False Premise

My Collins Westminster Dictionary tells me that “premise” can also be spelt “premiss” which seems apt in the case I’m about to put forward.

When a person leading a meeting for teachers puts forward an idea as a given, something generally accepted, I pay attention. Here’s one: “This is the way we used to teach…but we know better now” or: “Thirty years ago we were taught like this, but we don’t want to follow that bad example any more.”

Why does this rankle so much? I talked about it with a friend and discovered that hearing those statements pronounced as if everyone would agree (i.e. as a premise) makes me sad. It seems to dismiss my forty years of teaching as worthless.

When I began teaching we had a new English curriculum which wasn’t just about reading and writing, but about viewing and moving and shaping and speaking. It was designed to appeal to students of all skills and abilities and get them engaged in their learning. We did drama and group work and made endless collages and posters as we explored different approaches to literature and language. It was dynamic and interesting. We moved into larger spaces to make films, do drama or group work. Language was studied in depth, particularly the thorny language of advertising, but also of conversation and levels of spoken conversation. It was a fantastic, creative introduction to teaching and how dynamic it could be. It was about student-centred learning, and the teacher as facilitator – terms I hear used now as if they’ve just been invented!

With NCEA, this has narrowed as we have less time for the creative tasks, and are more focused on assessment, data gathering and “adding value” (a market term I thought had been discredited in its application to teaching). Students produce work digitally and are less likely to make posters or collages without considerable work to get them started. If they are asked to do a task they want to know if it is worth credits as they weigh up whether or not they should invest some energy into it. And they are more medicated for depression and anxiety than ever before.

My two oldest nieces were in the first year of NCEA and said they felt like guinea pigs, but, like all of our lovely resilient kids, they got on with it and are doing nicely in their thirties now, thank you very much! As are many of the students who have “suffered” through the “terrible old-days of teaching”. Even the leader of the meeting who has been positing the premises mentioned above – although there are clearly gaps in academic process somewhere.

New Zealand education is in a constant state of change and has always been. Here’s another point which rankles: “We have to get used to change or be left behind”. It doesn’t even need saying, surely. It’s what we do. And our students go along with it patiently, while those leading meetings are either revealing that they had very unhappy childhoods at school or have very short memories.

My secondary school years were pretty good. There was an interesting, varied collection of teachers with their own styles of teaching. We had very sophisticated discussions in English and went to see live theatre, notably a performance of King Lear at the Court Theatre. We had political discussions in history, learned funny anecdotes in French, listened to great music up in the attic music room, loved learning about South America in geography so much that we hoped our teacher would take us on a field trip! We did have a field trip to Arthur’s Pass to study glaciation, which has always been useful since when travelling through New Zealand and even when I was travelling in Norway. One very enthusiastic teacher would jump up from her seat in the bus, point out the window and shout: “A truncated spur!” or: “A hanging valley!”

Did we suffer from this supposedly dreadful education? Hell, no. Did we go on to do all sorts of interesting things with our lives? Hell, yes.

I would like to pay tribute to all of my teachers at primary and secondary school, and all the great teachers my family speaks of. And the teachers in my own family. Lovely Ruth who devised maths games to engage young learners. Those games became sought after by other teachers. I would tell her about “new” developments at school when she was in her late eighties and she would laugh and say, “I remember when we did that.” What about that great teacher on the West Coast who, with the students in a small rural school, built an amazing little house, making everything themselves. I visited it once and was impressed by all that must have gone into that incredible learning experience for those lucky kids.

Nothing is new, just new people come into leadership roles with bright ideas they think they’ve just discovered. Trying out “new” ideas is great, it helps keep teaching moving and interesting, which is how it should be, but let’s honour the past, not dismiss it so off-handedly as a bad job.

Shocked

The city is quiet today. Occasionally a helicopter can be heard. It was a relief to see a plane flying overhead as I was hanging out the washing this morning – as if things were back to normal. I was reminded of being in Santa Barbara, California, when the 9/11 attacks happened and how quiet it became with all air traffic halted. A police car siren a moment ago had me on alert again. Sirens are often heard in the distance, but that’s the first one today. You wonder if the police are hunting out extremist cells after delving into the dark web.

My heart is broken for the families of the victims and I can’t bear to think of their suffering. Many of our students and their families attended the Deans Avenue mosque. One of them who was in my Year 9 class last year gave me an unexpected hug on Monday when I said how much I missed her and her classmates this year. Another, who I taught several years ago was from Nigeria. He was intelligent, positive, funny; the kind of young man you think will do well in the world and even save it. Was he at the mosque on Friday?

