On Being Earnest

I was once described in a meeting as being earnest and realised instantly that it was probably not a compliment. I have thought about this from time to time but today I want to respond.

So what do dictionaries define as earnest?

  1. sincere, solemn, characterised by a firm and humourless belief in the validity of your opinions, concerned with work or important matters rather than play or trivialities, open and genuine; not deceitful, serving as or indicating the existence of a purpose or goal e.g. “both sides were deeply in earnest, even passionate.”(https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/earnest)
  2. serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous: an earnest worker. showing depth and sincerity of feeling: earnest words; an earnest entreaty. seriously important; demanding or receiving serious attention. (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/earnest)
  3. serious and intense; not joking or playful; sincere, ardent (http://www.yourdictionary.com/earnest)

Yep.  It was a rebuke compliment. My response, although I have to admit that my timing isn’t great:

Humour

 

Jim Bolger’s Decent Society

Pie.jpg

Image from: http://www.livestrong.com/article/391288-nutritional-values-of-a-slice-of-cherry-pie

Jim Bolger, early in his interview with Guyon Espiner in the The Ninth Floor series on five Prime Ministers, stated that New Zealanders believe more in fairness whereas North Americans believes more in  freedom.

As a result of listening to the interview, I have to reassess my ideas of Jim Bolger, a man I absolutely did not support when he was Prime Minister.  I have to allow that Jim Bolger and his government set in motion some very good things – they were the first to honour the Treaty of Waitangi and they ushered in proportional representation.  However, they also set in motion some very bad things as well.  My dislike was related to Bolger’s disempowerment of the union movement and for his right wing fiscal policy as seen in Ruth Richardson’s Mother of All Budgets.  The effects of both are still in play today, the rich being so much richer and the poor being so much poorer.  We always knew and said so, Jim, that trickle down economics could never work!

Yet listening to Guyon’s interview of Bolger, I gained new found respect for the man.  He admitted that these initiatives have been taken too far.  He sought a decent society where advantage was fairly spread.  The current world, he says, is neither decent nor fair.

  • Neo-liberalism has failed;
  • Unions should have a much stronger voice;
  • Treaty of Waitangi settlements may not be full and final after all; and
  • Maori language tuition should be compulsory in primary schools.

These are largely Green Party – Labour sentiments, with which I totally agree.  I also agree with Mr Bolger on his more centre-right attitude towards immigration.  He speaks loud and clear in admiration and favour of refugees and immigrants, who, like our forbears, courageously leave all that is familiar to build a better life for their families.  He believes that immigration provides good outcomes for our society.  He sees the sentiments behind Brexit and Trumpery as pure racism akin to that of Hitler.

Yet you, Mr Bolger, and we are to blame.  We have allowed the rich to get richer and we have marginalised the poor, the people who feel they don’t belong and haven’t been heard, who haven’t had the choices that education affords.  The ultimate indication of our wrong doing, says Bolger, is that we are building more prisons than schools.  So now the disadvantaged are speaking up, loud and clear.  But instead of blaming those who fleece them, they are blaming the immigrant.

Fairness and education.  So important.

Fairness.  In his 2013 Democracy Journal article entitled Of Freedom and Fairness, Jonathan Haidt says there are three types of fairness, procedural fairness, distributive fairness, and fairness of opportunity.  Quoting Obama’s 2012 State of the Nation address, he states:

“We can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” The second phrase (“fair share”) is a clear plea for fairness as proportionality, and the third phrase (“same set of rules”) is a clear plea for procedural fairness. But what should we make of that first phrase, “everyone gets a fair shot”? What exactly is a fair shot?”

He goes on to say that both sides of the political spectrum see having a fair shot in terms of liberty.  The right has a negative view of liberty – the government leaving you alone to go about your business.  The left has a positive view of liberty – the ability to make choices and fulfill your potential because you have the power and resources to do so, the welfare state being a fine example of this.  I think, Mr Bolger, that, while you dallied with the former, in the end, you prefer the latter.

