Pigs and more nonsense, briefly.

Again, little more than a tweet, but this came into my twitter feed from Sheffield: Print, Protest and Poetry 1790-1810.

Then hold not Swine in such disdain,
Since ‘tis by them you have your gain;
But learn to treat them with respect,
Lest they should grunt at your neglect:

It seems to me to be part of the disquiet in my previous blog post – but also, perhaps, part of a Network  “mad as hell” moment which may be leading to the “school tests strike” today (which I want to return to when I am in calmer waters after marking). It is also extremely relevant to the research meeting about visual sources and children’s understandings of history that I am going to now.

More later.

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More Nonsense in a Minute

Dave Aldridge has released an interesting blog post  I want to respond to or at least use as a springboard for a personal rant.  Where Dave asks “What, then, will become of the proposed LEA chains?” I guess he is dealing with that uncomfortable truth that the big businesses behind academies  will – or may – not want to take on smaller schools, rural areas, some of the seemingly insoluble issues that lead to “poor quality pupils.” [NB: the website of the original report seems to have been taken down]   That the state provides the “safety net” (I’m not sure of this shorthand metaphor) seems eminently reasonable; if the government has decided not to be the major player in what was a national initiative, well, we, the electorate, voted them in, sort of. Today it seems “we, the people” voted for a string of idiocies.

I join Dave Aldridge in his disquiet. However, I would be more sanguine about this if it weren’t for the dreadful other things we are seeing from this government at the moment: high-handed bullying around dodgy dealings on the NHS; rich people making decisions about their taxes that takes money from public services – and then covering it up; the opposition of the current government to taking in refugee children under the “Dubs Amendment.” This Kindertransport moment (the PM says it isn’t) is where I give up. If, as the Secretary of State for Education has said, this is a “broadly Christian country” (a phrase I believe she used to justify her position at the time in opposing equality in marriage, presumably based in part on a reading of Leviticus 20:13 or Romans 1:27), then where is our broadly Christian Government going to stand on Deuteronomy 10:18, 19, where God “takes no bribe…and executes justice for the fatherless and loves the stranger,” or the vilifications of the prophet Amos (e.g. Ch 8) against those who trample on the needy, eager to resume their unfair trading?  And if the mention of Amos makes anyone think this is all a bit Amos Starkadder, then 2 Corinthians 8 is a more human take. Be kind: it seems that kindness – the recognition that we are all the same kind, all human, all with needs and talents and joys and disasters – is exactly what is being written out of our lives systematically.

So this is my Catiline question (I know I am not alone in using it) : Quousque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra? How long will you abuse our patience? If “accuracy is for snake-oil pussies,” if High Street tycoons can make a packet and then walk away, it is as if the last election entitles only to attend feeding time at a pool of crocodiles.




Yes, it goes without saying that these views do not necessarily represent an official position by my employers.

And yes, I know Cicero would not necessarily approve of my use of his phrase in this argument.

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Amoris Laetitia

I tend to keep my religion off these pages, at least explicitly. The recent restating of Catholic teaching on the family in Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love; I’m sure the echoes of Alex Comfort must not have been forgotten when the title was chosen), however, does fall, a bit, into the trap of both romanticising and problematising family life.  It recognises, it’s true,  the big difficulties of families subject to violence, disruption &c, but the “healthy dose of self-criticism” Francis urges really looks at reconciling extremes, not at helping the everyday. It does, however, acknowledge that

“At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families.”

The argument in my youth was that a celibate clergy were free precisely to guide and judge at a distance; it’s as if, by asking married lay people their opinions and experiences (however wobbly that process was), Catholic theology has woken up to the weaknesses of this approach. Who, as they say, knew?

So Amoris Laetitia carries a lot of burdens: what in shorthand we might call theologically sound messages need to take into account very explicitly what I keep referring to as the dura et aspera of shopping with children, childcare, telly, finding school uniform… As I write a five-year-old comes in to talk about Narnia and a three-year-old interrupts to tell me she is the pink Powerpuff girl. Nuff said.

