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What I don't know about teaching

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Monday, 14 Dec 2020, 06:53

Book Cover for kate Clanchy's 'Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me'.

A reivew of sorts written in several parts over 12 hours between 8:00am and 8:00pm this wet, dull, claustrophic, semi-lockdown Sunday on the Western edges of Lewes ... 

I'm 60 pages in and when I open the book I still get a waft of fresh paper. I need a book like this as a reality check and reminder of who matters in all of this education malarkey - the student ! 

I'll grow to feel in control, learn quickly ways to support their learning.

I like this:

'It's a bodily experience, like learning to be a beekeeper, or an acrobat: a series of stinging humiliations and painful accidents and occasional sublime flights which leave you either crippled or change'. p.1

How can teaching online via webcam be a bodily experience? An 'out body' experience perhaps? Not helped where none of the students are present - all have their webcams turned off. 

Kate Clanchy supports my idea regarding motivation, she makes this optimistic remark about her students (she teaches in school) 'all children will behave perfectly ... if they want to know something very much, about sex or anything else, and an adult sincerely sets out to tell them.' p.15

The issue of course if neither the students not the teacher want to impart knowledge: take 'Black Lives Matter'. Not my view, but I have had others ask why it is being taught to a group of all white students - or harder, how to teach it to a class where one student is black. Should it be awkward? Would it be like teaching menstruation to a class of predominantly boys with one girl present? What if the class was entirely black but for one white kid? I think the teachers missed the point, the institution failed in selling the purpose of teaching the class and in fact should it not be the case that only those who know what they are talking about get up to teach?

A further insight into the students comes where the author sums up her experience of working (her choice) with students who had been isolated in the 'inclusion' portacabin on the other side of the playing field. These children had misbehaved so badly or so often that they were separated from the rest of the school. Kate Clanchy is a saint; she has a lot to teach us. She tells a story of how she encouraged them to write her notes and put them anonymously in a box. Those that were scrumpled up and dropped in the bin proved more revealing as it told stories of physical and mental abuse and neglect. We know that how children are raised has a profound impact on their behaviour and response to the wider world. 

'No one is bad, though many are sad, and a few are mad' she writes on page 56.

I'm reading a lot at the moment. 

In between reviewing 1 hour 42 minutes of Dylan Wiliam on 'Formative Assessment' and the need for actions in schools to be based on evidence and checking through Dave White on 'Visitors and Residents' in the digital world, I riggle my way through the rest of Kate Clanchy. 

There are no surprises that she uncovers systemic racism in poetry competitions she enters her pupils for, no surprises at how awkwardly church schools fit into secular, or rather multiracial Britain, nor how middle-class parents tend to point their kids towards middle-class and aspiration schools leaving the general population lacking in a proper understanding of the communities around them.

Very Quiet Foreign Girls is worth Googling for their poems. Like 'Dead Poets Society' this is a group of underprivileged girls, rather than privileged boys, who met to read and compose poetry. The multiracial and international mix of students is extraordianry: Khurds, Iranians, Somalians, Poles and Hungarians, Moroccan, Afghan, Indian and Pakistani with a suitable mix fo relgions across branches of Islam, as well as Hindu, Cathollic and no religion at all.

Deprivation can be a shocker: the way the children live, their poverty, how treated at home, the uniform a release from having to find anything special or different to wear, shoes in all weathers a pair of flip flops, travel to London from Essex, let alone 'abroad' a signal of something 'beyond' and out of their reach to the point of feeling like impostors to be with anyone so privileged. 

'Poverty is stronger than plumbing' Kate Clanchy writes (p.160), 'stronger than medicine, stronger than art'. 

The first taste I got of it was on benefits in London in April 1985; not an expected path for an Oxford graduate who'd been spoilt for choices at the end of the Milk Round the Year Before. Then doing odd jobs, in a flat in Willesden and joining the Tricycle Youth Theatre and being around as many black faces as white. 

I'd not lived; I'd not travelled in my own country. I've been rubbing off the public school ever since and have taken a long time to reclaim Oxford rather than simply stating that I went to 'college'. Elitism comes in many forms and I am guilty of belonging to a few of them in the past (not always by choice).

Education is national, it is the community, it ought to be a melting pot, it ought to be a leveller. It should not be the fragmented, privileged, excluding, isolating experience that it is in Britain where too many children's experience is amongst 'their own kind' geographically, and by race, religion, class and wealth. 

Kate Clanchy has been what has made this a weekend, not a workday; my working week extended with the Dylan Wiliam to digest (it will take three passes through my gut like a cow chewing the cud). What surprises me is when out of the blue she drops her pen and smacks into Black and Wiliam and the entire idea of Formative Assessment (WALT) with the enthusiasm of a vengeant pugilist. I like her for it. My first notes on Wiliam are to question the keynote I have just sat through as a self-serving literature review which makes a lot of poor research conducted in the States simply so that he can destroy it. More of Wiliam elsewhere - I applaud 'evidence based' responses to any problem (though not, Kate Clanchy would say) at the expense of creativity and poetry in particular. is Wiliam and his brand of formative assessment most suited to math and engineering rather than the arts? Would fine art, pottery or make up benefit from or be destroyed by formative assessment. At what point does formative assessment in the training of a competitive sailor have to give way to intuition, for the musician to play the piece their way? Is formative assessment the scales and these alone will make for a dull clone?

