Sunday, 29 January 2017

The curse of cursive

Having only just said that I was going to write more little observations about LittleBear, I now find myself obliged to launch into a rant about something else instead. I'm havering about writing, having signed a "contract" promising not to write about the school on social media, but I am telling myself that this isn't about the school (which I still think is lovely, and staffed by lovely people, doing an excellent job). This is about the dogma passed down to the school from on high that they are following, because it's their job to do so.

I shall declare, first of all, my own "qualifications" for my comments.

Firstly, I went to a very old-fashioned school. The kind of school where you weren't allowed to leave the premises unless your coat was done up properly. The kind of school where we had an actual lesson dedicated to teaching us to eat a banana "politely". The kind of school that had only just relaxed its regulations on allowing the young ladies to be seen walking along one side of the street because the shops there were "inappropriate". The kind of school where we had handwriting lessons. Every week. In secondary school. The kind of school where, at the end of term, we had a handwriting exam. A handwriting exam where, I feel obliged to brag, I am the only person in the school's history to achieve 100%*.

Secondly, and perhaps more relevantly, I have practiced calligraphy for more than quarter of a century and have a deep and abiding interest in, and love of, the formation of letters, their design, aesthetic and creation.

So. Cursive writing for 5 year olds. Kind of a good idea, and yet...

There is a world of difference between the form of a letter, and the means used to join that letter to another. A letter has a shape, a structure that allows one to see and know what it is. Joining it to other letters is a means to make it faster to write, not an inherent change in the form of the letters. Additional movements of the pen are made that allow one letter to lead into the next. But those movements are not part of the letter, they are simply a means to an end. But that doesn't seem to be the current belief within the education system. The current method of teaching is not to teach the basic form of the letters, with the proper formation. The current method of teaching appears to be instructing children that those extra bits of ink that allow one letter to join another are actually part of the letters. They're not. Let me show you.

These are all the letter s:

A positive susurration of esses

There are a lot of ways of writing an "s". But they're all basically the same shape.

This is not an s:

Where did those extra lines come from?

An "s" does not have a lead-in stroke, or a lead-out stroke. They're just tools that feature when you join one letter to another. There is no particular need in joined-up writing to have additional strokes that slow the process down, no point in having a lead-in on the first letter of a word, and a lead out on the final letter. The letter itself doesn't possess those features, it's the process that does. But, LittleBear is currently being taught perverse and corrupted letter formations. Letter formations, furthermore, that lead him to join his letters together in the wrong way, by virtue of the fact they're being taught as the form of the letter, not a feature of the process of joining. Take, for example, an "r" and an "o".

Relatively inoffensive letters so far

When joined, these become:

Something's gone wrong

No. By teaching the process of joining as a fundamental part of the shape of the letter, LittleBear is learning by rote, instead of learning with understanding. This is something I've had a beef with for a while, not simply as a feature of primary education, see for example Exhibit D in an earlier rant of mine.

I shall take, as my example, the poor, unfortunate zebra.

Poor old zebra

By my reckoning, and by my calligraphic standards, there are at least 5 errors in the manner in which LittleBear is being taught to write "zebra". The poor beast only has 5 letters, so that's an embarrassment of errors.

Where did it all go wrong?

1. The initial letter should not have a lead-in. LittleBear, and his LittleFriends would know this if they were taught the underlying letter shapes, not a bastardized version.

2. There is no need for a tailed z. Seriously. Almost nobody in this country writes with a tailed z, and it's entirely possible, in fact considerably easier, to join a non-tailed z into cursive writing. (Besides which, any decent calligraphic hand that uses a tailed z would also use the curved form for the upper part and not have an aesthetic mismatch of angular upper half and looped-tail for the lower half. That thing's neither fish nor fowl. Nor zebra.)

3. A cursive "b" should join from the top of the bowl, not the bottom. Joining at the bottom risks confusion with "k" or "h".

4. Rote-learning of the lead-ins and lead-outs fails to allow understanding that there's more than one way to get from "r" to "a".

5. It's the end of the word, there's no need for a lead-out, it's not part of the letter.

Here's how it "should" be, in the gospel according to Miss V.

