Archive for the 'education' Category

Sallie Tisdale: Advice For The Dying

April 6, 2021

     I came across a thoughtful review of this book a few months back; increasingly intrigued, I decided to buy and read it. Death, in particular contemplating the inevitability of my own, and that of those close to me, as we all gradually age, is not an easy topic to face; as a Quaker, I’m nevertheless exhorted to reflect on it by way of trying to be prepared for that moment, as well as to ensure that I do not leave complications behind for others to unravel. Sensible advice, but…

The writer is American; she is a nurse by profession and has spent much time with people who were dying, and with their close family and friends. She writes clearly and thoughtfully and covers pretty much every aspect of death and dying from the perspective of the person who is dying and those who are necessarily involved, participants and bystanders. It is interesting that the book’s title in the USA was ‘Advice for Future Corpses’ whereas in the UK it has been toned down to “Advice for the Dying’, which to me isn’t quite the same thing at all. She has ensured that the resources section in the UK edition is relevant to those of us on this side of the pond; only the chapter on hospices does not ring true for me, as the US version of a hospice death seems to be to get family and friends to do everything at home whilst absolving one’s medical insurance program of needing to do anything much at all; my experience of hospices in the UK is very different, and I have been very impressed with what they will do, if a space is available for the person at the time.

I was conscious of feeling somewhat nervous as I read, not quite skimming at times, but not reading too carefully either, not thinking too much about what I was reading. I was also matching what Tisdale was saying with my existing knowledge and understanding, and trying to feel reassured rather than alarmed. A fair amount of what she said I was familiar with, and felt like good common-sense. I also told myself to come back to the book and re-read it more carefully, soon…

Tisdale ranges widely, and her advice is carefully focused and practical; she deconstructs and reassures, covering every aspect of the lead-up to death, dying, burial or cremation (and some alternatives). She has been a lifelong practising Zen Buddhist, but does not forefront her beliefs, though they do allow her helpful reflections and observations at times. She also included a range of interesting quotations on the subject of death and dying, from a wide range of people through history. It felt like a helpful and compassionate book, definitely not an easy read, sobering as it must be, but also in various ways both helpful and empowering.

I can reassure any readers who may be wondering, that I am currently enjoying good health.

Losing the BBC?

April 4, 2021

I’m beginning to feel that it’s a generational thing, and also that it’s inevitable that the BBC as we have known it for many years is withering on the vine and will not survive much longer.

It has many enemies, particularly the Conservative party and media moloch Rupert Murdoch, and between them, they are succeeding in their long-term aim. The BBC has been weakened by political interference and political appointments and is now no longer the voice of the nation, but the voice of the government, and as such, afraid to be critical or even impartial; economically it has been on a government-imposed shoestring for many years, and had recently announced that its flagship BBC4 channel is to become ‘archive-only’ ie no new programming, only repeats.

Murdoch, possibly the most destructive and vindictive media baron ever, has always hated the BBC. His tactic is also working: he has swamped the airwaves with cheap multi-channel programming, encouraging viewers to think in terms of multiplicity of choice, which the BBC cannot match. But once there is sufficient ‘choice’ (we all need to have the choice between 400 different shampoos and conditioners, after all) especially when other companies like Disney, Netflix and Amazon follow suit, pile in and flood the market, then you can argue that people have chosen, and are paying for their TV anyway and so should not have to pay a licence fee for a state-run organisation… then it can be allowed gradually to fall to bits, as may eventually happen to the NHS as well.

Is this any great loss? I’m in my sixties, and would argue that it is. I got a free education in classical music from Radio 3, which has given me lifelong pleasure. I’ve often felt that my annual licence-fee was worth it just for this one radio channel; there was no commercial channel in my younger days to offer classical music and the gobbets of advert-surrounded music clips that is Classic FM just doesn’t bear thinking about. There was a wealth of informative documentary programmes, excellent news coverage and analysis, and my cultural education was furthered by the wealth of international films shown late-night when I was a student – all on the BBC. So yes, I feel a debt of gratitude to the BBC, even as I see it dumbing down, and giving up on what it did so well in the past.

Is it a generational thing? Yes it is: younger generations have grown up with Sky and all the other myriad commercial channels, and consume TV very differently from the way my generation did, channel-hopping and binge-viewing in ways which were just not available way back when. And the concept of programming, ie having to watch a programme at a particular time or miss it, just doesn’t exist for them with streaming providing instant entertainment whenever. And nobody, but nobody, thinks about the environmental cost of streaming. Younger generations have no debt of gratitude to BBC children’s programming when so much cheap trashy pap for youngsters is now part of the entertainment package they pay for. Bundle TV services in with broadband and the BBC is on a hiding to nothing.