This post from last year makes two points about family: that even everyday parenthood is (for many people unexpectedly) very hard work and often unrewarding; that what we could do with –  not just within Catholicism – is the guidance (and warning) of those who have tried it and nevertheless want to support young families.

It’s almost as if the injunctions of Paul to Timothy that the presiding elder should be able to manage their (OK, his) family and be the husband of one wife has some wisdom after all; leadership needs to include mentorship, and family is no exception.

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This is a really neat overview on YouTube of my favourite module, “my” Outdoor Learning module. It can serve as a version of the fictionalised examples I have picked up over the years that I present below. As I burble on in the video, I raise the question about where does the passion and interest lie in being outdoors.  We whet the appetite in Year 1 in the module Introduction to the Study of Education, pick it up in Year 2 with this module, and some will go on to a final year placement in Forest Schools or maybe do a dissertation around the outdoors. I’m never sure quite what to make of the student evaluation questions about “challenge,” however: U70124 is a popular module, whatever that means, and the eager student will doubtless go beyond the procedural, the basic literature (however valuable) – but we sit, perhaps ambiguously, between the placement modules and the theoretical. What do we mean by challenge, then? Is there a difference between academic challenge and physical challenge? Between physical challenge and overcoming resistance?

Here’s one student: she joins the module with a (largely unacknowledged) antipathy towards sustained reading. She is not alone in finding essay writing an awkward mixture of thinking out her opinions based on class input and “finding the right quotes” for the essay.

And here’s another: she is a solid practitioner who finds the academic stuff hard, but equally finds that the alternative perspectives she meets uncomfortable. There are real points in the outdoor learning module where she finds herself thinking “I would never do that with my children.” At heart she is here to make her setting better.

And in the rule of three, here is the last: a good student, an experienced EY worker, she is nonetheless convinced by voices from her past that a stick on the floor is dirty, that sitting in the floor is unpleasant. Even being in the little wood here is several steps into an unknown.

Are their challenges the same? Are engaging with effective reading, linking theory to practice, overcoming tactile defensive system all fundamentally about overcoming some resistance? And what does their tutor do – what do I do – to help them face their challenges, to see the threshold idea as something to be welcomed ?

U70124 2009

I confess I find myself hampered by my big question from the YouTube video, around where the “passion and interest lie.” So often we talk about passion, about well-being, or (worse) “allowing children to be children.” These ideas – sometimes surrounded by metaphor or given authority simply the power of the slogan – may well have power in the advocacy that student 2 may need, but are well-nigh fatal to the thinking and engagement required by student 1.  And while this is familiar territory to me as an academic, where does this leave student 3? How do I look at student well-being and challenge on all three levels? It’s as if I need a set of resources or an approach that will

  • encourage engaged reading
  • improve practice
  • support challenge without acting as Mother-Hen.

Oh, wait: that’s probably my job: to develop a package  (a class, a module) that enables as well as challenges; where reading is expected, opinions are welcomed, and even den-building in a muddy wood has its place. Maybe that “place” (metaphorically) also has to make the discomfort of changing minds acceptable to students. A tall order: the students aren’t the only people who have a challenge in the module on Outdoor Learning.




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The landscape of the Dad

Patriarchs live in deserts. On what modern readers might see as the positive side, they produce water for the thirsty, food for the hungry, and field forty years’ worth of “Can we go back?” and “Are we nearly there?” The Patriarch Moses and God work together on this one: Dayenu.

They also act in a (euphemism alert) risky way – Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac [an interesting blog post here] is not a model for parenthood easily adopted.

Chagall, Abraham ready to sacrifice his Son dv 1960-6

Chagall, Abraham ready to sacrifice his Son dv 1960-6

Dads live somewhere else. As Mat Tobin has recently explored with Keith Negley in response to his wonderful book Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too), they might live with a landscape that is a  “metaphor for frustration,” or in a cityscape that is created from block colours, but it seems to me that it is often rooted, in young children’s books, in a recognisable reality. It might not always be a positive thing to have your dad in the quotidianum  – think of the dad in Antony Browne’s Zoo, or Lauren’s Child’s Clarice Bean and her grumpy absentee  – but they are at least the common-or-garden dad. Even the fantastic, crazy world of classic Babar has Celesteville, and French family life is lived out in a gentle satire. It’s as if a dad cannot be a dad without reference to the everyday.

