Friday, June 28, 2013

The Empty Space & The Illusion of the First Time in Teaching.

The Choristers on the Beach. Peter Brook's 1963 "Lord of the Flies".
"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage".          (Peter Brook, "The Empty Space" 1968.)

In my retirement from English teaching I read much of the night and have no intention of going South for the Winter.

This post is about imagination and is inspired by my current reading and reflections on:
1. Peter Brook's classic work on theatre The Empty Space 

2. William Golding's Lord of the Flies

3. William Gillette's The Illusion of the First Time in Acting.

4. Internet Blogs about Education.

5. My teaching experience.

I write, co-incidentally, on a day of teacher strikes. For me, as the old hymn has it, 'the strife is o'er, the battle done' and I recollect in Wordsworthian tranquillity. So, for what it is worth:-

It appears fortunate now that I read the Brook before becoming a teacher for what I absorbed without reflection sustained the arterial flow of a whole career.

On one level the notion that any empty space was potentially a platform for performance informed all I did in amateur theatre, school productions and classroom drama. There's a clump of trees in a field set apart from a West Midlands school that stands dumb witness to several generations of children filming scenes from Bugsy Malone and enacting Shakespearean and Black Country versions of The Rude Mechanicals. The same school no doubt still uses the classroom in which two 12 year old boys improvised on one word, plank, with Laurel & Hardy artistry. 30 children and a teacher were physically in a Black Country classroom - but patently elsewhere.

Brook's inspiration applies more profoundly I realise to the provision of meaningful life-enhancing experiences.

A shared absorption in the invisible seems now to me the litmus test of living (hence worthwhile) experiences in three apparently disparate settings: the church, the theatre and the classroom. It is the only 'common core' I could ever, hand on heart, subscribe to.

Preachers, actors and teachers operate in familiar, traditional settings in which they encounter audiences. Much of what transpires is tried, tested and repetitious. Consider: which attentive congregation, audience or class has not tolerated (often welcomed) the standard, the predictable, the workmanlike, the pedestrian in the best sense of the word?  

Religious ritual, a sense of tradition, the comfort of the familiar imply stability and pattern, sooth the troubled spirit. Brook illustrates in his first lecture on 'The Deadly Theatre'  that many an audience wouldn't thank you for any 'surprise' that was too raw and real to predict. This is an entirely human conservatism shared by children in school with those who teach them and I do not underestimate its value. Let the preacher try some radical revamp one Christmas Eve service and see what forgiveness he accrues for his heresy. To everything there is a season.

We are all human. Those charged with the structuring and repeated presentation of all such communal experiences draw considerable powers of endurance from settled patterns and predictably viable, relevant content. I was certainly glad of a detailed departmental scheme of work in my two probationary years.

The Illusion of the First Time in Acting.

I suspect it is the actor who notices first (ahead of teachers and preachers) that the attempted reproduction of what 'worked' before unaccountably flops. I think this because the actor is most likely to encounter the spectre of repetition early, even in the shortest of performance runs.

William Gillette, the American actor famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, makes my point. He saw acting, drama as a 'great Life-Class' with Hamlet's advice to the Players the definitive expression of Gillette's 'Life Simulation'. As I read the following extract, I realise teachers (and preachers) must contend with the toll demanded by that Porter, Repetition:

"...unfortunately for an actor he knows or is supposed to know his part. He is fully aware - especially after several performances - of what he is going to say. The Character he is representing, however, does not know what he is going to say, but, if he is a human being, various thoughts occur to him, one by one, and he puts such of those thoughts as he decides to, into such speech as he happens to be able to command at the time. Now it is a very difficult thing...for an actor who knows exactly what he is going to say to behave exactly as though he didn't ...even though these words are at his tongue's very end...audiences...without knowing the nature of this fatal malady (know) when the actor...fails to do this." 

There can be few theatre-goers who have not felt that sinking feeling that accompanies the 'safe' performance, the sure knowledge the actor is intent only on conserving energy in a taxing run. Theatre audiences pay and do not tolerate this for long. Successful actors, by necessity, use every trick in (and beyond) the book to create "The Illusion of the First Time". Gillette is right when he notes the play does not exist until (every new performance) it is imbued with new life. The script is analogous to the music score which we never mistake for the music.

