Babies project takes a step forward

I’ve been playing around with a specific project for several years. I’ve done two very different complete drafts for nanowrimo, a few years apart, and I keep coming back to it. I have a whole document full of news links that are relevant to my novel, and every time my interest dwindles another news story comes up.

This project is along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale – taking all sorts of stories and projecting the sort of world they are leading to. It started along the lines of thinking about Babies R Us, and imagining it as a kind of pet store but for babies – go along and choose your baby. Then it developed away from that. But it always suffered from lack of direction, and that was reflected in – and was caused by – the lack of a proper title.

So for years it was “that thing about the babies”, or just “babies”. But without that focus, the project floundered.

Then recently it came to me. I know what the title is, or at least one or two variations on what I want, and with that title comes the whole theme and purpose of the novel.

Ladies and gentlemen I present: A Perfect Childhood.

The novel seeks to explore the idea of state as parent, and how eliminating the variation in parenting quality, and providing a consistent, expert parent in the state, would theoretically solve the attainment gap and ensure that every single child would have the same opportunities in life.

Of course, being a novel, things don’t go quite according to plan…

So now I have a title and a focus, I really need to get on with a new draft. Although there’s still Abandoned to work on for writing group, and Life Lessons, my romance, is nagging at me. And Gods V Heroes will need another draft at some point soon…

If only I could get Dropbox working again on my laptop, I could get on with all of these. Otherwise I face the prospect of either carrying a memory stick around and running several different versions, or having to retire to the study rather than sit with my feet up in front of the TV while writing.

 

A confusing teacher

Back when I was in primary school, we didn’t have such things as substitute teachers or cover teachers – if our classroom teacher was ill or absent, we’d be parcelled off in twos or threes to sit at the back of another classroom. Usually we’d have set work to do, and would be expected to sit there getting on with it while the teacher taught his/her class, but sometimes, especially if the classroom we went in was the same yeargroup, we’d be invited to join in with their work.

These days were often a fascinating glimpse into another life; spending all your school time with one teacher, in one group of students, can be a little claustrophobic, and it was always fun to see how the rest of the school lived.

One of these sessions, though, left me thoroughly confused and a little disheartened, to the extent that I still remember the day even though it was over forty years ago.

I think I must have been in second year at junior school, which these days translates to year 4, and I and a couple of others were sent to a fourth year classroom (top of the school; these days year 6). As I worked on my own tasks, we were nonetheless invited by the teacher (a man, although his name is long shrouded in the mists of time) to join in if we wanted. I declined, as I remember.

There were two tasks I remember from that day. The first was the instruction to the class to carry out a writing exercise. The instructions, as I remember them, was “I want description of being at the seaside. And it needs to be at least 20 pages long. Seagulls crying, waves on the shore, that sort of thing.” Twenty pages? I’d never written that much in my life. And twenty pages of description? Is such a thing even possible? Even today, I wonder. Surely that was far out of reach for ten-year-olds.

The other was discussion of what the word “estate” meant. The class were coming up with all sorts of suggestions as to the meaning, but each time he would say, “No, that’s not it. No, you’re not quite right. No, that’s wrong.” I never did find out what it meant according to him.

From those two exercises I took away the feeling of being faced with an exercise that I just consider far too hard, being given without any acknowledgement that it was tough, and the feeling of not knowing what something means and being constantly wrong without ever knowing the right answer.

I’ve no idea whether these were serious exercises, or whether his class usually did this sort of thing, or whether he was winding up the visitors, but to this day I think of that lesson with frustration.

 

T is for test

Do you like tests?

I usually do. The only test I’ve been particularly stressed over was my driving test. Exams, at school or since, have been enjoyable opportunities to show what I can do.

These days, it seems that the expectation is that the person taking the test knows exactly what’s being tested and what they need to do to get a good mark. In my day, it always just seemed to be a vague expectation of doing your best and hoping.

Sometimes it feels like life is a test, and one where I don’t know the rules, or the requirements, or even who’s testing me and how. That’s when it’s not so pleasant.

In the end, testing helps us to see how well we know something, or how well we can do it. It’s hard to understand those who cheat, because they’re cheating themselves. In the end, we’re only competing against ourselves.

I’m reading a book about education at the moment, suggesting that schools should be allowed to change focus, and move away from endless tests. It seems that at the moment rather than testing what needs to be learned, the focus is on learning what can be tested.

I talked yesterday about studying. The result of studying is being able to put that learning into action, and that, then is the real test.

 

 

L is for learning

Posted as part of the a-z challenge.

When we’re at school we’re expected to learn. When we leave school, that shouldn’t stop.

