Monday, December 25, 2006

Chess - the old and the new

When you think of the game of Chess, you probably think of serious Russians facing each other across a board, their hands hovering over the clock at the side of the board.

The game of tactics so beloved by Russians, Americans, in fact people from every part of the globe was first played in China, India and Persia long ago.

When Arab Moors invaded Persia, they too learned the game and took it to Spain – from Spain it spread quickly though Europe.

Europeans gave the names to the pieces we use today – partly because they couldn’t pronounce the Persian ones. A thousand years ago, these names represented the way people lived.

Pawns represented serfs or labourers – we would call them workers today – there are more of them than any other piece and they are more readily sacrificed in battle, reflecting the hardships such people had to endure.
The castle represents the home or refuge as it did in medieval times. Just why there are two of them escapes me – maybe in the interest of symmetry.
The knight represents the professional soldier who had the job of protecting persons of rank, hence the close proximity to the King and Queen. The knights are more important than pawns but less important than bishops, which you would expect.
The bishops represent the church, of course, and so are central to the game, coming second in importance only to the King and Queen. This is as it was in days of yore when the church was a force to be reckoned with after the monarchy.
The Queen, the only female represented on the board, is the most powerful piece – the power behind the throne, but very powerful in her own right. Alas for many of them, they could be set aside, imprisoned or beheaded. Capture of the Queen does not win the game.
That honour is reserved for the King – it is the job of all the pieces on the board to defend their King. Once he falls, the monarchy does likewise, as happened in reality in medieval times and since. The King is the most important piece on the board, but not the most powerful.
All that applies to this day – battle commences and is won or lost with the capture of the King. It is the playing of the game that has undergone some significant changes; chess has always been played by two opponents sitting facing each other. With the advent of the Internet, two opponents can be poles apart, or they can be in the next room. The online game is played in the vertical plane, one move at a time, remote and yet immediate, depending on your server and your connection to it.
If you want to try it yourself, log on to and follow the simple instructions.
Robert L. Fielding

Monday, December 18, 2006

The scale of things - can you imagine?

Can we imagine?

Look at the pictures of stars and planets – Earth, the Sun, and Atares, Betelgeuse and some of the other planets in our solar system. We see the sun almost every day of our lives, rising in the east and setting in the west. We see our moon when the sun has set, and we see stars in the sky when it is dark enough and the sky is clear.

At other times, all we can see of space is the clouds above us. It is only when we rise above the level of clouds – on a plane, that we have the potential to see what is out there. We see with the naked eye, which is a feeble tool when compared with the Hubble telescope or the one at Jodrell Bank on the plains of Cheshire, in the UK.

Still, our eyes are what God has given us to see our world and the fraction of outer space our sight permits us to view. Man is indeed small in stature – even our Earth – mother to all life, is tiny compared with the red giants, stars, and even planets like Jupiter and Saturn.

And yet we have managed to tame and deal with a smaller world that is, in comparison, just as minute as we are to Betelgeuse; the world of biochemistry – the world within our world. Again, not able to be seen with the naked eye – viewed only by magnification and perhaps even then not properly seen.

Microbes that can cluster in their thousands – even millions on the head of a pin – living cells that can kill us, blind us, send us insane, make us desperately ill, but which, oddly enough, can help to keep us alive.

Man has scaled the highest mountains, scoured the wildest places on our planet, stood on the moon, and delved into the microscopic world of science. We have theorized when we did not know, speculated in advance of obtaining anything like objective, accurate or reliable knowledge - and understood activity in molecules that cannot be seen without special equipment. In short, man has come to understand a world almost beyond our imagination – out there in space, and inside our own bodies and all around us.

What man has not been able to do is account for the wonder of life on Earth. We know what a molecule of DNA looks like – we can identify which part of the double helix is responsible for our illnesses, our foibles and our faults, but can we say what life really is – can we say with any great degree of certainty what makes each and every one of us different – physically, mentally, linguistically, and psychologically.

It has been said that our appearance on Earth is comparable to the last sentence in a mighty volume of words - scrapings on our nails as we stretch both our arms wide right and left – that we cannot even closely imagine time in its vast geological sense, and yet we know how something that cannot be seen reacts with something else that cannot be seen. We know how chemical elements combine to form familiar substances like salt, water and air – we know how metal rusts and milk turns sour – and we understand why.

By dint of our imagination, and our mental abilities, learnt from our birth, inherited – certainly, but added to and developed, we have looked inside and outside the ball we call our world, and we have stood tall and equal to the mightiest of the mighty – the largest of the large, and the tiniest of the infinitesimal and understood what it is we have been looking at.

