Three Cups of Tea: a review

This was truly an awe-inspiring book. It is brilliantly written and well researched and honestly tells the true story of how one man managed to overcome so many hurdles in order to build schools in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The sub-title is: “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School At a Time”.

It is a story that brought me to tears on quite a few occasions as Greg Mortenson, the shy American mountain climber, tried and failed to climb K2, the world’s second highest peak in the Himalayas, became detached from his climbing party and wandered into a village, Korphe, in Northern Pakistan. Here he was nursed back to health after being on the point of collapse and maybe death.

It was in Korphe that we meet one of the most fascinating characters that Mortenson was to meet over the years in his many visits to the Karakoram range of mountains, Haja Ali. There is a wonderful picture in the book of this man, old, grey bearded, wearing a fur cap and an old leather jerkin and jacket with only some keys around his neck as adornment. He looks poor and is certainly uneducated.. but he is without doubt worldly wise and became Mortenson’s mentor.

Mortenson left the village of Korphe with a promise to return and build a school as thanks for what the village had done to get him back on his feet after his failed attempt to climb K2 (which he had attempted as a tribute to his late sister Crista who had died of a brain seizure at the age of 23 having fought illness throughout her brief life).

Many climbers are helped by the inhabitants of the mountain ranges and some, like the famous Sir Edmund Hillary, do return and contribute to the welfare and development of the areas that have helped them and maybe build schools and hospitals but many promise that they will and never return… Mortenson is very much a man who keeps his promises.

He went back to the U.S.A. and faced personal deprivation and vast problems in getting any sort of help to build the school he had promised Haja Ali. Yet fate was to take a hand in the shape of an eccentric genius by the name of Jean Hoerni, who had made millions in the development of semi-conductor transistors that would eventually lead to the digital revolution we find ourselves in now.

Hoerni almost single handed financed Mortenson’s first school building enterprise. The school at Korphe did not get built easily. In the book we follow the many problems that Mortenson faced in getting it built… but it did get built and was to be the first of over 130 now built in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In this book we get to know much about the character of the people who live in these often inhospitable and dangerous mountain areas. We get to understand their way of life and also their religion, Islam. We also get a really good insight into the realities of the war in Afghanistan. I found the last chapter, which concentrated on Mortenson’s work in Afghanistan, post 9/11 to be particularly insightful about what could have been done by the Americans to produce a long term solution and what wasn’t done.

Mortenson is a great man and a deep humanitarian. He has been suggested as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and I can think of no-one that I know of that deserves it more. I think that this is a book which educates, enlightens, makes you think about your own existence and question what needs to be done in order to help parts of the world like Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan to truly overcome some of their problems of poverty and war.

Mortenson argues that the answer to the deep seated problems lies in education and not war. He has a deep desire to promote girl’s education as he follows the old African idea that if you educate a boy you educate one person but if you educate a girl you educate the whole village.

I found the scene towards the end of the book where Jahan, who is the first educated woman from the Braldu Valley in the Skardu area of Baltistan demands that Mortenson give her money so that she can continue her education and “become someone in the world” very moving. It only reflects my own ideas about the untapped potential for our species (humans) that lies wasted due to a lack of education.

As I said at the beginning of this review, this is truly a moving and brilliantly written book (which means that reviewers should give due praise to David Oliver Relin, the co-writer of the book who wrote most of it.  Mortenson of course told him the amazing story in graphic detail).

A review cannot do real justice to the book… it needs you, the reader of this review, to go and get hold of a copy and read it…. there have been few books in my life that have effected me so much, I feel sure that you may well feel the same.

At the end of the book David Oliver Relin says the following in his part of the acknowledgements:

If “Three Cups of Tea” inspires you to do more here are suggestions for how to help:

1. Visit the website for more book reviews, events and ideas.

2. Suggest “Three Cups of Tea” to a friend, colleague, book club, women’s group, church, civic group, synagogue, mosque university or high school class or a group interested in education, literacy, adventure, cross-cultural issues, Islam, Pakistan or Afghanistan

3. Check to see if “Three Cups of Tea” is in your library.. if not order it or, if you can afford it, donate a copy so that others who may not be able to afford to, can read it.

