Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dear Sir Or Madam, Will You Read My Book?

The end of the year is rapidly approaching and I don’t have time for all the things I want to do.

I wish I didn’t have to work so I could spend more time writing, but the truth of the matter is I need to make the time to write.

When I do finally isolate myself, and believe me I need to be alone, I’m quite productive. But like most people I feel I have so much to do that I feel guilty when I sit and write.

I can’t listen to music when I write – although I’ve never tried any sort of instrumental music. I really love my music, and I find I can’t just listen to it as background. It’s the same when I’m marking papers. Even a quick “How’s it going?” from my wife throws out my rhythm completely.

But I love writing, and I recently decided that I was going to spend more time practising the craft. I’ve recently entered a couple of competitions. (I entered one a few months ago, but didn’t place. Bah! What does a published author turned judge know about good writing?) One of these competitions, Writers of the Future, has excellent prizes – trips to the US for workshops, cash, large shiny trophies, awards ceremonies – but also has a lot of stiff competition.

I live in hope.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I Absolutely Love Teaching, However...

Sometimes I feel like a kid.

When I'm around other teachers, and they are deep in pedagogical discussion, throwing educational theories back and forth, tossing current educational buzzwords (like pedagogical) into conversation in the same way I would use 'cool', I feel like I'm not a real teacher. I feel like a fake, someone who somehow managed to rise to be among people with whom I don't belong or fit in.

I saw School of Rock on the weekend - that film where Jack Black pretends to be a teacher to get some extra bucks. There is a scene where the real teachers ask him a question about learning theories or something, and he ends up quoting song lyrics back at them.

That's me.

I know a few teachers who race off to every Professional Development session they can, that read all the current journals, that belong to societies and professional organisations, and sometimes want to sit and have conversations with me about teaching practices. It seems to me that a lot of these 'new' teaching ideas are simply 'old' ones repackaged.

And I think it's rather ironic that some of the most 'trained' teachers I've ever met are amongst the worst teachers I've ever seen.

I'm not against ongoing training, but most of the PDs teachers go to are a complete waste of time - apart from the ubiquitous muffins and coffee. Most of us only do them in order to clock up the required hours.

I'm reminded of the story where Dustin Hoffman deprived himself of sleep for two days in order to appear exhausted in a particular scene. Apparently Lawrence Olivier suggested that he 'try acting .... It's much easier!" Sometimes I think some of these teachers should just go into the classroom and simply try teaching instead.

The teacher's union, The Australian Education Union (AEU), recently concluded 18 months negotiations with the government over pay. The union opened at 30%, the government opened at 3.25%. After 18 months they settled somewhere around 3.5%, the union gave up three non-teaching days, and third year teachers will earn the same next year as a first year teacher.

We were asked to vote on this without actually seeing the details of the deal, and most people were just so fed up they agreed to it without arguing.

We knew it was a bad deal when the government announced they were happy...

A few years ago, in another deal to worsen teacher's conditions, our union helped create the The Victorian Institute of Teaching (VIT), a professional overseer that regulates and promotes teaching. Whilst most sane people would argue that it is the role of our employer (the government) or our regulators (the government) to ensure that all teachers are qualified and maintaining professional standards, our union decided we needed another organisation that we have to pay for.

That's right, in order to be allowed to teach every year, I must pay. And then when the government declare every couple of years they need police checks to ensure I'm not going to attack students, I have to pay.

On top of this, they have now decided that I must do twenty hours of professional development training every year. The school budget allows for minimal reimbursement for this, yet the prices of professional training, seminars, workshops and so on are ridiculously high.

If this ongoing training is so vital, surely my employer should pay for it. Can you imagine an office employee being told she needs to undertake further training every year and that much of it needs to be undertaken in her own time and she needs to pay for it herself?

Or that now she is employed she needs to purchase her own computer to use at work, her own pens, her own notebooks and folders and so on.

