Sunday, 29 December 2013

2013 How It Was for One Spinster Teacher

I won't be sorry to see the back of 2013. Not that it's been a bad year; on balance it's been okay. In some respects it has been a vintage year but the last few months have been spent under a threatening cloud. I can't write too much about it here but the cloud is partly responsible for how quiet I've been here.

This is a personal look back at the year. I don't know enough about politics or economics or geography to discuss what's been going on nationally or globally with any confidence. Around me there seems to be confidence but I worry, in so far as worry does any good. I know in education that the more "teaching and learning" are hyped up with events like Féilte, the more ground is being lost in terms of teacher moral and student enthusiasm. Ideology-driven and poorly designed curricular reform looms. Students are seen increasingly as learner/lab-rats to be measured and tested, subjected to experimental treatment in the name of radicalism and change, weighed and re-tested. All are seen as fragile and while a life-raft may be offered to the most capable in the form of recognition of their Gifts and Talents, those who fail to make the cut will be cast adrift to land on an intellectual desert island where they'll spend their days making tasty and nutritious snacks for pets.

In my own life,  I faced 2013 with pessimism. Time was running out. I'd be thirty-eight in May. Where was I going? How was I ever going to get there? Did the place exist? Did I just suck at being alive and should I quit? This day's diary entry from last year is weak and tired, mentioning the sun in the garden, saying I might go into town later and I might go out that night. I wrote how I wanted to be stronger, saying "If I were strong I'd be capable". I must have felt incapable of doing what I felt needed to be done.  I also wrote that "God gives me strength" and that I believed that. I still believe that, even though I've lived in this house for fifteen months and have yet to see the inside of the parish church.

I made resolutions for the New Year. In the course of renovating the house I'd read a lot of feng shui and the nine-box bagua reminded me of Susan Jeffers' nine-box life planner. That's probably where Jeffers got the idea. I decided to resolve to do nine different things, based on nine different areas I wanted to improve. I was mad to improve, and still am. I'd read the books, consult the websites, looking for the tips and the how-to. I picked up many tips but the most important thing I learned is that there is no ten steps to perfection. That no-one has written the "How to Be Ellen Metcalf" book. Life is hard.

I'm looking at the nine things now with bemusement. Meditation? Night courses? Carpooling? Well I did that and continue to do it and it's a great success. I didn't take any night courses and meditation was sporadic. I also solemnly undertook to paint the coal-shed. Of course I would, I had a year. And of course it's still the same grimy concrete grey it was when I moved in. I had a year, a whole year, but you should never give yourself a year to do a job that'll take you a day.

I did some of the things on the list. I took up running and that was a success for a good eight months until I lapsed. So it's a resolution again for 2014. I love making resolutions so much that this year I'm making twenty-eight of them. And I've already started on some of them. There'll be no Mardi Gras carnival before this early Lent.

And so the year went on, and on. It got harder. I kept going. The summer was hot. I kept going. School restarted and I got on with things. Thankfully the issues with my hours were sorted and that has been an indescribably relief. I can plan. Things got harder again towards the end of the year. I felt alone despite the support of many friends, because that support is not the same as some-one who will join you under the yoke and help you pull life's burdens and steer a clearer furrow. It does follow logically that  doubling the power could mean doubling the weight and the problems.

I remember standing on a footpath waiting for the lights to change. It would have been October. It must have been a Saturday. My longest and most serious adult relationship had just ended, the first that could be measured in months rather than days. I can remember the lightness I felt, the feeling for the first time that being single meant I was free. That's how I feel now; I feel free. That I can do what I want, in so far as funds and the laws of physics allow. I'm not chained down by the awful memories and marked with the stigma of the mentaller.

That relationship was the good thing. And there were good times as well, and laughter, and no tragedies personal to me. There was stress, the clouds I mentioned have parted but not disappeared. I'm still single and I feel each passing month brings me nearer to a reckoning I never want to make. That I yet might not have to make, that I should put from my mind and concentrate on where I am. Here is here and now is now and pessimism may be as delusional as its opposite. I feel better now, older and tireder, but better.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Ellen's Top Ten Books that she read in 2013

It's that most blessed of weeks again; the lull between Christmas and New Year. I spent just under forty-eight hours at my parent's house between Christmas Eve and yesterday and it was fine. Really, really fine. I didn't go out either Christmas Eve of St. Stephen's Night and I didn't want to either. Everything was okay and thankfully there were no stresses. I wasn't alone and I wasn't an appendix to a large, child-filled gathering either.

These are ten of the books that I read in 2013. I'm not going to say they're the best books - at least one of them is appallingly written (you'll guess which) - more the ones that had the biggest impact on me. Sometimes that's because of quality, sometimes because the book says something at the right time for it to sink it. Please don't be annoyed that these are not "Books of 2013" but rather "Books I Got Around to Reading in 2013". I don't keep up with the times and usually read things twelve or more months after they hit the shelves. These are my reasons; I like to patronise my excellent local second-hand bookshop, hardbacks are expensive and I loathe the current fashion for publishers' paperbacks. I like my paperbacks small and portable so I wait until the littlest edition before I buy, which can take ages.

Here we go:
1. "The Gifts of Imperfection" by Brené Brown.
Not a new book but one that spoke to me like it has spoken to millions of others. The tagline says it all "Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are". Simply and clearly written the book is based on research and her life before Oprah got hold of her, this book is full of wisdom and surprisingly full of "how to" tips although the author says she doesn't like them.

2. "Daring Greatly" by Brené Brown
Another entry by Brené. I just love her and have reviewed this book here already. If you're going to buy only one of her books, buy "The Gifts of Imperfection" though. I'll stop after typing "I prefer her earlier work" but you get the picture.

Richard Ford

3. "Canada" by Richard Ford.
There's not much I can write about this that hasn't been said by Eileen Battersby, on whose recommendations I bought and enjoyed this book. It's a proper novel, that takes you to a different world and shows you things there. Disturbing, heart-breaking things told with just the right level of detachment and emotion.

4. "Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann
A book first published in 2009 that I only got around to reading this year. It's a treat-filled box of believable, varied characters and period detail of early 1970's New York that rings true, not that I'd know, having been born in Cobh in 1975.

5. "Bring Up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel.
Not one of the fiction entries on this list was published in 2013. I'm off now to buy "The Luminaries" before I the mortification gets me. Okay, okay, so the follow-up to "Wolf Hall" doesn't continue its arc of literary triumph but rather plateaus and even dips but this is still a very, very good book.

6. "Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good" by James Davies.
Accessible book that lays out how much of psychiatry is delusional and based on faulty research or in the case of the DSM no research at all. This is frightening stuff and terribly, terribly sad when you think of how many lives have been affected by psychiatrists' need to feel that they're scientists too.

7."The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin.
A delightful book that manages to be frothy yet erudite.  I found the idea of keeping an adult-sized star-chart so practical and motivating that I have actually developed new and useful habits. Yes, I know there's more to life than the pursuits of happiness, as Penelope Trunk explains here  but this is a book I'd recommend to anyone.

8. "How to Attract Mr Right in 90 Days of Less" by Salli Glover.
I thought eight would be a good place in the list to sneak this in. Cardboard boxes full of these kinds of books lurk in the dark corners of my home. Do they work? No. Can I stop buying them? No? Alarm bells should be ringing at the title alone because we all know it should be 90 days or fewer (we do, don't we?) and the first couple of chapters are full of Law of Attraction gobblydegook but I have to say I found this slim volume the most practical and applicable yet of its genre. The ninety days since I bought it have, of course, long since expired but I did manage to attract Mr Not Quite Right in the specified time-frame. So it works, kind of.

9." Le Confident" by Hélène Grémillon.

Hélène Grémillon

I bought this in Aéroport Charles de Gaulle and had most of it read by the time I got home and all of it read in the following two days. A page-turner.

