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Friday, 13 August 2010

a little learning

F11 was crashing around in his pyjamas, over which was stretched his new rugby protective top (think: ‘80s meets slut: black netting and big big shoulders, not improved over bulky wincyette), thick socks and brand new school shoes. He was clutching Catty, and a cane, and was in search of his monocle. It’s possibly disloyal to share that he was miaowing, too. Ornaments quaked at the swish of the cane. The miaowing segued into something even more tuneless.

How can he possibly be big enough (isn’t) and mature enough (most def isn’t) to be going to secondary school in 3 weeks’ time? He isn’t.

“Chemistry, Physics, Biology, English, German, French, Maths, RE, PSCHE, History..” I said. I felt wretched at the range of subjects. The too-much-ness.

“ICT,” he said. Silly mummy.

“Geography,” I finished.

My heart sort of sinks for him.

Perhaps because even today I feel all pig-ironed out. Geography is very popular now but back in my childhood geography was just pig iron; pig iron, ox bow lakes and market bloody gardening in Denmark. Really. Christ, it was dull; the highlight was the end of term treat of watching the volcano film run backwards. No wonder my reliance on Sat Nav is so great. But if geography strangely flourishes (I’ve not investigated, I’m just grateful), history is on the ropes.

We’ve done virtually nothing this holidays. Just dossed around. The children have watched far too much rubbish telly. They’ve gone to bed far too late and got up far too late. It’s been fantastic.

There have been odd flirtations with real life. A man, big Jim, came to fix the drains and told us of that he's been banned from America for ten years. For hitting Wolfman at Universal Pictures. “I’d paid $300 for a tour,” he said. “I told 'em, I said, 'you can kick me out at 6 o’clock but not before.' Besides, Wolfman hit me first. It’s on CCTV and everything.”

But the joy of such time, the freedom from routine and the tyranny of the lunchbox, is occasionally tempered by memory of that from which we are temporarily free. I’ve been saddened by the struggles which T13, a very sparky boy, seemed to be having with some subjects.

Take history. Last term, I was trying to make out what it was that he was actually learning and, naturally, blaming him for the inexplicable randomness in dotting chaotically through centuries and continents. I couldn’t see the connection.

I asked his teacher, “Er, last month it seemed to be Henry VIII, then Cecil Rhodes and now it’s the English Civil War …?” I shrugged a ‘has T13 got it wrong’ shrug at her.

She blushed. “It’s the curriculum,” she mumbled. “We have to teach in, er, themes. This is Empire…. I know, I know, it seems crazy.”

“But there’s no context,” I said, “no sense of chronology, or consequence, or of … history.”

“I know,” she said meekly.

With a sense of dread, I rummaged through his English. He was ‘doing’ “Frankenstein.” From photocopied pages.

“Don’t you have the actual novel?” I ask.

“We read bits of it. In class. Joe’s rubbish at reading and gets all the long paragraphs.”

“But why?”

He shrugged. Shrugging seems to be integral to modern education. “Dunno. Something about Gothic novels. And then we write our own.” His, it goes without saying had been light on monks, and shadowy cloisters; no whey-faced heroine or evil uncle. He’d adopted a more slasher approach. Murder in a ski chalet. But that’s an interpretation, mkay, so that’s fine.

It goes without saying that while one rightly deplores our old friend Dumbing Down, there is also something deeply stupid about foisting ‘bits’ of “Frankenstein” on 12 and 13 year olds. It is a book which I loved … at about 17; the language is complex, the themes sophisticated, both lost on young boys and designed to anti-encourage them. I find it very depressing.

Randomness when self-instilled is one thing, having it imposed is quite another.

“Do you know,” F11 said, order restored with his monocle back screwed into his eye, and busying himself spreading almond butter (yum) mainly onto a wonky muffin and only a bit on poor, beleaguered Catty, “that China had some pyramids? Yes. They’re missing and the Greeks had a god for everything? Even cupboards? And their god of the sewer was called something like Cloaca…”

“Cloacina?” I said, the word landing from somewhere. Possibly too much time spent cleaning lavatories.

"Weirdo," said T13, strolling by in his cricketing helmet to log onto Facebook.

“Yes. (Shut up T13, freak) you’re so clever. Shall I tell Big Jim?”

I thought of Big Jim, in his stained beanie, jabbing furiously at the drains, frequently wiping a gloved hand across his face, tiny splatters. “Best not,” I said.

“Yes, and if an organism doubles itself 3 times in an hour then after 24 hours there are … well, I don’t know how to say it, but this many.” He showed me a piece of paper riddled with 72 computations, leading up to an impossibly long number which I can’t even type correctly (possibly 2361183241434822606848 but it was really really hard to do). I started checking on a calculator – which gave up at 2147483648, which tallied with his 32nd sum. I blinked. The teachers better not waste all this.