As George Arliss says in his Introduction to Gillette's book:
"...the mental machinery of the actor is even more delicate than the record of a phonograph. That mental needle which acts upon the record of the author's words is influenced by...a thousand influences ...apart from the ever-varying pulse of the audience."

And as the American comedian, Joseph Jefferson, put it to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1897:

"A writer does not write the same book...but you have to play the same part very often - night after night - and yet play as if you had never played before".

Which brings me to teachers and preachers for they, especially, cannot rely on past laurels. How do they preach and teach as if for the first time when it all becomes second nature? 


The Illusion of the First Time in Preaching.

Imagine, if you will, a Methodist chapel.
A white-haired supernumerary (a retired minister) is about to deliver the sermon.

Enter side-door left: the Sunday School - all 40 of them - oblivious of the service in progress. Oh, and two very embarrassed teachers, chasing one little girl who turns down the wrong aisle.

Rev. Whitehair: (smiling, benignly, as the children exit church right) "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Suffer the little children to come unto me. Amen."

A beat.

Brandishing the unread sermon, he looked from the papers in his hands to the congregation to the empty space where the lost child had just strayed.

Rev. Whitehair: (replying to the invisible, palpable, living moment) "Indeed, God sent in his bounty a far better sermon than this. I shall keep it for another occasion. Hymn number..."

Over the years I think this memory (I was about 14) subtly contributed to a realisation that if you could still be alive to the moment after many years of professional experience you remained open to invisible unpredictable opportunities that, bravely embraced, calmly trusted, enriched everyone present more lastingly than the most thoughtful preparation may achieve. Mr. Whitehair acquiesced in what his congregation knew - that his planned sermon had been rendered superfluous.

The Illusion of the First Time in Teaching.

In retrospect, I think I can see how circumstances lead me (mostly by necessity) to value and respond (if I had the wherewithal) to the given present employing the past as a flexible resource. Such an approach is impossible to maintain day in day out. But if there are enough moments of this nature with a class, they are absorbed and cluster as tributaries of silent sea-change. I'll come to some examples in a moment.

Those circumstances?

Happening to be a teacher of English literature, amateur actor and director. (Imagination matters).

Spending two probationary years on full timetables without prior or in-service training. (Your own resources and powers of observation matter).

Teaching (11-18) English in every school space imaginable, sometimes at short notice. (Flexibility, improvisation and a 'portable' English classroom matter.) If you have ever taught A level Literature ("Paradise Lost"!) in the Woodwork Room for a year, you know what I mean. Imagine Year 9 drama once a week in a Science Lab with gas and water taps and a technician setting up experiments for real lessons. And you can't even move the benches in such specialist rooms. 

Teaching a lot of A level. (The slow cycles of set texts ensure you frequently teach the same book again, sometimes to parallel groups - I lost count how many times I taught 'Hamlet' - freshness matters.) 

Such were the exigencies that conspired to develop my valuation of imaginative absorption, the notion of an empty space and teaching to the moment. This did not come as 'a philosophy': it was very practical survival. In a nutshell - if I had a novel, a short story, a play or a poem (and a little faith in their imaginative powers) these classrooms of the mind were all I needed and superior to the plushest "English suite". I would lure students there by any means that presented itself wherever we were physically timetabled. 

I don't remember precisely when I began to enter every lesson thinking of the empty space. Sometimes it was useful to reveal explicitly. If, by chance, an A level group was timetabled in a room where tables were conference-style (myself one side of a square), the visible empty space was too handy a visual metaphor for that inner imaginative stage I said I would 'meet' them upon in the course of the lesson.

You are either totally imaginatively absorbed or you are not - there are no degrees. Few moments are as dear to the teacher of literature as the slow dawning of communal realisation (usually prompted by a bell) that for x minutes we have all been somewhere else.

The Examples?

The Empty Space & Imaginative Absorption - read the 'Making History' anecdote in my previous post CLICK HERE. 

Teaching in the Moment -

eg1. I'm reading a passage of 'Frankenstein' aloud as the A level class follow the text. (I always read the whole text with classes)
A student's hand goes up: "Sorry, sir, do you do that? I can't do that!"


