Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Albums of the Year 2012

I brought more CDs this year than I had in a while, mainly because there were so many killer releases that I had to check out. If you got a JB Hi Fi voucher then read on for some recommendations of things you might have missed.

This was a year for excellent metal with a number of bands putting out some of their best work in years. Certainly Soulfly, Testament, Gojira and Kreator unleashed their new beasts that rarely left my car. Each contains the thrash that made them famous but has enough diversions to make them mandatory listens. Parkway Drive is actually still on rotation - they've outgrown the metalcore label that many get stuck with by producing collection that is genre breaking but still contains some of the best breakdowns and gang vocals of their career. Lamb of God's Resolution was more of the same from them, which means it kicked all sorts of arse, but has been overshadowed by Randy's imprisonment dramas in Prague. It looks like they'll continue to release excellent albums without topping Ashes of the Wake (and there is nothing wrong with that). The same could be said of Fear Factory, though The Industrialist isn't as good as Demanufacture or Obsolete but does its best to get there. Wonderfully heavy with some great melodies it still ranks in the top half of their cannon.

There were comebacks this year too - Soundgarden became more than a nostalgia act by releasing King Animal. The power on show in first single 'Ive been away too long' is a nice teaser for an album that picks up from where Superunknown and Down On The Upside left off. Hell it sounds like they were never apart! Likewise Jack White's first solo disc sounds exactly like you thought it would which isn't a bad thing. Each track feels loved and any of them would make fine singles. Kiss finally unleashed Monster as well. It is better than Sonic Boom and contains some real rockers that easily fit amongst the hits from the 70s. (Actually some of the 80s albums, like Creatures of the Night, might be a better comparison.) The Killers returned from their hiatus with Battle Born, an album that promised a lot, thanks to lead single Runaway, but doesn't quite deliver. It has grown on me though, thanks to Flesh and Bone, Miss Atomic Bomb and Matter of Time being absolutely cracking songs with huge choruses, but it is essentially their first misfire. Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball came out early but will get a boost when he finally tours next year. There is some great stuff on it as he again captures the challenges of working class life. Not sure about the hip hop beats though.

Muse's The 2nd Law was a mixed bag. Like Resistance, it aims for the bombastic whenever it gets the chance which is admirable but doesn't always work. The better moments find it difficult to stand out when everything is from a different genre. Their musicianship is still brilliant but I couldn't help but feel I'd heard this all before. And it hit me - half the album sounds like Silverchair's Neon Ballroom and Diorama, albums that came out a decade ago. The other half moves closer to Nine Inch Nails. With this in mind their genre bending has been done before and probably done better. Download 'Supremacy', 'Panic Station' and 'Madness' and leave it at that (and seriously what the hell is Survival? Just terrible lyrics).

Slash's second solo album (this time fronted in full by the ace Myles Kennedy) was my favourite album this year. It is much more consistent than the previous album with guest singers while still retaining some of the variety that made that release so great. 'Halo', 'You're a Lie', 'Anastasia', 'Staring Out at the Sun' and 'One Last Thrill' rank with his best efforts in Guns n Roses and Velvet Revolver. Indeed the new stuff were amongst the highlights of his show in August. I consider this a must have. It's pure RnF'R and should be turned up to 11.

Best of 2012
1. Slash ft Myles Kennedy & the Conspirators - Apocalyptic Love
2. Testament - Dark Roots of the Earth
3. Soundgarden - King Animal
4. Gojira - L'Enfant Sauvage
5. Kreator - Phantom Antichrist
6. Soulfly - Enslaved
7. Parkway Drive - Atlas
8. Fear Factory - The Industrialist
9. Lamb of God - Resolution
10. The Killers - Battle Born

Check out
Gary Clarke Jnr - Black and Blu (blues and rnb for the new decade. Do it)
Lana del Rey - Born To Die (really good lyrics and beats)
Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
Fozzy - Sin & Bones (vast improvement on previous work)
Jack White - Blunderbuss

