Always will.

Glass, Shattered, Window, DestructionTen years ago, I was just finishing the most terrifying, exhilarating, exhausting and arguably the most successful year of my life as an educator.

I’ve spoken about it before, but not for a while, and a few things have happened this week (like the message from D) to make me want to look back at it.

Briefly:  I worked in a primary school at a time when everything was controlled by THEM – the curriculum, the standards, the targets, the methods.  As educators we were under stupid amounts of pressure to conform and jump through all THEIR hoops.  The alternative was Special Measures.

Ours was a smallish school and – as sometimes happens – in that particular year, we were struggling with an above average number of, um, challenging pupils.  The reasons for the challenges weren’t hard to fathom – parents in prison, parents who had died or were seriously ill, parents with substance abuse issues, violent and abusive siblings and step-parents, family break-ups, history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.  Those are just the bits I can remember.  There was also peer influence and imitation; children would pick up on the behaviour of others and copy it.

Run Riot, Anarchy, City, Urban, GraffitiEvery class in the 7-11 age group had a few hard-core rebels and several who copied their behaviour.  Teachers felt their standards slipping as they struggled to deal with daily disruption.  Some were refusing to teach certain children or to have X and Y in the same class.  Exclusion of these youngsters wasn’t an option.  It was frowned upon by THEM, and anyway, we wanted to help these kids.

As a senior management team, we pondered long and hard on how we could organise classes for the next academic year.  No combinations worked.

Until I had my crazy/wonderful idea.

I opted to teach a mixed-age class of just 16 pupils, containing every one of the challenging children and a few others who had their own issues and difficulties, despite not being disruptive.  My conditions were that the National Curriculum would not be followed, testing would be optional – and then only at the very end of the year, targets would be replaced by frequent ‘look how far you’ve come’ reviews, the education would be holistic, with a different programme of study for each individual based on their personal circumstances and emotional needs as well as the educational ones.

Luckily, I had a brave, supportive head teacher and some brilliant, visionary and courageous support staff.  I was also able to buy in help from a very talented play therapist/counsellor.  Annoyingly, the local authority insisted on adding in its Behaviour Support Team, who tried to get me to run the class along the lines of Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s rats.  Not helpful.

My curriculum was, very broadly:  Term 1 – learn to tolerate and begin to like yourself.   Term 2 – like and take some responsibility for yourself and begin to tolerate one or two others, so you can manage to work in a very small group.  Term 3 – take responsibility for your own behaviour and actions and begin to tolerate and work with larger groups and the whole class.

Girl, Boys, Children, DevelopmentEach of the 16 who stayed at the school (such families travel around a fair bit, so some moved away) went on to rejoin a normal mainstream class the next year.  All of them opted to take part in the end of year tests and did as well or better than expected.  In the final term they did a whole class project and cooperated as well as any group I’ve ever taught.

Obviously the hardest bit – so hard I still have to fight back tears as I remember – was to get these lovely young people to tolerate and, later, like themselves.  Once that was achieved, the rest flowed relatively easily.

As I mentioned earlier, several synchronicities have turned up recently, drawing me back to 2007.  Some will have to wait for another post, but I will mention D.

He was one of the oldest in that class – an intelligent, painfully sensitive, deeply troubled young lad who somehow transformed during the year from having always been the class weirdo to becoming an excellent and much admired role model for the younger boys in our group.

Last night – as he does from time to time – he messaged me.  Said he hoped I was doing OK.  We chatted briefly.  I told him what was happening in my life; he told me a little about his.  Then we signed off.

“Thanks for remembering me,” I said.

“Always will,” came the reply.

I’ll always remember him, too, and the rest of the class who taught me that once you can like yourself, there are no limits to what you can do.

 

 

 

 

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The Words of William

This year, William, my young aspie friend, turned 25.

It really isn’t my place to talk much about his life now; he’d prefer not to share personal information and I feel I must respect that wish.

Graffitti, Goal, Colorful, ColorHe lodges with relatives in a rather run-down area to the east side of London.  He holds down a job where his intrinsic aptitude and preference for routine and regulations serve him well.

He has created a cocoon of familiarity around himself and, within its confines, once again feels able to chat to me freely via texts and emails.  Regular readers of this blog may remember our remote viewing experiments, which still continue every weekend and are as wonderful and puzzling as ever.  See here if you’d like to read about it.

As you may have gathered, William has some unusual skills and what he terms ‘knowing’.  I suppose it’s an enhanced version of the intuition and occasional flashes of insight we all get from time to time.  He tells me that people with autistic perception ‘receive and process information differently’.

As I mentioned in my last post, William has told and sent me many of his thoughts through the years.  Whether it was a masterclass in moving objects through space using the mind or a detailed account of how ‘atom strings’ form the universe/s, I’ve always been impressed by his ideas and explanations.

E-book CoverI decided that, for his birthday, I would collect together all these conversations, random thoughts and articles, from childhood to the present, into a single file and  send them to him, so that he had a record of the development of his ideas.

