Leather it like Layla

One of our students, Layla Kaisi, will not be in class today (shocking and unforgivable), as she will be attending a trial with Crystal Palace Ladies Football Club, in South London (I think the trial will be held in Bromley, which is in fact in S.E. London, but Palace play at Selhurst Park in Croydon).

There was a time, not long ago, when women’s football barely registered on the football world’s radar, but all that has changed: it is now big business (relatively). England got to the semi-final of the world cup in Canada,the coverage of the competition was extensive, and English players no longer need to go to the USA if they want to make a career of their sport, as they did in the days of Bend it Like Beckham.

Layla is 16, and has already played representative football for Jordan at under-18 level, and now has her sights set on a premier league team. It seems she has already been invited to show Liverpool what she can do, but it’s a bit far from where she expects to be living next year (Greater London). Very sensibly, she mentioned Chelsea a possible subsequent step up.

Layla plays on the right wing, although she can switch very happily to the left if called upon. Expect updates here.

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St John’s College

I was at Hampton Court Palace on Saturday afternoon, and, with the exception of one or two details, I could very easily have been at St. John’s College, Cambridge.StJohnsCambridge_Gatehouse02 IMG_0004 The two buildings were largely built in the same decade (St. John’s was founded in 1511, Hampton Court was redeveloped by Cardinal Wolsey starting in the 1510s). The two building-complexes share a weakness for decorative brickwork, ornate chimneys, crenellations, and hammer-beam ceilings.

St. John’s College, chimneys Photo by Billbeee – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0

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chimneys at Hampton Court

So, no need to go to Hampton Court (unless for some reason you want to have a look at the Mantegna Triumph of Caesar or the Holbeins, Rembrandt and Caravaggios they have amassed there).

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Hampton Court is not on the roster of regular visits from OISE, unlike, for example, Windsor Castle, Warwick Castle, Stonehenge or Salisbury. It perhaps should be: it has much to recommend it. And it has been trying to position itself as a major attraction (it was first opened to the public in the early nineteenth century).

However, at some point in its development, like Warwick Castle, it allowed itself to drift down the theme-park route. Warwick has period-costumed guides and jousts staged in its inner courts, and Hampton Court goes in for a lot of Henry VIIIs and Cardinal Wolseys, all dressed in cheap costumes, all giving it the thee and thous and the prithees.

It is perhaps only a matter of time before St. John’s offers tours by guides dressed as Paul Dirac and William Wordsworth – but then, St. John’s is still an actual institution, with an actual community. Hampton Court, lovely though it is, is the deadest of dead buildings.

How We Learn, Whether We Learn

Antonello da Messina, St. Jerome

Coffee aids recall… Antonello da Messina, St. Jerome

An article in the New Scientist has collated the best guesses of psychologists and neurologists regarding the tricky business of learning.

Someone (it is usually attributed to Einstein, but then, what isn’t?) said something along the lines that to continue to do the same thing and yet expect different results is the definition of madness. Yet when we learn we seem to develop habits early, and then stick with those through thick and thin.

But our habits are often wrong. The article makes a list of learning strategies which simply do not work: which, in other words, have no impact on recall in controlled tests. They include:

  • Highlighting and underlining
  • Re-reading key texts
  • Keyword mnemonics
  • Copying out your notes
  • Elaborate mental imagery
  • Personalised learning styles
  • Summarising the material

This is interesting. Some of these were recommended to me at school, over and over, and others were recommended to me when I was learning to teach, but my brain seems to have rejected them in some way, at some level, down the line, and I do not use any of them. And I always assumed it was laziness which prevented me from summarising material in my own words.

So what does work? Chiefly, it seems, testing yourself. Writing a list of words in a foreign language is all very well, but only if you test yourself on it frequently. Environment is also key –  you should mirror learning- and recall-environments by, for example, lacing both with coffee. Sleep, and plenty of it, is important, as is parcelling out your recall tests into longer and longer intervals. And finally, pretending to teach something as we learn it seems to help us organise it better in our heads at the point of storage.

This last one would explain, I suppose, why so many of my (semi-)known-facts are derived from English language course books.

Corpse Flower Alert

The Botanic Garden, over the road from school, has announced that its smelliest flower, the inadequately-named titan arum corpse plant, is about to burst into flower.

The Titan Arum, Amorphophallus titanus, is indigenous to the island of Sumatra in Indonesia where it grows on forested limestone hillsides, and when it flowers it heats itself to over 40ºC and emits an odour designed to attract the carrion beetles which pollinate it: it resembles both in smell and in appearance (at any rate, in colour) the corpse of a rotting mammal (specifically, I read, it contains chemicals variously found to produce odours present in limburger cheese, rotting fish, sweaty socks, Chlorasceptic, mothballs, and floral sweetness).

But it flowers only very infrequently. The garden has two specimens, and the last time one of them flowered was in 2004. I was there, and paid it a visit. I was also present at the flowering of the same species in about 1993 in Kew Gardens, when people queued for hours (well over half-an-hour, anyway) in order to get close. Why, I cannot explain, except to make the general observation that humans will generally go out of their way for a marvel.