And the 28 year old perpetrator – so young and he’ll never see the light of day again. I’m afraid to dig into the dark place that is his mind to try to understand him. As an educator I’m frustrated by the ignorance and wilful closing of the mind that seems to characterise extremism.

My Year 9 students did well in the three-hour lockdown. As soon as the alarm sounded they knew what to do. I locked the doors and covered a glass window which looked out onto the stairwell. They pulled the curtains and got down on the floor. They’d been well trained at primary school, obviously, and a few of them had been in a lockdown before. We were all nervous (though I couldn’t show it and was so fearful that someone was targeting the students marching for the planet in the Square), some were tearful, and as time went on they became restless but kept themselves quietly entertained. I was able to let small groups down the stairs to the toilet. Some even continued with their school work as the hours went by. Pretty amazing really, considering they’d been in the classroom since 2pm and weren’t given the all-clear until around quarter to six. I had my laptop open to receive instructions and an autistic student was kept occupied by keeping an eye on it for me and letting me know when new messages came through. It was clear, even in our isolated position, that the police were doing a fantastic job across the city, using the Ministry of Education networks to keep in touch with schools – and doing far more than that, of course, such as arresting the criminal alive.

Several years ago, when we were issued with Procedures for Lockdown I thought, “Stop the world, I want to get off” – or out of teaching anyway – if this was the kind of thing we were going to have to become accustomed to. Then we became used to earthquake drills and the real thing: Drop, Cover and Hold. Earthquakes seem quite benign in contrast to yesterday’s malicious crime.

The roads were jam-packed and it took me an hour and a half to get home. People were very patient and considerate, just as they were after the February earthquake. Shocked, is how I would say we all felt, and very sad. I exchanged a tired smile with a young woman driver, because her dog was leaning his head out of the back window in a very patient, sad sort of way.

Listening to the news on the radio or on tv quickly became unbearable. I shut the doors and windows and pulled the curtains tight against the dark. Some hours awake at night were relieved by wonderful National Radio which played comforting music such as this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4sN1etmws8 and shared texts from listeners. Clearly everyone all across the country is feeling the shock – and across the world. But where to from here?

The garden offers some solace today. There are raspberries dropping off the canes and courgettes ready to pick. The sun even shone for a while, but I’m reminded of that last speech in Romeo and Juliet:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;/The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head…

Simplicity

Occasionally – perhaps once a week – I take advantage of a gap in my to-do list to breathe in some fresh air and stroll over to the cafe in our shared community-school library for a quiet moment. Even if the knitting group is chatting and laughing and pre-schoolers are running about, it is peaceful.

I used to take marking with me, to excuse my indulgence, but no longer. I’m practising for retirement.

The magazine racks face into the cafe, and my choice is usually The Simple Things, a UK magazine about…simple things. It is very calming to look at. The other day I spent quite a while just looking at a page of shepherd’s huts. It was an advertisement, such as you used to see for gypsy caravans. Shepherd’s huts are perhaps the more PC name for them. There is complexity in their simplicity when you consider how well they are designed and how beautifully they are presented. There is irony in their appeal to people (like me) who endure the discomfort of work for the comfort of money and rein in the inner Toad. Most ironically, it would be a well-heeled purchaser (with money from mining, munitions and corporate farming) who could park a hut at the bottom of the garden under the apple tree, overlooking the rolling Sussex Downs and, even though plumbed in and connected to electricity (the hut not the purchaser), picture herself trundling along a dusty road behind a Clydesdale horse – or a traction engine. Now I’ve gone and spoilt my simple moment by over-analysing and being cynical.

On looked up rolling Sussex Downs to see if they exist, I discovered that “Rolling Sussex Downs” is the name of a shepherd’s hut glamping site. A pastoral idyll. Now there’s a farmer diversifying – as all UK farmers will need to do without EU subsidies.

Take a deep breath, back to simple things…

The magazine is dated February 2018 but all the back-issues have appeal. There are unfussy gardening pages, stories of people making-do gracefully, poetry, a list of songs to go with the theme of each magazine and, in this issue, recipes for smoked parsnip soup, chai coffee with steamed spiced milk, and lemon cake in a mug. The theme is “Breathe”.

Iced coffee was my choice on that 30 degree day in a southern hemisphere February. The feverfew and lavender in an olive-jar vase on the table was perfect simplicity.

The little things

In a place like Wanaka you could be overwhelmed by the scale and grandeur of lake, mountains, sky – or even of the massive crane on a lake-side building site, as yet another speculator tries to make millions from this desirable place. A grand scale clash of values.

