Maulana Abdul Razaq Shahid

ShahidI learned today of the death of Maulana Abdul Razaq Shahid. We met almost 20 years ago in the old Dunfermline Mosque when I declared my Shahada. It was packed out, being a Friday Jumu’ah: he put me at ease, although at the time his English wasn’t good and my Arabic was weak. I remember him leading a Dhikr – the resonance of it in my chest is something I still remember and feel today. He gave me my name: Muhammad Bilal and although I am not often called “Bilal” nowadays, the significance of the name remains with me.

At regular Friday prayers, he would often lead the Ummah in prayer and recitation that wrenched tears from him: the passion of his faith no less present in his quieter duah’a. After the formal session was over and those who had to rush back to work had left, a small number of us would remain as Shahid led us in singing Mustafa Jaan-e-Rehmat Pe Laakhon Salaam. He had a beautiful voice and in a different setting I could imagine him singing professionally. His humility led him on a pastoral path, however: in this role he cared deeply for his community and the people within it.

Those who remember him will miss him.

Educating for Social Justice

I attended a seminar last week that raised a number of issues for me in relation to social justice and the dangers of that agenda. There is a fuller account of the session on the wiki but I think it’s worth making one or two further points in this forum.

First, the tippy-toeing around extreme, illogical or simply stupid ideas in the name of religious tolerance. One of these days, the human race is going to finally rid itself of voodoo, invisible friends and the brutal intimidation inflicted on itself in the name of religion. If anything needs a cold hard critical examination, it’s this feature of our nascent society.

Second, alternate views do not become alternate-but-equal simply by being alternate. Jim Al-Khalili posted a great example of the difference between “a theory” like creationism and “a scientific theory” which makes this point well.

I will repeat again a question I have asked more than once this week:

Is there any evidence that an “equal playing field” is better than one that isn’t? Mother Nature’s not so keen – she has very effective ways of rewarding power differential and privilege. I wonder if we remove competitive selection at our peril.

Isn’t it time we stopped this conservative, white, naive egalitarianism? We could probably start with the pandas.

When busy bees lose the plot

OK, I have all this stuff to do but somehow I just can’t get focused on doing it. I seem to be stuck here, in the wrong place, doing something that just isn’t my priority right now.

Don’t get me wrong, I like being a bee and collecting pollen and all that stuff for the hive but honestly, I’m knackered. I just want to sit here and look at – what is that, anyway? Some kind of pipe. Interesting. I like pipes. Think I’ll blog about pipes.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. I’m going to go and get some of that pollen. For the hive. Because it’s what I’m supposed to be doing right now.

Desert Island Discs

didA colleague recently asked for suggestions for music which got me thinking that everyone should at least have a rough idea of what to play were they ever to be invited onto Roy Plomley’s Desert Island Discs. Now, it’s a vanity to even momentarily entertain the idea that one is of sufficient public interest to be invited onto this great British Radio programme, but that didn’t stop me preparing my list. Here it is.

The rules

The rules of being cast away on the imaginary island might seem a little anachronistic in this digital age but they boil down to these: you’re allowed 8 discs – tracks, in the modern vernacular – and the means to play them, presumably mechanical as there is no source of power for electronic devices. Concessions are that you can take with you a holy or philosophical book, the complete works of Shakespeare and one other book, plus one luxury item, provided that it doesn’t aid your escape from the island.

First two discs

The first disc sent me back to Letchworth, where I grew up in a house full of music. My mother sang all her life until age overtook her vocal cords. She still has the same passion for music, particularly Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto number 2, which would often play as I took my weekly bath on a Sunday evening. Mum is and always was a girl who liked fun, however, and was as likely to be found lost in a boogie-woogie – her favourite being Down the road a piece. My first two discs reflect my mother’s influence, therefore: the first, a classical masterpiece rendered by Isao Tomita electronically to great effect, especially from about 5 min 30 sec, where the effect of percussion leading in a sweeping chorus still moves me as much now as when I first heard it 35 years ago.