We get into the apostrophe in English as a defining standard for how well it is taught, or not, and taken up by Grammar Schools but not the Comprehensive - or not. It is a detail too far for me. I take her point that the simplest advice to those in doubt over the use of the apostrophe is to never use it.

From p.207 to p.217 the PostIts cover most of each page. Her attack on formative assessment is heartfelt. I need, in the parlance, to ‘unpack it’. Kate Clanchy ‘began teaching thirty years ago’ (1990s). Since when there has been ‘the inexorable rise of the thing called ‘formative assessment’, and its lumpen classroom equivalent, the WALT’. '(p.207) 

WALT stands for ‘We Are Learning To …’

They should head a trainee teacher’s lesson plan and guide any observation.

The theory goes, Kate Clanchy explains, is that they ‘interact seamlessly with the curriculum and let everyone know where they are at’. 

‘They break up the lesson into simple learning objectives that the children themselves understand’. (p.207) 

‘This is formative assessment because it forms and changes he student as well as marking them’. (p.208).

[I can only think in terms of old school essay writing for homework. Formative assessment at its most successful, for feedback and differentiation - surely? And then the five hundred year old Oxbridge tutorial were students armed with essays debating one with their tutor and mentally marking their own effort as excellent, average, mediocre or non-existent, while forming a view of their own months, even years before any summative assessment into a formal written exam]. 

‘Formative assessment does not allow for ineffable processes,’ she writes (p.210) as she expands on a case study of a student who grew into himself and developed self awareness and confidence as a result of his creative writing, something she is sure would have been stymied by WALT and overly prescriptive formative assessment. 

She has a dig at something called the ‘Black Box’ which is an idea that Black and Wiliam also developed around WALT and formative assessment; I am currently ignorant of it. She argues that often there is less need for this kind of formative assessment and a greater need for summative assessment in the form of a concluding ‘well done’. (p.210).

Then she bemoans how an English test has been reduced to using a Wikipedia entry on Titanic to compose a nonfiction essay. A task that she considers thin and limited because it starts from not much and has little opportunity to flower the way the simple experience of listening to a poem and then writing one of your own can have. (p.211).

‘In my dress,’ she writes on p.212, we never need to write another WALT. In my dreams my colleagues are trusted to choose great, rich texts to teach, and we all trust the texts to teach the children. We assess both creative and critical responses to them as their final exams’. 

Some decades later Kate Clanchy spotted this her most promising student from those days of poetry and creative english. She got up the courage to contact him by LinkedIn.

‘When we read books with you,’ he wrote, ‘the world opened up. Your lessons were I learnt who I was,’ he continued, ‘became conscious of myself, grew up. That time was important to me, a free space’. (p.217)

She goes on to provide illustrative anecdotes for dyslexia and ASD I like that as much is devoted to what those with such issues can do, rather than what they can not do. Then we cover body image, the Audrey Hepburn like nymph who gains weight so quickly and others too, another raped and a third caught up a child marriage or engagement in Pakistan.






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How to write scenes in fiction

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 13 May 2015, 11:06

Fig.1. My goal. To write scenes as fluidly as changing gear.

Goal: What does my central character want from this scene?

Conflict. Who is the conflict with?

Disaster. What is the disaster for this scene?

Fig.2. Common scene writing errors. From Bickman.  

I have characters, locations, events and situations in my head. For some characters the story runs for fifty years, most intense age 6 to 21. Armed with this editor's tool I can ruthless delete, rewrite or come up with fresh scenes that meet the above criteria. It fits the pattern I want in my head of a story with momentum - that could be made into a linear drama for TV or film. I particularly recognise the need to ask repeatedly 'what is the disaster?' to conclude a scene. I related to this from a career in writing persuasive copy and videos where you repeatedly ask, then ask again 'what is the problem?" The first answer is usually weak, though compelling ... more likely the ninth or tenth idea will fit the brief.

 Fig.3. Elements of Fiction Writing

I continue to read, note and try ideas from Jack M. Bickham's book 'Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure.' I continue with the Open University course on FutureLearn 'Start Writing Fiction', as well as content on Open Learn of the same title.   

I also contribute to a LinkedIn group and Facebook pages on 'Start Writing Fiction' while writing in my own blog 'Start Writing Fiction.'

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Harness your obsessions.

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Tuesday, 12 May 2015, 16:12

We are all hung up on something – the terrible ex, the neighbours from hell, mothers, spiders, fitting rooms, flying or being alone. Anything you like. Some of the best stories come from the deepest and darkest obsessions (just ask Alfred Hitchcock). So dig deep and find your own personal heart of darkness.

I like this tip on writing from the Open University. 

I've come to it a very roundabout way. Via a FutureLearn initiative to get people writing 140 word fiction on Twitter. I think I've posted a dozen @mymindbursts. 

What do I get hung up about?