So how do we put it right?  I agree with scientist, Nicola Gaston, who, in a NZHerald interview plumped for lifelong education:

“I’d like to see far less focus on the utilitarian value of education for students coming straight out of school, who haven’t even had the opportunity to vote yet, let alone figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. If we actually value knowledge in New Zealand, we should put our money where our mouths are, and enable everyone to participate in learning as a life-long activity.”

Because education has become too utilitarian and too expensive, we have too many who are easily swayed by extreme right wing fat cats, obscenely wealthy because they took more than their fair share (e.g. Trump and his tax evasion).  Those swayed have been hoodwinked by the fat cats into believing that their social ills are because of the immigrants, not because of the fat cats!

Which brings me to Saturday’s Earth Day March for Science.  As reported in the New Zealand Herald, “Kiwi scientists are set to take to the streets in solidarity with US colleagues protesting against the policies of President Donald Trump – while also calling attention to concerns facing the sector at home.”  These include the government’s disregard for science that draws attention to water issues related to over-dairying, our society’s anti-immigration sentiments and other issues related to diversity and equality which are based on racism and ignorance, and the increase in anti-intellectualism in general which many blame on infotainment and fear-mongering through social media.

A fair and decent society, as Mr Bolger says, depends on each citizen feasting on a good slice of the education pie.

So thank you, Guyon Espiner, for another excellent interview of a Prime Minister, and for stimulating so much end-of-week thinking.

“What people want…

…is a job, someone to love, somewhere to live, and something to hope for. ” Norman Kirk, Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand, 1972-1974.  Reminds me of the Bible verse learned long ago from Hebrews 11:1: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Tairua 2012 094.jpg

My substance and evidence of hope.  A job.  Teaching.  I hoped for this from the time of was about eight years old.  Someone to love and to be loved.  So lucky to have such a supportive husband and children of whom I am so proud.  Somewhere to live.  I am grateful to live in a beautiful land, and in a special little community beside the sea where I plan to retire.  Something to hope for: being useful in the now and in the future.  That part is a little more nebulous because who knows what the future holds.  All we can do is know the one who holds the future and dare to dream and to make the best possible choices and to enjoy the ride.  But how lucky we are to have choices, to have something to believe in, to have hope.

“What people want is a job, someone to love, somewhere to live, and something to hope for. ” These words were raised in the second episode of The Ninth Floor, when Guyon Espiner was interviewing Mike Moore, Labour Member of Parliament, Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister between 1972 and 1999, who went on to become Director General of the World Trade Organisation.  To be WTO chair and a Trade Union member at the same time shows the measure of the man and his Labour dreams of which he has never let go.

The equally good first episode in The Ninth Floor series interviewed Sir Geoffrey Palmer (MP, DP and PM between 1979 and 1990), who has since returned to Academia.  Where Moore seemed to have led from the heart, Palmer seemed to have led from the head.   Both men, however, pulled in the same direction.

Further episodes in the series will interview Jim Bolger (PM 1990-1997), who went on to become Ambassador to the USA and chaired Kiwibank and Kiwirail, Dame Jenny Shipley (PM 1997-1999), who went on to become an independent director and speaker, and Helen Clark (PM 1999-2008), who has been the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme from 2009 to 2017.

The series, The Nonth Floor is, in my opinion, excellent journalism on behalf of the team led by executive producer, Tim Watkin, and interviewer, Guyon Espiner.  I am looking forward to the next three interviews.  A pity John Key has so far declined.  I’d like to hear his thoughts also.

We need more of such journalism instead of the the usual trashy offerings that swing between mindless infotainment and belligerent confrontationalism and that rob us of our dignity and hope, instead playing on such emotions as jealousy, Schadenfreude, unhealthy obsession and embarrassment.  What irritates me is that those who create such news programmes think these are what we, the people, want.  They assume we all belong to the great unwashed uneducated, and instead of inspiring us they attempt to entice us with unhealthy intrigues and celebrity or else bully us with shame and fear.  They could inspire us with hope and integrity to think and to reason.