10. "Mental Training for Runners" by Jeff Galloway.
I was bitten by the running bug early in 2013 but unfortunately soon developed effective anti-bodies. This is my go-to book when I need motivation. Starting small and starting easy has helped me re-start many times. I've been using his giant invisible rubber-band technique on unsuspecting "real" runners as well.

Based on this list, I think one of my first resolutions of 2014 will be to read more fiction. Any fiction I do read tends to be good quality but I get lazy. I'm getting excited already about my New Year's Resolutions and will post soon about them. So excited that I've started some of them early.

If you have recommendations, or books that you loved in 2013, please leave a comment.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

"At This Stage". Initial Thoughts on the Junior Cycle English Specifications.

Ruairi Quinn, Exam-Slayer
I've been a bit quiet lately on the blog, being sick for a while and really not feeling up to it, going back to work and trying to make up for lost time, and then going away for mid-term. The best thing about Rome? It's not Christmas there yet, even though it's been Christmas in Ireland for nearly a month.

So back I come to Ireland and what do I find? A few days late, but the Real Specifications for English have been published. I'd a quick glance but only got around to reading them properly today. Well, well, well.

To begin with the positive, they're a huge improvement on the Draft Specification, a document so verbose and long-winded it's hard to believe there was any input from English teachers. Of course there was, but not much, because subjects and subject knowledge no longer matter. There I go, being negative, but it's hard to be anything else in the face of Junior Cycle Reform, a process described by Damien Kiberd as "jihad" in today's

The Specifications are slimmed down and easier to read and understand. This is good. I am delighted to see Shakespeare will be compulsory for Higher Level. Many assumed that he was compulsory on the old syllabus but, in fact, you could do "The Field" with your class and they'd do just as well as if you'd explored the themes of prejudice, loyalty and paternal affection in "The Merchant of Venice". In fact, they might even do better, as you'd have freed up class time to cover more of the infinite list of possibilities for the Functional Writing section. Informal letters, check. Letters of complaint, application, information seeking, commendation, check. Reports, check. Memos, check. Instructions, blogs, blurbs, brochures, check.

The three elements fail to mention literature, referring only to language. This is disappointing as literature goes beyond the use of words to include how a world is imagined and a story is developed. This is reflected in the inclusion of film as an area of study. I've said before I'm fine with including film in the English classroom but I draw the line at purely visual texts. Language must also be present, and preferably the English language. I find foreign-language films such as "I'm Not Scared" make an excellent introduction to film studies in TY but when it comes to studying a film for an exam, especially if in comparison with other texts, it's good to be able to include screenplay as an element for study.

Back to the specifications. Some-one saw sense and got rid of the stipulation that two novels be studied in first year but apparently we're to study two in second year now instead. This is dumbing-down in action, as in order to fit in the required quantity, the quality will probably be diluted. Novels studied will either be teen novels - young adult fiction - or else novellas, as a full-length novel written for an adult reading age takes at least a couple of months.  Far better to read one novel and one play, than two novels and "extracts from one or more plays". On closer reading, I see I will actually be expected to do two novels, a film, a "number of short stories", a play and "extracts from one or more plays". If I'm feeling particularly energetic we might do two novels and two plays. Ahem.

On another note, sixteen poems between second and third year sounds about right. I'm not going to quibble with the specification of an actual number of poems as I have to admit that some teachers  realised some years ago that there has never been a year that "Mid-Term Break" couldn't be used to answer at least one of the questions on the Junior Cert English paper. Ten poems in first year seems excessive, unless poems chosen are very short and/or covered at break-neck speed and not learned off. I get my first years to learn off any poems we study by heart. Yes, by heart, using the most vilified of techniques: rote-learning. Somewhere, deep within the Department of Education, an alarm is flashing red in the Surveillance Room.

There'll be a list of prescribed texts but that hasn't been written yet. I predict the absence of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the inclusion of books written specifically for this age group, even specifically written with the Specifications in mind.

The Private Becomes Public
One strand I notice going through the specifications, is the idea that private reading and writing are to made public. One of the learning outcomes is that students will "engage in sustained private reading" and another is that they will write in manner that is "private, pleasurable and purposeful".  The only thing clear here is that the writers of the document understand "private" in a different way than I do. I'd have thought that if your teacher knows you're doing something, is the one making you do it and is ensuring you're experiencing pleasure, then that's not private, that's homework or schoolwork. As of the insistence that we make reading and writing pleasurable for all, I can't repeat the suggestions made around this in our English Department without getting us all struck off the Teaching Council register.


I'm also a bit iffy about the idea of students discussing each other's written work. Teenagers can be cruel, or at least thoughtless, and I'd hate to have to subject the creative, personal work of sensitive students to the judgement of their peers. It's possible to work around this by saying "let's all find three nice things to say about..." but this soon develops into a lesson in hypocrisy.

Here's the rub, and the part of the exercise that angers teachers. Much has been written, and spoken, about the folly of teachers assessing the work of their own students for purposes of certification. All of it ignored. 40% of the marks for this course will be awarded by the class teacher. This makes the charade of setting an exam, and paying to have it marked anonymously as exams have traditionally been marked, almost a waste of time.

English is the most subjective of subjects to mark. It is almost impossible to separate the product from one's knowledge of the producer. As teachers, we tend to overmark the diligent trier and undermark the talented lay-about. As for how I'm supposed to give a cold-eyed, clinical assessment of my friends' children, my colleagues' children or even my principal's children, we all know that's a big ask. I won't dwell at length on this as I think any-one with common sense can see the problem.

The Specifications attempt to side-step issues around assessment by asserting that it is no big deal. It doesn't really matter how well students do at Junior Cycle.

"Essentially, the purpose of assessment at this stage of education is to support learning "
The phrase "at this stage" betrays a contempt for students. The idea is "sure, at this stage they're only babies. It doesn't matter that their exam is corrected by their teacher. It doesn't matter that it's more likely a pat on the head for effort than an objective recognition of attainment. The main thing is not that they know how well they're doing, it's that they feel supported in their learning."

"At this stage" implies that sixteen year olds are only nascent learners. They haven't really begin the serious business of education. That starts - when? At Senior Cycle? In third level education? Never, now that we have Google?
"Assessment is most effective when it moves beyond marks and grades to provide detailed feedback that focuses not just on how the student has done in the past but on the next steps for further learning."
Fine words, but they refer to in-school assessment, which is a different animal from State certified examination that currently exists. This is being abolished, but by stealth, and under over of a fog of rhetoric. I propose that the Department have the courage to admit they are abolishing certification at any level other than the terminal exam. After all, Finnish students sit only one exam: a terminal exam at the end of secondary education.


At this stage of cycling, it more important that learners feel supported than that they actually go anywhere.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

So It's World Mental Health Day

It's world mental health day, and I'm sure there's all sorts of positive messages and articles out there on the internet but I'm going to focus on Derek Chamber's piece in thejournal

According to Chambers we need to have a "positive conversation" about mental health.  As opposed to one that says that health is bad, and a thing to be avoided.  We need to be positive about our mental health, but also worry about it  and be constantly "minding ourselves".  Positive is tacked on here as a buzz-word, something being used to sell us a product; the concept of mental health.

Chambers writes that "Too often, mental health equates to mental illness in the public consciousness." He's right there. Headlines often proclaim that Celebrity X "struggles with mental health". The reason for the this confusion is due to semantic squeamishness on the part of editors. No one wants to write the words "mental illness".  So now we have "mental health problems" or "mental health issues" or even "mental health", as in "she suffers with her mental health". We all know what that means.

Attempts to bisect the coin that has health on one side and illness on the other are well-meant but illogical.  "Positive mental health" does not mean the blessed state of being free of psychiatric illness. Rather, it is a large sub-section of the wellness and well-being industry, a concept brought to us by self-help books, motivational speakers and life coaches.

