When Marking Exams Is Enjoyable.

These students prove that exams can be positive learning experiences.

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Am I supposed to enjoy marking exams quite so much?

These kids are awesome!

Confirmed: I Am A Very Poor Juggler.

Life is demanding… and sometimes, something’s got to give.

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I’ve been reminded of something important over the last few weeks: I can’t always actually do everything that I think I can. Well… at least, not all at the same time.

The past few weeks have been like someone who started juggling three or four cute, colourful hackey-sacks that could be dropped occasionally and picked up again without causing any trouble, and ended up trying to juggle five or six chainsaws that were both running and on fire at the same time.

Something had to give. And logically, that something could neither be my work, the show I was performing in, nor my mental health.

I knew things were going to get busy, so I tried to get extra work requirements out of the way early. As it turned out, it was actually a really good thing I did that, because it enabled me to find the time for the extra stuff that I hadn’t anticipated.

The show went off brilliantly, thanks to the efforts of cast, crew and a fabulous director who all worked incredibly hard to deliver a production that made showbiz look effortless. Even though last night was my first Monday evening at home in months, I spent most of it feeling sad that there was no rehearsal to go to, and missing my fellow cast members.

Even so, it’s a good thing ithat particular flaming chainsaw has finished it’s run, because the music director and I have already been running auditions for our school musical for the past two Thursday afternoons.
Rehearsals for that start in two weeks – at about the same time our semester reports are due to be ready for proofreading. No pressure, though.

All of this is why I haven’t blogged, read anything except my students’ assignments or written any book reviews. My social media has been reduced to that which I have planned and scheduled in advance, and I am very conscious of my poor engagement with others on those platforms. For that, I sincerely apologise.

Still, it’s all I can do to keep my head above water, so it is what it is. Those things will resume when I get my other priorities under control.

This week, I am going to attempt to conquer the out- of-control pile of papers on my desk that need to be graded, recorded and commented on in writing as constructive feedback for my students.
I’m also going to try to get one of my priority reads finished and reviewed.
I may even finish a poem that I’ve been working on in dribs and drabs when I’ve had a few spare minutes here and there.

Those may not sound like significant achievements, but each of them will be.

Here’s to setting goals and hopefully achieving them.

When Life Gets Out Of Control, I Write Poetry.

What makes an introverted poet breathe fire?

Two weeks ago, I had finished an incredibly busy first term at school and was looking forward to a well-earned break for a couple of weeks.
When people asked me, “Are you doing anything for the holidays?” I gave them my standard answer: “As little as possible.”
You’d think I’d learn not to tempt fate like that, but apparently not.

Family came to stay, visitors called in, things happened. I just needed to rest… but when was that ever going to happen? I wanted to write, but there was no time for that, either. I began to feel as though life was out of control.

And then, I started to get angry. It wasn’t directed at anyone or anything in particular – instead, it was a rumbling discontent within me. As the only introvert in a house full of rampant extroverts, I felt misunderstood and somewhat neglected.

One afternoon, my house fell quiet for a few moments. I sat in the comfy chair in my study with a book, took a deep breath, and before I knew it, I had dozed off.  It didn’t last long.

I woke up to a barrage of sound from the football blaring on the TV in the adjoining room, people talking loudly to be heard over it, and others talking loudly with a phone on “speaker” mode. They could have gone to another room. They could have closed my study doors and left me there in peace. But they didn’t.

That was when this poem erupted from within me.

The imagery of a dragon is not accidental: I wanted to incinerate them them all, or at least toss them around a bit with my tail. Knowing that I couldn’t breathe fire on them all like I wanted to – they are family, after all – I escaped to my bedroom, closed the door, closed the drapes, and promised myself that whoever dared to knock on that door— or, heaven forbid, walk through it— and interrupt me again definitely had it coming. Then, as I generally do, I unloaded my feelings in the most therapeutic way I know: angry poetry.