“I did it in my head,” he said. “Watching the Turtles. You just keep doubling. It’s easy.”

There is a God. Whether of the sewers or not.

23 comments:

Exmoorjane said...

Cracking! Milla on top form. Love it all - from poor Catty spread with almond butter(yum indeed)to the divine Cloacina...
and then, yes indeed, how can it be? Our F and J-11s off to *big* school and the learning of chemistry and geography and lawksamercy ICT (plus Latin and wotnot).
Like you we have spent a summer holiday of immense indolence...as I type, J is leaning over my shoulder swathed in a vast sort of lounging robe (at 1.10pm!)

Frances said...

Milla, what wonderful lads you have! I know that I am viewing this from a great distance, but I'd think that just having them around for the summer days would have been a real holiday. Truly.

As for that school curriculum, where does it come from? Do all UK schools have to go along that same route? It seems pretty baffling as far as the history bit, and just downright wrong with regard to the literature.

When I was younger, I used to be able to do all sorts of math in my head ... sort of involuntarily, I'd come up with the right answer without actually knowing how I managed it. Things along that line have slowed somewhat in the past decade.

I am going to try to find some almond butter when I go to the market later on. Thanks for the inspiration.

xo

Edward said...

Another fabulous entry in the milla oeuvre. For those not in the know, "the Turtles" is a cartoon called "The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". Don't bother. It's terrible.

Elizabethd said...

Sure there is a degree in shrugging now?
I vaguely remember from teaching days the extraordinary melange of History. One term I was teaching ancient Egypt, the next Normans and then Victorians.....what happened to the bits in between?? BUT, it was the curriculum, so what can one say?

KarenPhillipsUK said...

wow aren't kids incredible?! I love their energy and capacity for learning. Sometimes I think they become great people despite going through the school system!

mountainear said...

I thought Geog. went out of the window in about 1980 - my boys never got much out of it anyway. (Is Crewe near the sea Mum?) My geography was like yours Milla and there was definitely an emphasis on mining and watersheds.

A really enjoyable blog. Ta!

Milla said...

thanks everyone.
Latin, Jane, merely a lunch time "club" at Pate's. We will see, stranger things have happened. Don't be stupid, Milla.
Frances, almond butter is delish - sounds weird, but like peanut butter, only with ... go on, take a wild guess ... give up?? almonds!
Edward, D'oh, sometimes I forget, lucky people out there, spared the bloody turtles.
Karen, great to "meet" you, yup, I sometimes think growing up happens despite rather than because.
Elizd, thrilled that teachers, too, are flummoxed - but, wails, why does it have to be this way!! the packaging alone is irksome and the century-jumping most confusing.
M/E, and isn't Crewe near the sea?
Mwah mwah.

Fennie said...

Apart from, as always, a cracking good read, Milla, you have raised the question of how things should be taught and you are absolutely right: context - it is really all about context. The single purpose of education is to give us all some context, a common framework within which two independent thinking beings can begin to share and understand one another. Anything else is just training. First it was the Bible; we all knew the Bible. That was the context of education. Then it was Latin, Greek and the Bible - a superb context if everyone you talk to knows classical legend and literature. I could say but just think of Apollo and you might respond with Athene. Then there was history. We knew and could relate to the broad framework of what happened in the past. But these days the idea of a universal context in the UK anyway seems to have disappeared. The French have food as a universal context; they have their language too. The Americans have all that stuff about the frontier and the American dream - you can talk to any and every American about that - but we have no universal context at all - unless it's the free-floating and disembodied Tudors allied with the Second World War. Sorry that's all a bit of a rant. Good luck to the boys!

Previously (Very) Lost in France said...

Great read. We've had a similar sort of summer which is a blessed relief after the micro-managed ones of previous years. After 5 years of school in France I believe they're getting a great education. It's different to the one we had, but I believe they will come out of it well and understand how they fit into the world. Not sure about Fennie's universal contexts in France these days. Certainly not evident during the time we lived there. The country is mired in a massive identity crisis.

Previously (Very) Lost in France said...

Great read! We've been enjoying a similar structureless summer which, after the micro-managed ones of the past few years. We've just returned (well, nearly a year now) from living in France so we're looking at the British education system with fresh eyes. I honestly believe they are getting a good education. It's different to the one we had but the world has changed and hugely superior to the dismal French system.

Not sure about Fennie's universal context for France. It certainly wasn't evident when we lived there. The country is in the throes of a massive identity crisis.

toady said...

All I can remember from geography was ignacious rock and copying a picture of a Bessemer converter - ah ! pig iron. Would have done better with studying the shires of the country. Not too bad now but I'm very iffy with the Midlands.