So the landscape of the Patriarch, even when geographically locatable, is in many ways the landscape of myth and legend (I have discussed legend-landscapes before), and the landscape of the dad is emotionally, socially (and geographically? I’m beginning to doubt this – see below) rooted in the recognisable. What might the exceptions be to this? A v quick list for me (as much as anyone) to think about:

  • Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo’s Child, Cave Baby and Stick Man;
  • Tove Janson’s Moominpapa (passim);
  • The dads in the Ahlbergs’ Happy Families books;
  • Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox.

What these all have in common is that the application of dadness to these fantastic contexts require an understanding of the everyday dad to interpret the fantastic –   “Interpretation calls upon the interpreter to render explicit a work’s meaning today. ” (Palmer, R (1969) Hermeneutics. Evanston: Northwest University Press. p 245).  We read these dads into their story party because of their relationship to the other dads we know.  Celesteville could be suburban France (or suburban European anywhere), the Gruffalo’s Child has an everyday dad-daughter relationship at its heart, and so on.

And so back to Keith Negley’s Tough Guys – and little more than to post anyone reading this to the significance of Keith Negley’s first response to Mat’s question about exploring masculinity: for Negley the project is in part for his own son (and iteratively for his own father?) and portraying in a positive way the emotional vulnerability the author-illustrator has “struggled with.” The last endpapers of Tough Guys – sampled by Mat here – show men in caring adult (dad or quasi-dad?) roles [the clever self-subversion being that it is the boys who are the superheroes: a real surprise to me]. The dads are Everyman dads, although they are unsited, depicted on a white background, they are doing the everyday stuff, playing with the boys. The interpreting reader brings to these vignettes the living room, the park, the garden.

The landscape of the dad, the everydayness of the relationships can therefore be aspirational – how a dad “ought” to be, or critical –  how a dad “ought not” to be; but in either sense there must be something in the relationship that shows we are in the world of the dad, not the desert of the Patriarch.





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Transitions into HE

“What’s on my mind?”, asks WordPress whenever I start a post. How to work with students is always on my mind at work, whether it’s the ex_CACHE Year 1 student talking about time management or the final semester over-deliverer. This research report from MMU, published by QAA has given me a lot of think about: as University admissions seeks for more and more diversity in its intake, it is ever more essential that we don’t just plonk the new students in the middle of the quad, so to speak, and say “There you are: Uni!”

The perceptions of learning and teaching in pre-University experiences crystallise for me in the table which talks about dependency:

Answers always provided;very short cycles of input,testing and feedback; all resources provided; monitoring system provides motivation and nudges; daily contact with same staff member; activity is always directed; some structured activities (for example, writing frames)

and contrasts it with how things might be in HE:

Students find answers for themselves; some resources provided, students expected to find more resources; students expected to largely find their own motivation;contact with same staff member weekly or less; activity required is essentially undirected (for example, lecture) .

This is about challenge and independence (something the report acknowledges) and I would be among the first to say that Year 1 in HE becomes all but useless if challenge and independence are minimised – but how do we increase them while teaching the “survival skills” that getting through Year 1 requires? And what about getting on in subsequent years?

A first thought: this is partly about expectation (again, the report is right to look at this, and the vignettes/quotations from the students are fascinating), but also, I think, about how  the study skills debate gets clouded by the issues of mental health and wellbeing. They are both vital components in success – but it can’t be that HE tutors become welded to their students, any more than students are told “just cope.” Perhaps as school/college-based learning has changed, HE Y1 provision now needs to look (again and again, and more seriously) at differentiation?



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School Based Training: more dura et aspera

There is a myth about teacher training (well, tbh there are thousands: this is but one!) that somehow the completion of an ITT (ITE) programme from a BA/BEd, through a Masters-led PGCE or School-centred programme to “You have a degree, here’s six weeks on how to cope” means that at the end you are a teacher. Compliant and complex, informed and (to some extent) uniform, here is the student who was Rosie or Ryan and suddenly “Here is Miss Smith, here is Mr Jones, your new teacher.”

