Tuesday 25 November 2014

6 Months to Go; 6 Things to Do

Public exam candidates go into the Christmas break with 6 months to go to their exams. It’s not long. For some it’s the same length of time as the interval since their last set of exams; others will have other ways of calibrating the time. Here are six activities which are worth undertaking this far from the exams:
  1. Organise files, and catalogue them. Not only should all notes on a particular topic be in the same section of the file, a contents list of each file section is helpful. Summarising the content of a subject topic on one side of one piece of paper at the start of each section is an excellent revision tool to be done now (this is one that should never be left to the pure-revision last phase of learning). In addition, a cover page for the file as a whole, detailing the contents of the file is a good thing - in many subjects a thorough knowledge of the way that the specification is organised can help to contextualise questions.
  2. Collate feedback on written work by subject. It can be helpful to try to group all feedback on written work (and on reports if they are available at this stage of the year), to spot patterns. Identify what skills are strong, and which are lacking. Most broadly, the skills might be classified as knowledge, expression of that knowledge, choice of which knowledge to deploy well, ability to analyse (or compute), ability to evaluate/express clear answers and conclusions. These five areas could be scored: sound, needs improvement, could be improved, crucial weakness and so on.
  3. Review previous experience of taking exams: what has gone well, what went badly? What natural biases were learned in the experience? Are there tendencies to over-estimate ability and understanding, or under-estimate them? What does this mean for the next few phases of the work?
  4. Turn short term memory of the Michaelmas Term’s work in to long term memory. Now is the time to write those revision notes, for two reasons: first, the material should be familiar enough still that the notes will be informed not only by what you have written down, but also some memory of the sights, sounds, amusements, and incidental goings-on which surrounded the learning. Recalling these things (and even referring to them in your revision notes) uses deep memory for academic understanding, and will make them stick.
  5. Collaborate: take the time now to form your revision relationships. These could be study-buddies for each subject, or they could be a sibling who will share responsibility for testing, chatting practice answers, bouncing ideas off, or helping with the most difficult technical aspects. Anyone who can help here is a good choice: some students benefit from practising their language oral presentations with their own teddy-bear, but you are unlikely to get much help from this source for your Maths A level.
  6. Have a rest: make sure that the return to school in January sees you at your peak. Don’t waste week 1 re-acclimatising to the routine of getting up at a certain time to get to school. You’d never approach being an athlete, or an interview, like that. Make sure that you are in the best place you could possibly be to take advantage of lesson 1 in 2015.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Remembrance Sunday Sermon - edited highlights

This was the sermon on Remembrance Sunday 2014 in the Chapel of an English boarding school. It is verbatim, with the exception of local references which would be meaningless or puzzling to the reader from further afield.

The first conversation I can remember with someone who had actually fought in a war was in Tiberias, in Israel, during my gap year where my boss, who had grown up in North London and was, poor fellow, a fanatical Spurs supporter, told me about his experience fighting in the 1984 war between Lebanon and Israel. Tony had been in the first group of Israeli soldiers dropped at Beirut airport who had captured it and then held it for three days until the ground forces had caught up with them. Although I haven’t seen him since then, he would now be in his mid 60s. His experience was that war was a sequence of encounters in which one either died, or was killed. He preferred to kill others than to die himself. But he had no political commitment to his cause: he never spoke about whether the war was right, merely about surviving, and that made a profound impression on me. He was keen, when we talked about it, to impress on me that war was really very unpleasant indeed, and should be avoided at all costs. Avoided, at all costs. Hold onto that.

Those who have fought in wars tend to have very vivid, deeply held memories of them. Very few people  simply forget the conflicts they have been involved with. The events and memories are seared into them. Our remembrance should always start with the understanding that conflicts hurt people, and they go on hurting people for a long time. Conflicts start easily, but take years, sometimes generations, to overcome. Because long after a conflict is over, enmity remains. Making war is only the first part, making peace is much harder.

