Reads of the Week #53

This week, the week the State Exams finished for 2017, also marked the finishing of my school work. I manage the Book Rental Scheme in our school and that means waiting until late June to stock take and look at the order for next year. It’s an opportunity for listening to radio while I work and for finding reading material that distract me from textbooks. 
Earlier in the week I read a piece by Michael O’Loughlin to mark Bloomsday in the Irish Times on James Joyce as a European. I liked this line in particular ‘There are few other nations whose foundation myth is based on the notion that we’re not actually from around here.’

Last week Fintan O’Toole won the Orwell Prize for his coverage of Brexit and in this article for the New York Times, he deftly puts British turmoil in an Irish context: perhaps some of us in Ireland can be allowed a moment of schadenfreude as we look across the sea and ask… the question the English so often asked about us: Are the English fit for self-government?

For Fathers Day, Esquire published this moving piece by Tyler Coates on his father’s voice which is moving and real: The last remaining evidence of my father’s voice, the final thing that roots him and his existence in my brain, will eventually cease to exist–just like VHS tapes, and the accent he spoke with, and my memories of him, too.

To my friends’ baby girl: I hope you grow up to be Wonder Woman by Heidi Stevens is essential reading for anyone with a daughter. [You were born] the same week a female superhero (finally!) started kicking butt at the box office… a signal of our fondest hope for you: that you grow up knowing you can choose your own path and fight your own battles and change the world.

Here, Pasi Sahlberg reckons we should be concentrating on ‘small data’ to improve education, ‘small data’ emerges from the notion that in a world that is increasingly governed by binary digits and cold statistics, we need information that helps us to understand better those aspects of teaching and learning that are invisible or not easily measurable. 

Organising Teaching: Developing the Power of the Profession from Howard Stevenson and Nina Bascia has seven challenges for teacher unions to reorganise and it is essential reading for teacher trade unionists. 

Podcast of the week is the conversation between Tom Sleigh and Paul Muldoon about Seamus Heaney’s In the Attic and Tom Sleigh’s own The Fox On the New Yorker Poetry Podcast, which, mainly due to Paul Muldoon’s knowledge and geniality is a always a treat. 

And finally, this weeks picture of the week is of  Ballinaboy, County Galway, Ireland, 1965 by Edwin Smith which I found on twitter from Anne Mortier. Beautiful landscape, ominous skies, homestead in between, the perfect vision of Ireland. 


Reads of the Week #33

First this week the story of the man who takes care of Kermit since Jim Henson died, interesting, informative and touching. 

Next, here’s Laura June on her small daughter and technology, they copy everything we do.

Here’s Jay Rayner’s review of restaurant Smith & Wollensky, he doesn’t like it much. 

On politics this is fascinating: Nordic Social Democratic politics and Olof Palme.

And finally the unsettling tale of the sex and lies one woman endured to survive the Holocaust.

Here are the tweets of every read so far, 160 and counting. 

This is the archive of all the reads so far. 

Our Mockingbirds


Last week I went to see a To Kill a Mockingbird at the Bord Gais theatre. I’ve taught the novel maybe ten times now to ten enthralled groups of fourteen and fifteen year olds and I always choke when Atticus teaches Scout to respect everyone, no matter who they were, to climb into their skin and walk around in it. Since I became a father tears flow when Scout links Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley’s arm so it looks like he’s leading her across the street, Boo Radley, the unknown outsider, who lived amidst the community all along. ‘Thank you Arthur’, Atticus says to him, ‘thank you for my children.’

The production was great, the narrators voice was presented by the whole cast, reading the novel aloud like so many teachers have done. The performances were great. Everyone cried.

I was sitting next to my wife, she got me the tickets. That’s what you do when you’re married, you see something your other half would like and you get it for them. You call in the grandparents, drive to Dublin, have lunch together in The Marker and go to the theatre. You go to a play about respect. A play about understanding and treating everyone equally. Do you see where this is going?

Over the last few days and weeks I’ve cried many times, at the stories of public figures, private individuals and friends who shared their experiences of being gay in Ireland today. For any straight Irish citizen who might have had their heads in the clouds, thinking it was no big deal to be out in Ireland today, it’s plain now that it’s a big deal. That in our thoughts and in our words we treat some of our citizens differently. We were forgetting to walk in their shoes, these mockingbirds.