It’s September the whatever, and the job you applied for, schmoozed for (and perhaps when you got it felt smug about or trepidacious over) is yours, and you’ve met the team and put a mug in the cupboard in the staffroom and the headteacher introduces you to the class, and you shut the door and smile and you are the teacher.

You know you are a teacher because… Answers on a postcard.  The NUT guidance asks the question “I have QTS: What’s next?”  What indeed?

One of the key things that may keep you in the profession, it seems to me, is how you learn on School Based Training. I’ve written about the “hard and harsh” – what St Benedict calls the dura et aspera –  of parenting before and teaching is not dissimilar, with the important difference that your school-based training gives you a chance to see teaching for real in a way that many modern parents don’t get to see bringing up babies.  Seeing it without rose-tinted specs may be just what you need to keep you going in three years’ time. On a placement you get to (this list is a bit tongue-in-cheek):

  • iron;
  • smile at people you don’t like;
  • sing;
  • be someone special for children;
  • learn children’s limits of patience, attention, social skills – and how (and when) to stretch them;
  • learn your own limits of patience, attention, social skills – and how (and when) to stretch them;
  • learn your own language of teaching – do you like “stretching” and “pushing” as models of learning?
  • learn to treasure weekends – switching off is an important skill, if only so you are switched on on Mondays!

You also get to dress up for World Book Day. Something elaborate like the Very Hungry Caterpillar (“How the heck will I teach in this?”) or something less so (“George from George’s Marvellous Medicine? But I’ll just look like any boy!”)?  Something ambiguous (“Mrs Twit? Will they notice I dressed up?”) or something ambitious (“Aslan? I’ll roast in this costume!”).

So how do you learn on School Based Training?

Very Hungry Caterpillars aside, you learn by doing, by picking up (consciously and unconsciously) on how to use your teacher voice, your real smile, or how to identify the people to charm (and please remember the parents!!!) – and by making mistakes.

  • By not backing up your records before you dropped the laptop;
  • by dropping the paintings from the class while they were still not annotated;
  • by saying something so vastly comic you could hardly keep from laughing  out loud (“So while we are learning the /sh/ sound, what could we be shovelling?” [You meant ‘shiny things;’ that’s not what your TA thought]);
  • by forgetting the head’s name with her standing right next to you…

And by wishing you’d gone as Miss Trunchbull instead.

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That Candle Thing

Way back, a long time ago – as in before I had become a teacher (i.e. before I had QTS), Lynne Scholefield produced an interesting article called ‘Can we do that candle thing again?’ (British Journal of Religious Education, Volume 5, Issue 2, 1983). I found it inspirational when, a few years later, I began to train, first as an RE teacher and then teaching in a variety of schools. That Candle Thing used a candle to focus a brief meditation session, an exploration of prayer that was part of experiential RE.

It comes back now as I prepare a series of short sessions for the Westminster Chapel here at Harcourt Hill, a non-faith-based experience of what I am calling “mental refreshment” which will draw on the traditions of mindfulness I first met the same year as I read Scholefield’s article, in the work of Thich Nhat Hahn.

Fifteen minutes of settling, sitting and then… well, classes for some, buses and the weekend for others. And a hope that I am doing something that people will find useful, not jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon.

Or at least jumping on it mindfully.

12:35  – 12:50, Semester 2, 2016, Westminster Chapel.  

‘That Candle Thing’

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Provision and entitlement

“…Cowl, tunic, stockings, shoes, belt, knife, stylus, needle, handkerchief, writing tablets.

What is the equipment the lecturer needs? St Benedict gives a quick list of what a monk needs – interesting to note the needle, I always think – and the communal way of living of Benedict’s first communities finds other tools safely in the cellarer’s stores or in the library. What do I need that the University can provide me with?

What it provides me with (apart from being couched in terms of office space, desk, bookshelves, &c) is not so very different from what the early monastics sought: management; a structured semester (if not a day); tools.