"Read like that. You're hardly looking at the book. Do you know it by heart?"

[English teachers reading will know the implications of this spontaneous interruption. In private reading this A level student probably did not take in more than a phrase at a time. What to do? How to respond? The A level trainer in me tempted a throw away response so we could 'get on with the lesson'. I nearly replied, 'Could be! Taught this so many times! Besides, teachers get used to reading with one eye on the class' (wink). I didn't.]

The rest of the lesson developed into a crucially valuable whole class discussion of advanced reading skills, based on my initial prompt that if (as we all know) sentences are units of sense - is it not logical and indeed inescapable that you cannot read anything aloud before you have made some sense of it? With the charitable care of more advanced students the original questioner (and others) were blithely reading, understanding, remembering then reciting aloud complex sentences.

"Great lesson, sir!" It was - a sea-change had happened. Not only was silent reading changed for ever - Shelley began her work too.

eg2. I've taken over an A2 class for the final run in to external exams at very short notice. They're expecting a Chaucer lesson. It's 'The Miller's Tale'. I haven't read it since university. I recall next to nothing. I'm floundering before we start.

They're patently one of those pleasant, hard-working, eager-to-do-well-in-the-exam groups. I feel inadequate. I improvise, based on the saving grace that lessons are not infinite in length. Perhaps someone might lead a discussion by reading a recent essay so I might get to know people and get an idea of where you're at?

Ian will remember to this day, better than I, what transpired from his generous offer to read an essay on Chaucer's Humour. I knew him to be in the top third of the group.

Ironically, not knowing the text, I listened with (disguised) wrapt attention, gathering what crumbs of story, theme and character I could. He'd been...well trained. Structure, argument, illustrative reference, relevance, know...all there. Except...  

It dawned on me as he moved to conclude that not once had he in or out of the essay smiled, chuckled or laughed.

"Here we have Chaucer's humour" (quote) - statement after statement with a straight, earnest exam face; no hint of infection from Geoffrey's wit.

He revealed he needed a high grade for his preferred university course. He wasn't going to get it. Unless...

I took the only plunge possible and brought the matter right into the open. We spent the rest of that lesson finding and giggling over things we actually personally really found funny. They were there, but they weren't always what Coles or teacher had signposted.

Ian and the others thankfully cottoned on that an essay was better if you actually said what you thought and allowed something of the author's style to permeate your own. Imaginative engagement.

NB: Reader, if you feel like a break - this is fun:


eg3.I'm reading a text aloud (I forget which) & occasionally commenting and observe the whole class is either writing notes or watching me, pen in hand, for the next idea. No one is reading the text. No one is imaginatively engaged. Everyone is exam-answer collecting.

Apart from shortcomings in the appreciation of imagery and the uses of natural description, the greatest problem I have encountered in A level teaching is the understandable anxiety to pass the exam. This leads to demands, expectations of notes and specimen answers that give comfort, confidence and something concrete to revise. Teachers rightly provide these. But they'll only take you so far.

I stopped this particular class, to stress the superiority of direct imaginative experience of a literary text over the collection of other people's ideas about it. You remember significant experiences; you absorb how you felt when you stood inside Elsinore Castle; you can respond to any exam question more honestly, relevantly and fluently if you move from one imaginative world into the next as the exam paper invites.

Only then do you really know what you want to say and are confident to tell that to the examiner who asks "What do you think?" Why on earth should you prefer to repeat received opinions when it's much more fun to describe your unique experience?  

Speaking of unique experiences brings me to 'Lord of the Flies'.

"The Potted History of Man"(Peter Brook on the fable that is 'Lord of the Flies').

Currently, for the first time in my life, I'm reading Golding's novel without teaching it and I have to conclude there's something about retirement that attunes the ex-English teacher especially to fable. When I first taught the novel in the early 70's I was aware intellectually of the genre; this time round the experience is deeply felt and profound. I find the potted history of my life and an apt emblem for the faith I profess in the life-changing potential in an unfettered imagination.

Long ago, the book and Brook's film took my Year 9's to the bare stage of a desert island and proceeded to hold the mirror up to our common natures in a safe, protective, vicarious, imaginative experience.

