An Instruction

photo-1460626399219-57a00a2361cb

His breathing labours over my shoulder, huffing out breath perfumed with ham and disappointment. My hands clunk over the keys, slip off the C sharp, snag on the C. I can feel the wince behind me.

Eight bars to go. I stretch out the middle finger, labouring too long in the shift in chords on the left hand, out of time. Rest for one, back in on an F. Should be sharp, it’s in the key signature. My shoulders tighten.

No retribution. Maybe he didn’t notice. The last bit is easier. I accelerate the movements, trying not to let the slick of sweat affect it. The last chord is fiddly. Shuffle the fingers around, make sure it’s in the right key. A bit of a pause, but there it is. A harmonious exhalation.

I slump back, twitching my feet off the pedals. Last week he let loose a tirade, the importance of practising every day, little flecks of white gathering at the edges of thin lips. He must be gathering the words, preparing the shape of his discontent.

A soft gurgle. I shift around, my school skirt rucking up against the piano stool. His chin is stooped against his chest, breaths ruffling the hairs poking out of his nose. He’s asleep.

I could wake him, dart my hand out to those skin-wrapped bones, slackened on the edge of his navy trousers. They always move slowly, look like they won’t be able to grip the cheque I place between them every four weeks, carefully filled in with Mum’s looped letters.

Until they’re on the keys. Swooping over them, barely touching, the pressure so light. Reaching impossible distance in semiquaver speed. Not like the plodding gait of mine. So smooth and pink, you’d think they could race, leap over the spaces.

The clock slices out time, gold against flowered wallpaper. Each minute costs 50p. Mum shoved that comment at me over the dinner table the other day when she asked why I hadn’t done my scales. Waste of money, she said.

His head pops up.

“Let’s have that again,” he says.

I bring my hands back up, clawing the ends like he showed me, the top of the pads on the keys. Another attempt is granted, possible redemption.

Even if it did cost mum £3.50.

What the ‘Consent’ Conversation is Missing

Recently, a man complained about being forced to go to ‘consent’ lessons at University. I can see his point. Not only is it a little bit insulting, but it’s probably a little bit late. But what else are Universities supposed to do? When one in seven women in University will experience some form of sexual assault, it’s not surprising they’ve decided to do something about it.
To me, the word ‘consent’ is, in itself, a little misleading. It likens any sexual activity to a transaction; something is offered, and either accepted or refused. If only it were that simple.
Just imagine the scenario:
Man: Would you like a biscuit?
Woman: Ooh, maybe, it does look tasty.
Man: Here you go (offering biscuit).
Woman: Actually, I’m not sure I will.
Man: EAT THE BISCUIT (shoves biscuit in her face).
Reduced to this, any discussion about consent seems pointless. But there are so many other assumptions and social narratives happening, that it isn’t quite as simple as all that.
For starters, I hate the assumption that it’s something that is ‘given’ to a woman. All the words to describe it focus on the action; the poking, if you will, rather than any other element. Even though ‘making love’ might sound a bit cheesy, at least it focuses on the idea that two people are working together, to produce something, as if they’re making biscuits, each one having a go at stirring the bowl, before something delicious comes out of the oven that they can both enjoy (ok, I may have overused the biscuit analogy).
The other massive issue is the pervasive idea that men are the ones that get sexual urges. Look at what happens at puberty; there are tangible (and, quite messy) situations that allow you to pinpoint the moment when things start looking a bit different for boys. I don’t remember anyone telling me about my clitoris, or what it was for. No wonder we’re all a bit lost when we start out. Girls are exactly the same. They get funny feelings they don’t really know what to do with (mine were directed at a teenage Johnny Depp in Cry Baby) and sudden urges to do things they don’t understand. Later in life it persists, this idea that the female who likes and *gasp* wants sex is somehow naughty and wrong (those are the nice words), or that if she does indeed want sex, she’s not going to admit it (thanks Robin Thicke, that really helped us all out).
Male stereotypes don’t help much either. Your typical ‘lad’ is supposed to have sex as his ultimate end goal. He needs to rack up his numbers in some weird ‘competition’ that places sexual knowledge of a woman alongside equalling his mates’ top score on Fifa. If we go along with the idea that only a certain type of female will ‘permit’ sex to happen, then the males are left rather lost. You might be pretending to be a good girl, but actually like it, and because I know you’ve let me kiss you/put my hand up your top/you had sex with my friend, then obviously I am going to assume that on this occasion, your ‘no’ means yes.
Put all of that into a night out, add a few shandies and some questionable ideas about how your mode of dress signals how ‘up for it’ you are, and no wonder things get tricky.
Let’s say a woman goes home with a man. At this point, she is feeling pressured – she’s exhibited the ‘expected’ behaviour for wanting someone to have sex with her. The man is feeling equally pressured – he’s got to follow through and do what he’s supposed to. It’s no use pretending that half-pissed teenagers are going to take this moment to enter into a responsible conversation about how they would like to proceed from this point. Which is where we enter into ‘grey areas.’ Perhaps she decides she doesn’t want to, but feels threatened, or nervous, and decides to shut up and wait until it’s over. The accusation afterwards would be that she didn’t say no. Simplifying it to this one-word refusal is unhelpful, and leads to upsetting accusations levelled at victims. If she freezes up and offers no form of encouragement, I would take that as a no. Let’s remove fixed roles, so women don’t have to feel like victims and men don’t have to feel like they must sexually dominate.
Or he decides that he wants sex, that it’s now unfair for her to withdraw her assumed ‘offer.’ That she’s being a prick tease. We need to get away from the idea that certain behaviours automatically lead to sex, on both sides. Until the answer; “well, we went back to mine but we were a bit drunk so we decided to kiss and have a cuddle and leave it until the morning,” is an acceptable answer to the question; “how did you get on last night?” things are not going to improve.
So yes, until that point, you might have to go to a consent class. And we might have to face up to the fact that the most sexually educated young people go on to experience far less sexual abuse, whether we like the idea of sex being discussed in the classroom or not. Abstinence doesn’t work. Assuming women don’t like sex doesn’t work. If we can’t talk about it in front of each other at school, the danger is that we might not have that conversation at all. Broader ideas about emotions, sexual urges and feeling pressured in the moment need to be included in order to leave everyone feeling as comfortable as possible when they’re faced with the real thing.
Let’s call it making sex. Or creating sexy time. Anything that makes it clear it is a verb, an action entered into enthusiastically by both parties. You bring the butter, I’ll bring the flour. We’ll make some lovely biscuits. Together.

