Wednesday, 25 January 2012

In praise of homework

Because I am rapidly approaching 35, and no longer consider myself to be in the Top Shop demographic, I have started reading a blog dedicated to growing older in a witty and stylish way.  I am, actually, about 10 years too young for the blog, but enjoy it very much; similar to the way I enjoy talking to my parents' friends.  Of course, my parents and their friends are far, far older than either of the writers.  Have I covered myself?

Anyway, I like reading their stuff, and sometimes feel a bit scared by their descriptions of living with teenagers.  Recently, they have been writing about homework.  I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but I am a primary school teacher, and spent three long and happy years in Year One, teaching writing, reading, Maths and, well everything really.  As part of my remit, I had to set homework.  Now, I believe in homework.  I believe that, while education in school is incredibly important, most education happens at home, and a child's chances in life are enhanced by the way that education is regarded in the family.  This is not a snide class thing - after all, that awful Toby Young is on record as saying that he didn't enjoy education until his parents took an interest in it at secondary level, and his father is a peer - this is a teacher thing.  Education happens at home and at school, and the two have to work together in order to provide the best for the child.

I gave homework to my children that involved the parents.  I expected the children to be read with every night, and gave out two reading books a week.  I handed out spellings that related back to the sound that their group was learning - some weeks it would be "igh", some weeks "o", depending on the progress of the children in the group.  Obviously, with my incredible professionalism, I knew where all the children were all of the time, and made sure that all the children moved at roughly the same quite rapid pace.  (This is true by the way - it is not comic hyperbole, for a change).  Each week, the children had a maths worksheet to complete that involved, and this is very important, cutting, sticking and colouring.  It irritated the parents who believed that darling Raveena should be doing her fifty times table, and it irritated the parents who didn't like darling Reece using glue outside school as it is too messy, but that was OK by me. 

My personal favourite homework was about "Toys in the Olden Days" where I got the children to talk to their parents and grandparents about the toys they had played with when they were children.  Most of my parents at that time were the same age, or considerably younger, than me, and the grandparents weren't much past 50.  I had quite a few complaints about that, fortunately all of them light-hearted. 

Homework is a window for both parents and teachers.  I could see what was happening at home as I encouraged parents to write in the diary and would respond to their comments frequently and often at great, inappropriate length.  Parents could see what I was expecting from their children - as my maths homeworks were solidly aimed at the middle, the parents of the top group would boot their children off to do it on their own, the parents of the middle group would encourage independence, and the parents of the bottom group would, well, ignore it frankly, and sometimes do the work for them.  Ever wondered why your child isn't achieving?

I wouldn't dream of setting homework every night.  I would be upset to think that the children were unable to do their homework; I expected the parents to sit with the children for 15 mins and complete the work.  However busy your life is, you have 15 minutes out of an entire weekend for your child's formal education.  Don't you?

I expect that other schools, other teachers have different views, obviously.  I know several of my colleagues disagree with homework in the Infants, and dislike it in the Juniors, and I know that secondary school is different, although perhaps it shouldn't be.  Perhaps there should be more emphasis on the whole child, rather than individual subjects?  Who can say?  At primary school, we deal with everything, we wipe noses, zip up coats, put on plasters and give out cuddles, we teach every subject and are expected to have excellent general knowledge, and detailed specific knowledge.  We generally get good results.  My first class, the first lot to have the Miss Harries (as was) homework regime forced upon them have just surpassed other Year 6 classes nationally, across the board, but especially in English.  Maybe something stuck.  Good foundations are crucial to any successful building.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Middlemarch and all that

I have shamelessly taken this picture from dovegreyreader's blog, as it perfectly illustrates the book I have been reading.  She is holding a "read along", reading Middlemarch in instalments, which meant that I romped through Miss Brooke at a speed of knots, and now have to wait until February to read Part Two. 

It's been interesting to re-read George Eliot.  Being a literary sort, I chose Science A-Levels, and had to self-teach myself critical reading.  In my wasted youth, I read all the CLASSICS (Middlemarch, Dickens, Trollope etc) and didn't particularly gain much from them, although many I enjoyed greatly and have gone on to re-read and re-read, especially Jane Austen and Trollope.  Middlemarch has not been one I've re-visited, and I can't really think why.  I watched the television adaptation relatively recently, with the lovely Rufus Sewell in his prime (he's gone to seed now, of course) and the utterly entrancing Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke.  Perhaps that's why? 

For whatever reason, Middlemarch is on my list.  I loved reading it as an adult.  A proper adult, I mean, with a job and a mortgage and two children and an account with John Lewis.  Miss Brooke is far more pious and difficult than I remember her being, Cecila is a sweetie, Sir James is very proper and manly, and Casaubon is made out of beige.  What a wonderful character he is.  A key to all mythologies, honestly.  And silly Dorothea for being taken in by him - I suppose he would seem like some form of hero to an eighteen year old longing to be taken seriously by someone and, feeling herself to be far cleverer than the people around her, longing to have someone to whom she could admire intellectually.  Unfortunately, she doesn't realise; the first rule of being cleverer than everyone else is to pretend not to be cleverer than everyone else. 

George Eliot's writing is needle sharp - it's as if she has specially sharpened her pen and is creating perfect little pen and ink drawings of her characters.  She is also funny - I don't remember laughing during the television adaptation, except at Mr Brooke, so it must be the strong author's voice, so disliked by Linda Grant.  I follow her on Twitter, I don't have a personal connection to her. 

The thing I love most about reading the book with a group, especially via dove grey reader, is that she is able to make connections to things I had vaguely noticed and mentally filed under interesting.  A S Byatt's writing about GE is the example I'm thinking about at the moment; here is a vast chunk I have copied and pasted.