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It doesn’t tell the complete story. It’s really just a brief glimpse of a scene, but it reveals enough for the reader to understand. And I’m sure every exhausted teacher or parent, every person who is exhausted by constant demands, and every introvert who reads it will totally get it.

Awoken

Preparation: Who Needs It?

There’s always at least one in every group who doesn’t follow instructions.

Last Friday, I gave my History class an essay question half a week in advance of their assessment task.

They were to prepare a plan and notes to use while writing the essay in class this week. I advised them that they could use their handwritten notes and their textbook while writing, but they were not allowed the use of any devices. All the information about the task was given to them in writing as well as my explaining everything in class.

I expected that today, when the students came to class, they would be ready to start. Happily for me, most were.

And then, because nothing ever goes smoothly, this happened:

Student A: “Can we type this?”

Me: No. No devices.

Student B: “My notes are at home. Can I use my iPad?”

Me: “No. No devices.”

Student C: “Can you write the question on the board please?”

Me: “I gave you the question on Friday.”

Student C: Yeah but I didn’t write it down.

Me: That makes me happy.
Bemused, I wrote the question on the board.

Student B: “What page is it in the textbook?”

Me: “Do you mean the pages you were supposed to read and study last week?”

Student B: “Yeah.”

Me: Speechless, I allow The Eyebrow to speak for me.

All the kids except two commenced writing. Students B and D, though? They’re still reading the textbook.

Mind Blown.

Mind Blown: A story from my Year 10 history classroom.

The classroom was quiet although full of students; the only sounds were made by a page turning, someone typing, or the occasional movement of a foot on the carpet as students worked individually on the task that had been set for them.

 

One boy sniffed noisily. I glanced at him, but he was too focused on his work to make eye contact with me. At the back of the room, another boy sniffed, gaining more traction so that his friend had done. I could almost feel the lump of whatever that was in my throat, and my stomach lurched. The boy at the front of the room sniffed again.

 

“Okay, guys… the sniffing has to stop. Did you know they make these squares of fabric called handkerchiefs, that you can use to clear your nose? They even make disposable ones, called tissues, so you don’t have to deal with them or their contents again later.”

 

“Sorry, Mrs V,” said the young man at the front desk, looking suitably repentant.
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“Wait!” said another young fellow. “A tissue is a disposable hanky?”

 

“Well, yes.” I grinned at the obvious surprise on his face.

 

“I’ve never thought of it that way before!” Caught in the spell of his ‘penny drop’ moment, his eyes were wide and his smile was one of discovery and wonder.

 

“So, it’s your mind that has been blown, not your nose?”

 

He nodded, laughing along with his classmates, then returned to his work as industry and silence once again took custody of the classroom.

 

I really enjoy teaching these kids. They’re pretty great.
And they seem to genuinely appreciate the fact that I am a comic genius.

 

Serendipity: When Things Just Happen Really Nicely… For Once.

One of the things I really love is when, for even just a brief moment, my favourite things in the world converge.

There are a number of things in life that I’m passionate about. British history, especially the medieval period, has always been my favourite for reading and study, as have the works of Shakespeare, along with a good number of other writers.  A teacher by profession, I love interacting with my students and leading them to those golden “penny drop” moments when something becomes real and meaningful. I have always loved reading. And as an Indie author who understands how hard it is to find readers, and how much harder than that it is to get reviews, I’m committed to reading, reviewing and sharing great Indie books of all genres.  Annie Whitehead To Be A Queen

I was very excited recently to discover, read and review an Indie novel about the life of Aethelflæd, the Anglo-Saxon queen. To my absolute delight, it was well-written and beautifully told. I thought then that several Christmases had come at once.

Now, less than a month after posting that review, it’s happened again, and I find myself at a quite magical point in time where my passions have met and over lapped,  as though life has popped me into the middle of some invisible but very cool Venn diagram.

