Sunday, July 30, 2006

Ted Grant 1913-2006

Ted Grant

I was sorry to read about the death of Ted Grant in The Socialist 27 July. I first met Ted in 1968 when I was 16. One of his strengths was his ability to patiently explain the fundamental principles of Marxism to young and inexperienced socialists. I didn’t feel patronised. For him the movement and the ideas were all important; he was painstaking and perfectionist in relation to ideas and fond of open debate.


I ended up working with Ted and the others (in a very minor role) with Militant. He was not the easiest of people to work with but the role of Militant in that period is well-documented and we were all caught up in the work and the ideas and consigned personalities to their proper place.

He will always be remembered as someone who kept the ideas of Marxism alive under the most difficult of circumstances in the UK.

But Militant grew. It was very far from being a “one man band” like some of the “piddling little ultra-left sects” Ted used to laugh at. And in the heat of the Poll Tax campaign and the struggle against Thatcher, new tactics were called for.

When I knew him, he was fond of saying, “Events, events, events will teach the broad masses of the working class more than any pamphlet or manifesto.” And events (the symptoms of the degeneration of New Labour) were to invalidate the position he came to adopt – seeking signs of life in the corpse of the Labour Left. He remained wedded to a tactic which was doomed to failure.

He is rightly honoured as a pioneer. He is not honoured by those who seek to gloss over his mistakes.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

In the Moodle

In the past “Virtual Learning Environments” were regarded with suspicion by teachers as a sci fi concept in which teachers are replaced with computers. After attending Moodlemoot ’06 at the Open University, I can honestly say that Moodle, the open source course management system, is actually whatever the teacher wants it to be.

The course seminars included teachers from diverse disciplines from Science to English to Music and of course ICT who all used Moodle to teach in the way which suited them.

Although the system is based on a social constructivist model of education, teachers frequently start out using it to replicate traditional classroom activities like essay-writing, feedback and redrafting or quizzes/tests with the slight difference that these are self-marking and pupils get instant feedback. Teachers only then go on to some of the more unusual features of Moodle like Wikis, blogs, asynchronous discussion groups and podcasting.

And because it is Open Source free software, teachers can contribute to the future design of Moodle without some acquisitive corporations we could mention seeking to block them under the pretext of “business secrets”.

Moodle is now used by over 100000 registered users, including the Open University. It is free to download and use and many schools and local authorities who have poured hundreds of thousands of pounds into the coffers of Microsoft are keen to find free software.

If you want to find out more there is a website which talks about the conference and demonstrates the program at the same time. It is called http://moodlemoot.org/ and all of the conference is available as audio or video files. I recommend the audio file because the video quality will depend on the quality of your computer.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

WSTA on Wikipedia

Wikipedia is fast becoming the standard online repository of all knowledge and wisdom. Although it contains much that is inaccurate, the rigorous scrutiny each new entry received from around the world means that inaccuracies do not remain on the books for long.

There is even a page about the West Sussex Teachers Association

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WSTA

And like everyone else on the internet, you can edit it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Church school bans "Imagine"

A church school in Devon has banned children from singing the John Lennon classic, "Imagine". Obviously people have a right to their religious beliefs but this is supposed to be a free country and there is such a thing as freedom of speech. Banning songs is one thing. How long before they start burning books too?

The lyrics of this wicked song are as follows:

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

World leaders impotent to help the Lebanon

According to Democracy Now!

"The humanitarian crisis in Lebanon continues to worsen. At least 500,000 people have been displaced from their homes. Scores of roads and bridges have been hit making it hard to transport food or humanitarian aid. Recent Israeli strikes have targeted the country’s largest milk factory, a major food factory and two pharmaceutical plants. Earlier bombs hit water processing plants, power plants and grain silos. On Tuesday a convoy of two trucks carrying medical supplies donated by the United Arab Emirates was hit. The trucks were destroyed and both drivers died. The Israeli military has denied targeting the factories or aid trucks. Two ambulances were also bombed on Tuesday. They were carrying Lebanese soldiers who were injured in an Israeli attack on their base that had killed eleven soldiers. A Greek Orthodox Church also suffered a direct hit. Inside the church were civilians who had taken refuge. At least 10 people were injured. "

This is particularly horrifying for people who remember when Beirut was a byword for violence and instability and the massacres at Sabra and Chatilah where Christians murdered women and children while the Israeli army stood by with its arms folded..

The policy of brute force and ignorance has not brought peace to the middle east and yet Israel is giving it another shot with the blessing and the massive financial backing of the US. The Israeli Defence Forces are not "defending" anyone. By murdering hundreds of Lebanese civilians they are sowing the seeds for revenge attacks in the future.

The people of Israel and Lebanon are being betrayed by their governments and paying a price in blood. Imperialism cannot bring peace and its twin peaks - terrorism and Zionism - exemplify this.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Others

Others
James Herbert
ISBN: 0333761170
Whenever a mother has a child she hopes the baby is going to be OK, not the kind of person who will suffer a lifetime of pain and abuse and ostracism. Most babies, apart from an unfortunate tendency to look like Winston Churchill, are like that. Some have disabilities which attract sympathy. Then there are the “others” of the title.

