Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Divide and Commodify

If you don't know who Zoella is, then I don't blame you, but in the upward osmosis of teenage trends, it surprises me that any teacher doesn't.

Zoella is the internet moniker of a girl (nee woman) named Zoe Sugg, and she is the most successful debut author of all time in terms of first week sales. She is an internet phenomenon, and what is most interesting to me, is that she is a brand. The 24 year old Sugg began her public life as a video-blogger, peddling videos on such diverse topics as fashion and fashion.She became the au fait sounding board for teenagers. She also became an embodiment of a type of wonderfully short-sighted aspiration culture.

The current teenage zeitgeist is obsessed, even more so than ever, with the ordinary becoming extraordinary. From the sabbath-borne diurnal faux-splendour of X-Factor through to the flash-fame of the vinetastic, the whole of youth culture is rooted in the magic of the non-famous becoming famous, and, then, sadly, infamous. It is the latter part of this that triad that is oft-ignored by those wishing to, even vicariously, live the fame.Our students, are most of the demographic of the products that our made out of these quick-fix fames.

And so, from the realms of verbosity to internet video logs (and what a chasm that is). The issue is not with Zoella's vlog, it's with her book; A novel that has been slammed this week for using a ghostwriter. Many are suggesting that it is not that she used a ghost writer, but that she failed to admit it, that is the heinous crime, and I sort of agree there, but I also see why there was no upfront honesty: because Zoella and her fast-famed ilk are brands. They masquerade as real people, yes, but in the end they are a sell-able item. Companies now commodify reality and integrity. They appropriate its integrity and rehash it into something with a little more sheen on its bonnet. And the sad part, the reason why I, an amateur education blogger, am writing this? Because the demographic that small town heroism sells to is teens. And vulnerable teens at that. Those that cannot be cynical enough to see that they are being sold to are those that are often in most need of integrity to sell themselves to in order to remove themselves from difficult lives.

The sad thing about this is there is not much we can really do about it. Most advertising targeted at teenagers is already more ethically dubious that a KKK debutante ball. We can't change the media (at least not quickly), and equally we can't change the pervasive lust for money amongst a vast swathe of the community (and I use the word community more loosely than McDonalds use the term 'Healthy Choices'). What we can do, however, is to make sure that students know the reality of advertising and how it aims to manipulate them. Zoella is a victim of a corporate desire to consistently gauge out the sterling that line the pockets of teens. They identified that Sugg is not a novelist and so, probably, filled in the gap with someone who was, and who didn't have the prerequisite fame needed to top the book charts.

So there is something else at stake here; the faith in talent. All this presents to students is that even if they are the most stunningly talented novelist in the world, they need a public, famous, media-trained face to get themselves heard. The old adage of hard work paying off is false. If you don't want, or cant work hard then you can buy the shortcut and 'forget' to credit. Fairy tales are only accessible to those who are sponsored by big business. Every character in this tale has sold out. Every character has taken on an facade. Every character has lost their self on the alter of the commodified daydream. Nothing on screen is real.

So there you go, kids, want to be successful? Be ready to sell out at every turn. Oh. Wait. Screw that. Tell your students to question everything and be themselves. No surrender.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

It Is Only Our Perception

Yesterday I went for a teaching interview, and also yesterday I was turned down for a job.

It's not the best thing to have happened. It ranks pretty high up on my giant board of 'Shit Times I've Had.' (if you're interested in what the leader board looks like. It looks like the deranged creation of someone who worked simultaneously on SMTV live and Eurotrash)

The school was exactly what I am not: Refined, traditional, reserved. It was wonderfully, Britshly, lavish, but not quite in the way I'd have liked to be. I imagine it had a poor outlook on standing on chairs to teach and using books with swear words in as stimulus material. I didn't fit in. The school that I left in August was pretty new and fairly rough cut in places, but one of its primary ethics was to try new things in teaching. It tried hard to be a bit unusual and new in the way that it practiced. This didn't always work out, but there were a lot of teachers on board with it. One of the things it really valued was the relationship between students and teachers. The school was in an area where a lot of students had difficult backgrounds; for them, the staff there often treated like members of their family, and teachers really put an emphasis on building relationships with students based on positivity and happiness. I liked this. To leave that school was a wrench. (13 to 28mm adjustable, thrown straight at the head)

In light of my old school, my behaviour management ethic can be summed up with a statement I have appropriated from the deputy head of one of my PGCE placement schools: 'Try your hardest not to put them in detention'. So how do I manage behaviour? I try my absolute hardest to form positive in-classroom relationships. So what did I do in my interview lesson? I taught a deadpan and almost threatening lesson.

