Harry Potter is ruined forever, and here’s why.

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Sunday afternoon. Time to chill out, eat chocolate and lounge about in your pyjamas watching films. Except that, along with everything else that teaching has decided I’m not allowed (a social life, a decent amount of sleep, cheap holiday deals…), this weekend it has claimed yet another victim: Harry Potter.

More specifically, Hogwarts’ education provision. Or any film with a school in it. Possibly even any film with learning in it.

The reason is this: every time they showed a scene that took place during a lesson, I couldn’t help but look at it from a teacher’s perspective. Every time Hermione put her hand up to answer a question and was awarded 10 points to Gryffindor, my first thought was ‘Not much AfL going on there’. When poor Neville was strung from a chandelier by Cornish Pixies, all I thought was ‘No differentiation in that lesson’.  And it only got worse – once my brain had seized on this idea, it went wild thinking about all the things that Hogwarts would never get away with if it was a ‘normal’ school.

…And yes, I do realise I need to get out more.

Seriously though – they don’t even teach the core curriculum! No English and Maths?! What kind of school are they running? Ofsted would be straight in there, appointing an Executive Head and placing them in Special Measures; Dumbledore Schmumbledore. Ok, maybe there’s some science, but mostly it’s Chemistry with a bit of plant-related Biology thrown in. And although studying Physics would be slightly moot, as magic can get around most of the laws of Physics fairly easily (Wingardium Leviosa!), I’m sure it would have helped to at least have some idea about levers when trying to break through one of the many doors Harry&co encountered whilst running away from (or towards) various beasties. In fact, when you think about it, it’s remarkable that the Hogwarts students in general seem so highly literate despite never being taught how to read or write. As most of them went to “muggle” primary schools, I’m actually taking this point as a compliment to our state education system, which has clearly set them up for life – or at least to be able to write a 12 inch long essay without ever having learnt how to use a semi-colon.

And then there’s their grading system – all the way from O for ‘Outstanding’, right down to T for ‘Troll’. In a world where teachers are discouraged from using negative language (or even red pen in some schools, due to a fear of its negative and violent subtext) this would probably be dismissed as discouraging and demotivating. Gosh, no – can’t have that! Better change it to T for “Tried your best” or T for “Terrific, except…”

Clearly Hogwarts needs to work on its uniform policy.

Not that it’s all bad. They do have a pretty solid ‘Behaviour for Learning’ system. I mean, it’s all there – the positive reinforcement, the consequences, and most importantly the consistency of approach. I would love to be a teacher at Hogwarts; sure, kids occasionally try to destroy dark wizards without permission, but it’s rare that they answer their teachers back, forget to do their homework, refuse to do any work or throw missiles at each other across the room. Oh for that to be the case in all classrooms. They’ve got it good. Maybe all our schools need is a House System like theirs, with banquets and giant hour glasses and excessive peer pressure, to fix their behaviour management woes.

It actually occurred to me at this point that Hogwarts has many of the problems that may well result from Michael Gove’s current educational reforms – unqualified teachers, harsh end of year exams with no coursework, a focus on facts rather than skills (History of Magic anyone? Yawn.), and a curriculum with little in the way of arts or technology provision. Maybe an overzealous love of Harry Potter is in fact what Mr Gove is basing his reforms on. It would make sense, as it’s probably the closest he’s been to a classroom in about twenty years… But the reality of these reforms is what? The kids hate History of Magic and learn nothing from it, a lot of them buckle under the huge pressure of exams, and Neville gets strung from a chandelier due to the incompetence of an unqualified teacher.

Thinking about Gilderoy Lockhart led me (naturally!) to consider the Hogwarts recruitment strategy. Considering it’s a boarding school, you’d think Hogwarts would have a fairly stringent Child Protection policy in place. And yet, somehow, they end up hiring a guy with Voldemort on the back of his head, a Werewolf, a Death Eater in disguise, and a celebrity with questionable credentials. For a genius, you’d think Dumbledore would be better at reading people. And, what’s more, they get a job without even having set foot in a classroom. Rather different from the day long interview I had to endure to get a job in teaching.

Once you start, there are endless possible comparisons between modern teaching and the parallel universe occupied by Hogwarts (What about poor wizards or witches who can’t pay the fees? Why are there no extra-curricular activities? What about SEN / G&T? What would constitute a Pupil Premium wizard?), however, at this point I’m not sure I’ll have any friends (or sanity) left if I carry on, so I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. After all, it is fiction. I’ll try to remember that next time…

 

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Review: Once

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Having been one of the approximately 6 people who saw the film version of Once upon it’s release in 2007 [other than film critics], I was fairly sceptical when I found out they’d made a musical version of it. The film is brilliant, but pretty much built on understatement, subtle changes in facial expression and small, intimate moments – I couldn’t understand how they could possibly transfer this into the format of a traditional musical. For that very reason, this review is pretty late to the party – Once has been on the West End now for over a year –  but on hearing good things from friends and reviewers I decided to give it a go.