That's the reality for teachers. We buy our own whiteboard markers, notebooks and folders. We lease our own computers (which we are told we must have), we pay for our own ongoing training (often workshops for the sake of just doing them), and we have a union that actively works against us in improving our conditions.

And the government still wonders why they are having trouble luring the brightest and best into teaching.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Take A Long Line...

Einstein knew what he was talking about. Not many of the rest of us do, though.

On the one hand this genius gave us a new insight into the workings of the quantum world, on the other he messed with our minds to the extent that we now have to try and understand superstring theory. The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene, is a well written, fascinating approach to complex (some might say 'heavy') science. And, as one of Enid Blyton's characters may have said, it's a "jolly good read".

Simply put (by Einstein himself, no less), "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity."

We all know the feeling. You plan a vacation, and the anticipation and journey feel like it takes forever, while the actual time there and the journey home pass quickly.
But some things do take forever. Or at least thirty years.

I feel like a character from Lord of the Rings at the end of a quest. Three times in the past week thirty year 'waits' have come to an end.

In 1978 or so, at high school, (yes, I am that old), a teacher read us a short story that I loved at the time and have always recalled. As a 15 year old I never bothered to get the author or the title. I've spent some of the last thirty years trying to obtain these details, with a more serious attempt at detective work over the past six months. It's actually very difficult to locate this kind of information with only vague memories of what the story us about, but persistence pays off and I'd like to thank the editor who responded to my email immediately. He'd recognised the synopsis from his own schooldays. It's great to finally have a copy of this story.

Around the same time in high school I decided I wanted to fly remote control aircraft. I looked into it, but it seemed very expensive. I went to a meeting or two but realised that the whole thing was way out of a student's price range. I never really looked into it again, believing that it was still an expensive hobby.

But last month, after a chance meeting with a couple of flyboys while walking the wonderdog, I learned that as a hobby it was much more affordable these days. And so my lovely wife bought me a trainer. My friend bought one too and yesterday we had our first successful crashes.

But before gravity proved its existence in spectacular fashion, they did fly around and respond to my controls and made half decent landings once or twice. I even looked like I was in control a couple of times.

And then to top the week off we bought tickets to see the newly reformed Angels. I had two favourite albums in those days, Screaming Targets by Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, and Face to Face by The Angels. Both these albums (on vinyl) were played regularly during much of the time I was meant to be studying. Now on CD they are still often heard in my house.

But the Angels of the 80s and 90s never excited me as much as the Angels of the four big albums. Even though I still liked their later releases, Face to Face, No Exit, Darkroom and Night Attack had something, an edge, a rawness, that was missing from later incarnations of the band. Unfortunately I never saw them live at all.

Then Doc Neeson had his falling out with the other guys, ran off with Jim Hilburn and formed Red Phoenix, a second rate Angels wannabe. This evolved into Doc Neeson's Angels which released the spectacular, but relatively unknown, Acoustic Sessions album. Meanwhile the rest of the original boys reunited as The Angels, and then The Angels Band due to legal threats by Doc.

I had the complete joy of seeing them live last year. It was a truly sublime moment that I had waited for so long and although they were brilliant they lacked the Doc's menacing vocals, the vocals that suggest he is on the verge of madness.

But they've resolved something (although the Doc claims its not permanent) and are touring shortly - the original five. Just when I thought I was never going to see their faces again, I have tickets for next month.

Do good things come to those who wait? It's taken thirty years, and it is interesting the three events converged on this week, my birthday week.

Who knows what's in store for 2038.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

But There's One Thing Really Mystifying...

Wonderfalls. I'd forgotten how great this show was.

Last night when I got home from work, and my wife was still traversing the horror highway home, I lay on the couch with the Wonderdog and watched an episode of this.

Originally I bought this series on the basis of the Andy Partridge involvement. The fine people on Chalkhills (the XTC website) had recommended this since Swindon's finest had written and performed the theme song. I loved it when I first watched it two years ago, but have somehow neglected it since then.