I’m currently teaching Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ in one of my senior English classes. Not only is the writing and language incredible – there are curses and insult exchanges galore, along with some great monologues – it’s also the one with the hunchbacked evil genius who usurps the throne and has himself crowned king, the princes being murdered in the tower, and a fabulous haunting scene! The historiography of the play may be fairly tenuous, but the audience is left in no doubt of the creative genius of the writer.  All of this means that I am getting paid to be an absolute nerd about the language, the writing and the history, all at the same time. That in itself is pretty darned great.

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Tonight, though, as I was browsing through the Wordpress reader, I found an article about a great new Indie novel about the life of Henry Stafford, known in Shakespeare’s play as Buckingham, the ally and “other self” of King Richard III. When I went to a renowned global digital bookstore to check it out, I discovered the same author has also written a novel and several other books about Richard III.

That may not seem very exciting to some, but for me, it’s fantastic. I get to teach ‘Richard III’, indulge myself in Shakespeare and history to my heart’s content, and to read and review a couple of Indie books about two of the most fascinating characters in the play – and possibly in English history, it could be argued – at the same time.

My nerdy little mind is blown. I think I need to go and lie down.

 

My Favourite Escape.

When life takes an unexpected turn, there is no better place to escape than into a book.

What a week!

It was the first full week back at school with students after the summer break. New students, new classes, new schedules, new demands.  Not only was I ready, I was keen! I was determined to get through the week without falling in a heap.

The first day was great.

Then, just after recess on Wednesday, I got a call from my local medical clinic. My elderly father was unwell – again – and was on his way to hospital in an ambulance. Everything stopped except my mind: Is this it? Is this the beginning of the end? Must let the others know. Must tell the boss that I have to leave work. Must keep breathing. Can’t breathe. Okay. One thing at a time. Call the boss. Explain. No – don’t fall apart now. You don’t have time. 

I got to the hospital half an hour ahead of Dad because I work in town and the ambulance had a 45 minute trip, plus some road works to negotiate. I completed the necessary paperwork for him, and sat down to wait.

Waiting rooms suck on a major level. You sit there, surrounded by other people’s pain and misery, feeling alone and fearful, and trying to keep everything under control in your own overactive imagination – it’s quite some challenge.

reading-wonder.jpegSo while I sat and waited, I took refuge in a book. It didn’t stop me from looking up every time an ambulance rolled in, wondering if that was Dad being wheeled in. It didn’t stop me checking my phone and answering messages and questions from my siblings. But it did give me somewhere to go.

For the six and a half hours that I sat by Dad’s bedside in the Emergency Department, with medical questions answered and initial treatment under way, I escaped back into the book whenever I could. Dad knew I was there, but he wasn’t up to conversation. Reading someone else’s story kept me from focusing on my own, and it kept me from being overwhelmed by the flood of emotions that threatened to sweep me away while witnessing the pain and distress of my increasingly frail father.

After a somewhat tearful journey home, I thought I might be exhausted enough to fall asleep as soon as I got to bed. Nope. No such luck. Yet again, it was a book that came to the rescue. It didn’t put me to sleep, but it did relax me enough to be able to rest.

Taking refuge in a book is something I have often done in the troubled times of my life. Over the past couple of years, that has taken the form of both reading them and writing them. There are times, though, when I can’t write because the pain and fear is actually too close to think about at that level of depth. Wednesday was one such day.

Thursday was a blur of medical consultations, visits with various physical therapists, and further tests for Dad. Thankfully, at the end of all of that, I was able to bring him home again. It will take time for him, and for me, to recover. There will, undoubtedly, be further moments when I feel the need to make the world around me stop by escaping into a book.

Today, I’ve tried to catch up on the things I’ve let slide over the last few days. I haven’t quite managed yet to pick up all the threads again. I use Buffer, so my Twitter feed has kept on rolling, but many other things, including my writing, are at a standstill. Social media has only had the occasional cursory glance. I’ll get there – but not today.

For now, I’m thankful that Dad and I both survived the week, and that things are starting to return to normal.

And to the authors who continually craft such brilliant stories for me to escape into: thank you, from the bottom of my heart.  Your gifts mean more to people than you realise.

 

 

 

Exhausted.

