Father Christmas: an apology

In Private Eye there is a running gag in which news media retract a statement about a celebrity and change it to the opposite: David Cameron is not a rich idiot but the saviour of the nation; David Beckham is not a great sports star but an over-paid underwear salesman – &c. You get the idea. In doing so they expose the volte-face of a shallow reporting. Here comes one of my own.

I have long been seen as a Scrooge-like figure in my own family, and this…erm.. ambiguity around late December festivities has extended to Father Christmas. I have often cast doubt on the usefulness of Fr C in proposing an authentic Christmas narrative. I am sure that, however I dress this up, part of it is the upset of ten-year-old me discovering, probably a couple of years after his peers, what the adult world made of Father Christmas.

But the difficulties of current Santa culture seem particularly sharp this year, and not because of typhoons, or food banks, or the Middle East, or anything grand.  It’s just that two examples from this Christmas seem especially naff: the illogical stance of this campaign in which a child writes to Santa saying she is “too old for fairy tales” (or is this simply ironic?); the bizarre “Catholics Come Home” video which has Santa at the stable. Even if I wielded an autocratic power to ban such things, I have no objection to people who do not believe in the Incarnation having a December festival, even if its name is nicked (let’s face it, Christianity probably stole the feast off the Romans), and I am not seeking to ban Santa from the celebration of Christmas.  There is, however, a blind spot here.  It is as if we can have a Christmas without Christ,   but that the festival must have “Santa.” Not St Nicholas, of course, not the fiery , Orthodox bishop who stands as a symbol for children, for travellers, against exploitation; we must have Clement Moore’s jolliness, a penchant for overeating and comedy, and gift-giving. We must have that by-now-ingrained picture of a red suit and a white beard.  He must receive the petitions of children not to have to go to Church; he must be corralled into Church-going himself. It is as if the myth has to trump both the religious belief and the negation of that belief. Santa, the jolly Winter King, rules. To my mind the glutinous “Santa at the Stable” advert is just as empty-headed as the “Dear Santa” letter.

Calm. Calm. Calm. Here comes the retraction.

With my white beard, and a (provided) red suit, I will be in a local Nursery in a fortnight’s time, ho-ho-ho-ing about and eating pies – both the mince and humble varieties. The prancing and pawing on the roof will be my feebly held values, anxious to fly away like the down of a thistle.

Where does that put me as cynic and hard-line Santa-doubter? I’m really not sure. But I will throw myself into Santadom with abandon and I fully expect to love it.


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Safer to stay at home

The Teddy Bears’ Picnic is an odd mix of cuteness – bears gaily gadding about &c – and danger. From a sweet picture of playing and shouting, the text and the key move (2 mins 13 sec) to a more sombre tone:

“You’d better not go alone.”

“Lovely – but safer to stay at home.”

It’s as if the Teddy Bears are involved in the scene from the Bacchae that King Pentheus is lured into watching. A  pastoral scene: a little valley, shaded by pines, a very rural scene where Pentheus watches the ritual abandon of the Bacchae who are “unawares” – until  Dionysos reveals the watching king and the terrible tragedy unfolds.

What would the Teddy Bears have done if we, the watchers hadn’t stayed at home? They would have torn us, as Agave does her son, limb from limb – because they are not Teddies; they are bears.

The Teddy Bears’ Picnic is perhaps the last gasp of this understanding, arising from the event in 1902 when “Teddy” Roosevelt encountered a bear – a real bear – on a hunting trip. Bears (until the Teddy) sat alongside wolves as dangerous; the tension of wild and dangerous versus tame and cuddly is evident in the change of tone in the song.

And with this tension comes the greater dilemma: how safe it is Out There?



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No more, really, than a glorified retweet: Playing by the Book have an interesting little blog post on the wonderful Katie Morag stories; the post is well worth a read, and linked here. Zoe Toft challenges the reader/reviewer (and perhaps most of all a prospective publisher) to look at  landscape and setting and see how enriching the particulars can be: the universal may have its appeal, but so does sorting shells with a light box.

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My main idea – there aren’t many – for tomorrow (Thurs 30th, School of Education Hallowe’en Seminar) is to look at the notion of the oath suggested by practice in Singapore and by Tristram Hunt on his return from his visit there. There is plenty to look at in the history and folklore of transgression and retribution, and I hope I have the balance of fun and reflection right.

I will also note that Hunt seems to have “rowed back” from his original, rather bullish statements about an oath and a compass (see my previous post) and is now quoted as saying:

“Taking such an oath would be voluntary and would reinforce the teacher’s commitment to professional development, a symbol of their continued willingness to seek out learning opportunities to make them a better teacher for their students.”

It is, of course, possible that the original reportage was a misrepresentation of his views*.

What I would now have liked to add in (and since the presentation is already written and would require a lot of work today in time I don’t have), would be to reflect on quite what, in this largely unobjectionable vow from Singapore, exercised us all so much – and to do so by looking at what is, in effect, a plea from James Mannion in his blog that we should look at the big questions.  We do tend to look at the smaller stuff, the changeable and annoying bits that politicians present as panaeceas, when what James asks us to do is explore question such as:

  • Where lie the boundaries of current discourses around education?
  • How does this differ from educational discourses throughout history?
  • What paths in the current discourse are well-worn – and are there areas where we no longer dare tread?

He is quite right. The notion of moaning at Tristram Hunt’s proposed oath instead of asking (as James does) “If you could design an education system from the ground up – to what extent would it resemble the one we have?” maybe just reduces us to the role I am saying we dread: moaning zombies.




*NB: this quotation has been edited by me for grammar and clarity. 