There are so many opportunities these days to learn whatever we fancy. I used to work in adult education, teaching maths and English to students who struggled to get the grades at school, or who were disillusioned with school, or found it a struggle, or missed out through one way or another – a wide variety of people with a wide variety of abilities, but all seeking to learn.

I’m still learning in my job, and I expect to continue learning until the day I die. There is so much out there to know and understand. And we’re not limited to finding a book about it or looking for a class locally. There’s been an explosion of online learning sites, many offering free courses or courses for a small fee.

I’m learning as I write – the more I write, the more I discover ways that work and ways that don’t work.

I’m learning as I run – this morning I learned that trying for a long run after a late night and a bacon and egg sandwich breakfast is not the best idea in the world!

I’m learning as I teach – part of the skill of a teacher is to be able to pick up new topics, digest them, understand them and then help their students to learn them as well.

What do you most want to learn?

How do you learn best?

New targets

2014-12-31 10.46.10

For 2015 I’m going with another Keep Calm and Carry On page a day calendar, and with it I get the electronic version of another one for free, which this year I’ve chosen as Today is Going to be a Great Day! – I’ll receive emails with the message of the day every day, or can access it online. The Keep Calm saw me through 18 very difficult months at work, and then a further 6 months of running a new business, so I’m looking forward to getting back to it. I was a little disappointed in my Runner’s High calendar over the past year, as sometimes the messages seemed a little odd and irrelevant, but a couple did make it as far as display above my desk – You already have everything you need to be a long-distance athlete. It’s mindset, not miles, that separates those who do from those who dream, and The only failure is not finishing, both of which seem to apply to my writing as much as to the running.

At around this time of year I tend to reflect on the year just past and consider the one to come. What have I achieved? What do I want to achieve?

On the first day of last year I set myself some targets. On looking back, I’m pleasantly surprised at how far I got with those targets.

Running

  • Beat my parkrun (5k) PB (currently 34:21) – done (currently 32:27, and working on reducing that further).
  • Beat my 10k PB (currently around 1 hour 18 mins) – done (currently 1:13:45)
  • Beat 50% age grading for 5k (that makes it around 32:24) – my current highest grading is 49.992, which is pretty damn close
  • Complete a parkrun in under 30 mins – this one is still a work in progress, but I haven’t given up
  • Complete a half marathon – not done yet but booked for end of March

Writing

  • Write at least 1000 words every day – not so good here, but I’m working on building the habit back up
  • Complete at least a working first draft of my novel – halfway through but also working on another novel
  • Study and work at writing – sort of in progress, too vague really
  • Plan out another novel for next November’s nano – done
  • Complete nano – done and the nano novel is the other novel I’m currently working on

So writing wasn’t as good as running, but still progress has been made.

I guess next year the plan is to tick off those I haven’t done already, and work on keeping the running and fitness up while developing the writing side as well.

In another review I mentioned the house and garden. Well the house is kind of tough – any space I clear is immediately invaded by stuff from another member of the family – and the garden hasn’t received too much attention apart from a rather large puppy running around destroying the grass and digging up my carrots, but I did take on an allotment at the end of March, so I’ll be working on that throughout the year.

This leads on to the other area I need to focus on, which is sort of related to running, and that’s to achieve a more healthy weight. It’s another work in progress, but now I feel I have the tools and motivation to get further on this.

Then there’s the business, which is building up steadily. That’s an area where I need to make sure I have a good work/life balance, not wasting time or putting in time at the computer when I could be doing more productive things elsewhere. In quieter times, there’s plenty to be done without feeling guilty about not working, and I need to make sure I’m allowing enough time for other projects that are more long-term.

Talking of more long-term projects, I seem to have lost my enthusiasm for learning about technology and coding over the past year, which is understandable considering I’d just left the classroom and needed a break from it, but I need to get back into that side of things, and back into my technical writing side generally.

All in all, I think I’ve done well this year, and I’m looking forward to continuing this progress into the next year. It’s always good when a new year doesn’t bring in lots of things I need to change, and it’s more about keeping up the good work.

 

The end of the ride

flowersThe last three years have been one hell of a ride – lots of real highs and tough lows. During those three years I’ve met some wonderful people and some who were tough to deal with, and worked outside the house full time for the first time in over 20 years. I have found myself challenged in every way, and learned a lot about myself, about people and about education in general.

Now it’s time to move on.

Sadly over the past year there have been few highs and far too many lows, with what I believe I can honestly say has been the hardest and most stressful year of my life so far. This isn’t the way I expected things to work out, but at least I can say I gave it a good go, and so I consider the time well spent. I now know what teaching at secondary level involves, and I’m full of admiration for those who stick it out. Believe me, they earn every moment of those long holidays!

I don’t rule out going back into the classroom at some point – never rule anything out completely – but for the foreseeable future at least I’ll be looking to work from home, offering private tutoring, educational support and publishing support services via my website, http://www.coinlea.co.uk.