There’s been a great deal of focus on Remembrance this year - because, as I am sure you are all aware, it is 100 years since the Great War, WW1, started. This was the war which, it was commonly agreed at the time, was ‘the war to end all wars’. A war so brutal, so savage, so appalling in every way that every participant hoped that it would be a sufficiently terrible reminder that no one would go back to war.

The saddest thing about the sacrifice of those who died in WW1 is that, just 21 years later, the world entered another war. And after that Suez, Vietnam, Falklands, Iraq1, Iraq2, Afghanistan, and others. All those conflicts took place before the last of the UK’s trench infantrymen from the Great War died.

I don’t think this country has always done remembrance well. 100 years on gives us the chance to reconsider how we do remembrance - what it is for. I think that Remembrance is about honouring those who fought by asking afresh what we can learn from conflict; how we can honour the dead and the wounded by changing the way that we live. And I think that remembrance can actually be the enemy of reconciliation if it is done less than well, but it can be the agent of reconciliation if it is done right.

Why is the biggest grudge match of a tournament for the England football team the game against Germany? Why is this more impassioned than a game against France, or Italy, or Spain, or the USA? In the context of local derbies, the game against Wales or Scotland ought surely to be more impassioned. But the tabloid newspapers in this country prepare for a game against Germany in a completely different way, and often an inappropriate one in my view.

Remembrance ought to be about how awful conflict, enmity and aggression are. How little is gained from war, and how much is lost. How we tend to underestimate the suffering it produces and overestimate the gains.

The passage that was read to us earlier included these words:
And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled ...

What does remembrance teach us most of all? Within a Christian ethical paradigm, in a Christian country, the most important thing about our remembrance is reconciliation. I want to go further than this: if we do not learn about the importance of reconciliation, of peace, of the desperate, urgent need for humans to learn to live at peace with each other… if we do not learn these things, we do not value, learn from, or remember with honour those who have fought for us. Their sacrifices were made not so we could live in war, but in peace! How do we honour the sacrifice of our former pupils in these wars? We do so by celebrating, protecting, cherishing the peace that they died to obtain for us. By being people who live in peace with each other.

And, in our school there are those who can trace their ancestry back to the countries which the UK fought against in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. We are incredibly fortunate to have people in our school community with strong allegiances to Spain, France, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Japan, and other countries. Our role is to relate to each other in a way that builds a future of peace and human flourishing, together. This school is a community of people from lands and peoples that have been at war, but now choose to live in peace.

I haven’t explained why I think the sacrifice of those who fight in wars is best honoured by by reconciliation. And I cut short the reading earlier. It actually goes like this: 

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

I am sure that you are all familiar with the Christian theology of the cross. Jesus endured conflict in the form of a beating, a whipping, the exhausting hard labour of carrying his cross, and being crucified,.  All this was in order to bring reconciliation between people and God, and to bring reconciliation between people and people. When humans endure conflict to bring peace, to bring reconciliation, Christians see those people as treading in Jesus’ footprints. Submitting oneself to suffering which leads to reconciliation is deeply Christian. It is what Jesus Christ did. It follows his example closely.

So, I challenged our school community: will we be people who suffer, who toil, who labour for reconciliation, of people to God, or people with other people? Will we imitate Jesus Christ by being willing to suffer for this noble goal? Will we show the same sort of willingness to put ourselves in  a difficult or disadvantageous position to bring reconciliation like all those among our school's former pupils who died in the 20th Century's wars, including one awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery? Will we be God’s ambassadors with a message of reconciliation as St Paul asks in today's reading. I hope so. Because even just a few of today's pupils, who have such good opportunities to be leaders of tomorrow's world, could make such a difference.

So whether you are from Bath or Bristol, Somerset or Gloucestershire, England or Wales, the UK or the rest of Europe, Europe or the rest of the world.. however local you are, or however distant, however like each other, or however unlike, our permanent, enduring, important remembrance of those who died is to live peacably, and be agents for peace in our world. By doing so we honour those former pupils who died in Iraq, and in the World Wars, and we honour Jesus himself.

There is no higher calling. I urge you be reconciled - to God, to each other. And be people who reconcile others, and work for reconciliation, and for peace.