Wait. No I didn't. I taught as I teach; Light-hearted. I tried to demonstrate who I am as a teacher. And I am pretty pleased I did. In a way.

I received the classic feedback call last night. I knew I hadn't got the job because they had six candidates and sent three of us home at lunchtime. I find it a giveaway that the job's not yours when you don't make the final interview. I was pretty interested to hear what they said and tried to be as gracious as possible when I got the feedback, particularly as I was pretty despondent, and they also managed to ring me while I was on the toilet. What they said you've probably already guessed. They told me that I was too quick to be humorous in my lesson. I was too loud. (Read between lines: I was too energetic, perhaps. Or not traditional enough) The three candidates that got taken through to the afternoon were all quite reserved, quite meek people. Perfectly lovely, but very... conventional. I am none of these. 

The irony, perhaps, is that the very reason that they didn't like me was the very reason that about 18 months ago OSTED told me I was outstanding. The lesson I taught in front of OFSTED was, if anything, a lot more mental. When the inspector came in I was stood, on a chair, shouting and laughing.

The strange thing is that they were totally right not to hire me, even in my tear-stained eyes. The school performs insanely well every year. It was judged Outstanding fairly recently, and regularly comes in high up the league tables. They can clearly recognise talent in staff. So, why was an Outstanding school right to not hire a formally Outstanding teacher? Because we both would have regretted it.

They would have kept trying to make me teach in a manner I didn't enjoy and I would've been pushing against them to do something completely different. It would've been a catastrophe. That doesn't mean that I am happy with their choice because I don't personally view the teaching onus in that school (as I experienced it) as being particularly positive. But I don't know that for sure. I saw a little slice of life there. An amuse bouche of the school. And any rejection, be it by Amy, in year 7 in 2001 when I asked her to dance at the school disco, or being cut from an interview, is pretty galling. perhaps, then, I am only telling myself that the school did the right thing because it stymies the nagging insecurity of being told that you are not good enough. But the insecurity is often misplaced. it is not that you are not good enough. It is that you are not right for that setting. Schools must be art galleries well curated. Starry Night does not belong in a room of conceptual sculpture in the same way Rock Drill should never be in a room of Goya.it is all about, to coin one of the Head Teacher's own words, perception.

Moral: forget OSTED judgements and apply to schools or hire teachers, that fit in with your ethic because happy staff are as important as happy students. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Five Graphic Novels You Should Teach

Comics are cool and trendy. Well, wait, not quite. People like comics in theory. They like comic spinoff movies because they're big and flashy and have great personalities and take us away from who we really are. Guardians of the Galaxy has been massively successful and has blitzed box-offices worldwide this year. Days of Future Past likewise. I am happy for comics. I am happy that they are finding success; the industry sure needed it after the big publishers pretty much ravaged it for flea-bitten alternate-cover cash in the early nineties. But, and you have my permission to call my sour here, it makes me sad that the best of the industry is oft-ignored.

Too often, what I see in schools is bad 'graphic novel' versions of Shakespeare plays, or 'difficult' novels given to students so that it can be made easier. My heart sinks, somewhat painfully, into my gut when I see these because it is indicative of the frivolity connected to comics and graphic novels: They are easy. They make things easier. They are a substitute used when things get tough. And so, in light of this, I raise a giant metaphorical banner (what i'm really doing is drinking tea) and I present you with a list of five challenging, engaging and interesting graphic novels or comic sets that you can teach in schools. That is, if anyone takes your idea seriously.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/c0/V_for_vendettax.jpgNumber One: V for Vendetta

There is no way I couldn't include this on the list. Moore and Gibbons novel is a wonderful indictment of fascism written during the cold war. It gives an (in)human face to terrorism and questions what is right and wrong and, most markedly, the language is beautiful.

Yes, you could watch the film, but it misses a lot of the point. Moore was writing against Thatcherism. He was quite serious when he predicted the rise of militant fascism in Britain and there a lot of tropes in the novel that echo true today. This is a truly exceptional, and eminently readable, novel.