How to be Awesome

I’ve always been a perpetual starter. So many hobbies, instruments, sports, arts, languages, begun but never mastered. Yet I’ve just finished the third draft of my first novel, and have completed numerous half marathons and two full marathons. I don’t think I started out particularly better at these two things than any of the others, so what’s the difference? I tried to piece together the differences and approaches that have allowed me to reach the ‘end’ of these things, while not getting past the starting point with so many others. What I discovered is that there is a definite pattern to it, and that (in theory) it could be applied to, well, anything.

What are you aiming for?

The nature of the task itself is bound to make a difference. While both my achievements were pretty long (26 miles and 92,000 words!) they do, at least, have an end. And on the way to that finish line, measurable steps. It turns out I’m pretty motivated by goals, and by competition. When I was making a myriad excuses about running (it’s cold, I’ve just eaten, my ankle feels a bit wobbly, my kit is wet, I can’t be arsed) I put together a training table (yeah, I know, loser) that allowed me to tick off the runs I’d achieved, how quick I’d done them, all that stuff. With the book, I did a tally of words that I did each day, then did a weekly/monthly tally – and my March self did significantly better than my January self.

As we’ve been telling the Year 7s this week (being a teacher means you get two goes at having a New Year, when it’s not as cold and you aren’t feeling as fat from Christmas) goals need to be measurable, with a specific time frame, in order to for them to be tangible. And for me, motivational. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started learning the guitar…

How can what you want to achieve be measured?

Well, the above is obvious, but for a while now I’ve been ‘learning French.’ What that means, in reality, is that I chat with my boyfriend when I can be bothered (not that often) make promises to go on Duolinguo every day, that I then don’t keep up with, and then get annoyed with myself every few months for having had a French boyfriend for over a year and a half and still have the French ability of my sixteen-year-old self. So yes, dammit, I’m making a table. Something I can tick off, like engaging with the language for 10mins every day, even if it’s just reading a French website, having a fortnightly tally of conversation practice and at least one dull grammar exercise. Hopefully, my January self will be ‘le merde.’