Readable, joined-up zebra

I'm (moderately) sure there are sound pedagogical reasons for teaching cursive straight away. I'm also equally sure that just because small children are small, and just learning, does not mean they can't understand that there's more than one way to do something. The path to learning is not being drilled in one way and one way only of achieving a task. So I'm going to be that parent that teachers hate. I'm going to be that parent that points out to LittleBear that while his teachers are correct in their methods, there are also other equally correct methods**. So I am showing LittleBear examples of different ways of writing the same thing. I'm showing him there's more than one way to skin a zebra. I'm showing him things like this too, so he knows that writing doesn't just have to be about communicating.

Sometimes it's all about the shape

I have no doubt that LittleBear and all his LittleFriends will learn to write, and that eventually it will even be legible. But I do find the dictat about how they must learn frustrating. And unhelpful. And ill-considered. And in some cases, plain wrong***.

* I know this because the handwriting exam was the beloved creation of the terrifying Miss V, who declared that she had never, and would never, award 100%, as there was no such thing as perfection in handwriting. However, in her final year before retirement, she did  the unthinkable and awarded me 100%. And then retired, thus depriving all future young ladies of the opportunity to reach this dizzy height of academic achievement. The truth of the matter is that I probably have a rather alarming proclivity for forgery, and produced a beautiful facsimile of Miss V's handwriting for the exam to achieve my extraordinary mark. We shall draw a discreet veil over the occasions on which I assisted my compatriots in producing realistic versions of their parents' signatures in homework diaries...

**  No, I'm not going down the path of Alternative Facts, just alternative means to an end.

*** The joining of the "b" is really annoying me. Clearly Miss V had a deeper impact upon me than I have cared to acknowledge thus far.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Vignette #1

Since I seem to have stalled a little bit on the blogging front, aside from intermittent ranting about politics or education or both, I'm going to try a little experiment. I'm going to try posting little moments. Observations or quirks of LittleBear, not anything with a particular point to it, simply something endearing or amusing (in the eyes of his doting mother anyway!) and hope that not attempting to write long, moderately coherent, posts will make it easier for me to write again.

So herewith today's observation by my LittleBear...

I had been demonstrating to him that IdiotCat does not, in fact, understand English, and that as long as I speak in a soft, kind voice to IdiotCat while rubbing his chin, he will be happy. But I can say anything I like. Mostly I resort to calling him an idiot, but in a nice way. I explained (but didn't demonstrate) that I could equally well shout at IdiotCat that he was the loveliest cat in the world and I would feed him tuna every day for the rest of his life, and he'd still be scared and run away, as he only understands tone of voice.

LittleBear considered this situation for a while, and then made a helpful suggestion...

"Mummy? Maybe we could go back to the Blue Cross and see if we can find one of puss's old friends. And the Blue Cross might have had time to teach his old friend English. So we could bring puss's old friend to live with us, and they would understand each other, and the old friend would be able to tell puss what we were saying."

I'm not sure which idea I think is the more endearing: that IdiotCat will have had friends while he was in the shelter, or that given enough time and training the lovely people at the shelter would be able to teach a cat English. There are days I wish I lived in LittleBear's world.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Education, education, education

So, recently, I said I wasn't going to "go off on one", on the subject of the primary school situation for LittleBear. And I'm not. But my mind won't rest. It won't be still and silent. It won't relax. It's like a frenetic hamster in a wheel, round and round and round it goes, stopping occasionally to investigate some other shiny thing, but then back to round and round and round and round.

So this is going to be me attempting to explain how and why my mind is racing.

This is for you, my fellow mothers, who may or may not be happy with the new plans, but are likely to be more or less mystified by what happens inside the mind of an anxiety-ridden person.

This is for you, my fellow anxiety-sufferers, who will now understand how many Bad Things are now happening inside my mind.

This is for you, my family and friends, who have no idea what I'm talking about.


Currently, here in HomeVillage, we have an Infant School (ages 4-7) and a Junior School (ages 7-11) and they are both at breaking point as more and more children spring into being in the village. The Infant School now has about 120 pupils per year, and the Junior School about 90 pupils per year, and there are at least 120 children per age group marching steadily towards schooldom. So, there is A New Plan Afoot.

The New Plan

The Infant School is going to up sticks and move to another site, and in the process have a bigger, newer, shinier set of buildings AND change its intake to be a full-blown primary school, taking children from 4-11. But only 60 of them per year group.

The Junior School is going to stay put, but get some shiny new buildings AND change its intake to be a full-blown primary school, taking children from 4-11. But only 60 of them per year group.