Some children went one step further when, in 1961, Peter Brook whisked a group of boys to Vieques Island in the Caribbean and filmed them living the novel's characters living through the story's events.

There's a scene in the film which does not occur in the book. Piggy tells the Littluns a story, the very image of an infants teacher. Here it is:

Observing these boys in a break on set, Brook had the cameras roll to capture the unscripted scene. It survived the final cut and impresses in two ways. First, it is impossible to distinguish actor from character. Second, it's a deeply ironic moment. My class observed that had this group been home in Camberley the story would likely have been about a desert island. Need I say more?

The imagination craves refreshment, provides invisible nourishment to the business of everyday life. Einstein valued it above logic and knowledge; empathy is a close relative. Imaginative experiences (whether through literature or myriad other routes) have their own time schemes. It took me years to fully comprehend what first I glimpsed of the novel's hidden depths - as long in fact as it took the actors in Brook's film to see with any clarity what effect the experience had upon their lives. Tom Gaman, who played Simon, movingly describes the 1996 reunion arranged by Peter Brook. CLICK HERE . It's abundantly clear those few weeks on 'fantasy island' enriched the lives of everyone involved.

Brook seems to me now to have been both director and teacher and I'd simply be satisfied if my own valuation of imaginative experience proves as positive to some of the students I've taught. I doubt I shall ever know.

As it is, 'Lord of the Flies', like any respectable fable, possesses a universality that finds ever fresh application. Right now, looking at education (and other spheres of human activity) I see the Jacks of this world busily, blindly, thoughtlessly hunting for meat, oblivious of the fire going out, neglecting to keep an altruistic eye on the horizon, ignoring the call of the conch and Ralph's despairing cry: "There was a ship!"


I am well aware of the quirky nature of this and most of my blog. "Markings" exists as a thought diary. You are reading a man trying to make sense of his life now he has time to consider. What I say and how it is expressed has the virtue of meaning something to me. For the visiting reader I append this quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins' sonnet,
'To RB' (Robert Browning). 

'O then, if in my lagging lines you miss
The roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,
My winter world that scarcely breathes that bliss
Now, yields you, with some sighs, our explanation'.

To go straight to my next Education post please click Two Allegories About Education..







Monday, June 17, 2013

An Inspector Calls - My Thoughts on Three Teachers' Blogs.

There was a shared poignancy about a trio of blog posts by practising teachers which I read this weekend. A blog is a monologue, an e-soliloquy, and here were three ladies reflecting in media res on education with unavoidable consciousness of Ofsted's inspectorate as a common, palpable background.

I know none personally; nor do I imagine are they acquainted. All have considerable experience. This seems important to highlight.Each illustrates a different effect of the existing national curriculum and inspection system. Each prompts considerations that I , as a retired teacher, find fascinating. 

The order moves from the most spontaneous to the most formally expressed.

1. A primary school teacher just after the inspector has called. (Please read her blog post. It will open in a new tab: Dear Inspector. ).

Stress, illness, tiredness, duty, love. Anger, low morale, completely valid self-confidence.

She has been here before; she will be here again -she knows this. So: what to say to her?

First and foremost, I don't need to visit your class to know you educate your pupils. I've read your "Splog" for some weeks now and you could not have written it if you didn't 'get' the difference between education and training. With the latter, content rightly takes precedence, whereas education (leading out) is person-centred and involves consistent observation of what a student needs, is ready for or enthuses about followed by the deft, artistic, empathic provision thereof by any means you can conjure.

As long as you continue to do what you are doing children are being educated and that's all that matters. I suggest you do precisely that until someone locks you out of your classroom.

Inspectors are no threat. As you describe vividly in your post, they know next to nothing about you or your students. What does constitute a very real threat is their given brief. I'll come to that later.

For now: two anecdotes.

The first time I was inspected was in I think my first (qualified) year of secondary English teaching, 1972. After observing my retake GCE 6th form lesson, he painted for the Head a glowing picture of cutting-edge teaching: "My God!" he exclaimed."He's giving one-to-one tuition up there!". Needless to say, my canny Head did not tell him there is no other way you can teach re-take students with heavy "A" level schedules which meant they dropped in for the occasional English lesson as and when.