  • People parking up on the kerb in residential streets
  • Dogs, and cats, allowed to run about as they please yapping and shitting as they like.
  • Rubbish left to burn and smoulder for days
  • Loud radios played in gardens as soon as the sun comes out.
  • Exceedingly loud petrol-engine driven strimmers used in gardens on a Sunday morning.
  • Anyone who recites the party line instead of saying something truthful or original.
  • Overtaking on the inside lane.
  • Hogging the central lane.
  • Cyclists riding abreast on narrow roads.
  • Motorbikes revved and diddled with as their relaxing weekend activity.
  • Wheelie bins left out for days
  • Littering at beauty spots - some people regularly pull over a layby and toss their MacDonalds out of the window on leaving

I have this story called 'When the green man saw red.'

Like Michael Douglas in "Fallen' he goes mental trying to set the world straight and probably gets done over as a result. Sounds like me? I attract vandals and abuse. Was I born an arse who made one through parenting and boarding school. One wonders. 

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To write, write it down. All of it.

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Thursday, 7 May 2015, 10:15

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.” Will Self

This is tip one of ten from the Open University course 'Start Writing Fiction' and its launch of a Twitter Fiction campaign.

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Steven Pressfield’s Foolscap Method Template

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 6 May 2015, 08:42

Fig.1 Fig.1. Steven Pressfield's 'Foolscap Method' to write a novel

Once more I am loving the Open University's free online course 'Start Writing Fiction' on FutureLearn: it only started this week so there is plenty of time to join now. This free online course is all about character, so us novice fiction writers struggle with thoughts on plot. I love this from author Steven Pressfield: 'The Foolscap Method' is for me the 'Creative Brief' by another name, or even Churchill's dictum of being given reports on a single sheet of paper. By setting parameters and being succinct you are forced to get to the kernel of an idea. When constructing a story then, say a novel, answer the following. I find I return to and refine this often and eventually have it on the wall to stop me wandering off ... those ideas and stories can be kept for another project.

Fig.2 Close up on Steven Pressfield's 'Foolscap Method' used to write his first novel 

Steven Pressfield's Foolscap Method : From his blog.

A bit more on the Foolscap Method from his blog. The Foolscap Method - Video 1

The transcript The Foolscap Method - Video 2

 

 THE FOOLSCAP METHOD

Beginning

 

Middle

 

End

 

Story telling device

 

Theme

 

Inciting Incident

 

Climax


Looks easy? Then add 70,000 coherent, clear, exciting words!!!

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23 ways to a FutureLearn fix

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 6 May 2015, 08:56

The courses I've done with FutureLearn over the last 18 months.

  1. World War 1: A history in 100 Stories: Monash University
  2. Medicine and the Arts: The University of Cape Town 
  3. The Mind is Flat: University of Warwick 
  4. Understanding Drugs and Addiction. King’s College, London 
  5. World War 1: Changing Faces of Heroism. University of Leeds 
  6. Explore Filmmaking: National Film and Television School 
  7. How to Read a Mind: The University of Nottingham
  8. Start Writing Fiction: Fall 2014. The Open University
  9. Word War 1: Trauma and Memory: The Open University 
  10. World War 1: Aviation Comes of Age: University of Birmingham 
  11. World War 1: Paris 1919 - A New World: University of Glasgow 
  12. How to Succeed at: Writing Applications: The University of Sheffield 
  13. Introduction to Forensic Science: University of Strathclyde, Glasgow 
  14. Shakespeare’s Hamlet: University of Birmingham 
  15. Climate Change: Challenges and Solution. University of Exeter
  16. Managing my Money: The Open University
  17. Community Journalism: Cardiff University
  18. Developing Your Research Project: University of Southampton 

Those I'm on or have pending

  1. World War 1: A 100 Stories: Monash University
  2. Start Writing Fiction: Spring 2015: The Open University
  3. Monitoring Climate From Space: European Space Agency
  4. Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum: University of Leicester
  5. Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales:  The Hans Christian Andersen Centre
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How I write

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 1 Apr 2015, 19:11

I've abandoned the computer screen and QWERTY keyboard for writing; I think better pen to paper - in my case ink pen to refill pad.

I am using notes from Kurt Vonnegut on story shape, from Susannah Waters on scene building tips and cheats and from the zoologist and anthropologist Desmond Morris who wrote 'Man Watching'.

Between them I've been standing back from my efforts of the last few months to try to see the wood from the jungle; to give it some order, like a closely managed English deciduous copse rather than a wild and vast forest.

There is masses online to feed you with tips, hints and cheats.

And through things like the BBC Writers' Room and a regional arts organisation, such as New Writing South, in my case, ample opportunities to have a go at being published or produced.

Meanwhile, despite the number of variations I've had on 'The Form Photo' I feel there is a shape worth cutting from the growth I have laid down.

From Kurt Vonnegut I take and overlap two story shapes - am I allowed to do that? Robbie, follows the 'man in the whole' pattern - unable to thrive in the rarified wealth of her 'sinks' with some relief into a few more modest years living with his maternal grandparents. While Kizzy, is a Cinderella story shape - it has to be as she comes from some a deprived background: on the round, illiterate, abused and poor. She makes a few bids at escape and is then rescued through adoption. Any of this make sense? It does to me. Simplified it is a 'Boy meets Girl story' where Kizzy and Robbie meet and become fond of each other as kids ... then meet again in the later teens but she says she wants nothing to do with him unless he proves himself in various ways for her.

I'm posting all draft of my current writing in 'Start Writing Fiction.' 