1. Tomita: Pavane (Ravel) from the album Daphnis & Chloe 1979

The second of my desert island discs is possibly the best blues track I ever heard. I played this as a teenager, over and over again, and have never tired of hearing it. From Fleetwood Mac’s early years, it was the B side to Albatross, another instrumental that showed the expressive power of the electric guitar in the hands of a master – in this case, Peter Green, and on my second disc, Danny Kirwan. Catch the contrast between the blue notes and the happy middle eight.

2. Jigsaw Puzzle Blues – Fleetwood Mac

The guitar is an instrument I have been playing for almost fifty years. I’m still pretty mediocre, despite a period as a professional bass player.

Guitars, voices and songs

I wondered if I might take a guitar with me to the island. In the interests of not driving myself crazy with frustration and rage at my own inability to play as well as I’d like, it will be better that I don’t. Instead, a track featuring one of my favourite guitarists of all time, Ritchie Blackmore. The band Deep Purple produced the most incredible quality music, not least due to the influence of Jon Lord. In my time as a bass player, I owned a Rickenbacker that was supposed to have belonged to Roger Glover of the same band. The vocalist Ian Gillan is most closely associated with Deep Purple, but for me, the greatest voice for Blackmore’s guitar belonged to David Coverdale. Here they both are, doing what they both do best.

3. Soldier of Fortune – Deep Purple (Stormbringer)

My work took me around the world, where I would often be working shifts in the air-conditioned sterility of the computer room, waiting for code to compile and link. In the splendid isolation of those places, I often listened to cassette tapes through headphones, loud. One artist that accompanied me in that place during an extended trip to Seattle was Joni Mitchell, whose album Blue was played end to end, stopping only half way through to turn the tape around. My island disc from that album features the delicious sound of the Appalachian Dulcimer.

4. A Case of You – Joni Mitchell

Songs of significance

I have never hung on to my career at all costs, preferring to recognise that a point has been reached where further progress is impossible, further contribution wasted and that a new path beckons. These points have often featured significant songs or music and the next track is an example. I used it as the introduction to a corporate presentation shortly before I left the corporation.

5. That’s what I’ll do – Robert Cray

In a similar way, I found the music of Omar Faruk Tekbilek to be significant, drawn as I was at the time to Islam. As Muhammad Bilal, I spent a number of years with that faith and as part of that community, the Ummah. The imam at my local mosque had a beautiful singing voice and would often lead the singing of a naat, a poem in praise of the Prophet. One in particular, I still sometimes catch myself singing the chorus of: Mustafa Jaan-e-Rehmat Pe Laakhon Salaam.

“Islam” means “peace” and I found a peace here that I hadn’t experienced before, in the prayer and the respect for all, men and women, “sons of Abraham”, for nature, for knowledge and science. It breaks my heart to see how the great religion that Islam is, can be so sullied by the actions of lunatics, dead cultural habits and the ignorant. Here, the music and lyrics of Omar Faruk Tekbilek are evocative of a place of peace for the Muslim, particularly the spiritual Sufi, a garden.

6. Manhem – Omar Faruk Tekbilek

Growing up

I have now spent a significant part of my adult life in Scotland. I consider it to be my home, with all of its strange cultures and heritages, most of which are imports. The pipes, originating as they did in Egypt, are perhaps iconic for Scottish culture and there is nothing so stirring as hearing the massed pipes and drums of a decent rendering of Highland Cathedral. The tune is, of course, written by a couple of Germans, which I think is funny. I don’t want any of that on the island. What I will have is a single track by Matt Rach, a young French guitarist whose talent I am insanely jealous of and whose music, whether covers or his own material, is quite exceptionally, furiously, good. This one will do: it’s his cover of the theme from Rosemary’s Baby.

7. Rosemary’s Baby Theme – Matt Rach

Immortality

My final track seems to the perfect synthesis of the music I have loved the most, crossing cultural, religious and national boundaries in a way that digs deep into my psyche. I can do nothing when I hear this but close my eyes and listen to it. It was written by the cellist Joceyln Pook for Akram Khan’s DESH, a full-length contemporary dance solo. I have never seen the dance. I like to think that this unresolved rift in the balance of harmony in my life makes me immortal.

