Category: rant

Pedagog!

Nobody likes criticism but, as the Great Sage Mary Poppins once opined, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

By the end of my time in teaching the consensus was that you should aim for five positive comments to the little darlings for every negative one. A worthy ideal, indeed, though I’m pretty sure I never achieved that ratio myself.

I can’t even boast of satisfying Pink Floyd’s demand for no dark sarcasm in the classroom … well, when they stopped us walloping the little whelps what other weapon would work?

Just joking, aren’t I? The only time I tried to hit a kid was circa 1974 … and I missed.

One thing I was proud of, however, was my marking. Those red-pen comments of mine were miniature – and sometimes epic – minor masterpieces. At their best, they conformed to the following 4 principles.

As I said, nobody likes criticism … unless it comes in the form of suggestions for improvement on near perfection. Tell us how wonderful we are – it is, after all, no word of a lie – and we can take the truth no matter how brutal. Call us morons and we turn a deaf ear.

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

It was the very least I could do after all that heavy irony in lessons …

 

Image result for sarcastic teacher

 

Image:ViralSpell

 

 

Communication Breakdown, Part 2

As 2016 finally implodes in a shitstorm of fake news and false facts, I find myself in need of consolation. If I was a hedgehog, I’d hibernate. My previous post ended in a soothing flurry of proverbs but their analgesic effect has now worn off, so here’s another one:

‘When the heart weeps at what it has lost, the spirit laughs at what it has found.’

Arab proverb

Gulp, think I’m going to have to wait a while before that one works!

In the meantime, here is some music:

Hmm, that’s blown away a few cobwebs, if only because it was 1970 and not 2016! My life was ahead of me then, all speculation and no nostalgia. Who was it said, I wonder, that nostalgia is not what it was? I reckon we were the first mass-media generation and the fusty old past was a backward-looking book we were only too keen to close. Like Bob Dylan, we went along with Rimbaud’s injunction that it was necessary to be absolutely modern. Adults in the 1950s, wearied by the war, usually seemed happy enough to let us get on with it. After all, our freedom was what they had been fighting for.

And by comparison with children today, we were allowed to run pretty wild. But don’t run away with the thought that it was a golden age. My cousin Helen makes this thoughtful observation:

As children spawned just after WW2, we remember what it was like before the screws tightened on British society: schools were often appalling, there was little Health and Safety, and we had rights now gone for ever thanks to Thatcher and Blair. While this meant industrial accidents, child deprivation and unfairness, it also meant freedom to protest. Freedom of action. When in Marrakesh for my 60th, I was overjoyed at the lethal collapsed pavements which we had to navigate to avoid breaking our ankles. I felt once again the thrill of being in control of my own path – literally! I suppose what I’m saying is that you need some danger, mayhem and confusion as the crucible for inspiration and change. What have we lost in our present over-protected first world?

We learn best through trial and error: without mistakes, no achievements. How else can we grow up and not just older? Here is Helen again:

Young adults today don’t know anything different from the over-scrutinised, coddled society we have today. They don’t suffer from the feeling of loss of rights. How much more obedient will future generations be? They will accept without question their body-chipped, iris-recognition life. We also have to be vigilant for signs of the return of repression under the excuse of protection and safety.

We have always been contaminated, heavily, with the infantile responses programmed into us by all the “Sit still, be quiet, do as you’re told” directives of childhood: but looking over the parapet today it seems (Warning, generalisation alert!)  that younger generations are lacking in the cussedness, determination and daring that makes my generation such an inconvenience to the Establishment when we cross swords with it.

1984 has been and gone, with no obvious sign of Orwell’s Big Brother, but soon enough our every move will be followed by the often shadowy forces of control and commercial exploitation. Can you have a true democracy where adults are, in effect, infantilised? Helen traces the problem to our shallow ‘soundbite’ culture:

I blame the internet in part – the tsunami of information which helps to desensitise compassion and stifle curiosity. But why be curious anyway? The apathy of today is a realistic assessment of our political system. When you’ve grown up with celebrity culture, naturally you’ll be more interested in the Kardashians than the fact that there’s been a 6.5 earthquake in the third world.
Helen and I used to exchange long illustrated letters in our early teens and we’ve just resumed our correspondence on, ah yes, the internet! Perhaps we can prove Marshall McLuhan wrong when he said The medium is the message … in our case, I very much hope and believe, it’s not the how but the what!
Anyhow, no more talk of hibernation, I’m inspired to write and post an epic poem in defence of freedom before the weather closes in completely …
Image result for sun and storm

Work is a Four-Letter Word

 

Thought I’d begin my rant on the subject with this little film. It’s only a few minutes long but makes its point so eloquently I almost don’t want to add anything else.