In my opinion this book is a relevant and  powerful as 1984. It is brutal in places but it looks at the human impact of theocratic government. Read it, teach it. Heed its warnings.

Extract: But it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it's all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us, but within that inch we 
are free. 

Number Two: Maus

Much has been written about Maus, and that is entirely correct. It is the only graphic novel to have won the Pulitzer Prize, and if there is to be only ever one to win it, then this is surely deserved. Art Spiegelman's biography of his father's time as a Jew in Auschwitz is also an autobiography that explores survivor guilt and the difficulty of growing up under the weight of the need to tell the story of his father. This is an exceptional work. It utilises the jarring effect of anthropomorphised characters living human lives: Jews are mice; Nazis, cats; Poles, pigs. It is like reading the most distressing Mickey Mouse comic ever written and that is quite the point. Stylistic, heartfelt and personal, this is perhaps the most affecting thing that you can read, and therefore it should be read. If we teach students about the holocaust, why don't we show them the experiences of what it was like.

 Extract: Many young Germans have had it up to HERE with  holocaust stories. These things happened before they were evenborn. Why should THEY feel guilty?"
 "Who am I to say."

http://weartheoldcoats.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/blankets.jpgNumber Three: Blankets

 Something a little more tender now. Craig Thompson's Blankets is probably not something you've heard of despite winning so many awards it could open a shop selling them. It is an autobiographical bildungsroman about Thompson's first love and the tensions between his religious upbringing and his own urges. When I bought this I started reading it at ten at night and proceeded to read the entire 582 pages without a break. 

But why teach it? Because it is so relevant. It describes to students exactly how they feel. It doesn't lie about teenage love, or parents, or society. Oh, and it's one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. It is Salinger, Homes and Bloom. It is open and unexpected but it provides a raft of language for students to peer into and consider. It is contemporary, relevant and unusual. It is, and I hesitate, scared a little, to say this, as close to perfect as I can find. 

Extract: Her hair was silky and sprawled across her forehead. I smoothed it back and tucked it behind her ear. She was restful and yet her eyebrows were knit in a worried manner, forming a permanent furrow upon her brow. What was she worried about?

http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1331455058l/489946.jpgNumber Four: When the Wind Blows

Raymond Briggs is well known for being the man behind The Snowman but this very thin volume (it's only 38 pages long) is, in my opinion at least, his magnum opus. Brigg's cartoon style contrasts with his story about a pensioner couple in the wake of a nuclear explosion. This is one of a few books that reset my tear-ducts to 'just dumped teenager'. The impact of it is incredible and indelible. No-one should grow up in a nuclear age without reading it.

The raft of context behind it including the modelling of the protaganist couple on Bigg's own parents, the constant allusion and mis-allusion by the couple to events contemporary to its writing, and the use of quotation from genuine nuclear preparation pamphlets, makes the novel ripe for discussion. These are figures trapped in a situation they have no say in. Stylistically the novel is characterised by its over-A4 size that blends dense conversation in tiny panels with giant double page spreads including, as the centrefold linchpin of the story, a double page that is bright, printer-paper white.

Extract: I saw it last week in a magazine in the public library. I learned it by heart-'Inter-racial harmony in a Multi-ethnic society' Good, isn't it?

Number 5: The Arrival

Now, Shaun Tau's wonderfully illustrated tale of immigration set in a strange and unreal world is a bit of a wildcard on this list because, well, it hasn't got any words in it. At all. But that is the point. 

 The story follows a lone character who moves to a new city where he understands very little of what is going on. It is strange to describe a book as quiet, but this is eminently so. The very real tale of disconnection to the surrounding world uses surrealism to provide its momentum but it is intriguingly followable. this is a very modern story told in the sepia of memory and the lavishness of beautiful pencil-work. 

So that is my list. Please, even if you don't think you have an opportunity to teach one of these, go an order one off amazon or, even better get it from a bookshop or, if you are pressing for an A* then find a comic shop and support it. There are hundreds and thousands of graphic novels that could be on this list, but I tried to provide some variety in style and substance. I could have easily put on Watchmen, Ghost World, Bone, Akira, The Killing Joke or any other 'stalwarts' of the medium but I chose things that I thought had genuine educational benefit. 


Friday, 12 September 2014

Was Geneva Wrong?