Forget about
Pink - Truth About Love (sounds like a parody of her better work)
Green Day - all three albums (radio still playing the single off the first one. No one gives a crap)
Marilyn Manson - Born Villain (lost and totally irrelevant. More than a decade since he did anything good)

Feedback welcome as always

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How the Dark Knight Rose

So by now you've hopefully seen Christopher Nolan's superhero masterpiece The Dark Knight Rises. With TDKR completing the (originally unplanned) trilogy, there won't be a Batman film for sometime. Sure, they might go through with the Justice League film that appears to be moving forward, but Batman as a serious protagonist is done with for now.

What I have enjoyed most about Nolan's series is that he culls some of the best stuff from some brilliant Batman stories. Unlike the Marvel films which are largely adaptations of key story lines, while some of Chris Nolan, David Goyer and Jonothan Nolan's stories draw heavily on source material they most pinch hit ideas and even sub plots. It was an absolute thrill to watch the subtle hints to Batman's comic book history and this greatly added to my enjoyment. Since not everyone is familiar with the comics (which are best purchased as graphic novels/trade paperbacks), I'm here to help you get below the surface of the films and perhaps, give you some reading to fill the void before the bat-signal shines on the cinema screen again.

If you like this blog let me know and I'll do a follow up for The Dark Knight and Batman Begins!

The Dark Knight Returns
This book, by Sin City creator Frank Miller, reinvented Batman. Set in the future where a long retired Batman reemerges to right wrong's in Gotham. Nolan used the theme of Batman's redemption for a past wrong from this comic. Armed with a iron will to defeat crime this old timer retrains and punches the crap out of Superman. That alone is worth the purchase price. The sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, is not nearly as good.

Bane's debut. There is a new release that contains the entire Bane portion of the saga in one huge volume. The first part gives extensive time to Bane's early life and arrival in Gotham. He is a calculating and physically imposing villian that was captured well by Tom Hardy in TDKR. While Bane's personality is very similar in this book, there is a difference in the use of his mask. I can't believe to tell you how much I reverted to a little kid when I saw the image below replicated on screen. There is a pretty good side story too featuring Scarecrow as a central figure, so if you liked Nolan's version of Jonathon Crane it is well worth checking out. The second volume (KnightQuest) covers Bruce's journey to reclaim the cowl from Azareal (who goes bonkers at the end of this volume).

Catwoman is easily one of Batman's most enduring and complex characters. While previous depictions have focused on her sexuality, rather than her psychology, Nolan seems to get the balance right. Fully expecting something more throwaway, Anne Hathaway manages to strike a balance between justifiable crime and a desire to do the right thing. I love that she still used guns, a sign that her alliance with Batman is actually as fragile as shown in the comics. In many ways she is his greatest love - and love was never easy. Hush is introduced as a new villain in a year long story. (Actually he would've been a good fit for Nolan's world). I won't spoil it but Catwoman plays a central role and the mystery of Hush's identity keeps the pages turning. Plenty of other rogues jump on for the ride too. You could also check out The Long Halloween or Catwoman:When In Rome for more Catwoman - especially if your only previous exposure was via Michelle Pfiffer or Halle Berry (both of whom played weird supernatural versions that missed Catwoman's humour).

No Man's Land
Gotham is hit by an earthquake and decends into warfare. There are different gangs - led by some of Batman's greatest villains. America gives up on Gotham but Batman has a little something to say about that. Catwoman plays a prominent role too, not unlike TDKR. This was a loooong arc though, and even with the newer releases there are still three volumes to get through.

The last two are spoilers. Stop now if you haven't seen the film since I'm giving away gold.

