Category: teaching

Words, words, words

By , 4 September 2009 6:21 pm

Well, our long summer break has finally drawn to a close. We are now in the ‘phoney war’ stage of meeting students, preparing notes and lesson plans but not actually teaching. That starts properly on Wednesday. It’s a curious moment: the relaunch of what is in most ways a fairly breathless sequence that runs on – head over heels – until May.

Anyway I’ve had some really good news in that, although I was due to teach Geography this autumn along with the perennial Geology and Environmental Studies, the demand for Geology is such that I am being taken off Geography. I’m very pleased about this, not because I don’t like Geography but because at ‘A’ level it is effectively a social science and involves a language that quite simply I neither possess nor understand. So when a Geology paper asks me about earthquakes I can waffle on for ages to students about how they should answer with reference to their tectonic cause and effect and all the various scientific factors: I fully understand the question. But when I come to a geography paper (and I don’t think I’m totally distorting a genuine question) and I read ‘Why do people’s perceptions of earthquake hazards vary?’ I am useless. Actually, I’m probably worse than useless because I would start explaining about plate tectonics and various geological phenomena when, no doubt, the answer is all to do with social, economic and demographic impacts. It’s a little bit like doing The Times crossword or something similar: you look at a clue and immediately think you know the answer, but of course the real answer is something utterly different. So that’s largely a question of a language code that I have failed to crack.

This year we have an added complication of an impending merger between Gorseinon College (where I teach, very academic) and Swansea College (not very academic). All being well things will work out but it’s not an obvious marriage: the hope is though that we will stay pretty much as we are with our generally excellent results undiminished. In the draft document I was given today there was any amount of nuanced statements that we are all trying to read something into. What exactly are they hinting at? Words again.

Another piece of news is that I have just received the cover proofs for a book that is coming out in February called The Return: Grace and the Prodigal by J. John with Chris Walley. This is a book-length treatment of the issues raised by the great parable of the Prodigal (and parables in general). It’s published by Hodder and I am living in hope that it does well. There is another linguistic nuance in the fact that the book is by ‘J John with Chris Walley’. This is evidently supposed to convey something different to J John and Chris Walley, but I am blowed if I know what. Words!

Finally, and probably of more relevance to most of you, is the fact that I have been working on a new fiction book. I wasn’t going to mention it at this stage but I had an e-mail yesterday from the nice lady at Hodder I have been working with, saying she was moving on. So I seized the moment and asked if she could recommend any literary agents and got the obvious response ‘well what sort of a book is it?’ So I spent last night tidying up the one existing chapter and doing a two-page summary. It’s very much a standalone work and it has no resemblance or linkage to the Lamb among the Stars. I don’t want to say too much more about it because it is based on an eminently copyable idea. What I can say is that I have aimed for popularity and have done all I can to make the first chapter as arresting and compelling as possible. Anyway that has now gone on to Hodder and who knows? In the meantime, if there are any literary agents out there who want a really good story then why not get in touch? And here again I will no doubt find myself carefully scrutinising any comment from Hodders or an agent; trying to decode the real meaning behind what is said.

These are just four instances which remind us that words mean more than their dictionary definition. They are curiously slippery and elusive things; so much depends on context, intonation and interpretation. There are lots of deep theological reasons for the Incarnation (‘the Word became flesh’) such as the fact that God had to become a member of the human race in order to legitimately pay the price for human sin. I can’t help but also wonder whether the very elusive nature of words means that sometimes they have to be supplemented with actions to make them unambiguous. In the life and death of Christ we see something louder and clearer than any verbal proclamation.

A response to your comments and other news

By , 20 March 2009 7:21 pm

Wow! Who would have thought that I had so many friends? First of all, let me thank you all for taking the time to write. In particular, I want to express my gratitude to those of you who contributed quite long and thoughtful comments. I have considered all that you have written with some care and I might pursue some of the practical approaches suggested. No one actually came up with my own preferred strategy of writing a new volume which is a bestseller and then having the old series relaunched on the basis of a new one. This of course is a wonderfully cunning plan that has just has one small catch in it: I need to write a new blockbuster. Well, I am giving it some thought.