Now the next thing I need to do is to apply lessons learned to my writing – that if you get started and it doesn’t work out, then at least you’ve tried it and you have a chance to figure out why it doesn’t work, and to consider your next move, not to mention many valuable lessons learned on the way. If you never try, you’ll never know if it would have worked or not, and you’ll always just sit there thinking and doing nothing else, and that, truly, is time wasted.

By this time next year, I intend to be writing about the publication of my first non-fiction book (probably the workhouse book, although I’m not ruling out a computing textbook as well) and my first fiction book (possibly a novel based on the workhouse research, possibly a Young Adult idea I’m currently brewing up). It’s time that I stopped thinking “I wonder if…” and change it to “And now I know…”.

Thanks to colleagues for the cards, flowers and gifts.

 

 

Storytime at school

Hearing the new children’s laureate talking about her aim to encourage storytelling at school and membership of libraries made me think back to my days at school, particularly primary school. We always seemed to have a class book on the go, with a few minutes here and there spent listening to the story. The first ones I can remember was from a teacher in what would now be year 3, who loved Rupert Bear. She had a collection of annuals, and she would read them to us, but with a twist: the stories were told in three ways, with images, with traditional stories and with rhyming couplets, and she would read out each rhyming couplet to us minus the final word, which we would then have to guess/fill in. Mostly it was obvious from the context and the rhyme, but other times it was a challenge. Either way, it was a way of engaging all of us in storytime.

Another teacher once read Stig of the Dump to us. I still associate that book with being read out in class and having to listen; as a bookworm, I was always very happy to read them myself, but still the pleasure of sitting listening brings back pleasant memories.

Our teacher in what would now be year 6, the last year at Junior School, read the James Herriot books to us. Again, I was totally entranced, and loved the stories about the different animals. This was about the same time as the TV series was on, and I gladly got my hands on the other books in the series to read as well – probably my first official introduction to an adult book rather than a children’s book.

At secondary school we would read a book together, which meant each person in turn would be expected to read out a page or two. I would usually try to read to myself far enough ahead that the voice wasn’t a distraction, because by then I was too impatient to listen. One book I remember this way was a book called The Gift, which featured a boy called David who was telepathic.

When my own children grew to the age where I wanted them to eat at the table but they didn’t want to wait until their Dad came home late in the evening, I got into the habit of sitting reading to them while they ate. We enjoyed many a book that way: after watching a TV series about life as a pioneer we read Little House on the Prairie, we worked our way through the Dark is Rising series, a few other fantasy books like Garth Nix, Adventure books like Swallows and Amazons and far too many others to mention. It was always fun to debate what book to read next (incidentally I did once try to interest them in James Herriot, but despite being of similar age to when I heard it, they just found it too hard and were not interested, sadly).

Even as an adult I love it when hubby agrees to read to me in bed – one night our sons had to knock on our bedroom door and tell us to be quiet as he’d got too carried away – Pusey Ogg was the guilty party, I seem to remember, yelling “Wanna soldier! Wanna soldier!” The only problem comes when I fall asleep – as I usually do – and the next night we have to figure out how far I actually remember.

In short, my love of reading is mixed with a love of listening to stories, and I’m glad that there’s going to be a push to encourage children to listen to whole books in a large group again; there’s no finer way to encourage a love of books.

 

Mr Gove and Mr Rush

Have you seen the story of the dumbed-down history resource? Mr Gove, UK’s education secretary, pokes fun at a teaching resource that suggests likening the main characters in the rise of Hitler to Mr Men, in a speech entitled “What does it mean to be an educated person?” 

Now I read that speech before I saw the web erupt with indignation over this article, so have been following the discussion with interest. But unlike, I suspect, most of the population, I’ve taken the time to explore the argument further. You see, Mr Gove was taking a headline statement without looking into it properly. The history resource in question was not only created by an independent school teacher for an IGCSE qualification (those are the ones that Mr Gove says are much more rigorous and that many schools are choosing to use instead of standard GCSEs because being international they’re not so subject to changing on a whim), but the purpose of the exercise is to revise the topic by reworking it into a form to teach to year 6 students. The year 11 students are encouraged to explore the topic by allegory and analogy, in order to help younger students to understand.

Now I’m a great fan of the teddy bear school of learning – this is one that says if you want to really understand something, teach it to someone else, your teddy bear if necessary. As you search for the words and concepts to get the topic across, you deepen your own understanding. In this case, in groups striving to create resources that the younger children will understand in order to get an important point across, students will be forced to pick out the more important issues and figure out a way to get them across. This means they will need to have a deep understanding of the topic in the first place and their reworking of the topic will fix it further in their minds.

