Eight Seconds? What Difference Does It Make?

It would be wrong to say that music was my first love but it may well turn out to be my last. Intrigued by the upcoming series of posts by John Tomsett and Carl Hendricks, I sat down this morning with my trusty notebook and began to scribble down some thoughts. It doesn’t often occur to me to sit down and think about how particular songs or artists or albums taught me or changed me. Clearly they have. But alongside books, my thinking life has been enhanced and developed by great song lyrics and amazing tunes. They have entertained and influenced me. They have made me a different person.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsI talk a lot about music in my classes, play a lot too. I love hearing my students talking about the bands they’re into; obscure names, weird styles, pop drivel. Teenagers are, perhaps, in the most transformational period of their lives and, I tell them, music more than anything forms who they are. It affects the people they hang out with, the clothes they wear, the books they read. Once over that reluctance to reveal their true passions, they love to talk about their music, their first gigs. It also provides great recipe for writing in the English classroom so I love to tap into that.

For a couple of years now, I’ve taught a unit of work in class called ‘I Don’t Care What You Think of My Music.’ It’s a unit which prepares pupils to write discursively or persuasively so we look at loads of exemplars of those sorts of writing. We develop a checklist of techniques and critique each others work as we go – yes, I write too – but all with a back drop of the class playlist. Each pupil picks five songs which they think should be included and argue their case. I usually choose one from each and Spotify provides the soundtrack to our summer term.

The individuality on display is incredible. They write passionately about what music means to them and how it is transforming them. They give up parts of themselves in a way that suggests a trust that I never take for granted. I feel honoured that they do so. But in that time I begin to think of how much one particular moment in time, one part of a song by one band changed me forever. ‘What Difference Does it Make?’ by The Smiths is not my favourite song by a long way. But when I think of the moment when music changed me from the immature listener who never bothered to like anything in particular to the listener I am now, it would be the opening eight seconds of that song, the eight seconds when I first heard The Smiths.

Eight seconds that changed my life. Up until then, empty with indifference, nothing I could call my own. A jangly guitar, shivering down my spine, and I was never the same. Eight seconds that changed my life and took me down I road I never knew existed. The voice I had been looking for; sad, lonely, melancholic; songs that sang to me, for me. And all these years later, no matter how many times I’ve heard it, it has the same effect. A jangly guitar, shivering down my spine. What difference does it make? All the difference in the world.



Can ‘War and Peace’ Save My Reading Brain?

I’ve become increasingly concerned by my inability to sit and read for any length of time. While there was a time, not that long ago, when I could sit for hours reading, the onset of middle age and my worrying addiction to Twitter has eroded that brain power and I now struggle to sit for very long without looking for something else to keep my attention. As Nicholas Carr famously wrote in 2008:

‘Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.’ ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’

I’m not getting stupid. I’m just changing. And I don’t like it.

I recall my days living in Greece with not much to do but read. I would set my alarm for six in the morning and leave it by the kettle. In the morning I would switch the alarm off and the kettle on, returning to bed with a coffee and a book and read fifty pages. Without stopping. Every day. Then I’d go back to sleep. I ploughed through books. Now I can barely reach ten pages.

Since reading Thomas Newkirk’s ‘The Art of Slow Reading’ and Alan Jacobs’ ‘The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction’, I’ve thought very carefully about that change in the way my brain operates. Is it merely that I’m getting old or just too exhausted from work to spend as much time reading as I used to? I’ve decided that this summer I’ll test that out: I’ll try to rediscover that joy in sitting quietly, reading for pleasure, for long periods of time.

