Monthly Archives: November 2013

Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November!

Did you know that, in 1775, George Washington banned the practice of celebrating “Pope Day” in 1775, out of fears the anti-Catholic tradition would insult the Quebecois, whom he was hoping to court as allies in the insurrection? Since then, Bonfire Night hasn’t really been celebrated in the United States. I have to confess, I have never myself celebrated a proper Guy Fawkes Night, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know the joys of burning a strawman on a bonfire, getting drunk, and lighting off fireworks.

I am from Kentucky, after all.

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Ofqual overhauls GCSEs, but to what effect?

Ofqual has overhauled the GCSEs with a new scoring system. I am obviously not a product of the British educational system, so I don’t have any anecdotes as to its effectiveness. And while I think it’s important to occasionally revisit curriculum and britishclassroomtesting, I think that we in the West often gloss over-or ignore entirely-the underlying issues with underperforming schools

I went to high school in southeastern Kentucky, and at the end of my senior year, I had plans to become an English teacher. My own teachers, however, talked me out of pursuing this dream. All of them sang a chorus of three complaints, all of which are rarely (if ever) addressed:

  1. Lack of resources. We can’t expect schools to succeed unless they’re provided the tools they need to do so. Cuts to local government are  indirect cuts to local schools, and the government commitment to building 180 new free schools redistributes desperately needed funding away from schools already in existence and which, with the proper support, could well succeed. I saw firsthand what a lack of funding can do in my own Appalachian high school, where arts programmes were non-existent, resources were exhausted early in the year, and for many young people, sport was the only thing keeping them in school and off the streets. Even that’s gone, now. Students can’t study and teachers can’t teach unless the schools are properly funded, and it’s simply not happening.
  2. Teachers aren’t teaching. My physical science teacher would sit at his computer looking alternatively at internet sport sites or my female classmates’ breasts, doling out assignments from the book but never actually teaching. I learnt more from Iain Stewart than I did from him. And he wasn’t the only one. It’s blasphemy amongst teachers’ unions to suggest that teachers are lazy, incompetent or both. And it’s true that teachers are some of the most unfairly vilified professionals, and the last thing I want to do is paint with a broad brush here. But the fact remains that many teachers simply aren’t teaching, or they aren’t teaching effectively. The answer to this problem, much like Santa Claus, is found in Finland. Oft cited as the epitome of Western education, the Fins have done a few things right. For one, they have some of the most rigorous teacher training in the world. They also treat their teachers as the professionals they are, affording the field a high level of respect and dignity which isn’t seen in the UK or the US. Part of that respect is  paying teachers equitably, as the professionals they are. Teaching is an economically equitable professional in Finland, unlike in the US or the UK. Because of this, Finnish schools are able to recruit the best and brightest graduates, who then become the best and brightest teachers, which can produce the best and brightest students. And Britain deserves the best and brightest.
  3. Cultural attitudes towards education must change. Folks can blame the government for the cuts or the teachers for their failings, but nobody ever wants to look in the mirror. I remember one of my high school teachers, almost on the verge of tears, explaining to me her exasperation. People didn’t care, she said. Students didn’t care. Parents didn’t care. The adolescent refrain of “when am I going to use this?” grated on their nerves, sure, but more so they were concerned about the cultural attitudes towards education. We have to make school cool. Parents have to get over their own insecurities and push their kids to do better than they themselves did. Too often parents, often subtly and inadvertently, discourage educational pursuits because they themselves cannot relate. “You’ll grow up to be just like your dad” needs to be replaced with “you’ll grow up to strive for more than we’ve got.” Parents need to actively engage in their children’s education, taking an interest in schoolwork and realising that, at the end of the day, the onus of their children’s success falls on their shoulders. Likewise, we need to take a long, hard look at the systemic issues disempowering the lower classes, including ensuring that poor kids aren’t going hungry, that they’re not having to drop out to help support their families, or that they’re not worried about crime, neglect and abuse. After all, it’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you’ve got no boots to start with.

I appreciate that the changes to the GCSE come with good intentions, and I certainly don’t have all of the answers. Throwing out three talking points is much easier than coming up with substantive policy alternatives. But until we start funding schools properly, attracting quality teachers, and empowering and encouraging students, we’re never going to fix our schools-int he US or the UK.

The UK has a strong history of democracy, and while targeted surveillance may play an important role in protecting national security, in doing so it should not erode the very values it seeks to protect.

An excerpt from a letter, signed by 70 leading human rights organisations, to David Cameron over what they perceive as eroding press freedoms in the UK.

While the NSA and GCHQ appear to be the worst offenders — at least according to the documents that are currently public — we cannot forget that mass surveillance is a global problem and needs a global solution.

Edward Snowden, from his “Manifesto For the Truth,” published in Der Spiegel. Just me, or is he calling for a worldwide revolution?

Tamera Foster sings “Wishing On A Star”

Obviously I don’t get to watch X Factor live like y’all, so I have to wait for the performances to be uploaded to YouTube. (That also means I don’t hear the judges’ comments, which gives me, at least I think, a unique perspective.)

I don’t really have a favourite this year. I like hearing Abi Alton and looking at Kingsland Road. That being said, though, “Wishing On a Star” is one of my favourite songs of all time. Usually X Factor contestants butcher our favourite songs. This isn’t a poor reflection on them-I loved Little Mix several years ago, but their version of En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go” just doesn’t hold a candle to the original-but a fact.

