Do you believe in God?

I was asked this question by one of my students recently. I understand why; my first book references God in its title and as an English teacher I talk about God a lot – after all, the Bible is one of the most influential texts in Western society.

Despite the fact that I work in the public system, I’m also happy to discuss beliefs at any stage. So, I walked the class through my thoughts on the matter.

Me, I’m agnostic.

I don’t believe in gods, lower case or upper case, but I don’t believe that gods don’t or can’t exist either. As much as I consider myself to be practical and level headed, I also don’t think science has all the answers.

Why the fence sitting?

Well… If God created everything then where did God come from? Likewise, The Big Bang theory does not provide any explanation for the initial conditions of the Universe. If the universe expanded from an extremely dense and hot state, what caused or even created this in the first place?

In the past I’ve joked about a circular approach wherein someone from a distant future travels back in time to a period of nothingness and uses his or her scientific knowledge to create the world as we know it. Early humans then regard this figure as a god and we have the chicken/egg version of the creation myth.

So I told my students I don’t hold to a particular belief but that the narrative aspect of religion is something that appeals to me. I enjoy the stories in the Bible and believe in many of the messages contained within them. Plus, Literature is allusive and much of our understanding of symbols and signifiers stem from these tales. As a teenager I was also fascinated by the Norse, Greek and Roman myths. Later I delved into the Egyptian gods and Chinese mythology. The crossover is fascinating.

Ultimately, the least believable aspect of monotheistic religions for me is that they have ONE god responsible for everything. I’ve been involved in many sporting and business environments and a single leader is nowhere near as effective as a leadership team. I’d love to believe that capital G, God, is the CEO of the universe with the lower case gods as his middle managers. I suppose that makes us regular people clients, employees and consumers but that’s fine by me.

Alternatively, I’d like to believe in a marriage between religion and science. Imagine God increasing the pressure and heat of the vast nothingness that was our universe and then cooling it so that simple atoms could form. From here, He/She uses these like Lego to build the world. After experimenting with single celled amoeba God upgrades them into more complex organisms. When He/She eventually morphs something into monkeys there’s a notable similarity with their body shape and that of God, so two are shaved and their tails are cut off so that they are remade in the Lord’s image. We’ll call these two Adam and Eve and so begins our evolution. After a while, God gets bored and stops playing with us and people start questioning whether He/She really existed.

It’s fun to hypothesise. One of my poems suggests that the Christian God is trapped in hell, playing with the idea that the Holy Trinity are essentially one being and that Jesus allowing himself to be crucified is the equivalent of suicide, a mortal sin, resulting in His eternal punishment. Thus, God isn’t around to prevent things like earthquakes, famine and war.

Whether you believe in science or faith, all we have are hypotheses. So I remain unsure. The only thing I truly believe is that everybody has the right to their own opinion BUT having an opinion and shoving your opinion down other people’s throats are two different things. If you want words to live by, follow the advice of movie characters, Bill and Ted:

“Be excellent to each other”.

Meet the Author: Ron Barton

This blog is produced by Teena Raffa-Mulligan, a children’s author and great promoter of local writers. This interview led to Teena being a part of the 2014 Young Writers’ Festival in Secret Harbour.

In Their Own Write

RON’S TOP WRITING TIP

Don’t write for anyone but yourself. Write the stories, plays and poems you want to read. If you are honest in your appraisal of your own work and have, indeed, created something you would buy then other people will like it too.

Author picRon Barton works with words in his job as an English teacher but writes with wit and whimsy in his spare time. While he is proud of his writing and takes it seriously, his public persona is that of the class clown – to the extent his biographical details that accompanied his work in the inaugural edition of Tincture Journal sounded more like a dating profile… See for yourself:

Ron Barton is a hairy male with salt-and-pepper stubble (32). Likes long walks on the beach but prefers an afternoon of sitting on the couch watching football. Seeking readers aged 13-90 for intimate relationship with…

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More Than Marks

“Chalkie”

Oh, I’m sorry. Was it not clear enough? Did you not hear enough to know what to do? Where does the blame fall; is it on me or you?

Cause I’m standing up here at the front of the class, busting my arse to get you to pass but, then, you don’t do the work.

