Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Lockdown, day two...

Day two of our new lives dawns bright and clear; the birds are singing and - as I write this - the pencils are scratching on the work that my children have been sent by their respective schools.

Yesterday seemed fairly easy really: we did a little maths, my son watched a YouTube live stream from one of his teachers and my daughter began a project on Queen Victoria. Other things happened too: we were made to do PE (in the garden) although I was excused as I have a note from Matron (having had a hernia operation... ahh, ow!).

Today the kids were up before me, dressed and raring to go. And today it was primary school English, that baffling and absurdly over-complicated way of learning (unlearning?) your native language that was invented by Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings when they ran the Education Department and invented solely as a way of atomising everything that could possibly count as 'knowledge' in order that they could explicitly dictate that every teacher teach it and then test the teacher (via the children) on how well they'd done it. And no doubt (they thought, at the time) sack them if they hadn't done it well enough. Ha! No-one's sacking teachers now we need them for emergency childcare and remote learning, are they? Oh no!

Anyway, if like me (and I have a moderately respectable 'A' level in English and have taught it in secondary schools) you're struggling to separate your prepositional phrases from your fronted adverbials or your modifying nouns from your determiners, help is at hand.

If, like me, you were content to be taught nouns, adjectives, adverbs etc. I'll attempt to translate that into modern primary 'English'. If you weren't ever taught them, you'd better start here, with this brief explanation.

Basically a sentence (in English) works like this:
  • A noun is the name of something. It can be an object (my blog) a person (Tim) a place (my living room) or even an idea (helping other parents).
  • A pronoun is a word like 'I', or 'you' or 'they' or 'it' that you use so you don't have to keep repeating the noun. Which would sound odd. (Tim wrote a blog post on English. Tim typed it up and then Tim published it on his blog. Tim hoped it might help someone, somewhere, make sense of the English their children were doing.) [If I was still a teacher I might get you to re-write that sentence using pronouns... Stop talking at the back!]
  • A verb is an action, something you do, or something you think or feel. When I was at school (a long, long time ago) these were called 'doing words' or 'being words'. (Tim thought that what Michael Gove had done to education was a travesty. So he decided to write a blog post all about it.)
  • An adverb tells you something about how, or where or when or for how long a verb was doing its thing. That's why it's called an adverb. (Tim had always thought Michael Gove was a bit of a pillock). Confusingly an adverb can also add this sort of information to an adjective or even to another adverb. (He couldn't stand Gove's extremely smug expression) but that doesn't really matter. Once you know what they are it doesn't really matter where they occur.   
  • Tense: this tells you when what was happening (the verb) actually happened. Basically this is easy - you just add things like '-ed' or '-en' to the verb to indicate the past tense (it happened last night, last week, last year) or '-s' to show that it's happening now. (Tim had written a blog post listing useful websites earlier in the week. He hates Michael Gove with a passion!)
  • Subject and predicate: every sentence has a subject (what the sentence is about) and a predicate (what is happening to the subject or what they are doing). The subject usually (but not always) begins the sentence and can also include a pronoun and maybe some description. (Old, slightly overweight and balding, Tim was deliberately avoiding looking in the mirror these days.)  
Ok, so those are the basics. I could go on and talk about punctuation, spelling, common mistakes and so on. And I will if you want me to. But I'm also aware many of you (ok, well, maybe three?) have clicked today to find of what the f**k a fronted adverbial might be, so that you can help your children with their unnecessarily complicated English homework. So, here goes:
  • Determiner: this is a word that comes before a noun in order to tell you something specific about it. When I were a lad these were called things like 'the indefinite (or definite) article' or 'quantifiers';  even good ol' pronouns can be determiners and that's a good way to think of them: they're pro- the noun, helping it out in some way. ('One of Tim's blogs has been getting lots of traffic since the UK schools shutdown.)
  • Modifying noun: this is just a noun used as an adjective, so I'm a bit at a loss to know why it seems to have acquired a separate definition and identity, but hey-ho, you've got to fill your Year 6 SPAG tests with something! (Tim thought Gove had made a real pig's breakfast of the National Curriculum.)
  • Prepositional phrase: grammar teachers love the words 'modify' and 'modifier' and in the case of prepositional phrases it might just be the best way to think about it. If a preposition is a word like 'at, for, in, off, on, over, and under' that tells you where or when or how something is happening (the cat sat on the mat) then a prepositional phrase is just the preposition plus the object that it's governing, e.g. the cat sat on the mat or Michael Gove really does have a lot to answer for. Actually, is that a prepositional phrase? Even I'm confused! 
  • Fronted adverbial: if you put an adverb at the front of a sentence (and remember you might have more than one word for this) it's a fronted adverbial. Basically. Technically it's a little more complicated. But technically, so is rocket science. And all this talk of 'fronted adverbials' is a bit like trying to teach kids the science of a NASA space mission in order to appreciate the moon. (Every morning, as the sun is rising, Tim gets out of bed and curses Michael Gove.)
Enough, already. When I tweeted some of this a little earlier someone tweeted a reply:

