feminism because of the steps we are yet to take.
In the light of the current presidential race in the states; with candidates like Santorum claiming the hard won victories of women, such as birth control and abortion, are towers that he is willing to bomb into historical collapse, it is all the more important that women in Britain and abroad recognise the journey that we have already taken. The rights and privileges that are seemingly enshrined in our lives but which we cannot take for granted as the extreme right, mad patriarchy and the ideologists who disguise their dogma under religious beliefs try to strip away the things that have enabled women to have good health, choices about their own bodies and a sense of independence. When we look at what we have, it is all too easy to strip away.
Moran’s book is not overtly political but comes from a place where the personal is political, where she takes aspects of her working class roots and gender and subjects them to a heartfelt and funny analysis, pointing out the insidious changes in our cultural life over the last twenty years that make a the ideals of a patriarchal consumer society’s ideals of the modern woman’s life a little more proscribed and a little more difficult to achieve. Moran makes us want to be the women we can be, taking difficult choices and not caring too much about underarm hair and the shape of our vaginas. It’s a funny, fun book and well worth a read.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgensten

This is a magical book about magical people and highly unlikely events. As the title suggests, the protagonists create a circus based on magic. The inhabitants are magical creatures performing tricks that the ‘normal people’ believe are extraordinary and in fact are magically real.
The clever conceit behind the story is that two young people have been chosen for their roles as apprentices to two mysterious and malevolent magicians. They undergo rigorous training in order to enter a magical battle which only one of them can win.  Unfortunately, they also fall in love with each other which presents them with the conundrum, how can they ensure that they both survive and their love survives the battle created by their masters? The answer is The Night Circus which evolves and changes and adapts as the apprentices (now applauded and supported by the readers).
It’s an engaging and wonderful read. As a fan of magical realism I was captivated by the characters and their various skills and abilities although the protagonists eventual solution to the problem of defeating their unconquerable masters, who until that time had never been defeated, was a bit too surreal even for me.
The cast of characters, including a magical clock, a disappearing man and a wonderful tent of shapes and sounds and smells, was a wonderful world, one which I did not want to disappear or end. Cleverly, the book includes an ardent team of Night Circus supporters, a team which every reader will probably support and want to join.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Don’t be fooled by the title and descriptions of this book as a ‘Book about baseball’ because it is far far more than that. I know nothing about baseball and I did find myself skimming some of the game descriptions (which can be a disadvantage when the plot mainly revolves around the successes and failures of the team). Nonetheless, the characters and interesting and engaging and at a very basic level, the friendships in the book demonstrate many heart warming aspects of solidarity, male bonding and competitive, testosterone driven achievement.
Some people may find the storyline a bit clichéd, as the main male sportsmen are drawn through the traditional story arc of rising success. The fact of the matter is that the reader can see the clichés and know what’s going to happen next, but that doesn’t mean we like the book any less because by that stage we are living the adventures of the main characters, training hard, playing hard, studying curveballs and statistics and playing great games. We are supporting our friends and telling them lies and living the complex lives of money, power and friendships that so often unravel after graduation.
The book covers the sadness of loss and the temptation in youth to stay in the place of safety that is University despite that phase of your life ending. The realisation in early adulthood that all of the things you would like to live in permanently, studying and living close to friends and being part of a team, may be transient.
The book struck a chord about the strengths of friendships. Friendships that continue despite age and loss and life. My husband still maintains close friendships with three friends from university (all boys, and still referred to as ‘The Boys’), I also sustain close friendships with three girlfriends from my own university days. These friendships have not always been smooth, we are people after all, we have argued passionately, been there through illness and death. The friendships remain: sustained in a deep rooted self perpetuating truth about love.

Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne

I may be biased about this book as it is based very close to my former Welsh home and the areas described could well be where my brother is currently living. Certainly the ‘old hippy’ labels that could so easily be applied to the family represented in the book could be stuck on to many people in rural Wales. In fact rural Wales seems to attract its fair share of eccentrics running away from the strains and stresses of city life; hippies, mad surfers, Tai Chi teachers, people living in yurts.
 I was once told of a ‘Mystic Triangle’ theory about lay lines creating a triangle around Swansea and stretching down around Stonehenge. Apparently this Cosmic Triangle creates great peace and tranquillity, which is why people, once there, rarely move away, partly because of the beauty of the Gower Coast and the verdant greenery and despite the (almost) constant rain. Apparently, Swansea is also quite famous for the variety and availability of drugs...who knows..
I have digressed. Wild Abandon is a funny novel detailing the family life on a commune, although the number of people living in the commune doesn’t seem to make it practical for the place to survive. Dunthorne draws a picture of all the negatives of a commune and is a great reminder of why one should never ever ever venture into communal living. The trials of teenage life are covered wonderfully, as are the adventures of the slightly younger brother in the book. There are drugs and alternative lifestyles and some closely observed comedic touches about marriage and the power of dictatorship to override democracy.
Dubnthorne also explores the complications of relationships in general, and in particular the difficulties of negotiating a collective of too many people drawn together for differing reasons, some seeking solitude, others support and companionship. Eventually and of course, ironically, many of the characters desert the commune for the comforts of ‘ordinary’ suburban living. They cannot live the ideology, as with many concepts, the theory of communal living is far more romantic and wonderful than the realities of sharing a fridge and a bathroom with too many people.
It’s a funny book and should be read by anyone considering communal living.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

This book is based on the rather extreme concept of taking performance art to its very limits and living it, having children and integrating them into a life of compositions, performances in innocuous places like shopping malls or aeroplanes designed to create a response from the audience.
As a drama geek and a fan of modern political drama I had some understanding of the concepts the book is based on; that didn’t necessarily make it any more credible. I found it difficult to believe that parents would involve their children in such mad ventures...but then logically, parents do horrible things to their children, to a minor or major degree, every day, why should performance art be less believable than any other forms of abuse?
Wilson has made a good job of the characterisation, with the reader becoming absorbed in the difficulties faced by the grown up children of the artistic parents and left in a void of cruel unknowing when their parents have disappeared, are they dead or is this another piece of extreme drama?
The endless soul searching of the brother and sister of the family Fang was a bit too lengthy at the beginning of the book but the pace became more exciting after the apparent disappearance of the parents. My favourite parts were the descriptions of the family Fang performances, when the parents staged, with their children, their events and the reader waits with bated breath to see how the audiences will respond. The emotional highs and lows of performance are well documented as are the flaws, joys and tragedies of human nature and our responses to the people around us.
It’s a fun book, disturbing and funny in equal measure. Worth a read, even if some readers may find the aspects of performance art a little too obscure for their own liking.


Ok, it's time for some book reviews, been neglecting them (not reading, just writing about them). In fact, been reading lots of very good books recently, far too many, so I am now obliged to work through the back catalogue of the Kindle, finding the ones I liked best and reviewing them here so that you lovely people can share....