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Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Devil To Pay












































If I was a young twelve year old boy, I know which book I would rather be reading, but unfortunately, Maria Zannini’s excellent book was not written then and so my Year Seven class had to make do with Plato’s ‘The Gorgias’. Less stimulating in many respects but safer in terms of a long term career.

My problem was how to make a Socratic dialogue interesting and engage them in argument. This was a time when corporal punishment was still common in schools, usually in the form of a cane being thwacked on the hand, or sometimes the bottom.

The dialogue below was read through gritted teeth. None of them agreed with Socrates, and many ended up thoroughly disliking him, thinking he was just too smart for his own good. Some would have administered the hemlock much earlier than it was. Their homework assignment was to defeat Socrates in argument by giving Polus more balls.

The ending here is slightly different than that offered to the class :)

THE CANE CAN BE BEAUTIFUL

SOCRATES:
Do you think being brought to justice and being rightly punished for one’s crimes the same thing?

POLUS:
I do

SOCRATES:
Are you prepared to admit that all just acts are beautiful in proportion to their justice? Think carefully before you answer.

POLUS:
Yes, Socrates. I really do think so

SOCRATES:

Then consider this: when a man performs any act, must there be something to be operated on by the agent?

POLUS:
I believe so.

SOCRATES:
And does that something undergo what the agent performs? For example if a man performs an act of striking, something must necessarily must be hit.

POLUS:
Necessarily

SOCRATES:
And if a striker hits hard or quickly, the object struck must be hit in the same manner.

POLUS:
Yes.

SOCRATES:
So the effect on the object struck is of the same sort as the action of the agent striking.

POLUS:
Quite so.

SOCRATES:
So again when a man does the act of burning, something must be burned.

POLUS:
Naturally.

SOCRATES:
And if he burns severely, or painfully, what is burned must be burned exactly the way the burning agent burns it.

POLUS:
Quite so.

SOCRATES:
So also when a man cuts, does the same argument apply? That is, there is something which is cut?

POLUS:
Yes

SOCRATES:
And if the cutting is big or deep or painful, the cut made in the object which is being cut will be of the same sort as the cuts of the cutting agent.

POLUS:
It seems so

SOCRATES:
Well then, with these admissions made, let me ask you whether being brought to justice is to undergo something or to do it?

POLUS:
Necessarily, Socrates, it is to undergo.

SOCRATES:
Then it is at the hands of some agent or other?

POLUS:
Naturally, at the hands of the man who inflicts the punishment.

SOCRATES:
And does the man who punishes rightly punish justly?

POLUS:
Yes


SOCRATES:

Is his action just or unjust?

POLUS:
It is just

SOCRATES:
And what is just we have admitted to be beautiful

POLUS:
Quite so.

SOCRATES:
Then of this pair, one performs beautiful the other suffers beautiful acts

POLUS:
Yes

SOCRATES:
So a man who is brought to justice suffers what is good

POLUS:
It looks like it

SOCRATES:
Then he is benefited.

POLUS:
But that book you won't let me read.

SOCRATES
The Zannini woman? You know I don't approve.

POLUS
But if I made love to the woman in the picture...it will be beautiful, so will she be enjoying a beautiful act?

SOCRATES:
Steady, Polus, steady.

POLUS:
Please, Socrates, please

SOCRATES:
It will cost you, boy, but Amazon do a good deal.

POLUS:
And if she caned me, that would be an even more beautiful act.

Friday, 17 June 2011

A Neolithic moment

Avebury


















Before a national curriculum solidified and imprisoned us in a maze that grew progressively more dense with targets like mantraps, history had space to delight curious and open minds, and sometimes the ‘rush’ was unexpected, magical and hard to explain.

In the days before a curriculum dictated that secondary school history would start from 1066, we wrote love letters in Sumerian cuneiform, explored Ley lines and took field trips to Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill. It might sound very ‘New Age’ but St Josephs taught ‘traditional’ history, and balancing chronology and structure with fun.

We also taught family. I still remember how worried I was when my Head of Year’s eldest daughter, Clare Drewett, entered the school. Fortunately for me she was part of a gifted cohort and I still remember the exuberance of those lessons. It was summed up in one particular moment on the top of Silbury Hill.