I suppose ‘War and Peace’ might not be the best choice for the project. It’s fifteen hundred pages long, after all. So why this book? I suppose because this particular one has been a bit of a reading cliche in terms of literature of cerebral heft, perhaps the comedy symbol of intellectual achievement. I’m on the verge of a fairly significant birthday and I haven’t read it and know little about it apart from the fact that Tolstoy originally called it ‘War. What is it Good For?’ (Seinfeld fans will get the joke.) IMG_0339

However, as one hoping to return to being a serious reader, there is no better place to start than the Russian Masters. I can’t believe I once spent time reading and discussing Dostoevsky as I did in my twenties; or ravenously devouring Chekov’s stories. What happens to us? What happened to me?

So, on the first day of my summer holidays, I opened up my second hand copy of ‘War and Peace’ and began to read. Five pages here and there, not even making it to ten, I managed fifty pages yesterday. There appears to be a lot of parties and Twitter apparently has less characters, but it is beautifully written, of course. Today, I managed to read ten pages at a time and hope to get to page one hundred. The serious side to this might be to test myself as a reader once more. I read a lot of teen fiction for school and much of my free time is taken up with educational books. Serious literature often seems like part of my past now.

I’d like to be able to say, by my return to school, that I can sit down and read for an hour again without distractions. Perhaps ‘War and Peace’ will take me there. Perhaps it will lead me in an exciting new direction. But perhaps not.
It might not help that I’m also reading ‘Ulysses’, one page every day. It’s been on my shelf for years and is beginning to annoy me. Wish me luck.

Deconstructing My Own Bad Ideas

So, yes, I get it, that writing a blog is supposed to be about reflection and learning and thinking through your mistakes. Why is it, then, when I read over the four years of posts I’ve somehow managed to collate, that I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve written some real stinkers? How’s about that for an opening? Bear with me; I get there in the end. Reading through the archives does indeed make me wonder what I was thinking at the time but I do see the point. Sometimes learning something and deconstructing that learning is much more useful.

Take, for example, name generators. I’ve a draft post of something I wrote about lollipop sticks and those ‘fruit machine’ style online things that whizz through pupils’ names. I tried them; both, in fact, and after Dylan Wiliam’s TV show the other year, just about every teacher I know started using them at the same time. By the time we got to period six on the first day the kids were sick of the sight of them. They were, mostly, ditched very soon after but served a purpose. My classes learned very quickly that they would no longer be allowed to drift and disappear. The lollipop sticks quickly helped me develop a culture where everyone knew that they could be asked at any point. I didn’t need them any more.

Class Dojo was another one. I wrote this post about my experience, explaining that I was criticising my use of it rather than the software itself. Pupils get points for various classroom tasks, including behaviour if you want it, and they are visually presented on whiteboard or such like. Again, and I’m quite willing to confess that I used it to promote good behaviour for a while and that others may use it more effectively than me, I quickly realised that it told me nothing. The good kids got lots of points, those well-behaved soon gave up caring. Nothing beats the ability to develop trusting and respectful relationships and a strongly adhered to code of conduct to promote a positive learning environment. No computer programme will give you that.

I’ve also just deleted a post about my wonderful wall displays from about three years ago, in which I describe the valuable learning being displayed on poster paper and glitter type stuff. If you think about it, wall displays are only ever effective if they are noticed and read and very often they lose their effect very, very quickly. I still display pupils’ work, both good and bad, but I have limited space so try to ensure it changes very regularly and that I leave spaces blank rather than put up colourful rubbish. See this post on Feedback Gallery. Use the space you have effectively as long as you find out what is most effective.

Finally, and only because I’ve observed a lot of lessons which still waste more time than necessary on this, I completely disagree with myself about writing Learning Intentions on the board. What’s been really useful about this unnecessary distraction is that I’m more and more focused on what I want my pupils to learn every day and make it clear to them throughout lessons. I’m not sure of the value of writing them out as sometimes they change depending on the rhythm of the lesson. But it has been hugely important in reiterating the learning.

Writing a blog can be embarrassing at times; you necessarily have to write about vulnerabilities if is to be of any use, I think. However, I realise how fortunate I am to have a written record of my thinking over the last four years. It has made me better than yesterday, for the most part.