In a way, my job is done. So I’ve just fired myself.

Ha, that’s better! The burden of having to fulminate against such an obvious target was beginning to weigh heavy. Who doesn’t curse their job several times a day? And who needs an old codger like me, long-since retired from the wearisome world of work, to kick against the pricks he no longer has to suffer?

Don’t get me wrong. I liked teaching … whenever I had the time and energy to do it properly. Teaching is simple. You choose a topic that interests and perhaps even excites you, organise the lesson carefully (leaving as little to chance as possible while making sure you can take advantage of any unexpected developments) and then engage with the students proactively to stimulate an active response which keeps the inquiry going into future lessons and down avenues where you will learn as much as they do.

Most of your energy should go into three tasks: prepare, teach, mark. Instead you are dragged into a hundred and one side-tracks devised by people who are not practising teachers yet think they know better than dedicated professionals what needs to be done. And on top of all this unnecessary office work you have to try and keep the kids on task. Result: an exhausted profession and a big recruitment problem.

Teachers in the UK aren’t badly paid but a job that takes up so much of your time should be rewarding in every way. Teaching should be the best job in the world. Nothing demoralises you more quickly than realising that for no fault of your own you’re not really getting to grips with what needs to be done. And meaningless work is soul-destroying, as the cartoon so clearly demonstrates.

Hmm, thought I’d sacked myself …

 

Images: http://www.opusbou.com.ar and www.picshunger.com

Our Complaints Desk is Closed

                                                A long rant followed by a short poem.

I find it harder and harder to cope with big ideas. They loom above me like giant unstable airships, making me want to let go and run. Instead I hang on like grim death, risking imminent immolation or a sudden short flight ending in a very long drop.

Even worse is that big ideas force me into using metaphors which lumber out of control like maddened elephants into crowds of innocent and slightly bemused bloggers who … well, you get the picture.

This, in case you hadn’t noticed, is one of my pour-myself-a-drink-and-see-what-comes-out posts. (I just poured it and noticed it was Guinness … )

Believe it or not, this post has a subject and it may be that all this frantic jocularity is a way of ducking it. It’s a big idea, you see, and there could be a touch of stage fright before launching into a heavy monologue. But if I don’t get going soon, I will soon be talking to an audience of three … me, myself and I.

Oh well, anything’s better than being in two minds about something. At least a three-way split offers a chance of adjudication …

OK, enough wisecracking, already! Big ideas need big build-ups … just hit play!

I’ve just poured another Guinness in the hope that I’ll hit my stride soon … ah, begorra*, I’m talking about the bloody mess we’ve left the next generations to clear up – more specifically, the ecosystem. It’s the elephant in the room, all right, and like the blind men in the old story we can’t even agree what it looks like. It doesn’t appear in economic models and it doesn’t get discussed at cocktail parties.

( * that was quick, maybe Guinness is good for you … )

We just don’t seem to have the language, do we? There is climate science, of course, but for too long governments have been playing divide-and-rule when it comes to results. Pure science is systematically underfunded and the self-interested opinions of corporate science – biased almost by definition – are taken far too seriously. Money, alas, talks louder than morality.

Image result for Shut Up and Take My Money

And don’t get me started on the creationist idea that we’re all part of a master-plan to improve the universe. In my bleaker moments I’m with Bill Hicks that we’re a virus in shoes.

The trouble is that the more miserable you make people about this stuff, the more they retreat into denial and comfort-eating … meant in the broadest sense (no pun intended!) as consumption, much of it conspicuous. In the absence of meaningful community, two killer syndromes loom like giant airships, etcetera … (a) our self-esteem comes from the way our lives look to others and (b) self-gratification takes centre stage.

It doesn’t help that we’re dragooned into nation-states. Countries who’ve had the cream aren’t about to set an example to countries who haven’t by switching to low-fat yoghurt … oh, these blasted metaphors! What I mean is, our bling and binge culture may be the death of us.

Says he, polishing up his post and swigging down stout … ah, but let me tell you, it’s an agonising business tackling big ideas!

Oh sausages, I’m going to cut to the chase! We need a blessed miracle to get out of this hole and I don’t mean the one in the blinking ozone layer – concerted action on that, by the way, shows what we can do when we have a mind to get together. As a non-believer I’m not holding my breath for any manna from heaven (or pie in the sky, for that matter) but I do admire the liturgy and litany of religion, so here is my attempt to graft it on to a more pagan life-focussed viewpoint in sonnet form … something of a hymn, as it turns out.