The trouble with Mr Gove’s speech headline, however, is that the majority of people won’t explore the topic enough to understand the full story. Instead, just like in a Mr Men story they’ll pick out the main characteristics and exaggerate them. Mr Men plus history project = dumb teaching.

You see, I agree with a lot of what Mr Gove says. I do feel it is important that our children are taught rigorously and grow up with a deeper understanding of the world around them. I do think that sometimes we make excuses for the children, or allow them to make excuses. But declaring everything from the past few years a waste of time and trying to rebuild things completely and instantly is wrong. You can’t change attitudes overnight and you can’t fix education overnight.

We need to get across that everyone should be expected to learn and understand. This means that everyone in school and out should support every area of learning. No more “Yeah, I could never get it either”, no more acceptance of poor standards, no more admiring celebrities who suggest that the way to success and earning lots of money is simply to win a talent contest, but instead celebrating success in all its forms, including academic, and showing the sheer pleasure of a good education in helping people to understand the world around them and how it works.

To be able to notice problems in the world around you? That’s one of the rewards of a good education.

To be able to drill down to the heart of the problem, understand the best way to fix it and then do so sensitively and positively? That’s the mark of a great education secretary. Sadly, I feel Mr Gove is in too much of a rush to improve education to consider carefully how to move from where we are now to where we want to be, and what sort of timescale it might take. Instead he blunders in, upsetting everyone by failing to listen to them,  seems to be working towards some sort of ideal that might work for some but not for the majority, and then expects the anger he stirs up to produce positive results.

Part of the challenge of education in all its forms is to figure out how to move from where you are now to where you want to be. You can’t just throw some insults, wave a magic wand and have everything exactly as it should be.

 

 

 

Who’s your hero?

Who do you look up to?  Who do you really admire?

One that I’m fond of is Ada Lovelace – in a world full of men, Ada Lovelace became what is normally recognised as the world’s first computer programmer.  She worked with Charles Babbage, who developed the world’s first mechanical computer, the analytical engine, in 1842.  Ada was a mathematician and by all accounts she loved to think.  I don’t know how those who knew her reacted to her, but in a world dominated by men she must have been a formidable figure.

Another woman I admire is Rear Admiral Grace Hopper.  She was another computer programmer, this time after the second world war, when she was instrumental in the development of computers and computer languages.  When you talk of computers being debugged – Grace was the person who first coined the phrase, after discovering  a moth stuck in the relays.

In a world still dominated by men, these two stand out as exceptional females, but why are there so few women in the computing world?

There are other women in top spots, of course, but my suspicion is that women tend to get on with things quietly while men are busy crowing about what they can do.  Men can have more of a tendency towards the obsessive, logical mindset that enables them to excel in the field.  Or maybe men are those who had the time to play with these systems when they first came out, while women were busy running the house, and now they are busy keeping the area as a boys’ club, fighting to keep the place to themselves and exclude women.

I don’t know what the answer is, whether it’s any of the above, all of the above or other reasons.  All I know is that I love trying to figure things out, and I enjoy the challenge that computers provide.  And I feel sad when people suggest that they don’t need to try to understand, or even care to understand.  I feel that it’s become fashionable to be ignorant, and to wish to remain that way.  Famous people crow about how they’re useless at maths, and it’s acceptable to be poorly educated.  “I don’t need it” is the cry, instead of “I want it.”  And meanwhile the world around us becomes more and more complex and fewer and fewer people understand it or can be bothered to even try.

 

Less of a post, more of a pop my head round the door

I’m determined to make a post a day this month, but don’t have time to do very much tonight as we’re having special visitors at work for the next couple of days.

It’s always kind of tough when you have to put on a show for visitors – there’s the last minute tidying, making sure everything is perfect and worrying that things won’t go just as they should and there will be problems.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s OFSTED visiting a school or Grandma visiting the house for Christmas, the end result can be the same – so much tension that no-one really enjoys the visit because you’re too worried things might go wrong.

This brings me to wondering: why do we still need to sleep? Surely by now they should have invented some way we can do without sleep.  It’s such a complete waste of time.

And yet – it builds rhythm into the day. It gives a time of energy followed by a time of relaxing and reflection.  The year cycle is the same: growth and then resting.  So why do we expect ourselves to continue doing the same day after day consistently instead of allowing things to flow naturally?  I suppose the weekend is part of that, with a day or two away from work for most people, but somehow it doesn’t feel enough.  It feels like there should be some other level of ebb and flow of energy.

In a school we get six or seven weeks’ work followed by a break, which provides its own rhythm.  What about other jobs?  A couple of weeks a year?  Or are we better moving steadily on, and having too many breaks and flows just disturbs the train of thought?

I’ll think about it.  While I sleep.