xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: April 2013

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Catechism Cheats.

Corporal punishment was phased out of  Western Australian schools in the late 1980s. For most of the twentieth century it was quite normal for teachers to inflict pain on their students as a  punishment for some wrong doing or ommission.

This story describes one such episode of corporal punishment. To a reader in the 21st Century, it may seem cruel and sadistic to inflct pain on school students, but in those days it was the accepted thing. In fact most boys took some pride in being stapped (or caned in governmet schools). I know I did.

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I remember my primary school days at the Christian Brothers High School at Highgate, during the late 1940’s, with great affection.My favourite teacher was Brother O’Brien, He was a young, smiling faced man with bright red hair, a big smile and a love of laughter and singing. Being in his class was great fun. It was like being taught by Father O’Malley in Going My Way, the Academy Award winning role played by Bing Crosby.

However, though Brother O’Brien was my favourite teacher, he could also strike fear into my heart. With a mixed class of about 55 Year Fours and Year Fives, Brother O’Brien was not reluctant to use the strap in order to maintain discipline.

In those days of course corporal punishment was not only permissible it was almost compulsory. Parents expected the Brothers to be firm and strict. And they were. The strap was in use on most days. Although Brother O’Brien generally eased up in  very cold and frosty weather and did not bring the strap down quite so strongly on those frozen fingers.

I received my fair share of the strap and soon realised the futility of telling my mother in the hope of getting some sympathy.  My mother would just say, “Well you must stop being so naughty! You must do your work and learn to behave yourself. Whatever will the Brothers think of us?” These days of course  mothers would be  rushing down to the lawyer’s office wanting to sue for the assault and battery on their precious  little angels.

The first period each school day was Catechism. Each night the class had to learn three or four questions and answers from the catholic catechism. Some of the questions were really interesting.

“Why do we call that day Good on which Jesus died?”, “What does Transubstantiation mean?”, “What is meant by Fast and Abstinence?”, “What is an Indulgence?”, “What is a Plenary Indulgence?” and “What is meant by the Infallibility of the Pope?”

The questions were interesting alright, it was learning the answers that caused me and my fellow Year Four and Year  Five classmates the problem.If anyone had a wrong answer they had to write out the question and the answer three times at playtime. Very time consuming. To avoid this punishment cheating became widespread. The boys would sit with their catechism booklets beneath their legs and glance down for the answers when Brother O’Brien called out the questions. In such a large and crowded classroom this was fairly easy to do.

Brother O”Brien used to keep a daily tally of correct and incorrect answers. His beaming smile grew wider and wider each day as the correct tally grew and there were very few incorrect responses. Brother was happy and life was good in Year Four and Five at Highgate Christian Brothers. But some wise person once said, “God is not mocked.” He was right. And God is not too fond of cheats either, especially good holy catholic boys who are cheating at Catechism.

Came the fateful day when Brother O”Brien discovered that mendacity and duplicity were alive and well in his classroom.At least we were honest enough to own up when he discovered one boy cheating. When he asked who else had been cheating all of the other 54 boys rose sheepishly to their feet.

We felt bad about being caught cheating. We felt bad that we were about to be punished. But we felt absolute remorse that we had deceived our beloved teacher and caused him to be so upset with us. Red headed people have a reputation for short fuses and strong rages. Brother O’Brien proved to be a typical redhead that day. He felt tricked and betrayed and he was duty bound to teach us all that cheats never prosper. Of course it is a well known fact that some cheats prosper enormously, but not in Brother O’Brien’s class.

He lined us 55 boys up around the room and then set off giving each of us two cuts on each hand with his thick black strap. It took him about five minutes to work his way around the line giving out a total of 220 strokes. About two thirds of the way around it was obvious that he was beginning to feel the strain of his exertions. However, he battled on. After administering the final four blows to the last boy, he quickly moved to his chair, slumped down behind his desk and let out a huge sigh.

The boys, quite impressed with his energetic and athletic performance, burst into a spontaneous round of applause.Brother O”Brien’s face lit up in a big grin. Justice had been done and harmony and peace returned to our happy class once more.

We had learned quite a lot that morning!

(An edited excerpt from “LEON: A backward glance at boyhood” by Noel Bourke. Published September, 2005)

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

My School versus Your School

I wrote this article in November 2010. It was printed in the Western Australian Primary Principals Association's  Leaders Library in March, 2011.
I believe what I wrote then is still very pertinent to the current education debate.
Since that time more  and more people have raised serious objections about the way NAPLAN has impacted on the teaching of the arts, science, society and the environment and how it has has also forced formal literacy and numeracy instruction into Kindergarten and Pre Primary.(Refer to my blog "The lost Childhood Generation", September 3, 2012).

It is ironic that while the federal government has put its My School website on steroids, the reverse is true in the UK and the USA where serious questions are being asked about the negative effects of the heavy emphasis on national literacy and numeracy testing regimes.
In 2009, when the Australian government was setting up its national literacy and numeracy scheme (NAPLAN), two important events in education took place overseas. In the United Kingdom, in October, 2009, the Cambridge University Review of Primary Education was released. It is the most comprehensive review of primary schooling ever undertaken anywhere in the world. The Cambridge Review is an evidence based and visionary document that produced 78 conclusions and 75 recommendations.

It did not look kindly upon the effects of standardised numeracy and literacy tests.Among its findings was one that said standardised testing had “narrowed the curriculum” and that the arts, science and the humanities were being eroded by the heavy focus on national standardised testing. The British Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted) agreed and stated that music, in particular, had a vital role to play in primary education.

Can we expect the same narrowing of curriculum focus to occur in Australia. It is already happening. Several Western Australian schools have cancelled or deferred various sporting and cultural activities in Term One so that teachers could be focussed solely on NAPLAN success? In 2011 the Education Department altered its term holiday dates to give teachers more time to prepare their children for the NAPLAN tests.

The other educational landmark event of 2009 occurred in the USA, where Dr Diane Ravitch published her bestselling book, “The Death and Life of the Great American Public School System”. The book’s subtitle was “How testing and choice are undermining education”.
Dr Ravitch should know about these things. She was the Assistant Secretary for Education in the administration of President George Bush the First. She was instrumental in setting up the federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” project which established a nationalised literacy and numeracy testing programme and established Charter Schools to focus specifically on raising standards in literacy and numeracy.

President Clinton later appointed her to the National Assessment Governing Board which supervised the national testing programme. However, after examining the evidence of the national testing programme, Dr Ravitch has now had a 180 degree conversion. She now regrets sacking so many principals and teachers because their schools did not measure up. She says, poverty, not poor teaching, is the major cause of failure in schools.

She backs her argument with hard evidence and is severely critical of the highly touted results of the New York school system. The New York school system, administered by Joel Klein (a lawyer), has a major focus on literacy and numeracy testing. It is the education system that so impressed our then Education Minister, Julia Gillard, when she was in New York one day, that it set her mind to establishing what eventually became NAPLAN.

But Diane Ravitch produces data to refute the achievements of New York’s education programmes which shows New York college students compare poorly against students from other states who enjoy a broader curriculum.She also claims some New York test data are "fudged".

Dr Ravitch says that school accountability, based solely on standardised testing, has been a disaster. It encourages schools and teachers to teach to the test and devote less and less time to science, social studies, history, geography, foreign languages, art, music and drama. Why wouldn’t they. Their jobs depend on it. She says that in the 1990s she was optimistic “that testing would shine a spotlight on low performing schools and that choice would create opportunities for poor kids to leave for better schools.” Sound familiar. The problem was that it did not turn out that way. Ravitch  now says, “There is little empirical evidence...just promise and hope.” and is convinced that schools operate better “in a an atmosphere of cooperation, not competition.”

With NAPLAN being touted as the benchmark for school achievement, Australian schools are now competing with each other. In some schools even the teachers are competing with each other. Some principals are using NAPLAN results as a staff performance management tool. Surely good principals would have other and wider means of detecting poorly performing teachers.

Obviously, it would be prudent to take heed of the Cambridge Primary Review, which clearly outlines the aims of primary education and the best ways of achieving them.It would also be prudent to study Dr Ravitch’s book so as to avoid the pitfalls of a heavy reliance on nationalised testing.

Unfortunately, in Australia, teachers are not politically powerful and our education system is controlled by politicians who generally make decisions based on what gets the most votes not on what is in the best interests of our children...and ultimately, our country.

We can only hope that some Australian educators will acquaint themselves with the evidence presented by the Cambridge University Review and “The Death and Life of the Great American Public School System” and try to influence our politicians before our primary children are completely deprived of the wider curriculum that they previously enjoyed.

And in primary schools “enjoyment” should be the operative word. We have all heard the horror stories about children being sick on NAPLAN test day. Perhaps some teachers and school principals even felt the same way.

Interestingly enough, the Cambridge Review does recommend an accountability system. It says there should be testing of randomly selected children in order to ascertain overall performance levels in literacy and numeracy.

Bingo! This was the very system that was so successfully employed by the Western Australian Education Department up until the mid 1990s  until a conservative federal Minister for Education, Dr David Kemp, using the extortionate tactics of Al Capone, threatened to withhold federal funding unless the state government introduced universal testing. David Kemp's testing policy was continued by Brendon Nelson, a doctor. It was expanded into NAPLAN by Australia’s next  education minister, Julia Gillard, a lawyer. The present Minister for Education, Peter Garrett, used to sing in a rock and roll band. (I will refrain from describing what Christopher Pyne, the current Minister for Education is. NB 10.4.2015)

We should all be praying that one day we can have someone with real teaching experience making the important decisions that will impact on children in our primary schools.


Sunday, 14 April 2013

A Word About Puns

Isn’t it funny how people groan when someone makes a pun. Personally, I love words and I think puns, well most of them, are quite funny. Some are brilliant.

The title of my blog, The Font of Noelage, is itself quite a witty pun for which I can take no credit . It was created by my eldest daughter, Jane, who is the gifted wordsmith and website whiz who actually set up my blog site for me.

I remember when I was at boarding school in my Leaving Year. We had a boy who couldn’t help himself. He punned about everything. We decided that the next time he made a pun we were going to shove him inside a locker. Well, despite our warnings, he punned again and we did shove him inside a locker. He immediately yelled out, “O pun the door.”

Some of the best puns are in newspapers. My late cousin, Maurie Carr, was a journalist who finished his long career in newspapers writing a much loved column on the back page of Perth’s Daily News. Although he was a brilliant columnist, Maurie really liked being a sub-editor, correcting and re-writing other journalist stories, writing appropriate headlines and then placing them in the newspaper.

He had very good collection of puns, many that came from newspaper headlines. He told me of a Scottish sub-editor who had to write a headline for a report of a soccer match between the powerful and famous Celtic side (pronounce Sel-tic) and a lowly rated team called West Caledonian Highlands, affectionately nick named Calley, for short.

In this particular Scottish Football Association game, the lowly Calley thrashed the highly fancied Celtic. It was as unbelievable as East Perth Under 18s thrashing Hawthorn in the AFL. Well, on this particular night the unbelievable happened and West Highlands Caledonian blitzed the mighty Celtic side 4 goals to nil.

What sort of headline would you write to recognize this truly sensational result. Well, the Scottish Sub editor ran his headline across six columns, three inches deep. It read,

“Super Calley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious.”

Another one of Maurie’s favourite news headline puns came from a report by a Times of London journalist covering the Spanish Civil War in the mid 1930s.The Basques of northern Spain were attacked by General Franco’s troops and forced to flee to safety across the Pyreness into France.

Naturally, they could not all retreat through the usual border crossings. This resulted in a crowded sea of human misery locked together in a very narrow mountain pass. The Times reporter told of this vast logjam of refugees, fleeing their attackers through a confined mountain passage to freedom, by saying,

“Of course this catastrophe always occurs whenever you put all of your Basques in one exit.”

I was reminded recently of that very witty Scottish sub editor, obviously a Mary Poppins fan, when a friend told me that, “Mahatma Gandhi, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him...A super callused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.”

He also told me that he was reading a very interesting book about Anti-Gravity that he just could not put down.

At the risk of being cast into my own wardrobe as punishment, now may be a good time for this pundit to cease.