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The shape of stories

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Monday, 30 Mar 2015, 11:13
From Writing

Kurt Vonnegut's wanted to write an MA thesis on the common shapes of stories: he was told it was too simple. He can be found in various interviews and presentations waxing lyrical about the shape stories take.

His are: 1) Cinderella: needs no elaboration. Applies to implemental steps of progress, radical failure then absolute glory.

2) Boy Meets Girl similar: we know it. Applies to any story of desire for something, its loss, then recovery. Also romcom territory. 

3) Man in a Whole: things go bad, then you get out of your whole. Shawshank Redemtion. Martian. Haruki Murakami wrote a novel in which the protagonist was really down a well much of the time. I feel I'm most inclined to relate to and to write this one.

4) New Testament: like Cinderella–gifted things, which are then taken away before being returned with interest.

5) Old Testament: gifted things that are taken away forever.

6) Creation Stories: God made Earth in seven days ...

7) From Bad to Worse: And it never gets better. Says it all. Fallen.

8) Which Way Is Up: That ambiguity in life where we don't know what is good or bad from actions and events. Probably the hardest to sustain. Hamlet. 

What you get if you use a plot generator smile

 Have a go with Plot Generator

Of far better use is TV Tropes, which is a cross-media analysis of story types, with examples and links to the authors. 

 

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Reading and writing with fresh eyes

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 25 Mar 2015, 07:37
From Writing

Fig.1. Philip Pirrip is confronted by the 'fearful man, all in course gray ... '

Start Writing Fiction is a FutureLearn Course. Its content makes up part of an OpenLearn Course. It is a thread in the Creative Writing Course here at the OU.Three months on having completed the course it is about to repeat. I'll be there.

From E-Learning IV

Fig.2. How we learn in the 21st century. J F Vernon E-learning (2011)

We learn through repetition; not simply learning by rote.

We learn through passing through the same loop over and over again. There is nothing so special about graduation, gaining an MA, a PhD or achieving the lofty status of 'professor' so long as you are willing to climb, as if on a thermal, one focused ever ascending loop seeing the same thing over and over again in new light, until, through insight or height from the ground you see something new and have something new to say.

There are some key lessons to learn from 'Start Writing Fiction; (SWF)' though it is never the whole story - for that you need to sign up to a graduate course on Creative Writing. There's plenty to work with though. I look forward to being reminded what matters. It kicks off again on 27th April and runs for three months. 

Reading matters as much as writing.

The precocious child who read copious volumes and gets into literature in their early teens has an advantage. I was slow to read and reluctant to read. The only novels I may have read as a child were forced on me through school. Even in my teens as I read 'Great Expectations' and 'Silas Marner' for O' Levels and 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' for A' Levels I did say like a parrot: If I picked up an 'B' grade at both levels it was only because I regurgitated precisely what I had been tutored to put down.

Over three decades later, 33/35 years later to be exact if I check my diary from that time, I am reading Dickens with fresh eyes.

My late mother bought me a second hand edition of all the Dickens novels. I never read one. I now have 'Great Expectations' for free courtesy of 'Project Guttenberg' on my Kindle. I am reading it with lessons from 'Start Writing Fiction' in the front of my mind. SWF concentrates on the key, though not only component, of good writing: character. I am chewing over every line of Dickens with a rye smile on my face: I see what he's doing with Pip, with the escaped convict from the hulk, his older sister and her husband Joe the Blacksmith, with Miss Haversham and Estella. If 'character is plot' then the plot moves, in a series of steps, over the heads of each character. We are carried by Pip with repeated moments of laugh out loud insights to a child's perception and feelings for the world. How had I not see this before?

For the umpteenth time I am doing what doesn't come naturally to me: I should be painting, not writing.

Intellectually I feel like the child who is left handed who had than arm tied behind his back as a child to force him to write against his will with his right. I have managed well enough, but it is against character and it is too late to correct? I need to work with words as the text that describes what I see. Text has other values too of course. It can carry a story beyond a single canvas.

A creative writing tutor, editor and author - former opera singer and opera director - Susannah Waters in reviewing my writing on a retreat last September gave me more than SWF can do on its own. An A4 sheet torn in half offers the following tips on 'Scene Building:'

  • Who am I?
  • Stay in the person's head
  • Put me in the place

She expands on these.

Every line of 'Great Expectations' is in Pip's voice, written as autobiography much later in life, in the moment, capturing for now, his wonder, fear, feelings and hopes. It helps me enormously as I try to construct a story of my own set  in the couple of decades 1966 to 1986, rather than 1820 to 1860. Characters don't change, technology and society does. It helps me to contain my imagination and fears as I feel it falling apart. Character will hold it together; each character needs to surprise. 

I wish I could find the link to the BBC Radio 4 programme in which an author, Michael Morpurgo or Alexander McCall Smith talks about writing; it was on over the last three weeks. Or was it on TV?! Tips and devices were spoken of, but what had most resonance for me was the idea that an authors wonder at even the most mundane creates interest for the reader. 

I used to discount Dickens as old fashioned; I now feel that I am reading Dickens with the same wonder of someone who has broken through the fog of a new language and is becoming fluent. Can I now translate this into my own writing? For now the juggling game I am playing is my writing in one hand, Dickens in the other.

