The Smile and Compliment Club


Assembly Nurture.003

Assembly Nurture.001As the students walked in to our first assembly of the new term, the song All the Good by Jana Stansfield was playing. On the screen were the lyrics:

“I cannot do all the good that the world needs but the world needs all the good that I can do”

I asked them all to turn to the person on their left and give them a smile – and – a genuine compliment, no matter who they were, if they were a friend, and associate, a teacher, whoever.

Assembly Nurture.002A buzz went around the room and a fair few laughs. I asked them how they felt about it. The unanimous opinion was that it felt good, but a little forced, a little embarrassing.
I pointed out how easy it is to be sarcastic, to say cruel or critical things and how alien it is for so many of us to simply say something nice.
So with that in mind we decide to set up our first experiment and join The Smile and Compliment Club.
The idea was simple. I placed a box in the dining room along with a stash of blank compliment slips. For a week, everyone had the opportunity to write someone a compliment anonymously and place it in the box.
There was a lot of activity around the box at the start of the week, which tailed off towards the end. Then at the weekend, I opened up the box and here are the results:
There were over 100 compliments posted. Eleven were too bizarre or unreadable (there were no rude ones though) so were removed.
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The Compliment Box and a slip.

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Sorting the slips into tutor groups

Year 11 was by far the most complimented group, year 10 in second place. The younger ones in year 7 and 8 received the smallest number of compliments. Interestingly enough there were only four compliments for teachers

The slips were sorted into tutor groups and discreetly given out in tutor time. On the following Monday I reported back to everyone with the results and a conclusion.
Everyone had enjoyed the experiment, both sending and receiving anonymous nice things. But – it highlighted another side and I asked our students to think about who they chose to compliment. Some popular students received quite a few but in some cases, those who would have benefited most from some kind words, did not receive many, or any.
If we were a gardener, would you constantly water and fertilise the strongest and healthiest plants in the garden? Or would you nurture those that need it more, that need it most?
Leadership is about finding the lowest amongst us and lifting them up until they are above us.
Hopefully this got everyone thinking about the idea of nurturing in a positive but soul-searching way, without patting ourselves on the back too much for being perfect and instead to to look carefully at what we can all do to improve and become for nurturing.
The theme of all this was part of my act in my stand up comedy days. Here’s a clip from back then:

 

Next week will be time for the 2nd experiment…

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100 years was just yesterday


I led my school’s assembly on the subject of 100 years since Armistice Day, 11th of the 11th at 11 o’clock, 100 years ago in 1918…

As the students came into the room, Divenire by Ludovico Einaudi was playing and on the screen was this image:

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It is a map of part of the Somme from 1916 created by the War Office. Have a look at a closer section:

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Each square with a blue number is the size of a football pitch. The blue number is the number of dead soldiers in that square. Look at the numbers in the squares at the bottom.

William Henry Instone

William Henry Instone aged 18 in 1914.

Around one million men died in that battle, said to be one of the worst slaughters in human history. One of the soldiers who survived that battle was J.R.R. Tolkien. You can now imagine what gave him the idea of ‘the dead marches’ in The Lord of the Rings which he wrote decades later.

Another soldier who return from the Somme was William Henry Instone. Here is a photo of him aged 18 in 1914 when he joined the Durham Light Infantry and set off for the war. He is my grandfather.

This is why I have a connection to The Great War, as so many of us do. That’s why although it is 100 years ago, it is also just yesterday.

When we see photos from that era, or film footage, it is in grainy, shakey, black and white. It looks old and so long ago, not part of our modern lives. Peter Jackson the acclaimed film maker of The Lord of the Rings was approached by the Imperial War Museum to take the old footage and do something with it to be part of the Remembrance of the centenary of Armistice Day. What he did is not only amazing, but oh so moving.

By slowing the footage down, colourising, extrapolating misusing frames, getting lip readers to work out what the men were saying and overdub actors voices, he has brought 100 years back from the past and made it look like it happened just yesterday.

See the clip below on how it was done and the official trailer for the film. It will be broadcast on BBC television at 9pm on 11th of November 2018.

This is how I closed the assembly:

Today I am wearing a poppy. It’s a symbol long associated with the First World War because of the poppies that grew on Flanders Fields.

It has been misunderstood and misused over the years but it represents remembrance for the fallen, on any side, in any war and the money raised goes to help soldiers and their families who have served recently and who suffer today.

They say wear your poppy with pride. I’m not sure about pride as an emotion.

I wear my poppy with sadness.

A great sadness for the millions of young men who were slaughtered and who’s children and grandchildren and great grandchildren are not here and will never exist.