4. Encourage your local independent or chain bookstore to carry the book.

5. Write a “Three Cups of Tea” book review for Amazon or for your blog.

6. Mortenson started a charity to support his work called “Pennies For Peace” that I have written about in an earlier post in this blog. If you are interested  see:

I have done my little bit to support the great work that Greg Mortenson is continuing to do and have written my review of a really wonderful book  and hope that you have enjoyed reading it. If you can get involved or are interested in any of the other suggestions that would be appreciated by the authors and also the children of Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan whose lives have been changed because of Greg Mortenson.

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My learning journey to Maus

I love the learning journeys that I go on using the internet. I have taken upon myself the task of continuing my lifetime’s education by tapping into the power of the almost limitless store of knowledge that is now available to me online.

So this morning’s journey started with looking at Twitter for some interesting  links. I didn’t really find any so I looked at my next source of information and useful links, Facebook.

I belong to a number of groups on Facebook one of which is Edutopia. I therefore receive updates about the latest developments in their website. Today I read the following:

Edutopia Last week, Joan Weber of Creativity & Associates hosted a chat with Sir Ken Robinson on Twitter. (Sir Ken has wondered aloud if “schools kill creativity” and has written myriad book on the subject.) This is a summary of that wonderfully inspirational chat. Join us for future #artsed chats on Twitter, Thursdays 7PM ET/4PM PT.

http://www.edutopia.orgEditor’s Note: This week’s guest blogger is Joan Weber, the facilitator for Edutopia’s Arts/Music/Drama group and moderator of the weekly #artsed chat on Twitter.

This led me to look up the blog entry by Joan on the web-chat with Sir Ken Robinson which was very interesting (as usual with Sir Ken).

I noticed other links to the right of the screen that had the blog entry in it that was about popular videos on the Edutopia site:

Most Popular Videos


I remembered that, a few months ago I had come across the third entry “My Life in Comics”  I remember that I promised myself on reading this the first time that I would try and do a blog entry on Gene Yang and his fascinating story as a cartoonist, a mathematics teacher and as a Chinese American.

On the third line down in the article there is a link to gene’s website
I followed the link and went onto the website where Gene has a number of articles about the history and use of comics in education. I had already seen the power of the comic as a teaching tool by following Gene’s link to his cartoons teaching algebra. I now proceeded to read the entries on comics and their use in education and must admit that I was entranced.
I had always loved comics as a child. My brothers and myself would read the British Dandy, Beano, and Beezer comics regularly and loved Desperate Dan and his “cow pie” as well as Dennis the Menace and of  course the “Bash Street Kids” and their long suffering teacher with his ridiculous mortar board hat and gown!
We were also in that generation after the Second World War that began to import the American comics so we knew all about Superman, Spiderman, Batman  and even Superdog!
I had never really reflected on the learning that this “multimedia” form of text and pictures allowed me to do….. but Gene made me think about this as I read about the history of  comics in education and how they had a zenith in American schools by 1944 but were attacked after the war as somehow the creator of vandalism and all things evil in society and how they made a comeback in the early 1970′s and are now looked upon as the precursor to the multimedia approach to learning that we have moved into in the 21st century.
In recalling the history of the artform Gene mentioned a powerful graphic novel called “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. This is a two part work which basically recalls the story of the holocaust in terms of Spiegelman’s own father’s story. The characters though in the book are not human but animals… the Jews are portrayed as mice and the Germans as cats… the French are snails.
I have to admit that I had never heard of this work before… so I therefore followed my learning journey by looking it up on Google. I was able to find a number of videos about the book. I watched one which was a review by an American just speaking to the camera… it was very moving as he showed pictures from the book and said that this was not a comic but a great work of art that told a story in a very powerful way (maybe stronger than words alone?)
I found a three part video which was an interview that Spiegelman gave on Irish radio. It was fascinating. I got to know a lot about him as a person, about the fact that he had been born in Sweden where he lived for two years whilst his displaced parents (both survivors of the Nazi deathcamps) waited to go to America. I learnt about his love for New York, his French wife and his deep doubts about the U.S. of A.
I spent maybe two hours on this journey and as you may be able to see here, I learnt so much. I was free to navigate my way across the pathways and connections that is the internet. I will now be ordering and reading “Maus”… no doubt there will be a fuller review after I have read it. I learnt about Gene Yang and what it felt like to be a Chinese American, of facing prejudice, of loving art as well as mathematics. I found out about collaborative learning in an Alaskan elementary school and that there was a part of Twitter  called #artsed that has regular discussions about the arts and education which I am very interested in.
If  I, at 57 years of age and wandering towards the end of quite a long teaching career, can learn so much in such a short time then I feel that case for the the opportunities that the internet provides for the developing minds of our youngsters  is proven. We must allow them the freedom to range and the time to do so… we must allow openness in enquiry and we will no doubt be amazed at what they will produce for us. We must continue to put forward the case for good Project Based Learning as Edutopia always has which is why I follow them and why my learning journey today took place.
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An appreciation of “To Kill A Mockingbird”