Sharing where I stand matters hugely. Knowing that others are following my journey and are supportive matters: it keeps me going. Being online matters. It is the next best thing to standing on a soapbox in the local park and reading passages from my efforts. Feedback matters as it guides you.

On this retreat last September we read out our work, actually Susannah read my piece for me as I wanted to hear it from a different voice. We were around an open fire in a cottage in Devon. Telling stories around a fire takes you back to the origins of storytelling; what must you say to hold their attention, to keep them entertained, to make them cry (I did with that one), to make them laugh, fear, hope, clap, get angry ... and ponder, even panic over the outcome. In that story I had a soldier in the First World War slowly sinking into mud, up to his chest and neck ... screaming for life.

 

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Scene Building

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Who am I? (Point of view). Who is accessing this scene for the reader?

Stay in that person’s head – same applies to omniscient narrator. Stay in their age, their voice, their way of thinking/see/noticing, because of who they are and where they are, both emotionally and physically, and contextually (time of relating this story).

Now, from that person’s viewpoint, i.e. you are him or her:

What can you see?

What can you hear?

What can you smell?

What do you touch?

What do you taste?

i.e put me in that place.

What are you doing?

Show me state of mind/emotions/reactions

What are you saying?

What are you thinking?

With thanks to Susannah Waters for this.

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Five Years blogging here : time to reflect

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Why is Oxford, with the Oxford Internet Institute and a renowned Education Department not joining the e-learning revolution?

700 years of taking things at their own pace? Their research shows that it adds nothing to their successful and 'elite' model of teaching and research? They don't need to attract students. There can be over 100 applying for every available place.

They do however need to diversify.

It's taken 30 years to tip the profile of the Oxford student from 72% privately educated public school boy to around 49% privately educated and a 50/50 male/female split. By not joining in will they perpetuate the 'Ivory Towers' impression?

There are other reasons to develop massive open online courses, not least to appear open and accessible. The University of Southampton, by contrast, home to Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the only PhD programme on WebScience, have produced nearly a dozen 'massive open online courses' (MOOCs) over the last 18 months. I believe all, or most are on the FutureLearn platform; all are also embedded on the Southampton virtual learning environment (VLE) for students to do to supplement their course work. This I see as an important, valuable and better way to blend the learning experience. It would have been my prefered way of learning, offering some flexibility on the traditional course of lectures.

Is the Open University the only one to have entire degree courses online?

Not a book, not a residential, no face-to-face tutorials either.

By the time I had completed the MAODE, five modules over 3 1/2 years I assumed many other entire degrees, let alone individual courses would be offered in this way. They are not. A MOOC delivering two/three hours of crafted, scaffolded learning a week over a few weeks is demanding enough ... but a module that runs for six months, with 12/16 hours, even 22 hours a week? Though a 'prestige' course the OU MBA programme will spend, I believe, around £3m and three years creating a single one of its modules. These are expected to run for eight to ten years.

How much therefore to design, write and produce five of these, let alone the running and administrative costs?

Is it the right thing to do? E-learning is not a feature film. It is more like a garden; it must change and adapt to the seasons and climate change.

There was no e-learning climate two decades ago; it's the ozone of learning.

FutureLearn prides itself on responding to feedback. I've seen many subtle, responsive changes: several ways through discussion threads like this one which often run to several THOUSAND comments, pooling of creation skills amongst those producing the courses and greatly improving the forms of assessment: quizzes that are masterfully written to teach and to test, tasks for peer review that are part of the learning experience and now opportunities to sign up for a written exam - you pay a fee to attend a test centre, take the exam, and submit your paper. Of course, at this stage the idea of 'Open' is greatly weakened because once again their are parameters and barriers caused by geography and cost, probably also of confidence and familiarity with the formal written exam away from the keyboard and screen.

I reflect, today, on FIVE YEARS of formally studying Open and Distance Education. My blog runs to over 2,500 posts. What next? The same again? I've neither found a home in academia, or in corporate learning and development. Have I studied the wrong subject? I hanker forever to be telling stories. I thought I would successfully make the transition from linear-based video learning and development where I'd worked for some  twenty years, but have not and to rub my face in it the demand for video is finally increasing. Though never again the broadcast like budges we had for multiple cameras and live shoots, for a mini-bus of actors and a director from 'The Bill,' and special effects from The Mill.

I have had my eye on the Creative Writing Course for at least four of the last five years, but felt, for a change, I'd finish something. Instead, I find I am back in March 2006 going through two large 'Really Useful Boxes' which contain the printed off manuscripts of two novels, a couple of screenplays, a TV play and assorted short stories. 

Is this my life? Dominated by a history of making the wrong choices?

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Review, Reflect, Repeat ...

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Sunday, 4 Jan 2015, 09:05

Fig.1. My mash-up from the Start Writing Fiction, OU and FutureLearn MOOC. 

Many weeks after the Open University MOOC on Future Learn closed 'Start Writing Fiction' I find I am returning to the many activities across the eight weeks to refresh, reflect, and build on my knowledge. As well as doing my bit for that 'community' by doing a few reviews (all assignments are peer reviewed). I completed the course in early December.