I wear my poppy with gladness.

A gladness that neither my generation or my parents’ generation had to fight in a such a war.

I wear my poppy with thankfulness.

Thankful for those who serve us today in foreign lands, keeping the peace or fighting for freedom.

And for those reasons, I am proud.

We then proceeded out out onto the junior playground next to the tree that was planted as our cenotaph for the fallen and the whole school observed a minutes silence as students read poems and the last post was played on trumpet (by one of our students. She is German).

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The (8-bit) Adventure Game: part 1


I’m starting a Computer Coding Club at my school this term. It’s called The Adventure Game. This is the story of why and how. I’ll post later to let you know how it’s going…

commodore VIC 20 Apple computer

Me outside the Apple Store in Newcastle this year, organising a VIC20 ‘flash mob’… of one…

It all began on Christmas Day 1982 when I was lucky enough to find this box and its exciting contents under the Christmas tree. In case you don’t recognise it, it’s one of the the first ever home colour computers, the first to sell over a million units (it ended up selling over 5 million) and was replaced by the very similar commodore 64 (which is still the biggest selling computer ever with estimates of over 20 million sold between 1982 and 1994 and becoming available to but again soon, watch this space).

commodore VIC20 box

But that’s all irrelevant for the moment. The point is it was a programmable computer. You type things in and it does things. You can make your own games and figure out how computers work. And that’s exactly what I did for for four years.

Then, like everyone else I moved onto a more sophisticated IMG_3690computer, in my case an Atari ST, at Christmas 1986. I then did what almost everyone else did with their computers as they became more and more powerful: I stopped programming and started using them as multimedia controllers: making music, artwork, desktop publishing, then managing photography, music libraries, video, animation and so on (getting my first Apple Macintosh in 1995). My much loved VIC20 went back in its box and into the loft.
But when I started teaching, it came back down. I set it up and took a photo of it (that was turned into a Top Trumps card by the makers of The Commodore Story see above). I set it up in my lab and left it on the side with this poster next to it, as teaching took over my life (as any new teacher will tell you).

commodore VIC20 A4 posterThe more I got into teaching and found out what kids of today could do, and not do, and saw the skills and ideas they had, and didn’t have, I came too a conclusion that many of the opportunities for learning that I got from my VIC20 are missing from so many of my students:

• they lack patience
• they lack resilience to overcome failure
• they lack strategies to process ideas logically
• they lack outlets to develop their imagination and creativity
• they struggle to organise thoughts
and
• they use technology but don’t understand it.

 

This advert for the commodore VIC20 from 1981 sums it all up: being able to use technology and play games is not a skill that will set you apart from anyone else. If you only use technology to surf the internet, use office productivity tools like Word, Powerpoint and Excel, great, but you’re a user, you’re an administrative clerk. If you only play games, great fun, but you’re living within the bounds of someone else’s imagination.

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Hero: Ian McNaught Davis

The next piece of the puzzle came from the BBC’s Computer Literacy Project Archive (visit it here) and I started watching all the BBC’s excellent TV programmes from the 1980s hosted by the genius of computer expert Ian McNaught Davis and journalist expert Chris Serle. The way they introduced computers to a nation who knew nothing about computers was brilliant and I felt a similar approach could be used for a generation who used computers but knew nothing about computers.

If that wasn’t exciting enough, re-watching the excellent BBC docudrama ‘Micromen‘ about the beginning of the first computer revolution of the 1980s and the clash between Acorn and Sinclair made we want to get involved in something even more.

Computer programming (or ‘coding’ as it’s now known) isn’t taught very consistently in today’s schools. In the UK, it is now part of the National Curriculum, but there aren’t enough qualified teachers out there to deliver it and schools are left to their own devices on how to tackle it. The result is that it’s tagged onto ICT lessons, usually using a visual high level tool like Scratch, ran in an IT computer room on PCs running Windows.

Why I think this isn’t a good idea is because using a modern powerful multimedia PC to learn to programme is a little like using a Rugby field to play tiddlywinks in. Computer programs today are very sophisticated and have had in most cases thousands of experts working on them for many years. To use a modern powerful PC to play around with simple programming feels like a waste of time. It’s like using the Large Hadron Collider to understand simple electric circuits: the tool is just too sophisticated.

VIC20 circuits.jpgUsing a self-contained microcomputer to do the task is not only more appropriate, it’s more fun. And why not simplify things down a bit? It’s what we do in all the other sciences. In Physics, Chemistry and Biology, we teach smaller systems and model attributes of larger more complex systems. We use little motors and bulbs, make batteries from lemons, copper and zinc and make models of DNA from sweets and straws. We can’t investigate black holes or do neurosurgery in a school lab and no one would even question that we don’t. So why not use a similar approach and use the appropriate tool to teach computing?

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My own computer notebook from my own experiments when I was 12.

I played with electronics as a child. When I show components to many kids today, they’ve never even seen them before. They just don’t take things apart. They’d certainly not take their MacBook or iPhone apart, and even if they did, the miniaturisation is such that you’d learn very little. Understanding how an 8-bit microcomputer works is so interesting as you can get right down there to the actual 6502 chip, send it commands and see the result straight away. Learning to programme on a modern PC feels like theoretical gardening – you just don’t feel you’re getting your hands dirty. There’s so much learning that can be done on a self contained micro.

So I had decided. Somehow I’d teach what I knew about programming and make it fun. But which computers to use? The perfect tool was and is, the Acorn BBC B microcomputer. That’s what it was designed for. (You HAVE to see Micromen!). I managed to get hold of three of them, they’ve still retained their value and as such are comparatively expensive. Plus, when they go wrong, I don’t know how to fix them (as I do the VIC20).

Raspberry-Pi-3-Ports-1-1833x1080The perfect tool would be the Raspberry pi. At £32 you can’t go wrong, except that is for the actual micro, you still need a keyboard, case, SD card, screen, mouse and a load of cables: not so good for setting up in a classroom – easily messy, prone to breakages and things going missing.

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The brilliant FUZE

I briefly toyed with the idea of setting up my own computer company, making a Raspberry pi in a case like the BBC B or VIC20. How cool would that be! But I haven’t got the funds, connections or time to make that work quick enough. But then to my delight I found that someone else has already done it: FUZE.

They are doing exactly what I wanted too do: put a Raspberry pi in a durable (metal) case with a keyboard, all the ports (including a very useful breadboard for attaching external electronic equipment) plus a new version of BASIC, the computer language I learnt on.

IMG_3822When you add up what you get with a FUZE and add a screen, it comes to a cheaper price than what you’d spend if you bought a Raspberry pi and all the bits separately. The Raspberry pi is built with the Acorn ARM chip (and also in most mobile phones) as designed by Acorn originally for the BBC B. Things have indeed come full circle. I now have three FUZEs so far.

Commodore VIC20

My commodore VIC20s set up in my Physics lab to promote the idea of the club.

But what I know best is still the commodore VIC20 and the BASIC language (which was originally written by a certain Bill Gates. It stands for Beginners All Symbolic Instruction Code). I bought some more VICs from eBay, got some old TVs from local guys around Robin Hood’s Bay where I am, and decided that I’d start off where I first began: typing in BASIC. Interestingly enough, I can get the FUZE to emulate a VIC20 (or a commodore 64 or a BBC B or run the latest RISC based ARM OS).

So the stage is set. Next Wednesday we begin properly (after a few teasers, assemblies and a look at the equipment last term).

But what is our project? We can’t just mess around playing games, there has to be a goal. This is where The Adventure Game title comes in.

Scott Adams

Scott Adams then, and today.

In the late seventies, a new type of computer game was pioneered by a man called Scott Adams. He developed a range of text adventures (initially for the VIC20) and later added graphics and the technology evolved into the games of today. Those original games are effectively the origin of what we now would call  Artificial Intelligence, the ability for a computer algorithm to anticipate an outcome from an input and its internally stored data. Those early games were 33313-1actually the first use of Databases. The goal of my club has become for the students to learn enough about computer coding to be able to create such a database, to create their own original text adventure game and by doing so understand a computer language, the microchip, how artificial intelligence starts out and hopefully have a lot of satisfaction and fun along the way, just as I did when I was 11…

To do this we’re going to use the book by Usborne ‘Write Your Own Adventure Games’. All Usborne’s excellent books are available to download for free.

Using BASIC on the VIC20 and on the FUZE is a great point to start as long as we employ structured programming skills along the way. Then, the students will be able to translate their learning into other languages such as Python, Java or C++ just as those who now run the technology giant companies do, many of whom began on commodore machines. The adventure begins…

adventure game logo

Let me know what you think in comments below was well as any memories you have of programming your 8-bit micro.

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My six VIC20s set up in my lab last term to generate interest in the idea of a club.

Into the Vortex


1 corridor before smallThe corridor outside my school lab was dull. Oh so dull. I asked the students to be honest:  if you didn’t know any better, where did you think this corridor was from? The most common answer was ‘in a disused wing of a mental asylum‘. So something needed to be done.

Do you think they were right?

