To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns

Happy 250th birthday Rab.

Statues have been raised to the bard from Denver to Sydney. American presidents sing Auld Lang Syne, Russian children chant A Man’s a Man for A’ That. His verse has been translated into all the major languages of the world, including Chinese. Google “Robert Burns” and you will find something in the order of 3 million references. The blockbuster movie is only a matter of time. However, amid all this adulation and hero-worship, the creative works of Robert Burns are largely neglected at home by all but a few fanatics who come together once a year on the poet’s birthday.

As far back as 1926, the poet Hugh McDiarmid, an admirer of Burns’ writing, was aware of the harmful effects of the Burns “industry”, as was evident in his own epic poem, “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”;-



… the rest here


Socrates and the Squid

Currently enjoying “Proust and the Squid” by Maryanne Wolf, the story of the development of the reading brain in humans. Wolf describes the origins of reading and writing from early Egyptian and Sumerian scripts and fascinatingly likens the current seismic shift from a written culture to one that is increasingly driven by visual images and massive streams of digital information, to the concerns of Socrates in ancient Greece that the transition from an oral tradition to a literate one would lead to a lack of virtue and discipline in young learners. His main concern was that while language was mainly spoken it required great feats of memory and strong discipline to master, while the invention of the written word encouraged people to be lazy. If speech and debate were dynamic and challenging, written language was by contrast a “dead discourse”. A more subtle concern was that because the written word could be mistaken for reality, or be assumed to be true, people could be deluded into thinking that they understood something when in fact they had only just begun to understand it, which would result in an empty arrogance, leading nowhere. Professor Wolf contends that this is akin to the concerns of many modern-day teachers and parents who watch their children spend endless hours in front of the computer, absorbing but not necessarily understanding huge amounts of information. Such quasi understanding would have been anathema to Socrates for whom true knowledge, wisdom and virtue were the only worthy aims of education.

Mini-Mini Epic on Twitter

I read a message on Twitter the other day asking whether anyone had examples of using Twitter to teach English. I’m not aware of such a thing but it did get me thinking. Let me explain. Twitter is a social networking service which allows friends, co-workers, like-minded people to stay connected in real time by posting regular updates in response to one simple question – What are you Doing? So it is a kind of micro-blogging (see Literacy Adviser on Twitter in the opposite column). The key element of the message is that it must be in fewer than 140 characters, which is where the art of precis or summary comes into play. Those of us who are old enough to remember will recall the days when summarising an extended piece of prose was a component of the  Higher English exam, and the act of summarising, condensing, reducing is an integral part of the reading – and writing – process.

It also reminded me of a mini-epic competition which was run by, I think, the Daily Telegraph a number of years ago, the idea of which was to write an epic story in exactly 50 words, not 49 or 51. It was great fun to use with students, and once they got the idea of an epic there was no stopping them. For once they were being asked to write a story in as few words as possible, and this had its own attractions!

Either, write a mini-epic in exactly 140 characters, post it on Twitter and share it with a wide network of people.


Signing up for Twitter is free

Twitter makes it easy to count the charaters as you write

Punctuation marks and spaces count as a character

Parodies and spoof classics are perfectly acceptable

OR, if you prefer, have a go at the original challenge of writing a mini-epic in 50 words, and submit it via the comments box below. Best entries will be widely circulated.


Reading the Media

As if to illustrate the fact that there is a greater-than-ever need to develop a media literacy in our young people today, the media have excelled themselves this week in presenting the curriculum review in Scotland as a revolutionary act aimed at undermining the establishment and bringing down the country. The TES started the ball rolling last Friday with a depressing call from some headteachers, justifying their resistance to change, telling us that there are some young people who are just not able to fit the curriculum and who should be allowed to leave school as soon as we can make it convenient for them to do so. Glasgow’s Herald Society picked up the theme on Tuesday, lining up a number of familiar faces to tell us that any attempts to make the curriculum more inclusive and learner-centred were doomed to failure, while  Newsnight Scotland on the same day was only too happy to reinforce the message of doom and gloom by inviting Edinburgh University’s Professor Lindsay Paterson, “one of Scotland’s foremost education experts”, to tell us what a mess we are in. It’s worth repeating verbatim some of Professor Lindsay’s unopposed attack on Curriculum for Excellence:-

“There’s a lot of change being proposed, but what is completely absent is any sense of a unifying educational philosophy. There is no sense at all that somebody has stood back and asked, What is education for? What do we want education in Scotland to do for us over the next two or three decades? And then, working back from these big goals, what would be the best curriculum and assessment that might reach these aims.”

Which is………er…………precisely what has been happening over the past four or five years! Am I missing something?

Take out your E-books and turn to the Home Page

I wonder if you were one of the many people who received an eBook Reader from Santa this year, or if  like most of us you were still tearing the wrapping paper from the traditional versions of the book, while wondering whether all those pre-Christmas hints had borne fruit. In either case, it looks likely that the electronic book will become increasingly popular this year and may well replace the paper and ink collections on our bookshelves altogether. The opportunities for schools arising from the invention of the ebook are well documented in an excellent recent blogpost by Ollie Bray, who talks specifically about the publication of Harper Collins’ 100 Classic Book Collection for the Nintendo DS. For a cost of around £15 for the software, a school library could easily afford to stock a few copies and lend them out to students, many of whom will already own a DS.

The advantages of ebooks are not hard to find. There is an obvious benefit to the environment when a hundred books can be printed on a chip rather than a forest of trees, and reading a handheld device may well be cool enough to encourage otherwise reluctant readers. There will be those traditionalists of course who will argue that nothing could ever replace the thrill of curling up with a proper book, and the sensual pleasure of turning a good quality page of paper and ink should not be underestimated. Interestingly, a quick search on Amazon reveals that one of the accessories already available for some E-Readers is a leather cover (true!) and the Bebook Reader is advertised as having a “unique paperlike display and eInk technology.”  How long before we can buy the electronic version of those rare first editions complete with musty smell on opening?

Interesting as the technological advances are, however, for me there is another issue to consider. When you look at the list of 100 classic texts, there is a depressing familiarity about it, determined I suspect by the freedom to publish rather than the quality of the text in many cases. Scotland for example is represented exclusively by half a dozen texts from Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, and it appears that the label “classic” is for life, much in the same way that so many of our media celebrities become famous for being famous long after we have forgotten whatever it was they were once good at. I would love to hear your thoughts on what “classic” texts are missing from the Harper Collins list.

Further Reading

20 Reasons Why 2009 Will Be the Year of the EBook