I asked him whether he shows them to anyone apart from me.  He said he didn’t.  That seemed a waste.  So a further thought came to me.  What if I formatted them as an e-book?  He could then – if he chose – publish them and allow others to share his ideas and musings.

It took him six days to come to a decision.  I’ve learned to work with his way of dealing with the world.  I was texted a few times in the week and told ‘I’m still thinking’.  Pressing him for a decision or offering further information or suggestions would have slowed things still further and caused him additional stress.  He needed that time to work through all the repercussions of having his words OUT THERE.   Finally, late in the evening of the sixth day, the message came: ‘Publish it.’

So I have.

The Words of William are now available – for the cost of a cup of coffee – on Amazon Kindle.  The text is short – some 5500 words, and priced accordingly.

This shy but delightful young man spent many years struggling to find a voice for his thoughts.  I’d love him to discover that there are those who share his passion for all things metaphysical, multidimensional and magnificent in this cosmos of ours, so if your interests tend that way, please do consider taking a look and maybe downloading a copy or sharing the link with others who might enjoy it.

Amazon UK link

Amazon US link

Also available on Amazon worldwide.

Thank you ❤

 

Danny Reading

 

Visual-dyslexia

Not Danny – but somewhat similar… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may remember Danny – he of the decimals and so forth.  He’s an after-school tutoring student of mine.  Coming up for twelve, still with speech difficulties and, shall we say, selective about what he gives his attention to…

I no longer teach him maths.  Reading has become the priority for our one hour a week together, since – he tells me – he is a ‘7.2’.  I’ve no idea what a 7.2 is, although I have a nasty suspicion that it could be his reading age, as tested by the special needs department.

To begin with, the reading books supplied by school looked promising – clean, attractively covered and illustrated and with easy words but age-appropriate content.  Week by week he unwillingly stumbled his way through them (“Have we DOT to do dis?”).  There was no discernible improvement.

Then the books changed.  Suddenly I was being presented with slim volumes of scantily worded and colourfully illustrated tales of ‘Ned the Greedy Dragon’, ‘Timmy the Flying Goat’ and their ilk.

“Seriously, Danny?” I remonstrated as yet another infant picture reader was dumped on the table.  “The school gave you this as your reading book?”

“I doze it myself,” he smirked conspiratorially, “I doze it ‘tos its easy!”

There followed a short but pointed lecture from me on the short-sightedness of this strategy and the difficulties that would accrue should he – as seemed more than possible – leave school without basic reading skills.

I didn’t feel I was getting through.
Danny, after all, has had seven long years to perfect his reading-avoidance strategies.  He wears them with pride.

Fortunately I know Danny well.  As I’ve discovered through our years together, motivation is everything with him.  A memory was stirring somewhere in my mind.  I recalled beginning to write a simplified version of Life: A Player’s Guide aimed at 9-12 year olds.  A short rummage around my PC’s hard drive revealed it: Coran and the Cosmic Computer Game.

English: Monitor "My Computer" icon ...
Would this story of avatar creation and computer coding in a sci-fi location be of interest to Danny?  I strongly suspected that it would.  I was also confident that he would be able to grasp – and relish – the analogy being drawn to Life.  Would the words be beyond his reading skills?  Well they were quite a way ahead of Timmy the Goat et al.  On the other had, if he were sufficiently motivated…

It was certainly worth a try.
IMG_20150529_085051 (1)First I drew up a grid, so that polysyllabic words could be written out, broken down into their constituent phonemes and blends.  (See right.)  Then I printed page 1 of the story:

 

Coran and the Cosmic Computer Game

 A brand new game! Coran was grinning to himself so much that he kept almost bursting into giggles. This was exciting. In fact it was more than exciting.

 He collected his pass and headed for the programming suite. That was where he would meet the programmer who would help him build his avatar and enter The Game.

He looked at the pass. It said he needed to go to Station 4. He headed across to the terminal and was greeted by a tall figure who sat the keyboard.

 “So, it’s nearly your birth-day, Coran,” said the Tall One, with a nod of his head.   “About time for you to do some choosing.”

“Hmm,” said Coran, thinking hard.

 Up where Coran lives, birth-days are not the same as birthdays here. A birth-day there means exactly what it says – the day you will be born!  Now that may seem odd to you, because Coran is already alive, or he couldn’t be saying, “Hmm,” – could he?

 What it means is that Coran is about to be born as a new character in a cosmic computer game. First he needs to select his avatar, which involves making loads of choices, then he will be ready to start playing The Game.

 Coran was trying to decide what sort of character he wanted to be in this game. He’d played it many times before, but this game was so mind-blowingly huge that each attempt could be completely different from all the ones before.

 “Nothing too easy,” he told the Tall One. “I want a real challenge this time. The last game was utterly boring.”

The Tall One smiled to himself and began to type the code on his machine.

“So you want a big challenge, huh?”

 “Definitely,” announced Coran. “My character will  have…”

The title was slow going.  By the end of the second sentence, though, he was reading most words without asking me to lay them out for him on the phoneme grid.  By the end he was barely stumbling on anything.  There were about three words in the whole passage I had to read for him.
He regarded me with wide eyes as he finished.  “I dort it was doin’ to tate me about a hour to read dat,” he said.
“Me too,” I admitted, and we both smiled broadly.
“Dan I read the next bit next time?” he asked.

