Saturday, January 28, 2012

Subverted the Norm

My students described me in two ways, between talking out of turn, working and asking me questions about my personal life (name, college, do I work in X, do I hate them). I'm not sure I agree with their assessment in either case, but here we go. Apparently I am (a) cool and (b) scary. Sorry, what?


Urban Dictionary (a perfectly citable source for definitions) describes "cool" as: "The best way to say something is neat-o, awesome, or swell." However, "cool" is a term that is relative to the observer. (Which is why, when asked if I am cool - happened once - I respond with "No.") My classes consisted of twelve and thirteen year olds. They did a number of things, like play sports, not-read and play X-Box.

Somehow, I don't see how they then came to the conclusion that I am "cool". By their standards, I would need to:

(a) Play sport. Let's just be clear, here: the most physical activity I got in my three weeks in that school was walking to and from the bus stop and to the college. Okay, this amounted to several kilometres a day with what might have been heavy bags in each hand on some days (copies... gotta love 'em!), but I wouldn't call that sport. They even asked what team I supported, and were disappointed when I said I don't. I wasn't going to lie to make them like me. I don't like sports. I don't think people who play sports are "cool". (Correction: I don't think playing sports defines someone as being "cool" - I might think someone is "cool" who also happens to play sports, but the two are as related as myself and the president of Uganda.)

(b) Not read. I think we know by now that I read. More than that, I actually like to read. I also love to write, which is like reading by backwards. And I work in a bookshop, which more or less means I encourage people to read on a daily basis. At this point, I began to wonder if, by being the exact opposite of these kids, I was therefore "cool". I still disagree with the term, and I'm certainly nothing like them.

(c) Play X-Box. Okay, so I have a PS3. Well, I have 1/3 of a PS3. I sometimes get a chance to play it. Sometimes. I was asked if I played Skyrim, and I said yes, because I had to let a student know that I got his "arrow in the knee" reference, but it wasn't funny. He was asked to refrain from referencing the game again, or he'd have extra work. But a PS3 is not an X-Box.

So, I didn't do the three things they did. I was also eight years older than them, had an interest in religion and Shakespeare and gave them homework at least every second day. I gave punishment work and raised my voice at them when they spoke too loudly. I kicked people out of class (but kept them within sight with the door open, as I am legally obliged to). I did everything a teacher does. But I was described as "cool". I am as confused as you, believe me.

(And in case you think I'm being entirely self-critical, I told my friends about this: they laughed.)

As well as "cool", though, I was also "scary". The same student used these two words. I kind of understand the "scary" part, though. I raised my voice a lot. I didn't shout exactly, but when I do that Drama thing of raising my voice without much effort, it can get to a class. The teacher is supposed to shout and lose their voice. Then they lose the class and the students can keep on talking. After all, learning isn't "cool". But God I love learning.

There is a point to all of this, though. For a start, I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not think I am "cool". I am relateable and mostly easy to get along with. I am sometimes funny and sometimes smart and I almost always listen when someone needs to talk. I make stupid mistakes and embarrass myself, which makes people laugh. But being annoying, clumsy and in Drama does not typically equate to someone being "cool". Therefore, I conclude that I subverted the norm of social standards in terms of "cool".

The second point is much briefer, and related to this exchange of words:

Student: Sir, will you just tell us your first name?
Me: Why do you even care about my first name?
Student: Because we want to add you on Facebook!

No matter how "cool" they think I am, I would never accept them on Facebook. Ever.

And the third point: I have a kind of catchphrase that I intend to keep ironic: "I'm cool like that." It doesn't work if people start calling me "cool", because then it turns from ironic and possibly annoying to just annoying. I'm annoying enough as it is!

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Secret Life of Teachers

Teachers are a fascinating breed of homo sapiens, brought up from a young age to memorise everything about everyone without fail. In my time in teaching, three super important and totally true things have come to my attention:

  1. Teachers never leave the school grounds. Ever. They stay there overnight, thinking up new and interesting punishments for the children that they just have to tell everyone about. They shout it from the noticeboard, laughing maniacally. This is a fact. All pupils have been talked about in great detail. Teachers don't need their spare time during school hours for anything else.
  2. Teachers do not sleep. There is no need to sleep when you have lived for thousands of years. The body becomes changed, less human. Teachers can use this time to correct the multitude of errors found in the homework of their pupils. Teachers enjoy nothing more than repeating the same lessons of 'there', 'their' and 'they're', and so on.
  3. Teachers spend the weekend thinking up new ways to punish their students. There is nothing better for a teacher to do than to find new and interesting ways to make someone suffer. After all, teachers are all sadists.
You can totally trust me on this one. I've been in a staff room, hooked up to the mainframe* and interacted with most of the staff in a school. It's definitely all true.

