And I thought THAT was the heart of darkness

While spring cleaning some old blogs today as part of an attempt to make my digital footprints less muddy, I came across some posts relating to a GCSE English group I had four years ago, and it heightened yet further my sense of being dispirited at the way my teaching is going under the Controlled Assessment regime (see here for some excellent discussion of this from David Didau (@LearningSpy) together with my depressed comment).

Here are some examples of blog posts with student discussion on Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ that we were doing for coursework.

Into the Heart of Darkness

Through the Heart of Darkness

More Heart of Darkness

What’s in a Title?

I recall much more discussion and debate with the whole class than the online taster you can see there.  I know a top set, like the one I had back then, is a very different proposition from the set four classes I have now. Nevertheless I find it difficult to see a way that, even with the best students,  I could engender the depth of reflective thinking about and exploration of a text that most of these students were able to produce, now that our curriculum that currently requires us to romp through six CA’s in Year 10.

Is it even allowable to negotiate individual titles with students (within the broad parameters of the prescribed task banks) for CA, as I did with those students for their coursework?

(I’ll have to find out.

Using an iPhone scanner app to get marked work to students

The colleague that I share an AS Level English Language group with is off school at the moment, just as our deadline for submitting their coursework is coming up.

As I was leaving school yesterday for the weekend, I noticed that she had sent in some drafts that she had commented on. I’d asked the students to complete the coursework by this coming Monday.

What a pity that many of them would be handing in that coursework, or working on it further over the weekend without the benefit of those comments.

So, I’ve just spent a few minutes snapping the pages on my iPhone using the JotNot Scanner Pro app, and emailing them as PDF’s to the students directly from within the app.

(I just hope they heeded my injunction yesterday that they should be checking their school email on a daily basis, or – as I do, having it auto-forwarded to an email address they do check regularly.

A picture’s worth a thousand – erm – hours, probably, the way I’ve gone at it

I’ve made a monumental meal of this task, and I’ve still only done the first part of it, as the deadline swings round with assignment 2 already up and running.

My first thought was to bang it out quickly in a few moments before going to sleep by seeing what I could find in the way of vector graphic apps for the iphone. After I’d trawled through the options (I didn’t really want to pay what with not knowing what I was looking for, and being a bit of a cheapskate and all) I downloaded the ‘lite’ (ie. free, and – it turns out – pretty useless) version of miniDraw.

I sort of know what layers are, though not how to utilise them, but Bezier curves mean nothing to me. I thought that even though the iPhone screen is only small, that it wouldn’t be a problem for the simple shape-based graphic that was suggested as the outcome for this assignment, but it turns out I was horribly wrong. Maybe if you know what you’re doing with this kind of software and have an eye for design it might be OK, but I just found myself fiddling aimlessy with it for ages. I’d also had a quick look at  some of the keenies who’d already posted their assignment results, complete with sketchbooks and mind-maps and what-have-you outlining the ‘creative process’. I’m not mocking that, honest: I’d love to be able to plan something coherently and then get the damn thing done, but I’ve always struggled to work in anything like a systematic way.

So what actually happened was that I was playing about and kind of accidentally drew a line that curved in a way that reminded me a bit of  the sweep of a page of an open book, and I thought, well – I’m an English teacher: that’ll do.

I figured out how to copy the line, and then mirror it to produce a number of  ‘pages’ and then it all got incredibly frustrating. Once I’ve started something like this, though, I can’t let it go, even when it’s not really working. What I should have done is learned from the experience that the iphone wasn’t really working as a tool for this job, and transferred straight to one of the tools recommended in the assignment. I did actually try that at one point, but couldn’t quite replicate the curve of the line that I’d by now become rather attached to.