As I mentioned, with Danny, motivation is everything.  I strongly suspect this is also true of so many of the so-called disaffected or learning-disabled students languishing in our schools.

 

Catching up and Patching up

Gradually, day by day, life is returning to an acceptable state of affairs.  As I’ve found so many times in my LIME Cottage adventure, once I put myself in a positive mindset and expect everything to go well, it begins to do just that.

The huge engineer who came to fix my broadband on Monday was absurdly grateful for the coffee.  I was the first person that day, he told me, who had given him a friendly welcome.  He’s the ‘last resort man’, he explained – the one they send out when all others have failed.  Therefore he is often greeted by angry, disgruntled customers.  One woman that morning had sworn and screamed at him so much he’d withdrawn to his van for a while, to consider whether to go ahead with the job.

“Then I thought, well what do I know?” he said.  “She might have lost her mum last week or something.  There’s probably a reason she’s behaving that way and it’s her problem, not mine.  So I went in and did the job – got it working perfectly – and then she was leaping about, saying ‘You fixed it!  You fixed it! What did you do?’  And I’ll probably get into trouble for this but before I answered I told her she owed me an apology.  And I got one.  I still feel pretty shaky about it, though.”

I felt honoured to have met this thoughtful and sensitive man.  He sorted out my internet connection and promised to give me a call in a couple of weeks to check that everything is going well.

The old sink has gone.  A kind friend helped me load it into her car and take it to the local tip.

English: Wooden flooring Français : Parquet en...

Yesterday more delightful men arrived to put down my new flooring.  I’d been looking forward to that for several reasons: partly because I’d be rid of the ugly stained and ripped brown vinyl that had covered the kitchen, hall and bathroom; partly because until it was fitted my new sink can’t go in, but mostly because the workmen would be removing everything in my kitchen – including the fridge and washing machine.  That meant no more hiding places for rodents!  Even the darkest corners were revealed to be gloriously rat-free  – and the new floor looks lovely.

Other wonderful things have happened in my life, too.

I’ve been invited to stay for a few days in a house on the west coast of Ireland at the end of the week.  A friend of a friend is opening her doors to both of us – despite only having met me once, very briefly – and offering peace, tranquillity and views of the Atlantic and distant mountains.  It sounds the perfect antidote to the chaos and craziness here and the lady’s kindness touches me deeply.

I had a beautiful letter from little Tuesday – my ballet dancing ex-pupil.  She’s settling into her London dance school, struggling to be accepted by the other students, all of whom are from a very different background, worrying about her dad, whose tumour has grown larger, and unsure whether there will be enough money to pay for a second term at the school.  (Please click here if you’d like to read her story and maybe even help her family out.)  I hope she won’t mind if I quote briefly from her letter:

“I sound really angry but the ballet makes me feel like I’m in a beautiful  fairy land and I love it. The school is amazing but the girls are very prissy and it shocked me as I thought everyone would be nice but nothing in this 16 universes will put me off ballet.  I can feel it.  It helps me be happy in life.”

So rather a mixed up post this week, as I finally get the chance to write from my own computer, but linked perhaps by the way in which all of us interconnect and affect each others’ lives in ways we sometimes barely realise.  Each of us is on a journey to find what makes us ‘happy in life’, and to help others feel the same.

Normal service will resume when I return from County Mayo, refreshed and ready for the final push.

 

I want to teach Jed

English: Hug a Hoodie! Some of Highworth's you...

What follows is a piece of writing I did about 8 years ago.

I was looking out some of my scribblings and thoughts of an educational nature for a friend’s daughter who has just graduated as a teacher, and thought this piece might be of interest to others.

I still believe and stand by every word.

I taught him last year.  I kept him in my classroom, most of the time.  I found ways to get him back, when he couldn’t stay there, and ways to get myself back, when it got too much for me.

 

Jed is courageous – massively so.  He takes on The Man.  He doesn’t conform because it’s the line of least resistance.  He stays true to himself, as he searches desperately for himself.  And that search, in our education system, could well destroy him.  I want to teach him and help him in his search.

 

Our system tells Jed he is ‘challenging’.  What a world we’d have, if every child grew up challenging, testing, thinking, experimenting and learning from their experiences, rather than their textbooks. 

 

Our system tells Jed his attitude is ‘wrong’.  He should accept unfairness, bias, dreary lessons from exhausted teachers who are buffeted from one new initiative to the next; targets that are number-driven, not people driven; results that compare unlike to unlike.  He should meekly bow down and cope with all these things, because life is like that.  What if it wasn’t?

 

Jed is very unsure of himself.  He swears and shouts loudly.  He throws chairs and punches.  He behaves in ways most people don’t.  He’s constantly told he’s bad and wrong and unteachable and impossible and he wonders who is right and what is right and why his way of reacting causes so many problems to him and everyone else.  He doubts himself.  He doubts his ways of interpreting the world.  He is deeply unhappy, but he doesn’t have a choice.  What if there was another way?