I return to reflect, to develop ideas, to be reminded of the excellent lessons I have learnt there, and in particular on how we use fact and fiction, whether consciously or not. In pure fantasy writing I find, inevitably, that I ground events in places I know from my youth, or have since researched. I use the hook of reality and my experiences on which to build the fiction. While currently I am embedded in what started as 90/10 fiction to fact I find it is increasingly looking like 95/5 in favour of fact as my imagination is close to the truth about a particular character and his experience of the First World War. All this from a simple exercise in week one called 'Fact or Fiction?' where we are asked first of all two write something that contains three factual elements and one fiction, and then to write something that contains three fictional elements and one factual. There are thousands of these now, many very funny, original or captivating. In week one, I'm guessing that around 10,000 got through the week. How many posted? There are 967 comments. This happens. It is an open course. The same applies for most web content: 95:5 is the ratio of readers to writers. Many people prefer not to do what they feel is 'exposing themselves' online. Why should they.

Anyway, this gives me reason to argue that it is an excellent idea to keep a blog of your OU studies. All of this can remain private, but at least, as I know have in this blog, when the doors close behind a module you can, months, even years later, return to key activities and assignments and build on the lessons you learnt. More importantly, as we all forget with such ease, we can keep the memory of the lessons fresh.

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This is not all! A lot of its is on A 363 Website *

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From E-Learning V

Fig.1 Second hand 'used' book on creative writing

After eight weeks I recently slid from the end of the OU and FutureLearn MOOC 'Start Writing Fiction' and felt bereft. There is a Facebook group, a Linkedin group and a blog ... all set up by us students. The links sadly to the OU are the kind where you a dropped into the centre of a labyrinth with no idea of where to turn, and no one to talk to. 

Anyway. I was particularly delighted that the previous owner of this book has added the note onto the cover 'This is not all! A lot of it is on A 363 website*' which is where I will potentially pick up my OU studies in ten months time. '

Meanwhile I have three more MOOCs with FutureLearn. 

*A363 Advance Creative Writing

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Week 7 'Start Writing Fiction' The OU @ FutureLearn

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 12 Dec 2014, 07:12
From E-Learning V

Fig.1. My mashup from the FutureLearn App using Studio

I continue to wonder what impact FutureLearn will have on future models for e-learning platforms. I turn screengrabs into aide memoires like the one above. 

Comments on the 'Start Writing Fiction' threads are now down from 3000 per thread to a few hundred ... a fall out of 95% is usual for a myriad of reasons. It'll be interesting to find out how many make it to the end ... and in due course who ends up a published author, and most especially how many migrate from a FREE MOOC to a paid-for course with The OU. I have a sense that most on the module are over 60 and broke.

We've just listened to a handful of authors talking about the importance of reading.

I found this insightful and helpful across the board. I relate to Louis de Bernieres in terms of reading habits - different authors, same approach entering and re-entering writing/reading modes in months ... something I need to change i.e. write, edit and read a daily pattern. Patricia Duncker says she read and views everything - a philosophy of Francois Truffaut who I was a fan of, especially trashy novels in his case. And from Alex Garner I see the value of seeing a novel as a screenplay, even as a director setting scenes, something incidentally Hilary Mantel talks about in an OU / BBC interview - write in scenes. Succinct. No messing. It relates to her understanding of how we reader in the 21st century - that we are used to and know the snappiness of the movie and TV. She says that the lengthy descriptions of Victorian novels are no longer palatable. I take from this that we have far too great a vivid view of the world. We know what slums, jungles and places globally look like. We see through time in documentaries, and film and now online. You mention the mud of Passchendaele and most people can picture it from commonly shared photographs and documentaries. An editing exercise reduced 500 words to 50. Most novice writers grossly overwrite. This OU MOOC favours pithy craft. 

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Charting Progress to 'Write a Novel in a Month'

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 12 Dec 2014, 07:26
From E-Learning V

Fig.1. Write a novel in a month

Not blogging, not on Facebook, but first thing I write, or plan writing. Then get down anything between 500 and 3000 words. 500 words can be a better day, these are good words.

As an OU student we are guided through our learning on our Student Homepage. These are like railway tracks, or climbing down a ladder. Whilst you can tick off your progress, it is not being measured.  I wonder if a tool such as the above would be handy for preparing a lengthy assignment, say from 4000 words up? Something that you need to build up over a few weeks?

It is 'Start Writing Fiction', an OU FutureLearn MOOC that sees me using 'Write a novel in a month' to complement the course. This makes the MOOC more closely applied to the current task (amongst several). Of all the FutureLearn MOOCs I have done, this, I am sure, must bring students to The OU to do the degree course in 'Creative Writing'. It has weight, there is gravitas and a clear expertise in distance and online learning that is lacking in many others. 

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There's a word for everything

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 12 Dec 2014, 07:28
From E-Learning V

Fig.1 Adventures in describing teeth types

'Start Writing Fiction' on FutureLearn courtesy of The OU is brilliant: I have no doubt thousands will sign up for a BA. Meanwhile I've taken the hint about the value of 'peripheral detail' to offer in a line what no paragraphs of description can do.