So break down your goals into manageable and measurable chunks, and let the awesomeness commence.

What are your incentives?

It’s all very well to want to get politically active in order to be a better person, or to want to learn the guitar because you think you’ll look bloody cool, but just like measuring how to get there, you need to know what success looks like, in a tangible way, otherwise you’ll give up before you get there. Another of my fantastically vague goals is ‘I want to be a writer.’ But what the hell does that look like? Here, I reckon simple carrot and stick approach is the way forward. When I finished my first marathon, I ate an enormous steak and drank a lot of Prosecco (champagne was 100 Euros) and felt bloody marvellous. If you’d give your six-year-old a sticker or a gold star, why not try the adult equivalent? Choosing a measurable point of success (being able to have a ten-minute conversation with someone in French without swearing and getting annoyed) and assigning something pleasurable will make it far more likely that you’ll get there. In fact, I haven’t really assigned something for my rather large milestone of finishing my novel, and as a result have been floating about feeling vaguely anticlimactic all week. Should have had another steak.

Write down the thing you want to be able to do, the date you want to do it by, and what the reward will be. Through this method, you’re more likely to reach your target, and be happy about getting there.

Are you being realistic?

For me, this is a very important question. I’m a terrible ‘should-er.’ On the (rare) occasions I waste time, I’m consumed with huge guilt at what productive, life-affirming, healthy, wonderful thing I could have been doing rather than watching Netflix or pissing about on Buzzfeed. Take now, for instance. It’s 8pm on a Friday. All sensible people are in the pub by now. I’m writing a blog post and making granola.

If your goals are too unrealistic, they will be unsustainable, and before you know it you’re berating yourself on the sofa, having once again failed to learn Chinese/the piano/how to make an origami frog. And at the same time, give yourself a break. It’s a fine line between slacking off and resting, but do allow yourself days off (I made the mistake of scheduling in a load of Sunday tutoring when I first started. Terrible idea. I hated everyone). That way, you actually want to do the things you’ve given yourself time for.

What are you waiting for?

I could write some life-affirming claptrap here, perhaps a motivational quote, but you probably get that stuff so much on Facebook you don’t need it here. You get the idea; you’re brilliant, seize the day, etc.

Having achieved one of my goals for the week (more regular blogging – this is my 45th post!) I’m off down the pub. Achievable, measurable goals, with positive incentives once they are achieved. I could get used to this.

The Enemy

The nugget of something
Is there
But in the act of putting it on the page
It disappears

No flare of wit or will
Nothing to separate
Me
From all the other people struggling to take bits of language and string them together in a way that is meaningful

Wavering in the face of the need to be
Decisive
Shadowed by all those
Names and Ideas and Prose that people
Praise

Writer’s block
Is simply the scorn of myself
Nothing that can’t be seen
In a mirror

The wall that rises up
Is my own self-doubt
Laughing at the preposterous notion
That I could ever be a writer

This is truly the enemy to my writing this week! Whatever you do, don’t let your own self-doubt or lack of belief hold you back. We all start somewhere.

Editing Backwards

I find myself in the glorious position of having completed the second draft of my novel. It feels infinitely more satisfying than the first. Then, I knew there was a mountain of work still to be done, endless shuffling about of scenes and ideas, and there was a long road ahead. Already, this one feels more polished and together, so although there’s still long way to go, it doesn’t seem quite as insurmountable. Thought I’d share a few thoughts on what worked for me.

1. Write it all again

Every single word has been typed afresh, from beginning to end. There is no substitute for having your words on a printout at the side of your computer, and your fingers tapping away onto a blank sheet (metaphorical). This has to come after you’ve read it through and made notes, but simple cutting and pasting and editing what’s already there just doesn’t allow you to appraise and consider each word. In order to get back in, they really have to earn their spot!

 

2. Break it up

I found that there were little ‘arcs’ to the novel that were between 20,000 and 30,000 words long. This way, I was only editing a short bit at a time, rather than doing the whole thing from beginning to end. What it also allowed was a second look through a small chunk, something that would have felt too daunting over the whole book. This allowed me to be far more thorough and detailed in my editing.