I have been asked on a number of occasions what my favourite book of all time was and I have always said it was “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.

I followed a link today in a tweet I received because it mentioned the name of my favourite book and found that the book, published in 1960 is celebrating its 50th anniversary!

The article by Charles Leerhsen was published by the Smithsonian Magazine and can be found at:

The article gave  me a lot of new information about the book and its author. I found out that she was in fact named Nelle Harper Lee and that many of the characters in the book reflected her own upbringing in Alabama in the 1930′s. That her father was indeed a lawyer and that there was a visitor from the city that used to stay next door to the Lee’s and that he later grew up to be the famous author Truman Capote.

She wrote just the one book although there were attempts at other books which never quite got to publication. I suspect that the reason is fairly obvious in that she produced probably the most perfectly written novel of all time as her first work and to put out a second book of the same (expected) quality would be a very tall order.

I first came across the book when I was in secondary school. I was in the set that was studying for what we (in Britain, at that time) called the General Certificate of Education, Ordinary Level in English Literature. We had some rather forgettable books to study. The pupils who were not supposed to be as bright as us did what was called the Certificate of Secondary Education (C.S.E.)  and they got to read “To Kill A Mockingbird” and… they loved it.

So, at the age of 18, in a lull between school and my first job (and a disastrous round of A level exams) I sat down and read the book that I had always been told was so wonderful. From the very first page I found myself entranced by this wonderfully written book.

It is and will always be a story about childhood. The characters of the motherless children Jem  and Scout and their friend Dill have adventures in the days when the world was every child’s playground. Except their world was a very dangerous one… this is Alabama in the 1930′s where poor whites live within a short distance of rural black people, the descendents of slaves, regarded as inferior just because of their colour. This is the Alabama of the Ku Klux Klan, the lynchings (an attempt at one being portrayed in the book) and blacks being treated as they were in Apartheid South Africa, unable to eat at the same restaurants as white people or sit next to a white person on a bus.

The novel has, as its central theme, the story of how Jem and Scout’s father, the widower lawyer Atticus Finch, takes on the case of defending a black man, Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the abused daughter of the drunken, mostly unemployed poor white inhabitant of Maycomb (the fictional Alabama town where the book is set) Bob Ewell.

This central story acts as the theme to the story but it is a story told through the eyes of Atticus’ children. Being children they seek adventure and find it in the stories that have been told about the “possessed” Boo Radley who acts like some kind of monster of their imagination and lives in a house guarded by his fierce father who no child would want to get near.

When Dill  the city child comes along one summer to visit they strike up a friendship and decide to test their braveness on seeing if they can just touch Mr Radley’s House and maybe get a sight of Boo.

Their attempts lead to problems and there is a telling scene of where Scout freezes in fear at the coming of the “monster” Boo and her brother Jem manages to rescue her only to have his pants  stuck as he tries to get her out. He has to climb out of them and run off home but when he goes back the next day the pants  are there waiting for him all folded up.

This is maybe the first sign that we, the readers get, that the “monster” Boo Radley is maybe just a figment of the children’s wonderful imaginations that were able to run free in the dark setting of this small Alabama town.

In this novel we see the way that imagination plays such a significant part in the lives of these children and that play was a significant and natural part of growing up.

The central theme continues to dominate the book though and we see the realities of life in depression Alabama of the 1930′s. We see the poverty that was there, the racism and also the good people like Atticus Finch bringing up two children without a wife (who has died)  and Heck Tate, the Sheriff of Maycomb who tries his best to remain fair to all in extremely difficult circumstances.

The  Finch children are chastised and guided by the black cook, Calpurnia who is treated with respect at all times by Atticus.