Since this now appears to be cast in stone, there seems little point in me bleating about the things I don't like in the plan, so I shall show a super-human level of restraint and restrict myself to the things that are stopping me from sleeping instead.

The Black Cloud of Uncertainty

Let me summarise the situation:

 So, here we are at "Now", with two lovely schools, filled with happy children. And then there's the Future, with two lovely schools, filled with happy children. But something happens in between. Something unknown and mysterious. And, for me, the unknown and mysterious is a looming black cloud of nameless fears, and what-ifs. It allows my brain to go into over-drive, analysing and assessing all the permutations of what might happen to get from Now to the Future. Because, naturally we haven't actually been told. And being the cynic that I am, freshly forged in the fires of Brexit and Trumpism, I'm becoming more firmly of the belief that a lot of people fight tooth and nail for the result they want, without actually having a plan on what they're going to do once they achieve that result. So the fact that nobody has told us what happens inside the Black Cloud of Uncertainty may mean they simply haven't told us, but I suspect means they don't actually know.

The one thing we have definitely been told by The Powers That Be is that the relocation of the Infant School and its restructuring is NOT a new school. It's the same school, just in a different place, with different class sizes and a different age range. Rather like my grandfather's axe. So, given it's not a new school, presumably the pupils of the school can just stay at it as it moves. Right? Right? Wrong. Because the school as it stands has three age groups, each with 120 children (ish). But the not-new-just-changed school will have 7 age groups each with 60 children. Which is a bit like doing this:

How to squash a school 

Take one tall, narrow school and squish it until it's wider and flatter. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work like that with children. You can't take 3 age groups of 120 children each and squish them out to create 60 children per year over 7 age groups:

Don't try this at home

So, even though it's not a new school, it can't simply be a continuation of the old school, because the pupils can't all remain as it moves site. So what happens?

Do they simply evict half the children on some kind of lottery basis? That would be insanity, as a lottery would indubitably result in siblings being sent to different schools. Besides, there are probably laws about just kicking children out of school. Probably.

Or perhaps ask for volunteers to change schools? But that would be insanity, because it risks everyone, or no-one, wanting to change schools.

Or perhaps, since there are currently four classes per year in the Infant School, two classes will remain in the new modified Infant School, and two will move to the modified Junior School? But that would be insanity, because it risks siblings ending up at different schools. And it's basically kicking children out of school for no reason. Which is still probably against the law. Or not.

Or perhaps all the children do stay at their existing schools, and the changes only ripple through as new children join? Making one school that for a while only has children in the lower years groups, and one school that for a while has children in the upper year groups, plus a Reception class intake. Except that would be insanity, as one poor group of littlies would end up at a school where they only had other children 4+ years older than them around, and one school would have children who never had anyone older than them around. And as more and more children joined over the first four years, that school would actually end up too full, having failed to re-distribute the children at the beginning.

Now, I'm not ruling out any of the insane options, because, well, Trump for a start. But I think the most likely outcome is that we'll all have to apply for places at one of the two schools from scratch. You know, almost like they're new schools, which they're definitely not. But it's OK, because then we'll all have the holy grail that politicians of successive governments have told us we all want. We'll have Choice. We'll be able to choose between two different schools that are definitely not new schools, but aren't actually offering the same educational provision that they used to, so we don't really know anything about them. Uninformed choice - the best kind.

Inside my head

Now imagine those possibilities replaying on infinite loop inside my head. I don't just list them out like that, one at a time, reach a conclusion as to the most probable outcome and move on. Nor do I say, "I'll wait and see, I'm sure it'll be fine", like a normal person would. No, the permutations go round and round and round and round, never stopping, always getting worse, more worrisome, more liable to end in stress or distress for my LittleBear. Sometimes ending in imaginary arguments with faceless bureaucrats for no apparent reason. Imagine also that I've only just managed, after 5 months, to adjust to the fact that LittleBear has not, in fact, imploded at school, but has managed to form friendships, and has settled in, and is happy. And continue to imagine the knowledge lying ahead of me that he's going to have to change school, lose half his cohort, potentially including his absolutely bestest friends and you might begin to be peeking into the nightmare of the inside of my mind. Because there are two things that I handle really, really, really badly. Change and the unknown. And this situation is hitting the mother-lode on both of those.