Smaller details have held my gaze this year. The stump of a silver-dollar gum, tiny fox gloves (which I later found are moth mullein or goldenrod), fuzzy grasses beside a stone seat…

This morning, tiny blue moths (later research revealed these to be the common blue butterfly) fluttered across the path I walked. They were too tiny and too fast to photograph. Other small details stood still long enough.

Even more exotic, were these lilies in the Winders Street garden I admire every year.

There are rowan trees everywhere.

Along the lake-side, half hidden and covered in leaves, are several small dinghies and catamarans. Have their owners grown and gone?

Kind conservationists have provided several nests for grebes, such as this.

Spring Hill – where said speculators try to tame nature – continues to provide spring water where people (me included) fill their water bottles.

In the shady courtyard of Soul Food I enjoy the morning paper with a ginger spice juice, with aluminium straw.

The local fruit is delicious.

Other small delights include scones at Edgewater, warm woollies for colder days, locally made clothing at Glowing Sky (the translation of Rakiura, Stewart Island), the Sunday market, the Thursday yacht race, favourite restaurants and cafes, swimming on hot days while little dogs show off their dog paddle as they fetch sticks.

The wind can howl through here and no one ventures on to the lake to entertain us (the cowards). The nor’ west makes my hair rise comically with static and I get shocks from window latches and even the kitchen sink.

I had to photograph this sign on Golf Course Road. Mum offered to pose in front of it. I would have done just as well.

The evening sky draws me away from the little things to the grandeur again.

As it grows darker, lights come on around the curve of the bay. Water laps against the boats in the marina. The breeze is soft and warm.

Living in interesting times

Samuel Pepys was familiar to me as the writer of an entertaining diary which gives us a picture of life in 1600s Restoration London. I expected to find, when I recently read Samuel Pepys, a Biography by Richard Ollard, that the subject was a rich socialite with time on his hands to enjoy all manner of entertainments. Instead, I discovered a much richer picture of a person of humble origins who was significant in establishing the means by which a well-organised navy could function to defend English borders and trade.

Pepys’s administrative talents enabled him to cross class barriers in ways I thought were not possible in those times. His skills were recognised by Charles II, even as Pepys struggled to get funding and a serious approach to the navy from a king who was continually distracted by pleasurable pursuits. Pepys was not averse to pleasurable pursuits, either, with sexual exploits (and exploitations) disturbing to the modern reader. He lined his own pockets with bribes – which seemed a common practice expected of people in office.

Pepys was helped by people who recognised his talents and supported his education and the positions he held. Similarly, Pepys helped others in the same way, even some who tried his patience at times. His support helped those people to better their lives. He supported the education of boys at the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital. It was important that educated people were available to provide effective roles such as his administrative work with the navy.

Pepys had valued friendships with a varied group of intellectuals. He collected a significant library of books and art, carefully housed and protected through plague, fire and political intrigue and surviving until today. I was fascinated to read that, while incarcerated in The Tower during the Papal Purge, he was able to use contacts to clear his name, giving clear instructions about how to conduct the investigation into the allegations. This uncovered (for me) an underworld of criminal intrigue with connections extending into France.

Pepys was frustrated by the tendency of aristocratic ship captains who took it upon themselves to mount ill-advised attacks on Dutch ships, often with disastrous consequences. In one such case the Dutch retaliated, sailing up the Thames and inflicting considerable damage and causing panic among the citizens with those who were able retreating into the countryside for safety. Pepys preferred the “tarpaulins”, sea captains who had worked their way up from ship’s boy and who knew how to handle a ship and its crew.

Pepys travelled to Tangier which was, for a time, in British hands, and to Spain briefly before sailing home. He truly lived in interesting times, which doesn’t seem to have been the curse it is purported to be.

Ollard’s writing style makes the reading of the biography a treat. I was particularly taken by his description of the clock as a device which at first entertained with its workings before its effects in “dismembering” existence were felt. The same could be said of many technological developments today.

This biography has been sitting amongst my history books for many years waiting for me to read it. More recently, I picked up a pictorial publication by the National Portrait Gallery entitled Pepys and his Contemporaries by Richard Ollard. It refreshed my recollections of the biography and the impressive variety of people who were influences in Pepys’s life. It concludes with an essay by Catharine MacLeod entitled “Pepys and the Resoration Art World” detailing Pepys’s relationships with portrait painters, particularly, who he commissioned. It also mentions Pepys’s enjoyment of music; he was impressed that the painter Cooper was a skilled musician and speaker of French. In the early portrait of Pepys by John Hales, Pepys is shown holding a piece of music: “his own composition, a setting of a poem by William Davenant, ‘Beauty Retire’ “. The collections of portraits, seascapes, landscapes and prints Pepys left are significant resources.