3. Use something physical to visualise your story

I love Scrivener. It’s brilliant. I can swap scenes about, put things in folders and label them, move bits aside for later, use the cork board to see all the scenes in a section of the book, and many other things that I did see in the initial setup programme which looked awesome but I can’t remember them now. But there is nothing like having it physically in your hands. I like mapping out timelines on A3 pages, either to do with characters or plots. The cue card system I put in place for the second draft was very successful. In some feedback from my first draft, it turned out that while I had described the scene, the actions, all fine, the problem was that the reader hadn’t actually found out what I wanted them to. So, in came my colour coded system (overlap from teacher-related stationery nerdery). Black was for what actually happened in the scene. Blue was for what I wanted the reader to find out or know by the time they got to the end of it. Green was for any hints I was including at this point which would build up tension and lead to something being revealed later. If it was a scene at the end of a chapter, red was for any hanging questions left open that would pull the reader through the book. As I’m writing a dual narrative, the pink was for any links between the two. There’s a picture at the bottom, if you can read my writing! Then I could swap things around, think about how they linked up, what would work better where (again in smaller chunks, rather than the whole book) which really helped fine tune the plot.

4. Edit backwards

This is absolute genius. My tutor suggested it to me, so I can’t take the credit! While I certainly wouldn’t recommend starting at the final page and working your way back, once you’ve separated your work out into chunks, choose maybe a scene or two, or a chapter, and work from end to beginning, page by page. All of a sudden, you stop concentrating on the story and start really looking at your sentences. You notice typos more easily, you pick up on clunky phrases, in a way that forwards reading just doesn’t produce. My plan is to extend this even further for the next draft. Because my brain was falling out of my ears by the time I got to the end of the novel (and the beginning always ends up with the bright-eyed, eager me) the back third of it is much more sloppy and rushed. So I’m going to edit the whole thing backwards. Start from the final chunk, then go back through it piece by piece, so I can give the rear end the love and care it deserves, rather than spending all my energies on the opening.

5. Be aware of your habits

I did a check for the word ‘seem’ and found 79. There were 35 ‘shuffles’ and 27 ‘nudges.’ We all have our go-to words and phrases that shuffle (see!) out more than others, so being aware of them will stop your reader from thinking you have the vocabulary of a stunted carp. I also massively overuse a main clause followed by an ‘ing’ clause. They’re everywhere! Noticing this stuff means I can pick them out easily on a first read and think of alternatives where possible.

6. Be ruthless

Now and again, I stumble across a sentence and think ‘ooooh, that’s lovely, that is.’ Not as often as I’d like, but it can happen. However, if it’s in a scene that just doesn’t belong, or is causing everything to be a bit, well, floppy, it has to go. In order to make myself feel slightly better, I have a whole section  in the ‘research’ section on Scrivener where I put of chunks of the book that I’ve taken out, so I can always go back and try and squeeze them in somewhere else, or if I decide, with a re-read, that the deleted scene is suddenly crucial. So cut it, but put it somewhere safe, just in case.

7. Set deadlines

I have the advantage of a course deadline, but I set myself the personal goal of finishing my second draft by the end of July, so I would have a whole five weeks (really doesn’t seem that long now) in order to go back over it one final time, until my final hand-in date. Of course, then I’ll have to do it again before I send it to agents, but… let’s not think about that right now. For me, it works. It’s the only way I went from wheezing through a ten-minute run to completing two marathons. I signed up for a run (the first was ten miles) so I would have to train. With that impending deadline, it forced me out of bed on a cold day to run around the park. And, seven years on, it’s still how I do running. Of course, that doesn’t mean I always do it sensibly. My writing deadlines invariably mean that I spend a good three weeks faffing about with a few thousand words, then look at the calendar, have a heart attack and spend the next two weeks writing and editing for hours at a time, with very little sleep, in a bid to make it. But here I am, at the start of August, with a lovely printed copy of my second draft sat on my table (no I haven’t read it yet) so I can start the process all over again!

There aren’t any shortcuts, but hopefully this helps to chart a path through the chaos and trauma that is editing. I think it’s been my biggest lesson, understanding just how many times you have to back over something again, and again, and again, until it’s ready. So only, like, eight drafts to go, right?

My lovely colour-coded card system:

IMG_2405

WOW

Just, WOW.

The Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre in London is in its 5th year, and going strong. It lasts for an entire week, and involves hundreds of women and men from around the globe. For a mere £20, you get a full day pass on the Saturday or the Sunday. This gives you the opportunity to see bands and choirs, take self-defence classes, do yoga, laugh along to comedy, listen to inspirational women discuss current issues, take part in workshops, and listen to some brave women tell their personal tales of suffering. All of this in the lovely setting of the Southbank, with bright flags and colours everywhere, friendly staff to help you around. Even if you didn’t pay for an evening ticket for the big names (Salma Hayek, Hugh Grant) you still got to see and talk to some pretty awesome people. There were so many amazing experiences in just the day I was there, I wish I’d spent the whole week listening and talking to amazing women.

To pre-empt any backlash, no, it wasn’t in any way anti men. Or anti anything else. It concerns me that whenever something is held up as a celebration of a particular marginalised group, there are always cries of ‘what about straight people!’ ‘what about white people!’ Celebrating and empowering anyone isn’t about saying they’re in any way better than anyone else. A completely equal world (for gender, race and everything else) makes sense for all human beings. But people are marginalised. People are treated differently for who they are. And it felt pretty awesome to be in a space where being who you are was celebrated, encouraged and dissected. Through positive experiences like this, hopefully all people can appreciate how the struggle of a particular group is linked intrinsically to everyone else’s, and that the empowerment of one leads to the empowerment of the whole. There were quite a few men there, too.

We started out with a look at the news. A little depressing, to say the least. A ‘women’s day’ pullout in one newspaper had one story about a female sportsperson and some adverts for makeup. A large image emblazoned with the title ‘are men the new women?’ featured a man relaxing by a pool with some bubbly in his hand. The key words associated with women included ‘pores!’ and ‘angst!’ A case about an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal and a lawyer calling the teenage victims of gang rape ‘slags.’ So far so not surprising. After this initial look at how things currently are, the feeling was overwhelmingly one of how things are, and will, change for the better. The inspirational Leslee Udwin who made the documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ was there and framed it in such a beautifully simplistic way. The rape and murder of that girl were awful. But who are we to say which of these is any worse than any other rape or torture. Her message was simple. From sex trafficking to objectification in the media, from rape to catcalling, from being denied basic human rights to being treated like a less employable or intelligent human being, they are all born of the same issue; the lack of value placed on females. In some countries this manifests itself far more shockingly and in others it is more subtle, but it still exists. The backlash from her film has led to criminal proceedings and a prisoner being stoned to death. While the average Jane wouldn’t expect something quite so extreme, the message quite clearly was that we can make a difference. What followed was a group experience where if a statement applied to us, we stood up. It was wonderful to realise how many people shared both happy and difficult life experiences, and set the tone for a sense of togetherness that lasted all day.

We heard from other people who are also having a massive impact on the world of equality and perception. The woman who devised #ThisGirlCan (if you haven’t seen it – the fantastic campaign around normal women exercising to feel great and look great, even if they wobble) and EverydaySexism (something which started out as a website and is now working to implement changes in government policy). Normal women who saw something they were unhappy about and tried to do something about it were making a difference. WOWNOW was produced by Gemma Cairney (Radio 1 DJ, I’m not cool enough to know who she is), and produced a shocking video where young teenage girls talk honestly about the way they feel about themselves, the pressures of things like exams, Instagram and ASKFM, and how porn is infiltrating their friendships and relationships (a boy was asked why he didn’t stop having sex with a girl when he saw she was crying. He thought it was normal). I was left looking at the different areas of my life and if I could in some way help to spread a more realistic and empowering image of women to the world. Watch this space!

As our day continued, we went into some smaller rooms for more specific discussions. In ‘Hollywood, Sci-fi, Computer Games and Rape,’ I discovered the term ‘fridging.’ This is when a female character is raped, murdered, or tortured, which is then used as a plot device to drive forward the protagonist’s desire for revenge. All too often, rape is depicted as an issue to do with men (look at Vietnam war films), power or control (Game of Thrones) rather than the horrific and terrifying thing it is for the victim. We also talked about the lack of male-male rape, or even female-male rape, and how the media supported the myth that false rape claims are more prevalent than they actually are. Where we go with this was left open. While using something horrific as a plot device is arguably lazy and insensitive writing, exploring the darker sides of humanity and its effects is something that art is often concerned with, so how to navigate through this is very interesting. Unless we want to return to the 18th Century idea of a novel being morally instructional, it is unclear. Obviously, each one of these sessions could have taken an entire day’s discussion!