It’s worth remembering, I do believe, that the word ‘ecology’ has an ancient root. It comes from Okologie – Greek oikos “house, dwelling place, habitation” + -logia “study of”.

 

        Noah's new age prayer

o Gaia hold us rapt within your arms
that life be one with love and one with all
let sense be always open to your charms
and spirit never falter at your call
o Gaia keep our step upon the way
that leads to wild places sacred shrines
where pilgrims catch a glimpse of yesterday
and dream of leaving children cryptic signs
o Gaia turn our thoughts to simple joys
and tune our hearts to nature's steady beat
that we might hear the hush beneath our noise
and feel the dance begin to move our feet
for only celebration stirs the blood
enough to build an ark against this flood

 

 

Brexit Blues

I posted this on Facebook because I was tempted to unfriend people before remembering it was against my principles. The internet is supposed to be helping us create a better world, right? No point just preaching to the converted …

 

Facebook is now awash with nasty gloating from victorious Leavers and anguished laments from disappointed Remainers. I have a perhaps unusually wide range of Facebook correspondents but  I won’t be unfriending anyone.

In return, please don’t bombard me with blatant propaganda or personalised attacks because I want our country to rise above the slanging match we’ve had for far too long and begin a rational, inclusive and even forensic national quest to establish future policy directions we can all agree on.

My pre-referendum posts might not have floated your boat but at least I tried to emphasise hard facts over misleading fictions. And the post-referendum reality is that we face an uphill struggle. We need politicians who can step up to the plate and become statesmanlike, by which I mean, men and women who serve the interests of all sections of society and can perform convincingly on a world stage.

Such people seek the widest possible international cooperation to tackle cross-border issues like trade, crime, poverty, war and environmental damage. Forget the demagogues and mavericks and buffoons. They’ll make us a laughing stock at a time when we need to recover our human dignity and build a common identity. We must keep the equal rights our citizens gained as members of the EU. Decent people seek solidarity and not division. As John Donne said, no man is an island.

We have taken a leap into the dark and people have a perfect right to be angry and fearful. We’re in unknown territory. And if you head off somewhere weird, expect to hear from me.

Don’t worry. You can always unfriend me.

I’ll let you know if I get any response.

A Shrine to Lazy Bones

The inspiration – if you can call it that – for this poem came from two news items. One concerned the fact that the life expectancy of UK men shows a bigger range between rich and poor than at any time in 150 years. That’s 150 years of social legislation gone down the tube. The other concerned state primary schools, where 6 year olds have gone on strike to protest against the introduction of yet more new tests. The background here is that British children are amongst the unhappiest in Europe.

So the rich are living longer and their children are exempt from stressful early testing. Liberty is become licence, it seems, cut loose from equality and humanity. The changes began with the mania for deregulation back in the early 80s when our handbag-wielding leader proclaimed there was no such thing as society, only individual men and women. My question would be, was she just stating a fact of life or making a prophesy of a nasty future where survival of the fittest is the only creed and a notional afterlife is the only consolation for the losers?

The historian EP Thompson believed the 19th Century working classes desperately oscillated between politics and religion, depending on which of them offered more hope. If it is to be religion’s turn again, let’s at least make it one we can all agree on. My religion would involve a common belief in the sacredness of life itself, a fusion of freedom and equality and humanity that would stop the crazy see-saw.

A Shrine to Lazy Bones

Two spectres haunt this house of humankind
And stalk the hall to keep us in our room.
At dead of night we wake with troubled mind
To fears of open lock and closing tomb.
Two spectres: one the ever-hungry ghost
That shrieks for more and more, the more we give -
A cuckoo in the nest, our children lost
To parents much too busy just to live.
The other spook's a mirage: heaven, hell -
And life a dress rehearsal for their sake.
When kids - all work, no play - are saved by the bell 
Then wonder not, but sleep till death awake.
To exorcise these household demons both,
Let's re-enchant the world and worship sloth.

 

Image: http://www.kennethdepoorter.be

In cahoots!

Nothing beats the thrill of hitting Publish to send your next carefully-composed post out to cyberspace. You wait on tenterhooks at Mission Control, hoping with crossed fingers that your probe makes connection with its target audience. Success is positive feedback.  Failure is radio silence. Global communication validates us, bestowing an identity we might otherwise lack. It draws us from our little boxes and broadens our horizons. The world turns out to be round, after all!

Readers of my previous posts will know that I hate labels. Putting the human species in pigeonholes isn’t my idea of fun, whether it’s gender or nation or class or race or colour. These are all passive descriptors. You can’t help what you are but you can take responsibility for what you do. And here I’ll break my rule and suggest two active descriptors: we are all either bridge-builders or wall-builders.