Overall, I’m still not completely convinced by the musical version of Once. Although it was a sensitive adaptation with a lot of great elements, I felt that it didn’t quite capture the mood of the film well enough to do it justice. The script was clever, but subtleties don’t work so well in a musical and on a lot of occasions I felt the female lead was overacting. I have no doubt that this was necessary in order for her to reach those at the very back of the audience, but for those of us in the stalls it seemed a bit hammed up for such a low key production. I suppose what I’m really saying here is that the show would probably be better in much smaller venue where the actors wouldn’t have to try so hard to convey emotions.

Undoubtedly, the main thing this musical has going for it is cracking songs – they’re all written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, who starred in the original film, and ‘Falling Slowly’ even won Best Song at the 2007 Oscars – deservedly so. Well written, memorable and heartfelt, the songs of Once form the basis of the plot as well as the emotional heart of the musical, and even better is that they aren’t the usual cheesy belters you find in musicals. Instead, they offer something a bit different – think guitars rather than synths – which is in keeping with the mood of the show as a whole.

Along with the songs themselves, the way the music is ‘organised’ in this musical is brilliant. All of the musicians are on stage throughout the whole show, and between them form the chorus and secondary characters as well as providing scene changes, props and incidental music. Their ability to switch between these multiple roles with complete fluidity is really quite impressive, and at one point there was even a man dancing with a cello strapped to his chest, which is an automatic win in my book.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

That brings me nicely to one of the things about this musical that I didn’t enjoy so much – the weird interpretive-dance-style choreography. This isn’t the kind of show that really needs dancing at all, being pretty low key with mostly folk rock / indie musical numbers, but it felt like they’d been obliged to find a way to squeeze some in, resulting in some slightly bizarre hand-wavy moments a la Kate Bush. Despite being used sparingly, this did occasionally ruin a poignant musical moment as I tried not to giggle at (for example) the bank clerk’s slightly camp swirly hand motions, which I’m sure the show could have coped perfectly well without.

Another aspect of the show that was slightly clunky was the use of accents. A Czech accent is very difficult to do, and there were a fair amount of moments when the lead female’s accent just wasn’t strong enough to be convincing, either sounding Russian or vaguely American. What was a really nifty trick, however, was the use of scrolling text on a screen along the top of the bar, which displayed the Czech translation whenever the foreign characters were conversing amongst themselves on stage. This was a great way of reminding the audience (alongside the accents, of course) that they were only speaking in English for the sake of the English-speaking audience, without being too much of a distraction from the plot.

Despite it’s flaws, Once is definitely up there with some of the best of the West End at the moment. It’s unique, well written, with a great soundtrack and an array of interesting characters. Add to that some cracking pre-show entertainment, and you can’t go wrong – just don’t watch the film before you go!

 

 

Top Ten: Great Danes

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Evening blogosphere!

So, the big news in my life this week is that yesterday I booked a holiday to Copenhagen, and since I’m massively excited about it I thought I’d write a Denmark-themed blog post. Especially useful as after booking I realised that it’s a country I know very little about – other than it’s cold, they make bacon, and it’s near Sweden. It’s been a while since I’ve written a ‘top ten’, so here are my Top Ten Danes – enjoy 🙂

The Australians liked Denmark so much, they created their own.

The Australians liked Denmark so much, they created their own. Photo courtesy of BaroBert.

1. Hans Christian Anderson: writer of fairytales such as The Ugly Duckling and The LIttle Mermaid. If you don’t know who he is, I’m not sure you had a childhood.

2.  Jørn Utzon (1918–2008):  architect. This is the guy that designed the Sydney Opera House, one of the most recognisable buildings on the planet. And it’s a long way from Denmark.

3. Hamlet: Ok, he might be fictional, but he’s still one of the most famous Danes in the world. Telling the story of a Danish Prince struggling with his own sanity and the need to revenge his father’s death, this is Shakespeare’s longest play, and most-performed.

4. Niels Bohr:  A physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922. His work in theoretical physics and quantum theory shed new light on atomic structure, and whilst some of his ideas have been overtaken, the principles behind them are still valid. During the Second World War he helped refugees in Denmark before fleeing to Britain and later becoming involved in the Manhattan Project. Later he called for international co-operation on nuclear power and helped set up CERN. On the whole, a pretty impressive bloke.

5. Ole Kirk Christiansen: All you need to know about this man is that he is responsible for the development and mass production of LEGO. ‘Nuff said.

