You Must Be Joking

funny_chemistry_teacher_quote_no_reaction_postcard-rf4872fee293747cbaf640617e0744679_vgbaq_8byvr_324A guy is sitting at home when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door and sees a snail on the porch. He picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. Three years later there’s a knock on the door. He opens it and sees the same snail. The snail says: ‘What the hell was that all about?’…………..Boom!

Three guys stranded on a desert island find a magic lantern containing a genie, who grants them each one wish. The first guy wishes he was off the island and back home. The second guy wishes the same. The third guy says: ‘I’m lonely. I wish my friends were back here.’

Two of the funniest jokes of all time, according to a team of researchers at Oxford University, who put them to a group of students at the London School of Economics and asked them to rate them out of ten. The jokes were from a pre-selected list of course, which makes the exercise less than useless, but nevertheless, jokes, and the ability to tell them, have been a part of our popular culture since God worried that Adam would be forever lost in the Garden because men hate to ask for directions, and most jokes are just another form of storytelling, which is at the heart of learning and teaching. Right?

How often, as a teacher, have you recognised in a young person the ability to tell a good story, to hold an audience rapt for minutes on end without script or prompt, and yet were never quite sure how the talent could be developed and nurtured? Well, fear not, because an outlet for that creativity is about to present itself, in the shape of a joint project from the BBC and the National Literacy Trust.

‘Comedy Classroom – Having A Write Laugh’ will officially launch on the 19th of April, and it isn’t just for extroverts. The project organisers are calling on teachers across the UK to get their students writing comedy – whether it be stand-up, sketch-writing or simply photo captions. And being the BBC, they have a huge collection of resources to help you on your way.

Footnote: For those teachers who think that telling jokes isn’t real learning, or for those who simply like ticking boxes, here are some of the literacy outcomes which may be enhanced by undertaking such an endeavour. Have fun, but be careful not to overdo it. Learning is a serious business, after all!

Speaking:

  • Take a role within group discussions.
  • Communicate clearly and confidently with an audience.
  • Verbally evaluate the work of themselves and others.
  • Be able to participate in discussions and presentations.
  • Demonstrate they can gain, maintain and monitor the interest of the listener(s).
  • Be able to discuss words and phrases that capture the reader’s interest and imagination.

Reading:

  • Comment on the differences between spoken and non-spoken text.
  • Consider why texts can change to be applied to specific audiences.
  • Be able to prepare comedy pieces to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action.
  • Demonstrate an ability to recognise different forms of comedy writing.
  • Be able to assess the effectiveness of their own and others’ writing and suggest improvements.

Writing:

  • Communicate meaning, adapting their style where necessary.
  • Organise their ideas in an easy to understand, coherent way.
  • Demonstrate an appropriate level of spelling, punctuation and grammar.
  • Demonstrate they can draft and edit to improve their work as well as critique others’.
  • Be able to plan, draft, edit and proofread.
  • Be able to use relevant strategies to build vocabulary, grammar and structure.

See also:

 Eleven Jokes Only Smart People Will Understand

Top Ten Teacher Jokes

Best School Jokes Ever

Teacher, School and Education Jokes

 

 

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LOL. What Exactly Do You Mean?

There are certain ‘truths’ which become established through simple repetition; if we see and hear them often enough they must be true. One such truth is that the more technological society becomes, the less literate its citizens will be. This is the kind of thinking which had the crime-writer Ruth Rendell claiming in a Daily Telegraph article this week, without a shred of evidence, that reading was becoming a minority activity, something which she said ‘strikes terror into her heart’ (thereby employing the kind of hyperbole which I hope she is able to avoid in her writing).

SMS usage in Pakistan from 2007-2013

The number of text messages sent by phone users in Pakistan 2007-2013

This is the same near-hysterical reaction which greeted the advent of text-messaging or Short Message Service (SMS) in the 1980s, and which has accompanied it ever since. Developed in the Franco-German GSM corporation by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Gillebaert, the idea was to transport messages on the telephone signalling paths when there was no other traffic, and in so doing make optimum use of existing resources. In order to fit existing formats, message length had to be restricted to 128 bytes (later improved to 160 seven-bit characters), though based on his personal observations of postcard and Telex messages, Hillebrand argued that 160 characters were enough to express most messages succinctly. Today, SMS is the most widely used electronic data application across the globe.

In this TED talk from April 2013, the linguist John McWhorter argues that not only is it a myth that texting is destroying the English language, but the mistake we make is in thinking of texting as a form of writing at all. In his opinion, it is more closely associated with speech, and as such its informal structure is quite appropriate. Far from being a dumbed-down form of language, in the ‘fingered speech’ which we call texting we are seeing what McWhorter calls an ’emergent complexity’ in the ways that writing and speaking overlap. Another important theme which emerges from his talk, and which he shares with David Crystal (see later), is that most reasonably-informed people, including young people, are still quite capable of distinguishing between formal and informal language, and recognise the need to switch between them for different purposes, something which traditional grammarians used to refer to as ‘appropriate register’.