Tamera, though? Y’all, she killed it.

“It Could Be You” – a short video gives voice to those on benefits

Regardless of your stance on the issue of benefits reforms and reductions, the people this directly effects-those living on the dole-are so often overlooked. The Child Poverty Action Group, in conjunction with politics.co.uk, does an excellent job in this short clip of giving voice to the nameless and faceless masses who depend on benefits for their survival.

Chicago vs London: Round 1 – Entertainment

I first told my father I wanted to move to London when I was five. I last swore I would never live in Chicago when I was 25. Yet somehow, despite my best efforts, I’ve not properly lived in London, but have managed the Windy City for over two years. I’ve fallen in love with Chicago, its lakeshore, its giant rats that look like Master Splinter but attack like a friggin’ honey badger, and the friendly and forward-thinking Midwesterners who live here. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss my beloved London, with its winding streets which, on the night bus, make you feel like you’re in A Newport State of Mind. Yes, Chicago may be my husband, but London is my lover. As soon as I get enough money and the cats are grown, I’ll leave Chi-town for Londontown.

And like just like when sleeping with two people, it’s hard not to compare everything from size to warmth to overall performance. When I first moved here, it was very hard not to compare Chicago to London. They have many similarities-both are an amalgamation of neighbourhoods which were once separate villages, each with its own unique identity. They both smell brackish and industrial if you catch the wind at the right angle. And both will have hosted the Olympics by the end of this decade. Oh wait.

But which is better? Which is truly superior? I set out-and by out, I mean down, on the couch, with a beer-to investigate. In this week’s “London vs Chicago” matchup, we take on three key components of entertainment-sport, music, and telly. Will London leap to the top, or will the Windy City win this one? Find out below in an in-depth study just chock full of alliteration!

Sport
I confess, I’m not much of a sports fan. Or, at least I wasn’t until I moved to Chicago. From the friendly confines of Wrigley Field to the Madhouse on Madison all the way down to the Cell and Soldier Field, Chicago has some of the greatest and most storied stadiums in the world. Yes, London has Wembley, Wimbledon, and Stamford Bridge-perhaps my favourite sporting venue on earth (I keep the blue flag flying high!)-and yes, it hosted the Olympics with characteristic

Wrigley Field opened in 1916 and has served as home of the "lovable losers" of Major League Baseball, the Chicago Cubs, ever since. Affectionately known to fans and enthusiasts as "the friendly confines," it is one of the last bastions of pure Americana.

Wrigley Field opened in 1916 and has served as home of the “lovable losers” of Major League Baseball, the Chicago Cubs, ever since. Affectionately known to fans and enthusiasts as “the friendly confines,” it is one of the last bastions of pure Americana.

pomp and circumstance. And while there’s no denying that Londoners can make a football match into a Mardi Gras party at Animal House, it can quickly it can quickly turn into the stampede that killed Mufassa. Chicagoans, on the other hand, just get drunk-whether tailgating before the Bears game, betting on NCAA basketball, or cheering on the Blackhawks for a 2010s Stanley Cup three-peat. Sport isn’t just a form of entertainment here, it’s a way of life. I’ve literally seen grown men come to fisticuffs over who the greatest Cub was. Our greatest steakhouse was founded by a sportscaster. A goat is responsible for the Cubs’ century-long misfortune. And we have an entire neighbourhood built around a baseball diamond that is essentially one giant fraternity party 24/7.

Score: Chicago 1 – 0 London

Music
Ask me about the time I was invited to do heroin with Pete Doherty. Okay, so heroin wasn’t explicitly part of the invitation, but I mean, come on. It’s Pete. London has produced some of the world’s greatest music, from Handel to Adele. The undisputed capital of the European

Pete Doherty is one of the most poetic songwriters of this century. And he paints with his own blood, too.

Pete Doherty is one of the most poetic songwriters of this century. And he paints with his own blood, too.

entertainment industry, London combines the  best of New York, LA, Stockholm, and Nashville, producing an eclectic and talented group of artists. And don’t get me started on the live music scene, from The Hope and Anchor to The Old Queens Head (both in Islington) to the more legendary Royal Albert Hall and O2 Arena. Sure, Chicago has the Metro, the Congress, and a decent local music scene. And yeah, we’re rivaled only by New Orleans in jazz and Memphis in blues. But it’s just not even a contest. Chicago is an X Factor reject; London is Leona.

Score: Chicago 1 – 1 London

Telly
One word: Broadcasting House. One more word: Elstree. Plus, Chicago Fire keeps shutting down my neighbourhood because they like to blow up cars at 8:00 am, like this is Karachi or something. Bonus for London: Blue Peter is filmed there, which is of little consequence, except it

EastEnders was one of my first introductions to workaday Britain. I used to dream of living in Walford. I also wanted to be a rubbish collector. Kids are silly.

EastEnders was one of my first introductions to workaday Britain. I used to dream of living in Walford. I also wanted to be a rubbish collector. Kids are silly.

gives me an excuse to say Blue Peter. I seriously don’t think the Brits know just how filthy that sounds to us Yanks. (But really-the BBC is one of the most respected broadcasters in the world. Chicago just can’t compete.)

Score: Chicago 1 – 2 London

So London won tonight. But don’t worry Chicago, I still love you and your horrible drivers, your pseudo-Canadian accent and your hot dogs. Actually, not your hot dogs. I like ketchup on mine. Guess in that regard, London wins again.