In the end, yes, these are the moans of an oldie who liked things the way they were. But, as with a good deal of the things that disappear with the passage of time, it’s the baby that gets thrown out with the bathwater that worries me. Entertainment, diversion, even education via TV should not have to be dependent on selling stuff in order to exist; everything is devalued by being reduced to this level. And in unmeasurable ways, we are all the poorer for it…

Simon Palfrey: Doing Shakespeare

January 17, 2021

     Here’s a book which I acquired shortly before I retired from teaching and finally got around to reading. But I couldn’t really deduce the who the target audience was meant to be. Not school students, perhaps undergraduates, maybe English teachers quite early on in their career? I tried really hard to engage with it, but found myself frequently skimming rather than reading intently, as I gained the impression that here was someone trying hard to teach his grandmother to suck eggs. And I recognise that to find it over-thought and over-explained was more than a tad unfair…

Palfrey writes from the perspective of a reader of Shakespeare, rather than a watcher of the plays, and tries to make the case for that approach: I can accept that far more people may read him rather than enjoy the plays in the theatre, but we live in an age where recorded performances of many kinds are now readily available. From his premise flows the argument that the reader can, and does, focus more closely on Shakespeare’s use of language, and an insistence on the reader focusing in more depth on how the playwright uses words; I can’t argue with this last point. But writing a general work on how to read Shakespeare more closely does not seem to work very well, and I frequently had the impression of a man trying to nail jelly to a wall.

As the book progresses, the clarity of the author’s focus on the details of how Shakespeare uses language so effectively does develop usefully, supporting the obvious point that in the pace, flow and audience involvement in a performance of a play so much will inevitably be missed. And there is the important idea that a Shakespearean audience would have listened differently from ourselves nowadays, and have tuned in to a great deal more of the vast range of wordplay and wit; it’s useful to be reminded of this and have it exemplified. But four pages to unpick the ranges of meaning in one line from Macbeth is over the top, I feel.

Palfrey is constantly shifting between what I found to be revelatory insights, and the blindingly obvious; in the end, what he’s on about is the multiplicities of meaning available in Shakespeare’s plays, which I knew already. And so I come back to my original two points: who is the book for, and my unfairness in this piece.

I earned my bread and butter teaching Shakespeare in schools for the best part of 30 years, and found that it was possible to awaken students to the variety of Shakespeare’s language and its intensity, and some of the levels and shades of meaning, but that this was always in the context of studying the totality of a single play, reading it several times, and watching it in the theatre or failing that, in a recorded performance. It was a strange exercise, rather like removing the layers of an onion, in the sense that the better they knew and understood a play, the more the students would be tuning into its language along with so many other facets.

Perhaps it’s the attempt to show all of this, using so many of the plays, in one book, that I found most frustrating.

On learning to read

November 22, 2020

I now have a grandson at primary school who is beginning to learn to read, that first step to the opening of a huge world… I’ve written before about my learning to read, and also the importance of my local public library in fostering the enjoyment of reading in my earliest years, leading to so much pleasure throughout my life. So what did I read in those youngest years? Our house was not a house of books when I was a child: there was no money for such things…

Winnie the Pooh is probably one of the earliest books I can remember. It was a birthday present. I liked the stories, but I also liked what they offered to my imagination: I pictured myself living in the wood, in Pooh’s house and Rabbit’s hole. I laughed my head off at the impossible spellings Owl conjured up when he wrote Eeyore’s birthday card… I learned that books stimulated my imagination and made me laugh. Later on, at sleepovers – we didn’t call them that, in the old days – my friend and I struggled to read the adventures of Professor Branestawm to each other without totally creasing up in helpless laughter.

Another book I loved in my youngest days was The Wind in the Willows. I know I’m showing my age here, but there wasn’t anywhere near as much literature written for children way back then. Again, it had my imagination in overdrive: how I wanted to live in Badger’s home – it sounded utterly safe and magical.

Teachers at school are supposed to provide “extension activities” for brighter pupils; in my day, there was a bottom shelf of random books for us to be invited to read if we finished a task early, and that was fine by me: I worked my way through everything on offer. I can still remember a series of books about a bear called Mary Plain who had all sorts of adventures, and I have often wondered if these ancient storybooks is where the idea for the much more successful Paddington Bear series came from…

There was also the extremely worthy and edifying Children’s Encyclopaedia, nine hefty tomes filled with what seemed like a random assortment of articles on all sorts of subjects. There were also puzzles and tricks and scientific experiments described. I read my way through every page that interested me in all of these.

There were comics. I was allowed one a week and started with Jack and Jill. It was marvellous to be allowed down the street to the newsagent’s rabbit warren with my fivepence every Monday by myself to go and buy it. Later, when a more edifying and educational magazine called Treasure came out, my mother moved me on to this. Eventually my parents came across a part-work, Knowledge, which would build up over four years into a veritable encyclopaedia, to be bound into volumes. I think I devoured every word, in weekly doses…

Comics had to wait for the hairdresser’s, while I waited my turn to be cropped, and also for the annual visit to my grandparents where I could catch up on months’ worth of the Eagle which my uncle used to hoard. Here I came across Dan Dare and the Mekon: maybe my earliest encounter with science fiction? And when I got to secondary school there were the commando library comic books, Lion, Tiger, a whole raft of war stories, sf and sports stories (these last I really didn’t care for, just like sport itself).

There were newspapers at home and these too were hoovered up, although obviously I was selective in what I read and often failed to understand. There was the Daily Mail (!) every day, and the News of the World and the Sunday Pictorial at the weekend, though eventually my mother forbade the News of the World as too salacious.