'I taught it with a passion because it I perceived it was about the growth, use and inevitable failure and frustration of all human energy - a lesson one is not interested in at eleven, or eighteen, but at twenty-six with two small children, it seems crucial. George Eliot's people were appallingly ambitious and greedy - not always for political, or even exclusively sexual power...they were ambitious to use their minds to the full. to discover something, to live on a scale where their life felt valuable from moment to moment...'

I can't say anything more about it.  That's it really.

Jane Austen, A Life by Claire Tomalin

I started this book just at the end of last year, and finished it the other day.  What a wonderful book.  From actually very little evidence, Claire Tomalin has managed to piece together a very creditable account of Jane Austen's life.  I've never felt that the sainted Jane was a shrinking violet - her novels are sharp, witty and to the point, with a lot of truth in them about human weakness, vanity and the way that people are incredibly unpleasant to each other while maintaining a social mask. 

It is particularly strong on Mansfield Park, a book I'm ashamed to say I've only read once.  While I know Persuasion backwards, and Pride and Prejudice very well indeed, Mansfield Park's difficult, unloveable heroine has never really appealed to me, but having read this excellent analysis, I am going to give it another go.  I'm sure Jane Austen is overjoyed to hear it. 

More than a teacher

I had to speak to Martina's mother the other day regarding her recent behaviour deterioration at Nursery.  She is starting to behave in a very, for want of a better phrase, attention seeking manner - pushing the other children, occassionally hitting them, complaining frequently that they are hurting her (on one occasion, she said that a little boy had hit her - impossible, he was sitting with me at the time) and most upsetting for me, destroying her own work.  Her mum is expecting another baby in May, and Martina is apparently being equally attention seeking at home, demanding that Mum does all her bedtimes, reads to her constantly, cuddles her, carries her, feeds her, everything.  She is also starting to "act up" a bit in public, something she's never done before. 

I wanted to talk with Mum to let her know what is happening at Nursery and to discuss her behaviour generally, and whether there was anything that we could do to help with her behaviour at home.  We all acknowledge that this is a difficult time for her, and we all need to show her that she is loved and valued despite the new baby coming.  I talked to Mum about the ways I had handled the transition from only child to sibling and tried to reassure her that this phase would pass.  It is very difficult for us to explain these concepts to Martina; not only is she three, and therefore only just becoming able to understand that Mum will still be the same when the baby comes, but she is also Polish, with a fairly limited understanding of English.

As examples of good practise, we will all monitor Martina's behaviour and help her make good choices at home and at Nursery.  At Nursery, we will be on hand to make Martina feel special and loved when the baby arrives - hopefully we can provide some familiarity and normality for her - her world is about to be completely turned upside.

I don't think this is really in my remit, but I think it's important for everyone concerned.  All names changed.  Obviously.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Not quite in the right spirit

I go to church most weekends.  Sometimes, if I can tie it in with childcare, I like to go in the week, but that's not really been happening much since Hattie stopped reliably sleeping for half an hour at ten.  While I have terrible problems with the hierarchy, the way the message has been corrupted over the past 2000 years, the way the Church has historically treated its members, St Paul and other minor characters, I am basically a Church of England supporter, a Christian and a fully paid up member of our local religious community.  I am not interested in being told that I am wrong about this; I will not force my views on you, please don't tell me I'm an idiot for believing in God and Jesus and the resurrection and the life of the world to come.  I also don't think that church is only about after you're dead, I am doing my bit to make things better on this side of the grave too.  I am as heavily involved with the homeless shelter that is run out of the Church Hall on a Monday night as I can be (I do a bit of washing and I cook the occasional meal) and I teach Junior Church.

Ah.  Junior Church.  Why do something with a modicum of professionalism and efficiency when you can get a whole bunch of people involved and run it by committee?  I am a teacher, I may have mentioned this before, and I have a professional attitude towards my little class; I turn up late with a massive hangover, two screaming kids and no resources.  This has only happened once, and I am never, ever going out on a Saturday when I have to teach on a Sunday again in my life ever.  That minor aberration aside, I do try to plan something that is relevant to the children, loosely based on the text, and interactive and fun. 

This morning, as I sat in the car on our, late again, way to church, Simon asked me whether I wanted to take the girls to creche, or stay in church and sleep listen to the sermon.  I opted to stay in church, on the grounds that someone would try to get me involved with this week's Junior Church lesson if I showed up there.  We hadn't been there 5 minutes when one of the leaders asked me to fill in as someone wasn't there.  To cut a long and increasingly dull story short, I ended up teaching on no notice, with no materials and no real knowledge.  The woman I was covering for had printed out the wrong week's work and had prepared completely inappropriate resources, so I basically busked for 45 minutes and then put up a display. 

I was a bit cross about this, but being the consummate professional, just got on with it.  After the service, I was chatting to Angela when along marched Colonel Mike, husband of the woman I stood in for, who proceeded to be a total regimental tit for about five minutes.  Fortunately Hattie can be relied on to be sick after three biscuits, so I was able to dash off while he was hauling Angela over the coals for not running Junior Church the way it would be run in the Army.  My slapping hand was itching so hard, but I know it's not the done thing in church.  I so desperately wanted to tell him that we are not subalterns on a charge, so he should just shut up and listen to us when we explain why things aren't run the way he thinks they should be.  Honestly.  We have a get together next week, and I really hope he and his wife aren't there; I am annoyed by her letting me down - I know your son is unwell, but in your position, I would leave Daddy at home with the ill one, and take the well one to Church so I could fulfil my commitment. 

Nothing says "lovely little Christian community" like a strong desire to punch someone in the nose.