And, you might think I’m a jerk, because I shout once in a while and I refuse to smile on the day an assignment’s due. Well, that’s bloody hard to do when I’m disappointed in what I get back because you’re too slack to do it. You say ‘screw it’.

But I’ve sat too many hours working at home; telling my wife and kid to leave me alone because I’m thinking of you and what you want to be.

Well, what about me? Can’t you see things from my point of view?

This is not what I wanted to do.

I wanted to sculpt minds like an artist does with clay.

I chose this career to make a difference every day,

Not to baby-sit some little shit who’d rather spit on me than listen to what I say.

Yet, I wake every morn just after dawn;

Shower and dress for school,

Because I’m desperate to find that jewel,

That’s inside each kid,

That pearl of wisdom that’s hid deep down inside –

Trying to hide from the taunts of peers.

Because, its all between our ears,

These fears that hurt our chest,

As we hide the best of us from the rest of us,

And as each day goes by,

All I can do is try,

Because I know,

That when these kids grow,

They’ll look back and say,

‘He made a difference that day’.

The basis of my pedagogy is wrapped up in this poem. It is an understanding that I will have bad days – I am, after all, only human – but that I cannot lose sight of why I am in this profession. Stay with me as I take you on a personal journey.

TEDx

Two generations ago, my Nanna and Poppa raised 9 children in a house where chores were not an expectation but a requirement. Everybody pitched in; if they didn’t it would have all fallen apart. Dishes, laundry, cooking, cleaning – it was all hands on deck. Most importantly, the older children would help monitor the youngest.

When I was young I spent a lot of time in the care of my grandparents and, as the oldest grandchild, was instilled with a sense of responsibility for the younger members of our family. This was reinforced later when, as a 12 year old, I was gifted with a younger brother. My step-dad was working fly-in, fly-out so (for much of the time) I was the ‘man of the house’. When my brother began school I was studying teaching at university and would often spend days where I had no uni commitments helping out in his classes.

At this stage I hadn’t even realised that teaching was my calling. Back then I saw it as a fallback in case my career as an author fell through. It wasn’t until my sixth year that I realised how much teaching meant to me although it should have hit me earlier – a year and a half in I cried because it wasn’t clear if there would be a job for me the following year and I’d developed such compassion for my students that the thought of not being there to see them graduate left me torn. A year later I cried again when I learned that I’d be transferred to another school.  

Back to that sixth year and I’d been asked to run an engagement program as my school’s first foray into vocational education. It was determined at the end of the year that the program wouldn’t continue into a second year and I have never been more angry at a decision than at that time. That was it, my lightbulb moment. The students were chosen to be a part of the program because their attendance and grades were low and their misbehaviours and suspension rates were high. By the end of the year our school based data showed improvements in attendance and behaviour and a decrease in suspension. It wasn’t enough. The key indicator here is grades. The bottom line was that because their grades did not improve the school couldn’t justify the existence of the program.

Why?

Because schools are businesses. Excursions, stationery, resources, computers – they all cost money yet school fees are optional. So where does the money come from? It comes from the government who use results to determine funding. And so, bye bye engagement program.

It was then that I finally realised that I truly cared about what I did for a living. More to the point, I realised that I truly cared for my students. Since that point I have made a concerted effort to do more than just treat kids as potential products in the ‘grades factory’. I still push them to succeed academically, but I encourage them to grow as humans at the same time. Now, it is all about finding that balance…

…So, how do I push students to achieve well in standardised tests and examinations while allowing them the freedom to develop as individuals, as people?

My underlying desire is to really make a difference for the students entrusted to my care and so they are encouraged to accept responsibility for their curriculum and progress. This type of teaching process creates real enthusiasm. I firmly believe that when students invest energy and engage in relevant learning experiences their true potential can be explored. So, in my classroom, taking a student-centred approach to learning underpins my professional life and, as such, is incorporated through all aspects of my pedagogy. For me, it is not about being the ‘sage on the stage’. The idea of ‘chalk and talk’ is as old as the materials suggested in the moniker and no longer works as a way of disseminating information to 21st Century learners. In an era when the internet makes knowledge more readily accessible the need to teach content has lessened. What is more important is the need to develop critical learners. And that is where the true value of flipping your classroom can be found.