Of course, I've never seen it aired on Australian TV (it may have been on pay TV), and it only lasted the one season in the US, but this is a show that should have been on primetime and run for several seasons.

I've pretty much stopped watching TV, although I don't mind the occasional foray into Gordon Ramsey land. The Nine Network, which has pretty much ruled the airwaves since I was a child and always seemed the most professional of the broadcasters, now wears a tarnished crown. They were even reduced to airing Gordon Ramsey three nights a week - a little too much for even the most dedicated fan. After all, the show is very formulaic and every episode is pretty much the same.

Nine has developed a tendency to buy great shows and then not broadcast them. Even when they do, the shows are usually put on quite late in the evening (way past my bedtime) and then are completely disposable. They edit and chop them to make them fit and then will drop them for a few weeks or postpone the programmed time for a few hours to make way for some sports program that must be shown right now. "Live Poker championships from the Northcote RSL, featuring Shane Warne."

Must see TV, indeed.

And don't even get me started on Underbelly. With all that hype and publicity I really had hoped for a quality show that would be similar to The Sopranos, but have a solid basis in fact. Instead it was poorly written with cardboard, stereotypical characters. The dialogue was laughable at time with cliches I wouldn't expect from my Year 9 writing class and acting that was average at best. And yet the newspapers wrote about Underbelly in glowing terms. I have no idea what the reviewers and critics were watching. It certainly wasn't the same show that I saw.

Watch the weakest of any Sopranos episode and it blows Underbelly out of the water.

So I've started buying DVDs and watching the programs complete, in the correct order and at a reasonable hour. I refused to watch a single episode of The Sopranos final season until it was available on DVD. And I was rather pleased with myself that I was able to avoid any spoilers before viewing it.

I've watched Six Feet Under, West Wing, Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Deadwood the same way. I've started watching Dexter, Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip as well. Old favourites such as Northern Exposure, Twin Peaks, Porridge and Goodnight Sweetheart are also on heavy rotation, while any 'reality' program just gets ignored.

The quality is out there but TV delights in mediocrity. The networks target the lowest common denominator.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fleeting Fame.

I've been told I was mentioned in Wikipedia.

My students informed me that for a day or so my name was included in the entry for one of the texts we have studied this year.

After the usual information about the book, the author and the narrative, I was mentioned by name and stated that I "said the book is crap."

It's true.

It is.

Thanks to the anonymous student that mentioned me.

And raspberries to the censor who deleted me.

Pulp Culture?

I read that Kylie Minogue received a cultural award from the French government. Hmmmm.

We're always being told how cultured the French are, with their art, cafes, wines and so on but now I find myself questioning this longheld belief. No offence, Kylie, but your music is just pop, and very average pop at that.

I love pop music - I have loads of it in my collection and I'll even admit to having a guilty pleasure or two, but a cultural award for "I Should Be So Lucky"? Full credit to Kylie, though. She's done very well.

In a perfect world Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, or Terry Scott Taylor from Daniel Amos, or Andy Partridge of XTC would be millionaires and revered throughout the world. Kylie would be dance music in clubs while the world would enjoy the art of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Apple Venus and Mr. Buechner's Dream.

Kylie lived the high life all over the world, while Andy, Dave and Colin from XTC were taking part time jobs in order to pay the bills between album releases. From what I understand most of the guys in Daniel Amos have full time jobs. The coolest unknown band in the world? Maybe - especially when you can claim that your guitar player is a rocket scientist at NASA.

Greg: What are you doing this week?Terry: Oh, I'll fiddle with my guitars, write a couple of songs. Produce some demos for a new band I know. You?

Greg: The usual. Pushing satellites around, driving remote vehicles all over Mars and going down to the basement to check out the moonrocks and a couple of aliens we had transferred over from Area 51.

Terry: Ok, see you next week at rehearsal.
Oh well, I suppose true artists must suffer for their cause, and I know that quality does not equal popularity.

