Russel T Davies’ BBC production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

amsnd

Shown last night, I thought this was a spirited modern production retaining the spirit of the original in its fun and fantasy as well as explorations on the meaning of love, this latter deserving its contemporary extensions.

It was definitely a little bit of Dr Who and a little bit of Baz Luhrmann’s R&J, with an obvious pinch of Hannibal. I liked the iPad clones and other modern technology inserts, as well as the in-jokes that went with this: the TV programme A Comedy of Errors. What a hoot to be in the know; however, this wasn’t the more complex to know.

The more complex, though no doubt many will see it as having been puerile, where the innuendos highlighted by emphasis and/or editing in the text [or even inserted – I don’t know it that well] which I thought were playful and witty.

I am not always a fan of Matt Lucas but his Bottom was wonderfully varied; Nonso Anozie was powerfully apt as Oberon, and Maxine Peake was perfect as Titania. Harry Potter as Lysander was quite amusing.

I also simply thought it was refreshing to see a prime time Bank Holiday Monday television spot going to Shakespeare rather than any of the more expected popular crap options that are out there, though I will be hoping that the wonderful watchers on Goggle Box – which isn’t crap – who quite like much of that other actual crap will nonetheless share my enthusiasm for this Bard’s BBC outing.

Nebraska 12 – Addison Erwin Sheldon’s ‘Poor’s Ranch – Niobrara River’

I discovered this today, and it links to my poem and post here Fishing in which I describe a memorable day on [actually above] what I am sure was the Niobrara River.

niobrara

Sheldon’s poem does evoke the wide open spaces that I recall as a child when traveling to the town of Niobrara, and it documents the loss of an age where there was more freedom and independence, but also a wildness and lawlessness of frontier days. It is a longish poem to read, but it is interesting as a narrative that celebrates and laments:

These star-high canyon walls looks grim
I own,—till one gets wonted,—
The black pines rockin’ on the rim
Like Indian ghosts enchanted :—
And yet there doesn’t grow fer me
On mountain, plain or prairie
No spot so friendly and so free
As Poor’s Ranch, Niobrara.

Lonesome? I reckon not,—y’ see
There aint no lack o’ rustle,—
The talkin’ of the pines to me
Beats all Chicago’s hustle,—
And ridin’ out across the range
From March to Jenooary,—
There’s nothin’ lonesome-like or strange
Along the Niobrara.

Saddle and blanket comrades, they
Hev vanished from the border,—
More on the shoot than on the pray
An’ yit fur law and order :—
The hoss thief trail from Long Pine Glen
They tracked to canyons scary,
Fur Middleton and Kid Wade men
Hid on the Niobrara.

You knew Tim Jones, of Bear Creek Ranch—
What was his queer alias?—
He killed a preacher up the branch
Fer tryin’ to make him pious;—
His Texas wife swooped down on Tim
livin here with Sarah.—
There wan’t no use o huntin’ him
Next day on Niobrara.

Jim Murray then,—Jim Dahlman now,—
Who shared our bunk an’ bacon,
Has quit a roundin’ up the cow
And gone to pres’dent makin’

It makes the old gang chuckle when
They read of him a tryin’
To rope them Wall Street hulls an’ then
Sail tip the Bay with Bryan.
I wonder ‘f when in politics
He minds that little flurry
We had at old White River Nick’s
Beyond the Niobrara?

John Shore—who used to throw a calf
To beat all human natur’—
Throwed the S-preme Court—an’ don’t laugh—
Down in the Legislatur’;
Poor John! He’s crossed the other side
Snake River sand hills dreary—
One good man more will never ride
Along the Niobrara.

That Gordon outfit Black Hills trail
Goes yonder gully—riggin’——
Black Hills or bust—they’d never fail
To reach the Deadwood diggin’—
But just beyond the Boilin’ Springs—
The old U. S. Calvary
Bonfired their wagons, grub and things
Beside the Niobrara.

Bill Irwin an’ the Stetter Boys,
Who kep’ us all a guessin’
Which one could raise the roughest noise
To earn the outfit’s blessin’,—
Has quit the range an’ settled down
As tame as a canary;—
You’d never b’lieve they’d shoot a town
Along the Niobrara.

What changes come—the Texas Trail—
Abilene!—An’ Ogalalla!—
The dry drives, where the water’d fail,—
The quicksands where ‘twas shallow:
The old North Platte hell-roarin’ high,—
The longhorns’ floatin’ ferry—
And last,—the pines agin the sky
Upon the Niobrara.

The fur-off, early round-up day,
Where all was open ridin’.—
No barb wire fences in the way—
No railroad cut or sidin’—
No land detective’s sneakin’ frills
A spottin’ the unwary—
But jest the cattle an’ the hills
An’ rushin’ Niobrara,

Old days is gone—the place seems dear—
The canyon an’ the river;
Heaven aint no furder off from here,—
An’ I can’t stay forever:
Like mirage lakes of alkali
I’ve seen above the prairie—
I’l look above when I shall die
Fir Poor’s Ranch, Niobrara.