The “Ewell Case” eventually gets to court and Atticus brilliantly defends  Tom Robinson. But this is Alabama in the 1930′s and there is an all-white jury and a white judge who would never believe the words of a black man against those of a white woman, however dubious her claims and however much the evidence shows him to be innocent of the crime.

The children get to witness the trial in the company of the black population of the town who are massed upstairs at the court where they are “allowed” to watch the proceedings.

It is of course a thankless task to defend Tom Robinson and he of course loses the trial and is sent to prison. He tries to run away and is shot dead… this is not a book with a happy ending to the main story.

It is the aftermath of the story, the hatred shown to Atticus for trying to defend a black man and the attempt by the drunken Bob Ewell to kill Atticus’ children that lead to the merging of the two themes that had been running through the book. The “monster” Boo Radley is the saviour of the day and leads to this wonderful piece of writing in the book:

Mr. Tate was trying to dig a hole in the floor with the toe of his boot. He pulled his nose, then he massaged his left arm. “I may not be much, Mr. Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night, sir.”
Mr. Tate stamped off the porch and strode across the front yard. His car door slammed and he drove away.
Atticus sat looking at the floor for a long time. Finally he raised his head. “Scout,” he said, “Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?”
Atticus looked like he needed cheering up. I ran to him and hugged him and kissed him with all my might. “Yes sir, I understand,” I reassured him. “Mr. Tate was right.”
Atticus disengaged himself and looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?”
Atticus put his face in my hair and rubbed it. When he got up and walked across the porch into the shadows, his youthful step had returned. Before he went inside the house, he stopped in front of Boo Radley. “Thank you for my children, Arthur,” he said.

I find myself welling up as I read these words for perhaps the thirtieth   time. This is a beautifully written book about childhood that happens to have a backdrop of racism, abuse, rape and incest. It is the children’s story first and foremost and is one of the greatest depictions of what it is like to be a child that has ever been written.

As you can see from the above it has a sparseness of language that makes every word count. It is by far the best novel I have ever read and hopefully many more people will be enticed by its story for the next fifty years.

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Sir Ken Robinson’s latest TED Talk

Sir Ken Robinson
Image by eschipul via Flickr

Below you can see the latest Talk at TED from Sir Ken Robinson.

I am, as you will note if you search through the contents of this blog, a big fan of TED Talks and a big fan of Sir Ken Robinson.

I will be honest and say that, in my opinion, having seen a number of Sir ken’s talks and downloaded a couple  of them for this blog, I did not regard this talk as his best yet.

Having said that, if you hadn’t seen any of his previous talks or read his excellent book “The Element” (which I reviewed in an earlier posting) this would be considered a really good talk. It has his usual brand of dry humour as well as a deep passion that is delivered in the low-key manner that we British often manage to produce when we are trying not to show our real emotions.

The emotion does come out though in the very last part of the talk with the wonderful reading of the poem by W.B. Yeats…. in fact, because it is understated throughout the rest of the talk it is difficult not to feel very emotional when he ends with the statement… “tread softly because you are treading on our children’s dreams”.

This is a call for a new system of education that breaks away from the factory system that developed in Victorian times. I do not like the term he uses of an agricultural system…. as it may bring back memories of a pre-industrial age and it is not supposed to be that… I prefer his own phrase of an organic approach to education.

Once again, thank you Sir ken for saying what so  many of us think and feel and being the champion for creativity in the classroom. Your ideas have influenced many educators and the TED talks are bringing them to a wider audience. This is one revolution that we will win!

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The joy of blogging

I have recently been helping a ten year old girl with her writing. Her mother was concerned that this aspect of her “basic skills” was the weakest and asked if I could help her to become a better writer.

As an experienced primary (elementary) teacher, I decided to start with where she was at and therefore did an assessment of what she knew and what she had been taught.

She had, like so many children of her age, been prepared for the dreaded SAT Tests (that she took about a week ago). Writing takes the form a short piece of about 20 minutes or so which is followed by a spelling test and then comes the longer piece which last 45 minutes.

The longer piece of writing, as you may imagine, carries the most marks in the test and tends to be the part that most teachers spend the most classroom time on.

I asked the pupil  (who I will call Ann) to tell me what she would do if she knew she was being asked to do a long piece of writing. She knew that there was a plan needed and that the test actually set out a template for her to use along the lines of: what does the building look like? Where is it situated? How did you get there?