"The trick, when it comes to changing attitudes, is to convince as many of the population as possible that mental health is personal to them." The trick, indeed. Read that sentence again, and ask yourself if you're starting to feel tricked, misled or misinformed.

"Through the internet, we have the potential to market mental health as a fundamental part of being human."  Chambers is right here; mental health is a product and we are being persuaded to but into the concept, to invest our time, effort and often money, into gauging, maintaining and repairing this new product. A product that, like the internet about which Chambers enthuses, is now so part of our daily lives that we take its existence for granted. It's hard to remember a time before "mental health" was not a given term in our lexicon.

The article ends on a positive note, telling us all to use an Australian-developed app to send each other "cyber-cuddles". World Mental Health Day is "about all of us". Or is it?  For all its positivity and celebration of the fun of mental health, the article is followed by an "If You've Been Affected List."

The list includes the Samaritans, Pieta House, Console and Aware. Now if positive mental health is the harbinger of a new happier way of life, then why are these help-lines for those affected by distress, suicide and mental illness?

Because the idea that mental health is a product, available to all who invest the right resources, and simultaneously as a vulnerable state that is as prone to decay as depleted uranium, has contributed to an increase in distress in the population. In particular it has convinced thousands of young people that they have a health problem, and need "help". It has convinced their parents of the same.

This is from today's Irish Times
A report from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland...indicates that one in three young people in Ireland is likely to have experienced some form of mental disorder by the age of 13.
This rate increased to more than one in two young people who had experienced some form of mental disorder by the time they reached the age of 24.
Based on international evidence, this means up to one third of Irish adolescents and over one half of young Irish adults are at increased risk of mental ill-health into their adult years

As commenters on are so fond of saying, correlation is no proof of causation. But I wonder if there is any link between the numbers of young people who feel they are mentally different from others and how mental health is promoted. The report lists risk factors for mental health disorders but have these risk factors increased? Or has our detection rate increased, in which case this should be a good news story instead of an opportunity for the wringing of hands.

In cases of genuine mental distress, I think we are better at picking things up than before, but that progress has been slow or non-existent in the area of child protection. By the time a teenager presents with a mental health disorder, most of the damage of abuse or neglect has been done. These young people will not be saved by "cybercuddles" but a properly resourced and efficient social work system  would be a help.

And while family problems have historically been under-reported in Ireland, do we really believe that half of all Irish young people are from dysfunctional homes? One in two, that's half. A pandemic. Are all these young people really mentally ill, or have they just failed to meet the standards demanded by "positive mental health"? A standard that I've described as approaching perfection.

Helen Coughlan, clinical research fellow at the RCSI, is quoted in the Irish Times as calling for services to support young people in need before they reach a crisis. So far, so sensible but she goes on to assert that  "Mental health literacy should also be highlighted more within the education system".

Why? The majority of children are not at risk. Those that are, are at risk because of circumstances they cannot control, circumstances that it is our responsibility, as the adult members of society, to rectify as much as possible.

I'm going to leave you with an extended quote from Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes' book "The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education".

"Far from creating a more balanced and rounded personality, therapeutic education promotes the emotionally diminished human subject and promote a life focused on the self and self-fulfilment rather than with understanding and changing the world. The paradox of therapeutic that an obsession with the self means that you will not change the world, and nor will you change yourself: it is active engagement with the world that leads to confidence, self-esteem, fulfilment, or to used the latest piece of therapy-speak "happiness and well-being" The wish and will to change the world characterises humanity; to turn humanity inwards is to diminish all our selves."

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Theme of the Month: Time

Finally, on the sixth day of the month I get around to writing about this month's theme: time. This tardiness is not a result of poor time management; rather the opposite as, in fairness, writing the blog comes way down the list of things to do. And I've been sick. Too sick to type.

Andrew Marvell. I'd be coy too.

Three weeks ago this Monday my watch stopped at seventeen minutes past three. And it was Friday (the day before yesterday) before I replaced the battery. Yes, that was as poor as time management gets. Of course the delay in getting to the jeweller's was exacerbated by my lack of a working watch. I was late leaving the house every morning. Even though all our classrooms are equipped with functioning clocks, I found it hard to get into the habit of consulting them instead of my wrist, and class after class has been timed awry. I know there are those who get by without a watch, who rely on clocks and mobiles, but really -how do you people manage?

Losing and regaining the gift of accurate time-keeping has made me conscious of time itself.

"Make Time for the Things that are Important"
This phrase has been running through my brain for a few weeks now. It's one of the answers to my constant question "how do avoid similar f**k-ups in the future?" And sometimes life seems like one fuck-up after another. The answer to "how did I let this happen" is "you were busy doing stuff that doesn't matter"more often than not.
To say time is our most precious resource is a clichéd understatement. Time is not a resource, but one of the most important dimensions in which our lives are lived. Even though the path I've taken so far in life has taught me lots, and shown me some good places and great people, I feel that an appreciation of time would have helped me be happier.  For much of my adult life, time has been something to be endured. I suffered from chronic FOMO. Weekends were deserts to be crossed instead of two days crammed full of lovely time. I was hanging on in there, and hanging, and hanging...until letting go and falling became a fantasy.

Time is precious even when I'm alone. Time is precious even if I don't have children. Time is precious even when I'm tired. Because there is always something to be done. There are always things to do.

My first hospital admission. I remember it coming to me. Clear, clear as day. There was no need not to eat. There was no need to worry about money. Because the world was full of food, and the world was full of money (even if little of it was within my possession). But time. Time was scarce. I felt an incredible urge to live life. To do things. To make use of my time.
I was twenty-one, and in hospital on my first psychiatric admission. By the time I got out again, and free again, it was many years before time stopped being painful. Empty hours were the worst and I became adept at keeping busy by doing inconsequential things really slowly.

You'd expect this theme, of making the most of time, to generate resolutions, productivity tips and trigger lists. I've tried these and concluded they're mostly other people's systems that work fantastically for them, but don't translate into my life and probably not into yours. I even borrowed a library book with the title "How to Make More Time" but realise I might as well have read "How to Turn Back Time" because none of us can add the twenty-fifth hour to the day. The one where I could've popped to the jeweller's or cleaned the car or had a nap before going out.

So this month there is no Resolutions Chart or small daily goals. There is only the mantra in the back of my head, always, to Make Time for What Really Matters. Not to fear its wing'd chariot, but to to live every minute, and appreciate every hour. 

Friday, 20 September 2013

More Thoughts on Junior Cycle English

I've been thinking about the JC English specifications. I did fire off one of the online forms last May, but since then have been thinking much more. Here are three ways I think they could be improved. Junior Cycle English could be simpler, with more flexibility and less box-ticking. It could be more challenging, with texts selected that offer students a decent intellectual stretch. And I'm going to add "externally assessed".  Continuing to spend millions on an exam only to mash up the results with the class teacher's assessment is a futile exercise. All the AfL and innovative pedagogy in the world won't compensate for the damage this will to the student-teacher dynamic.  And this is Ireland where until the automatic ones arrived, every door in the country had a sign saying "pull".  All of us know that in two years' time we'll have parents waiting at reception, waving print-outs of the sample answers and asking "What the FOQ do you mean he/she only Achieved with Higher Merit?"