Several hours ago I had in mind a person as a character and began to describe their face. It all came down to their teeth. This is drawing on a teenage crush of mine and I find images and drawings to back up my idea then plunge through some weighty papers, not least, courtesy of The OU Library, a research paper on the incidence of something called 'dental agenesis' or 'retention of baby teeth' (which might be just one or two), to 'oligontontia' which means the rare retention of many baby teeth (0.14%) due probably to inheritance, reduction in the size and form of teeth, or reduction in the size and shape of the 'alveolar process' (the thickness of the bon retaining the teeth). 

This will do for me, though coming away with one word, 'retruded' which may describe the teeth, but still fails to capture what I want to say. Teeth are either smaller, retained baby teeth, or because of the retrusion they appear smaller. Kirsten Dunst shows a touch of this prior to orthodentic treatment. 

From E-Learning V

Fig.2 Post orthodentics for retruded teeth

Orthodentists prefer to adjust the way baby teeth appear in an adult mouth rather than removing them. It depends on how many there are. One is not rare (36%).

The look on the person is of a smaller jaw, the teeth like a row of pegs, the smile of a 9 year old ... though, as I have found, you wouldn't know it.

It is genetic, clusters have be found in Sweden. It can be caused by trauma and illness in childhood.

I am left wondering why one character is studying the mouth of another which such precision. 

REFERENCE

Polder B J, van’t H of M A, Van der Linden F P, Kuijpers-Jagtman A M. A meta analysis of the prevalence of dental agenesis of permanent teeth. Community Dent Oral Epidemiol 2004; 32: 217–226.

 

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Turn on the radio and take note of the first thing that is mentioned

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 12 Dec 2014, 07:31
From E-Learning V

Fig.1. Week 2, 'Start Writing Fiction' with The OU on FutureLearn

As exercises in 'getting the writing juices going' for an OU FutureLearn MOOC on 'Start Writing Fiction' I felt that this exercise was immediately doomed to fail. I'd put on the radio and have a familar presenter, talking about familar topic in a familiar way and feel about as inspired as realising that I've always used white Abdrex toilet paper. It didn't work out that way at all.

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Fig. 2. Alex Salmond coming up Lewes High Street - Putin was coming the over way on a tank

On an iPad I went to BBC iPlayer which was fatal; I'd followed national news on our local town exploding effigies as part of our celebrations of 5th November (Lewes) and listened to Alex Salmond making gross false assumptions on the people of this town who he erroneously cobbled in with all of East Sussex, not even that, but that percentage of the population and subsequent councillors who are Conservatives forgetting as he always does that in any population there is a spread of views - anyway, this just makes me feel that they have his character spot in so this Spitting Image caricature deserves the infamy. I then watched Film 2014 on the latest movie releases before finally clicking to the radio and realising what a cheat this was because I could select the programme.

FiveLive Extra caught my eye, because I never listen to it, but there is a lot of talking. So I opened that, only to curse because sports news has just started and that bores me even more than politics but I decided I had to trust The OU tutors and go along with this exercise anyway : that was nearly 90 minutes ago. A player in ... was it tennis or rugby or football, does it matter? The player was described as 'menacing'.  At first I couldn't see how a current or new character would ever be 'menacing' so I tried the antonym: 'remote', 'unthreatening' - which describes one of my lead characters perfectly.

From E-Learning V

Fig.3. Wonderous word tools - thesaurus.com

What would make him 'menacing' though?

This cracked open his mind and early life experiences like magic and I have been tapping away on my iPad ever since as if my left hand is doing an impersonation of Michael Flately across the glassy QWERTY keyboard. Is that someone who has been a Lewes Bonfire Society effigy? 

P.S. If the radio is on, then turn it off and count to TEN, or switch to another channel. Then jot down the first thing that is said. I'm running with the results for the rest of the evening so its achieved beautifully at what it aimed to do.

A really magic course, so yes, if I hadn't so much other OU baggage I'd be signing up to the creative writing BA programme. One for the wish list if I can ever save up enough. 

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Write a novel in a month or get tips over three

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Sunday, 2 Nov 2014, 09:46

Creative writing with The OU on FutureLearn

From E-Learning V

And as you're inspired register you word count to complete a 50,000 word novel in a month. 

Write a novel in a month

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Definitely 'yes'

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Fig.1 Quote from John Gardener

My writing tutor Susannah Waters quoted Gardener during a one to one on plotting last week; 'the vivid and continuous dream' is what she described as my job as an author. That evening she read out the 3,000 words I'd written that form a lynchpin scene in the novel I want to write. 

I would have welcomed the support and pointers three decades ago. That was then; this is now.

Even half an hour spent here is a half hour lost? Or a jinks?

We'll see.

Part of the 'definitely yes' for me was recognition that a) the isolation and TLC of a retreat works and b) having someone to deliver words to every few days is crucial - writing for an audience makes you concentrate, as does preparing and giving a presentation, or reading out an essay in a tutorial. 

 

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Detail at your fingertips

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 1 Oct 2014, 14:11
From E-Learning V

Fig.1 Moon phases in May 1917

Studying with the OU for the last four years it soon become natural to conduct online niche searches for books and papers related to course work. You learn also how to tag, store and gather the information and ideas that you find: this is one answer to that, a blog that serves several purposes, not least as a learning journal and e-portfolio. 