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Alethiometers for All?

Philip Pullman has written some terrific ideas into his “his Dark Materials” trilogy: dust, daemons, armoured bears. Today I was reminded of the Truth-reader, the Alethiometer, the Golden Compass which Lyra the protagonist uses to discern what is happening in various situations.

I was reminded of the compass image by this article on Tristram Hunt’s mission to give teachers an ennobled sense of their profession. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-29482160 The “moral compass,” it would seem, is to be at the heart of Tristram Hunt’s vision of what teachers do: they hand it on.  In the ceremony ( if that’s what’s envisaged: see my posts on liturgy and graduation), newly professed teachers would be given a compass as a symbol that the role of a teacher is “to provide a sense of moral purpose and virtue to young people”.

“There is a teacher’s oath about continuing to learn and to pass on the love of learning.

“I’m very attracted by this notion of having almost a Hippocratic oath about the meaning and purpose of teaching,” he said.

“It’s bolstering the moment of qualification and the meaning of qualification – what it means to become a teacher.

“That seems to be an important idea that we want to explore.

“It can’t just be a gimmick – it has to be part of a commitment to professional development and career pathways.”

The commitment to year-on-year improvement is not to be sneezed at, especially if a new Labour government sees this as a commitment to support teachers’ access to high quality postgraduate study and really effective CPD. I worry that this vision of Hunt’s is a bit of conjuring to move the duty to teachers and away from hard-pressed school budgets.

I also worry quite what a “moral compass” is.  A real compass points to a True North. It smacks of an absolute moral right-or-wrong set of beliefs so that ,when we think about “truth” and “morality”,  teachers are being asked to reproduce a catechism of moral choices, rather than to encourage young people to enquire and challenge, to find standards and values to follow. An Alethiometer is much more of a meditation tool, a mechanised (and non-religious) I Ching that challenged Lyra to think, to reflect.  Pullman is too clever a writer to make this a simple set of instructions in machine form.  ‘”It tells you the truth,'” the Master of Jordan College tells her. ‘”As for how to read it, you’ll have to learn by yourself.”‘

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National Poetry Day III

Just to record how wonderful the Poetry Reading event was, with contributors from international students, undergrad interns, members of staff and our close friends.

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National Poetry Day II



..Happily ever after.

That’s the story, but in this case,
The wolf wins,
Jack the Giant Killer falls
No youngest son outsmarts the shadows;
in this case the most that can be said
of those left
of those eager to believe
of the listeners at the doors of faith,
yes the most that can be said is

And they lived…


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National Poetry Day I

Without comment:

In Illo Tempore


The big missal splayed

and dangled silky ribbons

of emerald and purple and watery white.


Intransitively we would assist,

confess, receive. The verbs

assumed us. We adored.


And we lifted our eyes to the nouns.

Altar stone was dawn and monstrance noon,

the word rubric itself a bloodshot sunset.


Now I live by a famous strand

where seabirds cry in the small hours

like incredible souls


and even the range wall of the promenade

that I press down on for conviction

hardly tempts me to credit it.


Seamus Heaney

From Station Island

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Language, culture and education – a quick advert

Just to draw the eye of anyone who might read this to a series of lunchtime discussions at Harcourt Hill:
Oct. 8th 12.0 – 1.00 Dr. Andrie Yiakoumetti The World in the classroom Room AG/09

Why English? First and second language choices and policies
Which English? English as a lingua franca, English as an International Language and World Englishes
Should teachers of English be teachers of culture?

Oct. 22nd 12.0 – 1.00 Dr. Randall Holme The Language Learner: changing methods Room AG/09

What do language teachers need to know about language learners?: Appropriate methodology and learner contexts..
Why should second language acquisition research matter to the language teacher?

Nov. 5th 12.0 – 1.00 Dr. Paul Wickens The English language: changing methods Room AG/09

How is the corpus changing what we know about English? What does that mean for teaching English?
What should teachers know about language?

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Another tweet-and-a-half and no more, instead of a longer post.

Rosemary Roberts once described nursery as “plenty of interesting things to do and plenty of people to do them with,” if I recall her correctly. And here we are at the tail end of summer, working frantically (this brief post is by way of respite!) to make sure that Monday goes as smoothly as possible.

University: interesting things to study and people to study with. Monday: enrolment and induction.

Talks are organised, classes (for some postgrads) set up, their photocopying done: all that is in place. So what else is there? How do we ensure that people joining us feel “held” (to use the phrase a credit-entry year three student used last year)?

What are the messages from nursery?
Is there nothing like milk and cookies and a rest?

Well, there are and there aren’t.

I think the key is that staff understand what transition is. They get the importance of the rite of passage, and the dominance of the institution. They know your change into a student on this course or that is a reinvention, at one level, and that this may not be instant – maybe that it should not be instant.

A concept of transition trajectories lets us acknowledge that successful transitions may take time, that children [read: students] deal differently with transitions and that prior experience needs to be take into account.

Janet Moyles: Beginning Teaching, Beginning Learning

University can be an institution larger and more impersonal than you may be used to – but it is staffed by real people, who are contactable, people with whom you can communicate, who care (dare I say it?) about you and your learning.

Next week will bewilder and alienate, just as it does when you are two and go into a massive room full of busy, bigger children and adults you don’t know. Do what one of my granddaughters did this week just gone: find something to do that you like, make sure you can find coffee and books and a computer, or someone who looks like they will be OK.  Attachments are important; place is important; activity is important. Transitions are key: just remember amid the forms and room changes and institutional hiccups that your tutors know this and are there to support you.

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