Frances said...

Milla, I forgot to look for the almond butter yesterday. Will get some next time at the market.

Re your question re tomatoes. I think storing them in the fridge changes the flavor and texture. Really only like buying fresh tomatoes from farmers markets, with the idea that they really are fresh, and have never been frozen.

Off season, I just skip "fresh" toms and wait for the next year's summer harvest. xo

Fred said...

Iis's 25 years since I saw the eldest off to nursery school and, with the publication of A level results on Thursday (we expect nothing), we say our final farewell to the vagaries of the highs, but mostly lows, of the wretched business of educating our children. I shall miss it not a jot.

Carol said...

Eeeekk, I remember the horror that was going from Primary to Secondary school...but at least T13's friends all think F10 is cool! That will make life a lot easier!

I hated geography when I was at school...and my geography has not improved much since school!! I loved history when we did the social side but then some eejit decided that battles were the name of the game and it became a subject I HATED! Seriously, who finds that X general moved Y number of troops to Z spot interesting *groans*. It took me a long time to regain my love of history!! Madness!!

Enjoy what you have left of the summer :-)

C x

LITTLE BROWN DOG said...

Yes, it's scary this secondary business, isn't it. I fished a sort of chart thing my son had done on his induction day for an introduction to Humanities, which read: History: Egyptians, Vikings, Romans, Normans, Tudors, Vegetarians... Which I suppose is sort of in order, except didn't they have vegetarians in Egyptian times?

(Oh, he tells me it should be Victorians. I think he may need to work on his handwriting.)

Good luck with it all.

Milla said...

Fennie, I used the word "context" but you seem to use it better!
PLIF, interesting - it's easy for us, perhaps, to assume that old grass is so much plus vert elsewhere and perhaps it just isn't!
Toady, YES! ignacious rock, how could I forget and, well, there a couple more, weren't there, sedimentary possibly and meta-something. Oh money well spent.
Carol, sadly F11 is going to a different school but seems quite popular already. All rather worrying considering the sort of balls up he made of socialising at primary at times. We can but hope.
LBD, love it! although, sigh, "humanities" what IS all that about? can't it just be history, with or without the bacon?

Thanks all!

elizabethm said...

I hated geography too, thought it was the dullest thing in the week. Science was incomprehensible but somehow not groan inducingly boring in that bite your own arm off way. Science was just annoying.
Good luck and God speed to F as he goes on his way, which, by the sounds, will be very much his own way. I love the sound of your summer. Now that I have no children at home summer has somehow lost the potential for real idling. It is all watered down semi-idling now.

Bluestocking Mum said...

Ha - I'm smiling at Fennie's rant.
And I quite agree.

Sounds like a great summer holidays - slobbing and staying up etc. That's how it should be between school terms.

xx

CAMILLA said...

Cracker of a post Milla.! As for Geography, I loathed it, remembering moi in plaits, hated plaits then all finished off with trailing ribbons.... Mother's choice...sigh. Anyway, Geography teacher Miss Pugh aptly named by us pupils as the galloping hair-pin, at least 6ft 3in and speedy with it when the bell went. Maps, LOTS, of them, yes could just figure Oz land was at the bottom somewhere, but who cares.

Almond butter, sounds divinely Yum.! gonna see if I can get some, presume one gets at shops, or does one need to be a Poppins and make myself?

Heaps of luck to your darling boys Milla, grandson goes to high school next week, just hoping he can stay focused, being highly activated of losing concentration lately and want's to flit from one thing to another in a flick of a switch.

xx

Posie said...

Hilarious Milla.....what a fantastic family you've got there. I giggled as you stepped back in time to Geography in our days...we were obviously following exactly the same curriculum, the rewinding film on volcanoes at Christmas was the highlight of our lessons too!!

Tattie Weasle said...

I think I was weird I really loved Geography esp the Ox Bowe lakes and pig iron...hope that now the term has begun it all makes more sense. The Boy has just started Yr 3 and frankly I am lost already, however I have high hopes of getting the kids to enjoy history via Horrible Histories on the BBC...maybe I should just plonk them in front of the box to give them a bit of universal context???!!!

HER ON THE HILL said...

Almond butter?? Gosh, there's posh! And on a muffin moreover...

Loved the little details in this post Milla - T13 strolling by in a cricketing helmet to log on to Facebook. Brilliant.

Love the questions you throw up about education and have enjoyed reading the responses in the comments. Our own E11 has just started the secondary treadmill and I haven't got a clue what's going on. She could be learning historical knitting everyday as far as I know. I keep asking questions but don't get very satisfactory answers back. I'm just crossing my fingers that something sensible is going on!
x
PS: responded to your comments over at mine.

Carrie said...

Your lucky to have such wonderful lads, Milla=)