If McWhorter believes that ‘texting’ is a kind of sophisticated amalgamation of speech and writing, the eminent Professor of Linguistics David Crystal goes further in a way, by arguing that texting is also good for the development of language skills: in order to express yourself precisely and unambiguously in a very limited space, you need to understand something of the structures of formal grammar and the rules of spelling. In the most definitive study of the phenomenon to date, Txtng. The Gr8 Dbt., Crystal shows how to interpret its mix of pictograms, logograms, abbreviations, symbols, and wordplay, looks at how it works in different languages, and explores the ways similar devices have been used in different eras. It will surprise many to discover for example that the texting system of conveying sounds and meaning goes back a long way, all the way in fact to the origins of writing – and he concludes that far from hindering literacy, texting may turn out to help it. Here he is on the BBC TV programme It’s Only a Theory in 2009, debunking a few of the myths about texting,

A few common misconceptions about text messaging, according to David Crystal:-

1. Texting is done by kids only. It doesn’t take much time or effort to demonstrate that this just isn’t the case.

2. Kids fill their text messages with abbreviations. In fact, only around 10% of words used in text messages are abbreviated.

3. These abbreviations are ‘a modern thing’, invented by kids. Not true.

4. Since kids are leaving letters out, they don’t know how to spell. As Crystal sees it, if you don’t know how to spell it, you don’t know what to leave out.

5. This poor spelling finds its way into essays and examinations, leading to a generation of illiterates. Again, not true. Most young people recognise that text language is inappropriate in the context of formal assignments.

6. Most text messages are pointless. Think about it. Even the  proverbial ‘I’m on the train’ text has a point, and the point may not be explicit. ‘I’m on the train’ can often mean ‘I’m thinking about you at the moment’.

A more modern relative of text messaging of course is Twitter, the social networking site which requires users to ‘tweet’ a message in 140 characters or fewer. Much has been written about the benefits of Twitter in the classroom, for both students and teachers, but until now this has focussed on the social aspects of the medium, specifically on the importance of networking, sharing ideas, showcasing work and finding resources. Much less has been said about the benefits of tweeting in terms of language development. If you believe, as I do, that a crucial aspect of reading, writing and speaking effectively is the ability to summarise, you begin to understand the wider significance of texts and tweets. However, that is another post for another day. In the meantime remember that, as educators, our role is to help young people to a better understanding of the medium, not to control the message.

Further Reading:

Download the Creative Education Twitter Guide for Teachers here.

Superpower: The Power of Speech

As I write this post, 16-year-olds and their teachers in Scottish secondary schools are, literally, wrapping up their Standard Grade English folios for the last time, as the qualification which was introduced to bring equality to the qualifications and certification system  is being replaced from next year by new National 4 and National 5 Certificates. Loved and despised in almost equal measure, Standard Grade and its attendant portfolio of writing, ushered in the era of ‘exams for all’, in the mistaken belief that treating everyone the same was the same as treating everyone equally. The subsequent ‘setting’ of classes and the self-fulfilling prophecy of identifying ‘Foundation kids’ from the start of the course soon put paid to that notion.

Screen Shot 2012-06-24 at 6.05.23 PM

One of the rarely-mentioned consequences of the current change, it would appear, is that talking and listening will no longer be a formal, assessable element of the course, which will come as a relief to many teachers, for whom the administration of talk assessments was of nightmare proportions, and to many kids, for whom standing up and delivering a speech in front of their peers was an ordeal, to say the least. It was never meant to be done that way of course, but not for the first time, expediency and the assessment tail found itself wagging the curriculum dog. Nevertheless, one of the unintended outcomes, I fear, is that the development of the spoken word, so vital in a hyper-networked world, will yet again be relegated to the category of ‘desirable, but not essential’. Which is a real shame, considering that young Scots, with some notable exceptions, have not traditionally been renowned for their verbal dexterity, and considering  the emphasis put on orality by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), especially in terms of valuing one’s own culture and identity. In its 2004 position paper, The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programmes, the organisation for whom the meaningful acquisition and application of literacy lays the foundation for positive social transformation, justice, and personal and collective freedom, recognises the importance of spoken language in enabling individuals and groups to articulate their own ‘meanings, knowledge and identity’.

“In acknowledging the fact that literacy involves oral, written, visual and digital forms of expression and communication, literacy efforts conceived in terms of the plural notion of literacy intend to take account of the ways in which these different processes interrelate in a given social context. Because all such processes involve expressing and communicating cultural identity, the promotion of literacy must foster the capacity to express or communicate this identity in one’s own terms and especially language(s). In a multilingual society, the plural notion of literacy entails designing multi-lingual policies and programmes for both the mother tongue and other languages as well as recognising the complementary relationship between literacy and orality.”