But today (15th Jan) is the feast of SS Maurus and Placid, and other, Benedictine writers  such as IBenedictines are writing today much more coherently on aspects of the feast.  The only thing that struck me – partly after feeling put upon yesterday (and messing up some paperwork) – was that it is very well to talk about HE provision and entitlement, and dress it up in early medieval clothes, but that is to overlook other aspects of organisation: that odd new(ish) [?] idea of followership, and what Benedict rails against: grumbling.

But is questioning the same thing? An ex-colleague (and neighbour) retweeted this news from Oregon this morning. What does the follower do when parts of an organisation need changing? I suggest that the answer is (in part at least) again found in Benedict, back with the Cellarer:

“…one who is wise, of mature character, sober, not a great eater, not haughty, not excitable,  not offensive, not slow, not wasteful”

Because this obedience – in the sense we see it  in Placid and Maurus – is a community practice, an “ethos statement,” where an organisation listens to its constituents. Followership is therefore not as new an idea as I teased with earlier; it is a modern-dress version of a proper obedience, in which trust is at the heart and the leaders are listening and responsive as much as anyone.

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A Return to Green Knowe

I want to come back to a previous post, in which I reflected on adult perspectives on children’s literature by asking what certain adult characters might have made of their part in a child’s story. Here, I want to reflect as an older adult on the transformative character of the Great Grandmother in Lucy Boston’s Children of Green Knowe.

At the start of the Green Knowe sequence, Toseland – Tolly – is a rootless child, in need of a place to belong. I think that’s why I first liked him; I felt a connection. On the other hand, his great- grandmother, Linnet Oldknow has almost nothing but belonging, and it’s sometimes tempting to think that before Tolly’s arrival she has almost nothing but shadows. Occasional friends, some contact with her gardener and his family and then… then evenings in a big house full of history: whispers, half-heard singing, childhoods she can sort of remember, sort of touch. Evenings and evenings of silence.
As I grow older (and in welcoming my children’s children into our house I can see the pleasure she gets) I find myself wondering about what the incidents at the heart of The Children mean to her. She is challenged to allow Tolly into her life, and while she does so with exceptional good grace it requires her to share her history, good and bad with a boy passionate to share her sense of belonging, to share her shadows. Such, perhaps, is family.
What I share with my father and shared with his mother, was Lancastrian Catholicism, and the Laudian Anglicanism of the Oldknows both chimed with me and intrigued: like but unlike. I wasn’t much bothered about – and still don’t really know – how very minor seigneurial Catholics ended up in a terrace house in Blackburn (no Green Knowe for me!), but I was concerned with our family ghost, Lady Dorothy, and with our more-than-ghostly connection to a C17th past in Blessed John Southworth. My grandma went to Rome for his canonisation in 1970, much as, if she’d “been spared” (a phrase of hers) she might have come to her grandchildren’s graduations. Grandma shared stories of the Grey Lady at Salmesbury Hall, the stories of John Southworth, the stories of the Pendle Witches. I guess, to be crass, it’s called heritage, (and heritage was what Lucy Boston wanted (like Tolly), so she wrote herself into the history of her own house in the persona of the great-grandmother much like Kipling wrote himself into the valley where he lived). She -and my dad – changed our family into one full of possibility.

I am intrigued by how Mrs Oldknow reacts to Tolly in those first meetings: warm, but clear in her expectations, she leaves nothing to be unsettling and yet everything is unsettling – for both of them. Mrs Oldknow, as Lucy Boston writes her, brings out the stories she has lived with, in the ghosts and the artefacts of the ancient manor house and allows Tolly to be drawn into them with near-fatal consequences. At the climactic confrontation with the family’s curse she is almost powerless.

But it is her stories and her presence that brings all this to life: as they survive (and they do, through other books), her calmness, her understanding of the past transforms the manor into something truly wonderful. Story as represented by Linnet Oldknow (and my grandma) does not necessarily transform into a hubristic new-and-improved, but illuminates the past and therefore brings a greater understanding .

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