There's a moment in Robert Redford's film "A River Runs Through It" that gets English teachers everywhere nodding their heads. It's when the home-schooled hero goes up to his father's desk and presents him with an essay. The paper is handed back to the child with the instruction to go away and take out half the words. The writers of the Specification would do well to take this advice. (Although I won't be as harsh as the Rev. McClean and suggest they discard their efforts.  Reform is badly needed and it's about time we had a discussion about what and how students learn) Too many learning outcomes can make classroom teaching an exercise in ticking off items on a checklist.  The basic things we want students to be able to do, in my opinion, are
 - write clearly and coherently in plain English.
 - unless SEN is a factor, students should leave Junior Cycle reading at an age-appropriate level.
 - comprehend the spoken word and make notes on some-one else's oral presentation
 - communicate effectively through speech
I've based these of the four aspects of language but equally the study of English is the study of language as art and language as a means of knowing the world and of influencing others.  There are instances where language as art is wholly text based but it is also valid to study how language can work with other art forms and with other media other than print and speech, such as drama, film and increasingly, digital and multimodal material. Unlike the specifications I think there always should be some aspect of language in the texts that are chosen for study. There is much to be said for developing visual literacy, but time within the English classroom is limited. I'm almost alone in saying this but I don't like spending class time analysing and decoding pictures or photographs. I say analysing here in a technical sense;  visual texts can be an invaluable starting point for creative writing. So another general learning outcome I favour would be
 - demonstrate understanding of how language can be used to create narrative and lyrical art.

There is an assumption behind the Specification that breadth is better. Text can mean anything, in any medium, in any language, or without language. We see the phrase again and again that students must study "a variety of."  The digital era means we need to choose carefully; all texts are not created equal.  There is a danger of students accessing digital media and even creating digital content, without learning anything meaningful.   In my view, enforcing learning outcomes around digital literacy is not only useless without targeted and effective CPD for teachers, it could be detrimental. There are so many resources, so many tools and so many possibilities that teachers and their classes could spend class after class apparently engaged but without learning anything that's applicable beyond the products being used. So another learning outcome with the caveat that digital and multimodal texts play an important but limited role in the classroom and, even more crucially, that training for teachers is essential.
-interact with digital media and produce work using digital tools.

More Challenging

But isn't the Specification full of challenging ideas? In the previous post I wrote about the fabulous things students will learn to do, like manipulating language, writing in different voices, and being creative with syntax. The thing is that students are often quite skilled at doing these things already, at a basic level, but very few of them are capable of genuine manipulation or creative playfulness with language. More of them could be, if they first mastered plain English.
After poetry, plain English is the hardest English of all to write. Writing succinctly and coherently is a challenge for nearly all students. I've seen first year students write poems, direct drama extracts, create digital mind-maps and take part eagerly in class discussion, yet struggle to write two paragraphs on a given, or chosen, topic. It might seem awfully nineteenth century, but we have to require students to put pen to paper and write real sentences. And I mean pen to paper, not hand to mouse. Drafting and redrafting a handwritten piece of work may seem ridiculously tedious and laborious these days but it remains the best way to develop and hone writing skills.

Literature is covered in the Specification under the heading of Critical Reading, focusing on the action of the student rather than any knowledge that can be learned. For assessment, students are required only to produce a "written personal reflection" based one significant literary text, combined (why?) with at least one shorter literary text.  I love this bit "Students may choose to pay attention to one or more of the following; beginning/ending....." Read that phrase again: "students may choose to pay attention..." I would hope that students are required to pay attention to whatever aspects of a text the teacher has chosen to focus on.  The notion of students picking which bits of the course they feel are important assumes a level of maturity and motivation that would be almost unnatural in a child of fourteen or fifteen.  It also implies that the teacher's knowledge of his or her subject, and judgement of what's of educational value, are of little importance.

But isn't the personalisation of learning an essential component of the new learning to learn? Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it is good to foster student autonomy and to give them choices where appropriate. "Personal writing"  carries the assumption of student input into the topics chosen and the approach taken. The oral presentation part of the coursework is a chance for students to research a topic of their choosing. Already we have two-thirds of the 40% largely made up of personal content. I will also say that when the subject matter is small, discrete units, students can be given the option to focus on which ones they like. For example many English teachers cover slightly more poems in Junior Cycle than are strictly needed for the exam, so students can, with the teacher's guidance, draw up their own final list.

There are instances, however, where personalisation of the curriculum is inappropriate and I'm going to say that studying a long text, like a novel or a Shakespeare play, is one of them. The parts come together to form the whole and must all be studied to the same depth.  I will add that the topics suggested - favourite characters, the ending - import the worst of the old syllabus into the new. The Studied Texts sections of the old paper are incredibly vague; they have to be as different classes study different texts.  This component of the new specification is an opportunity to assess this part of the course much more effectively by presenting students with questions and title similar to those in the Leaving Cert Single Text section.  These questions are focused on the actual text studied and tend to be much more meaningful than the vague "choose an important theme" of the current Junior Cert. 

It may be hoped that designating "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" as a significant literary text and giving students more autonomy in what they study will re-engage students and thus, by stealth, raise standards. This is a round-about way of thinking that will not solve the problems of disengagement and poor discipline but will deny children the chance to experience literature in a classroom setting. There is much promotion of the idea of private reading, with the expectation that more able students will gravitate towards the kind of books that will stretch them intellectually. But often even the most able need the incentive of compulsion, and it is certainly true that students tend to read for pleasure at a level below the kind of books from which they can benefit with guided study. I've just started "To Kill a Mockingbird" with my second years. When I announced that's what we'd be reading this year a few of them said they'd picked it up in the library but had only managed a few pages or the first chapter. A week later, and four chapters in, they're hooked.

I'm going to stick my head out and say that all mainstream classes should be studying a Shakespeare play at Junior Cycle. Yes, there can be some serious differentiation involved but studying Shakespeare delivers like no other English activity I've ever come across. It's a stretch but one that, contrary to pessimistic belief,  does not exceed the elastic limit of the average student, or even some of their less able classmates.

Externally Assessed

Like others, I welcome the idea of students preparing a portfolio of written work as part of the assessment. In traditional exams in English candidates only get one shot. This isn't as awful as it sounds; producing meaningful written work at short notice and under pressure is a skill in itself. But it doesn't reflect how English is used most often in life. The inclusion of editing and drafting skills is, I think, the aspect of the revised course that may have the greatest impact on literacy levels.  It is also crucial to students' development as creative writers.

The aims of coursework may be laudable but the pitfalls are many. The inevitable risks of plagiarism, helicopter parents and helpful grinds will have to be factored in. But when you include that the person who teaches the students will be the same person assessing the work for summative assessment, the value of the whole project falls into question. Yes, we'll have our Features of Quality and our online samples, and yes, there will be intramural moderation but we all know it's impossible to objectively assess our own students.
Arguments against this have been well-rehearsed elsewhere ( , ) but we can't have too many voices added to protest against the hybrid monster that assessment will become. At the very least, if we cannot have external assessment, moderation at least has to come from the SEC. Anything else and grades will inflate like the Weimar Reichsbank Mark. And soaring grades mean falling standards; the very thing Junior Cycle reform purports to address.


Thursday, 19 September 2013


It's been a stressful, tiring week and I sat down yesterday evening to post my thoughts on the reform on Junior Cert English. I'd left my hard copy of the Draft Specification in work and went to look it up online; I couldn't find it on the NCCA website but found something called the Draft Syllabus for English. That was quick, I thought, as consultation on the Draft Specifications only closed last Thursday. I went ahead and gave my assessment of this document without realising it dates from 1989 and is actually a draft of the current syllabus.  No wonder it looked nearly the same!

Seriously, am seriously red in the face morto. For one thing, I should have recognised the draft as being almost identical to the syllabus I'm teaching, though thank God when it came to composing the real thing they left out Writing a Letter of Condolence. Imagine if that came up in Functional Writing? Knowing the capricious minds that compose the Junior Cert paper, it's probably something I should be covering.

So back to the Draft Specification, which, as Evelyn O'Connor writes here is an impressive document. It's impressive mostly in its documentalism, being put together by people who really know how to write a document, but who might seem a bit removed from the English classroom.  The document runs high to psychobabble and is full of assumptions and low on facts. One generalisation that particularly infuriated me was "Education systems across the world are increasingly supporting teachers to get beyond marks and grades to more detailed feedback that focuses not just on how the student has done in the past but on the next steps for further learning."

I don't know any English teacher whose only comment on student work is a mark out of x. But the real point is the idea that we'll all jump at the mention of "education systems across the world".  We need examples, real references, real studies and footnotes or links to research that we can verify to our own satisfaction.

An example of psychobabble in the document is the link between English and Key Skills. (Everything to do with the new Junior Cycle involves keys.) Under the skill "staying well" we learn that in English students will learn to "be confident".  Big Pharma has indeed done its job in defining shyness as an illness. That is not to say that I hope my students won't be more confident writers, readers and hopefully speakers, but I don't fool myself that I can actually make them confident in themselves. And I don't see my shyer, less forthcoming students as less well or healthy than their outspoken peers.

The new course is incredibly broad and ambitious. Here is a selection of tasks students are expected to master
-Engage in extended and constructive discussion of their own and other students, work. ( Not just "discuss", mind you, but "engage in extended and constructive discussion").
-Demonstrate how grammar, text structure and word choice vary with context and purpose.
-Be creative with syntax
-Read for research
-Appreciate how the meaning of sentences can be made richer through the use of grammatical and/or syntactical manipulation
-Write their responses in a "personal voice" as their individual style is thoughtfully developed over the years.
-Search a range of texts, including digital texts, in order to locate information, to interpret, critically evaluate, compare, synthesise and create text.

It's difficult to see how all this is going to be achieved with a cohort who have difficulty knowing quite from quiet or there from their and who frequently write "a lot" as one word. And it's hard to see how students' writing will improve so much when we're being told to spend less time on literature and more time listening to soundtracks and multimodal texts.

The document promises "a wide range of study" but you cannot broaden, broaden and broaden and not expect to compromise on quality. Just as you cannot increase and increase teachers' workload and expect us to bound into class brimming with enthusiasm.

The downgrading of literature within the English classroom is particularly worrying.  I was quite pleased with the inclusion of oral presentation in the specification. It's an important skill and one that ties in with English. However, I learned on Monday that it would be unacceptable for a student to pick a literary topic as a subject for his or her presentation. Favourite authors or books are out. The point of oral literacy seems to be less about encouraging expression and oratory, and more about training mini-middle-managers in the art of  props and PowerPointlessness.

Like all initiatives, the new Junior Cycle English will be modified and made more realistic on the ground.  It's coming and we'll have to get used to it. But this strikes me as an exercise in formatting students as products; well-adjusted, self-centred and unchallenged by anything irrelevant to their own lives. Nowhere in the specifications does it mention how English can bridge gaps between ourselves and others, between us and other cultures, between our time and other times and how it can deepen our sense of what it is to be human.

All Aboard the LE Junior Cycle


There were so many metaphors in the keynote speech delivered by Dr. Mark Fennell at Monday's JMB Educational Conference that by the end of it I could feel my head spinning. Metaphorically, of course, not like Linda Blair's.

We learned that it was okay to be at Ground Zero and that no-one has a monopoly on wisdom. We sailed through uncharted waters, in a craft powered by the engine of reform towards a land where working-class boys will be re-engaged with learning using the tools to turn the keys that will unlock their core learning priorities. The nautical theme continued with the Junior Cycle being refitted in the dry dock, before sailing on serenely as there will be no Big Bang.

Dr. Fennell's speech did indeed mark a key note, as for the rest of the day I heard about one-stop shops, the need to rebuild and how change cannot be achieved through spin. I'm sure there was a paradigm shift in there somewhere as well.

English is the first subject that will go through the transformation from Junior Cert subject to clump of learning objectives. I've taught and examined Junior Cert English for a few years now (not telling) and there a lot of scope there for reform. The course is poorly defined and the lack of prescribed texts makes standardised examination difficult. The exam layout favours speed-readers and those who can handwrite at breakneck pace. The amount of class-time spent on Shakespeare and novels - and the depth of knowledge and understanding that students can gain from this study -  is not reflected in the marking scheme. Lots wrong; but lots right as well. Teachers have autonomy; and while the open nature of the course and the subjectivity inherent in reading creative and personal writing make standardisation difficult, the SEC do their best to ensure each candidate's work is fairly assessed and rewarded. Most crucially, students have the privilege of having their work assessed by some-one who knows neither their name, their colour, their creed nor their reputation.

So in some respects reform is welcome, but just wait until you see what they have in mind.  English is no longer so much as subject of study as a vehicle for the Key Skills of Managing Myself, Being Creative, Staying Safe, Communicating and Working with Others.

Does it make sense to start this experimental process with what I once described in a HDip essay as the  "keystone subject"? That's debatable but I know for one thing that reading the Draft Specifications that were released in May found me groaning in frustration and foreboding. The margins of my copy of this NCCA document (the basis for the syllabus published today) are liberally ornamented with WTFs, FFSs and a few instances of "Duh!".  

The envisaged  syllabus is much more prescriptive than the old because the standardising element of the state examination will be largely done away with. It now counts for only 60% of a student's grade, not that they'll get grades anymore, only piano-exam descriptors like "achieved with higher merit". No-one has explained why As, Bs,  and Cs are being abolished but I suspect the work of my nemesis: mental health. 40% of the marks come from coursework.  The idea of teachers correcting children's homework and pretending it's some kind of qualification is some kind of joke.  In reality, the Junior Cert will be abolished and instead the third year summer report will be distinguished just by being printed on nicer paper. As long as the nice paper doesn't cost too much.


Because, in reality, junior cycle reform will constitute a major saving for the Department of Education. This is the rationale behind the move towards coursework and the abolition of State exams in all subjects except for English, Irish and Maths in the short-term, and all subjects in the long-term. Ruairi Quinn might claim that the changes are based on "compelling evidence from other countries" but neither I, nor any of my colleagues, have been informed of the whereabouts of this evidence.


I'll leave you now with a link to the specification, one to the One Stop Shop in which our young people's education is being sold to appease the proponents of austerity and short-term thinking.

 Note: Thanks to the commenter who pointed out that I'd stumbled on the 1989 syllabus, which is still on the NCCA website as "a draft" and mistakenly thought my fears for next year's first years were unfounded. An embarrassing error, which I can only blame on my raging head cold. I've reposted, leaving out the error and will post again on the specification. Apologies.


Thursday, 5 September 2013

Theme of the Month: Responsibility

In keeping with the serious, back-to-work ethos  of la rentrée, this month has been designated as Responsibility September: the month I finally grow up.

The thing with allowing other people to be responsible for you, is that ultimately you're only a side-show in the drama that is their own fascinating life. Other people love to help, but all this is helping, not doing. So, for example you might make a decision based on advice some-one gives you, but there's no point in blaming them when the advice was wrong. All they did was give you information. The information might have come surrounded by noise like "If I were you..." or "You should..." but these are just words. Sometimes advice doesn't even come with information. Sometimes it's just a case of "You must..." or "You would be crazy to..." or "Don't tell me you're thinking of..." I used to be very swayed by this type of thing, and would do what others advised, thinking that doing so somehow spread the responsibility. It didn't.

Doing what other people say they would do if they were you is stupid. Because if they really were you, that's not what they would do. If they were you, they'd do some research, filter out the advice-noise and make a rational decision. (In so far as any human decision can be rational, driven as we are by base desires and the urge to reach the pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.) Most of the time, the last thing the If-I-Were-You-ers would do is let some-one else tell them what to do.

So this month I'm resolved to take responsibility for my own actions and choices.  I'm also trying to be more financially responsible, so in an effort to reverse my habits of  cent-wisdom v euro-folly, I'm making a note of my income and spending. In the five days so far, this has been illuminating and also has the benefit of focusing the mind.