Plato’s Pie and Mash

The distinction between Appearance and Reality is a key philosophical exploration and argument from Plato to Bradley, and many others. My poetry chapbook Precarious Real [here] deals with this in its serious and satirical ways, but I think I could have perhaps titled it differently as Pie and Mash.

P1000601

The image above of today’s quick meal [bought with no unreasonable expectations of quality or amount] does nonetheless exemplify rather brilliantly the disparity between appearance and reality at one actual level when you get through the packaging and see the paltry size of the contents.

Somewhat ironically, the photo I have taken has got the perspective wrong because the pie certainly and the mash to a degree actually do look as large as the picture on the package. Trust me: they aren’t. They are comically minute. I should have put the package cover in the foreground, but this all simply adds to the cosmic dichotomy.

I do think the herb liquor [that’s the frozen block of green in the back right compartment] is going to elicit more of a linguistic questioning of its reality…

Two More Stupid SATs GPS Signals

My exam papers haven’t arrived yet, and the grass is still too damp to cut….

I have many objections to the KS2 English SATs GPS [SPaG], and here are just two from this year’s, but repeating what I have objected to in the sample papers:

semi-colon

This obsession with teaching the semi-colon at an early age is ridiculous, as is to test it like this, and as I have written before, the overuse – quite often inaccurate – of the semi-colon in GCSE English Writing papers [students taught to ‘hit’ assessment criteria about sophisticated use of SPaG, for example] is a further example of this nonsense. The sentence There are Roman ruins near our village and they are being excavated next week is a far better exemplar for good writing.

question mark

Dull, dull, dull. Why not write the sentence They are listening to music? and get students to respond [in all kinds of ways] to why and how this is different to Are they listening to music?

 

KS2 English GPS Navigates Nonsense

One could construe that I am being mischievous – well, I am, but also 100% accurate [about the only certain ‘accuracy’ in these nonsensical tests] – but the following question and answer demonstrates how this idea of finite ‘correctness’ [excuse paradox, but the DfE clearly don’t understand this concept, apart from as a construct] is untenable as a means of measuring language and writing learning in students:

q1

Here’s my answer: You may bring sandwiches or juice and water for the trip, but glass bottles are not allowed.

In a mark scheme that comically – though appalling – gives copious guidance on what to do if students write answers outside of provided spaces or similar ‘errors’, it is completely unable/unwilling to address how to respond to answers that are – wait for it – ‘outside the box’ [couldn’t resist] but in language terms still ‘correct’, and therefore illustrates the fundamental problem. And what I mean, of course, is that this one question/answer does not exist on its own: it is the model for most of the test. Here is the ‘correct’ response to earn 1 mark:

q1answer

Because I am stupid and useless, my answer could not gain 1 mark, though it makes absolute sense, both linguistically and as communication, even if the instruction in my version to bring food or drink is a tad draconian – like the tests.

I could, and might [but I start GCSE examining imminently….], unravel a few more, but this is probably enough to make the point for anyone prepared to see it immediately.

Michael Rosen continues his stellar analysis of these tests themselves on his blog and elesewhere, and one seemingly simple and yet colossal example of further bad practice he exposed was the question that asks students to provide the antonym for the word ‘fierce’.

fierce1

fierce2

As Rosen points out, no single word out of context has an antonym [words rarely, if ever, possess this neatness, though paired examples like black/white occur], and the idea of there being a ‘correct’ or ‘accurate’ or ‘true’ antonym to reward as an answer in a necessarily narrowed mark scheme is more craziness.

I picked this analysis up on Facebook and was intrigued to see teachers offering ‘answers’ – many in jest, obviously, but a surprising number engaging in the process earnestly, though one can understand why if they have had to teach this crap and are affected by it.

That said, one of the more interesting proofs of how stupid this question is would be in considering the possible ‘answers’ of calm and timid. Here’s the rub: can you imagine two words that as potential antonyms to the word fierce are therefore necessarily also synonyms which could be more different to one another in what they actually imply/mean! Obviously, this is what makes language so exciting, and as I have argued elsewhere, if you really felt the need for such tests [but let’s actually just imagine it as teacher set/teacher assessed], what could be more illuminating that allowing students to write sentences using the words timid and calm to reflect their alternative meanings…or acting them out…..or talking about them…..

RIP American Authors

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Today marks the final day that American authors can be examined for GCSE English Literature. It is one of the most despicable legacies of Michael Gove’s tenure as Education Secretary to have effectively banned the study and examination of all American prose authors at GCSE from September 2015, today’s AQA GCSE English Literature examination [I don’t know if there are any from other Awarding Body exams yet to take place] being the last time students will respond at this level and thus my final time of marking these generally engaged and knowing responses.

My arguments about and against this as well as Gove’s and other philistines’ responses, including those from the notorious DfE drafters, are contained in the body of this blog.

It is difficult to imagine any change of government in the future having the will at that time to reinstate these authors: Labour, for example, not having had any obvious concern at the demise in the first place.

mmm

Further on the Failures of the English Examination System

The debate that prompted my first response to the notion there is an inherent intention to fail a percentage of students in the English/British [universal?] examination system [here], continued/continues where it started, and I have no wish in general terms to try and disprove its overall gist. I think my first response endorsed that ‘purpose’ to fail overview, though I was characterising its fundamental structure, at GCSE in particular, to have a pass and fail dichotomy pivoting on the notorious C/D borderline. The most sinister aspect of this is the annual adjustment of grade borderlines, especially at that point, in order to maintain an annual average/expectancy.

