Tag: School

Spelling numbers

(the kids aren’t alright)

As I spend a lot of my time with kids, I’m exposed to Kiddish – the garbled, innocent language of the recently-literate – quite a lot. And while the majority of Kiddish is inane garbage, I was treated to one marvellous concept today; a kid asked me how to write a five-digit number, by did so by asking ‘how do you spell it?’

At first I was confused, as this child has failed to understand that numbers and letters and fundamentally different things, and must be referred to with different language. Obviously!

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that the kid had a point. From where they’re coming from, not yet brainwashed by our adult culture of arbitrary rigid lines, letters and numbers are one and the same, as scratches on a page used to indicate meaning. And that’s certainly true; whether you write ‘five’ or ‘5’, you’re still turning that written symbol to a verbal one, and beyond that an idea with a defined meaning.

Maybe the kid was on to something bigger; maybe we shouldn’t be dividing the mathematical and the written, particularly in schools and places of education. The world is how we perceive it, and if we can break down these barriers perhaps our image of the world may become more whole, and more beautiful.

Or maybe the kid was just a moron.

Reading! Studying! Learning! Yes!

(I make that a ‘rule of three … plus one’ there)

I had a seminar today – my only one of the day – that was really rather inspiring. I know that statements like that are tossed around all the time by university admissions people to make idiot students sign up for their courses in Beyoncé studies, but this time it actually worked – I left the seminar wanting to go home and read and work on essays and generally be a productive student.

The seminar itself was relatively unspectacular, just the three of us students sitting in our professor’s room and listening to them talk for the majority of the hour. But I think that’s why I found it so useful; at university, and at least on my course, there’s always a performative element, as lecturers stand on plinths to tell us about Romantic literature as if they’re channeling Old Norse skaldic poets or speakers to the Roman senate. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but there’s a disconnect between my real life of sourcing cheap vegan milk and figuring out how to pay utility bills and my academic life of ‘isn’t this a pretty metaphor?’ – I know that art reflects life, but art rarely is life. This seminar was the total opposite, however; I didn’t feel like we were working through a list of prepared ‘intelligent’ ideas to consider, but were four people interested in a thing rambling on about that thing. Seminars are, of course, pitched to us as all being like this, but rarely are.

And after four months of writing blog posts and playing Dragon Age, I feared I wouldn’t be able to get my teeth into academia again; guess I was wrong.

Back From The Brink Of Oblivion, Thanks To A Duck

(I think that title is half a reference to Darkest Dungeon – I’m honestly not able to keep track of my own references at this point)

I picked a bad time for a break. Like, a really bad one. Since I last moaned at you about not having anything to write about, I’ve gone through a flag football tournament, karate grading, session of trampoline dodgeball, trip to the Globe, the Hell that is trying to buy a complete suit from the M&S on Oxford Street when you’re a short-arse such as myself, and a healthy bit of crushing despair. But it’s this despair that I’m going to talk about today, before a more update-y post tomorrow.

This despair came from my first-year results: across my three exams, I got a 66, a 58 and a 56, totally one 2.1 and two 2.2s (for reference, all marks are out of 80, and British university grades are ranked from 1, to 2.1, to 2.2, to 3, to a fail). Obviously, this is a far cry from the first I once had genuine hopes of getting, and the endless streak of class-topping As and A*s I got at school, with the sort of relentless consistency that you’d only find otherwise on a record-breaking run of Through The Fire And The Flames, and I moped about it for rather a long time. All my ambitions – ambitions that apparently extend to getting a ‘first’ written on a certificate instead of a ‘second’ – were suddenly pointless, all my work in ruins, all my toils toiled in vain; and then I saw a duck.

And this duck saved me; in the depths of despair I journeyed to Regent’s Park to listen to early noughties punk rock to make me hate things other than myself, and I was listening to Bad Religion’s Hello Cruel World. This is a heavy, slow song with clear breaks between its thumping choruses, and the pauses between verses, breaks that are edgy, and definite. And at the end of the first chorus is one such break, a point of brooding and contempt hammered home by a bass drum followed by silence; yet as I wandered through the park, and reached this musical full stop, the duck arrived. And it quacked.

It quacked right in the gap between the end of the first chorus and second verse, filling the deeply mellow pause with a light-hearted squawking that honestly threw me right out of my stride, and made me sit on the nearest bench, laughing my arse off alone in a park with a bemused duck sitting opposite me. I laughed for ages, and by the time I was done, I had stopped worrying about my exams and plotting unnervingly-detailed plans for revenge involving reverse bear traps, the soundtrack of the 2013 epic The Last Of Us, and a tool that can only be described as the bastard offspring of a claw hammer and a rat-king.

Because failure is not an end, but a beginning; it’s not the result of crap preparations, it’s the start of more preparations for a greater challenge. I’ve looked into reasons why these results aren’t what I wanted (starting with being way too ambitious in the first bloody place) with my Dad and tutor, and I’ll do a full post-mortem over summer, so that I can smash this degree in the next two years, when my exams actually count for something.

So thank you, noble duck – who shall henceforth be known as Greg of Regent’s Park in honour of the singer whose song he wonderfully interrupted – for your work in stopping me from being a whiny bitch for any longer than a few hours; because if I’m gonna fail, I’ll at least get some fun blog posts out of it.

Know Your Limits

(sorry, another exam post. They’re kinda on my mind at the moment)

I spend my time revising these days; and as much as I’d like to plough through fourteen hours of work a day, every day for the sake of grades, I know that this is both impossible, and probably won’t help my results too much.

It’s impossible because we, like Alfa Romeos, are not machines. The best part of our brains is that they can adapt to new and different things, which has the annoying side-effect that we become distracted almost by nature, because when you have a mind capable of thinking of more than Old English vocab, it’s hard to put blinkers on it and make it think only of Old English vocab. And trying to stick to a stupidly ambitious schedule just results in failure, and a lingering sense of defeat and unpreparedness is the last thing you want in an exam.

This is the first reason why you should probably ease up a little the night before a test, for the sake of your mark. The other is that, because the very concept of an ‘exam’ is designed by Satan himself, exams spend a few hours to test your knowledge of years’ worth of work. As a result, you can’t hope to display all of that knowledge in those hours – so don’t kill yourself over learning it all – and it’s those three hours that are the most important individual period of time in determining your grade. I see your performance in those three hours of equal, and perhaps even greater, importance to your final grade, because exams test how well you can do exams with a few bits of contextual knowledge thrown in, and are a fundamentally poor way of measuring long-term memory and actual comprehension.

As a result, I’ve been focussing more on the exam itself than the prior knowledge in the last few years, spending more time staying relaxed, well-fed and with plenty of sleep, than dismissing two meals a day for the sake of some extra notes. In year 11, I got eight A*s and three As, but two of the As were in my two strongest subjects; by year 13, I got an A* and As, with the A* being in my beset subject English. Obviously this is a small sample size, and there are a million other variables involved, but a greater emphasis on calmness in an exam than a mind full of useless shite would appear to be more effective at maximising the things I’m good at. And considering there’s no part of this degree that I actively dislike (Tristram Shandy‘s annoying, but not without charm), I’m going to use this method of preparation, and see how it goes.

But I’m aware of the need for balance; I can’t just play Frozen Cortex, be totally relaxed the night before and be in a position to write lots, but have nothing to write about. I’ve revised quotes, because they’re the bases of arguments, but not whole essays because that’s too much brainpower for ideas I should be smart enough to construct on the spot; I’ve learned Old English vocab because there’s no way of doing an Old English translation without it, but I’ve not learned all 115 lines of The Wanderer because we’ll only be tested on 25.

I know my limits for studying, both in terms of what I can do – learn 200 words of Old English – and what I can’t – learn an entire poem and period of literary history. I’m not underprepared, nor am I swamped in quotes and ideas to the point that they’re tangling into a single incoherent argument, rather than the separate, more nuanced ideas I should really be operating with. The only problem with the great experiment that is the end-of-year exam is that we have to wait a bit for our results; I’m genuinely quite interested to see if this balance of preparation works.

And there’s the other bitch that comes with examsperiments; the results can technically be a “failure”, and you’ll have to repeat your methodology.

The Day Before The Exam

(you better lose yourself in the critics / they wrote shit that you flicked / through without too much thought)

Tomorrow is my first university exam, and so will be inevitably accompanied by a flight of devils blasting GWAR, an announcement by the Tory government that they’re taxing the inhalation of oxygen by anyone without a double-barrelled middle name, and this pair of twats from my own distant past. At the moment, it’ll be considered a blessing if UCL graciously provide us with a clock with which to check the time as we write our essays.

These days, directly before exams, are my least favourite of the year. With an exam looming, it’s so easy to fall into a trap of self-doubt, that you don’t know literally all of the Bible by heart so you’re going to fail miserably, or frenzied cramming to make up for what you wrongly perceive to be a lax prior month of revision. In reality, now is perhaps the worst time to abandon a months-entrenched, carefully constructed plan because there’s no time to make up for it.

Today essentially epitomises the last month of revision: some excitement for being able to write about things you’re interested in, some fear for the consequences of said writing, some isolation that everyone seems to be much better-prepared than you, some comradeship that you’re all being screwed over together by the same exams, professors and timetables. And that’s all today is: another day that seems like so much more; a day that only has earth-shattering significance if you decide that it does, and let that decision affect your day.

So best wishes to people sitting exams specifically tomorrow, those who are in the thick of them already, and those who still have a few days before their personal apocalypse rains down upon them; because there are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and getting royally frakked over by grade boundaries and mark schemes, so let’s all suffer together.

Childhood Resolution

(back before I realised how bloody difficult actually being a Pokémon Master would be)

My primary school had a system of rewards in place for their students. There were the usual merit stickers and smiling nods of approval from teachers, but there were greater prizes at stake for kids at my school. There was a hall of fame.

This hall of fame was called the Tigger Book, after the Winnie the Pooh character; our awesome headteacher liked Tigger, and so bought a large, Tigger-branded book to write down the names of students from any year that did anything particularly exceptional; this process was known as being ‘tiggered’.

I was first tiggered in year five, at the age of ten, for my performance as Ares in our year’s assembly. Each year we studied one historical period – Romans in year three, Tudors in year four, Greeks in year five, World Wars in year six – and had to produce an assembly on that subject to perform to the rest of the school. And while ours was structurally generic, with each student playing one of the major gods or heroes, and giving a speech about their life, it allowed pretentious actor-y types to really get into it. Apparently, I was one of those people, and gave a performance I vividly remember closely resembling Gerard Butler’s playing of Leonidas in the film 300; considering my assembly came a year before the film was released, I can say Butler totally ripped me off.

My second tiggering came on one of those weird days you had in primary school where some local nutjobs would come in and lead a series of unusually specific and curriculum-ignoring workshops, usually about climate change or snails or something. But this was one about recycling things into toys, an attempt to engage children with the importance of recycling, backgrounded against stories of kids in Africa who have to make their own toys out of garbage. We were given thin bits of metal, and told to twist them into shapes to play with; I was given a piece of metal twisted into the shape of a pair of glasses, and coiled coloured bits of metal around the frames, so everything would be seen through a layer of rainbowed lines. I called them Rainbow-Specs, and was promptly tiggered.

But there was a greater prize than even tiggering. The Big Book. This literal monolith was four feet tall, and contained in it the names, pictures, and descriptions of every kid to have been tiggered three times in the year. This ultimate prize was introduced right at the end of the year, so I scrambled to get a third tiggering before August rolled around, and be immortalised in a slightly larger book than the one I was already immortalised in.

And I tried so hard! I redoubled my efforts in lessons, hoping for a tiggering for putting in a lot of work over a long period; then I tried one-off episodes of heroic ten-year-old effort, rewriting the opening chapter of a kids’ science book to show how bloody committed I was to learning and writing about insects.

But I failed. My extra work got a ‘well done’, and my rewritten chapter was repaid with a merest merit. I failed to be tiggered a third time, and failed to settle amongst the leaves of the Big Book. I was shaken by the whole experience; I wasn’t tiggered once in the whole of year six.

And that, along with not getting A*s in GCSE French and Geography, is honestly my biggest regret in life.

These Exams Will Be Fun

(‘f’ is for ‘failure, and repeating the year’…)

I’m looking forward to the exams I’ll sit in two weeks. I’m seeing them as fundamentally different to previous exams I’ve sat; A-levels were about proving that I was actually a competent reader of books and writer of essays, both for the sake of impressing a university and to get over my own fear that everything I’ve ever achieved in my life has been the result of chance as opposed to skill. As a result I was guarded with my points, careful not to make an obscure, off-the-wall suggestion because such things can be interpreted as the mark of a great writer, or one who’s talking out of their arse, and considering all I had was an A* at GCSE at that point, I’d probably fall into the latter category.

But now I know that I’m not an atrocious writer; I’m not great, but I’ve got the grades to show I can do exam essays, and the marks both this year and in previous years to remind myself that I’m not too bad at writing real essays either. And now that I’m free from this need to prove myself to be competent, I’m way more relaxed about these exams: I’m not saying that my A-level in English will land me in the ‘great writer’ category whenever I make an odd point in an essay, but I’m more comfortable making those points, knowing that I have a proven record of not being shite at English. I’ve passed the point where a single poor essay will define me was a reader and writer, so it’s pretty liberating to turn the entirety of my Beowulf revision into a discussion of the lineage of the Shield-Danes.

And if I do fail miserably, I’ll have failed that exam, not failed as a writer; and I’ll have failed that exam making some weird-ass points in the process.