There have been days too where I’ve wondered why anyone would want to be married! But meeting and marrying my wife was the best that ever happened to me. I’m not religious or into ceremony (though I like to give a speech, they tell me), but the day we got married did change everything. The day after I felt this was something different, something right. Who am I, who is anyone to deny that feeling to any other citizen of this Republic? What has made me most sad over the last month is thinking how some of us have to ask the majority of us to be treated equally, and some people, even some teachers, who should be all about tolerance, are opposed to ‘bestowing the gift’ of this human right.

And though we repeat over and again that it isn’t about children, when you’re a teacher and a parent it’s always about children. I’ve seen students crumble under the weight of coming out as a gay teenager, and I know teachers who can’t come out in their staffrooms. (By the way, the fact is that, if the referendum is passed, an LGBT teacher will be able to marry but may still be discriminated against under employment law. The next fight will have to be to delete Section 37.) To give those we share our communities with the comfort of what we take for granted will be an honour. 

I’ve been asked ‘why do you go on about gay teachers, you’re not gay’, my answer is one of the things I’m most proud of saying: ‘no, I’m not gay, but I am a human being’. 

Education has, needlessly, been dragged into the debate, scaremongering that if it’s a yes and you don’t teach marriage equality you’ll be open to sanction. The very thought that teachers would blanch at teaching equality is ludicrous: aren’t we after the truth after all everyday? That’s why we chose to read books like Mockingbird, isn’t it? 

In the end, this is a republic. With all its flaws, and no matter how loaded the term, on Friday 22nd May we should act like Republicans and extend to our brothers and sisters the liberty and equality they deserve.


It’s been a busy few months. I’m getting two weeks off from Wednesday, which is welcome I suppose. Where this all began is with an appointment at the CRYP centre in Tallaght hospital to get my three girls, and me, checked for any irregularities in our hearts. We were monitored, scanned, I ran farther on a treadmill than,  it is safe to say, I have run in quite sometime and were sent home with Holter monitors to wear over night.

Actually, it didn’t begin with that at all. It began in the summer of 2006 when, while on holiday in Killarney with my wife and then only one daughter we got a phone call nobody would wish on his worst enemy: my brother had been found dead in his apartment in Dublin. Conor had been treated for a heart problem for years before and now at 32 he was gone, it’s defined our family since.

So when the doctor called to say my Holter monitor showed a pause of five and a half seconds around five am (in other words my heart stopped) I was pretty calm. The kids were all fine and I knew Conor had had pauses of up to eight seconds so I didn’t panic. Then I asked the doctor what we should do about it and she said she’d like me to get a pacemaker.

A pacemaker is a small, battery-operated device into your chest, to help your heart beat regularly, you know that. The surgery is minor, I only get a local anesthetic and I’ll be awake while it’s done. It’s preventative, it’s to make sure I motor on, but it’s my heart and that’s crucial to understanding the nerves that go with this operation.

When I was a kid I was a pretty good athlete, a sprinter and middle distance runner for most of my teens, I think it’s safe to say that girls and school got in the way and I drifted away from it. I still feel my heart beating as I won my first All-Ireland medal, it was fine and regular when I came off the bend in a 200 metre sprint, but when I saw the line and no-one ahead of me, there was a quickening, when I saw my brothers and parents that’s when it almost burst out of my chest. Or when I saw my wife in Holycross Abbey on our wedding day, or when each of my three children was born, that’s when I remember my heartbeat. So the way I think of having a pacemaker fitted isn’t as the end of something, just a little bionic kick to make sure I can have more of those moments, though I’m not planning on running 200 metres, or getting married again (or having any more kids!).

At CRY they have a big family tree for us, on a huge spreadsheet. I imagine there’s a code for checked and clear, one for checked and operated on, one for the next world. A death in the family isn’t easy, a young death is a shadow hanging over you for ever. That’s what CRY is for, making sure the shadow doesn’t spread. My Dad has raised huge money for them over the years, they exist on donations which is criminal when there is such a need for the service they provide. 