Every year I worked with him, a Head of Upper School, a Geography & Geology teacher, 'resigned' to become a long-distance coach driver on "A" level results day. And every year we talked him out of it. This is a man who never visited my English class (whatever the reason) without taking in what we were studying and adding value (often in the shape of an apt literary quotation that would stagger the students - "That's education!" he would beam.).

But you know that.

2. A secondary English teacher gives a memorable illustration of how the analogies of imagery are much more than mere decoration - imagination is inspiration when teacher and student meet in a moment of true education. Please read: Magic Moment ).

 This post speaks for itself - I value it highly as a superbly captured moment of shared insight, which is impossible to express in the received jargon of education.

I was astonished by the closing sentence and still wonder if I mishear its tone, which seems simply sincere.

Patently (or why the post?) this lady considers the incident described as emblematic of her best as a teacher. Why would you baulk at showing this to inspectors? I conclude you fear it is not what they wish or expect to see.

 Two things. 

If an inspector had been present not to have responded thus to your student would have meant no educating took place. You'd have given what my final blogger will call a "good" lesson. If you withhold your best for fear it will not be approved, if everyone does so, inspectors will never see real education happening.

You do not know what is in a given inspector's mind, however much you try to second-guess.

The night prior to the last inspection of my career before retirement (despite my experience and confidence) I anguished over whether to proceed with the lesson as planned. The group was A1 English Literature, the text: Brian Friel's play,"Making History". I was to use 'The Alfieri Technique'.

You won't have heard of this because I developed it many years ago as an enrichment method intended to bring literary texts to greater life in the classroom. 'Alfieri' simply because his was the first character (Miller's "A View From The Bridge") I presented thus.

It's an intense, revealing, refreshing, energy-sapping thing to do. And very risky for inspection purposes because much of the learning experience takes place invisibly on a virtual stage of shared imagination. Hardly any didactic element to it. Pregnant silences. Not a lot of writing. Utterly unpredictable responses in teacher and students. But everyone needs to know the text inside out to participate.

I like the irony inherent in The Alfieri Technique- it disappears the teacher so that literary appreciation may take place. And I couldn't get out of it for that inspection because I'd set it up the week before.

The class were primed to expect Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, the central character of "Making History", in person, as it were, when they next came to class. He would read a specially-written soliloquy (I chose a suitable moment in the text) after which students were free to ask prepared questions, make observations arising from their reactions to the play and my soliloquy. Comments and questions had to be supported with reference to the text. O'Neill would reply. 

This is not costumed acting. No accents, no props. The teacher simply 'lends' mind and voice to the  spirit of the character for the duration. Students are warned not to expect answers the teacher may have given.

I had the class all morning. The plan was: me as Hugh up to the break (1hr 10mins); then for the second hour or so one of the students who had asked if she might try the technique (as 'Mabel Bagenal'), followed by class discussion of quickly made notes on what it felt like to experience the lesson and how, if at all, it had enhanced learning.

I hardly registered the inspector's entrance during my initial 'soliloquy'. The 5% of Ray still operating did however observe a gentleman quietly take a seat close by,in the midst of the gathered students...and sensed absorption.

He knew the play. He contributed sensitively, having cottoned on to what was taking place. He was back straight after break (his only comment thus far  - "You've earned your break - see you later.") Mabel proceeded to do a far better job than I had and the inspector again contributed as a student to the feedback session.

I like to kind of think that the right inspector turned up because I did not give in to fear and teach for safety. You are always in the right place at the right time.

3. The Headmistress with insights into the difference between good and outstanding: Consistently Good to Outstanding. )

For me, this represented the most ironic of reads. For here, I suspect, we have one example of something very common - the senior, experienced teacher caught up necessarily in the nets of an educational language that is actually inadequate to describe the magic moments of education.

I'm a simple soul. Probably naive. However, I cannot but conclude after reading this post: first that its writer is realising afresh (this time in an alien edu-language) what she already knows. Second that the terms good and outstanding lead down a blind alley. 