Sounds good, don’t it? Actually, it’s rubbish. We’re both. It all depends on the circumstances. Bad times breed walls, good times grow bridges. In the real world at present – and perhaps for the foreseeable future – walls are winning. Yeah, talk to the hand ‘cos the face ain’t listening …

And wall-building isn’t active, of course, it’s passive-aggressive. Building a bridge takes energy, courage, imagination. Above all, it’s an act of faith. It starts with empathy, a belief in the other side which creates the improbable miracle of meeting in the middle. I may be stretching the metaphor to breaking point but when common ground is hard to find, connection must be made in mid-air.

Which brings me to the blogosphere. Sceptics are doubtful about its potential to break down barriers and heal divisions, often dismissing it as ‘preaching to the converted’. Well, yes, bloggers are bridge-builders by definition but we also have real lives and our urge to fly may begin in the cages we have built for ourselves. As the prescient hostess in the Eagles’ Hotel California says, ‘We are all prisoners here/Of our own device’.

In a sadly crowded field my nomination for Most Dangerous Book Ever would have to be ‘1001 Places To See Before You Die’. Do the math, as my American friends would say. Times 1001 by 7 billion to come up with the number of trips. Factor in air miles and you have a recipe for turning the atmosphere into toxic soup. Travel broadens the mind, they say, but jetting around to tick 1001 boxes … each box containing a subset of tourist must-sees … holy relics, just thinking about it triggers my travel-sickness!

A viable alternative is to go to a few places, stay longer and soak up the culture. Comparison is the key to self-discovery in this poem by Philip Larkin:

The Importance of Elsewhere

Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognised, we were in touch.

Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.

Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.

Another viable alternative is to travel in cyberspace. That may sound rather nerdy, but bear with me. Every single day 2,000,000 posts like this are sent. Each one is a window on the world, even the ones you can’t be bothered to read.

Two recent attempts at co-writing poems with fellow bloggers were like little holidays from myself. Grappling with several viewpoints took me outside my customary subjective bubble towards something more objective. It was like looking for buried treasure. It felt like a childhood game of Consequences where each person adds a new detail to create a story nobody sees until the end, when the paper concertina unfolds its serendipitous surrealism.

It set me thinking about collaboration. When it works, the whole is mysteriously greater than the sum of its parts. The best live bands sometimes say it’s as if an extra member was up there playing alongside them. Song-writing duos compose songs of magical quality – Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards, John/Taupin, Goffin/King, Bacharach/David, Rogers/Hammerstein, Gilbert/Sullivan, the list goes on. Many of the UK’s favourite sit-coms are the product of two brains – Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son, Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Fawlty Towers and The Office are just some that spring to mind.

Winning teams have esprit de corps but this doesn’t stop them disagreeing. Healthy argument is essential for success. In relationships opposites attract. The most revealing interviews are those where two people talk freely as equals. The best teachers say they learn as much from their pupils as their pupils learn from them. Hierarchy stifles creativity, although Basil would never admit it …

A question I often ask in the vain hope of a sensible answer runs as follows … Why do CEOs get paid so much for running organisations which are so bad they need people on huge salaries to run them? It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question, I admit, but why is nobody prepared to answer it?

And don’t get me started on why we need financial speculation! Since when did money become a commodity in its own right and not just a means of exchanging goods and services, huh?

Well, I told you not to get me started! Besides, I’ve got bigger fish to fry.

If I have a religion it’s a belief in the sacred triad of freedom, equality and fellowship. They are interdependent. They underpin human creativity by enabling partnership. Two minds are better than one. We do better to build bridges rather than walls.

If my religion has demons, they are rapacious consumerism and rampant fundamentalism. On the face of it, however, these couldn’t be more different: material and immaterial, natural and supernatural, here and elsewhere.

Yet both of them are heretics in my religion, if I have a religion. Both of them deny that we live in the spaces between one another and that souls is just a fancy word for relationships. Both of them say, Look after Number One and Devil take the Hindmost. Their crazed obsession with individual success and personal salvation are the twin scourges of our modern age, fuelling egoism and undermining a full engagement with the world. They make our heaven a living hell.

Two final questions: 

  1.  Can the blogosphere save the biosphere?
  2.  Does anyone know the title and/or author of a short story about a space rocket which makes an emergency landing on a planet because of a failed engine?  The other parts of the ship locate a new engine which turns out to be an inhabitant of the planet. They kidnap him and he learns about his real destiny, which is to power the ship. The story is clearly an allegory about teamwork – right up my street, as you can imagine! – and I would dance with delight if I found it again.