Clutter in the Classroom

In the last few days I have resumed de-cluttering my classroom. I don’t want to leave the room full of stuff no-one wants.

A ruthless weeding of the bookshelves has left them looking more appealing. Most of the remaining books I have bought myself, our budget having been tiny for many years. The bookshelf and filing cabinet were originally from home, come to think of it! Filing cabinets aren’t used much now and I’m gradually emptying this one.

I have ended up with my car boot full of old books destined for the book fridge – a gap-filler project in the city featuring a re-purposed glass-fronted double fridge on an empty section. Whenever I go past there is someone adding books to the fridge or taking books out. Someone will like my offerings: the literature reference books (superseded by online search engines only for some), classics, and general fiction and non-fiction.

Today, I started on the shelves under the whiteboard. I opened a ring-binder which was carefully ordered into sections and once used for planning programmes for my classes. I hadn’t opened it for a while, and I was astounded, as if looking at it for the first time. All that work.

A couple of filing boxes were next for the chop. Full of thinking strategies – when we focused on metacognition – and literacy project material, reading strategies and enquiry projects. Hours of work, planning, meetings, course material and school-wide professional development. We’re on to different things now such as wellbeing and assessment and data and appraising our performance. Where has all that learning gone? Have we simply moved on? Is it refined into current practice?

It’s in the recycling now.

Our meeting after school today was to hear from the architectural team putting together a plan for the future development of the school. Our wish-list includes cultural and performance spaces, a shared garden, social and learning spaces, sustainable energy sources…all things I have for ages hoped might be possible. It reminds me of an inspirational book I read in the ’80s or ’90s by NZ educationalist Charmaine Pountney who had a vision for a school centred in its community, sustained by an organic garden, and run by the students and adults together. It will be interesting to see how our plans go – if I can I still say “our” when I have moved on.

I am looking forward to hearing about it all.

Marking Time

These school holidays I have brought home a large pile of marking. Usually this would be daunting, especially when resting and recovering is my priority but, somehow, I am relatively relaxed about it this time. Perhaps because I won’t have to do this next year when I am retired – my choice, but what an adjustment to get my head around. For a start, there will be no “holidays”. I won’t feel the same anticipation and delight in a long weekend! How strange that will be.

My marking sorted into piles: Year 11 formal writing (2 classes), Year 10 Response to visual text, Year 13 “Let’s get critical” (check marking) and Year 12 Personal Responses.

With four days of holiday left, I have finished the marking. It hasn’t all been marking, though, thankfully. The grape vine and the roses have been pruned and salad greens, broad beans and sweet peas are in with rather rickety trellis and bamboo stakes to support them. Bedded down in pea straw, they seem to be surviving the frosts. I have used my own compost (yes, so proud!) on the raspberry canes and mulched them with bark.

One lot of formal writing done, one to go.

It has been nice to ration the marking and mix it up with gardening, reading the paper, doing the code-cracker, catching up with the Listener (now just two weeks behind), meeting friends, breaking my movie drought with Yesterday (and, consequently, bingeing on Beatles music), housework, walking, making soup and bread rolls, getting the car serviced, and enjoying a few books.

One of the books I’ve read this week is Goodbye, Mr Chips by James Hilton published in 1934. It’s been on my bookcase unread for years, probably picked up in a market. Perhaps it’s a first edition as it has the name “Charlotte Bowler, July 1935, Roslyn, Dunedin” in flowing handwriting, in ink, on the end paper. It has a cerulean blue hard cover under the art-deco dust cover. The sentiments expressed about a retired school master are dated and nostalgic but Mr Chips’ kindness and gentle concern for his pupils are neither of these things. For me too, students are the one sure point. A former colleague used to admonish his students with: “Stop it! You’re spoiling my bad mood.” I have been known to say cheerfully at the end of a class, “Go away…and don’t come back!” English as a subject gives infinite scope. Here my experience with Mr Chips parts ways, for he “had begun to sink into that creeping dry-rot of pedagogy that is the worst and ultimate pitfall of the profession; giving the same lessons year after year…” I would have fallen into dry-rot myself if I taught the same thing endlessly. I have to interest both my students and myself. Many of them could pretty much teach themselves, I think, such is their interest in the world, and others just get by with careful help. So, here’s to the teaching profession, and may it go from strength to strength.

During holidays, as well as marking, I reflect on the past term and plan for the next. It will be interesting to learn to cast off a forty-year habit of thinking, That could be useful for school when I read articles and stories or hear interviews on the radio and on podcasts. I will put aside thinking up more ways to motivate reluctant learners (perhaps better described as “school-averse teenagers” who could respond to different ways of learning). I can leave this responsibility in the hands of others, including the issue of electronic devices now integral to our teaching and learning. Helping students to use devices responsibly can be someone else’s concern. I will no longer have to be mindful of drawing a line between work and school, which has meant striving to avoid school emails or Classroom while at home even as it becomes increasingly necessary and, often, invasive. “Work-life balance” has become “work-life integration”. In effect, it always has been the latter for me, but is resisted more now than before.

To ease myself into a new phase of life in which these concerns may remain while my part in the constant change inherent to teaching is diminished, I will inevitably become “school averse” myself, practising different habits of mind, learning and action.

Croquet, anyone?
(Croquet Club, St Albans Park)

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.


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 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…


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.