What the media so frequently offers is certainly not what this person wants!  I’m with Norman Kirk – I want a job, someone to love, somewhere to live, and something to hope for.  The media has a role to play here, as do politicians.  That’s why The Ninth Floor is so good.  No tacky infotainment or unhealthy sensationalism. It gives us hope in our future as we explore our past.

Thank you to the team of The Ninth Floor for honouring our former Prime Ministers, who gave their all to provide us with the tangible substance of things hoped for: jobs, families, homes, a future.  The current Prime Minister, Bill English, despite being a National Party parliamentarian, he also gives me hope.  His web site says that he is “focused on tackling New Zealand’s toughest social problems, including inequality, welfare dependence and the educational under achievement of Maori and Pasifika children, aiming to give all New Zealanders the best chance of succeeding.”  That sounds like Labour to me.  That gives me plenty to hope for.

Codecracker, Exercise and Brain Power

Exercise boosts brain power.png

One minute and 53 seconds.  100th out of 513.  The simple pleasure of trying to beat the clock, oneself, and others by completing the NZHerald’s codecracker puzzle as fast as possible every morning .  During the week, it happens just before 6am.  Today, Sunday, it’s going to be more like 9am.  I keep telling myself it is good for my brain health as I take the last sips of morning coffee before rising to face to day. The little daily puzzle is keeping those synapses forging new neural pathways through my grey matter, which might just promote the longevity of my memory powers into old age.

Could be true.  To discover more, this year I’ve joined a new PLG (that’s Professional Learning Group to non-educators), all of us gathered around a common interest in the brain and memory as it pertains to learning.  Each is following a genuine interest and developing a mini research project related to particular students or classes on our timetable.  This in turn is a satisfying, collaborative and self-directed way to tick one of the boxes leading to teacher registration, the one that requires proof of professional development.

So I have chosen to work on a memory strategy with my Year 9 Latin class.  Two weeks ago I attended a public lecture at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research. It featured Professor Martyn Golding, a molecular neurobiologist from San Diego’s prestigious Salk Institute, who shared his work on the role of the spinal cord in the brain’s fulfilling of its primary role of facilitating the body’s movement, whether that be to open the mouth to form a vowel or to jump a hurdle and win a race.  The lecture was largely over my head but the emphasis on the brain and movement reminded me of John Medina’s book, Brain Rules.

John is also a molecular biologist who wrote his book to quash the many myths that we educators have developed around the brain and learning.  He established twelve research-based facts about the brain and learning, triangulated through publication in three or more peer-reviewed journals.  In his book, Medina dedicates a chapter to each brain rule, a rule being something that scientists know for sure about how our brains work.  He then suggests way that this rule might improve our daily lives.  One of those research-based rules states that exercise boosts brain power and improves cognition. It does so in two ways:

Firstly, “(e)xercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness… (Secondly), (e)xercise acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress.”

Given Martyn Golding’s lecture which spurred my memory of John Medina’s book, I have decided to research the effect of exercise on my Year 9 students’ retention of Latin vocabulary.  Next term, every Thursday, I will introduce ten new vocabulary items and give the students ten minutes of class time to learn them, the first five weeks in silence, on their own, while seated at their desks, and the second five weeks in silence, on their own, while they walk up and down the flagstones or the field outside our classroom.  I’ll try and keep everything else constant (minimise variables) then test their retention via a vocab test immediately after the ten minutes, one the next day, and one before learning a new set of ten words a week later.  It will be interesting to see whether the brain rule stands for 13 year olds learning Latin in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, there is no mention in the brain rules about connecting synapses by doing word puzzles.  Oh well, I’ll just have to enjoy my morning codecracker simply because I enjoy the competition of beating myself and the clock.

Off the Boil and Nervous

nervous

On 27th January I submitted my thesis to the bindery and on 2nd February the soft cover version was accepted by the School of Graduate Studies.  Yesterday I received an email from my supervisors to say that the two-hour oral would probably be in about six weeks as two examiners have now been found.  Yet I can’t help but worry that I have gone off the boil.  Will I remember all that I need to remember for those two hours when I am quizzed on my work?

On 26th January I returned to full-time teaching and administration at the school where I had previously taught and attended as a teenager.  We really do hit the ground running. Little thought for prior activities.  Summer break long gone.  Year of study leave nothing but mist. Instead my head is full of mentoring first year teachers, analyses of variance on last year’s exam results, preparing national moderation materials, NZALT excellence certificates, navigating new text books, learning eighty new names, rekindling the contacts with our sister school in France, orienting myself to a new but second hand computer where all my tabs and favourites have disappeared, enrolling eight hundred girls on Language Perfect, Friday morning tea roster, professional learning groups, appraisal partners, schemes, professional development sessions, learning area meetings, athletics day, lunchtime field duties, school centenary celebrations, professional association membership payments etc, etc.

So now the pending oral date.  I have to say that I’m more than a little anxious at my changed focus of attention.

Waitangi Day – 6th February

treatyImage from the Human Rights Commission website.

This is the day in 1840 when the Crown, represented by William Hobson, and 40 Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.  By the end of that year more than 500 other chiefs around the nation had also signed this treaty. Article One  gave Queen Victoria the right to complete government; Article Two gave Maori chieftainship over their lands, villages and treasures but allowed them to sell their land to the Crown for agreed-upon sums; and Article Three gave Maori the same rights and duties as the British colonisers (NZHerald).

In the 1980s, after many protests and political marches, the Treaty became rightfully enshrined in New Zealand’s law and stands in many ways instead of a constitution. “By the end of the 1980s these included several pieces of legislation, the requirement that government agencies be more bicultural in their mode of operation, and an extension of the Waitangi Tribunal’s powers, allowing it to investigate claims dating back to 1840” (NZHistory).

Consequently, this treaty is a very important part of who we are as a nation.

However, as they have done since the 1980s, a small group at Te Tii marae have once again hijacked what should be a celebration of partnership, a celebration of our nationhood. They have made New Zealand’s special day all about them, grabbing attention away from what is good about us, together. It is so uncivilised, so ungracious. They have been slow to acknowledge that the government has worked hard to rectify the many wrongs wrought in the past and has promised to continue doing so until all are satisfied. Yet they will never be satisfied. They are out of control and year after year bring shame and negativity to a day that should celebrate our togetherness, while not forgetting the past. This small group spoil the day for everybody else.

What arrogance to not allow the democratically elected Prime Minister to speak at that place of partnership, and, while I am at it, what arrogance to not allow women to speak, to stand equal, as they are in the nation’s laws, alongside their menfolk. They claim  ‘culture’, but a generation ago , such prejudice against women was also part of the mainstream culture of our land. It is no longer. Why do we continue to allow such sexism at national celebrations when it is against the laws that govern our land?

I wish, instead, that the folk at Te Tii would turn their attention to making a positive difference in our nation. How about campaigning with the rest of us for compulsory Maori language learning in schools instead of chucking rags at the Queen and dildos at Ministers of Parliament. That achieves nothing but alienation.

For goodness sake, Te Tii, do something positive for a change!

As a result of the uncouth and rude behaviour witnessed at Te Tii, I have come to dread the shame of our national day. No wonder most Kiwis see it as simply a gift of another day off work to go to the beach, to picnic and to enjoy the beautiful summer weather.