 

As educators, policy-makers, law-givers and law-enforcers, we rely on the fact that adults know best.  Children are young and know less, so we must teach them what we know, what we do and how we do it.  They must listen and work hard and develop self-motivation, so that when they grow up, they can run the world the way we run it.  What a recipe for progress!

 

A child who dares to say, “Hang on – I don’t think this is the right way; I don’t think this is the best you could do,” challenges us.

We left those feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt behind in childhood.  We don’t want them back.  We don’t want children moving us forward – challenging us.  No wonder we call it ‘challenging behaviour’.  No wonder we label them and exclude them.

 

Jed is excluded, again.  He calls back to see me after school.  He tells me what he did, what the teachers did and how much he wants to be back in school.  He has to have a special meeting before they decide whether to take him back.  He’s unhappy and unsure and he knows it will happen again and again until they finally wash their hands of him.

 

It goes without saying that Jed has massive strengths and a burning desire to learn.  With courage and tenacity like his, he could be a massive asset to society.  He could also be a suicide statistic or an inmate in a young offenders’ institution.

 

I want to teach Jed.  I want to teach him that there is another way.  I want to be able to tell him that our world desperately needs visionary young people like him who need to learn through experiencing and trying and testing; not through being told.

 

There are plenty of the other sort.  That’s fine.  Let them shine through the current system and come out with their clutch of A* passes and do the jobs suited to them.

 

Let the Jeds of this world learn in their way.  Let them not take anything for granted.  Let them learn philosophy and inter-personal skills and co-operative discovery and self-awareness from the moment they are discovered.

 

Imagine an education system where the infant school teacher announces,

“I think I’ve got a non-conformer here!”

She would say it with pride, like saying that Kirsty excels at literacy or Ahmed is amazing at sports.

 

They’d need a teacher who taught them how to learn, then let them try.  If they found a better method, they’d tell the teacher, who would also learn.  Targets and tests and results would be irrelevant, for the simple and excellent reason that anything worth being is, by its very nature, incapable of being tested and targeted.  The results would speak for themselves.  Society would be moved on by the people who dared to challenge our deeply imperfect system.

 

I want to teach Jed.  I want Jed to teach me.

 

 

 

 

Thirteen and on crack

One of several versions of the painting "...

‘So here’s the deal,’ I told the kid.  ‘I’m going to take a huge risk on you.  I’m not going to tell social services or your school at this point.  I’m going to gamble that, as you’ve chosen to tell me, you want help to come off and stay clean.  I’ll do everything in my power to get you the help you need, to support you and to stand by you, but you’ve got to promise me, right here and now, that you’ll go along with everything I suggest, no matter how hard it is and no matter how tempted you are to use again.’

‘Okay,’ he said.

Nobody had written the book on how to react – far less what to do – when a 13 year old kid you’ve known since he was knee-high, a kid you’ve watched growing up, a kid you thought you knew inside out, tells you calmly that he’s been using crack for a while now.

That’s quite lucky – that no one had written the book, I mean.  If they had, I’d probably have gone by the book and I’d probably have lost him in the process.  As it was, I had no choice but to go with my heart.

No point blaming.  No point getting angry or whining that I was disappointed in him.  I knew I had to start from where we were.

Oh it was not easy.  It was easily the most not-easy thing I’d ever done.  I’d given my word, so I couldn’t call on support from friends or family.  Even the guy on the helpline (I needed information – fast – loads of it) did that sucking breath in through his teeth thing more usually associated with garage mechanics.
“Thirteen?? How long’s he been using?”
“He doesn’t know. He’s not been keeping a record.  A while.”
“And it’s definitely crack?”
“Yes.”
“There’s not a hope. I mean I’m really sorry but we have to be realistic here. There’s no way you’re going to get him to come off. The highs are so intense…”

I stayed calm.  I didn’t scream or swear.  I’d had quite a bit of practice at staying calm over the last few days, after all.  I gently reminded him of the purpose of his helpline.  I told him I didn’t have time or space for negativity.  I told him I needed him to behave as if there WAS hope – masses of it.  I told him to give me every shred of information and every contact number and address he possibly could and I told him that this boy was going to make it.

And he did.

Cover of "Junk"

This was the most desperate battle I’d fought in my entire life, but having decided on how it was going to pan out, help started to arrive exactly when and where it was needed.  I found him a counsellor.  I somehow got him to break away from his parasitic dealer.  I spent hours listening to teenage angst on the phone every night.  I bought him a copy of Melvin Burgess’ brilliant book Junk and above all, I cared.

A year or so later, when all the dust had settled and life was on a far more even keel, I asked him whether he’d be happy for me to write the story as a discussion workbook for the 10 and 11 year olds I was then teaching.  They were about to start secondary school where – I knew – the temptations would be all too similar to those he had faced.  He seemed to quite like the idea.  We changed names and a few biographical details but everything else was as authentic as I could get it.