 Was Geneva Wrong? The Positive Effects of Cruel and Unusual Punishment in School Children. 

Dr Callum Mittie III, MA PGCE Kitekat BAGA 4

IT HAS LONG BEEN ASSUMED that part of the role of the teacher is to be an ethical guiding light and a pastoral carer towards the children in their charge, but what if this so called 'nurturing instinct' is, in fact, totally wrong?

The first difficulty of this study is defining what actually constitutes a child. What is a child? I ask, and it is a difficult question, because no-one really knows (Serafinowicz 2002). The latest edition of the Wandsworth English Dictionary defines 'A Child' as being a creature between 3"2' and 5"6' in height and with a Geiger counter reading of (+/- 2%) 10x108 (Wandsworth 2014). All of this is, of course, the sort of mundanity that is well known in the teacher profession, for what sort of teacher, in these days of accountability and data-obsession, enters the classroom without their handy personal Geiger counter? So the real question here is what makes a child a child outside of just their physical attributes. This, of course, is where Serafinowicz falls short, and not just literally.

If you were to dissect a child, and I'm sure most of you have, you would find a confused jumble of string-like organs, each of which contains an individual 'emotional trail' of hormones. It is now well-understood that only one of these 'emotional trails' can be connected to the organ loosely described as a brain (or 'think-box' in popular Daily Mail nomenclature) and so the trails consistently vie for sustenance from the think-box housed above it, thereby causing the child's infamous mood-swings. Of course, during the cocoon stage, the child's body chemistry will change dramatically into the well-ordered innards of the average human. Some, of course, will not experience this transition and it is for these anomalies the process known as the 'X-factor' was developed to screen them quickly and efficiently into the care and support of the affectionately-named Big Brother house, where caring older 'Siblings' would look after them.

But how do we make sure that our children grow into their cocoon stage in the most productive way, both for them and for society? It has been the way for a number of years now that they should be nurtured and encouraged, but is this really working? Freedom is only causing a spiral of increasingly negative social interaction and aspirations (Bragg 1984). Students no longer aspire to the top of society, instead relying on the quick-fix-comfort of instant celebrity. In fact, the whole X-factor process has changed from being a sad indictment of our failings as a society to a lauded process with a viewership that, I can only surmise, challenges Autumnwatch as the country's favourite programme. And so, where is nuturing getting us but further and further into our own troubles. To borrow a phrase from the educational pyschologists Belle and Sebastian; There is too much love to go around these days.(Belle, Sebastian et al 2000)

There has been significant movement in this new 'Cruel to be Kind' teaching movement already. For example the popular programme 'Mr. Drew's Last Chance School' where students are given a final chance to succeed before they are terminated, has been met with riotous applause. In America, where they are always at the forefront of sensible and effective educational reform, the 'Hunger Games' has promoted creativity amongst selected underachievers in order to facilitate active learning. The 'Hunger Games' is reminiscent of Montessori's dogma of learning through play and experience. (Collins 2008) The Japanese system entitled Battle Royal is less well known, possibly due to its tumultuous beginnings, but must also be considered as it is very much the spiritual predecessor of the American system.(Takami 2007)

In short, this study will focus on a number of the so-called 'Free' schools, which are of course the schools were student behavior has degraded to the point where students are 'free' to do as they please. In charge of each of these will be placed an overseer, or games-master, who will be responsible solely for discipline. It will be their job to set difficult tasks that should foster competition, creativity and ingenuity in order for students to succeed and then to prosper in the difficult adult climate because, after all, aren't children just little adults after all?


Belle Sebastian et al., Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant; The Fallacy of Nuturing in Secondary Schools, Jeepster Press, Glasgow 2000

Bragg B, The Saturday Boy; A Cross-Cultural Study of Teenage Attachment and Workplace Aspiration, Godiscs Press, Barking 1984

Collins S, The Hunger Games Theory; An Exercise In Learning Through Action, District 12 press, The Seam 2008 (Vol.2 2009, Vol.3 2010)

Serafinowicz P, Look Around You, Volume 1 Issue 3, BBC Press, London 2002

Takami K, Battle Royale, Gollancz, London 2007 (first published 1999 in Japanese) 

ed. Tolkein J R R, The Wandsworth English Dictionary for Schools and Outhouses Sixth Edition, Wandsworth University Press, Wandsworth 2014

Appendix A: Premise

So this happened: