Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Storyjumpers: 7 'Not really arrows'

This is part 7 of a story jumping activity for Digital Writing Month. Bruno started it, followed by Kevin, Maha, Sarah, Ron and Tanya.  Sign up in the Google Doc if you'd like to join in.

As Kevin bit into the cookie, he suddenly felt reality return and the mists in his mind began to clear.  He looked around.  What the hell was he doing in the garden, and why was he eating a random biscuit that he had found on the ground beside him?  He staggered to his feet and headed back inside, only to collapse again in a heap on the sofa.

The events of the past few days had clearly been too much. He was over-tired, hungry and clearly exhausted by his constant sax playing. He was no longer sure about his relationship with Sandy; how on earth had she become so violent?  And this was now layered with confusion about his feelings for Sarah.  She seemed to be the only person who understood his constant need to fix things.  It was about time, he pondered, that he fixed his emotional situation; maybe he should try applying those practical skills to his own personal life.

To distract himself, he took another look at Bruno's map which was lying crumpled on the floor.  He hesitated as he picked it up; the last thing he needed was another out-of-body experience.  As it was, he was starting to feel a little paranoid; he had almost got used to that feeling after realising that he was under constant surveillance from his neighbour, but this was different.  It was as if people around the globe were listening in to his private thoughts and reading his mind as they unfolded. He felt a strange sense that this map would predict his future in some way, and that every event and happening was already out of his control.

Kevin put the map down again without looking at it and walked into the kitchen.  He needed to eat and sleep, and shake off these strange ideas before he really lost the plot.  But the compulsion to look at the map was almost unbearable, as if time was running out. Surely a little peek wouldn't hurt?  He poured a glass of water and studied it from a distance.  Even in the dim light he could make out a number of arrows.   This time, he decided, he would do it properly.  Opening his tool-box he took out a magnifying glass, some plastic gloves, tracing paper and a pencil.  He rested the map on the table directly under the anglepoise lamp and put on his glasses.  Safe within the familiar trappings of his usual 'fix-it' mode, he started to feel calmer and in control.  How weird could this be?

The letters at the top of the map were clear; whatever had smudged the letters hadn't reached this part. It was a date; 30 November, 2015. Only a few weeks away! Kevin wondered if this could account for his deep-rooted sense of urgency.  He hurriedly moved down the map to the part which was worn and water-marked, and much harder to make out.  Perhaps the arrows would provide a clue.

But as soon as the magnifying glass was in place he realised his mistake.  He'd been looking at the map upside down and as a result had completely misinterpreted the symbols.  What he thought were arrows were in fact something entirely different, and much more sinister.  They were...

[to be continued... by Ron @ronsamul)

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Me, mapped

"We are often asked to tell our stories according to someone else’s standards of what counts, but we are not necessarily asked about what matters to us, what we value, even if it can’t be measured."

So begins the first challenge for Digital Writing Month (#digiwrimo).  It's a 'what if' question that asks us to introduce ourselves, not using the standard and limiting CV format but in whatever creative means takes our fancy.

CVs are indeed limited; they lay out our lives under standard headings, in sans serif font (naturally); they condense the most exciting of happenings down to one line and MUST BE ON TWO SIDES OF A4 ONLY.  And as for the hobbies and interests section... if you say something remotely interesting you are probably lying and if you are honest you are possibly the dullest person in the history of the universe.

I've been looking at maps as an alternative way of expressing and exploring personal journeys and tracking my own thinking.  In her book, The Post-Human, Rosi Braidotti uses the term cartography to describe the process of examining where we are, now:

'A cartography maps what it means to live at this moment in time.  It is a theoretically based and politically informed reading of the present.'

Cartographies, according to Braidotti, examine power locations, are non-linear in time; they de-familiarise and challenge thinking. Braidotti associates them with critical theory, but I like the idea of applying the principles to lives too; a map can show complexity, contours, colour and be multi-dimensional in a way that CVs cannot.  A map will show the mountains we have climbed, the rough patches we've overcome, the scary bit where there be dragons... it will be coloured by the stuff that's influenced us, show where the pain has been but allow us to move on through it, not making that aspect any more or less important than what else appears alongside it.
This blog for me, is my cartography.  I doubt it is what Braidotti intended, but nevertheless I've realised I'm applying similar principles.  There's theory which I use to inform my thinking; I unsettle myself through the use of unfamiliar writing styles and methods; there is politics running through the heart of it all. Most of all it is value-based; so that everything I write comes from the examined and explored ethical measures that form my basis for action.

Some parts are sketchy and hard to navigate - a back of a fag packet job (often literally).  Others are more detailed, filled in with coloured inks, pored over and written out a few times.  Braidotti often talks about the need to 'get over ourselves' so I try (usually) to infuse them with the hope and affirmation that she talks about as a post-human way of being in the world.

My blog isn't a CV; it is subjective, biased, and rough around the edges, but it tells you much more than those two sides of A4 ever could.

I might still add a hobbies and interests section though.

  • Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Polity Press.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Cartography #1

So, since my visit to Utrecht I am doing that classic thing of seeing and making links to post-humanism everywhere.  From Paul Mason's 'Post-Capitalism' to the rewilding movement, Brian Eno's fantastic John Peel Lecture to Knausgaard's autobiographies ... the themes are varied but all circle around new ways of living, loving, and interacting with each other and the world around us. Decentering the human, moving away from identity politics, making being different 'from' NOT about being 'less', dismantling capitalism through affirmative politics and the creation of 'assemblages'*.  So much to unpick and so little time.  I've got an hour for this one, so time to get over myself and just write something down...

'The political is right here' - as Rosi Braidotti emphasised, both in her book 'The Posthuman' and during the lectures in Utrecht.  In order to move forward we have to start from our own bodies and situated practices, examining and drawing up our own cartographies, looking at where we are located and asking ourselves 'what have we forgotten to forget?'  In my last blog I came up with a series of questions about creating a post-human curriculum for education, but in this one I want to take a step back, by thinking about my own standpoint and some of the ties that bind us to old ways of thinking.

One of the key themes of the summer school was art - a surprising and an additional challenge for someone who considers themselves a bit of a philistine.  But soon I was wondering - why do we always have the separation of art from science or the humanities? The idea of art and science being 'paths along the same track' is exciting and in itself opens up possibilities and new approaches. I had seen for myself students writing poetry and creating art in a teacher education class, so it was probably time to revisit my own stance and examine my resistance to it.

Modern art was always a bit of a standing joke in my family.  I remember my Grandad visiting the Tate Modern and showing him Carl Andre's 'Equivalent V11' (forever after known to us as 'the bricks').  Cue outrage ('this isn't art!') and much mirth for years after. (We took him to Covent Garden the same day - as a previous barrow boy who worked the original fruit market there in the 1920's, he was pretty disgusted by that too).

Carl Andre ‘Equivalent VIII’, 1966
© Carl Andre/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2015
The art shared with us in Utrecht was unsettling and pushed all the boundaries.  Perhaps the most startling piece of all was Uterus Man, about which I will say no more but encourage you to watch it for yourselves:

(My first reaction (as @teachnorthern will testify) was the incisive and articulate 'what the fuck?!'   I would love to know what your reaction and thinking is about Uterus Man, so please share your thoughts here :)

The kind of art we were talking about in Utrecht was not 'art that is', but 'art that does'. From the refugee art of the 'We are Here' collective in Holland, to Aernout Mik's amazing 'Cardboard Walls', which addresses, through the lens of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the way that the things we thought we controlled (nature and capitalist doctrines) can take charge of our lives and overturn them.  The common thread of post-human art was an affirmative ethics, and the encouragement of living a certain way in spite of capitalism, and not against it.  The art of Pussy Riot is examined here in a talk by Rosi herself; an example of radicalism which is oppositional but not negative:

Art is being restructured and refusing labels; we need a new vocabulary for the concepts, liberating and opening our minds along the way.  The pervasive 'anti-intellectualism' in our culture doesn't help us to access art of any kind, or seek out its use for positive change.  (As someone who apologetically calls herself a geek in their Twitter biography, and keeps her writing hidden from friends and family, I am guilty of denying this aspect of myself.  But as Rosi would say, it is time to 'get over ourselves'.) Art, whether a pile of bricks or a superhuman womb, gets you talking.  My challenge to myself is to keep an open-mind and continue to push my own boundaries; not switching off when I see something I don't get, but switching on, and looking for the questions that move me forward.


One of the most exciting post-humanist notions is around the creation of 'assemblages' - informal, rhizomatic groups of thinkers which may pop up unexpectedly and subversively, just like the mushrooms dropped and growing after leaving the farm at the end of my road.  In this week alone my thinking has been inspired by at least 50 writers on Twitter, friends @bobby_gant and @leehughes84, colleagues and students.  Most will not know each other but many are connected in different ways.  The potential and affirmation of these subversive groups is made more powerful by the nomadic, unexpected nature of the connected thinking... thanks to all.

Rosi Braidotti - Punk Women and Riot Grrls

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Beauty and the post-human

There's no greater come down after a week at a university summer school studying politics, philosophy and art, than a night with two fractious children watching Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

I'm back from a frankly mind-blowing week in Utrecht on a post-humanism summer school and desperately trying to make sense of what I've learnt, before the day to day realities of school uniform shopping, mindless work admin and Disney Channel kick back in.  I felt like an imposter for most of the time I was there if I'm completely honest - it's a while since I did my own Masters and I was amongst much younger and sharper brains than mine - but a number of key concepts and ideas hit me, and I want to make sense of them now, and act of them before they disappear in a haze of work stress and children's homework.  My challenge to myself (and I have accepted it) is to capture my key questions and thoughts before the end of the film comes, and I have to go and make tea.

So firstly, what is post-humanism?

Rosi Braidotti's book, 'The Post-Human' (the basis for this course) starts with the following statement:

'Not all of us can say with any degree of certainty that we have always been human, or that we are only that'.

How often do we consider what we mean by 'humanity', a term so often used but rarely analysed or questioned? We assume a consensus about what a human is - an entity based on common shared identities, with certain relationships to the environment and the globe - explained for us via philosophies that position 'man' at the top of the chain.  But the notion of what is human has also been exclusive and binding - denying the 'other' that does not fit the ideal, holding on a pedestal the 'Vitruian man' of Da Vinci's drawing - perfect in its geometry, white and male.  The paradigm is changing, as we start to look at other possibilities; removing the binds of gender, for example, to accept a spectrum of sexual being whether gay, gender queer, gender fluid, heterosexual, androgynous and so many other things in between ('sexuality is what I do, not who I am').  Women throughout history (and often still) have been outside of the human ideal, 'othered' through association with witches, the religious and spiritual, other-worldly sirens and temptresses, challenging the rationality of 'man'.  Post-human feminism offers an empowering alternative to the dualism of male/female and gender as a 'power machine' (it is worth remembering that gender as a concept doesn't even exist in other languages - in French, 'genre', the closest equivalent, is a purely grammatical term).

Post-humanism asks us to change this paradigm, to 'de-centre' the white, male human and to look at other possibilities for 'humanity'.  What is exciting is that we are already seeing this, through overt changes to acceptance of gay relationships, acceptance of gender neutral pronouns in every-day usage, challenges to our white-centred educational curricula, main-streaming of disabled sports, 'non-typical' models, the list goes on.  There is a very long way to go, of course, but the changes made in my own lifetime are staggering enough when I actually stop to consider them.

(If you want to watch something truly hopeful, take a look at Sue Austin's Freewheeling - an empowering piece of work that challenges our perceptions of disability -

There's no doubt that we are in a predicament, chained by advanced capitalism, threatened by environmental disaster, united globally more than ever before, but more fearful and less accepting of difference than ever (as I write, Budapest station is being closed, leaving thousands of stranded refugees to suffer on the streets outside).  In the midst of this it is imperative to try to make sense of the world, through, as Braidotti suggests, a politics of affirmation that looks for possibility and potential ('potentsia').  A politics that does not deny pain, but urges us to 'get over ourselves', by starting where we are, resisting the injustices of our times while engaging with them, in the spirit of hope.  The next step for me is to continue to 'get over' my own sense of impostership and ignorance and to work at locating myself, mapping my own, as Braidotti puts it 'cartography' so that I can start from where I am, read what I need to, and free myself from the ties that bind me to the past. (As the daughter of a map-maker, it must be said that this idea really appeals to me).

When I look my own teacher education work it is clear that much of it is actually already grounded in post-human thinking.  During the course I thought a lot of about how we work, and jotted down a number of questions, which I hope to address here and discuss with colleagues in the future:

1.  What would a post-human teacher education curriculum look like?
2. How do we examine our own position regarding 'pain' in education, and how do we make it affirmative?
3.  What are the 'ties which bind us' to a particular standpoint on education?
4.  What are the 'missing slices of the past' which our curriculum is lacking?
5. What kind of liberating 'assemblages' can we create to take our work forward, and how?

I have to stop now, the film is drawing to a close and the Beast is about to be turned into a Prince, saved by true love. I was always disappointed by this part; I always loved the Beast, with his kind heart, generosity, wisdom and general furriness (who wouldn't want to cuddle up to him?!)  As a child, I often wondered why he had to change.  But of course, the Beast is an 'other', a misfit in our view of what should be human.  Of course the story ends when he changes, because there is no possibility left.  Perhaps it's time to change the story, as we shift our own paradigm about what it actually means to be human.

  • Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Polity Press.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Measuring joy

I'm writing this post on train home from Glasgow after attending the funeral of a much loved student and RMT tutor Andrew who tragically passed away two weeks ago at the age of 35.  I'm lucky enough to have this view from my window - Andrew worked on the trains and it feels right to travel in his footsteps, taking the long route from Clydebank to Doncaster that he himself would have followed on his many trips to study with us at Northern College.

On the long journey I was thinking about adult education and how we measure it.  I've been involved in a NIACE European-funded project, one aspect of which is to evidence the worth of adult learning in England. At every meeting we talk about measurement; the positive impact of lifelong learning on health, income, equality, and other outcomes is plain to see but always hard to quantify.  We try, but return, time after time, to the the stories.  They are stories of lives turned around by education, aspirations finally fulfilled, awakenings and new beginnings, joy and hope. Stories like that of our very own student Lee Hughes, winner of the Outstanding Individual Award at NIACE Adult Learners Week (you can read Lee's fantastic story, here).

Measure this stuff if you want to, but for now, and on this day, I just want the stories.  This story is about Andrew, and the joy of lifelong learning.

Andrew taught adults, many well into their later years. Although he was new to teaching he had the ability to quietly encourage his students; he shared his passion in a way that was infectious.  On the occasions I observed him, he was careful to give each learner a voice and to encourage respectful debate.  Despite the low-confidence of many of his students, there was lots of storytelling in his classes.  They were places of joy, fun and hope.

Little seems to be written about Trade Union education but it impacts massively on the lives of many blue-collar workers who study on-line, through services such at Union Learn, or visit education centres like the RMT's in Doncaster.  If we hear about unions it is in the context of strike action or via other negative publicity - yet the education provided for many employees across the country is transformational and empowering.  Courses on employment law, health and safety, mental health, cancer awareness, confidence building, equalities.  The kind of education that enables workers to ask important questions; to challenge accepted practices; to make their working environments places of inclusion.  The sort of education that can save lives and make the world a better place.

At Andrew's funeral service the wonderful humanist celebrant talked about measurement too, and its irrelevance in the grand scheme of things.  'Life is measured by the dash between the birth date and the passed away date - life is measured by how you lived it, not by the years.'  This was a powerful thing to say at the service one who had died so young - but we went on to hear tales of what Andrew had done with his own 'dash' - his political work, both here and internationally; his trade union activism; his own learning and his passion for sharing it with others. His father told me of his joy at coming to Northern College to gain his teaching qualifications and his love of the work and the reading; never complaining about the five hour journeys or the pressures of combining studies with full time work and family commitments.

During my time in Clydebank and my conversations there about Andrew, we returned many times to his love of learning - yet often we sneer at adult education and belittle it, as John Field wrote about so eloquently here.  In an FE sector where the language is now only of 'skills', 'employability', of being 'work-ready,' there seems little room for learning for the love of it.  Yet the desire to gain new knowledge is an innate quality, so much so that it infuses many of our daily activities and most popular TV programmes (Great British Bake Off, anyone?)  Country-wide, people are busy learning how to knit, to sew, play the guitar, make cakes, restore furniture, write poetry, take photographs, dance, understand post-humanism (ok, that may just be me).  They build learning communities on-line, creating digital pinboards and Facebook groups; they share pictures of their creations and forge connections which sustain and drive their learning further.  And for many, the springboard is a canny adult educator like Andrew who ignited the first fire, provided the initial signposts and instilled the confidence and self-belief required take the first steps.

You're unlikely to find the word 'joy' in the lesson plans of adult educators - but it's often present in their classes nevertheless. And no, you can't measure it -  but maybe we just need to forget the numbers, and actually start focusing on the dash between them.

For Andrew Elliott 1980-2015. RIP.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Jumping on the blimage band-wagon

Emerging from my post-holiday torpor and catching up with Twitter, I spotted the new blimage hash tag.  Blimage is the idea of bloggers Amy Burvall and Steve Wheeler, and it's simple but brilliant. The process is simple; you start by choosing an image (it can be as random as you like) and then challenge a fellow blogger to write a post about it.  This would be generally education-related but I'm expanding it (hope this is ok Steve!) to include creative writing, too.

I've long been a massive fan of blogging and encourage my teacher trainees to use this medium for their reflective journals.  There is something about writing for the wider world that encourages greater reflexivity; thinking becomes clearer, writing has greater objectivity; wider themes and issues are drawn in.  It is also (and most importantly), good fun.

So here is my image for my fellow bloggers, colleagues and friends.  I challenge you to have a go and then share your post using the hash tag #blimage.  Don't forget to challenge others too, using your own images!

And for further information and lots of great other posts to follow, check out the links below:

Monday, 27 July 2015

Sea glass

As a child, many of my happiest times were spent on the beach - often the local coast near home, or on longer trips further down the Jurassic stretch between Poole and Weymouth. Beach-combing was a favourite activity, and seems to be a past-time I can share with my daughter. Neither of us have great attention spans, but tonight we spent an hour searching for shells, pebbles, and her favourite, sea glass. Every time we forget that it doesn't look the same out of water; the bright sparkle dulls as soon as it dries out - but we still collect it.

I'm not a classic amongst mums. Patience isn't my best feature; I get bored easily - I usually have my nose in my own book, rather than hers. I have serious workaholic tendencies, and came to motherhood too late to have the energy required for endless playing (it must be said that I don't feel guilty about any of this. I'm who I am, and I do my best, as parents do).

Tonight, though, we walked along the shore, lost in the focus of our search, and happy in each other's company. I wanted to capture this, before I go back to normality and forget the feel of her small hand in mine; and the joy I felt in her excitement as she showed me her latest discovery.

I'm keeping the sea glass under water for a while too. Sometimes you need to hang on to the sparkle for a just little bit longer.

Monday, 11 May 2015


You ask me where I come from
And I tell you this.

A place but not one place
Roots that exist, but struggle to grip the sand
That lined the streets I walked on

Or, less cryptically
Barrow boys and seafarers.
Dodgers of the Blitz and the Titanic bullet
East end and West quay
City and sea.

And the island so close that the water between is an irrelevance
Jurassic cliffs and chalk horses.
Beaches in the forest
White yachts that fill my eyeline
A flight that takes me not too far out
But loops the land to return.

And the love of an almost-sister
A symbiosis of circumstance.
Labour pains and failed expectations
Hopes dashed in the unexpected chill of a spring day.
The glory of imperfection.

And most of all, the love of acceptance
Of a woman, unjudging
Who holds that child and will never let her go.

You ask me where I come from
And I tell you this.

Saturday, 14 February 2015


Love.  Not a word you will generally find in education blogs, even on Valentine’s Day.  And I've hesitated before writing this one – in a world where talk is of grit, resilience, rising to the challenge – where classrooms are described as ‘battle grounds’ and teachers are told to toughen up – where’s the place for it?

Over the past few months I’ve been fortunate enough to observe many hours of teaching (47 since October, to be precise).  Welcoming an observer into your classroom is always a challenge, even when it’s just me coming in, your friendly little tutor.  I have a lot of respect for student teachers who are observed all the time by their tutors, mentors and peers – sometimes all of these in the same lesson, hanging around in anticipation, like an NHS crash team.  I always write a lot of feedback, and the word ‘love’ does not appear on any of my observation forms.  Yet despite all the pressure and artificiality of an observed teach it’s usually there, like a big (cuddly) elephant in the corner of the room, colouring and shaping the very best teaching that I’ve seen.  I would even argue that it is the key difference between good and great– its presence is vital, yet hard to define.  You’ll never put love into a tick-box.
By love, I mean love for teaching itself, of course.  I’ve witnessed joy and pleasure in the crafting of a lesson that works, the delight in trying something new, the satisfaction of challenging yourself, excitement at helping understanding, the sheer delight at seeing a stuck penny finally drop.

I also mean love for students (don’t smirk) – shown through the absolute acceptance and celebration of difference, the presence of empathy and kindness, values expressed through caring and the encouraging of independence.

Perhaps the hardest element here (and arguably the most important) is the love that teachers feel for themselves.  Student teachers, like us all, are their own worst critics – in shoe-horning all the essential elements into their lessons, embedding so much necessary stuff it all becomes like an overstuffed Christmas cake – with so much going on you don’t know what flavour to concentrate on first.  In the midst of all of this, encouraging students to be fully themselves, it is difficult to remember that we need to be ourselves too – in all our failings and vulnerabilities.

I owe a lot of this thinking to Nancy Kline’s ten components of a Thinking Environment - which are all about love, of course.  Paying attention, having a place that communicates to people that they ‘matter’, achieving equality of participation, moving beyond competition – at the same time the most simple, and the hardest things we can do. And my ultimate inspiration - @teachnorthern’s four cornerstones of social purpose teaching. Teaching to benefit the world - connecting with our own values as teachers - reflecting on our practice and truly embedding diversity - if these aren't all about love, I don't know what is.

I’ll leave you with this poem by Al Zolynas – and a plea not to 'keep a coward's silence' but to capture and remember those moments of love, which are ultimately, for me, what teaching is really all about.

Love in the Classroom

Afternoon. Across the garden, in Greco Hall,
someone begins playing the old piano–
a spontaneous piece, amateurish and alive,
full of a simple, joyful melody.
The music floats among us in the classroom.

I stand in front of my students
telling them about sentence fragments.
I ask them to find the ten fragments
in the twenty-one-sentence paragraph on page forty-five.
They've come from all parts
of the world–Iran, Micronesia, Africa,
Japan, China, even Los Angeles–and they're still
eager to please me. It's less than half
way through the quarter.

They bend over their books and begin.
Hamid's lips move as he follows
the tortuous labyrinth of English syntax.
Yoshie sits erect, perfect in her pale make-up,
legs crossed, quick pulse minutely
jerking her right foot. Tony
sprawls limp in his desk, relaxed
as only someone can be who's
from an island in the South Pacific.

The melody floats around and through us
in the room, broken here and there, fragmented,
re-started. It feels mideastern, but
it could be jazz, or the blues–it could be
anything from anywhere.
I sit down on my desk to wait,
and it hits me from nowhere–a sudden
sweet, almost painful love for my students.

"Nevermind," I want to cry out.
"It doesn't matter about fragments.
Finding them or not. Everything's
a fragment and everything's not a fragment.
Listen to the music, how fragmented,
how whole, how we can't separate the music
from the sun falling on its knees on all the greenness,
from this moment, how this moment
contains all the fragments of yesterday
and everything we'll ever know of tomorrow!"

Instead, I keep a coward's silence.
The music stops abruptly;
they finish their work,
and we go through the right answers,
which is to say
we separate the fragments from the whole.

Cutts, N. (2010). Love at Work, Fisher King Publishing

Kline, N. (1995). Time to Think, Cassell Illustrated