The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programmes, UNESCO 2004

All of which gives me an excuse, if I needed one, to share with you this wonderful TED talk by Ron Finley, which I think demonstrates admirably the power of the spoken word, the importance of pride in cultural identity, and the ability of individuals to make a difference if they feel powerfully enough about the need to do so. I hope you enjoy it and share it with your students.

Write It Out Loud

Anyone who knows me will know that I am a big fan of reading aloud as a means of developing understanding as well as promoting enjoyment in reading. It is commonly accepted that when children are read to on a regular basis by an adult, their chances of success in formal education increase dramatically; there are very few children who do not like listening to a story or a poem being read to them with great expression by an able reader. Some of the best teachers I know will read to their students daily, demonstrating to them the benefits and the joy of that shared experience.

However, there is another, arguably more significant role for reading aloud which is often overlooked, and that is its use by students themselves as a strategy to improve writing. Teachers seem more reluctant in the age of technology to encourage reading aloud as a strategy, particularly for older students, though ironically it is the ready availability of technology which makes recording and listening simpler than ever before. As this presentation from Peter Walsh at McMaster University in Canada neatly demonstrates, for those students who do not yet have a firm grasp of language and grammar, reading their work aloud, either to themselves or to someone else, allows them to hear their weaknesses, whereas simply re-reading with the eyes often has little or no effect when it comes to better writing. A further benefit to this technique is that when the developing writer is struggling to find the right expression, reading or speaking their thoughts aloud before committing them to paper can often make the difference between acceptable and accomplished.

Reading. Aloud.

There was a time when a great deal of time in school was spent on reading – and even singing – aloud, in turn, around the class. I remember well the feeling of dread as my turn drew nearer. Many a child was made to feel humiliated in front of his or her peers, and generally speaking, time marched very slowly. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, spoken haltingly by embarrassed thirteen year-olds over the course of an entire school year is probably not how Shakespeare had envisaged it. Little wonder then that over the past three decades the practice has fallen out of fashion, and children are rarely asked to read aloud beyond the early years of primary school. Which is a great pity, because it is only by reading or speaking aloud that we can truly understand, or demonstrate an understanding, of the written word. I was reminded of this recently when re-reading one of my favourite writers, Hanif Kureishi, in an essay enitled Dreaming and Scheming – Reflections on Teaching and the Writing Life, where he describes one of  his writers’ workshops:-

“In the hope of dissipating some of the self-consciousness, I play a few standing-up ‘name’ games, where people introduce themselves. Then we run about a bit, before sitting down to play some word games. Whatever you do at the beginning it will always take a few weeks for people to begin to feel at ease for them to be able to speak to each other about their writing or to read it aloud.”

Developing oral skills in young people takes time and patience, but it can also be fun. New technologies, such as MP3 players and – even better – simple hand-held video cameras and smartphones, make it so much easier for us to encourage children to read and playback the written word, to enjoy the pleasure of language and to reflect on their own performance, without the embarrassment of reading aloud in front of the whole class. Yet sadly, one of the unintended consequences of target-setting and data-crunching in schools is that teachers often feel obliged to move too quickly to writing, a full folio and and evidence of that which is often confused with learning – WORK!

For more on reading aloud see this previous post Reading Aloud – Not Only in New York

Reading Aloud – Not Only in New York

In recent workshops and presentations to teachers, both primary and secondary, I have suggested the importance of reading aloud in the development of literacy skills. To older readers, this will not exactly come as a startling revelation, but I believe that in recent years – probably the past couple of decades – we have largely abandoned the practice as soon as young learners are deemed to be ‘able to read’, or what a good friend of mine has described as competent at ‘barking at print.’

Admittedly, in those wonderful halcyon days when I was learning in primary school along with my forty-one fellow students, being asked to read aloud could be an embarrassing, and sometimes even humiliating, experience for some. It’s little wonder then that daily ritual of reading round the class has largely been abandoned (hasn’t it?).
Unfortunately, I fear that in rightly protecting the sensitivities of young people we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and forgotten the importance of a strategy which even as mature, developed readers, we often use when faced with a text which we find challenging, or which has been written especially to be spoken – think Shakespeare, or Dylan Thomas or Laurie Lee.

So reading aloud should not be seen simply as a way of demonstrating an ability to ‘say the words’ but should be recognised as an important strategy in developing comprehension and higher order reading skills, as well as a celebration of the joys of language, and it should be encouraged at all ages! Recently I came across a programme on Teachers’ TV which does just that. It is presented by John Scieszka, author of The Stinky Cheese Man and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs* among other things. I have included a short extract from the film, in which he talks about reading for fun, the importance of graphic novels, ‘reading’ pictures, embracing new technologies and the value of reading to your kids and having them read to you. You can see the full half-hour programme by clicking here.

*The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is a good example of a classic story given a modern twist. Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes is another one which appeals to young people. Updating with a humorous take, or setting a familiar story in a different time or location can be a creative writing challenge which young people respond well to.