What I have concluded from your comments – and please continue to send them in – is that much of my original dramatic instincts were right: it is better to start with the Assembly and let the shadow fall upon it. To bring in Azeras at the start is just too conventional. However I do think that I could probably bring in Brenito and his dream right at the start. Something on the following lines. ‘On a near perfect world a man woke screaming. It was the first such scream for over 10,000 years and it was heard across one thousand worlds.’ Vero too might be brought in slightly earlier with profit and this would also have the benefit of avoiding the slightly excessive ‘info dumping’ (as I gather it is called in the trade) when he talks to Merral. However, that is all some way ahead. For all I know, even as I write, a certain inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Washington is looking for something substantial to read on Airforce One. (I sense there may be a market for escapist fiction in the White House at the moment.) Anyway pray on and do what you can.

The main news for me this week has been that the storm clouds of the financial crisis that have so far been on the distant horizon have now swept my way. The institution that I teach at (Gorseinon College, Swansea) has been suddenly hammered with a massive budget cut from the Welsh Assembly and so we are now in voluntary redundancy mode which next week shifts to compulsory redundancy mode. By all accounts the science unit to which I am privileged to belong (and I mean privileged: there are some very fine teachers in it) should be secure but who knows? These are odd times and what is often described as rationalisation is often irrationalisation. Nevertheless I am angry about it all; ours is, by any standard of reckoning, a high performing and competent educational establishment in an area where mediocrity (and worse) is the norm. It is also a relatively ‘lean’ institution; there are barely a handful of people about whom I have wondered what they do to justify their existence. The cuts concerned involve a mere £800,000: a little over $1 million. I used to think that was a lot of money but in these days of billions and trillions it is nothing. So next week could be interesting…

Anyway here’s a moral problem for you my fans. If I keep my job, then my financial welfare is more or less secure, at least for the considerable future. If I lose it I will probably have to start writing like crazy. Now do you see the moral dilemma you are placed in? What do you pray for? (The ideal would be a generous offer for film rights to arrive the day before I get given my notice but I suspect such happenings are rarer in reality than fiction.) I would simply suggest that this reminds us of the wisdom of appending to all our prayers that most vital of clauses: ‘Nevertheless, Lord, not my will but yours be done.’

Have a good week.

On teaching and entertainment

By , 13 February 2009 8:08 pm

An hour ago we started half term. Hurrah! I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bunch of teachers quite so ready for it. My colleagues are universally excellent and committed teachers and our students are some of the best in Wales but there seemed to be a general sigh of profound and exhausted relief all round today. There are several reasons for the general mood of tiredness: a late-night parents’ evening, uncertainties over whether or not College would be closed due to snow and some pretty heavy and unpleasant colds and coughs. But there are other stresses.

One subtle stress for us to make our teaching entertaining. Now don’t get me wrong, I loathe the idea of boring teaching, I don’t do it and I have a reputation for being one of the livelier teachers around. (Mind you it helps doing geology; I’d hate to teach French verbs.) The problem is that today in Britain – even with relatively well-behaved children – teaching has become almost a branch of the entertainment industry. We must vary what we do, must constantly stimulate and indeed should consider giving them kinaesthetic learning that involves touch, smell, sound and (should health and safety considerations permit) taste. Of course, this is all very difficult. For a start, television with its carefully scripted presentations, skilled presenters and large-scale special effects has set an impossible standard. For another, this is not a carefully controlled stage situation: we grapple with dodgy digital projectors, students arriving late, less than totally satisfactory rooms and so on.