Talia al Ghul. 
I understand why Nolan chose to put in this twist (which for fans was ridiculously obvious and long rumoured) and I'll give it a tick because it brought a nice conclusion to the story he started in Batman Begins (as did Bane's League of Shadows affiliation - something that he only briefly aligned with in the comics). But Talia has a lot more going for her than revenge. Whilst I said earlier Catwoman is Bruce's true love, it is Talia who gives him a son. Damien Wayne has, in my opinion, revitalized the story line's as he brings a completely different vibe to the role of Robin. But I digress. Like Catwoman, Talia is a powerful woman who needs a powerful man. Who better than the world's greatest detective? Originally introduced alongside her father, who sees Batman as a worth successor, she spends much of her time engaging Batman in mind games and seduction. Grant Morrison's work - starting with Batman and Son through to Batman Incorporated has returned her to prominence as ally and obstacle in Batman's war on crime. Start with Birth of the Demon, a recent release that contains three Ra's & Talia stories. Then check out The Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul and Batman & Son.

Robin "John" Blake
Now I hated that they put the name Robin out there. See that Batcave revelation in the closing moment doesn't work when the name Robin is attached. Robin is always Batman's second. ALWAYS. When Robin graduates beyond this role, as Dick Grayson and recently Tim Drake/Wayne did, they take on their own superhero codename. Grayson became Nightwing and Drake became Red Robin. While Grayson has donned that Batman uniform on two distinct occasions, including breifly while Bruce recuperated from Bane's beatings, Robin has never really been Gotham's sole protector. So instead, I choose to believe that Blake becomes the next Batman - something that fits in with Nolan's original mantra in Begins. Batman is an idea, a symbol, more than a man. If Blake continues the symbolism than that is fine. But again, I'm off track. What I did like is that the chat Blake has with Bruce is similar to Drake's origin. While Grayson's tale as a ex-circus acrobat was captured in Batman Forever (urgh) and is fairly well know, Drake's story is a less so. Drake deduced Batman's identity as Wayne in a similar manner to Blake in the film. In this light, it is a nice tribute to an awesome, but seemingly forgotten Robin. (Note - ALL of the books mentioned above actually feature Drake as Robin, not Grayson.)

Tim Drake's solo adventures took place as Red Robin. If you are interested in a book with both a different Batman and a new Robin than check out Grant Morrison's opening run on Batman And Robin. With Bruce Wayne believed dead (ring a bell?) Dick Grayson becomes Batman with Damien Wayne as Robin. The dynamic is reversed from usual as Dick lets fly with the quick quips and Damien is a little bit of a psychopath. Kind of like his old man!

If you have other suggestions let me know! And if you're in then I'll give you a trail to follow for the first two films.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Why I am wearing RED

Just a quick note on the June 7 Strike.

Ted doesn't think we work hard enough because in a DEECD survey of face-to-face teaching hours they found teachers only teach an average 16.3 hours. This surveyed teachers across the state but did not acknowledge time release for additional duties.

At my school, the standard teaching load is 23 x 47minute periods. This is 18.1 hours and does not include home group, assembly or yard duty. My load as a coordinator is 15 x 47 minute periods (11.75 hours) since I also spend 4 x 47 minute periods a week coaching other staff, and have the rest to coordinate 30 staff and 1500 kids.

This week staff at my school did their 18 hours but also completed the following duties:
  • Several took out excursions that took them beyond their usual allotment. 
  • 8 English teachers spent an additional 100 minutes supervising a SAC after school until 5pm on Thursday. 
  • 2 Physics teachers were with students until 9pm the same night.
  • 2 Psychology teachers were with students until 6pm on Monday night. 
  • 10 staff spent all of Wednesday's lunchtime in a trivia contest with students. 
  • PE staff took teams to state championships that took them past their usual allotment. 
  • Music staff ran band rehearsals from 8am to 5pm Tuesday and Wednesday in addition to teaching their usual classes.  
  • 20 teachers supervised the Year 9 Social until 10pm Thursday.
  • With VCE at a peak period a significant number of teachers spent an immeasurable amount of time with groups of students to help them prepare for SACs and exams. This usually occurred during meal breaks and between meetings.
All of this was in addition to mandatory and voluntary meetings. None of this is covered by extra pay, time in lieu, or any proposed performance pay method. It is all unpaid overtime to give students the best chance they have to experience success.

