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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Dogged determinism

Well, Yrs trly has finished in York and not before time, mainly to do with patience. Dont misunderstand me, York is a pretty enough city, as blights on the landscape that cities represent, go. And I am now officially qualified to do what I have been doing for a number of years, namely teach people to speak the English. But a month was enough, for two, or possibly three, reasons.

Firstly, the commute. It doesnt take long before irritation sets in with commuting. The first thing that annoys me about this is the inanity of early morning commuting conversation,  repeated year-in-year out. I'm not  a conversation snob - listening to Mandy (our friend) telling her stories about work is a jaw dropping  pleasure. Mandy has  the 'she said and then I said' style of narrative down to an art form: "She said 'That's my mop' she said, and I said to her I said 'Get yer own naffin mop'" all delivered with shudders and finger pointing at exactly the right moment. But there is a certain type of lower middle management whose commuting conversation is a crime against speaking or any other form of communication. This is the type that actively wants to live in a new build estate named 'Elm Lea Grange' by the contractors Redrow in memory of all the trees they removed to build the inadequately insulated chimneyless plasticized boxes that infest English suburbia and who sprays insecticide everywhere in their garden to get rid of 'pests' but who likes going to 'country pubs' because its more natural who proudly describe themselves as  pragmatic  and the type who will survive a zombie apocalypse: unimaginative, prosaic, bilious and dull. An example of this during the last week of my commute was provided by Cathy. Cathy  gets on at Selby every morning with two friends and last week was planning a thirtieth birthday party, one of her primary ambitions for which was to ensure that 'people' did'nt get too drunk because she "could'nt be doing with" a party that was  "chaotic". In fact, Cathy's descriptions of "how much bother" was involved in arranging the party revolved around ensuring the maximum control over peoples' behaviour, including start and finish times (not too early, not too late), clothing ("I dont want anyone turning up like its a cattle market"), music (the dj's been given a list), children's involvement (they have specific duties), food ("the eating bit should'nt go on too long because then everyone gets settled and just talks") and arranging the date so it's impossible for people she does'nt like (but has invited anyway because she 'has to') to politely refuse to attend ("I told Emma weeks ago so she's got no excuse"). Cathy's friend's murmured agreement that as long as she could arrange everything exactly as planned,  "the night" should go well and offered a few suggestions for further control, such as the exact timing of when Cathy should allow everyone to sing her 'Happy Birthday' and how she should manage the receiving of gifts which everyone was required to bring, the purchase of which Cathy had directed in advance by issuing a list of acceptable items ("a good idea" intoned her co-commuters). Just before alighting at York, Cathy mused that sometimes she wondered if it was all "more trouble than it was worth", and I found myself nodding in furious agreement, the first, and only time  in the half hour I had been earwigging her conversation that we concurred entirely.

The second reason a month was enough concerns  the phrase 'station stop' (as in "Selby is your next station-stop"). Regular readers will remember my action filled one man campaign to have this hideous phrase removed from the lexicon, a campaign which I believed , at the time, to be successful. However,  as fellow activist campaigners will know and  as demonstrated by Nelson Mandela, the search for justice is never done, If a warrior for freedom abandons vigilance for even a moment, the forces of tyranny  will rise up again, relentless and implaccable. Thus it has been with 'station-stop'. Since I abandoned my campaign, satisfied that I had struck a blow against the hegemony of shit phrases, 'station stop' has returned with a vengeance, possibly being employed with more frequency than ever before. Clearly, a month has not been enough to re-launch my campaign so I have had to accept that at 07:37 every morning, the speaker in the carriage will crackle into life and "Selby is your next station stop" will echo unsonorously throughout the train. It has been tough on the nerves. 

The third reason a month was enough concerns the qualification achieved in the month, a growing discontent with which may have fuelled the irritations expressed above. The qualification was an English language teaching qualification, necessary for my future employment, but as the course progressed I experienced a mounting disquiet, similar to that experienced when being taught about 'learning styles' in my undergraduate degree. As a relatively recent acolyte at the altar of learning, and therefore not someone who can claim expertise, repeated contact with experienced academics and teachers has led me to the conclusion that learning (and teaching) without criticality is a waste of time. This criticality may take a number of directions, from functional analysis of reductive evidence in support of an idea (common in science) to analysis and critique of one's own worldview (common in social science) but despite an occasional divergence between academic paradigms (I know its a horrible word and one I try to avoid but the only one I can think of at the moment), the fundamental principle that is suggested is rigour (of thinking). In my recent course, debates over rigour focused n the thorny issue of  'pair work', which we, as trainee teachers, had been told was integral to good language teaching. One day, near the end of the course, I (who had been repeatedly marked down in assessment  of my teaching for not pairing students) could stand it no longer:

"What...." I asked, genuinely curious "...if like me, a student doesn't like 'pair work'?. What if, like me, they want to absorb new information themselves before discussing it with another person in case the other person is equally ignorant of the new information and themselves also require time to absorb it before they can say anything useful ? Also, what if, like me, they dont like the person they are paired with?" (this latter comment slipped out accidentally but reflected the actual situation in the training room because I really didnt like the person I was paired with and the extent of the dislike was such that it was evident to the rest of the class, causing an amused ripple in the room) "Not that I dont like the person I'm currently paired with"  I lied " but what if I didnt?".

The trainer smiled "An interesting point" he said "And thanks for that! So, like Mazzer says, how do we ensure students work in pairs? Have a think about it, in your pairs, for a few minutes..."

"I'm sorry" I said, utilising the phrase 'I'm sorry' in its full English usage "But that's not what I meant. I dont understand why we insist on 'pair work'. I mean, what is the theory behind it?"

"That's a good question. And thanks for that!" said the trainer, seamlessly practising one of the other tenets of teacher training which is to never engage in a debate about anything, especially when asking other people to debate something "In your pairs, also talk  about why 'pair work' is so effective. I want to see some real discussion going on". He leant closer to me and smiled "Thanks for that"  he said, then indicated that the class should continue.

The phrase 'dogged determination' is understood to  describe an individual's persistence because, according to vox populi comprehension,  it describes a canine pursuing a goal single-mindedly, such as gnawing on an old bone. However, there is nothing as determined as a cat which wishes to embrace the dawn chorus but finds the cat flap, or the back door,  locked and the persistence with which said feline will sit on the bed padding a human's face or sticking its sharpest claw up the right nostril until it gets a response, makes a dog look like a diletante. I returned to the fray, channeling  Toshack:

"But what are we discussing? Are we debating whether 'pair work' works or just accepting that it does and talking about it?" I asked, and determined not to be thanked again I rushed on, this time risking appearing to be that most hated of classroom entities, the smart arse " I mean, is 'pair work' based on Brunner's appropriation of the work of Vygotsky, the oft misunderstood notion of scaffolding? Because if it is, then surely it would only work if you were very careful about who was paired with who and..."

"Thanks for that!" the trainer interrupted smilingly "yes 'pair work' is effective because the students enjoy it as Mazzer says, and it helps them to learn and lots of research has shown this. So have a think about that,  in your pairs, for three minutes, then we'll have a discussion".

The inner cat slunk off. I capitulated and sat, in silence  with the other half of my pair while she carefully wrote 'Pair work' on a fresh sheet in her notebook, outlined the words with a little cloud and proceeded to tag the cloud with phrases like "students enjoy", "good practice"  and "good for learning". "What do you think? " she asked. "I dont" I replied.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Earth and Water

The sharp pain in the achilles, just above the ankle is indication that there has been an infrigement of mine personage. I turn round and see that its just Pat. I have been barged into by Pat, so I am the bargee and Pat the barger. Her instrument of choice is a scuffed plastic trolley, the topmost layer of which contains, for want of a better description, "food" items, and it would appear,  to the uniformed,  that Pat has just jumped the queue at Pumpkin, Hull Paragons foremost refreshment stand,  and is now, like me,  waiting for a hot drink. But looks can be deceptive, because Pat, according to her name badge,  is a five star member  of the Pumpkin's customer service team and this morning, her job is to replenish the supply of 'hot and cold snacks, sandwiches and light refreshments'  which henceforth we'll refer to as hcsslr,  that repose on the countertop near the till.

"Thiei dont get out'tt'way do thiei?" she asks Lindsey, as she lifts large plastic lids off plates of hcsslr. The lids, ill matches for the plates they cover, look like they've been purchased secondhand from Bargain Village, having that post-apocalyptic sheen typical of old plastic,  and have condensation on the inside which rapidly starts pooling on the floor which is where Pat has placed them. Other customers in the queue start retreating form the growing pool, but, as the bargee, I feel duty bound to stand my ground, so I dont move. This doesnt bother Pat, she just leans in, like a roller derby queen on the final bend, and sweeps the old hcsslr in front of me into a plastic bag. She drops a few into the pool of spreading water, but picks them up and chucks them in the bag.