It all began in 2007 when Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams found software to record their PowerPoint presentations. They then used this to allow students unable to attend their lessons to keep up with the rest of the class. These online videos quickly spread and the pair were invited to speak to other teachers across America. Teachers then began podcasting and vodcasting and encouraging students to gain knowledge from videos watched outside of school and reserved class time for 1 to 1 support and collaborative exercises. This is a ‘flipping’ of traditional methods where lecturing occurred in class and activities were set for homework. Many classrooms across the globe have had success with this format – me included. But the need for internet access can prove restricting at times even in a modern, Western school.

So how can the technology deprived flip their classes? Easy! If you take the purpose and philosophy behind the strategy it opens your doors to more engaging teaching methods. At its simplest, the idea of flipped classrooms mirrors the Chinese proverb, ‘Tell me and Ill forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand’.

That is, the more students are involved in the delivery of content the more they will understand. By researching and engaging in a concept, students unpack it and turn it into something manageable and easy for them to understand and, by extension, easy for their peers. Sometimes as teachers we do not communicate ideas effectively and we lose some students. If our classrooms are open and safe or if a student is particularly confident they might ask a clarifying question; they might not. And if that content or concept is part of a bigger picture we have lost them for longer than just an activity or a lesson; we have lost them, potentially, for good.

But it’s more than just content they pick up. It’s people skills, the ability to speak in public, time management, accountability, confidence – and not just for those who are gifted and talented. High school students categorised as weak excel when given opportunities to act as teacher, especially when working with younger students. And, if we are truly developing our students for the world beyond school, if we are preparing them for the future, then we must understand that some things are worth more than marks.

Like

A worthwhile future

A head held high

Or even, a smile.

^ This was an example talk I put together for my year 10 students in 2012 as they prepared for the TEDxYouth event I was coordinating. It was then published under the title “Chalkie” in the Term 4 (2013) edition of ETA Notes, published by the English Teachers Association of Western Australia.

Teaching the teacher: a crash course in quality PD.

When I walked in through the door I didn’t know if the room was spinning or if I was just dizzy from the synchronised eye-rolls of the attendees. Professional learning courses often produce this response. Teaching is a really busy profession and time spent away from the classroom and office actually increases the stress of our educators. It’s why teachers will often still go to work when they’re sick; preparing explicit relief notes and dealing with the aftermath of student misbehaviour in your absence is sometimes more taxing than teaching while under the weather. Add to this the fact that sometimes we the courses we attend seem irrelevant to our core business and you understand why we have this reaction. In attending my leadership course on Monday I gave up two periods of DOTT and had to follow up a handful of students who played up for the relief teacher.

But…

I walked out at the end of the day with a smile on my face.

And…

One of the other people there said it was the best PD they’d had in 7 or 8 years.

So what makes great professional development?

1. Charisma

The guy at the front of the room on Monday was oozing it. Seriously, he played the room like a seasoned professional (probably because he was). He drew us all in with his anecdotes and humour.

A good presenter breathes life into the material.

2. Relevance

I said before, it’s more work being away from school than it is to be there. If what we’re learning doesn’t have some obvious practical applications in our workplace then you’ll lose our interest and struggle to get it back. Tentative links just won’t cut it.

3. Get us doing something

The worst PD that teachers are exposed to is when boring presenters lecture us on how to be engaging. Admittedly, it’s hard to get teachers to participate in activities; we think that being asked to do the same sort of collaborative learning strategies we ask of our students is condescending, that it is undermining our professionalism. That said, I’d rather feel belittled than bored. No one wants to be talked at for an entire day.

Fortunately, Monday’s presenter had us moving around and working in pairs. More importantly, at no stage did it feel as though we were being treated like children.

4. Food

I’m kidding. Food doesn’t make or break a PD. While it’s important that people are fed, discussions of food are generally a sign that the course was terrible.

So the next time you’re running a course (or a staff meeting, or a lesson in your own classroom) try to be charismatic, highlight the relevance of what you’re doing and get your audience moving and engaging with the material.

Youth writing competitions and the Tim Winton Award

Creative writing competitions for Australian students.

HatchedHave your students ever entered a writing competition?

The stories published in Hatched have all been winners of the Tim Winton Award for Young Writers – a creative prose writing competition that began in Subiaco in Western Australia in 1993.

