Saturday, 26 March 2011

Jamie's Dream School 4: Classical Gas

How do we feel about this, apart from indifferent?
Blimey, when did Poetry join falconry and fletchery as subjects of yesteryear? I mean, everyone knows it's a vaguely doomed ambition, intimately linked with unemployablity and a life of wretchedness, but it's always been like that, indeed, it's part of its charm. It's edifying to reflect that as poetry has apparently melted from the GCSE syllabus, it has been replaced by such stalwart qualifications as Media Studies, BTECs worth a wheel barrow of GCSEs, and Citizenship. I'm no economist, but I suspect someone, somewhere has been sold a bag of magic beans in exchange for the family cow.

I mention this because the focus of this week's chef-inspired pedagogy (chefagogy?) is the lost art of the classics: or Latin and Poetry at least. Once again, Professor Jamie of Oliver brings in his JCBs to plant tulips, in the form of the former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, and Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. I've written before about this, but this is the flaw in the whole diamond: the assumption that if only teachers were world-leaders then the children would ignite like barbecue briquettes with inspiration. Alas, alas, this is not the case. Even the dullest of blades emerging from the teacher training college still knows more than their charges about the Tudors or Pythagoras; the problem is that many of them don't want to learn. And have you ever tried to make someone do something they really didn't want to? Try it sometime.

Jamie also repeats his earlier mantra. 'I'll fucking BATTER you in this classroom...' Sorry, that was Harlem again, the resident Goddess of Anger. She does have a lot of anger. Fortunately she knows what to do with it, externalising it the instant it appears in her consciousness, lest a single unprocessed note of her interior monologue go unexpressed for public consumption. And, I think, we're all the better for it.

No, Jamie's mantra was 'The practical stuff can work,' meaning that anything a bit more hands-on seems a sweeter spoonful to swallow than the more medicinal, academic subjects. Or, as he says it, 'There's been some success with more academic subjects, using a more practical approach.' I don't want to infer too much, but one of the dangers for the non-teaching specialist is to imagine that how we like to learn is how everyone likes to learn. Jamie's an intelligent, inspired man, who has obviously excelled in the physical world of catering. The danger is to assume that everyone else will enjoy the kind of activities he does. I mean, it's very in vogue these days to encourage group work because it encourages 'collaborative learning' and 'communal thinking'- forgive me while I dry-retch my Skittles and Polenta. When I was at school, group work was, for me, a Hell of wasted time, squabbling, and settling for the lowest common denominator. Usually involving some farting mentalist trying to brand me with a soldering iron. Don't talk to me about group work.

'My manor, my rules. Got it?'
Some of the kids, like Danielle (who I might add is rapidly becoming my heroine of the series- I'm tempted to open a library wing in her name) clearly prefer working in quiet environments, independently. It was simultaneously heart warming and tragic to see her sitting on the steps outside her classroom consumed with agony at seeing another lesson get flushed down the Johnson by mouth-breathing morons with megaphones. Or as she put it, 'Jesus.' Jesus indeed.

Poor old Mary Beard (which sounds like a Leonard Cohen lay, or an East End shanty) had my every sympathy. She, like many trainee teachers (and let's not forget that's exactly what these Titans of their field are, despite their Leviathan qualifications) she entered brimming with enthusiasm and the desire to inspire, only to see her golden sunbeams of Roman enthusiasm thin and dim to nothing against their collective indifference. Some pointless, petty disagreement had been wrestled in to the room before the class began, and ended with Jamal flouncing out, butch as Disco, from the classroom, wiping a tear from his eye while he watched Tara burn.

It was too much and, as Jamie's voice over intoned, 'Word trickles down the corridor that things have broken down in Mary's classroom.' Given that there are twenty students in the school (and incidentally, not all of them seem to attend every lesson), and that the place is wired for sound like Winston Smith's khazi, I can't imagine it's very hard for word to trickle anywhere. So what Unstoppable Force, what Educational Fury is unleashed to lay waste to a third of the Earth? What Godzilla slouches towards the mayhem, what Jungian emblem of order and retribution incarnates in response to the anarchy?

You guessed it: D'Abbs. And boy, is he mad at them. 'I'm really disappointed with you,' he says, as they all p**s their collective knickers in fear. The class look at him as if they had sneezed him into a handkerchief. One of the unlovelier members of the class showed him how cowed and respectful they felt. 'Excuse me, but you don't even know what it was about, so how can you say you're disappointed in us?' He really puts the fear of God into them. But D'Abbs has an ace up his sleeve. 'I feel let down,' he says, and a chill runs down my spine as I am reminded of Leonidas and Morgan Freeman, rolled into one.