*Staff rooms are the inspiration for the Borg in Star Trek.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Life Moves Pretty Fast

I've been going through a rather reflective period of my life, of late. Okay, so I actually mean for the last six months or so, but who's counting? (Yes, I am... it's actually more than six months.) It's had me look at things in a different way, both friendships and this thing I call my writing career.

Way back in July, I got bored. I started to write a novel called Bliss (Have I mentioned that before?) as part of Camp NaNoWriMo. About half-way through the month, I stopped writing. I figured it wasn't worth it. I mean, I loved the book, but part of me just didn't see the point in trying to write it. To put it bluntly, that part of me considered giving up writing altogether.

I finally got my head on straight towards the end of the month, and in defiance to that niggling doubt ten days earlier, I started to write Bliss again, picking up where I left off. Four days later, I finished the required fifty thousand words for the month. More than half of that was written in the four days.

When I realised I could write pretty quickly and that, yes, things were worth pursuing, my head started going all over the place. I immediately set up the account that would host the foundations of my website.  Over the following month and a half, I got to work on articles, poems and a short story to put on the website. I enquired about newsletters and hosting and all the fun stuff that make websites fun, but they had to be free for the public (i.e. the people looking at the site) and affordable for me to justify the expense.

However, it was still only the start of August when a link to an article was posted on Twitter. I read the article, thought 'That was fun', then noticed two words down the bottom of the page: Writers wanted. I tweeted the writer of the article, he told me about the site - turns out he's the editor - and later that day, after my exceptionally nerdy cover letter, I had a job at The Phantom Zone. Go figure. In three days, I had finished an impossible fifty thousand words, begun work on my website and had my first ever writing job.

I thought, life just got pretty strange. And continued on as well as I could.

I wrote a play. Between getting the writing job and writing a few articles for it, and a month into college, I had gotten the whole play written and edited, which was no simple task considering what it's about (you know, depression, suicide... the usual stuff a debut play should be about!). That should have been enough for me, to have written my very first play. But no. I handed it in to someone wanting to direct it.

It's going on stage in a couple of months. What? I mean, what?! That made October pretty strange.

Of course, the fun was only really beginning. I edited a novella I wrote in the summer of 2010, Stepping Forward, and put up a sample download on my website. That same website, with the download, went live on September 11th 2011. The date was significant for the release only because of when I would be going back to the college (i.e. the 12th!). Go forward three months, and Stepping Forward was available in its entirety for download on Smashwords. During that week, I was also interviewed about the book.

In November (yes, I'm going back and forth, but things don't just happen overnight in my life, most of the time!), having gotten back from Taizé in France, I decided I would give NaNoWriMo an attempt. I didn't have a full month, I had a lot of work to do for college, and I had an unfinished manuscript. I resolved to finish Bliss. Thirty thousand words later, the first draft was done.

Come up to January, and I'm teaching. Now, part of this is to write reflective statements, but I don't really care very much for them. The teaching part was significant, though. I didn't think I would be able to do it. I thought the syllabus was much too complicated for me, but when I went into the class and kids began to learn things - and I mean, they were remembering dates and names for Judaism and the consequences of the Schism and taking a huge interest in Islam and all that other fun stuff - I really started to believe in myself as a teacher.

Of course, I did say this post was also about friends. So, significantly, I spent more time talking to friends in college. I have an awful habit of vanishing on people in college, I should add, so I was glad to be able to talk to people properly. Not only that, but taking part in Drama again meant I made yet more friends (the Drama Society has a way of doing that!). Add in the Writers' Soc and my inherent boredom in the morning, and through one mature student in first year I met over half a dozen others.