For several years, the story of ‘Josh and Stuff’ was shared, analysed, discussed and sometimes wept over by successive year 6 classes.  At the end, the kids wrote messages to ‘Josh’ and I always passed them on.

I always thought drugs were just something everyone did.  Your story made me stop and think very hard.

I’m not going to do drugs because of your story.

Hope you’re OK now.  Thanks for sharing what happened.

I wish I could have been a true friend to you.  You needed one.

Last week I finished working through the book with another, slightly older, group of kids.  I’d honestly forgotten just how powerful the message was.  This page reduced almost the whole group to silence for a long time:

Josh decided to tell the teacher about his habit.  

He was shocked that she seemed so upset.  He didn’t  realise people cared that much about him.

She told him all the stuff he already knew, but some new things, too.

She told him that when he was on a ‘high’, his heart really started racing.  It went so fast that at any point he could have a heart attack.  If he was using in his bedroom, his Dad could walk in and find him dead.  If he was using outside, someone would find the body, call the police and they would knock on his parents’ door.

 She reminded him about his baby brother.  If Josh died now, he probably wouldn’t remember him – just have a photo of the big brother who died because he was a drug addict.

 She asked him to think how he missed his Mum; then to think how his family would miss him.

 She told him that, if he was caught, he’d be put on the child protection register.  Social workers would come round to check up on him, or maybe take him into care.  She told him about juvenile courts and about custodial sentences.

 She asked if a 20-minute high was worth all that.

 Then she said she’d help him come off, if that was what he wanted.

 

Take a bit of time to look back at Josh’s story.

 What if he’d known all the things this teacher has told him when Andy first offered him crack – would it have made a difference?

 

It was the quietest lad in the group who spoke.  His eyes were blazing.
‘Yes, of course it would,’ he said.  ‘That’s the sort of thing the teacher should have told the class.  Not just the slang names and how drugs are used and what the effects are.  If he’d known all this he’d never have done it.’

I’ve thought about that boy’s comments.  It all comes down to this:  young people would be far less likely to engage in risky behaviour if they realised how loved they are.

If  ‘Josh and Stuff’  has helped another group of kids to realise that, it’s done it’s job again.

 

Josh and StuffCopies of ‘Josh and Stuff’  – a discussion book for 9-13 year olds  – can be bought from Lulu.com here.  It is also available in PDF format as ‘Paul and Stuff’ – the same story, but with discussion prompts geared towards classroom use.

 There are other books there which deal with issues such as cyber bullying, under-age drinking, shoplifting and relationships, all of which have been tried and tested in the classroom.

 

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Danny and the Decimals

Spinach pizza

It was too good a chance to miss.  The Co-op over the road was offering two small pizzas for £1 and the note I’d scrawled to myself during my last tutoring session with Danny said, “Do decimals – pizzas!”

(If you haven’t encountered Danny in my blog before, you can find out more about him by checking this post.)

Oh we’d tried decimals together many times, Danny and me.  I’m sure various school teachers and teaching assistants had made similar attempts.  The result was always the same.  He’d start to twitch, writhe and wave his hands around.  His eyes became both wide and wild.

“I don’t DET decimals!” he would complain frantically.  “All weird points and stuff.  I don’t det dat!”

As we all know, trying to master a new skill while in a state of blind panic is next to impossible.  That’s where the pizzas came in.

As I ushered Danny into the kitchen rather than the study and began unwrapping them, he deduced that Christmas had been delayed but was now well and truly here.

“We doing dooting today?” he asked, hopefully.

“Well we need to cook these before we start on the maths, yes,” I told him. “Because we’re going to be doing maths with pizzas.”

We stood watching the pizzas as they browned and bubbled.  It took a mere six minutes – just the right amount of time to prepare Danny for the lesson.

“How many pizzas did we put in?” I asked.

“Two,” he grinned, salivating like one of Mr Pavlov’s canine subjects.

“Well when they’re cooked we’ll be leaving one of them whole and cutting the other one up,” I explained.

“Otay,” Danny nodded.  “Day smellin’ dood.”

“Yes, and do you think you’ll have room to eat some of the pieces?” I enquired casually.

Danny expressed a certainty that he would.

“But you will have to concentrate hard on the maths, Danny.”

“Oh, I will.  I promise I will,” he assured me.

“Because when we cut one up, it will be in pieces – decimal parts of a pizza.”

He didn’t even flinch.  “Otay.  Do you dint dey’re done now?”

Česky: Pizza

Danny was as good as his word.  He sat in the study, watching silently as I transferred a whole pizza to the first plate and carefully cut the second into ten slices.

“This,” I explained, wafting one piece of pizza in front of him, “is smaller than a whole pizza, isn’t it?”

He agreed that it was.

“There are ten pieces, so each one is a tenth.  We also call that zero point one of a pizza.  Two tenths would be zero point two.  Could you show me zero point six?”

No problem.  Danny went on to identify all fractions of a pizza to one decimal place.

Next I places three of the tenths onto the plate with the the whole pizza, showing him the plate now held 1.3 pizzas, while the other plate held 0.7.  He caught on instantly.  Once he’d shown he could move slices around to create 1.5 and 0.5 pizzas respectively, I asked him to lay out 1.6 and 0.3.  He held the left-over slice in his hand.  I suggested eating it, since there was nowhere else to put it.  Danny happily complied.

The next step was to divide one of the slices into ten minuscule slivers of pizza.  A couple disintegrated, so that they too had to be eaten.  However once he had been shown that these were hundredths of a pizza, he was able to deal with decimals to two places with no difficulty.  Within the space of half an hour, Danny was happily recording and constructing numbers and quantities such as 1.72 and 0.53.

“I think you get decimals now, Danny,” I remarked.

His eyes widened, but he was still calm.  “I dint I do,” he agreed.

A few more mouthfuls of pizza and several other maths activities later, I set him a final task.  We have been playing the ‘ten game’ for months, with little discernible progress.  It involves laying ten counters on the table.  I swiftly remove some and he is supposed to tell me – instantly – how many I’ve taken by counting those that remain. Number bonds to ten – another long-term sticking point.  Tonight, though, his answers were fast and accurate, for the first time ever.

“How did you suddenly get so good at this, Danny?” I asked.

He smiled slowly.  “I’m tellin’ myself dat dey’re bits of pizza!” he announced triumphantly.  “When I dee dem lite pizza I dan do dem easily.”

Staring happily into the middle distance he remarked dreamily, “Pizzas dan solve any problem.  Dey’re brilliant at maths!”

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Twerking the message home

Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus (Photo credit: rwoan)

I wasn’t particularly keen to write on this subject, but each time I try to put it aside, I get another little nudge telling me to get on with it.

So here we go:  the ‘Thank you Miley Cyrus‘ post.

Back in the day, my sex education lessons to classes full of anxiously giggling eleven-year-olds usually began with something like this:

Did you know that when a caterpillar develops a chrysalis and begins changing into a butterfly, every part of its body goes into a complete meltdown, and from the resulting goo an entirely new creature is formed?  Adolescence is a bit like that.   You start off as children and emerge as young adults, but the process in between can be pretty messy and radical.

Nothing I could say, though, would prepare the kids for the massive and traumatic changes that hormones would be wreaking on their bodies over the next few years, or the social and emotional fallout this would create.

The thing is, no one – not even the most sorted, mature and contented adult – can take self-esteem as a given.  Each of us is still racked, from time to time, with self-doubt, insecurities and a wavering self-image.  Yes?  And I’m pretty certain that everyone reading this can look back to their own adolescence and recall how exaggerated and extreme those doubts and horrors were, when sudden and dramatic changes were affecting their entire beings on a daily basis.  You’d wake up in the morning to find your voice, your skin, your smell, your height and weight, your emotions and mood and, of course, intimate parts of your body had suddenly transformed you into something quite new and unfamiliar.  How on earth were you supposed to go about developing self-esteem, when you didn’t know, from day to day, who you were?

Chrysalis to Butterfly (#1 of 5)

The caterpillar/butterfly is able to make these changes within the privacy of the chrysalis.  Our society doesn’t provide so much as a curtain for our developing young people to hide behind.  All these changes take place as they are going about their daily lives, interacting constantly on social media and – for an unfortunate few – in the full glare of publicity.

This is where Miley Cyrus comes in, of course.  How unimaginably ghastly for a talented and beautiful young girl to have to play out a fantasy life in front of millions on TV for years as she grows up and then to attempt to redraw herself as an adult in the same, unrelenting media glare.  It would seem that caring and helpful mentors have been sadly missing from her life, replaced instead by greedy and self-serving individuals encouraging her to boost their profits by – well – doing what she’s been doing.

I think we needed to see this hideously exaggerated adolescent transition played out on our screens, in order to recognise how much help and support the rest of our young people need.

A week or two back, the British media were reporting a story that many young people are being blackmailed into sending pornographic images of themselves to paedophiles.  They are, apparently, approached via social media by someone pretending to be an ideal potential friend of the required sex and age.  They are then asked by the new ‘friend’ to send compromising photos or videos of themselves.  

This they willingly do.

After that, of course, they are trapped.  The blackmailer threatens to send the pictures to their family and friends unless they provide more.  The suffering this causes to the kids in that already fragile, insecure and confused adolescent state can easily be imagined.

The point I want to pick up on is that so many of our young people will readily send such images of themselves to total strangers – because, I suppose, their lack of familiarity with their new, sexually aware selves, together with the blatant soft porn images surrounding them in the media, trick them into believing that only this will make them sufficiently attractive and desirable to a potential boyfriend or girlfriend.

Why did it take young Ms Cyrus’ public gyrations and disrobing to alert us to the warped message being fed to her generation?  Surely it’s vital for all of us who live with, work with or otherwise care for young people, to help them to recognise and respect the fragile and incredible beauty of their bodies, and to lovingly guide them through the hazards and fears of puberty so that they can emerge from the process as adults with a relatively secure self-image and the confidence to  seek out and attract partners who will recognise and admire their intrinsic uniqueness and value.