She then proceeded to show me a mnemonic that her teacher had taught her to help her with her writing it was something like ICEPACC… which stood for:

Iintroduction: set the scene and explain what you are about to write

Capital letters  for all place names and names of people

Extend your writing to make sure that you have used the adjectives and adverbs (see below). Don’t write short, clipped sentences.

Paragraphs.. remember to put every new idea or action in a new paragraph.. this is to show the marker that you have an “above-average” skill.

Adjectives and adverbs must be used…. remember to put as many in as possible (they will look for it!). So don’t say “the bus went up the hill” say “the big, old, dirty blue bus lumbered up the steep incline”.

Context.. remember to keep your tenses the same and don’t flit from the present to the past or vice versa.

Conclusion… round it all off by saying what you have said and give it a snappy ending.

She then proceeded to show me how she approached a piece of writing by carefully ticking off every letter in her mnemonic as she had done it. The writing was not really that great… she admitted it herself… it did have paragraphs, capital letters and there was good use of adjectives and adverbs… there was a neat conclusion.

But it read like a mechanical exercise in putting words onto paper. I realised that she was writing to a formula and did not have any real feeling for what she was writing and therefore did not really have the ability to let the words flow.

For my fellow bloggers out there who may be reading this entry there will be the smile of recognition at this point… because we all know that we write our blogs because we want to communicate and express ourselves… we have found this wonderful means of allowing us to express our thoughts, our emotions, our concerns and our passion for the things that we hold dear and we find, as I do at this moment as I am writing this piece, that the words just flow from us in  something like a torrent.

We will use the spellcheck afterwards to check the spelling mistakes… we will read through it ag phrasing and maybe we will take out a paragraph here or a sentence there.

What we are unlikely to do is to use a mnemonic to write it… we are not going to make sure that we have stuck to the script or written the perfect ending.. and have we checked the context? Did I slip from past tense into present tense at any time?

Did Shakespeare need a template? I don’t think so. This is the reason why Ann had problems with her writing. She did not see the point of it all. When I asked her to write something that she was interested in she found her fluency.

I believe that we do  not give our children enough chances to write what they really want. We should let them blog and write about the things that matter to them… in the joy of blogging they will find the joy of writing….. and they may very well get hooked and produce the real writing that people want to read…not give it up as a bad job and a horrible memory as many of our children are condemned to do.

Teaching with TED

Chris Anderson is the curator of the TED (Tech...
Image via Wikipedia

Those who follow my blog will know that I am an avid fan of TED. I have written about my interest in the “TED” part of the Blog and have also constructed my own TOP 10 TED Talks.. which is now the top 11 since I just had to add Temple Grandin‘s wonderful talk on autism.

I have continued to follow TED with the most recent offerings from California and of course the brilliant TEDx meetings which have happened all over the world (at the weekend just gone I followed a friend from Iowa who was presenting at TedX DesMoines).

Most of the talks are inspiring and many of them have a real educational value.. indeed the reason that I have included so much about TED is that this is my learning blog and I have learnt so much from listening (and sometimes crying or laughing or getting angry) at the many talks that I have watched in just the last seven months since I discovered this brilliant resource.

Imagine my pleasure therefore when I found that a new Wiki had been created that I could (like all Wikis) contribute to that was all about the educational potential of the TED resource…. it is called “Teaching With TED” and can be found at:

I think this is an excellent idea and I will be favouriting it as a site that I will want to return to a number of times. Today I found an excellent talk from TEDIndia :

Kiran Bir Sethi teaches kids to take charge

This was an excellent talk by yet another inspired speaker. (It may well become number 12 in my TED Top 10! I think I may have to change it to my TED Top 20… but that won’t take long to be completed such is the quality of the talks produced by the TED “factory”)

The wiki was initiated independently of TED by Jackie Gerstein, but the TED team in New York know about it and are excited by its potential. I am as well! I would love to see these talks being seen, discussed, used by school pupils and college students. I would love to see them add to the Wiki and I look forward to seeing their TED Talks in the future.

Thanks Jackie for taking the time and trouble to create this site.