James Herbert is a top horror writer and resides in Sussex (this novel is set mainly in a realistic and recognisable Brighton). I read horror stories when I was a young teenager because a good horror story (and that is what James Herbert writes) take the reader to a world where they can escape the ordinary. This book however locates the extraordinary firmly in the ordinary.

I won’t put in too many spoilers here but it is a fairly standard narrative. Why do evil doctors have this strange need to tell heroes all their plans before they make improbably inefficient attempts to kill them?

However the main theme of the novel is the way society treats “others” and of course Brighton is teeming with “others” of various kinds. It is not a book for the queasy and the kind of horrific description at which James Herbert Excels is there in abundance. It is highly readable for people who like this genre.

I repeat the warning. To read it is easy but it is not for the queasy.

The book was first published in 1999 and is available in a large print edition. Avoid reading the blurb on the back of the book by the way because it gives rather more spoilers than I do.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Well you know what they say.

As a friend of mine put it, "Who are 'they' and how come they know so much?"

I have come in for the usual obloquy from English teachers over my use of "they" in place of the more correct "he or she". Comments have been roughly evenly divided for and against. I can honestly say that I don't use it to excess but here is the OED website on the topic:

"The English language unfortunately lacks a simple singular pronoun which does not specify gender. Various people have suggested new words to fill this gap, but none of them have caught on, or (frankly) are ever likely to: it is not practical to try to change such a basic element of the language by sheer will.

"However, children and adults alike naturally find the obvious solution to this conundrum: rather than using the formal and awkward formula 'he or she', they simply use they, especially after words such as anyone and no one which are strictly singular but often imply a reference to more than one person.

"This is not a new problem, or a new solution. 'A person can't help their birth', wrote Thackeray in Vanity Fair (1848), and even Shakespeare produced the line 'Every one to rest themselves betake' (in Lucrece), which pedants would reject as logically ungrammatical.

"If you do not find this usage acceptable, there are alternatives. You could resort to the awkward 'he or she' formula, or to the practice of writing 'he' when you mean 'he or she' (which many people find objectionable), or to recasting all your sentences to avoid the problem!"

The OED website is a mine of information on this kind of issue.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Teacher Power! A report on the National Education Conference

The first session was a fascinating speech from Mick Waters of the QCA. Most teachers think of the QCA as a very top-downwards, authoritarian body producing highly prescriptive “advice.” Mick Waters brought an entirely different perspective. While recognising the tension between national testing and local autonomy he was perfectly clear that “people in schools need to set their understandings of their children alongside the learning they should meet to create learning which is irresistible.” Unlike the run-of-the-mill bureaucrats he prefers to spend his time in the classroom working with teachers.

This set the tone of a conference which was about (apologies for the jargon) empowering teachers. Teacher power! It has a certain ring to it!

This was continued with a discussion of “personalised learning” and the somewhat ambiguous definitions available from the government. It was felt that “personalised learning” could be used to promote teacher autonomy (teacher power again) and the concept that learning should be related to the needs, aptitude and ability of the pupils. There was also a warning that “personalised learning” could be misinterpreted as a system which involved pupils interacting with computers without any teacher intervention and the delivery of education could be in the hands of unqualified staff.

Paul Crisp is the managing director of CUREE and although his presentation was heavily focussed on the research methodology of his work on mentoring of teachers, it is clear that much useful material has come out of this research which will be of use to Union Learning Reps in the future. Much of it is now available online.
click here

Elizabeth Wood of the University of Exeter talked about research on the issue of the underachievement of boys. Although she was restating much of the existing knowledge on this subject it is clearly important to go on stating it in a climate where the underachievement of boys is misunderstood. In many ways it is an oversimplification to talk about boys’ underachievement and her research was firmly based on the observation of children and her insights into the role of play. “When girls performed less well than boys it was not called underachievement. It was because they were all dumb blondes.” She has some very interesting and provocative research.

The future of the National Education Conference was a wide-ranging discussion somewhat depleted by some football game taking place at the same time.  It is proposed to promote the National Education Conference to teachers who take part in NUT Continuing Professional Development. They may well include the future leadership.

Maurice Galton’s research on “The Cost of Inclusion” tackled one of the conflicts in education at the moment. How can inclusion be helping pupils when the resources are not being provided to support the pupils being included? It is unsual for speeches to be interrupted by applause at the NEC. His remark that “these pupils have a right to be taught by qualified teachers” did receive a spontaneous ovation.

The final session of conference was a speech by Peter Mortimore who is not only an accomplished orator but also a powerful voice in educational circles. He had done a comparison between the NUT’s “Bringing down the Barriers” and the government’s Education Bill. The NUT had no input as to what his final result would be. The results are available online.
http://wsta.org.uk/mortimore.pdf

As Bill Greenshields concluded, “We are involved in a battle for ideas, every school is a fortress,”