The flip-side of assuming responsibility is abdicating responsibility for others. I'm in the unfortunate position of having no immediate dependants so I might as well capitalise on it.  I really have no-one else to mind except me. This month I will not only resist advice, I will also avoid dispensing it. And I will remind my self daily that it's not my job to make sure other people are nice to me.

Health and Calm Month update: This was way harder than anticipated. Excuses were much easier to find than the ten minutes I'd resolved to spend in meditation each morning. I made it to the gym a grand total of ten times in thirty-one days. I still haven't broken up with Diet Coke. On the whole it made me more aware that my smugness about my healthy lifestyle is completely unwarranted so part of Responsibility September is taking my health seriously and doing more exercise.

Joan Didion defines character as "The willingness to accept responsibility for your own life" and says it is the foundation of self-respect. What do you think? Please step up and take responsibility for being the first person to leave a comment. Not that I'm offering advice. As if.


Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Back to Reality. Oh, There Goes Gravity...

Today for me is the first official day of school. I went back on Monday but as the saying goes "one works or one meets" and we've had a lot of meetings. This video gives you an idea, though it's a parody, and set in the US, and seems to be takes place in their version of a primary school.

After a summer devoted to personal growth, walks with friends and unhealthy levels of internet usage, reality didn't so much bite as make an open-mawed lunge for my jugular. School is a fast place with lots going on. I'm surrounded by people all day long, and constantly having to make split-second decisions on what to say or how to approach issues. That's just the teachers; today the students return and I'll be meeting plenty of new faces.
I'm nervous, but in an effort to bolster my confidence, have made a list of things I have learned in the past twelve months.

-I am enough. Even if I don't get it right all the time, I do a good job. My resolution for the year is to hold back from comparing myself to my colleagues and instead consolidate my own position and teaching practice. Just because I'm not a Viking, it doesn't mean I have to be a Victim.
-It's okay to strive for happiness and it's the everyday actions that count. It mightn't be as straightforward as Rihanna implies in her awful song, but at least I can decide to try to be happy. Things like tidying up before going to bed so that I always come down to a clean kitchen and cold Diet Coke in the fridge have really helped. I'm going to apply the same principles in work. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey.
-I'm not the only one. I don't just mean this in a general everybody-struggles kind of way (though that is true and I'd do well to remember it) but in particular in relation to being a childless, Yaris-driving spinster. I am  lucky enough to have some wonderful friends at work, but they are married down to the last one and almost all have two or more children. I can feel a bit "different" and not different better. Joining Gateway Women has helped me there as I've come to know that there are many articulate, capable women who've somehow managed to find themselves in a similar situation.

I give out about my job but it has its good days. My favourite thing to teach is Shakespeare and my biggest disappointment this year is not getting a Higher Level English fifth year class, as they're doing "Othello", which is one of my favourites.  It'll be hard to listen to the others discussing how they're approaching it but I'll have to put in my virtual ear-plugs. There are worse things. I came across this video the other day and answered the questions as it went along. What was the conclusion? The job I should be doing is........English teacher.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Advice on Getting Over Anorexia Part II

As promised, this is the second part of Advice on Getting Over Anorexia. I changed the original title to from "How to Get Over Anorexia" because I feared "How to..." sounded too prescriptive. I don't want to sound like I have all the answers. I have only some of them.
These are four more strategies for how to stop wasting your time on an eating disorder.

1. Extricate Yourself from the Eating Disorder Community.

What do I mean by the eating disorder community? I mean pro-ana websites, but also support groups. especially the online variety. There is also no point in reading books on how to recover from anorexia. I've read most of them and they were practically no help.
Pro-ana websites weren't around in my day so I don't have much experience of them. I had a look once and they left me cold. They'll leave you cold as well, once you make the decision to leave the Land of Anorectica.  What about online support groups?  I don't know. I've never been a member of an anorexia-specific online support group but I was a member of one for BPD. It's like being in a hall of mirrors. Seeing your problems reflected in the lives of others may make you feel better. You feel less alone and less of a freak. The problem with mirror-lined structures is that it can be hard to find the exit. As long as you are typing "anorexia" or "eating disorder" into search engines, you're still stuck.
I've written of SHINE, the Cork-based, now defunct support-group in the previous post. I'm not as disapproving of real-life support groups as I am of the virtual kind. You get to meet real-life people and there's a bit of chat before and after the sessions so you get to see more of the whole person, not their temporary anorectic persona. It can be a good place to meet like-minded people who you can meet up with outside the group and do stuff together. Even if you attend one of these meetings, be aware that there is generally a consensus view of eating disorders and how to recover, which may or may not suit you. In particular the people running them may claim to be fully recovered, but take these claims with a pinch of salt.  When you are recovered you'll have better things to be doing at seven o'clock on a Tuesday than hang around discussing something that's no longer part of your life. What about books and online resources? It may seem sensible to read up on your condition and to research methods of treatment, but almost books on anorexia take a very pathologising stance. The books explain how you're different to other people, where your parents went wrong, how the culture in which you were raised led you to hate your body and how your behaviours are all understandable. Well, they may be understandable but they're not acceptable.
It is far more helpful to read general self-help books because they will reinforce how you are the same as other people. You are unique, but you are not a freak. You are sensitive, but so are most people, you're not "super-sensitive" or even particularly vulnerable. In fact, vulnerability is a good thing, as explained here by the first author I'm going to recommend Bren Brown Brown's books, especially "The Gifts of Imperfection" should be your first port of reading call. Another one I recommend, although it's a bit dated now, is Susan Jeffers' "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway".

2. Suck Up the Now.

What is "now"? Now is an adverb, meaning at the present time, not in the past or the future.The phrase "the now" annoys me. Would some-one please tell Eckhart Tolle that it doesn't take the definite article, FFS? However, "Suck Up Now" didn't work as well as a subheading.
I've written in Part I about the importance of having a Plan C. Plan C doesn't have to be too specific; it could just be the sense that another future is possible, a future distinct from that mapped out for you by your parents, friends, teachers and/or spouse, and also distinct from the path of invalidism that up to now has been your only alternative. Plan C deals with the future.
But how are you going to get there? You get there by trudging through the present. By living now, not living later. Anorexia is a trap that once looked very like an escape route. Once you're sick, suddenly nothing matters but your health. This is understandable if you have a real disease and it is understandable that those around you hastily drop all expectations and demands on you once you take on the mantle of illness.  In particular you will be advised not to worry about your education or your career. Conflict about food takes the place of all previous conflict in the home. Anorexia can seem like a Get Out of Jail Free card, but in fact it is the card for Get Into Jail at Huge Personal Cost.
The present can seem scary. If you're in school you worry about exams, if you're in college you worry about your career. Starting work brings its own stresses. If you're single you worry about finding a partner. Relationships aren't perfect either. There are no easy answers apart from saying that life is hard for every-one, even the people who seem to you to have it all together. It's hard but there's no alternative.
Try not to worry about the future, by which I mean any hour later than the present hour. Really, that's about how close your focus should be. An hour. Some would recommend zooming in even further; to the present moment. Pay attention to what's going on around you. This is intensely painful, so painful that your anorexia is an attempt to get away from this pain. If you want to recover, if you want to do anything in life, or get anything out of life, or contribute anything worthwhile, the only way to do it is to live in the moment. Not when you've broken you X-kilo barrier, not when you get to go on the ten-week inpatient programme, not when you've left home, or when you've got to college or left college, or when you have a job, or a relationship or whatever you think it is that would make you enough and worthy of a life.
This notion of living in the moment, no matter how painful that moment, has been popularised by Jon Kabat-Zinn under the heading of Mindfulness Meditation, which he calls "a way of connecting with your life". In this video he defines mindfulness as "paying attention, on purpose, to the present, non-judgementally, as if your life depended on it...which it does".