Is that why we see so many errors of things like 'they're, their, there' and 'you're, your and yore' ? It's too difficult so people give up? (I don't see any foreign English speakers making these mistakes...)

Quite apart from whether it's true that non-native English speakers have a greater tendency to avoid making these mistakes, it might reveal something interesting (important? Who am I to say? Ask Michael Gove. Or Dominic Cummings!) about how best to learn a language, viz. that you can be competent, confident, accurate and even fluent in your use of English without ever knowing (or needing to know) any of this 'under-the-bonnet' stuff. 

I can drive a car... but I've no idea how to build an internal combustion engine. 

Friday, 20 March 2020

Kid's at home? You're not alone!

So, this is it! School's out... for who knows how long?

I've worked in schools and I've brought up young children at home. I know that the day can seem endless and the responsibility daunting. So what can you do?

Well, first - don't panic. And don't feel you've got to suddenly start ringing bells and moving the kids from one 'lesson' to another. Home isn't school; kids are learning all the time and they'll continue to learn and learn well with just a little encouragement from you.

And you're not alone (literally: there are now 800 million children worldwide unable to attend school!). I've been making some of my own teaching resources available for free and I'm hoping that more will follow. For now, my sixth-form guide to Homer's Iliad is free to download. There'll be more to come. Watch this space.

For GCSE subjects you really can't beat BBC Bitesize. It covers everything, integrates audio-visual material and includes interactive assessments so that kids can measure their progress.

Use YouTube with care as there can be some unsuitable (and, frankly, barmy) material but if you run a search for some of the things your kids are studying you'll soon be able to build a list of safe (and accurate) channels.
And lots of online learning sites are offering free access for a limited period to help out. Twinkl has both primary and secondary resources and a handy parent portal too, so you can keep tabs on what the kids are up to.

You can even use your (or your children's) phones as a learning tool. Apps like EdPlus (which I've personally reviewed here:https://www.bringingupcharlie.co.uk/2019/08/beat-summer-learning-loss-with-edplus.html ) aren't free but aren't expensive either. They make learning fun and again give parents vital feedback on their child's progress.

STOP PRESS! You can now download EdPlus for free using the promo code KEEPLEARNING - another generous example of how so many people are coming together to help each other out in these difficult times.

If it's stories you're after professional 'story therapist' Mary Lockwood is uploading one new episode of her 'Listen with Mary' podcast each day during the Coronavirus crisis. Not only are they great stories wonderfully read but they conclude with an activity which the kids can try at home.

And Audible has just announced free, no sign-up access to a wide range of audio books for all ages (and in a wide range of languages). "For as long as schools are closed, we're open," they are saying. All stories are free to stream on your desktop, laptop, phone or tablet.

Finally, don't feel you've got to manage every minute. Let them run off some steam in the back garden - fresh air and exercise is just as important. Boredom is a great motivator, too, and with a little support children can become their own best teacher... just don't let them on the Xbox for too long!

Thursday, 20 February 2020


Cars. Yes, cars. Couldn't be without 'em, I know. But God, could we do without a lungful of their exhaust gases!