There followed several comedy hours where things happened that were a complete mystery to me. I couldn’t work out how to select multiple ‘objects’ so every line was completely separate when it came to wanting to recolour the image (though I could resize and rotate the whole thing). And somehow I’d created multiple objects on top of each other so I had to keep moving and deleting them until there was only one left so I could apply colour.  I guess it probably gave me a little taste of what many of my students must feel when I’m asking them to do something that to me seems obvious, but they just don’t get it (sorry, year 11 set 4, about all that ‘varying sentence structure’ stuff).

Also, being an English teacher, I couldn’t quite stick to the injunction ‘no words’, so by Saturday morning I had this:

after faffing about for ages on my iphone, this is as far as I'd got

I ended up having to pay £2.49 for the full version of the app just to export it in a format that the free Inkscape software could read, as it became clear that I was going to drive myself insane carrying on as I was. I did begrudge that £2.49, particularly as I’m unlikely to use that app again in anger (with anger, perhaps!), but then I reflected that I was paying about the price of a coffee for a piece of software that not so long ago would have cost tens of times more for similar functionality, so I stumped up, and then spent ages more trying to work out how the gradient editor works in Inkscape, and fiddling about with all those little lines.

Here’s what I wound up with in the end:

That's all folks!

I ‘evaluated’ it by showing it to my Y12 English Language & Literature class on Monday morning. It seems I’m the only person who sees that squiggle as the page of a book. After an embarrassed silence, one of them ventured: “Is it, like, train tracks or something, sir?”

Oh well.

After a little explanation of my thinking behind it (much of it post-rationalised, I have to say), one of my charges was kind enough to say, “Wow, that’s really intelligent, sir.” I don’t think she was being sarcastic, but I do think she’s easily impressed.

Having seen Nicola McNee’s contribution to this assignment, we appear to have experienced very similar frustrations, and to have been thinking along very similar lines, although I do think her sign is much more elegant than mine.


(I wonder if our idea behind the colour scheme was the same?

Ed Tech Creative Collective

I like the idea of being part of a collective. It’s a good, solid, wholesome word. I’m not a self-starter, so I’m hoping that being part of a collective will give a bit of focus and direction to my meddlings.

I like the euphony of ‘collective’ and ‘creative’.

I don’t expect that anyone has read through this blog thus far, and I certainly don’t expect anyone to do so now. But if you did, you’d see that I’ve blown hot & cold, and hither & thither with it. I also have other bits of online projects scattered in various bits of cyberspace. I want to be a bit less of a flibbertigibbet and a bit more of a getupandgetit.

To be creative, I think I need constraints, as well as cues. So, a collective it is then.

(I just hope, and – as far as I am able – intend, that this will be, for me, not just another kind of failure.

“Flow” – is it time for me to un-ban it?

My A-level students, and doubtless some others, have had the experience at one point or another of me going berserk about someone using the word ‘flow’ to describe a piece of text, followed by my theatrically banning its use, usually to the accompaniment of a less than edifying toilet-based description of how ‘flow’ can take so many different forms from the trickle to the torrent that it’s pretty useless in any discussion that’s aiming at analytical precision.

Reading this the other day, led me back to the source whence it flowed, thereby reassuring me that it’s not only my ‘pet peeve’, but also confirming what I’ve always felt: that even though it’s not useful in itself as an analytical term, its use by students nearly always reflects the sense that they are grasping at something important and worth saying, but do not yet have the conceptual tools and critical vocabulary to define and describe adequately.
My A-level students will also notice that one of the examples used by David Jauss is an extract from D H Lawrence’s Odour of Chrysanthemums which uses stylistic techniques very similar to those used by Lawrence in a passage I nearly always use towards the beginning of the course (it’s the first paragraph here ), and which I contrast with extracts from Hemingway and Austen that use very different syntactical structures, and also ‘flow’ but in very different ways. (I think I first saw those extracts juxtaposed in an early English Language resource book called Some things to do with English Language.)
(Anyhow, both articles are well worth a read, I think.