Lego_Color_Bricks

LEGO! Photo courtesy of Alan Chia

6. Queen Margrethe II: She might be the current Queen of Denmark, but that hasn’t stopped her having multiple other careers. She’s fluent in 5 languages and has helped translate books, including Lord of the Rings. Her links with Tolkien don’t stop there, as she also provided illustrations for the Danish version of the book – she is a talented artist and holds regular exhibitions of her work. Not to mention that she designs clothing and has worked as a costume designer for ballet and film. As well as, y’know, being Queen and having to open hospitals and all.

7. Viggo Mortensen: Any man who plays Aragorn is alright in my book.

8. Poul Le Cour: Back in the 1890s, he developed wind turbines that could generate electricity. La Cour was the first to discover that fast rotating wind turbines with fewer rotor blades were the most efficient in generating electricity and in 1904 he founded the Society of Wind Electricians. Denmark now has the largest wind turbine in the world.

9. Bjorn Lomberg: Environmentalist, writer. Sometimes a controversial figure, Lomborg has campaigned against measures to cut carbon emissions in the short-term, and argued instead for spending money on research and development for longer-term environmental solutions. In 2008 he was named “one of the 50 people who could save the planet” by the UK Guardian, and in November 2001, Lomborg was selected “Global Leader for Tomorrow” by the World Economic Forum. Although there are those that disagree with his views as a “sceptical environmentalist”, nobody can deny that he has opened up the debate on climate change a great deal.

10. Nielsen: I couldn’t write a top ten without including a musician… Also a skilled conductor and violinist, Nielsen’s said to be Denmark’s greatest composer. He wrote 6 symphonies, an opera and a large collection of chamber works which have become an integral part of Danish national heritage. He even made it onto Danish banknotes for a while before being ousted  in 2009 (anyone else seeing a similarity between him and Elgar, who was also unceremoniously dumped from £20 notes?).

Credits: Thanks to Wikipedia and various other websites for this information – too many to list, but nothing written above is directly quoted from other websites in any case.

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What’s the big deal about mocking someone’s accent?

Wow, so it turns out that your NQT year isn’t really compatible with blogging. However, it also turns out that spending all your time working isn’t really compatible with sanity either.

So in an attempt to regain my sanity, I’ve been trying to get back into blogging recently. Annoyingly though, I’ve found myself completely incapable of picking a subject – it seems there is nothing but teaching in my brain these days. Earlier today I finally decided on a topic, and on browsing the interweb for some opinions, discovered the following article on our attitude towards accents.  The author has said exactly what I wanted to say (and more), and it’s well worth a read if you’ve got the time. Determined not to be defeated though, I’ve added my two-penneth (is that the right phrase?) in the paragraph following this one – any excuse for a good rant. Sorry.

As someone with northern parents, who grew up in the Midlands (on a somewhat related side note – despite what northerners / southerners variously think, this means I am neither a northerner nor a southerner. The clue is in the name) and now lives in the south, it frustrates me no end to have my accent corrected wherever I go. Just because someone speaks differently to you doesn’t mean that they speak incorrectly. Giggling or commenting every time I say “class” or “task” or “grass” with a short ‘A’ strikes me as slightly offensive and closed-minded. I can’t help my accent – it’s a part of me, it reflects my history and I like the added sense of “home” that it gives me. The way we speak is just another form of diversity, and diversity is there to be embraced not scorned. It brings with it the ability to learn about the world outside your own sphere and to gain a more balanced outlook on life – surely that can only be a good thing? Life would be boring if everyone looked, spoke, dressed and acted the same. If you want the people around you to be a carbon copy of yourself, move to North Korea.

And besides, in my head, YOU’RE the one pronouncing it wrong 😉

so long as it's words

As a society, we’re getting better at not being dicks to each other. It’s a slow progression, but some hurdles have been royally leapt: women can vote, homosexual couples can adopt, and ethnic minorities legally have access to the same goods and services as everybody else. Of course, we still deal with individual douche-canoes mouthing off at people because of their sexuality, gender identity, race, ability, age, body shape or a million other things; institutionalised prejudice hasn’t been eradicated; and prejudice is still enacted on a micro-level, often not from a malicious footing, but as the product of a society still breaking free of intolerant belief systems (that blasted patriarchy!). I’ve painted a cheery picture there, haven’t I? … but in general, while things are by no stretch of the imagination fixed, in most ways they’re getting better, and we’re a lot sounder to each other than we used to…

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Teaching: The First Half Term

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It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to think about blogging, but now that it’s half term I finally have the time to put in an appearance. What with all the recent strikes and changes to education going on at the moment, my plan was to write a piece in defence of music education, but in all honesty I’m feeling a bit disenchanted with teaching at the moment. Mostly my own teaching abilities, if we’re being specific.  It’s been a difficult 8 weeks to say the least, and there have been many times over the past half term where I’ve wanted to quit. I even spent one evening browsing the jobs sites trying to find a way out which didn’t involve bankruptcy after a particularly gruelling day with year 9.  However, after a few days off to regroup, rest and relax (alliteration, anyone?) I feel like I might just be able to get through the next 7 weeks without tearing the entirety of my hair out. Unbelievably I’m actually starting to miss school, and I’m taking this as a sign that I am in the right job, even if it’s a challenge sometimes.