But in a perfect world Terry and Andy would collaborate to make the world's most perfect album. The Beatles would have performed once more in the late 70s so that I could have seen them at least once. Gene Eugene would resurrect and Adam Again would appear at a festival with XTC, Daniel Amos, The Swirling Eddies, Lost Dogs and The 77s in Melbourne so I could finally see some of these bands.

Philip K. Dick would have written a few more books, and I would be a talented and successful writer living the country life beyond the suburbs.

And Kylie Minogue would drop over sometimes to discuss the genius of Partridge and Taylor.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Linear Notes...

Why should the devil have all the good tunes?

William Booth is supposed to have said it originally. The founder of The Salvation Army would use well known drinking songs and write new words to accompany them to make it easier for his converts to sing along. Larry Norman used it in the 70s as a response to those that thought the church and rock'n'roll should never meet.

This has been in my thoughts this week. I found out a few weeks ago that Larry had passed on a few weeks before. It affected me more than I thought possible. I came home from work and played Only Visiting This Planet, and it moved me to tears.

Larry's death wasn't mentioned in any newspaper or TV report I saw. I didn't even see it mentioned online through any news agencies. I only found out because when I punched his name into eBay, one of the entries included R.I.P. in the description.

Larry was my first concert. I was 15 or so, and he played Festival Hall here in Melbourne. I'd never heard him before, but some older friends invited me. It had never occurred to me that there could be a Christian rocker. The only religious music I knew was quite traditional - the type of vinyl my parents listened to. I'd sit in my room listening to The Beatles, The Stones or Deep Purple in my bedroom on a tinny little mono record player, while my dad would play his music on the 'good' stereo. Not that mum and dad didn't approve. They would even buy albums for me from time to time. But I went to see Larry and became a fan that evening.

In the 90s it seemed Larry went a bit strange. He started talking about brain damage, and saying that every show was his last one. He released lots and lots of stuff - I'm sure there's a Larry album out there somewhere that consists of him making dinner with his son. Having accidentally hit the record button on a cassette player in the kitchen, he suddenly found he had his next album.

I'd spent a bit of time hunting down and buying as many of his earlier releases as I could, so I was disappointed when suddenly there were many many discs on the market, all in limited edition, that I would never be able to collect. I even met him one night in a restaurant in Melbourne. I chatted to him for a few minutes, and asked for his autograph. He told me he wouldn't sign as he didn't believe in 'the Hollywood star system.' I was very disappointed later on when I found out he'd signed items for people all over the place....

But Larry was Larry, and we overlooked these 'eccentricities'. And we thanked him for the Trilogy, and loved SNUTS (Something New Under The Son) and even listened to Quiet Lions.

But now he's gone. I guess he really was only visiting this planet.

I never did find out who Fehrion was or what all those numbers inside SNUTS mean. I loved those little mysteries.

And tonight, when I take my dog for a walk and I'm standing on the corner, I guess I'd better look up the sky in case there's something in the dark......

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

I May Not Know Literature, But I Know What I Like...

Parent-teacher interviews went well. I wasn't verbally abused this time as I was last year when a parent decided his child was not doing so well because of a 'personality conflict'. How about blaming the child's failure to do any work and a tendency to disrupt others? How about realising that the 'personality clash' was only mentioned after letters went home stating the child was of concern and in danger of failing? How about this parent thinking that he (a professional) would not accept this kind of behaviour and attitude from any of his employees?

But this year went well, and I was even thanked by a number of parents for the work I was doing.

There was one comment made several times that made me think (and ultimately laugh) that night.

"My son only likes reading if it's something he's interested in."

I got to thinking about this one. Parents think I expect kids to like reading books they hate, and there is a presumption that the textbooks will be boring and not engaging. (current educational buzzword here along with 'Pedagogical')

Do I enjoy books I hate? My last entry tells of a particular book I have to teach that should never have been published. But there are other books I teach that I think are either poorly written, dull or just plain pointless. As a teacher, I end up reading these several times prior to teaching them.