Mindfulness sounds simple but for many of us it is really, really hard. Hard but worthwhile.

3. Be Kind to Yourself
I am reminded here of the principle in judo and similar martial arts of turning one's opponent's strength to one's own advantage. In order to practise anorexia, you have developed habits of self-discipline and the ability to act counter to your instincts and inclination. You have denied yourself food and comfort, have perhaps exercised beyond the point reason and have certainly honed the art of self-sabotage.
By now, self-denial is a way of life and being kind to yourself will take an act of will. I want to you to use the same will you use to deny yourself, and use it to be good to yourself. At least once every day, do something nice for yourself. It might help to draw up a list of things you enjoy or use a list like this one Some days it is easy but other days it is hard. You have to force yourself to do it. This is where you have to be tough and treat yourself as worthy of comfort even if you don't believe it. It'll feel wrong but over time this will help to build emotional resilience.
You can read more about self-kindness and self-compassion at Dr. Kristen Neff's site Self-kindness and self-compassion can sound like mawkish or mushy concepts but they are magic bullets that will pierce the inflexible walls of your anorectic prison.

4. Never Mind the Triggers
The last time I attended an eating-disorder support meeting, a woman present described a book that she had read and found interesting. She didn't name the book or the author but I was intrigued and approached her after the meeting to ask for the details. Even though I was a grown woman in my late twenties, she wouldn't tell me the name of the book or the author. The book, she said, was very "triggery". During my anorectic days, I would indeed read books like Marya Hornbacher's memoir "Wasted", Jenefer Shute's novel "Life-Size" or Hilde Bruch's classic "The Gilded Cage" over and over, gleaning inspiration. Now I can look at these books and they hold little interest for me. The current equivalent is the proliferation of thinspiration websites. These are intentionally "triggery" but once you have made the decision to move away from anorexia towards a normal, yet unique, life, these books and images, along with fashion magazines and sensationalist "Daily Mail" articles will have no power over you whatsoever. Any power they do have, even now, is not intrinsic to them but comes from you. The concept of triggers - random images or words - having the power to suddenly and irrestistably make you lose control over your behaviour is a lie.  Just ignore them.

In summary, the seven tips are as follows:
1. Depathologise.
2. Have a Plan C.
3. Eat Real Food.
4. Extricate Yourself from the Eating Disorder Community
5. Suck Up the Now
6. Be Kind to Yourself
7. Never Mind the Triggers.

Please let me know in the Comments section if you find these helpful, and of course, feel free to add your own tips.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Advice on Getting Over Anorexia Part I

Anorexia Nervosa: media friendly psychiatric diagnosis that has been providing method-acting weight-loss opportunities for young actresses for several decades.  I used to love the idea of anorexia. Even the word itself: it starts with an A, is pleasantly classical and has that spiky x there to give it an edge.  I now realise that anorexia is about as edgy as a round cushion. The contrast between its public image and the excruciatingly banal reality can only be matched by that between media portrayal of drug addiction and the boring existence that that actually is.

This recent article from The Huffington Post reflects the perplexity anorexia creates, including amonf the medical profession. The out-of-body experience recommended here is nothing compared to this other treatment . If you can't organise an out-of-body experience or brain implant this week, here are my tips for getting over anorexia.

(It feels like time for a disclaimer: you might have noticed that I'm not a doctor or any other kind of health-care professional. I have no qualifications related to eating disorders beyond my experience and observations. Therefore my advice, while invaluable, does not constitute medical advice. )

1. Depathologise
In an interview for the HuffPo article above, Susan Ringwood, Chief Executive of BEAT, refers to anorexia as a "condition". Contrast this to the article, which calls anorexia "an illness". You might think "same difference" but I believe there is nothing to be gained from calling anorexia an illness, or worse, a disease.

Anorexia's one of the older diagnoses, predating the DSM, and is neatly called an "eating disorder". A disorder does not constitute a disease, as James Davies explains in "Cracked: Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm than Good".  Diseases are physical entities with verifiable causes. Disorders are clusters or as Davies calls them "constellations" of feelings and/or behaviours.

Anorectics are often portrayed as being unwilling to admit that they are sick and in need of treatment. This reluctance is, in  my view, a ruse. They might well be avoiding treatment but that is only so they can travel further down the anorectic road to some sort of perfectly skinny destination. Anorectics do believe that they're "sick" but it's "sick" in a general sense. They might even believe that their brains and metabolism are abnormal. I know I did. Putting pressure on an anorectic to admit that she is sick may be understandable where weight-loss is dramatic and feared irreversible without hospital admission, but that does not mean there is any underlying pathology.

So if you're anorectic, you do not have to accept that you're mentally ill. You might have gotten yourself into such a state that a short stay in hospital may be an option, but this is best viewed as a chance to get your strength back. The doctors are not going to break into your skull and fix your wiring. You are not doing this because somewhere in your DNA a cytosine swapped places with an adenine. You're doing it because you're dissatisfied and the sooner you face this the better.

But if anorexia isn't an illness, then why do the symptoms seem to cluster together to form a syndrome? (Symptoms is a medical word that should have no place in your thinking in relation to your problem). This is because anorectic behaviour forms a pattern. Nature loves patterns and they love to reproduce themselves, which is why anorexia can be hard to break out of unless you substitute the pattern with another one. We also know that some behaviours, like obsessing about food, are functions of calorie restriction. They are not a sign of mental illness, as this experiment where male conscientious objectors volunteered to undergo a year of semi-starvation shows At around 9.15 minutes in the volunteer talks about buying cookbooks, and also about the depression brought about by lack of food.

On  a lighter note, this a short piece from minbodygreen where Isabel Foxen Duke explains why, for her, even the phrase "eating disorder" is unhelpfully medical.

You are not sick. You do not have an illness, or a disease. You have a problem that needs to be tackled. Doctors, hospitals and counsellors may help but that's all they can do. The problem's origins, expression and solution all lie within the scope of your own life. A life that is your own responsibility.

2. Have a Plan C
Ask yourself where you're headed right now. People love telling you this when you're anorectic "If you don't cop yourself on you'll end in hospital". You'll be threatened with tube-feeding, osteoporosis, infertility and told that you're risking your life.
Some of these risks are real, some exaggerated but none of them scare you. After all, what's the alternative?
Those admonishing you take an alternative for granted; that you cop on to yourself, count your blessings, stuff your face and go back to being the lovely girl they all miss. To you this is so scary that you're putting yourself through pain, discomfort, and would rather risk your life rather than go there.
Like the Carlsberg ad says (not that you'd ever drink anything as calorific as lager) there's always another option besides A and B. Think about what Plan C might look like. You probably already have and have dismissed whatever kind of life you'd like to see yourself living as fantasy. Parts of it probably are fantasy but I want you to go back again and look for elements that might be more realistic.
Imagine a Venn diagram. A, unsurprisingly, is for anorexia. B is for the lovely girl option. What A and B have in common is that you don't have to change. What B and C have in common is that you have to eat a normal amount of food. What do A and C have in common? Most likely, what A (continuing down the anorectic path) and C (choosing to take responsibility for your own life) have in common is that you'll piss people off.
The centre of the diagram, where the three circles converge, is that you are the person most affected by your actions. This is true even of B, where you attempt to recover from anorexia without change. B is unsustainable without developing hidden coping mechanisms such as bulimia or self-harm. Even then you'll eventually embrace C or relapse into A.