Final Steps

Portrait Of Man Reading Book at a libraryImage from: https://www.brainscape.com

Last week I followed a supervisor’s advice to read my ready-to-submit thesis aloud as a final editing step before going to print. My goodness!  I should have done this much earlier. I was amazed that after so many reviews, I still found typos and poorly formed sentences.

I therefore recommend this excellent strategy. It might be  good to use it at least twice during the final stages of writing, firstly before submitting the first draft of all thesis chapters, and then once again before going to print.

I was surprised, however, just how time consuming this exercise is and just how much energy it takes. I was exhausted afterwards even though it was undertaken over several days.

An added bonus is the production effect, that is, what we read out loud we remember better.

Good Parenting

parenting

Great article in the Business Insider May 6th 2016. To quote, summarise and comment:

“Good parents want their kids to stay out of trouble, do well in school, and go on to do awesome things as adults. And while there isn’t a set recipe for raising successful children, psychology research has pointed to a handful of factors that predict success. Unsurprisingly, much of it comes down to the parents. Here’s what parents of successful kids have in common:”

  1. They make their kids do chores
  2. They teach their kids social skills
  3. They have high expectations
  4. They have healthy relationships with each other
  5. They’ve attained higher education levels
  6. They teach their kids maths early on
  7. They develop a relationship with their kids
  8. They’re less stressed
  9. They value effort over avoiding failure
  10. The mother works
  11. They have a higher socioeconomic status
  12. Their parenting style is  authoritative rather than authoritarian or permissive
  13. They teach perseverance and grit

Against all the fashions and trends and veiled criticisms of what has gone before that fashions and trends imply, I feel vindicated!  Psychology research is catching up with common sense. Apart from the obvious, some points need comment.

Firstly, definitions: The article quoted researcher, Diana Baumride, who described the three parenting styles quoted in point 12 as Permissive, where “the parent tries to be nonpunitive and accepting of the child,” Authoritarian: where “the parent tries to shape and control the child based on a set standard of conduct,”  and Authoritative, where “the parent tries to direct the child rationally” and where “the kid grows up with a respect for authority, but doesn’t feel strangled by it”.

Secondly, good parents teach their kids maths early on. From Northwestern University one coresearcher, Greg Duncan, said: “Mastery of early math skills predicts not only future math achievement, it also predicts future reading achievement.” I wonder how many early learning skills they studied? Does early tuition in other subjects, for example, language learning, have a similar effect?

Thirdly, the mothers work. Interesting. As most mothers work these days, this may be a context factor rather than a cause. However the researchers interpreted their findings as a modelling issue. The lead researcher said: “Role modeling is a way of signaling what’s appropriate in terms of how you behave, what you do, the activities you engage in, and what you believe,” and “There are very few things, that we know of, that have such a clear effect on gender inequality as being raised by a working mother.”

Finally, the issue of higher socioeconomic status. Hekia Parata, New Zeaand’s current Minister of Education, needs to be listening to this. The researcher from Berkeley, Sean Reardon, stated that there are between 30 to 40% more students from higher socioeconomic contexts in the higher achievement levels. Hekia, instead of bashing teachers who work themselves to the bone, how about working at raising the socioeconomic status of those students at the tail?

The Salt of the Earth

swing-bridgebrunner

We are newly returned home after a ten day road trip which included New Zealand’s South Island West Coast. It has been nearly thirty years since I was last there and quite a lot has changed.

The main reason for going was to visit family heritage sites. My Mum was born in this gold and coal mining area, called Brunnerton. Although the mines have closed and many of the original homes are gone, the small village of Taylorville, where my uncles went to school, and the larger town of Dobson, where the family lived and where my grandfather worked in the mine, still remain.

My mother’s family immigrated from Ireland in October 1926 and soon after, in December 1926, nine men were killed in a methane blast. I recall Nanna telling the story of standing terrified at the mouth of Dobson mine with the other wives watching the men being stretchered out, their skin and flesh dripping off them.  Granddad was lucky.  He was elsewhere and unscathed.