Guess what parents, I only enjoy reading books about things I like too.

And would someone tell the VCAA that sometimes we should read books just because they are beautiful and enjoyable to read?

Please, stop selecting texts for Year 12 just because they deal with issues. I'm tired of reading depressing books about suicide, cancer, rape, abuse, single parents or living through war. I see enough of it in the newspapers and on television. This is what happens when the texts are selected by a committee.

Try to include a couple of texts that tell of the joy of living. Try to choose some books that will encourage our students to read more. Select books that we read for the joy of just reading.

As well as being a very average translation, Sky Burial is slow, ponderous, and dull. (Xinran, please admit to us that this book is fiction - don't keep pretending it's a true story.) Look Both Ways has a list of characters who are all victims, where nothing really exciting actually happens. Citizen Kane is long, dull and many years out of date. A Streetcar Named Desire is similarly out of date, neither culturally nor geographically relevant and basically dull. I personally love 1984, but I'm not convinced that the kids are going to like it or get into it at all. As for the poetry - how about something interesting? William Blake, Martin Newell or Benjamin Zephaniah? (or the poetry of Bob Dylan or similar? OK, Paul Kelly came close.)

There are so many wonderful books and films out there that are interesting, relevant and fun to study.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Moondust And Other Debris.

I've read two books this week, one of them brilliant - the other should never have been placed on my desk.

How does a book get published? Surely there are checks and balances in place, some kind of quality control - at least with the bigger companies. I find it hard to comprehend how and why a major and well-respected publisher decided to publish this book. And it was shortlisted for some major award. More than that, this particular book (which shall remain nameless) should not be in bookshops, should not be taught to schoolkids (only because it's rubbish) and should not be put on my desk!

Ok, I admit it. I'm an English teacher with a major in Literature. I've started my honours in the same field and even have dreams of undertaking a PhD one day, so I have some idea of what I'm talking about when I say this crap shouldn't be in schools - nevermind book stores and awards nights.

On the other hand Moondust by Andrew Smith is incredible, although you won't find it in as many bookstores as the rubbish referred to above. While it's not fiction, it is one of the most beautiful, poetic books I've ever read. Mr. Smith has read his Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, as the influences of Gonzo journalism can clearly be seen.

Moondust tracks down the last surviving nine astronauts who have stood on the moon and gazed back at the earth. A subtitle could almost be Fear and Loathing in NASA: A savage journey into the heart of the American space dream, as Smith attempts to understand the effect that standing on the moon had on this elite group of flyboys.

Read it. Read it now.

And Mr. Smith, if you're out there, I would love to buy you a drink the next time I visit Norfolk (I spent last Christmas in the UK with a week at Wells-next-the-sea), or if you're ever in Melbourne you are more than welcome to spend an evening or two with my astronomy friends. We sit out in the dark with our telescopes, listen to music, have a drink or two, talk about the Apollo flights and assorted other topics - and study the heavens. Ok, so we might be geeks, but we are geek-chic.

Which brings me back to the question of how books get published.

I've never considered myself to be a great writer (And please forgive me as I write this, I've had two glasses of Merlot and am on my third) but looking back I realise I've had some success.

I've published a number of articles and interviews in fanzines and so on. My very first (and until recently only) short story was picked up by an academic journal. A number of short scripts were published in arts magazines (hi to my partner in script-writing crime) and a stack of my puppet scripts were being considered by a publisher until he closed down after changing careers. (Hmmm, maybe not the best of signs....)

But where and how do I publish a short story? I've decided to start writing again, and would like to get a short story rejected by a magazine or two....

Do magazines even publish unsolicited short stories anymore? Any clues? Any suggestions?

All advice gratefully received...

Not Coming As Soon As I Thought...

October? Was that really when I wrote coming soon?

It's been a long time, and a lot of stuff has happened in the meantime. And although I kept meaning to start this thing, I never got around to it.

But the time is now. Here goes...