8. Ave Maria (DESH): Jocelyn Pook

The book

I am free of God now but recognise the value of values and the power of prayer. There is no peace like the peace of the mosque; no hope so vain as the hope of salvation; no service but that which is given unconditionally and without recognition. That said, I have no need of the religious or philosophical Book: neither the Bible nor Qu’ran are any use to me now. If I need fiction, I have the complete works of Shakespeare, altogether more credible a read.

I was thinking that I might take for my own choice Sun Tzu’s Art of War. If I have nobody to fight a war with but myself it may offer a route to greater self-awareness. However, I have settled on a brilliant little book that will keep me occupied and mentally stimulated until I am rescued from the island: The Chicken from Minsk: And 99 Other Infuriating Brainteasers. I was recommended this book several years ago and finally bought one, second-hand, for a penny. To give you a flavour of the book, from the back cover:

Besides chess playing and problem solving, drinking is and always has been the most common form of recreation in Russia. Vassily has acquired a 12 litre bucket of vodka and wishes to share it with Pyotr. However, all Pyotr has is an empty 8 litre bottle and an empty 5 litre bottle. How can the vodka be divided evenly?

The Luxury item and the One Disc I’d Save

I was considering an Appalachian Dulcimer, so that I could learn to play “A Case of You” – the one disc I would save from the waves if I had to – but realised that I would probably break the strings quite quickly. A longer-lasting luxury, depending on how much I am permitted to have of this, would be writing and sketching materials. Writing is the one thing I have never tired of: and when I do, I tend to sketch. Not very well, but like the guitar playing, well enough for my own entertainment.

Which is probably good news for the other inhabitants of the island.

Metamorphosis of Narcissus

MetaNarcissus was, according to legend, a hunter. Walking in the woods, he was seen by the nymph Echo, who falls in love with him. The nymph had been cursed by Hera, the wife of Zeus, such that she could only repeat the last words heard and not say anything of her own. Narcissus rejects Echo’s love. After praying to Aphrodite, she disappears, remaining only as a voice heard by all.

The goddess of revenge, Nemesis, punishes Narcissus by leading him to fall in love with his own image reflected in a spring. Different outcomes, none of them good, await Narcissus, depending on the version of the story you read. Continue reading “Metamorphosis of Narcissus”

How vampiric are you?

I picked up a little book on holiday this week and read the short biography of the editor. This revealed a career path from Grammar School to Cambridge to Public School to Eton housemaster which filled me with sadness and contempt for its utter lack of imagination.

Now, I know this is judgemental and probably wildly wrong but but this judgement seemed to be underlined when I read this editor’s introduction to the book. It was safe, unadventurous and deadly dull. Having read it, I wish I hadn’t wasted those precious minutes of my life doing so.

So, here is a stereotype of a man who was good enough as a child to secure a place at a Grammar School (I did, but the year they dropped the 11-plus). At Grammar School he was successful enough to go up to Cambridge. No doubt he was inspired by his role models, his teachers. Having read languages – with the whole wide world open right before him – he becomes as teacher. Straight back to the swamp from which he had just emerged. Continue reading “How vampiric are you?”

Never…

… a crossword. One of the interesting things about being a producer of online material – whether that be blogs, learning resources, online community sites or crosswords, is that sometimes you get no direct response. Feedback is important so that you can gauge whether or not what you’re doing is any good. If it’s rubbish, you can consider whether it’s worth the effort doing it again. If it’s brilliant, you can be encouraged to keep doing it. If it’s in between, you can find out how to improve it.

Pixie Puzzle No8
Click the puzzle.

Some of the things I do online yield positive responses: the physics resources site I run over at sptr.net gets little response online but when I meet users or engage in one-on-one email exchanges, I often get positive comments about how useful it is, and this encourages me to keep working at it. It’s a nice feeling to be making lives easier.

Sometimes, though, you can work hard to put something “out there” and get little to nothing back. Two examples: one, is the audio commentaries and reflections I publish through iTunes and AudioBoo. Although most of these get thousands of listeners, which itself is gratifying, I almost never get a response. It’s a bit like shouting at the radio. I know how that feels, I do it often enough.