I read the writer's descriptors for good and I think they accurately describe a skilled trainer. I read about what it takes to be outstanding and I think they describe a skilled educator.

I think I am saying that education either occurs or does not in a lesson. There are no gradations. Training may appropriately happen too - ALL the time in a driving lesson; SOME of the time in an English class where there is a finite body of knowledge that requires transmission and absorption such as the basics of punctuation.

Education is another animal. In general (especially compulsory) education the holistic development of individuals takes centre stage. 'Knowledge'  is fuel to a free-burning fire; the teacher an expert stoker. 

So, I would say to the headmistress - those termed "outstanding" are merely the educators amongst the trainers. That the more prescriptive the curriculum and its delivery the fewer educators there will be. It's why the first of my 3 ladies is fed up to the teeth - she is an educator in a system which more and more demands she be entirely a trainer. Neither she nor you, nor the children deserve or will derive real benefit from such demands from officials who either never educated anyone themselves or, if they ever did,  forgot what it really means in the welter of government initiatives and incessant, unsettling and political change.

To all 3 ladies and any Inspector Calling to read this post I dedicate this quotation from Priestley's play:

    "We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish. Good night."

(copyright ray wilcockson 2013 All rights reserved.)

To go to my next post please click The Empty Space & The Illusion of the First Time in Teaching.






Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Brush Up Your Shakespeare - Set Text 2013 - for Department for Education Study.

The Cobbe Portrait of Mr. William Shakespeare.
The following extracts from 'The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark' are set for study (no written examination):

1. Act V, sc 1, (ll. 3418-3422):

"That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once. How the
knave jowls it to the ground,as if 'twere Cain's jawbone, that
did the first murther! This might be the pate of a Politician,
which this ass now o'erreaches; one that would circumvent God,
might it not?"

2. Act III, sc 2, (ll. 2231-2249):

"Hamlet:  I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe?
Guildenstern: My lord, I cannot.
Hamlet:  I pray you.

Guildenstern:  Believe me, I cannot.

Hamlet:  I do beseech you.
Guildenstern:  I know, no touch of it, my lord.
Hamlet:  It is as easy as lying. Govern these ventages with your
fingers and thumbs, give it breath with your mouth, and it will
discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.
Guildenstern:  But these cannot I command to any utt'rance of harmony. I
have not the skill.

Hamlet: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You
would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would
pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my
lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music,
excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it
speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play'd on than a
pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me,
you cannot play upon me."
These extracts were selected by a joint committee whose members comprise Mr. William Shakespeare & all students to be examined in GCSE (England) English Literature 2013-17 (inclusive).
It is recommended those studying the extracts proceed to consider at their leisure this year's set question (to be practically assessed over several generations) :
Question: Discuss and illustrate the relevance of the passages set to proposed government policies on education.
The committee would consider it a matter of courtesy if some kind of response were made to these related, general questions:
Mr. Shakespeare's Inquiry.
(Google Instant Translation from Jacobean English).
Gratified as I have been these many years by the continued appearance of my works in your examinations, the time seems ripe to remind you first that the 'texts' you set are 'play scripts' not 'plays'; and, second, that I wrote them to turn a profit and provide voluntary entertainment not compulsory instruction.
With regard to the first, my plays may only be experienced in a theatre. Am I to assume the Department for Education will, consequently, arrange for every GCSE student in the land to attend government-sponsored performances free of charge?
You, gentles, would play the Guildenstern with me.
But...I am long gone. You cannot injure me.
Your (Wittenberg) Students' Inquiry.
We understand (from the 11 June Education Statement in The House of Commons) that the first cohort of students to follow your new proposed GCSE will commence study in 2015 and be examined in 2017. We understand the changes are intended to 'drive up standards', by making the exam harder, & recoup lost faith in GCSE reliability.
Your statement logically condemns the exams to be taken by us in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 as too easy and unreliable. How are we to take this? What are teachers to do, parents, universities and employers to think? How unworthy a thing you make of us!  Our question is this:
Does no one have the wit or wisdom in government; is there no one with the imagination or human empathy just for once to propose change with consideration and reassurance for those immediately affected by such statements of intent?