D'Abbs confronts (sorry, mediates/ facilitates) with the girl outside, which resulted in one of the most amazing sentences I have seen, almost entirely composed of the words 'argue' and 'me', but one that ran on for what felt like ten minutes. It was also untranslatable; I gave up on my third attempt. It was Joyceian

Andrew Motion, the softly-spoken avatar of calm, tried to turn them on to poetry, but also faced the same thuggish ignorance when it became clear to the class that he hadn't brought any chicken nuggets or video clips of cats falling off drainpipes. Unfortunately what he did bring was a large painting by Edward Hopper called 'Cape Cod Morning' and asked them to write a poem inspired by how they felt about it. The only flaw in this cunning plan was that it doesn't get past 'Go' if the kids don't give a monkeys about the mid twentieth-century American Realist painting. Always have a task that everyone can do.

Poor Andrew; it was pitiful to see him blow his gasket at them, to little effect (and didn't he do it in quite an odd way? He literally went from Yoda-calm to white-hot in a flash...and then back to Zen. Blink and you miss it. The kids clearly did.). Mary couldn't even blow her gasket, bless her. So woefully unable was she to dress her desire in righteous vigour that she ended up asking tips from the kids about how to keep control of the class, which incidentally usually indicates that you are very close to going from 'punchbag' to 'joke.' The kids were warming to her, sure, but the next time she needs to speak sternly to someone, they'll be unable to separate her ire from the fact that she learned it from them.

This raises another point: that every kid already knows how rowdy students need to be treated. I've had many conversations with kids that 'the system has let down' (© Jamie Oliver) and they all say the same thing: kids only act like tyrants with teachers that let them boss them around. Predators prey on victims- they're not out for a chinning, they only muck about when they think they can get away with it. Danielle, the last hope for mankind, spelt it out. 'Get them out' she said to Mary's request for strategic advice when something is flung around the room. 'No warning; just get them out.' She is, you see, a kid who wants to learn, and is fed up with the howling vanity and self-regard of the majority of her peers. So let me echo this sentiment: get them out- send them out. Give them some stick. Make them feel uncomfortable; make them see that if you try to push other people's lives around, other people may very well push back.

Not that you;d know about it from D'Abbs. I really feel sorry for this guy, honestly. It's not always obvious, but this fact needs to be repeated: he's the only teacher in the whole school. Everyone else is a telly gonk or a field-leader. But no other teachers. No wonder he feels stressed. He also has the following handcuffs:
  • There are no sanctions other than 'a bit of a talking to' (or in an emergency they might be told 'he's very disappointed.')
  • The kids are on camera
  • If they tell someone to f**k off, they're allowed to come back the next day
  • He has them for a few weeks
  • They're all NEETs.

No wonder the poor guy's in tears. He literally has nothing in his arsenal to quell and direct them the right way, other than a seeming belief that, if spoken to in the right way, softly and with respect, they will experience a Damascan conversion. 'I'm just putting out fires,' he says through a spasm of man-tears, as Jamie does what any guy does when another guy visibly expresses an emotion other than joy or malice; he ignores it and looks uncomfortable, as the director thinks, 'Oh boy, it's Christmas.'

'Favete linguis. Please?'
If the Dream School- if any school- doesn't get serious about rewards AND sanctions, then it can expect to to face the same behaviour over and over again, until the end of time, like Ground Hog Day in Hell. Keep the firehose handy, John. You'll need it.

And you know things are getting weird when Alastair Campbell and Jazzy B are coming in to give you a cuddle. This guy's the boss right? What, did Jamie nip into the staffroom and grab whomever wasn't brewing up or updating Facebook and say, 'Quick, D'Abbs needs a man-hug- who's in?'

(Incidentally, Jamie provided the second most cryptic and mysterious piece of wisdom of the whole program, when he replied to John's fire-fighting comment with, 'I don't think there's anything wrong with fire fighting as long as we're not starting fires.' Pardon? He should have finished it off with 'Grasshopper' and stalked off into the sunset with a staff. John, startled out of his misery like a distracted baby with colic, looked at Jamie with confusion, and so did I.)