Just briefly on that grade borderline adjustment: I can understand a theory that this needs to exist to accommodate any perceived deviation from sustained ‘standards’ in the levels of question setting and objective assessment. But I don’t want to defend its other workings, and/or corruptions of design, and won’t.

Where I have continued to feel ‘defensive’, and very much as an examiner [I don’t question set, but I do train and standardise], is in responding to any idea that GCSE exams have questions set which are designed to fail students. I’m not saying this doesn’t exist – though it seems unlikely to me – but I am saying this hasn’t been my experience.

And in my experience – which is what I offer here, so take or leave as you will – where there have been errors in question setting, so this could have an impact on student responses, you meet as teachers/examiners to make adjustments in assessing this. I recall one particular example, and I think it was a question about Of Mice and Men [not Wilfred Owen, and you’ll understand in a moment], and the short question contained the word ‘futility’. Immediately after the exam was sat, schools rang the exam board to complain that their students hadn’t understood this word and it had confused and worried them trying to respond. When we as a wider body of examiners saw this question [and indeed as teachers in our own schools] it was obvious that this one word could be a genuine barrier to students responding as the question was intended: to explore the theme of the book, so to speak and to paraphrase, whether its ending was positive or negative – you get the gist!

So there you go. A mistake had been made, but it was a mistake. The question setter didn’t decide to make it difficult for a perceived percentage of students to struggle with answering. It was a thoughtless moment that should have been spotted and corrected by those who check and indeed should scrutinise the accuracy and appropriateness of all the questions on an exam paper. It wasn’t the first or last mistake to be made and not spotted.

At standardising, it was agreed that any response to that question would be accepted. It would be unfair to penalise students for not understanding, or misunderstanding a key term/word. I actually harboured a slight concern that many or most 16 year olds wouldn’t understand the word ‘futility’, but I accepted entirely that it could and probably was the case.

Now, you can imagine pedants then being concerned that such a decision would disadvantage those students who did indeed understand the term and answered astutely within that personal comprehension. Well, the overall spirit of the exam – as it was and still is – to reward what candidates could/did do [rather than penalise for what wasn’t covered…] accommodates that. But this takes us into another area of debate I’m not interested in here.

The history of national school exams, at all levels, but especially GCSE and A Level, is riddled with errors in question setting and other mistakes. Things should be more efficient than this, but they aren’t. I remember when examination papers in my subject were stolen three years in a row [!] and substitute papers had to be used.

I also know as an examiner I have questions on my paper that I like and those I don’t like. I certainly do not like any questions that make it difficult for students to answer [and I do not believe this is by design: it is by difference of opinion]. I am not a believer, for example, that questions must change in obvious ways each year so that they don’t appear to be familiar. If there are ‘obvious’ questions to ask of a text [e.g. ‘friendship’ or ‘loneliness’ in Of Mice and Men] then ask them again and again. Don’t look for new for the sake of it. On my paper, there are context passages that I think have been excellent, and those that I personally wouldn’t have chosen. I have my own view on setting questions that maximise the widest possible response, but I don’t set the questions.

So I don’t believe in a conspiracy theory about actual exam question setting, but I do believe people and exam boards make the stupidest mistakes with this.

But I do believe in conspiracy theory in some respects when it comes to national exams.

Michael Gove’s tenure as Education Secretary and intrusions to create a nefarious aspect of controlling certainly GCSEs is an historical disgrace. In general terms, his decision that all examinations should be more ‘rigorous’ [so harder, and by extrapolation depressing ‘success’] meant he presided over a move to include more content in examinations, especially that which is ostensibly to do with ‘knowledge’ – these finite [as if…] and right/wrong answers [as if…] for the syllabus and question setters to elicit. Madness. But he is the consummate mad twatter.

In English Literature, Gove’s myopic, ‘golden age’ perception of what GCSE should include, was less easy to narrow but he made an appalling and successful attempt to do so by, for example, banning American authors from study: a completely personal choice. He tried to make the study of Romantic poetry a compulsory element, but that is one area which I and fellow examining colleagues did have an impact on preventing. Had he succeeded, Gove wouldn’t have introduced ‘rigour’, he would have alienated thousands of students from engaging as widely as possible in the study of English Literature at this level.

But this too gets me moving at a tangent from the intended focus of this posting. I just want to make clear I am no apologist for much of the GCSE examination system. I don’t, however, believe it is structured to fail a percentage of students through its ‘questioning’ as a conspiracy of intent.

As I also said in my first posting on this, by all means scrap the whole system and set up a national framework, especially at GCSE [if there is a need to ‘test’ at this level, and there isn’t really with most students attending school until 18….], where we have students engage with their studies at school in lessons responding in the widest and most creative means possible for teachers to make formative assessments and ultimately detailed, positive commentaries on personal achievements.