Oh, we shall survive, doubt it not (longer in truth than the pate of a politician) for there is much music in our little organs.Though you can fret us, you cannot play upon us. We have hearts of mystery. Have you?

Brush up your Shakespeare.

NB: to go straight to my next education post please click
An Inspector Calls.


Saturday, June 8, 2013

"The Day That The Rains Came Down" - Halcyon Days (for Jennie).

"Halcyon" is one of my favourite words, up there with "azure", "pastel" and "Avalon". I use it (blithely and wrongly) for 'perfect' days - like today in sun-drenched Morecambe. Just as happily, I misuse it to recall ( I know not whether through rosy-tinted spectacles) 'the good times' that once rolled.

I've laboured for decades under the false assumption a "halcyon" was a mythic bird said to herald high Summer 'Beach Boys' days. In this (as in many a matter) Google and Wikipedia conspire to correct me. 'Twas a mythic kingfisher that:

"made a floating nest in the Aegean Sea and had the power to calm the waves while brooding her eggs. Fourteen days of calm weather were to be expected when the Halcyon was nesting - around the winter solstice, usually 21st or 22nd of December. The Halcyon days are generally regarded as beginning on the 14th or 15th of December."

 Enough of semantics - "Halcyon" is my magic word for 1958 and the song that names this post brings it all flooding back home.

It's a blithe song (yes, another favourite word) with a bitter-sweet title that delimits even the happiest of our mortal days. If you have never heard Jane Morgan's (Jan 1959) Number 1, please listen now. Even if you know it, read the lyrics.

The day that the rains came down
Mother Earth smiled again
Now the lilacs could bloom
Now the fields could grow greener

The day that the rains came down
Buds were born, love was born
As the young buds will grow
So our young love will grow
Love, sweet love

A robin sang a song of love
A willow tree reached up to the heavens
As if to thank the sky above
For all that rain, that welcome rain

We looked across the meadowland
And seemed to sense a kind of a miracle
Much too deep to understand
And there we were, so much in love

The day that the rains came down
Mountain streams swelled with pride
Gone the dry river bed
Gone the dust from the valley

The day that the rains came down
Buds were born, love was born
As the young buds will grow
So our young love will grow

Love, sweet love
Rain sweet rain
All day today I have felt as bemused as John Fowles in that famous authorial intervention that wrenches the close of Chapter 12 of "The French Lieutenant's Woman" into fathomless surreality:

"Who is Jennie?
Out of what shadows does she come?"

Bear with me - this is the first time I have been a retired teacher. I am finding when (as here) I sit down to write a post about education I cannot speak the language as she is spoken by (most) practising teachers.

I taught English to A level for three decades relying of necessity on my own resources not having been trained before or during probation. I've no intention of changing now. The only thing we truly own is experience. You may supplant its lessons with -ism or -ology. I never have. All I ever realised about teaching was the result of trial, error, observation... and memories of younger Ray at school. 

That's why Jennie came back today.




We were ten and in love.That song was 'our song'. About that time my flying dreams began - dreams that (thank you, Lord) have recurred to this late day even though Jennie vanished from my life. Soaring. We were soaring under an azure sky.

If you know the opening of  L.P.Hartley's "The Go-Between", you will appreciate what sure invisible hand took me last night to the 'lost' photo above, buried 'neath the archaeological layers of my possessions.

This is NOT a nostalgic trip. Devastated as I was by her family's emigration late that year, do not image me as regretful or mourning lost love. What we had we had. And everyone knew it - from my mum who consoled me as best she could, to her mum who treated us to a last our school who...impicitly understood.

The shadows clear.

I am here to say, with Coriolanus: "There is a world elsewhere." 

Once upon a time there was a school called St Peter's C.E.School. Anxiety is infectious. I have seen it leap from teacher to student so often. I see it now, writ large, in spades. Those who taught Jennie and Keith and me felt none of neither did we.

I mention Keith because we were close friends and rivals - academically and for the hand of Jennie. Learning was fun; preparation for the 11+ was fun...I realise now because it was not the be-all and end-all in the minds of our teachers. We passed. But even in that final 'crucial' year of national testing there were some wonderfully icy winter days when the head cancelled lessons for a whole afternoon so we could ALL (staff and pupils) perfect the glistening slides that, siren-like, beckoned from the playground.