And then there was the public library, for my parents could never have afforded to keep me in books. Often, especially during the school holidays, my sisters and I would go nearly every day, and I’d end up reading their books, particularly Enid Blyton, as well as my own choices. I went for the usual boys’ stuff: the Jennings series about life at boarding school, Biggles’ tales about warfare and flying, although I’m sure the greatest influences on me from those years were the amazing Young Traveller series, where two children and their parents ended up visiting almost every country in the world and introducing the reader to history, geography, culture and food of so many different lands, and the astonishing sf series about the Secret Planet, which really did get me hooked on science fiction for good…

They were magical days, magical times and magical books, and I’m sure that I can remember them in such detail testifies to the formative effect they all had on me.

Knowledge and the marketplace

August 25, 2020

Some of what I’m going to say will probably seem blindingly obvious, but my recent reflections on testing, and the astonishing farce that has been the government’s recent attempts to manipulate public exam results in this country, have led me to realise how my feelings about learning have changed as I’ve aged, and how these changes are probably inevitable.

The later stages of my teaching career marked a sea-change in attitudes to education, with most students deciding to study not subjects they necessarily liked or loved, but those they felt would guarantee them a career and decent salary: this wasn’t the way my generation had considered study and learning. Of course, if you wanted to be a dentist or doctor or a vet, say, then you obviously had to follow a particular course for a specific qualification. Otherwise you chose to study what genuinely interested you; this was a motivational factor in pursuing those studies, and you graduated a more developed person, of interest to a range of employers because of the higher level skills you had acquired. I accept that such a choice was rather perhaps rather easier in the days of student grants and free university education.

I always chose to study what interested me, and the testing and examinations were in many ways a minor hindrance that I had to put up with; the exception was training to become a teacher, which had specific aims and objectives as well as necessary theoretical and practical assessment. So my studies of languages began at school and worked towards a degree in English and French. I loved French, felt empowered by being able to communicate in another language, proud of being able to be taken for a native after I’d done my year in France and still pretty chuffed that although many French people now know I’m a foreigner, they can’t tell where I’m from… when in France I just ‘do French’, it comes naturally. It’s not quite so straightforward in Germany as my level of competence isn’t that high – I was taken for a Swede once – but my interest in and fascination by communication and language has never waned, and it’s over 40 years since I graduated.

I read Literature for my first, second and third degrees. What this meant was I could indulge my love of lying on a bed or a couch and reading, but I also acquired what I now realise was a toolkit for exploring what I was reading, setting it in contexts and exploring how it worked and achieved its effects; this toolkit was my vademecum throughout an entire teaching career – the qualifications enabled the access to the career, but the heightened and enriched love of reading has been my lifelong companion, and I like to think I have passed on some of this love and enthusiasm to some of my students over the years.

I could say similar things about other subjects I studied and was tested on: there was a qualification and often a subsequent and lasting interest. And the testing was also temporary, I understood quite early on: once I passed my A-Levels I knew that the O-Levels I’d been so proud of two years earlier were fading into not quite insignificance, but certainly the past. Ditto when I came to take my degree… one level replaced the next, in some way denoting that I’d extended a certain set of skills to another level.

What I have come to realise, and to enjoy, is the feeling that learning has been a lifelong activity, achievement and pleasure; I cannot now imagine it being or having been anything otherwise. I have no real idea whether this is a common feeling, but I am convinced it sprang originally from being able to follow what I liked and enjoyed, rather than feeling obliged to study something for my own good, like a dose of cod liver oil. I’m saddened that many of today’s students seem to feel they do not have the freedom to make such a choice. I’m also conscious that many of the things which have fascinated me – books, reading, languages, history, philosophy – are not regarded as worthwhile because their monetary and economic value cannot be computed, and yet I also know that such subjects create values and cultures…

I’m conscious that I’ve mentioned nothing about the world of maths and science, and this is not because I dismiss or belittle it; it just isn’t my world. Maths I always found hard, though I loved arithmetic and playing with numbers, calculating things in my head, and I still derive much pleasure from it today. I passed the necessary examinations at the time and moved on; most of the science and maths has faded and atrophied from lack of use, though it’s still there somewhere on my personal hard-drive. When I became a vegetarian some forty years or so ago, I read and studied a good deal about nutrition and healthy eating, and I have kept up with this, and manage to understand a good deal of the science involved: what I learned all those years ago has come in useful in an unexpected way…

In a decent world, in a wealthy country like ours, I feel that study should be available to anyone, at any time and in any field, if they have the required time and effort to commit to it. Many people, myself included, discover long after the age of formal education, that there are new things they wish to learn…

In the end, I suppose that my experience does demonstrate that indirectly education serves ‘the market’ in that it enabled me to work and have a career; what seems so wrong to me now is to expect the entire education and qualification system to be reduced to a mere function of the market in every aspect, with the state and the market expecting to produce students to fit certain slots, like widgets, whilst making a profit from them all along the way. Just look at all the money made out of examining students, and all the money made out of student accommodation in university towns…

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