I do not remember either being that smelly, if I’m honest, but it seems that the smell only really comes into its own in the night. For this reason, the garden proposes to stay open late into the evening, as it did in 2004, so that no one has any excuse or alternative but to inhale the flower in all its putrid glory.

In 2004, the garden also produced a time-lapse video of the event, unfortunately not in smelly vision.

So, don’t make any plans for this weekend. A very smelly flower awaits your pleasure. Visit the Botanic Garden website here for updates.

St. Swithun’s Day

St. Swithun’s day
if thou dost rain
for forty days
it will remain.
St. Swithun’s day
if thou be fair
for forty days
’twill rain no more.

St. Swithin, statue, Stavanger Domkirke Photo: Nina Aldin Thune

St. Swithin, statue, Stavanger Domkirke
Photo: Nina Aldin Thune

Ah yes, 15th July. St. Swithun’s Day. It came and went. Needless, to say, it rained.

St. Swithun, or Swithin, was an Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester (nowhere near Cambridge), who died c.862. Little is known of his life or ministry (he may have accompanied Alfred the Great on the King’s visit to Rome), but a series of miracles are associated with his shrines and memory (notably, the restoration of a basket of eggs), and after his death his body was gradually dismembered, this being the common fate of saints, and distributed around the kingdoms of England. His head is in Canterbury, there is an arm in Peterborough (not far from Cambridge, if you are feeling especially devout), and so on.

You can pray to him if you are caught in a drought.

These are my St. Swithin facts.

It is not peculiar that we still rely on miraculous portents to predict the weather (St. Swithun’s, Groundhog Day, etc.). What is science, after all, but our own version of the miraculous? And the St. Swithun’s day rhyme may anyway be rooted in observational meteorology: weather patterns over the UK tend to be set early in summer and then persist. It is all something to do with the jet steams (miraculous rivers of air in the sky).

And a rhyme can very well be a simple store of memory. We do not want explanations: we only want to know where we stand. Not least English teachers, who in the summer are reduced to apologising for the weather on a daily basis. Unless they are James, of course, who, like Samuel Pepys boasts of the pleasure of rain in summer:

‘A wonderful dark sky and shower of rain this morning. At Harwich a shower of hail as big as walnuts.’
Samuel Pepys 1666 (Essex)

Passion of the Personal Statement

I have been helping one of my students with his personal statement, in which he is to outline his ‘passion for engineering’.

Passion – Giotto

Passion – Giotto

The personal statement is an odd document. It is a piece of writing which accompanies your application to university in the UK, and which is sent to all universities to which you apply. In it, you outline, in a personal manner, what qualifies you above others for a place on the course in question. So, if you are applying to study medicine, you would outline your empathy, your interest in human physiology, your voluntary work with the St. John’s Ambulance, your Duke of Edinburgh award (inevitably); you would write of your passion for skeletal abnormalities or your childhood obsession with playing doctor. And so on.

It is meant, I suppose, to soften the world of hard metrics – exam grades, predicted exam grades, SAT tests, IQ tests, IELTS tests, and so on – which would otherwise determine your fate. It adds a bit of personal flavour. By no means all universities now interview for places, so for many it will represent your only chance to put a human face on your percentile performance.

Only it probably makes no difference to anyone’s application. Some universities explicitly state that they will only seriously look at the personal statement if grades are borderline. Thus, if you are having a hard time meeting requirements for medicine at Cambridge because you are devoting your off hours to voluntary work with Medicines sans frontieres in sub-saharan Africa, you might get a second look.  But the fact is, universities will look at your academic record, and that will determine where you finish.

Those universities which routinely interview, Cambridge among them, will naturally enough be looking for something a bit different from good exam performance. As a Colonel in the Italian army once put it to me, colonels get promoted to generals based on their performance as colonels, not on their potential to be generals, and these are two different things. Similarly, good students at school might do poorly when the parental whip stops cracking at university, and poor students at school will frequently flourish in the more liberal atmosphere of a university.

The personal statement is an attempt to bridge that gap. If it fails, it fails not least because human beings are quick learners and even quicker mimics. By now, everyone knows what is expected. A university admissions officer will be faced with hundred of identikit blurbs, and will, consciously or unconsciously, filter them all out as you might filter out spam advertising.

On the TV cookery show, Masterchef, they once experimented with a segment called ‘The Passion Test’, wherein contestants had to talk for one minute about ‘how badly they wanted it’ – it being victory in the competition. Needless to say, they all wanted it ‘really badly’. Food truly was their passion. Some were so passionate, they cried actual tears. The segment was ditched.

Who are you?

I mentioned at the end of last week that some of our students had put together a team to compete in a league of Cambridge Language Schools, and the photos from their first match (or at any rate, their first warm-up) are now in.

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Hard to tell from photos, of course, but they look the part. Encouraging, also, that they number a Brazilian in their ranks (take a bow, Andre). If I have understood correctly, it was also Andrea who scored OISE’s only goal in a creditable 3:1 first-round defeat, to Select Language School (I believe).

A league is a league, however, and one defeat is no more than a hiccough. OISE may be small by the standards of other school, with a correspondingly small pool of talent, but as they say, it is not the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog that counts.

Next up, Kaplan. Whatever that is.