So. That’s it. I’m not allowed to drive, but I can, write and tweet. If you’re thinking of helping a charity is a good choice.

Pic credit

Reads of the week #4

1. Why do we read? By Isabelle Cartwright

2. Eugene O’Neill embraced torment as a pathway to inspiration: John Lahr reviews Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts by Robert Dowling

3. Progressive Labels for Regressive Practices: How Key Terms in Education Have Been Co-opted by Alfie Kohn

4. It’s time ministers realised that teachers really do want to teach by Zoe Williams

5. One Year with Zelda by Laura June

Photo credit

Teaching Heaney

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When I first read Heaney (he was always Heaney, never Seamus to me) it was as a student and I didn’t get it. I found the reference points too hard to grasp in the UCD library, a thousand miles from Mossbawn. I wrote an essay about Joyce and Kavanagh and Heaney, about dislocation, moving away from home and them fixated on the places they left. I could understand Kavanagh leaving Monaghan, or even Joyce leaving my beloved university city, but not Heaney leaving Derry. I didn’t understand then the essay was more about me the homebird than about any of them.

It was when I came home to Tipperary to teach that Heaney began to worm his way into my poetry classes. My colleagues know I’d teach poetry all day if I was let, but they might not know that I teach Heaney and Frost by choice even when they aren’t prescribed, always returning to those places: New England and our old Ireland.

It started with Blackberry Picking with the emphasis on familiar landscape and Midterm Break with its heartbreaking description of a family destroyed by a death too soon. A poem I had to return to again and again when my own brother died. Both of these poems produce a gasp from students: first at the smelly fuzz of wasted berries, and then at the four foot box. The visceral images you could smell and see, Heaney is easy for kids because they feel their senses keenly, we adults are dulled by our lives.

Heaney writes the senses: ‘the cool hardness’ of potatoes from Digging transports me back to my own childhood digging spuds with my Dad in his back garden, ‘stumbling in his hobnailed wake’ like Heaney describes in Follower.

It was when Heaney began to appear on the Leaving Cert that I began to read beyond the poetry “in the book”, about omphalos and discovered the sanctity and meaning of home in poems like Mossbawn, Personal Helicon or even A Constable Calls, and started to think about what the centre of my own world was; it came into sharp focus when I had kids of my own, my own followers.

Identity, imagination, the feel of things, the love of words. The love of his wife. Take the Skunk, not an easy poem to introduce to a classroom of girls: “here’s a poem about his wife, it’s called The Skunk”. Blank, angry teenage faces! But then, understanding, they smiled and understood that love they could maybe aspire to feeling. It’s in The Underground too, that early love described by an ageing man looking back.

But more than all this Heaney makes me proud to be a teacher. A teacher and reader of poetry himself, listen to his poems in his own voice and you cannot read them without hearing him, he understood the sound of the teacher’s voice in the classroom, the sound of a reader reading aloud. Teaching poetry is easy when there is clarity, when the image is warm and real, when the poet stays in touch with the outside world, despite his solitary work.

Poetry opens doors into the dark, windows of wonder, and allows us to walk around in rooms we could only have imagined, ‘where he expends himself in shape and music’. We are so lucky to have been allowed a window on the life, love and home of Seamus Heaney.

A teacher is born

I have taken a breather from twitter for a while. With good reason. Something that doesn’t happen that often (only for the third time for me) has stopped everything. I’m not in school, I’m not tweeting, not reading much. In the midst of times when we’ve been reminded of how children’s lives are precious beyond belief we’ve had a third daughter. She’s as beautiful as her mother, and alert as her two big sisters and has only 24 hours after she was born burrowed herself into our hearts.
The birth of a child makes a husband appreciate his wife in ways words cannot express, the birth of a daughter brings out the guardian in a father, the birth of a third daughter gets you thinking. I’ve learned more from my first two girls than I ever will in a classroom or online. So Nora is my newest teacher, she’ll teach me to be more patient, stop me when I’m prattling on about some castle or other, ask the questions I don’t want to answer and answer the questions I wouldn’t dare ask. My newest teacher.