We should not be leaving them prey to those who would destroy and devour them greedily before they can emerge from the chrysalis transformation.

Better Answer Needed

Case O' Guns

“I know how to get hold of a gun,” crowed the 14-year-old at my side.
He looked at me quickly – part jubilant, part watchful, and waiting to see how I would react.

We live in England, where such things are strictly illegal, but I believed him.  There are always ways, if you have enough money and can find the right contacts.  This boy certainly knew where such contacts could be found.

“And why might you want to do that?” I asked, as levelly as I could.

He was the sweetest, gentlest, kindest of kids.  He still regularly came to visit me (his old primary school teacher) and usually chatted about our mutual interests.  Today, though, I was being shown a different side to him.

“If I had a gun – a really big gun – people would have to listen to me!   They’d have to take notice.  I’d be a big man.”

I watched him as he spoke.  He was half serious, half parodying himself, knowing as he said the words how stupid and clichéd they sounded.  Yet he badly wanted to believe them.  He wanted to believe there was some magical way to transform himself from a timid, socially anxious teenager into someone who would be held in awe by his classmates.

“And that’s the best solution you can come up with?” I asked.

He began to bluster then, to talk about an ever-increasing arsenal of weapons, of the penalties he’d exact on anyone who wouldn’t listen to him, of how revered he would be.

“They’d respect the gun,” I agreed, when he finally paused for breath, with a big soppy grin on his face.  “Do you think they’d have any respect for the guy holding it, though?”

The bravado continued.  “It wouldn’t matter.  They’d just have to do as I said.”

“It matters to you,” I persisted.  “You’re not looking to be surrounded by a bunch of dead bodies, you’re looking to feel empowered, to have a voice and to be looked up to by the others at school.  You’d like their respect and you’d like them to hear the thoughts and ideas that are burning away there in your head but never spoken because you’re scared the rest of them will laugh you down.  That’s what this is really about, isn’t it?  You want to feel brave.”

He thrust his hands into his pocket and lumbered off ahead.  I caught him up.

“We covered all this when you were in primary school,” I reminded him.  “The coward who wants power will bully weaker, smaller people or he’ll surround himself with a few mindless thugs to be his henchmen – or, I suppose, he’ll get a weapon to threaten others with.  None of those things will remove his fear, though.  He’ll still be terrified all the time.”

“SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER, THEN?” he yelled in my face.

What indeed?  What could I say?

I could offer him a whole bunch of truisms:  ‘There’s nothing to fear but fear itself’; ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’; ‘There is no fear until we make it up’ and so on and on…

adolescence

adolescence (Photo credit: dongdawei)

He was fourteen, in the midst of that agonising transformation from child to man.  He was a chess player amongst a throng of football fans, a quiet, gently spoken kid in a rough school where the mouth, the fist and occasionally the knife ruled supreme.

I had no magical words of comfort, no panacea for the whole, sorry business.

“Just don’t try to take them on,” I told him finally.  “Try to keep your head down and stay out of their way whenever possible.  Stay in safer, central areas and hold tight to your knowledge that you are a great person with a brilliant mind and your time will come.  School seems endless now, but in a few short years you’ll be free of it.  University or the workplace will be far less threatening and you’ll find people who give you respect for who you are.  You’ll also find that the fear gradually fades as you get older.  That’s the best I can offer.”

Was it enough?  It’s a long way from the perfect answer.  I’m still searching for that.

Fire and Knives

I once taught a lovely young girl who was in foster care.  After several years with the same family, she was told she was being transferred to a new placement.  It involved moving to a different town and changing schools.  

This is the story I wrote to help her with this huge transition.

Fire and Knives 

Shi'ah's Sorrow

“How do I stop myself from having any pain?” asked Marnie.

“Pain?” said the Old One.  “What sort of pain?”

“Any sort,” replied Marnie, kicking at the dusty ground.  “Pain like… being burned and cut – just pain.”

The Old One shrugged.  “That’s easy; you stay away from fire and knives and things that can hurt you.”

Marnie scowled.  That was not the right reply.  “Suppose the pain comes after me, though, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get away from it.  Then what do I do?”

“Ahh!” said the Old One, slowly.  “That sort of pain.”

 

The Old One wandered over to his rocking chair and sat down gently.

“Come and sit with me, Marnie,” he said.

“Don’t want to sit,” scowled Marnie.

“Fine,” smiled the Old One.  “Just you stay standing, then.”

“Don’t want to stand either,” Marnie grumbled.  “Just answer the question, why don’t you?”

“Well it’s an interesting question, you see, Marnie, and one that deserves a good answer.”

“SO GIVE ME THE ANSWER, THEN!” screamed Marnie, kicking furiously at the side of the house.

“Well, let me see.  I’m thinking this sort of pain wouldn’t be from flames and knives at all.  I’m wondering if this would be more like the sort of pain you get when you have to say goodbye to people and places you’ve known a long time, and you’ve got used to them and fond of them and it feels bad inside in every way.  Would that be the sort of pain we’re talking about?”