There's something to be said about mature students. Generally, they don't do clubs and socs. Generally, there are a few who just barely hit the over 23 mark and a lot more who are in their forties. These ones are mostly in their twenties. (Immediately less terrifying, because none of them are old enough to be my mother!) Since they didn't take part in any of the clubs or socs I did, I only really got to know them through proper human interaction. Mostly this was while blocking the smoke from a couple of cigarettes with a cup of tea (what can I say, I favour conversation over health - I just hate the taste of smoke!), but it meant I got to know some people who had a lot of real life experience (which you can only get after leaving school, unfortunately) and who made the decision to come back to college.

What this meant for my social life - which largely doesn't include a nightlife, because of the exhaustion of trying to keep up with third year and everything else I do, while having parents call me to come home for dinner - was that I had about a dozen new people in my life who were all that little bit quirky. (I have a theory that unless you're one of the ladz (yes, with a 'z') or you're a girl who loves shopping and WKD, you need to be a little bit quirky to survive my college. I'm more than a little bit quirky, but that's aside the point.

Now, remember that boredom I mentioned? The boredom back in July? Well, it was because I'd lost contact with a friend. (Boredom was the preferred mood, trust me.) Well, that same friend called me recently (okay, at four in the morning, and then again a couple of days later at twenty to six in the morning) and it's made me pause and think about life (hence this post.) During the first call, he had been watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off. If you're seen the film, you know the iconic line:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Consider me looking around. I can't complain about life. Sure, there's always going to be something that could go wrong, but I've gotten to a point where I can deal with that sort of stuff, where it doesn't have to put everything on hold. (The teaching puts everything on hold, but that's expected when it's worth half my degree...) I'm happy, I've released a book, my play is going on stage, I have a writing job and my own website, and I have a whole load of fantastic friends to give me a reason to do it all, so I can finally show them and myself that I can do this.

Ferris Bueller, you're my hero.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Any Plan But a Lesson Plan

The one thing they don't warn us about in college is that lesson plans, being detrimental to banter, craic and "LOLs", can sometimes lead to this horrible form of procrastination in which the sufferer begins to plan everything. Except, of course, for the lessons. The psychosis is known to lead to planning away your youth until you're a withered old man or woman. More commonly, of course, the sufferer is left in a panic.

This, of course, leads to a number of stress related illnesses. Stress is known to lead to insomnia, lack of focus and a number of bowel movements that don't do well to describe. Add this to a classroom situation, and a student teacher may find him- or herself with a nasty case of God-knows-what, and failing to live up to their potential.

And why? Because, as a basic requirement, lesson plans cannot be done too far in advance of the class. However, given the nature of a teaching placement, designed to educate a student teacher in the ways of teaching, but not quite putting them into a full classroom experience in that we never truly know the pupils by the end of the period, it is impossible for the very basics of lesson plans to help.

How can a student teacher be expected to write up a number of lesson plans, never too far in advance, and still hope to maintain a shred of the necessary sanity to qualify teaching in a classroom? While it is capable to keep up with the workload, the real problem is starting.

Is there is a solution to this? Most likely. It would certainly help if one didn't ask so many questions. A proposed solution, of course, is to allow for a period of time, supervised and monitored, in which student teachers must draw up the first three lesson plans for each of their classes. In a supervised environment, with the lesson plans inspected and given construction criticism well in advance of the lessons, the student teacher - a strange specimen, half-way between qualified and stupefied - would be able to relieve some of the pressure.

For this to work, the environment in which the student teacher is being prepared ought to be made less stressful. While it is, of course, acceptable to assume that a degree of education must still take place, the way in which the student teacher is taught and assessed can be changed to allow for a different type of workload.

Back to my original point: planning. Lesson plans, being nigh-impossible to get to work on initially, lead to excessive planning. Holidays are booked, drink plans - a high risk social event so close to the teaching placement - are made and, in an extreme case, narrative plans are drawn out extending some years into the future. With so many plans being made - youth being wished away, while placement in a school situation wastes it away - it is not surprising that, given the insomnia and associated symptoms of stress, the student teacher suffers.

Consequently, the student teacher is not graded as they would be if they were to be inspected with pre-prepared lesson plans and a less stressful lead-up to the teaching experience. No longer in even a relative state of ease, the results of teaching placement, unless in monitoring an especially helpful class group and stress-free lesson, are subsequently inaccurate. The best they can hope to achieve is to monitor the implications of stress on a student teacher and the way in which he or she deals with this stress and still manages to cope.