What a piece of work is man, and a credit to our Creator!
Robert L. Fielding

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sharing ideas – topics for articles

Here are some suggested topics for areas we could develop in our language classrooms and then into articles for a Journal. Journals need regular contributions from teachers and other m embers of staff across all the disciplines. This list applies mainly to English teachers, though (2), (5), (7), and (8) below could be adapted for use in Math and IT. Topic 10 below, could assist both Arabic and English teachers. Many more topics could be added from all disciplines.

Any of the following topics could be modified to suit a teacher’s area of expertise and/or interest.

1. Dictation exercises
Dictation may sound old fashioned these days, but some have found that it helps students form sentences by recognizing them when dictated. The voice naturally contours sentences in ways that help understanding. Meeting English sentences only when written means that students have to rely on their own knowledge of the structure of a sentence, and although the written sentences can be held up for more scrutiny, than spoken ones, the latter possess this quality; that the message/meaning of the sentence comes out more strongly than it can sometimes do in the former.

2. Peer observation
A group of teachers could get together to identify one another’s lessons, and then come together to write the exercise up in a joint effort. This type of exercise, I suggest, would be particularly helpful in dealing with classes of repeaters whose motivation is less than it perhaps should be. We all have our ‘ways’ of doing things, and although we are all experienced teachers, everyone can learn something from the way another person does something.

3. Teaching VTL
There are always different ways of teaching almost anything; vocabulary can be taught using data from concordances, by using the vocabulary in context and by some form of drilling for pronunciation, for example. In addition, words that need to be learnt can be taught in ways that combine all the ones mentioned. Groups of teachers could pool their efforts in ways that would expose their students to words in different types of ways.

4. Giving feedback on students’ writing projects – written vs oral feedback
Students appear not to gain much advantage from feedback on their efforts to write essays in English, it seems. Whether this is due to lack of motivation once a project has been written, or whether it is due to other factors such as the ways feedback is given is not clear.

5. Widening students’ schemata
Widening students knowledge of the world has recently been the subject of workshops in the PD Programme. Every teacher is aware that improvements can and should be made in this area, and yet often, little attention is paid to it.

6. Advantages of students blogging
Blogging gives students ways to show off their abilities to the world online. There is something encouraging and rewarding about seeing one’s own words in a medium that is broadcast to others. It can increase motivation to write more, and in ways that are nearer to what is required in students’ studies. However, though blogging is very popular among the users of the Internet, it is probably true to say that it is not as common in the language learning environment.

7. Helping students to create website
Similarly, and although many students will already have websites, the use and advantages of them for language learning is an area in which much could still be done.

8. E-learning
Many universities have programmes of tuition that rely on electronically delivered lessons. The Net is awash with information about such programmes, and studies could be made to acquaint teachers with them.

9. What students know about text cohesion and coherence in their own essays
Teaching students to write texts that are cohesive and coherent is one of the most important things writing teachers do in the language classroom. Time and time again, however, students persistently produce texts that are neither cohesive or coherent. The use of anaphoric reference in many students’ work is less than proficient. When questioned, many students are at a loss how to correct or improve cohesion in their essays. Both are vital but are possibly not dealt with in the same conscious way as grammar is, for example. Every student knows the word ‘grammar’ and what it refers to, but how many are aware of coherence and cohesion as things to be learnt. We may all teach them, of course, but in ways that are hidden from students habitually being told their grammar is wanting.

10. Influences of Arabic on students’ writing in English
Since we have native users of Arabic in our midst, we should learn how students’ native language affects their ability to learn and use English.

Robert L. Fielding

Monday, December 11, 2006

Reading helps us to learn

Learning any foreign language includes learning the grammar, spelling and pronunciation of that language, but perhaps most of all, it means learning and remembering the vocabulary of the language.

In some situations, it can mean the difference between being understood and not being understood. In a situation where the learner wants directions to a Post Office, for example, and not knowing the words ‘Post’ or ‘office, the person is left to either gesticulate or produce an addressed envelope without a stamp attached and a quizzical expression in the hope that the other person understands what is wanted.

There are only a few, main ways of learning vocabulary – by looking at a phrase book and having a go, by watching TV, or by reading books, magazines, newspapers or any other version of the printed word.

Reading gives us words in context, unlike dictionaries and sometimes phrase books, it gives us words in sentences, in ways that are normally used by native speakers.

But reading gives us so much more than words – it gives us information, enjoyment, recreation, food for thought, topics of conversation, and a working knowledge of the language.

Someone said that it is in the act of reading that we find out that we are not alone; it is in reading that we form our own point of view, our own opinion, and sometimes our own feelings. It is in reading that we find out about other people, places, predicaments, activities, and events .