The current system prays on the good will of teachers. To not acknowledge this hard work is insulting. If they want us to teach another hour then it will be harder for us to make the extra efforts described above. The extra hour will come at the expense of more than 1000 teaching jobs. Teachers will be pushed harder for their time. Class sizes will probably be bigger. Certainly I would expect to lose my coaching time to help improve teaching and learning in classrooms. Who is the biggest loser in this scenario?

That is why I'll be wearing red on Thursday.

Feel free to join me.

More on Ted: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/baillieu-wants-longer-hours-and-merit-pay-for-teachers-20120602-1zp1v.html

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

My profession

Two stories from the last two days.

Yesterday I worked with a colleague to help improve their performance. I had observed their practice for 45 minutes and taken comprehensive notes, mostly related to their management and communication skills. These topics had been decided upon in a thirty minute pre-observation meeting the week before. The colleague was gracious and enthusiastic about the opportunity to have someone watch their work. To prepare for the subsequent meeting I spent around 90 minutes reading through various journals, meta-analysis books and handbooks to find the right bit of research that I could use to frame our discussion. I reflected on my notes and chose a central theme that I felt would benefit her. The conversation was brilliant and quite inspiring on both sides. We shared theory and practical ideas that we'd tried and seen work in other settings. All up we've put in a couple of hours work on top of our usual business and it was wonderful. I'll observe her practice again next week to provide further feedback since now I'm invested in her development. I'll also need to make arrangements with two other colleagues to go through a similar process to help increase the capacity of my team to deliver on a number of KPIs and strategic targets. It's a major part of my leadership role in the organization.

The second moment involves a client who has proven, to be honest, quite difficult lately. She has been rude on occasion and while I've worked hard to deliver my service and expertise as required, she has not met her deadlines or obligations. And so it was again today when she kept making strange noises during our allotted time. Rather than draw attention to this I took a positive approach (an idea from the Masters I'm doing on the weekends so I can further myself in my profession). I focused on what she'd done right and recognized that she'd actually asked a good question, in between interruptions, and had acknowledged she wasn't sure how to proceed. While aspects of this clients behavior could be labelled counter-productive, immature and irresponsible, the fact they'd actually called on my expertise was encouraging. I was not about to let out previous problems resurface. I decided on a strategy whereby I help her begin her work and eventually paired her with someone who could fill in the gaps since I had 25 other clients to attends to at the same time. I did however free significant attention regularly and ensured she knew I wanted her to e successful. She left the meeting with a smile, as did many of my clients that day. All in all I saw 75 clients from 9am to 3pm. I gave each one the best attention I could and, using some of the strategies I'd developed during several recent full days of training, ensured each client got the best out of me. On average I only have 1.5 minutes per client a day. The rest is taken up with preparing for clients and providing them with improvement strategies to better their performance.

It felt good.

Until I went to a union meeting and was told that the government, my official employer, doesn't value what I do and wants me to see more clients, more often, at the expense of developing the capacity efficacy of my colleagues. They also don't really want to pay me more since they consider my current profession to be unproductive and inadequate. Apparently I'm not doing enough. Even more disturbingly, my colleague, who participated in the mentoring process on a good-will & voluntary basis, is being told the same thing. She has 125 clients she sees most days. She literally gave up free time in her otherwise hectic day to get better at what she has dedicated her life to.

But dedication isn't measurable.

Ted, if we are doing such an immeasurable and unprofessional job of looking after our children- imagine what our world will look like if we have to stop?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Handing the inmates the keys

I learned three things today. But first a little context about how I got there.

There are occasions when they drive me nuts. It isn't the lack of progress because I am patient. It isn't their idiosyncrasies because I am amazingly tolerant (though this isn't always apparent). It is the whinging. The whining. Some are vocal about this and that I can handle. When they harp on about being boring I know they are giving me feedback. But that feedback can be interpreted in a number of ways. Yes, sometimes the structure is repetitive. Sometimes the content is uninteresting. What the young, unengaged mind fails to appreciate is that sometimes repetition is necessary.