Silbury Hill















It was a cloudless, blue sky day with Neolithic England spread out below us. And the magic of the moment hit one particular student. She hurtled towards me and I twirled her around and around beneath that blue sky before dropping her next to her picnic. Couldn’t do that today. Never thought of it then. It was just good to be alive in a world humming with insects and the dead all around us.

Avebury from above


















West Kennett Long Barrow, a neolithic tomb.


Friday, 10 June 2011

The Duke of Buckingham's legs

Teaching has much in common with writing, though if you change pov in the classroom, you’re likely to get confused, and I don’t recommend speaking in third person past tense - though if the students noticed you’d know you had their attention - before they came to take you away.

However, success in both professions is based on three fundamental rules:

You have to teach or write about what interests you. If you’re bored by something why should anyone else find it interesting?

You need a strong hook to grab them in the first place.

And finally it has to have a degree of importance. This final rule has wriggle room in fiction. Are any of Dan Brown’s novels ‘important’? Perhaps that third rule applies only to ‘literature’ with a capital ‘L’. In Education 'importance' is more immediate and measured by exams, league tables and once upon a time well paid jobs. It also varies from culture to culture. In the west, increasingly, education is as much to ‘entertain’ as it is to impart hard and useful knowledge.

But down from my soapbox. Once I was young.























And in my experience, teaching often works best when you’re not aware you’re doing it. I remember entering a classroom with a hangover. We were beginning a new topic - Charles 1st - and the lesson plan made no sense.

I turned the pages of the text book we were then using and fixated on the Duke of Buckingham’s legs. They were long and slender, meant for the catwalk or perhaps to be fondled. Whatever the case they dominated the portrait and it was clear the Duke was inordinately proud of them.

My daemon spoke through me. “I would like you to draw the Duke of Buckingham’s legs.” The class looked at me as though I was mad. But it was an understanding class. They liked me; knew I probably had my reasons, and had a good idea what those reasons might be.

Discussion soon followed:

‘Was he gay, sir?”

‘Was he really the king’s friend, sir?” Surreptitious nudges followed by closer scrutiny of the offending legs.

“The king’s father was especially fond of him,” I croaked, wondering where the aspirins were when you need them.

‘Maybe he wasn’t gay – maybe he just had good legs.’ Becky was a girl who preferred the less obvious path.

“Could you be done for it then, sir?”

They were hooked and it took little prompting for them to research the man with the legs, his relationship with the king, and laws against sodomy which Becky thought were gross.

So out of the three rules it is rules one and two that are paramount, though that is not to imply I found the Duke of Buckingham’s legs of untoward interest.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Letting go

I felt a cold knife to the thigh. The band was cutting me off. I was no longer good enough. 'I had other commitments, more important commitments.' Whatever the dressing the band was cutting me off, letting me go.

I’d sensed it for some time, the occasional silences. Now here, in Henry and Lol’s house, it was put into words.

Through a perceived need for ceremony, or because that was all they had in the house, Lol entered the room carrying a silver tray. It held five glasses and a green bottle of Dry Martini. A drink I’ve never had since.

Over drinks and desultory gossip nothing was said. Then Henry led me aside. “They want you to leave the band.” He said it like he didn’t.

I forget my reply.

Then he offered an olive branch, possibly more of a twig. “We want new members, more weight to the band. We want do more and bigger concerts.”

“And with my present teaching commitment…impending marriage.”

“Exactly.” His Viking features eased into an expression of remorse and relief. “You understand…You’d always be welcome to play with us in smaller venues – the occasional ceilidh.”

“You mean leave ‘Devil’s Elbow’ for ‘Devil’s Finger’”.

He laughed as though it was funny.

“No thanks,” I said.

As divorces go it was amicable, bitter-sweet. The band had their interests to pursue and I had mine.

Blogs rarely confess failure. Who wants to read it? Who wants to confess it? Never moan or complain. But Blogs should be truthful, and the truth is that rejection happens to everyone, and always it hurts.