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Gustavo Dudamel’s Musical Misson – 60 Minutes – CBS News

I found this report from CBS’s “60 Minutes” moving and informative. I have recently written about El Sistema and Gustavo Dudamel is their greatest product so far. In this film we see how he took the job of resident conductor at the L.A. Philharmonic in order to start off the “El Sistema” approach with disadvantaged kids in the city. The result has been YOLA.. the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.Watch out for the way that the ideas are spreading. The section on Baltimore is a pointer to the power of music to transform children’s lives… just as “El Sistema” transformed Gustavo’s life and has made him into the most sought after conductor in the world.

The Scratch Day

Scratch Cat
Image via Wikipedia

A while back I wrote a post ( ) about an opportunity that I had been given by the Deputy Head of a Primary (Elementary) school that I work in to take a group of Year 6 (Grade 5) children for a day and do anything I liked with I.T. and the continuous use of the school’s ICT Suite.

I decided that I would try and introduce them to Scratch the wonderful program developed developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab by a team led by Mitchel Resnick

I think the term “Lifelong Kindergarten” really defined my approach to the day. I was going to take this group of children and allow them to act for just one day with the freedom that they would once have enjoyed as Kindergarten children.

I started the day off with giving the children a choice as to whether they worked singularly, in pairs or as a group. They were given a copy of the Scratch introductory text This is a really good text in that it gives a step by step introduction to the program.

I let the children explore the steps themselves and they went much faster than I had thought. Charlie, an able boy, had already found a car to put Scratch The cat into and was working on a background by the time we had been looking at the guide for about ten minutes!

The children loved the movement that they could create and were fascinated by the effects such as drum sounds and changing colours.

After this initial period to get to know the program they were able to develop their own presentations. I had two Teaching Assistants with me and they threw themselves into the programming.. in fact they seemed to be enjoying it as much as the children.

The real success of the day were in the so called “Special Needs” children. Three of them sat in a group and proceeded to show themselves, me and the Teaching Assistants that they had a brilliant imagination, a fantastic eye for colour and were able to start creating a good  story effectively. A boy who has big problems in settling down in class and has had to be removed on a number of occasions absolutely loved it all. The T.A.’s were amazed at the way he worked and the fact that he had communicated more in a few hours than he had in almost a month!

At the end of a long and busy day the children were able to show each other what they had produced. Afterwards they were taken back to their classroom to write a diary entry about it all. Many of them said it had been “fun” and “enjoyable” and that they had really enjoyed watching the presentations of their peers.

The children insisted that I give them the URL for Scratch as they were going to go home and download it. They had become the “experts” on the program today and were more then willing to show other children in the school how to use it.

I started the day by saying to the children that I was not teaching them anything today…we were all a learning community and we could all get something out of the day. I learnt about changing backgrounds into sprites and Ryan showed me how to create a maze game. It was a very worthwhile experience and added to my learning and skills.

We would all like to say… “Thank you Scratch!”

By the way if this post has got you interested in using Scratch then please be aware that Scratch has a library of uploaded programs (now running into thousands) that the children can download and then play around with (today’s children opened a number of these that come with the program download). Every year there is a Scratch Day where schools from all over the world celebrate and collaborate on Scratch Projects. This year the date of Scratch day is May 22nd for more information see

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Tests and me

I went to check the Science SAT tests at a school in the town where I work. I had my pieces of paper to check the security of the tests. Were the ones that had been taken this week in a secure place? Were enough tests ordered? Have the tests that are to be sent away for external marking been sent away properly? Was there a collection note?

Then I went into a large classroom where about thirty Year 6 (Grade 5) children sat  at desks arranged so that they were a distance from each other and that they could not possibly see each other’s work. The teacher explained the rules…”make sure you write your name carefully and put the name of the school. This test is a bit different from the other tests we have taken this week… you must make sure that you DON’T write in the grey margin or over the barcode at the bottom”.

I loved it when one of the children put his hand up when the teacher asked if there were any questions. “Yes?” she said… “Why can’t we write in the margins?” he asked. “It’s just the way that it is,” she said, “and don’t write over the barcode!”

Then there were a few children (the ones who needed to be read to… the “Special Needs” kids) who were taken out of the room by Teaching Assistants so that they could be read to.