I had a habit of fainting in assembly - "Your girl-friend is coming to sit with you, Ray, till you feel ok for class". That's caring. Thoughtful, individual caring.

And the staff knew both Keith and I loved Jennie. It didn't affect our work one jot, or our friendship. But, more out of affirmation than anything else, our class teacher, smiling, took Jennie to the top of a flight of steps, stood me and Keith at the bottom...and told her to walk down, choose and kiss one or the other.

O Lucky Me.

Perhaps it was something to do with the fact St. Peter's was a Church of England school that it was more interested (and highly skilled) in educating the invisible. Students are like icebergs - trainers "train" the visible tenth; teachers "educate" (I prefer "minister to")the whole being.

I experienced rote-learning both at St. Peter's and at King James's Grammar School. It's use was always directed; its value clear to me. Largely confined to the learning of extensive Latin and French vocabulary lists twice a week for five years, the method was initially deployed to all first years for the compulsory (tested) learning of the school motto, school lines and school song. (These were my first English lessons there).

It has taken me half a century to see that our school motto freed staff and students to share in the enjoyment and rewards of a truly holistic education (academic as we all were) - something no modern day "Mission Statement" has ever convincingly enshrined:

"Quid retribuam Domino pro omnibus quae retribuit mihi?

(What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?)

 Calicem salutaris accipiam, et nomen Domini invocabo."

(I shall take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.)

I've never been one for organised religion. Neither of these schools was oppressively holier-than-thou.

What they had was a firm sense of perspective on the process of educating and open channels to that greater dimension within all of us that, affirmed, underpins all our learning, loving and experiencing in this life. Give of your best - offer it all up (not to inspectors teachers, parents or self - but to your private God and the Universe). All is well.

It is my fervent hope that All will be Well after the soul-searching currently underway in education systems here and elsewhere in the World. May your lilacs bloom and the young buds grow.

We looked across the meadowland
And seemed to sense a kind of a miracle
Much too deep to understand
And there we were, so much in love
Thank you, Jennie.

 NB: Follow this link to read my latest Education post: Brush Up Your Shakespeare

Friday, June 7, 2013

"Learning By Hearts" - A Poem To Read, Learn & Inwardly Digest.

Learning By Hearts (20 steps to Heaven)

Guess Who
Catch Me
Bad Boy
Hug Me
Be Mine
For Ever
I Like You
Gee Whiz
Dream On
Funny Face
Hot Lips
Wild Thing
Trust Me
Kiss Me
I Surrender
All Yours
My Angel
I Love You

Production of Love Hearts began in 1933. They were an updated version of Victorian era Conversation Lozenges. Love Hearts are packaged and typically sold in tubular packs of 20. There are many messages (it is uncommon to find more than 3 repeats in a packet of 20).
Love Hearts currently come in six flavours, each associated with a colour.
  1. White (a plain, sherbet-like, slightly tart vanilla flavour)
  2. Yellow (a sherbet-like flavour with a distinct sharp lemon aftertaste)
  3. Green (a slightly lime flavour with a sherbet-like aftertaste)
  4. Orange (a sweet flavour with a slight orange aftertaste)
  5. Purple (an unusual, slightly perfumed berry-like flavour with a strong aftertaste)
  6. Red (cherry flavour)
This list of flavours start with the weakest flavouring and progresses to the strongest.

The shelf life (indicated by the best before date) is very long - approximately a year and a half.

In Practice "Lovehearts" are Everlasting - as anyone knows who ever fell in love half way down a tube.

Note to Users: This poem is most effective at all Key Stages of Life if recited from memory to the accompaniment of two people scrunching together oblivious of the rest of the World. 

Copyright note - all rights reserved raywilcockson 2013.
This poetic packet becomes indigestible & self-destructs if given to children for consumption as part of a National Curriculum or opened by anyone other than those who are 10 at heart.

Speaking of which  - 10 at heart is the subject of my next post: "The DayThat The Rains Came Down".
Get a supply of "Lovehearts" in - you'll need it.

please click The Day That The Rains Came Down to go straight to the next post.