Searching for the obscure, that essential detail that forms such a vital part of the sensory palette used by the writer, is as easy to find and just as necessary. This morning I stepped out one May evening in 1917 and wanted some hint of what I'd see, hear and feel: a few searches and I can see a waxing moon at 10.00pm on a cooling evening as the temperature dips below 12 degree C, and the noise, in this instance of thousands of men in Nissen huts around a camp soon giving way to a robin trilling and burbling in the trees and the sound of the sea washing against the Channel Coast. 

These details are far more than accessories that overlay character and plot; they are what gives it credibility. Writing on and as the Great War rages requires significant care. The wrong detail will throw a reader, worse I'll end up in a conversation about my claims. Posting a piece of fiction some years ago an irate reader told me what I'd said was rot and went on to correct me - I had been writing fiction. I'd said that a character called Gustav Hemmel changed his name to George Hepple and fakes his own death - the reality is that he went missing over the English Channel in his plane. 

THREE HOURS working on writing fiction, five days a week, is the goal . The OU will have me for TWO hours a day (averaged with longer stints at the weekend). That's the plan. 

On verra. Il faut que j'ecris ici en francaise de temps en temps.

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On writing fiction

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Tuesday, 7 Apr 2015, 10:44
From Writing

Fig. 1 The Writers' Retreat, Sheepwash, Devon

have filed away somewhere all my writing efforts that begins with 'Adam & Evie' - a kind of Blue Lagoon in space that I wrote when I was 13. Since then, forty years ago, I have filled a garage, or at least a corner of one. Much of my effort is on Amstrad floppy discs, ZIP drives, CDs and harddrives. Some is printed off. Some are TV series and screenplays. You haven't heard about me because it is all rubbish: around a fireplace I could tell you the story, even illustrate it with photos from my research, but until this week I could not get from my head to yours the story I wanted to tell.

This all changed this week. Though I fell short of the goal of four, 2,500 scenes written I delivered one 3,000 word scene, developed several others, sketched out seven or so more and worked on the story arc. Last night three writers read from their work: an author whose third book comes out this week, my tutor who has two books published and two in the wings - and me. It worked. I had their attention, it gripped and scared them more than I could imagine and there was half an hour of discussion about the place and events.

Crucial to me is understanding the concept of a 'scene' and its needs in terms of writing, what my tutor Susannah Waters describes as a 'palette of senses.'

A new year, an new age (I turned 53 an hour ago) and a new opportunity to 'get stuff out' On verra.

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Eight hours

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 3 Oct 2014, 08:49
From 2BlogI

Fig.1 Another writer on the retreat in Devon

I use an hour glass to count the time I spend 'at it'. Five hours pulling together ideas, then three hours writing. 600 words. Which is a multiple of ten less than I'd historically generate. I need to speak to my tutor about what this may or may not have achieved. Progress if I am successfully transplanting images and sounds from my head to hers, otherwise not. 

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Writing Retreat

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 3 Oct 2014, 08:52

Fig. 1 Retreats for You, Sheepwash, Devon

Day One.

An hour with my tutor yesterday evening. Buzzed, but fell asleep soon after. It was a four hour drive yesterday afternoon/evening and I'd been up since 4.00 am or something. Which is when I woke this morning and rattled off 1 1/2 following guidelines on how to 'set the scene'.

Armed with a pot of coffee I plan to get another hour in before breakfast.

The goal is to write four completed scenes, each of around 2,500 words this week. I may, a new experience for me, write each of these scenes several times as I try out the approaches I've been given.

The premise for my novel got the thumbs up as did my 'voice': not so hot were the gaping holes in my scene setting - I leave far too much untold.

On verra. 

By the end of the week I will decide either to give up once and for all, or that there's a future in it and the boxes of manuscripts, scripts, zip drives, discs and flopping discs, hard drives, notebooks and diaries have served a purpose or should go to the skip.

And I'll rejoin the family for my birthday.

 

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The importance of agony in storytelling

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Monday, 23 Sep 2013, 14:56

Fig. 1. Betthany Hughes - The ideas that make us. BBC Radio 4.

The volume of 'educational' content I gather from BBC Radio 4 is remarkable - there is so much of it. Much of it recalled here over the last three years.

Here is a 15 minutes piece that might make you the fiction writer you have always wanted to be.

She derives the word from ancient Greek and its use in Himer's Illiad then interviews an eloquent Aussie Cricket commentator during the Ashes and the author Kate Mosse at her publisher's. 

Agony helps us to empathise with another's struggle.

'Struggle, in the form of philosophy of ideas, is at the heart of a good novel', says Kate Mosse, 'otherwise there is no story to tell'. 

Jeopardy and contest is central to what makes us human. 

And when it comes to the effort of writing:

'Try again, fail again, never mind, fail better', said Sam Beckett.

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You poor little strawberry-leafed nonentity

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Tuesday, 8 Jan 2013, 07:49

Now there's a put down! This said by a Cabinet Minister to a Duke. Both fictional and from the pen of Saki.

Ministers of Grace

Far better than 'pleb' - a public school boy cliche.

Should I be doing something else? Of course, I've got an EMA to write on accessible e-learning for students with disabilities.

I'm rewarding myself with something else for an hour or two. Picking my way through 'Story Writing' by Edith R Mirrielees (1949) who while at Stanford taught creative writing to John Steinbeck in 1919.

 

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