 

Marnie had stopped kicking at the house and was scuffing the ground quietly.  “Maybe.”

The Old One nodded thoughtfully.  “Yes, that’s a tricky sort of pain to avoid,” he agreed.

Marnie blinked hard several times and swallowed.  “So how would I avoid pain like that?”

 

“How would you avoid it?  Ah, that’s easy,” smiled the Old One.   “You’d start by saying to yourself, ‘I must be as nasty and grumpy as I can to the grown ups around here, then they’ll be glad when I go and they won’t miss me, so they won’t be upset.’  Then you’d think on and say, ‘I’ll be extra quarrelsome to my friends, and ignore the little kids around here, so that they don’t cry or make any fuss and they’ll be glad to see the back of me and then they won’t be upset, either.’”

 

Marnie was staring, open mouthed, at the Old One, but he smiled gently and kept talking softly.

“Then, of course, there would be your own pain.  You’d push it down deep, well out of the way and tell yourself how glad you were to be moving.  With any luck, if you kept it buried for long enough, it might not hurt any more after a while.  Simple, isn’t it, Marnie?”

 

Marnie was still staring.  “Is that the right way to do it?  Is that what you’d do?”

“What I’d do?  Good gracious, no!  Why would I even think of doing anything that stupid?”

“But you said…” spluttered Marnie.

“I said,” interrupted the Old One, “that’s what you’d do!”

 

Marnie went rather pink and started kicking again.  “So what’s wrong with that, anyway?”

“Well, Marnie, there’s a whole load wrong with it.  Let’s take the way you treat the adults.  They know it’s not your fault you’re leaving.  They’ve loved you for a long time and watched you growing up.  They’ve felt proud of the good ideas and help they’ve given you and they’d be proud to see you moving on as such a fine young person.  They’d like to have good memories of you.  But you’re taking all that from them.  You’re making them feel sad and disappointed.  You’re making them feel hurt and neglected.  That gives them lots of pain.”

 

Marnie slowly turned and wandered across to sit next to the Old One.  He carried on, as if he hadn’t noticed, although, of course, he had.

“Now what about those little kids?  Remember the bigger kids who played with you, when you were small?  Remember how kind they were to you, when they helped you make toys or played games with you?”

Marnie nodded.

“What are those memories like?  Good or bad?”

“Oh, good!” exclaimed Marnie, starting to smile at the thought of them.  “There was this one big kid, called Asher, who always played ball with me.  It made me feel really important and grown up.”

“That’s right,” smiled the Old One.  “I remember Asher playing with you when you were a real little tot.  Then one day Asher just started ignoring you, didn’t he?  Just treated you like you didn’t exist.”

“He did NOT!” exclaimed Marnie, angrily.  “Asher would never have done that.  He was really kind and friendly!”

“Oh yes, my mistake,” agreed the Old One, mildly.  “I must have been confusing him with someone else I knew.”

 

Marnie looked at him carefully.  She opened her mouth to ask a question, but then changed her mind.

“Go on,” she said.

“Where was I?  Oh yes – your friends.  They’ve been there for you when you’ve been grumpy and miserable and bossy and mischievous and they’ve kept you company and given you such a great bucket-load of happy memories to take with you on your journey.  Do they deserve to have their memories of you spoilt?  Do you deserve to have your memories ruined too?”

“Probably,” whispered Marnie, miserably.

“Can’t see much purpose in that,” shrugged the Old One.  “And finally there is your pain.  You got any painful memories at the moment?”

Marnie scowled.  “None of your business!”

“Ah,” he smiled.  “Keeping them buried, are you?  I’m guessing some of them go way back – back to when you were just a very little person.  And have they faded away?”

“Stop it!  Stop it!  STOP IT!” shouted Marnie, trying to block out his voice.

 

The Old One waited for a moment, until Marnie was still.  “I know it hurts,” he said gently.  “When pain goes deep, it hurts all the more.  You don’t start to feel better until you let it out.”

 

Then the Old One stood up and walked to the garden fence.  He looked across at the mountains in the distance.  They looked beautiful with the sun setting on them.

“Ah, Marnie,” he sighed.  “Just look at that view!  Drink it in and remember it!  Those mountains are worn into beautiful shapes, like carvings.  Wouldn’t they be dull and dreary if they were just smooth and round?”

Marnie looked at the mountains and shrugged.  “I suppose.”

“They’ve been attacked by fierce winds and sandstorms, lightning and torrents of rain, over the years, to get that way.  They’ve suffered too.  It’s the pain in our lives that makes us wise and strong and beautiful.”

 

He turned to face Marnie.  “There is another way – a better way.  Accept the pain, and the tears if they come, because they gradually wash the pain away.  Smile through the tears at those you are leaving behind.  Leave them the greatest gift you have – memories of the wonderful person you are.  They will give you wonderful memories back.  You’ll have no need to feel guilt or shame or bitterness.  Just know that life is an amazing journey, and take the best from every part of it.”

 

Marnie hugged him and the tears flowed and the pain that had been digging inside like a knife, or like burning, began to melt away.

Sunset over mountains