I’ve been chatting to teacher friends about how difficult the first term is, and we’ve decided that the main thing you don’t expect is the relentlessness of teaching full time, as well as the emotional ups and downs it throws at you. As discussed in my previous post, there are some days when teaching is the best job in the world, and yet others make you wonder why you bother. Aside from healthcare, I’m not sure what other careers really involve this constant barrage of frustration, mild hysteria and paperwork. I realise this sounds very negative, and don’t get me wrong, there are frequent moments when I love my job. But I think part of the nature of what makes us effective teachers is that we constantly reflect on the moments that aren’t quite as good as we’d hoped, and try to figure out how to improve on them. I suppose it’s not really a surprise then that we tend to sometimes become bogged down in these moments, rather than focussing on the times which make us remember why we wanted to teach in the first place.

For fear of sounding like a one-track blogger I’m going to leave this post here, but keep your eyes peeled for my next article, which will hopefully make an appearance before the end of the half term holidays.  Although as there only seems to be space in my brain for music and/or education these days, ideas for articles are always welcome!

And if anyone can give me some tips on keeping year 9 in line, I’d be eternally grateful.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

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After a fairly depressing few days (weeks) of battling with teenagers, I couldn’t bring myself to blog about teaching this week.

Having said that, however, this morning I was at a really inspiring assembly about reading. Yes, really.  And it got me thinking about where my love of all things literary came from, stories particularly.  As a child, I always looked forward to bedtime stories (my love of sleep was also present from an early age), and the ones my Dad told were spectacular. He created his own stories, based around the life of a character called Freddy – a frog who lived in the pond at the bottom of our garden, had a racing driver for an uncle, and whose favourite snacks were chocolate covered flies or crispy lily pads.

Therefore, in honour of my dad – and the memory of Freddy the Frog cheering up a horrible week – here are my top ten facts about frogs.  Ribbit.

  1. Frogs can see forwards, sideways and upwards all at the same time. They never close their eyes, even when they sleep.
  2. Certain frogs can jump up to 20 times their own body length in a single leap.
  3. Frog bones form a new ring every year when the frog is hibernating, just like trees do. Scientists can count these rings to discover the age of the frog.
  4. One type of desert frog can wait as long as seven years for water by surrounding itself in a type of transparent bag that becomes its first meal once the rain comes.
  5. The golden dart frog is the most poisonous frog on earth and the skin of one frog could kill up to 1,000 people. a single touch of its skin can kill ten humans.
  6. Frogs can retract their eyes and when they do, they bulge inward in their mouths and help them swallow their food.
  7. A frog can only see moving things. It could literally starve to death with live prey in front of it if the prey never moved.
  8. The North American Wood Frog is the only species of frog found above the Arctic Circle and in winter it actually freezes, its heartbeat stops, and it thaws again in spring, coming back to life.
  9. A tadpole is also known as a polliwog (like Pokemon!)
  10. Australian Tree Frogs emit a chemical substance that heals wounds on humans.
English: A green frog on a palm frond.

English: A green frog on a palm frond. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sources:
http://www.gardenbuildingsdirect.co.uk/article/fun-facts-about-frogs
http://www.sciencekids.co.nz/sciencefacts/animals/frog.html
http://lefo.net/documents/main/3klass/1kala/interesting_fact_about_frogs.htm

Teaching: The first week

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“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.” 
― Aristotle

“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever,” he said. “Have you thought of going into teaching?” 
― Terry Pratchett

My first two weeks as a ‘proper’ teacher have pretty much been spent with my mental state bouncing between these two quotes. I’ll teach a lesson that goes really well, and feel on top of the world, love my job. But an hour later I’ll feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, that I’m failing my students and wonder why I ever thought I could succeed as a teacher. 

On reflection, I think (hope) part of this is down to lack of experience, particularly in finding methods that work consistently with the majority of students. This, coupled with the shock of teaching back to back lessons all day every day, means that by the end of the afternoon I am often lacking in the mental capacity to walk and talk at the same time, let alone teach a Year 9 class about classical music. Teaching, I’ve learnt, is all about stamina. As an experienced colleague pointed out to me in the staffroom, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint – have a cup of tea and sit down for five minutes.” This is the adage I’m trying to bear in mind as I end my second week of teaching. There’s no point staying up all night planning super extravagant lessons if you then don’t have the energy to teach the lesson or explain the concept coherently.

On this weary Thursday afternoon as I contemplate an entire weekend of lesson planning, I am leaning more towards the Terry Pratchett end of the scale. I’ve been assured it will get easier. Fingers crossed.