My class uses an objective goal sheet. I put the goal on the board, they write it down and score themselves at the beginning of the lesson. This efficiently tells me how much they think they already know. At the end of the lesson they score themselves again and hopefully realized they have learned something. They score their effort too. Most kids understand what to do and do it well. Sometimes they fill it in with the purpose of helping me achieve MY goal (which is to see a progression in their learning). Interestingly most tend to be pretty honest with their effort score. They know when they've tried and when they haven't been "feeling it."

Something happened yesterday that changed this pattern.

Five students gave themselves the maximum score of four at the start and end of the lesson. They were telling me they knew it before I taught it, and still knew at the end. My first reaction was immediate offense - how can they be so arrogant? How can they know something before I taught it? Why are they such smart alecs?

Then I thought - what if they are right?

I decided to test this group of students. In homeroom I announced they would be teaching the afternoon class. I literally handed them the keys and said you need to continue our learning as a class. Set the goal, deliver the lesson. There wasn't a randomness to this challenge since we are working our way through a novel. I'll admit I was petrified. What if the boss wanders by and sees the anarchy? What if they completely stuff this up and I've got to reteach the whole lesson tomorrow?

I decided to throw caution into the wind. I sat myself in a student's chair at the back of the room. And I learned.

Firstly, the students did not understand the implications of a learning goal. The goal they set was narrow. "React to Old Bill." Actually that was the second goal. The first goal was "do the same as yesterday." (It should be noted that Old Bill doesn't even appear until well into the section we are reading. For the most part, we weren't going to be reading anything to do with our learning goal.)

The negativity (and I'll admit it, glee) I felt towards this apparent failure was soon replaced by something grander. As I watched them and completed the lesson to their instructions I saw them copy my lesson format. Without notes. Without planning or discussing it at lunch (refer to that goal - they clearly weren't prepared.) They managed to organise people to read and set out a note-taking form for quotes and reflections. And the students followed them. Herein lied my second lesson - the students had reached a point of aromaticity in the learning process. For all intents and purposes the boring repetition has served its function. Their notebooks are full of good quotes and thoughtful insights into them. And now they could do it with minimal instruction. I had in front of me, a group of students who had been influenced by my teaching and could independently put it into practice. It was a joy to watch and complete the questions the students set alongside them. I offered my own responses at appropriate times and pointed out some interesting insights. I paired and shared with my table group. It was an opportunity to model from the back of the room. (What a great idea! How had I not done this before?) And I loved it.

They liked it to. Not the authority (for ultimately they had none). But they learned. There was five of them who had to be active and checking student responses and making sure the class stayed on track. They realised it was harder than it looked.

The third lesson was more of a confirmation than a new idea. Risk taking can work. Every once and awhile I need to throw away the lesson plan and rely on my instinct. These kids gave me some feedback so I gave them a challenge. And they responded. Not perfectly mind you, they need a hand with the learning goal and making sure the lesson stays relevant throughout. But so do lots of qualified teachers. It is a lesson we can learn together. They had picked up on the key aspects of my modelling though had not been able to apply them perfectly. There is time for mastery. Hell, Bob Marzano says it takes a reflective, expert teacher ten years to reach mastery. I can't expect these kids to get it in 45 minutes.

When I got home I continued reading Roland Barth's 'Learning By Heart' for my Masters. In a chapter on the need for teachers to be active learners and researchers Barth summed it up perfectly - "[schools] can become cultures where youngsters are discovering the joy, the difficulty, and the excitement of learning and where adults are continually rediscovering the joy, the difficulty, and the excitement of learning." The message my students had been sending me was clear. The message I replied with broke some new ground for them and helped them develop a new appreciation for what we do. And I learned more about my class by not being the teacher and perhaps taught more by being a fellow student.

So how do I top that tomorrow? I probably can't. But I'm certainly going to try.