The most harrowing was the personal sharing of victims of domestic abuse. I find it hard to write my response to this without feeling like I am trivialising these brave women’s experiences. Suffice to say that I was left with a sense of the tragedy people go through every day. We left the session talking about the need to connect more with others, to allow a greater support network so people don’t feel alone.

We finished with a talk with biographer Rachel Holmes and her work on writing books about women who changed the face of society. She talked about Eleanor Marx (I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of her) and Sylvia Pankhurst. I’m definitely buying her books! She unfolded the stories of two amazing women starting to tread the boards of a life as yet unlived by most women, and the differences they made to socialism and women’s rights are phenomenal. Once again, the message we were left with was that not just at elections but in between, the things we do every day can raise awareness and bring about real change.

So where to leave this post? At times depressing, always frustrating and often heartbreaking, the plight of women the world over is a sad thing to behold, and unfortunately still seems to be something that needs to be defended as worth investigating and supporting. Having said that, the leaps forward made in so many areas of the world cannot be underestimated. But there is so much more to be done. Young women today are under such pressures and have things to deal with that we simply can’t understand, so our thinking and ideas around how to help them need to change in line with technology and other changes in the modern world. If so many people are prepared to gather in one place, of all genders, sexuality, races and creeds, and raise their voices in affirmation of a world where everyone is respected equally, surely the world our children grow up in will look different than it does now.

Teaching Beyond the Test!

I found myself in the unusual situation of defending my position on educating 11-16-year-olds about the world around them and was told that this was ‘A-level.’ Unfortunately this person held a senior position with an examining body. The topic in question was bringing current developments in the media into the classroom. Clearly not relevant. In a similar vein, a rather astute Year 9 pupil quipped just this week; “Miss, we aren’t really given an education, are we? We’re just taught how to pass tests.” In both cases I find a saddening reflection of our education system.

I am in no way advocating a return to some sort of 70s ‘freestyle’ education in which teachers rock up and we all get groovy and artistic, but it does bring me up short sometimes when I consider just how narrow a set of skills our children are learning in a school environment. Practically of course, there must be some way of assessing pupils. There must be some sort of benchmark of assessment in order to measure attainment, but when did this become the sole purpose of education?

It is an exam board’s job to communicate the to schools the nature and content of assessments to ensure pupils have an equal chance of success when measured against their peers. It is not an exam board’s job to make value judgements as to what is ‘worthwhile’ in a lesson. How often are employers heard to complain that young people leaving school to go into the job market lack the basic skills required? Might it be that the fault lies not in the ‘rigour’ or ‘discipline’ in schools, but rather that the goalposts for success in schools are so very narrow? A teacher, department leader, headteacher, would be perfectly within their rights to teach nothing but that which can be found on the different specifications. After all, this is how schools are judged. But what level of disservice does this do to the child, and more importantly, our future society and potential for economic growth.

Call me idealistic, but I look forward to a day when an exam board praises the inclusion of modern and critical thinking alongside the fixed curriculum, and a pupil can leave school with a greater and more rounded knowledge of the world than ‘what’s on the spec.”

Media Literacy Part 1

Qualifying

The term ‘media literacy’ (often also termed ‘digital literacy’) has been bandied around in educational circles for a while now, and has been the subject of several documents (http://bit.ly/gKEWmz) and case studies (http://bit.ly/qUdCz0), of which this is clearly only a sample that I have come across. It is a hugely broad and encompassing term which is possibly one of the most problematic issues, as it takes just as long to define exactly what it is we’re talking about as it does to figure out whether or not it’s something we should be prioritising. To summarise what I think are the most important elements of the general theory, it’s about educating people (I say people as I think it’s just as valid for teachers as it is for pupils) about the influence of the media. This includes the massive assumptions we have about ourselves and our pupils (see http://bit.ly/Cdgmv for discussion on ‘digital natives,’ although I would argue that the link between someone growing up with technology around them and therefore being able to use it successfully is too much of a leap) and also the but also stresses the importance of decoding and deconstructing the messages that bombard us every day via the mass media. Should pupils have an understanding of the motives of media companies and how this skews their messages? Should pupils be able to understand how something is constructed in order to not only decode the messages it promotes but in order to successfully be able to reproduce it?