3.Eat Real Food
You knew this was coming, didn't you? A few years ago, the US economy went through something called a jobless recovery. (This is where my economic knowledge begins and ends. You can find out more about this subject here He writes well  but could be wrong for all I know). Well, the jobless recovery didn't do much for actual people. It just worked in theory, just like you going to your counsellor or your psychiatrist and working on your issues or taking your anti-depressants will do nothing for you unless you eat something. Eating normally will make you put on weight, but it is normal eating that is the aim, not weight gain.
Doctors love weighing you because they all did lots of science in school and more in college and think it's useful to measure things. You may have noticed their graphs and curves and their love of doing sums such as working out your BMI. This measurement is for them to gauge how you're doing with the food, but you don't need to worry about gaining weight because you know yourself how much you've eaten. You also know whether or not it's a normal amount.
The good news is that while doctors won't consider you recovered until your BMI is within the normal range, you can actually recover before then. Because the day you stop starving and eat a proper meal is the day you recover.
There used to be an eating disorders support group called SHINE. It was an acronym for Self Help in Normal Eating, and I really think they were on to something. For you to live your Plan C, and to leave the role of sick person behind, you must eat normally. Don't gorge yourself or lie in bed and sip Complan. Eating normally means three meals a day, with maybe a couple of snacks. It means mostly savoury food, with lots of vegetables, slow-release carbohydrates, protein foods and more fats than you're used to. It also means gaps of up to several hours between meals. Others might love serving you endless food or encouraging you to graze, in the belief that what matters is that you put on weight. This is a mistake; eat enough at mealtimes and the weight will return. And by enough I mean plenty; not a bowl of Special K for breakfast and an undressed salad for lunch. If you enjoy cooking, go ahead and cook all you want, as long as you partake.
Some "experts" are big on the idea a restricted diet is a symptom of anorexia and recovery must involve eating taboo foods like chips and chocolate. Others (including a consultant I went to see) insist that you must eat meat. My own view is not to worry if eating chocolate or burgers scares you. Plenty of normal people never eat them and your fear of certain foods will subside once you get back into a normal eating pattern. So as long as your diet is half-way normal, it doesn't matter if it's a bit restricted.

That's it for the moment.
These are my own thoughts, based mostly on what has helped me. They may seem a little simplistic - especially "eat normally to recover from anorexia"duh - but sometimes I think we can overcomplicate things. From my own experience, I had some highly-trained and expensive minds trying to figure out what was up with me and which chemical compound would fix the glitch, when all I needed was some encouragement and reassurance. I also think there's a massive eating disorder industry, from publishing to treatment centres, that benefits from making anorexia a complex issue beyond the reach of common sense. Professional help can be useful, but in the words of Groucho Marx "It's good to keep an open mind. But not so open that your brain falls out." Your brain got you into this mess (when's the last time you saw an anorectic dog?) but it's also your best hope of getting out of it.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Inside I'm Screaming

A question I've asked myself repeatedly is "Why the f**k is everything so hard?" The answer lies within another question I always ask myself, when looking at last week, last year, past decades; "Why the f**k did I have to make everything so hard?"

That Looks Hard

I've gone back to see my counsellor. The other day we were discussing Were It's All Gone Wrong : Lately and I'd come to the conclusion that I'd run into a pain wall. I kept telling myself that I was fine and that things weren't bothering me. Things in particular being the pregnancies of two of my colleagues, and closer to home, my sister-in-law. I also haves stuff I need to sort out in the house, and there are issues at work. I was over being upset by these things so I carried on, using my self-help tools, telling no-one I was upset because I wasn't. It was all fine, until it wasn't, and now it's too late to reverse decisions I made in a state of wondering "Where's the nearest rock?"

The counsellor asked me if I felt sad. I hadn't thought about it that way before: sadness. I'd have said I felt resentment, like it wasn't fair. But who was I resenting? Life is an unsupervised playground; no-one's going around enforcing the rules and making sure everyone gets her turn. As soon as she named it, I became aware that that might be the name for the heavy mass that sucks the battery-life from my brain: sadness/sorrow.

I came across this piece by Martha Beck via She writes about regret and getting over it.

Of the four basic emotions—sad, mad, glad, and scared—regret is a mixture of the first two...Whatever the proportions, some regretters feel sadness but resist feeling anger; others acknowledge outrage but not sorrow. Denying either component will get you stuck in bitter, unproductive regret.

Self-recrimination is only one half of regret. The other half is sadness. Sadness is the uncoolest emotion of all. Even "sad" itself, as an adjective, means more than just unhappy. It means lame, uncool, pathetic. It's staying in when the world is going out. It's living with your parents. You might want to be cool, but you don't want to be sad. Sadness is sometimes described as a negative emotion, even though there's really no such thing. We are exhorted  "Stop being a victim", "get over yourself", "be positive", "choose happiness". While I've come around to the idea of choosing to cultivate happiness, I don't think we can do this by rejecting sadness.

Inside I'm Screaming
So why is everything so hard? Because half my brain-cells are being used as guards around the prison where I keep my unhappiness, my jealousy and grief. I go around. I visit people. I go to work. I meet people. I sleep with men.  Even when I'm doing nothing, I'm busy. I look fine on the outside; well-adjusted, grateful for what I have, Going Great, but inside I'm screaming, or sobbing.
It's not enough to free the prisoners. they have to be welcomed and reintegrated into society. Dressed, fed, employed and sat at the same table as joy and love and gratitude.

You Are Here
One of my pastimes is to apply my new knowledge to my old self; you know like those letters to me at 16? I've written bullet-pointed lists advice to me at sixteen, at twenty, at twenty-four, at thirty. They're good for filling the morning pages. I need to write one for me at thirty-eight.

If I had to give myself advice, and I do, I'd probably sum it up in two words: slow down. The people who are doing better than you did so because they carped their diems. They made the most of their time in education, they went out and worked instead of pursuing careers in patienthood, they had relationships. They didn't put off living until they got to New York and took over from Tina Brown.

Slow down and look around you. Don't think about all the things you were surrounded by that you didn't see at the time. You couldn't see anything because of the pain cloud. Look around and see what's there now. Look at yourself and think this is what I have to work with. Maybe my brain half-cooked. My suspicions that teenage malnutrition means I haven't reached my skeletal potential may be right. All of these things may be right but I can't change them.

What happens when I do slow down? The first thing that happens is I get uncomfortable. I notice the pain. The pain could be there from years ago, but it has an indefinite life. It scurries out of hiding. I read an awful lot of Sylvia Plath back in the day( really, could this get more clichéd?) and the line that resonated the most with me was from "Elm"

I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly, it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

Sylvia Plath

I like that sense of pain being a creature, an animal, an imp, or in her case a bird. A creature with a mind and a sense of direction, a predator that stalks and attacks its victims. That clings and won't leave go, because you are its only source of love. It offers companionship and reading Plath also offered a source of companionship. Some-one who died before I was born. Who never knew me, who'd never lived my life or met my friends. Plath and Theodore Roethke were my friends. At least they were real people, unlike my other chums such as Holden Caulfield and Lucy Snow.

The drama, and later the effort of avoiding all forms of drama, kept me busy. Even during my years of doing nothing, I was keeping busy. Keeping the pain at bay. Going around and around in my head. Creating drama, catastrophe, tragedy where there was none. Then creating as conventional a life as I could.

This month is the month of health and calm. I've never done this before. I've never consciously emptied my life. I always thought it was empty and needed filling. There were all those boxes unfilled; the man, the babies. the place to live, the job, the social life, the evenings.

Slow down and pick up your life in your arms. It'll slow you down. You won't reach the flights of fantasy while carrying your own real self. You won't go as far, but you'll really go there. Because if you try to leave it behind, to walk on and deafen yourself to its cries as you leave it to starve, then it'll find wings and will hide behind every misshapen tree, inside every cupboard, under every bed you sleep in, and in the space between you and others.

That screaming I can hear is my heart. It's me that it's screaming for. I'm going to pick it up and carry it.