Celebration

Usually, we are pretty relaxed at home.

Then it began to get busier. Flowers arrived.

People arrived from Sydney, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Wellington, Ashburton and Dunedin.

Can you guess the occasion?

A huge gathering of Nola’s children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren met at Sarah and Mike’s house. She didn’t want fuss – a bit overwhelmed.

Wild or Tamed

When our bowl of supermarket blueberries ran out this morning it was satisfying to be able to pick more from the garden. I don’t think I’m imagining that these home-grown berries are tastier than the others. I am not an over-gardener, if there is such an expression, more laissez-faire. There is no spray used or fertilisers apart from my own compost or, in the case of the berries, bark and pine needles for mulch. Perhaps the natural approach makes a difference to the taste – or is it the freshness?

On Sunday, I harvested almost 800g of blueberries and black currants which was more than enough for two shortcakes. There are still more berries to be picked, and the raspberries are beginning to appear. Mostly, we just graze on those, like bears in the woods!

There’s something quite feral about eating from your own gardening. Picking berries seems very hunter-gatherer. The garden itself is quite wild and I resist keeping it too tidy. Mowing the grass/clover/various weeds which masquerade as a lawn, tying back plants so you can walk up the path, and dead-heading is about as good as it gets. Having said that, there are weeds I target: convolvulus and oxalis among them. I watch out for acanthus spreading too much.

Violas have chosen that high spot, somehow. The runner beans have come up by themselves. I read somewhere that if you leave them they will die back and come up again each year. The runner beans in the foreground are growing up one bamboo stake and one gone-to-seed silver beet plant. The broad beans were a disappointment – just a few pods (but they were delicious). Perhaps the trees (self-sown pseudopanax, ake ake and cordylines) shade them too much. Speaking of trees, there’s a volunteer “forest” of kowhai at the front of the house, and pittosporum comes up regularly. Perhaps original forest is regenerating.

I love the way violas pop up everywhere, particularly between paving stones. A friend gave me a geum, and it has spread to a number of places, notably the path where it leans delightfully across the lawn (sorry, grass). Sweet William, Mediterranean daisies, aquilegia and fox gloves pop up in various places and, of course, there’s feverfew, which I tend to refer to as “feverseveral”. These free-range plants provide interest and happiness – so important when you don’t have a view otherwise.

Plants come in waves over spring and summer. The forget-me-nots have been replaced by feverfew. Here it is looking quite fetching with hydrangeas and a carpet rose which I won in a raffle at work and put into a rare spare space. I can’t claim to have had much of a hand in all this.

Obviously, I plant most vegetables, but what happens next is beyond my control it seems – but I am on to pinching off the laterals on the tomatoes.

The kale has sweet peas scrambling over it which came up by themselves from last year’s crop and are all pink. The stakes are for the sweet peas I did plant this season, but that area has been taken over by feverfew and borage, so the sweet peas are growing up those plants rather than the stakes.

Sometimes I almost feel like tearing my hair out about it all, but lately I’ve been more relaxed. I read about a book called Wilding by Isabella Tree in a magazine called The Simple Things. The author has let her whole farm grow as it likes, with amazing results: regenerating plants and rare wildlife. I enjoy watching the finches which come in little flocks to feed on the borage seeds. One good thing about not having a cat or dog anymore is the increased birdlife in the garden. They make a fruitful garden a lovely place to be.

When I go walking I like to look at people’s gardens. It’s sad to see fewer and fewer trees and those rather monotonous easy-care “gardens”. Due to my ‘Wilding’ reading, I look more kindly on neglected gardens. There will be a whole ecosystem in there. Occasionally, there’s a charming garden with a little cottage peeping through the flowers and trees. A high-point of my walk is a new house with beautiful landscaping on a stream boundary. It has the original trees from the previous house and huge square steps rising up through bright green mounds of native moss.

This grapevine in my garden has the most rapid growth of all. It’s advancing across the garden shed at one end and all amongst the trees at the other. I do cut this back, having learnt that the grapes need to be in the sun. There are always far more grapes than we can eat or give away.

This apple tree is showing signs of another great crop. We use most of the apples, but happily share them with the birds as well.

Sturmer apples

Flowers become tamed in the domestic setting.

The yellow roses fell apart after a few days, but there were more ready to pick this morning.

Finally, the last of the cherries. Most of the crop was eaten by happy birds.

So wild or tamed? A balance of both, I think, as I put on my red-band gumboots and disappear into the overgrowth with the grubber.