Barriers

People’s main objection to taking something like media literacy seriously is heavily tied in with their lack of respect for the area in general. Often what is perceived as ‘easy’ or ‘obvious’ are the things we encounter every day. Therefore modern popular fiction is less likely to be treated as ‘literature’ and websites or films are less likely to be seen as worthy of study. The issue is not really about whether or not the media is worthy of study, at least not for this discussion, but rather that the widespread influence and all-pervasive nature of the media and digital technology means that we are doing our pupils a disservice not to help them in decoding and creating what will be an enormous part of their working and adult life. Interestingly enough, despite what appears to be a ‘back to basics’ approach to education in general, the government have just endorsed a ‘media literacy pack’ produced by Media Smart (http://bit.ly/p88Whu) in order to help teachers tackle issues of skewed messages in the media in advertising and related to body image in general which could have an adverse affect on young and influential minds. So where is the secondary equivalent? How can a topic so broad begin to be embraced in schools in any real way? Do teachers need to be convinced of its importance before it can be prioritised in curriculums? I’ll be trying answer some of these questions in the second post. Please submit your comments, I’d be really interested to know your thoughts or what you’ve encountered.


‘Embedding’ across the curriculum – real possibility or box-checking exercise?

Cross-curricular concepts

As a teacher in a secondary school, we are constantly bombarded with new initiatives, ideas and concepts that are to be ’embedded’ into the school as a whole. These can vary from government-led legislation (cynically often a knee-jerk reaction to whatever the popular press happens to be shouting about or the exact opposite of whatever the last government did, despite how effective it may or may not have been) to governor/headteacher priorities. Ideally, your school should give you the opportunity to trial and put into practice initiatives that are teacher-led and allow us as professionals to develop and expand on interests and skills personally. How often is this actually the case? I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

‘Embedding’

Once the particular idea has been identified as worthy of further development (a tricky process in itself!) the process of ’embedding’ it into school practice begins. Here is, I feel, the trickiest area. Especially in secondary schools, where there is often a tendency to make assumptions about other subjects (“oh they cover that in Maths”) or at worst take a ‘pass-the-buck’ attitudes(they teach them how to spell in English so I don’t have to bother), it is often difficult to see how something can be truly entrenched over the entire school. Very often it leads to things which are merely bolted on, such as an extra lesson here and there, or a learning to learn week, or a poster around school. This can sometimes feel like a box checking exercise, where we have successfully used ‘X’ in our teaching and can now move on safe in the knowledge that is is embedded into our practice. Or is it?

Tackling the Issues

The conundrum lies between being able to prove something is actually happening in lessons, and a sense of trust in your teaching staff. Very often these things should simply be the process of good teaching (what teacher should not be developing a pupil’s ability to communicate as well as particular subject-related knowledge or skills?). But senior management and Heads of Department have the onus placed on them that they need to in some way prove and measure the fact that these things are taking place in classrooms on a regular basis. It seems naive to assume that we will return to a system where the inherent values and skills of a teacher are taken for granted, and perhaps this could lead to stagnation on both sides of the classroom wall. In the culture of assessment-driven education and a constant need to verify and measure teaching and learning aims and outcomes, is it truly possible for innovative, creative and highly important practices to be truly embedded across the entire school?

Possible Solutions

Invariably this must rest with the school’s approach to CPD. If a teacher truly believes they can test out theories, ideas and concepts with the full backing of the senior team, only then can you be assured that pupils will continue to be exposed to the full range of experiences they are entitled to as learners. While of course schools and departments need to maintain assessment standards, teachers must be able to feel that there is some space in the curriculum (yes, even at KS4!) to allow them to trial new teaching methods and base their teaching on a range of priorities. Only then will we be able to truly educate. Despite the pressures rained down on teachers, they must never be allowed to feel that all they are doing is preparing the next generation for a series of exams. We need to educate the whole child to deal with and thrive in the ever-changing environment they will find themselves in once they leave the classroom space. Some of these ideas will stick, and become whole-school policy, while others may fall by the wayside. But at least they will have been attempted. A combination of trust in your teaching staff and commitment to innovation should lead to a pupil cohort that is constantly kept on its toes. I am hugely interested in how other schools approach these areas and how much people feel their school ’embeds’ new ideas across the curriculum. Please share!