Back to Andrew Motion, and he found a novel approach to improving his lessons: going round the school and telling the kids, 'You know that poetry thing? If you want to p**s off out of it, frankly that's no skin off my righteous venerable ass.' It was brilliant. If only we truly had that option in school; to turn to the most venomous ingrate and say, 'Actually, do you mind not turning up ever again?' and just teaching the ones that want to be there. Alas, every Education Act after 1910 rather prohibits that sort of thing, you know, universal enfranchisement, and all that. Still, it's the Dream School, and we were promised new strategies. I just didn't realise we'd see illegal ones as well.

First there is homework...then there is no homework.'
Perhaps predictably, Motion found that his second lesson, thinned out somewhat, was much more successful. The change of environment probably helped. But he was patient, and encouraging, and smart enough to know that the phrase 'this is good' can be used subjectively to the talent of those assessed, and quite right too. It might have been the only time in their lives that some of these kids had been praised for something they had written or created, and I bet it felt good. I like Motion, as a teacher. Apart from his heart-beat outburst, he keeps his cool, swigs endlessly from his Evian (although I've seen bottles like that act as beards for a number of more volatile liquids) and says what he means. Stay, and abide by my rules, he says, or do not and go. There's a kind of beginner's wisdom there- after all, at what point do we say with some of these children, 'You know what? If you don't care that much, I can't care for you.' They are, after all, mostly 18.

Other highlights of this week (and there are many, and there always are):
This could be you.

  • Uncle Jazzy (Uncle B?) doing the tough sympathy thing with poor old LaToya, who was having a breakdown because she hadn't seen her kid in fifteen minutes or something. I think it was her kid: when Professor B asked her what she missed, she said 'Her boyfriend,' whom, you might think from the intensity of her misery, was somewhere in Iraq, or lost in the jungles of Borneo. It was impossible not to feel for her, but she presented a puzzle: she had to drop out of school to look after her baby, which you'd have to have a heart of tungsten not to sympathise with; and she was drenched in misery at the self-knowledge that she 'gave up' at everything, which at least shows a degree of introspection, although if left to marinate in self-loathing it becomes a cocktail of bottomless, paralysed indolence. But the puzzle is that, although she could see it, she wouldn't do anything about it. And then she dropped out of school the next day. It was, I must say, very sad.
  • Harlem, bursting in to a meeting in the Head Master's office, demanding that everyone dropped everything and do what she wanted, otherwise she would 'smash someone in the face,' or something else from Chaucer. She really is a piece of work. But then, why should she stop? She told the Head to f**k off last week, and called him a d**khead, but here she is, back again, because the Dream School doesn't want to 'let her down' like state education did. Newsflash! She's had plenty of chances- and every time you give her another one, all she learns is that you can spin the world around you in a whirlpool of narcissism and nothing bad will happen to you. What she needs, I would argue, is to experience the long, long drop that being vile can lead to; to feel the impact at the bottom, to bruise, to have the breath knocked out of her, until she stops thinks, and learns. But endless chambers of bouncy castles teach her nothing except to repeat her behaviour ad nauseum.

We all need to learn how to fail, and what we do afterwards. Learned helplessness is the worst gift we can give our children.

  • Teacher of the Week: Andrew Motion, for his farmyard boot camp, and his classroom eugenics.
  • Student of the week: Aysha, who along with Danielle, looks like one of the great hopes from this experiment.
  • Quote of the week: Jamie McOliver, referring to the pugnacious Harlem. 'She's such a top student at times,' which surely must win an award for the most elastic use of the word 'top', and the most generous use of the phrase 'at times.' And Hannibal the Cannibal was such a top host. At times.

Roll on next week. Mr Oliver, I salute you.

2 comments:

  1. Dabbs is a wet fish and represents everything wrong with SMT in schools today.
    Where are his balls? That bitch Harlem, after everything that happened, was still in the school raging as she does. Reading her post school statement on the Dream School website reveals that she learned absolutely nothing from this experiment, it's full of the same arrogant bile that we've seen from here on the screen.
    Dabbs lack of action sent a message to the others which effectively said 'no matter what you do, you're not getting kicked out'. Oh and "Ain't" from an educator.
    Motion seemed to have the right idea with his "you don't have to be here" attitude. Now if only I could do that I may return to teaching in the uk.

    I'm also a bit suspect at the piecing together of the show. We've apparently seen several days fly by at Dream School, yet according to Latoya's bio, she was only in the school for three days.

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  2. Remember when D'Abbs had his first, last showdown with them all, in the emergency assembly? He served the ultimatum- disrespect me and the school, and you're out.

    Then Harlem called him a d*ckhead.

    Then everyone looked sad.

    Then she was back in the next episode.

    Don't draw lines in the sand and do nothing when people mambo over them. No wonder he's stressed.

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