Writing competitions encourage students to test their skills against other young wordsmiths, to get feedback from established writers and to work towards a specific writing goal that helps develop skills in creativity, accuracy, self-reflection and time management. There are a plethora of writing competitions across Australia (some of which are listed at the end of this activity). Check with your local children’s librarian or writing organisation for competitions in your area.

We asked the judges of the Tim Winton Award for Young Writers to provide us with some advice for students thinking of entering a writing competition. Here’s what they said:

  • Read the entry guidelines carefully.
  • Make sure that your…

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Lego Mortal Kombat Set

It would never happen but I’d love for Lego to make something like this. The quality of some of the custom minifigures and sets out there is phenomenal.

Sean Cantrell

legoMK_thepitandbox

With the Lego Mortal Kombat Minifigures I created. I wanted to do a box set so I thought of a few ideas of different stages I could create. Decided to make The Pit stage from Mortal Kombat 1. Made all the standard Lego brick pieces. Built it from the ground up making sure to keep it’s size accurate to the Minifigures. Once the stage was built and I was happy with it colored it to match as best as possible and placed the MK minifigures on it. Then modeled out a simple box and created a texture for it to look like a real Lego box. I actually counted all the pieces in the set so there are 657 like it says on the box. The box number 10892 is the release date of Mortal Kombat 1 in Arcades.

legominifigures_skeleton

Modeled out the Skeleton to use for The Pit stage. There…

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I <3 Horror

On the screen I see myself stalking and killing, stalking and killing. I look down at my heavily booted foot, at my roughly gloved hand, and at the violence and desecration that I have caused. I see Alice, knowing that she will be my next intended victim, and I invite her to look at me. As I approach the mirror that is the screen through her eyes, I am in shock. I am not the strong, rugged man I imagined myself to be. I am Mrs Voorhees, a middle aged woman.

The above scenario is based on the plot of Friday the Thirteenth. Jump forward to the next film in the series and our killer is the previously dead (and now undead) Jason Voorhees. One more sequel later and he picks up his iconic hockey mask.

Jason-and-his-mom-jason-vorhees-10872638-450-300

^ http://images2.fanpop.com/image/photos/10800000/Jason-and-his-mom-jason-vorhees-10872638-450-300.jpg

As a teenager, I always had a fixation with anything horror. My favourite films were from the Friday the 13th series (as you could probably guess); my favourite TV shows were American Gothic and, later, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I remember camps back in the first couple of years of high school where we’d sit around the campfire and tell stories, where the teachers and supervisors would tell us of disfigured people who haunted the very woods we were staying in (often followed by several late night pranks). A number of years have passed and the horror bug still hasn’t left me. Stephen King novels dominate my bookshelves while vampires crowd my DVD library. Mortal Kombat lives inside my PS3.

I’ve learned a lot from horror. Admittedly, I didn’t learn to listen to authority figures – the didactic lesson of most slasher flicks and many urban legends. I wasn’t fooled by the threat of decapitation or being garrotted (instead of detention or being grounded) if I partook in underage sex, alcohol or drug use. Rather, through studies at university and by reading Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws, I learned that horror throws away contemporary views of gender. Slasher films in particular invert dominant ideas about men and women. A careful analysis of the symbols used therein associates the male killer with feminine characteristics and the ‘final girl’ with masculine traits.

I could talk more on this but it’s not what this post was going to be about. Instead, what I want to explore is what I liked about horror and why I still like it.

On some levels, watching and reading horror was a rite of passage, it was about transitioning from a boy to a man. It was about proving that I had the intestinal fortitude to put myself in fearful situations, ride the wave of adrenaline that comes with it and come out the other side in one piece. To add some context my teenage years were spent in Karragullen, an agricultural community surrounded by bushland. Properties were much larger than you’d find in typical suburban areas, neighbours were rarely seen. My step-dad worked away, my mum had a friend with a child the same age as my infant brother and would often be at their house. I was alone, isolated – like the teens in the movies I was watching. To top it off, the area seemed popular with escaped prisoners and people committing suicide (I’m being absolutely serious here, no exaggeration intended). If you think the shadows and noises in your suburban abode are scary try spending the night in Karragullen while you’re deep in fight-or-flight mode. It’s this adrenaline that really makes the experience. It’s like a natural high. That’s why people go on roller coasters or jump out of planes. As scary as it is while you’re going through it, the lingering effects of the adrenaline make it a positive experience. It’s cathartic.