One of the big problems with this is that it’s all rather like sex and violence in films and books; the pressure is to go further. The public demand for entertainment is effectively insatiable. Today’s youth becomes bored so easily that it is hard (nay impossible) to be consistently and permanently entertaining. I have considered a clown suit just to make the point. Indeed the demand seems to be becoming more pressing: what was amusing five years ago is no longer amusing today. This whole matter is very close to the ongoing British debate about ‘cutting-edge humour’. The problem is that was yesterday’s cutting edge is today somewhere pretty close to the blunt end of the blade. The result is that if you’re not careful you end up doing more and more things just to increase the amusement coefficient. It’s all wearying. Increasingly I feel like something like an actor forced to do matinee and evening performances day after day. Another problem is that this permanent attempt to achieve a lightness of touch is very misleading. Most of my students are going on to university and presumably all are (hopefully) going on to the world of work. There they will have to come to terms with tasks that are frankly not amusing or entertaining anyway but which still have to be done.

Anywhere, I realise that this is all rather disjointed. But I think there are interesting questions that can be asked of almost everything we do. Do we have to be entertaining and amusing? Isn’t truth of whatever kind sufficient to hold our attention?

On pride

By , 30 November 2007 9:59 pm

This week I was going to write something about teddy bears and the need to understand the mindset of very different cultures. Having taught for eight years in a culture which was at least partially Islamic I think I have something to offer in the current dispute. However these are sensitive times and I think it will probably wait. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind having my books publicly burnt in Khartoum, particularly if a) they had paid for them and b) I had good press coverage.

The real reason for the shift of topic is that I had a nice surprise this morning which has made me consider an old concern: the topic of pride. I was in early at college this morning but really was not feeling very excited about life; the weather was grey, the sky thick with clouds full of rain and I felt certain I was about to come down with ‘flu. Then I was suddenly summoned to the Principal’s office. I should explain that we don’t see an awful lot of the Principal, largely because he spends a lot of his time dealing with the impenetrable Welsh educational bureaucracy 60 miles away in Cardiff; so it was not a trivial summons. I won’t say my entire life flashed before me but it did cross my mind that December was not a good time to be made redundant.

I had no need to be concerned. On the contrary, it soon emerged that a student I had taught for the last two years had got the highest mark nationally at A-level in Geology. He got a book prize, and as his teacher, I got a Fellowship of the Geological Society for a year. Anyway, Chris Jones, currently at Emanuel College Cambridge reading Natural Sciences, is a great lad who probably could have got it just by reading the syllabus and teaching himself. I wouldn’t be surprised if he occasionally reads this blog (he was very nice about the Lamb Among the Stars books even if he doesn’t share the Christian viewpoint) and he utterly deserves the award.

Now I mention this here because it raises a question that a member of church raised with me the other week: when if ever is it right to be proud? Frankly, I found this a difficult question then and I find it difficult now. When I first became a Christian I imbibed greatly of the truth that I was a miserable worm and that pride was the greatest of all sins. I developed remarkable skills at understating natural abilities and perfecting what I now think is probably a superficial humility. But ought we treat all awards as worthless baubles, as empty and vain gestures in this brief life? I have no doubt the Puritans would have said so. I don’t need them to know that there is a great deal of pride that is clearly wrong. Any sort of superiority that tries to demonstrate you are better than someone else is sinful. But is it totally wrong for instance for a parent to take pleasure in a son’s musical achievement or a daughter’s sporting triumph? Is it utterly appalling to take pleasure in some event that vindicates a tough or painful decision you have made?

It seems to me that these are difficult areas. Obviously, all that we have is by grace and we need to realise that in one sense we have nothing to be proud of. But beyond this isn’t there a sense in which we can take pride in an achievement? I wonder whether part of the problem is that the English word pride is very broad and covers a range of things extending all the way from innocent pleasure in a football team’s performance to wholesale and unacceptable boasting. I have to say I was jolly pleased about this morning’s news but my main pleasure lay in the regions of relief and possibly vindication. In the three years that I have been teaching, I have not found it very easy and have frequently felt I was something of a fraud. I guess this morning I finally felt that actually I might be doing a decent job.

Anyway I’m sure I’m not alone with the problem of pride. What I’d love is a simple memorable and permanently usable rule to distinguish ‘good pride’ from ‘bad pride’. Any ideas? In the meantime, I shall with, thanks to God, quietly stick FGS after my name!

Have a good week,

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