For reading widely – reading a lot of varied texts: reading fiction, non-fiction, novels, poems, short stories and articles gives us so much more than any other medium could ever do – it locates us, historically, socially, linguistically, ideologically, geographically and culturally. It locates us in time, place and in civilization – in a particular place in civilization, culturally and literally.

And while we learn through what we read, we grow as people and we add to the common stock of knowledge and wisdom of the age in which we live.

Robert L. Fielding

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The mind’s eye – image and idea: the basis of all creative writing

With all the fascination with the world-wide-web – the Internet – what it can bring to our life, and how it can change it, we sometimes forget that it is merely a product of our mind – something man has created, born of our ingenuity and our knowledge, our imagination and our learning.

It has its limitations – who has not been exasperated by its slowness, deplored its abuses, and resented its intrusiveness. For all that, the Internet really has changed our world. It has brought us closer together in ways we never thought possible – we can view pages created on the other side of the world, by people we will never meet. It has given us vision.

Yet vision is what we all possess, inner and outer vision – in our ideas and in what we sometimes call our mind’s eye. Everything we know, everything we have known, learned, seen, thought, felt, heard and said is here. Of course, we can’t gain access to most of it – our memory is limited, our subconscious blocks things out, but it is in there – in our mind.

How to get access to more of it, that is what we would like to know – I know I would. We can make a start by exercising the mind – giving it tasks to perform. This happens all the time, even when we are asleep, but we can make our brain more agile by exercise – just like we can by exercising our body. The kinds of exercises we do will be very different, but the principle of activity benefiting us will be similar.

One such way is reading, another, writing – every day. Writing regularly works – it keeps the mind active – the synapses are crackling away as we write. We are accessing our ideas when we write, and by using words, we access other words, and by accessing words, we access thoughts, ideas, and images.

If we manipulate those thoughts, ideas and images in ways that are new, synthesizing ideas into words and words into stories – creative writing – we are gaining access to more and more of our mind.

How is it possible, for instance, for someone who has never been to the Moon (most of us) to write about what it feels like to be on the Moon? To take a more terrestrial example, how can someone who has never been involved in a murder enquiry, a car chase, a bank robbery, a love affair with an alien, to write about these things – the answer is by writing about them. The vital ingredient is imagination.

Think about that word and what it means – something like, ‘to visualize something one has had no experience of’ – even the word consists of the word ‘image’ – imagining is conjuring up images, thoughts and ideas from nothing.

Actually, nothing comes from nothing. Do animals imagine? Who knows? Our ability to imagine comes from living, thinking, seeing, hearing, experiencing, and then synthesizing.

We do this every time we dream, it’s just that when we are asleep, we switch something off that prevents most of us from recalling what the dream was about. Just because we are asleep though, does not mean that we do not think or imagine.

You’ve heard of the expression, “Let’s sleep on it.” meaning let’s go home and think about whatever it is and then wake up and make a decision after we have rested. There’re more to it than that. Many writers say they have more developed ideas after they have slept on something they were thinking or writing about.

The subconscious does the thinking for you while you sleep, and because it has nothing to distract it – daytime activities – it can concentrate much harder and deeper for much longer. But don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself.

It is the thoughts, ideas, images, half remembered tales and things we think we have forgotten that we vuse to create a story about something we have ostensibly never experienced. Creative writing – writing creatively, if you prefer, is something akin to dreaming while you are awake.

The recording device is the page, with your words on it, and here’s the trick – how it works – one idea triggers an other and another, one sword suggests another, one sentence, another. One episode for one of your characters forces you to draw upon all your knowledge of how people behave, how the world around you is, or alternatively, how people in a world of your own creation behave.

That sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it? I prefer to call it I fiction – idea fiction, which all fiction ultimately is - stories based upon ideas, images, thoughts, thinks you have seen, been told about, read about, seen on TV – imagined.

Write and you will gain access to ideas you didn’t know you had. The writer, Willy Russell – creator of Educating Rita, Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine was once asked why he doesn’t just write about what he knows. His reply was very instructive to us all; he wondered how he knew what he knew until he started to write about it.

You will recall that Russell’s characters – his main characters in his wonderful stories and plays are women. OK, so he’s married, probably has sisters, daughters, aunts, two grand mothers and a mother – and his wife – that still doesn’t make him any more able to write about women than any of the rest of us – we’ve all got those relatives. He was able to do it because he made himself do it – you might think he has a special gift, but I doubt he would agree with you. He would tell you that it is in writing that he finds out what he knows.
Robert L. Fielding