Some of you might be able to shrug and accept that it will be what it will be. You might find that the fact that the two schools we'll end up with will indubitably both be fine is enough to assuage any concerns you have. And I am working on that attitude, but it still eludes me. Instead I'm losing sleep, the hamster on its wheel racing towards nowhere as fast as it can.

I know it's not the responsibility of the school, or the council, to pander to my anxiety issues. Those issues are, quite literally, my problem. But I'm laying them out there, so that if you happen to meet me, or talk to me, or even know someone who's a bit like me, someone who seems to be unnaturally pre-occupied with a problem over which they have no control, just remember what anxious thoughts can do to a person. They take over, they plague you, and whisper to you, and undermine you and they don't shut up. They just keep saying the same things over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over....

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Demoralised by the political process

You might think, in light of the inauguration of (to my mind) the most terrifyingly inept, probably criminal, potentially blackmailed and astoundingly ill-informed president of the United States, this might be a post about Trump.

It's not.

You might think, considering our own government's insistence that "we" voted for a total crackdown on immigration, despite the fact that we weren't actually, explicitly asked anything at all about immigration in our recent referendum, I might be writing about Brexit.

I'm not.

I'm writing about something small, possibly insignificant, that almost certainly won't cause very many people, if any, a problem at all. It might not even have any significant impact on my own life, in the long run. But I'm writing about it anyway.

Because it's my blog.

I'm feeling deeply disheartened by yet another example of our bureaucratic overlords putting on a show of consulting the people. Of listening. Of providing us with choice. Disheartened by the realisation that, once again, it was a sham. Our bureaucratic overlords were always going to do exactly what they wanted to do, and we were merely asked some carefully phrased questions to ensure their decision was rubber-stamped as "the will of the people".

This is about a recent consultation on the future of the provision of primary education in our village. Primary education for LittleBear.

Before I go any further, I know that some of you reading this are also parents of children at LittleBear's school. I know that some of you are happy with the outcome, and some are not. I know that not all of you will agree with my assessment of the situation. I'll say again: this is my blog; these are my feelings; this is how I see the world. I don't think your feelings are wrong, or your opinions, since I know this is all very subjective. If you don't happen to agree with me, I'm not looking for an argument, or reasons why I'm wrong, I'm just putting my feelings out there. I'm certainly not criticising the school, which I think is brilliant.

So, for those not local to our school, what exactly is going on?

Well... there are more small children in the village than there used to be, and there isn't room for them all in the school, so Something Needs To Be Done. And we have a rather unusual arrangement in the village - we have an "infant" school for the first three years of primary education, and a "junior" school for the next four years. So actually, we have two schools, but all the children currently go to both, and both are at capacity, with temporary classrooms in use, and no capacity to take the number of children known to be coming through in the next few years. As I said, Something Needs To Be Done.

So, as is the way these days, a consultation was held. And actually, for the purposes of my views on the subject, the options in the consultation are irrelevant, as is the outcome. It's the process that has irked me. Because in essence, the options were:

1. Something that sounds really sensible, preserves the status quo but can't actually be done.

2. Something contrived and absurd.

3. What the council wants to do and is in line with current government dogma.

4. Something else contrived and absurd.

To nobody's surprise, the option that received most support was Option 1. And then, (and who could see this coming?) it turns out Option 1 simply can't be achieved, so sadly the choice that received the second highest levels of support will be pursued. And what was that? Of course it was. You know it was. It was Option 3, the council's preferred option. The option that received no support from any school governors in the consultation, no support from any teachers in the consultation, and the lowest level of support from parents of school-aged children in the consultation.

Because that's democracy in action for you.

Give the people what you want, while pretending you're giving them what they want, even though you've rigged the questions to ensure they don't choose something you don't want, but they do. I might have to go back and watch Yes, Minister again, just to remind myself, 'twas always thus and always thus will be.

But, because I'm turning into a bolshy cow in my middle age, I wrote to the bureaucratic overlord in charge of this consultation, expressing my disappointment and dissatisfaction, and asking questions about how they intended to implement their Grand Plan. And I received no reply. So I wrote again, to enquire if my first letter had been received. And I received an apology for the absence of reply, and an assurance it would be "followed up". It wasn't.

Because that's accountability and responsiveness for you.

And while I'm not happy with the outcome of the consultation, that's almost beside the point at the moment. It is what it is. Mostly, here and now, I'm just pissed off about the pretense of it all. The illusion that governments, local and national, try to weave to make us believe we have a say. The bare-faced gall of pretending to give a damn about what we, the people who elect them, think. Either give us a say, or do what you want, but don't cynically slink around pretending you care, pretending it's not already a fait accompli, pretending that "consultations" are anything but a sop to keep the people believing they have some sort of say in things. You might as well just start running circuses and giving out bread.

Footnote: I'll probably write about my fears and worries and anxieties that are being triggered by the plans for schooling in the village another time. Because I have just about enough self-awareness to know that a lot of my current feelings about what is planned are rooted in my own anxiety issues, and until I've started to deal with stabilising my own feelings I might just "go off on one", which could be entertaining for some, but not necessarily a Good Thing.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

New year, same stuff

LittleBear has, as I believe I have mentioned previously, a prodigious memory. Not that he can either remember, or tell me, what he's done at school ("it was this morning Mummy, which is a really long time ago"). He can, however, remember that we made New Year Resolutions last year. And he can remember what they were. And when 2017 trickled round, he declared it was time to make new New Year resolutions. So, once again, LittleBear and I made New Year resolutions together.*

This year's resolutions on LittleBear's part were a mixture of endearingly like last year's and also a departure into new territory:
"I will make sure I tell people I love that I love them more often"
"I will cuddle people I love more often"
"I will play fair"
He is, it must be said, already enormously good at items 1 and 2. We cuddle a lot. And he has an adorable tendency to inform me and BigBear that he loves us. I'm not entirely convinced by item 3. It was not, after all, that much later that we were playing Everton v Burnley at Balloon-Football**. And on an alarming number of occasions LittleBear required me (a filthy Everton player) to foul him (the noble Sam Vokes of Burnley). Sam Vokes would then roll around on the ground crying "Ref, ref, my leg!" until a penalty was awarded. After the third such occurence, I did have to Have A Little Chat about the fact that pretending to be hurt to persuade the referee to give you a penalty is actually cheating and that if the referee thinks you're lying to him he might give you a yellow card. I think it penetrated, but I'm also not quite sure it was enough to overcome the wild joy to be had in rolling around on the floor and being awarded a chance at goal with a hapless Everton goalkeeper who is guaranteed to dive the wrong way.

Like I said, we might need to work on the "playing fair" aspect of LittleBear's resolution.

And so we move on to my resolutions. Which I find myself embarrassed to admit borrow heavily from both last year, and from LittleBear. When I say "borrow heavily", obviously what I actually mean is "are direct copies". So, this year I resolve that:
"I will try not to shout at LittleBear just because I'm tired, when he hasn't done anything wrong."
"I will make sure I tell people I love that I love them more often"
The first because, despite LittleBear's rather sweet assurance that I'd done "actually quite well" at that resolution last year, I know that actually I didn't. I get stressed, and cross, and exasperated and then snap at LittleBear when he's just being a little boy. And if I want to teach him to react to and express his feelings in an appropriate fashion, the best I can do is at least try and act as a good role model of not totally wigging out for no good reason.

The second resolution is because it seems like a good thing to do. When my dear uncle P was in hospital, the realisation struck me that I'd never done a terribly good job of telling him how much I loved him, or how much of an influence he'd been on my life. And so I wrote to him. And it was in time. But then I realised that waiting until somebody is terminally ill before you tell them you love them is a bit rubbish, and that I really ought to take a leaf out of LittleBear's book and be more open with my loved ones.

However, my aspiration to be more open conflicts directly with my deeply ingrained Britishness and my inate tongue-tied-ness, which together mean I won't actually be rushing up to any of you, throwing my arms around you and telling you that you are dear to my heart. I actually wince slightly at the idea of being quite so forthright. Maybe working on that could be a resolution for next year. Instead, I have re-stocked my supply of nice cards, and I intend to randomly send nice cards with nice thoughts to people. After all, everyone likes getting things in the post, and getting an actual hand-written bit of post is even better. I get things in the post sometimes. But never yet have my bank included a note with the bank statements to tell me they love me.

So there we go for 2017. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

* And, once again, BigBear recused himself from this absurdity, since there are already enough things we both fail to achieve, without failing to live up to publicly made promises to our LittleBear. That's because BigBear is more sensible than me. Again.

** A safe version of football for playing indoors. Even LittleBear's enthusiastic walloping cannot break a window with a balloon.