The other example is the cryptic crosswords I have been publishing over the past year – 7 in total. As any cruciverbalist will tell you, these take quite a bit of effort to put together, even with the aid of the brilliant tool that I use, John Stevens’ Magnum Opus program. Despite a couple of thousand downloads, I have only ever received a handful of comments or solutions.

So. I saw a guy in Costa yesterday, settling down with the Saturday Times Crossword. He’d finished a substantial chunk of it by the time he got up to leave, so I wrote the web address of my most recent puzzle on a receipt and pressed it upon him and asked him to take a look and let me know what he thought. Bless his heart, he did so, posting the magic words, “Enjoyed the crossword…”.

You have no idea how good that made me feel. Click the puzzle if you’d like to try one.

This is a text

Electric_chair

“… a text is the medium through which ideas, experiences, opinions and information can be communicated.”

So runs the CfE definition of a text. Therefore, this is a physics text. In the hands of a competent physics teacher, this image, of the first electric chair, tells the story of the current wars in which Westinghouse and Tesla fought Edison over which type of current would deliver energy from the generation plant to consumers: AC or DC. Edison secretly paid Harold P Brown to design and build the electric chair, to show the lethality of alternating current. He promoted the phrase, to be “Westinghoused” to mean executed by electrocution. In the event, the first electrocution failed to kill the prisoner, William Kemmler, due to a miscalculation. Westinghouse remarked that they would have done better using an axe.

With the right text, sufficient knowledge and passion, the competent teacher can bring even the dullest curriculum alive. Consider National 4 Physics Key Area: “Advantages and disadvantages of different methods of electricity generation and distribution.”

Teaching Perspectives

tpiI was directed to something called the teaching perspectives inventory, which I had not heard of before, by a PGDE student at Moray House. She had taken the survey before starting the course to give herself an insight into her own attitudes to teaching and as a benchmark: she intends taking the survey again at the end of the year to try and gauge how much her outlook has changed as a consequence of the year. If you’re not aware, the PGDE in Scotland is a one-year professional graduate diploma at Master’s level which delivers 18 weeks in university and 18 weeks in school placement. At the end of the year, successful students progress to (paid) probation and on to full registration as teachers.

Those of you that know me will not be surprised that I couldn’t resist taking the inventory test myself, to see where I sit in the five perspectives as a fairly new university teacher. The results are interesting (click the image for the full size).

My dominant perspective according to the analysis is Nurturing: “Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, not the head”. I like this. It is characterised by phrases like, “learners […] are working on issues or problems without fear of failure”, “their achievement is a product of their own effort and ability”, “[teachers promote] a climate of caring and trust”, and “[t]heir assessments of learning consider individual growth as well as absolute achievement”.

I am recessive in Transmission: “Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter”. I think I like this too. My role as I see it is substantially about developing people and their attitudes, over content. In the survey, I am sure I was a little fuzzy with the responses, still being a recent secondary classroom teacher of physics. Although I have a responsibility to challenge student teachers to assess, challenge and develop their physics understanding (and to continue to do so), my more significant task is in areas like pedagogy, complexity, social justice and professional responsibility.

The other three perspectives (Apprenticeship, Development and Social Reform) sit around the mean. I’m not alarmed by this, although my conscience pricks itself when it comes to Development, “Effective teaching must be planned and conducted from the learner’s point of view.”, because it’s one of my mantras. Perhaps my response to the survey brings this out as below dominant because I put this principle into practice by proxy: in my mind as I do my job, above the needs of the students in front of me, are the needs of the young people they will teach. Controversially, my role has been defined by some as “gatekeeper”, the one who prevents ineffective teachers from making it to the classroom.

There’s more to reflect on here, I think. If you are an educator, you might give it a try yourself?

EDIT: There’s more information on teaching perspectives in Pratt, D. D. (2002). Good teaching: one size fits all?, which includes this:

Perspectives are neither good nor bad. They are simply philosophical orientations to knowledge, learning, and the role and responsibility of being a teacher. Therefore it is important to remember that each of these perspectives represents a legitimate view of teaching when enacted appropriately.