The opportunity came when we decided to have an extra curricular activities week at the end of the summer term. We brainstormed loads of ideas of ‘skills’ that we could teach the students that weren’t normally part of KS3-4. The result was a programme of events called ‘Reality Bites‘.

The whole school was split up into random teams of 10 who rotated around the various workshops which lasted 90 mins.

What I want to do was paint the corridor – but simply giving the kids a brush and some paint would too much a case of free labour and not a direct learning experience. So instead I came up with a plan to have a session that taught them a brief History of Art with a focus on the use of perspective. We then looked at optical illusions that played with our perception. Then I showed them how I’d created the plan to turn the corridor into a forced perspective tunnel.

2 corridor drawing small

Obviously I’d done a lot of pre-preparation. I’d done a scale drawing of the entire corridor and marked out a 50cm squared grid over the walls and ceiling. I’d then mapped the spiral design over the corridor photo and distorted it in Photoshop over the scale drawing. Some talented 6th formers helped me draw out the curves (this was much harder than it looked!).

Then, with two colours of paint decided, the first group were taught bush and roller techniques. As each new group arrived, different approaches to the painting had to be taken (and some sections had to be re-done!).

But every student had a go and now all feel part and proud of the finished job (which they all have to go down to Physics and Chemistry!).

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The finished corridor

(What they don’t know is that it took me ages and ages to finish off, especially the ceiling, during the summer holidays!). See below for what the approach to my Physics lab door looks like now…

If you’re passing, pop in and see us at Fyling Hall School.

Words from the Woods


I’d long had the goal of inspiring children to write more and better stories and collect them into an anthology and finally this year I achieved that goal.

The book is called Words from the Woods (my 7 year old daughter came up with the title from the fact that our school bus nestled on the edge of the woods.)

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Initially it had the double goal of using stories with some as a tool to better engage students in science, by encouraging them to create a narrative around a scientific phenomenon an with others, to draw out the creativity of those already proficient in science but less likely to develop their imaginations. Surprisingly, most of the schools I had worked with had little interest in the idea. It was only when I came to Fyling Hall in January 2016 that I could set up an after-school club to develop these ideas and The Intergalactic Writers’ Guild was born.

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I say ‘guild’ and not ‘club’ as just like the trade guilds of old, the idea of the meetings was to develop, home and improve our craft of storytelling. We met for an hour every week and played creativity games designed to encourage and develop different aspects of story creation and writing: imagination, description, characters, locations, voice, atmosphere, style and purpose. Two of these exercises resulted in short pieces that are so interesting, I’ve included them as works in their own right at the back of the book.

The themes we explored centred around two interesting techniques that you’ll see reflected in most of the stories. The first and most powerful starting idea for a creative expression was the speculative fiction idea of ‘what if?’ – asking a question or changing one aspect of reality and dealing with the consequences which unfold as a story. 

The other key theme was ‘the ghost story’ which was especially exhilarating during dark autumn and winter evenings (and sometimes telling stories by candlelight) and it is this genre more than any other threw up so many interesting ideas that you’ll find many of the stories herein fall into that category.

Not all contributions contained herein have come via the Guild. A batch of stories were written as part of English lessons for years 7, 8 and 9. Some being given themes such as ‘the cold’ or ‘the other side’. I also gave two special sessions on ‘Writing the Ghost Story’ and on ‘Speculative Fiction’ for year 7 which have led to some fascinating stories that I was able to harvest for the anthology.

Overall we have 52 contributors, including those that have submitted artwork from their GCSE portfolios (not linked to any of the stories) to break up the pages between stories. Special thanks goes to Hee Joo Jin who painted the original artwork for our cover and Head of English Alex Woodhead who proofread our grammar and punctuation.

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A sample page from the book.

The challenges that face young authors are the same that face any young person in any 21st century endeavour and fall into these four categories, which we aimed to deal with one by one in the Guild:

1. How to have an idea (creativity).

2. How to turn an idea into an interesting narrative (communication skills).

3. How to keep going (perseverance)

4. How to have a great ending (find purpose and meaning).

These skills creativity, communication, perseverance and finding a purpose are critical for a rounded education and fulfilling life and yet they don’t always fall within the traditional curriculum in many schools. For that reason I believe the work we have done here is of the highest value and has, I hope, enriched the experience of those that have participated in the book. On behalf of all our writers, artists and myself, we now hope that it will in some small way entertain, inform and educate you too, do take a look on Amazon.

I’m preparing a tool kit for teachers on how the Guild and the book were put together with such a good outcome. Drop me a line on twitter or here @aydinstone if you want to know more. I’ll post the resources on my blog here when it’s ready.