That ‘Catholic Ethos’ thing

Yesterday we had an Inset day, most of which was on the Catholic Ethos of the school. We were led in this by Fr Paul Farrer from Middlesborough who specialises in youth ministry. After the darkness of  last half term, with its tragic deaths of two of our students, the diagnosis with cancer of a year 9 student whose mother is a member of staff, and the death by cancer of a much loved colleague, it seemed fitting to focus on our distinctively Catholic ethos.

Fr Paul emphasised the meaning of Catholic as ‘universal’, and I remember thinking last term that I would like to have been able to take those who see faith schools as necessarily divisive into our community on the morning after our two students died, or on the day we held mass for them, or in the after school liturgy we held for our colleague and friend, Jo.

I understand the objections that some people have to state funding of faith schools. Yet, especially at times of grief, crisis and celebration, but also in both the still small moments of calm, and the daily bustle, the Christian focus of our school offers something of value that I think is perhaps impossible to find outside a faith community, and which I think is worth preserving – and it is not only people of faith who can see that.

At one point during the morning we were asked to consider, among other questions, WHY we do what we do, rather than how we do it which is so often the focus. This links for me with the wider purpos/ed discussion that was kicked off last month, in which I was not the only person to suggest that ‘love’ might have something to do with it.

At the end of the day, the words of St Teresa of Avila were used. Those words had prompted me to write a morning briefing prayer several years ago:

Christ has no body now on earth but ours
No hands but ours, nor feet; no pair of eyes.
Only compassion should we radiate
from eyes that on the world we cast Christ’s gaze;
Only good actions should we ambulate
with feet that tread their footfalls in Christ’s ways;
Only soft blessings should accumulate
from hands that offer Christ’s work in this place.

(If that’s not why we do it, then why are we even here?

Getting the CPDeebies

Last week I delivered an after school session about the value of developing a Personal Learning Network (PLN) to a handful of colleagues who had signed up. I had considered doing one as part of our CPD programme last year, but bottled it. Towards the end of last academic year when the call came for volunteers to deliver sessions (we opt in to three twilight sessions in lieu of a disaggregated Inset day) I bit the bullet and put myself forward for a session on Building a Personal Learning Network using Social Networking. In retrospect, maybe I could have thought of a snappier title.

I was more anxious about it than I know rationally I should have been. It’s just that I’ve sat through enough sessions thinking “Who does s/he think s/he is?!” to imagine that nobody would be thinking the same about me, and I’m thin skinned enough for that thought to really bother me.

Anyhow, nine colleagues turned up after school on Tuesday. I hope I got across the fact that I hadn’t put the session on as a “hey look how great I am” ego-fest, even though I did chuck in the handful of examples of webby things I’ve done with kids that seem to have gone down well. I felt it was important to show some of the things I’ve learned from developing a PLN that have made on impact on classroom practice to give a context and sense of purpose to the session. I also introduced Edmodo as an immediately practical tool that can be used for networking with students, and because I thought for the very un-techy ones it might be a bit less alarming way in than immediately putting something out there in public in the way Twitter does. You can see some of what went on that bit of the session here (just to betray that sense of security!).

The Prezi that I used is below. Some of it may be a little mystifying without my accompanying commentary. I’m adding bits of explanatory text  here and there as I come back to it now and again.

So, was the session a success?

A couple of colleagues have started using, or re-using Twitter, (@emsiwemsi & @Nad1neB) while @antmcride and @mariedarwin signed up but haven’t tweeted yet. Maybe you could give them a tweet and see if it wakes them up! @mbelleini by contrast not only began to use his new Twitter account, but was also moved to write his first blog post:

Of the nine participants, seven filled in the feedback and their evaluation was largely positive:

Of course the two who didn’t return the form may have found the session useless for all I know, but I’ll take “It has reignited my joy of teaching” and “I think this should be introduced to all staff”  as indications that it was worth the effort.

If nothing else, it’s given me a bit more confidence to start sharing more of what I’m learning from my external PLN with my colleagues in school.

(The big question now, is ‘how?’