Teacher exhaustion is real.

School has resumed after the six week summer break that we enjoy here in Australia. After completing my First Aid, Asthma/Anaphylaxis First Aid and CPR re-certs last week, followed by three full-on days of professional development and preparation, I had my first day with classes today.

The kids are great and, if the first day is any indication, I’m pretty sure we’re going to have a good year together.

But holy beaverschnitz! I am exhausted. I don’t remember being this tired at the start of a school year before.

Exhaustion
Exhaustion by Jessica Cross via Flickr 

I’ve come home every evening this week, fallen onto my bed and wept until I fell asleep like a two-year-old who still desperately needs that afternoon nap. I honestly have no idea why they resist that so much!

This afternoon a colleague asked me a question about something that happened last year, and I told him quite honestly that I was having trouble remembering yesterday. I can’t do social media. I can’t read. I can’t write. It’s a good thing I did my preparation for the semester over summer, because there’s no way I could get it done now given the shape I’m in at the moment.

There’s a running joke in my house – okay, so it’s actually not much of a joke, to be honest – that my husband makes me a double shot in the mornings because it’s my kick starter dose of Vitamin DHP – “Don’t Hurt People”. That double shot usually keeps me going most of the day. Today, it got me to about 10.15am and then my grip on reality started to crumble. I focused on my classes, tried to make all the words make sense, and dragged myself to lunchtime, and then downed 600ml of Coke Zero in record time – even for me.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I know it’s part of my job and it will pass. I’m just trying to explain why the blog has been quiet, why I’m not active on social media, and why emails are going longer than usual before I respond.

The only thing I can do effectively right now is hope I snap back into the rhythm and routine of teacher life quickly, because the pile of essays and papers in need of grading is going to start mounting up very soon.

Until then, though, if you see me staring into space or collapsed at my desk, administer caffeine… and please, be kind.

 

 

Movie Review: ‘Wonder’ (2017)

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Today I accompanied my school’s Middle Year students on a trip to the cinema to see ‘Wonder’, a new film based on the bestselling book by the same name about a boy who has facial differences.Jacob Tremblay plays August Pullman, alongside Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson who play his parents. The stage is set when the Pullmans decide that Auggie should start 5th Grade in a mainstream school, having been homeschooled by his mother until then. Mandy Patinkin plays a very wise and empathetic school Principal, Mr Tushman.

What a sad world we live in when a kid gets less attention walking through the city or a park wearing a space helmet than he does when wearing his own face. It’s human nature, I know, but that doesn’t make it okay. This film challenges that “default setting” in a very compelling way.

Auggie’s teacher, Mr Brown, challenges the kids to ask themselves: What sort of person am I?
This movie challenges every audience member to ask themselves the same question. How do I deal with difference? What does my face tell them? What kind of friend am I? What monuments do my deeds leave?

The audience feels sympathetic to Auggie long before they see his face. When he says, “I know I’ll never be an ordinary kid ordinary kids don’t make others run away from playgrounds” it’s like a punch in the stomach that leaves you winded.

As the movie rolls on, we also see that the “regular” kids like Auggie’s sister, Via, have their own challenges with acceptance and friendship, even without the extra challenges that some kids face. Over and over, this film reminds me again just how cruel kids— and people in general— can be, in so many ways.

The journey of discovering who is real and who is not is often painful and traumatic. Together, Auggie and Via realise that they are each other’s best friends, and lean to rely on each other for the support and love that they need to get through each day.

The development of genuine friendship reminds us that looking past the surface to really see someone is what makes a crucial difference to anyone, but especially those who are so aware of that surface. There is also a painful reminder that even the nice kids can make mistakes when they focus on appearances instead of who someone really is.

This movie delivers so many powerful lessons about accepting others and even more about accepting ourselves. In both cases, we need to learn to live according to the precept established by Mr Brown in Auggie’s first lesson in 5th Grade: “When you have.a choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

It sounds simple— perhaps too simple. But is it?