I’ll admit, on some level watching horror was also about the boobs. As cautionary tales, slashers warn teens that underage drinking, drug use and premarital sex lead to certain death and what easier way is there to show that sex = death than by showing characters engaged in sexual activity. As a pubescent teenage boy, the prospect of seeing boobs was definitely part of the attraction. It’s a pairing that makes sense too. I’ve learned since that the body during sex goes through similar processes to when you’re afraid – there’s a definite increase in heart rate, blood pressure and respiration during both circumstances.

Moreover, horror films make you feel smart. The formulaic nature of many horror films creates a sense of dramatic irony as the viewers are more aware of the expected outcomes than the characters. Interestingly, this often leads to a more interactive audience than you’ll find watching other genres. It becomes like a sport then as people bark instructions (“Don’t go in there!” instead of “Kick it!”) at the screen despite knowing that the people on there can’t hear what they’re saying. It can also be fun predicting the order and manner in which characters are going to die. Modern horror pokes fun at this. Films like The Cabin in the Woods deliberately tease the audience, providing multiple options to keep the audience guessing.

It was, and is, also a thrill to see what the horror mongers were going to come up with next. What bizarre new images were Clive Barker and Stephen King going to conjure next? (The woman in room 217 stayed with me for years – it is no coincidence she returned when King finally penned a sequel to The Shining.) What startling new deaths could special make‑up effects artist Tom Savini come up with? What new fatalities could Ed Boon and company devise? Regardless of the brutality expressed across these media, I could access them all in the safety of my own home.

John Edward Campbell, an expert in media studies at Temple University, says horror appeals to teens and twenty-somethings because they “are more likely to look for intense experiences”. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing now, looking for “intense experiences” as a means to add spice to a life that is frighteningly perfect.

Life with no Internet

So… our home internet was non-existent for the past week or so. Kim Kardashian didn’t break it; I think it might’ve been a storm. Our internet provider was reluctant to put a time frame on restoration and people started venting on social media.

In a case of “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” I was struck by just how much I rely on the net. And it’s not just me. This thing that didn’t exist until the early-to-mid 80s is now used by over a third of the world’s population. And the amount of uses, or misuses, is phenomenal.

For me the net is my go to communication source. I hate talking on the phone (perhaps a response to having worked as a telemarketer while I was studying to become a teacher) so I use email and Facebook’s messenger service as my primary means of getting a hold of people. I could still check these using my 3G services on my phone but then I’d be chewing through my data – so I was doing it sparingly, so much for instantaneous connectivity. I’m on Twitter and Facebook but my interactivity on these services has diminished lately so losing them wasn’t much of an imposition.

The hardest thing was that school had just started. I was trying to upload my programs to my Google site, set up my classes on Edmodo, create and assign assessment guidelines on the Department’s system and research elements of the topics I was teaching. No biggie. I used my time at work efficiently to ensure I got these done and made an emergency trip to a coffee shop to make use of their WiFi to finish one of these things off. Where I really struggled was with a project I’m working on with teachers from other schools. We had a shared Dropbox folder but every file I downloaded from there at work would present me with an error message and fail to open. I knew there was nothing wrong with the files themselves because I had already downloaded some of them at home before our net went out. I could still upload at work without issues but I couldn’t access any of the other files. We worked around this but it added stress to a project that fast approaching its deadline and had already suffered from the pressure of integral people pulling out. When the net finally returned last night, I stayed up past midnight to work on this in case it went out again by morning.

There were other issues too. Elements of internet banking were inaccessible through apps and mobile friendly websites. Some apps wouldn’t run at all. Video games lost aspects of the game-play options. Nothing major, really, but it was certainly annoying.

It also made me think. Smart phones and other intelligent devices are changing our world. We have apps now that can utilise the camera to scan a mathematical formula and then provide the solution. Don’t know something? Google it. Want to know the nutritional value of the food you’re eating? There’s an app for that. Hell, with 3D printers you can print your own cast for your broken leg or a gun to shoot the person who broke it – just download the necessary files.

But what happens if the Internet goes down permanently? What if a techno-virus wipes out the web? What if war or natural disasters took out the fiber-optic cables, satellites and servers?

Do we still have the skills to cope? To live?