"Yeh cant get at them from t'other side" says Pat, and I  realize she's probably earned her stripes through implementation of  innovative resupply strategies. When the plates have been emptied, Pat reloads them with the new hcsslr form the top of her trolley, pausing only to place her hand firmly on each item of hcsslr "Them sausage baps're still 'ot" she tells Lindsey, who has ceased service completely to watch Pat at work.

Now there are   times when a cessation of service at the drinks counter of a busy railway station may cause problems and some stress. If one analysed timetables carefully, one could probably predict when these times and the causal chain behind the resulting stress. I conducted such an analysis one morning while glancing briefly at the departure board, and the results were astonishing. In early morn, between ten two and five past seven, the trains for all of the natural commuter destinations realistically achievable from Hull (Selby, Leeds, York), and the most popular  business and airport destinations (London and Manchester) all leave. The pattern is repeated about half an hour later, with the delayed 7.37 leading the charge. Thus, one might predict that at a refreshment stand, demand might peak slightly prior to these departures, perhaps tailing off after ten minutes. In terms of service, this may imply a logistical problem - a log jam, in effect around these departure times as hordes of thirsty commuters roll up at your counter baying for a 'latte', 'americano' or even a hcsslr and a beverage.

You can imagine the hcsslr service staff who've worked these shifts as battle scarred veterans: ,steel eyed, square jawed, hard bitten survivors of a battle where steam bilged from the expresso maker as orders came in thick and fast "Latte!", "Tea!", "Capuchino" and even the dreaded "Decaf Americano" as the crowd of  pre-stressed communters built to a peak, flyers and business people impatient, waiting, urgent. In this imagining,  the staff gave as good as they got, hurling themselves from coffee maker to  fridge to cup storage to till... "one latte!!", "expresso!!!" "two pounds fifty!" "next please" .. hot beverage orders flying off the counter top until they did it.... they stemmed the tide. Like Spartans at Thermopylae they knew their victory was temporary but like Spartans, they approached their fate phlegmatically "We'll serve hcsslr in the shade" indeed.

This is perhaps a romantic view, but having commuted in the UK and travelled abroad (as they say), hcsslr staff are increasing Spartan. Identikit uniforms, scripted dialogue, scrupulously clean, ruthlessly, inhumanly efficient, and utterly careless about your (the customer's) fate. That is what customer service is about. You are brushed aside in order to prove how much the company care about you by showing you they can get rid of you quickly and this is done while they convince you that this is what you want.  Rush hours are not a problem - there's just more product to shift, efficiently, ruthlessly, inhumanly. Buying a coffee in York, Leeds or London rail stations  is one of the most demoralising experiences I have....and if you notice the tense, you will realise that I repeat the experience, frequently.

There's only two places I have been which buck the trend. In Hull, Pat has solved the problem of the log jam by timing her replenishment of hcsslr so that it co-incides with the imminent departure of the busiest trains. No service happens while Pat is replenishing from the front of the counter and the enemy attack just withers away. Commuters who are really hoping for a last minute coffee abandon the queue in droves,  and scores more by-pass Pumpkin. You'll only get a drink if you time your run perfectly.

"What can I get you love?" asks Lindey, brightly after Pat's finished "Any hcsslr today?". The replaced plastic tops  of the resupplied hcsslr plates are condensing quite quickly. "No thanks" I say brightly "Not today! Just tea!". Lindsey delivers, I pay and she asks "Where you off to today then?" as to my right a newbie customer is jiggling his change and  jumping up and down, apopleptic, but clearly English and Yorkshire,  because he says nothing about his agitation. "Just York like normal" I tell her "See you tomorrow".

As a note on the progress of this blog, I realise that this most recent spate of wrting is supposed to be about my adventures as a CELTA trainee in York, yet it is still only 06:56 and we havent left Hull yet after two attempts! Forgive my indulgence reader! I find commuting from Hull a unique experience but probably one which will not last forever, given increasing homogeneity. I can think of only two places I have been in similarly industrialised countries where the railway station or airport refreshment stands equal Hull's in terms of quirkiness and those two other places are Liverpool, where the main barrier is understanding anything the staff say, and Halifax NS where you get the feeling that hclssr might be Government make-work training schemes.I wil try to get to York tomorrow!