The The Royal College of Physicians estimate that in the UK alone 40,000 deaths a year are directly linked to air pollution, with engine idling as a major contributing factor. The Head of the World Health Organisation has identified air pollution as one of the most pernicious threats facing the planet, a threat linked to the deaths of 600,000 children annually worldwide. More than 90% of our children breathe poor-quality air, apparently.

And if it doesn't choke you, it can choke off your brain power. Studies linking the negative effects of car exhaust fumes on the cognitive abilities of children are well known. And yet, outside schools up and down the county, this is happening.

These cars aren't parked. They're queuing for a place to park outside their children's school. But as they queue, their engines belch out toxic gas on those of us walking on the pavement. But worse! Once they get there, to the school, and park then this is what can happen:

A car, parked (badly) and unoccupied, with the engine left running.

It's enough to make you want to travel in the safety of your own car, except...

The detrimental effect this must have on air-quality around the school is obvious. There are statutory powers to stop this sort of thing although you've got to overcome the inertia of the local borough council (whose statutory duty it is under Part IV of the Environment Act 1995 to monitor and control air quality) in order to get anywhere.

Oh, and don't try writing to your local councillor(s) either. I did. Last April, to both the ward rep and the leader and I've yet to hear a dickie-bird back. Mind you, the poor dickie-birds are as badly off in all this as pedestrians and cyclists. I did mention the fact that I'd heard nothing to my local MP. And I heard nothing, until very recently when an apologetic email arrived saying my letter had got overlooked in the fight for votes.

And there are clearly no votes in getting motorists to cut their engines.

Thankfully someone IS doing something, although it'll cost your child's school £60 out of their ever-diminishing budget. The RAC has commissioned this banner as part of its campaign for cleaner air.

You can get one by clicking this link: https://www.ottimodigital.co.uk/rac-banner/rac-banner

Or you could just invest in a stock of face masks and underwater breathing apparatus...

Friday, 7 February 2020

Reading matter

As my New Year's Resolution has (again) involved reading more books I thought I'd share my thoughts about those (few) that I've so far completed.

First was a wonderful return visit to a truly wonderful book, Modern Nature, by Derek Jarman. I think what appealed to me most about this book when I first read it was that it was so unexpected. I knew Jarman as a somewhat iconoclastic film director and gay rights campaigner. I remember catching a glimpse of Prospect Cottage, the famous fisherman's hut he lived in, when we visited Dungeness a couple of year's ago. There's now a campaign to save it, preserve it, open it up to the public. British costume designer Sandy Powell even wore a plain white suit to the BAFTAs last weekend in order to collect autographs on her clothing which she hopes to auction in aid of the campaign. The book itself is wonderfully lyrical - part peaen to the beauty of otherwise unloved places and part memoir of a remarkable artistic life cut tragically short.

Prospect Cottage, July 2016

Another untimely death - that of Elizabeth Wurtzel in January this year - led me to my next book, another memoir though about as different from Jarman's as it's possible to imagine. In Prozac Nation Wurtzel describes the long, lonely struggle against depression and the isolation of suffering something so misunderstood in forensic detail. If occasionally bordering on self-pity, the writing usually crackles with electricity. Although the book is relentless in its misery it's not a miserable read, although occasionally a bit of judicious editing would have been useful.

Finally, I thought I'd go the whole drug-addled, self-obsessed hog by reading Self's book on himself, Will, by Will. Self. I like Self's fiction, really loved his Zack Busner trilogy and thought his creative power would make even the most sickening autobiographical anecdotes of addiction interesting. But like Wurtzel's pain, the whole thing is never so interesting to the reader as it is to the sufferer. Philip Larkin once wrote to a correspondent: 'Other people's illnesses aren't interesting. I mention mine only to excuse the probable dullness of what I shall write.' To illnesses, add addiction.

Three books down, 49 to go. My Goodreads challenge is to average one book per week. And I'm already behind. But, in related news, I've now signed up to PigeonHole and currently enjoying the daily 'staves' of A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister. A daily, online serialisation might be just the thing I need. And a good book, of course, which this is!

To be continued...
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