There is, of course, a nugget of helpful advice within these words: de-stress, stay calm, and pretend there's nothing wrong with you. You might even believe it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


When you download Stepping Forward, it puts a smile on my face. This doesn't seem like very much, but imagine what a smile can do.

That smile on my face will be passed on to someone else. Maybe the girl at the shop having a hard time today because she's stuck there while other people come and go as they please. She sees my smile, nothing about it to say anything but 'I'm happy', and it puts a smile on her face. I leave, the smile stays there.

An old man walks up to pay for his bread and his milk. He sees her smile and decides to pick up a chocolate bar for the grandson he has coming over. He smiles as he walks out of the shop, goes home and waits for his daughter to arrive with his grandson. He smiles when he sees them, hands over the chocolate bar with a childish grin on his face and watches as mother and son start to smile.

She brings her son to the park, where he shares his chocolate bar with other children there. They walk back to their mothers smiling, all of them filled with sugar, and four couples of mothers and children walk off to run their errands.

In every shop, the children are happy and smiling and the mothers are happy for seeing them that way. Everyone smiles: there's nothing like a smiling child to make people happy. The innocence of it, and the excitement at being out and about, rubs off on the shopkeepers.

They continue serving customers long after the children have been brought away, passing along the smile to every person they meet. When they go on a lunch break, they go back to that first shop, pass on the smile again, and make sure that someone's day is a little bit better.

It all starts with one little thing: downloading my ebook for free. And remember, when you go out today, to smile.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A New Adventure

Something happened to me a couple of years ago that made me stop and look at my life as boring. I mean, I love writing. I love college, however odd that might be. I even like teaching and working in the bookshop. But I foresee a lot of repetitiveness in this life. Weekends at the shop can get very boring, especially when there are very few customers around. If I didn't need the money, and if it wasn't a handy place to work to get books and keep learning about them, I would like to leave. (In saying that, I love having a job, and I love the people I work with... I just know that I couldn't do that my whole life.)

Even teaching, however different the challenges will be every day, might become boring. (Of course, that does mean I would be doing it wrong...) I just feel that my life might become too much of a career. Yes, that's a good thing for some people, but I don't want to feel trapped by my job.

Writing will let me get away from the mundaneness of reality, but in the end it's not quite the same as living a life. There's more to life than just existing, and that's the problem with working in the bookshop and teaching for a living: there's the risk that all I would end up doing is existing.

I want to live, and that means more to me than just staying alive. I want to travel. I want to see things I've never seen before, meet new people, try new things. I don't want to just hear about life from other people. That's not good enough for me. If I can help it, I won't be staying still for most of my life (you know, unless you discount sitting in a chair to write my books).

And of course, even that life of getting around and seeing the world and meeting new people isn't complete if that's all I do. Then I just become a traveller. I want to write new fiction, push the boundaries of what I'm capable of and deliver new stories to people. Yesterday, two ideas I had for books - one of them a standalone, the other initially a series of adventures - suddenly expanded and grew. The standalone book takes my current Dungeons and Dragons character idea (I'm that cool) and mixes it with an idea for a novel I got many years ago. It's possible the standalone book will become a series or a trilogy in its own right.

The series of adventures has become something much bigger. I can't even talk about it or I'll give stuff away, but it's going to be one of the most enjoyable things I'll ever write, and it has so much potential to keep on growing. I want to write it after the Sam Richards and The Daughters of the Muse trilogies, or at least get a start on it. I couldn't even tell you how many books it will contain, at the moment, because it's just an idea, but it's going to take up a huge amount of my time.

Both are fantasy ideas, I should point out. That's the beauty of the adventure that is writing: every time I write a new story, I'm brought somewhere fantastical. Even with the Sam Richards Trilogy, set in Dublin, I'll be experiencing the world in a new way: I have to create a life I will never lead and look at the city I've known my whole life through the eyes of a different man. It's possible I'll write spin-offs to that trilogy, too, but that's all in the future when I can think about things other than the main books.

This isn't just the wild dream of a young man from Ireland. This isn't just some take on The Simpsons ("I want to live Marge! Why won't you let me live?!") or some flight of fancy that will go away. I want to get published, and not just once. I want to show people stories and I want to escape the trap of life that is repetition. So I won't be rich, not travelling and writing for a living (that's the ambition, anyway), but I know I'll be happy.

And as for teaching... well, that's for when I want to settle down. After all, aren't all teachers as old as the pyramids, anyway?