After travelling from Nelson and stopping by the Punakaiki Pancake Rock site, we settled into the quaint old Railway Hotel in Greymouth.  To begin with, we visited Shantytown, an award-winning heritage park.  It was just as I remembered it when I visited with thirty fourth formers on a school trip in the 1980s.  Then we drove to the site of the Brunner and Dobson mines, where Grandad had worked. I expected to find  the same wooden memorial plaque that I had encountered at the site of the mines thirty years ago. It had been planted in the long grass beside the swing bridge that my uncles had walked on their way from Dobson to Taylorville to school in the 1920s and 30s.  Instead, we found a well-kept interpretive Brunner Mine Memorial Walk and marble memorial that leads the visitor around the remains of the mine and associated brick works and fittingly honours the miners lost in half a dozen methane disasters, the most recent, the Pike, only five years ago. This insightful photographic installation straddles the Grey river and includes the swing bridge that still links Dobson and Taylorville.

After the walk, we explored the village of Taylorville by car. We found that the lovely old school block is now a bed and breakfast.  Then we drove up to the village of Blackball, the home of the Labour Party and the Blackball mine where we found another quaint memorial/art installation in two shipping containers with decking between. We drove back via the town of Dobson.  While Taylorville seems to be a quaint but average little holiday town beside the Brunner river, both Blackball and Dobson were sad and destitute. While Blackball had a few things going for it, a well-subscribed local pub and salami factory, Dobson, the larger of the two, didn’t even boast a corner dairy.  The volunteer at the Greymouth Heritage Centre, where we visited with questions the next day, told us that there is not even enough money around to support a corner store.  Purchases can be made at the petrol station.  With the closing of the mines, the people are destitute.  You could feel it.  We drove the twenty minutes back into Greymouth.

There we finished our touring day with a beer tasting and early dinner at the Monteith’s Brewery.  More of a contrast with Dobson and Blackball couldn’t be found.  A modern, cathedral-like, architect-designed  edifice that you would expect to find in a wealthy Californian wine country and where tourists are led in groups around the shining vats of the brewery and taste beautifully served craft beers and nibble on expensive whitebait fritters.

Many changes from thirty years ago, that’s for certain. Yet one thing hasn’t changed.  The people.  Everywhere we went the locals were laid back, super helpful and friendly.  The volunteer at the Heritage Centre in Greymouth was a prime example.  She bent over backwards to help us find information about my family roots. The West Coasters remain the salt of the earth.

Kindness

helen-kelly

On October 14th, 2016, Helen Kelly, trade unionist extraordinaire, died after a courageous and very public battle with cancer.

The news kept reiterating the fact that she had been a fighter for workers’ rights all her life and had been born into a family who fought for workers’ rights but what I shall remember of Helen’s legacy are her words in the final television interview she gave.

Helen was asked about the very acrimonious Clinton and Trump US presidential campaign. She explained that it wasn’t only his politics that caused her to dislike Trump so much, it was his unkindness. He is just so unkind, she said. She hoped she wasn’t too naive in this sentiment, but she just wanted people to be kind.

Synonyms for kind include friendly, generous, considerate, thoughtful, patient. Galatians 5:22 calls kindness a fruit of the Holy Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness.” Colossians 3:12 calls kindness one of the features of love. “Love is patient, love is kind.” Or as Laurence Veinott (2000) wrote: “Kindness is love’s conduct. It’s how love behaves.”

Kindness is not some soppy sentiment, it is a call to action.

Back to Helen Kelly. She was no soppy, shrinking violet. She stood up out of kindness to fight  for others who were being treated unfairly. She showed a gutsy kind of kindness that often went against the flow of those around her and that often earned her truckloads of unkind words and deeds. Her kind of kindness had backbone.

So what I will remember of Helen Kelly is not so much her fights but the kindness that led to her good deeds and which in turn often led her into battle for others.