I didn’t stay long after that. I just looked at the faces of the children, tense and unsmiling.. awaiting yet another test in a week of tests. It brought back so many memories to me. Of the tests and exams that I did at school. Of the feeling the night before that I wouldn’t remember a thing… that I would write rubbish… that I would let myself down and disappoint my parents.

I failed quite a lot of tests and exams in my schooling. I could never accommodate myself to the idea of sitting in a tense environment and answering questions. I did write rubbish on quite a few occasions and the results were very disappointing.

My greatest achievement was achieving a Grade A at British Constitution (Politics) Advanced Level. I went to a night school in Islington (London) to study for this and went just once a week in a cold and forbidding old Victorian school that was very soon afterwards pulled down!

I learnt very little from trying to keep awake at the droning that constituted the lessons by the ancient teacher that “taught” us the subject. I read the books that he had told me to read and I suppose I had an instinctive feel for the subject.

When it was time to go in for the exam I wrote what I thought I needed to write… what I wanted to say… not what I had been told I had to write for some examiner who I would never see…. it paid off and I produced the greatest result of my life (indeed the only one of any note!)

Someone said to me once that a test or an exam shows that you are good at tests or exams… it does not really reflect your true ability… it answers artificial questions in an artificial way.

I have never really been good at tests and yet I have done quite well in the educational system… but as I tell everyone it has never been easy and my success in achieving a degree and a postgraduate degree has been despite the testing and exam system not because of it.

I started my week by going to check the SAT papers in a school that I used to teach in. I was told by the head and the deputy head that they had decided to obey their union and not have the SAT Tests this week. I told them their legal responsibilities and then I said… “I bet your Year 6 children slept better last night because they weren’t coming into SAT’s this morning”.

“They are getting on with their education,” they told me, “we know our children and we know what level they have got to in the National Curriculum”.

“Often,” they said, “we see a child who we know is at a certain level and they do so badly in the tests.. every now and again we get someone who surprises you and does really well”

“I know,” I said, “Most times I was  the child who did badly!”

As I left the school doing the Science SATs this morning I was so pleased to get away from the tension and the bad memories. Later that afternoon a colleague asked me if I would have joined the SATs boycott that many teachers and headteachers have joined this week. I said that I most certainly would have… for sound educational reasons and very personal ones.

El Sistema

I first heard about El Sistema from my brother. He sent me a recorded programme from the BBC about an incredible experiment with youth and classical music from Venezuela.

I watched and was moved and inspired by the seemingly endless young people, many of them from slums in cities such as Caracas who were being given instruments, taught to use them and who were becoming part of some of the greatest orchestras (not just youth orchestras) in the world.

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra has played at such celebrated venues as the Proms in London and at Carnegie Hall in New York.  To listen to the beautiful music produced by these people is one thing, to realise  that they have become musicians and very accomplished ones because of the vision of one man, Jose Antonio Abreau, is another.

El Sistema has 30 symphony orchestras. But its greatest achievement are the 250,000 children who attend its music schools around the country, 90 percent of them from poor socio-economic backgrounds.

The vision of Abreau is nothing short of amazing and the idea that you could take children off the streets and then train them in classical music only goes to show that my belief in human potential is a very real one and that those who say that environment and poverty will seriously affect educational potential did not look at the great social experiment that happened with El Sistema.

The ideas behind this great social experiment have spread to many other places in the world. In the BBC documentary a group of people from Scotland visited Maestro Abreau in Venezuela to see El Sistema in the hope that they could start a similar experiment with disadvantaged children in Britain.

The greatest product of  El Sistema so far is probably Gustavo Dudamel, who at 29 years of age is the resident conductor of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra and has performed all over the world. He still conducts back in his native Venezuela and has been the mastermind behind the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA) which was founded along the same lines as El Sistema and has sought to get poor and disadvantaged children from the city of Los Angeles and train them to play musical instruments. I have a feeling that, as in all the “El Sistema” experiments there will be brilliant and maybe great musicians produced from YOLA.. watch this space.

I am including a short film in this blog. It follows a group of musicians and educators from New Brunswick, Canada as they go to Venezuela to find out about El Sistema before they begin their own version of   “the system” in their country. Watch for the very young conductor at the beginning and notice the passion and proficiency of the musicians…. remember that many of them are from poor backgrounds and never had any intention of learning a musical instrument.. then tell me that you do not believe that there is real potential in all children from whatever background.. if they are just given the chance.

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