The hardest part may be in finding the willingness to step out of our comfort zones and open our own minds to each other and the possibilities that our differences bring.

Everyone old enough to understand the difference between kindness and judgement should see this film.

Barbarians: who knew?

What does a teacher do when a student calls another a name that is just plain wrong?

Yesterday one of my students called another a ‘Philistine’. I know he meant to suggest that his friend was uncultured and ignorant, and that is what many understand the word to mean.

So, being the time-and-knowledge-generous history nerd that I am, I took a break from our study of World War I and explained to my class that what he meant to suggest is not what the Philistines were at all.

The Philistines were a cultured and wealthy civilisation that lived in Canaan between the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the biblical kingdoms of Judah and Israel. They lived in and between five cities: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath. The same region bears the name ‘Palestine’ today – a name derived from the Philistine civilisation. The ancient Philistines enjoyed enough military prowess to hold their own against Lebanon, Syria and Egypt at different times, fighting with spears, straight swords and shields. When not fighting wars, they lived in elaborate buildings and made their own pottery.

It doesn’t really seem consistent with the idea of ignorance, does it?

Sadly, this is not the only case of such name-calling being so ironic.

Barbarian is another term which is used quite wrongly. It’s used to suggest that someone is wild or uncivilised.  Historically, the Barbarians were any number of Germanic tribes that moved throughout Europe in what many refer to as ‘The Dark Ages’, even though they weren’t so dark at all.

Barbarians
The Barbarians. https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/416794140495615038/

Really, if you look at them, they don’t look so incredibly different from one another, nor from the folk our history books tell us were our own ancestors. It may surprise you to know that the Barbarian tribes included the Angles, Saxons and Picts who set up shop in Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire and eventually became some of the most devotedly civilised people on earth. The Gauls became the French, the Geats became the Swedes, and the Danes went on to give us Hamlet, pastries and an Australian princess.
(Disclaimer: I don’t know if the part about the pastries is true, but they must be called danishes for a reason… right?) 

The Vandals, for example, may have left a trail of destruction in Gaul and Iberia, but they only made a bit of a mess of Carthage before taking it as their capital and making extensive renovations. As a military power, they had skill and knowledge – you’ve actually got to hand it to anyone who could not only withstand the power of the Roman Empire, but also hold their own in so many battles over such a long period. And when they weren’t busy fighting the Romans, they were highly cultured, enjoying music and poetry. They conducted a lot of industry and trade in their North African kingdom. It really was not about breaking or ruining stuff at all.

The Goths, oddly enough, did not sit around in dark clothes wearing black makeup. The name “Goth”  was derived from ‘Geats’, the tribe famous for its honour and pride in the Anglo-Saxon legend of Beowulf,  as told in the oldest English poem in existence.

Scandinavia at the time of Beowulf.
Map Prepared by Louis Henwood for ‘The History of English’ podcast, episode 42

They actually had sophisticated architecture and beautiful mosaic art. They made and wore intricate gold jewellery. They were farmers, weavers, potters, blacksmiths. They followed intricate burial rites, making sure that the graves always pointed north.

Related to the Goths were the Visigoths, meaning “Goths of the west” who ruled Spain for a couple of centuries. They built churches that still stand today, decorated their buildings with intricate filigree art and stone arches. They were skillful metalworkers and jewellers.

It seems to me that we do history a disservice by misusing these terms in such a way.  Connotations are not always the easiest things to track through history, but these seem quite unfair. I suspect that such practice grew out of the fear of anything or anyone different, foreign and/or pagan – a concept with which Western society is still painfully familiar.

By the end of all that, the kids’ eyes had glazed over a bit, and there was a fair bit of smiling and nodding going on. I don’t think they will be calling each other Philistines again, though. So… mission accomplished.

 

If you’d like to know more about Beowfulf and the Geats, you could listen to a fabulous episode from ‘The History of English’ podcast. It’s a great podcast, and if you’re interested in the development and history of the English language, or the relationships between language, people, and places, you should consider subscribing.