Sunday, February 26, 2006

Led astray by artificial rules

It all started with an almost throwaway remark. Teaching two new S1 classes, I began their introduction to ICT with word processing, to ensure some familiarity with the Windows HCI. That was when I happened to recommend leaving two spaces after a full stop (or "period").

I thought it worthwhile to spend a few minutes discussing the correct use of punctuation, but the classroom teacher (present in her role as observer) threw me a disapproving look. In my own defence, I was simply reading from the school's own teaching materials. But I ought to have investigated the background to a matter which I had taken to be self-evidently true.

In fact, on further reflection, I realised that the double-space rule has relevance only to the monospaced text of the typewriter. Publishers and typesetters have their own system; and word processed text has more in common with these than with the typewriter.

Searching around for advice, I turned to the style guides that I have always found fascinating. As a student, I was much taken by the Chicago Manual of Style, then in its 13th edition. But at £35.00, it has stiff competition from its on-line fellows, such as The Economist style guide. On the full stop, The Economist offers the following (economical) advice: "Use plenty. They keep sentences short. This helps the reader." Nothing on spacing.

Nor in the Guardian style guide, famous for such gems as "housewife: avoid", and "pi: the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, as every schoolgirl knows". Incidentally, the paragraph on Latin (explaining, inter alia (!), the correct meaning of "decimate") ends with the delightful advice that, "as the Guardian is written in English, rather than Latin, do not worry about any of this even slightly".

The Times style guide is less entertaining, but just as authoritative. Its entry for decimate (with the advice to use sparingly) is matter-of-fact. But, again, nothing on full stops.

I have also been thickly embroiled with presentation software (i.e., PowerPoint), this time with Second Years (who roughly equate to the U.S. Eighth Graders). They were required to copy out the school's rules for presentation, which included (halfway down) the word "viz". Not a single soul had a clue what that meant, but all had dutifully copied it out regardless.

The Guardian style guide makes no mention of viz., but The Times offers the advice to "prefer namely, that is, or even ie". Quite so. In this Latin-less age, who can be expected to know what videlicet means, far less why it should be abbreviated with a z?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

English as a foreign language?

This week, the current rotation of First Years came to an end; the classes I have grown to love (or tolerate) will be moving on to try out other "practical" subjects. As a reward for 13 weeks' hard work (!), the pupils spent their last period of ICT as "free time".

In my day (cue 1974 Hovis tune), "free time" was only granted at the end of June, when the curriculum had been completed, and involved the heady excitement of playing hangman on a scrap of paper with your neighbour. In today's ICT classrooms, scraps of paper just won't do. To the pupils, free time means internet time. So I was handed a golden opportunity to witness what the average 12-year old uses the internet for. And there were no surprises.

Boys, who (in simpler times) would have been playing "Best Man Falls" (remember that?) on the grassy banking outside, naturally transferred their violent tendencies to gaming sites like the bloodthirsty Stick Men. Girls, on the whole, were content to play with the (non-violent, but pretty vacuous) Paperdoll Heaven.

The only exceptions were amongst the girls, some of whom elected to practice their French using the Task Magic program, or browsed each others' home pages, most of which sported titles like Welcum 2 ma syt! and comprised lengthy sequences of digital photos.

I briefly wondered which activity engaged the brain more productively: my scraps of paper, or the modern equivalents? Then I logged on and dressed Harry Potter up in a ridiculous floral shirt.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Best foot forward? (How many feet have you GOT?!)

Foreword: If Jack can do this, ...

Like most folks (probably), I went back to school today, after mid-term. Unlike most folks (probably), I have a nasty cough and have almost lost my voice. Luckily, I was expected to stand in the firing line ... er, I mean, teach ... for only two lessons, so I croaked my way through an introduction to HTML with a very understanding S3 class, before doing battle with the rebellious First Years.
They were scheduled to have pre-test revision of word processing, information storage, and Logo programming theory. So, pre-test revision they got, despite many and varied attempts to derail my carefully prepared programme.
Thursday is an altogether busier day. Let's hope that the antibiotics have miraculously kicked in by then.

Postscript: I must just say that, over the last two-and-a-half weeks, from my total ignorance of Logo the turtle, I have grown to love writing long sequences of fds and rts, penups and repeats, on the whiteboard. That, and the sea of confused faces as the little darlings attempt to decipher my diabolical pattern-making. (Today, we did a "J" ... a proper one, a capital ... none of your makeshift straight-line stuff, now ...)

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi ...

Seems an appropriate title for a student teacher to begin with.