Through A Mouse

Cyberschools Column

First Published in The Herald, January 1997



To some Burns is a networking opportunity. At least Burns Suppers at schools are less about contacts and more about culture. The ocassions demand careful planning and Internet-working, not networking, could be part of the annual preparations.

'Search engine' is internet jargon for electronic index. These tools make it possible to find resources and Altavista is one of the best. When I typed in "Robert Burns" - with capitals and in inverted commas so that it was recognised as a name - Altavista trawled through Web sites all over the world. In a matter of seconds it returned a list of the relevant pages. There were 2000 references.

Pupils involved in the organisation of the annual Burns Supper should read the information given at the official Scottish Tourist Board Web site. There's a very good page about the national bard. Web addresses end with the files in which the page is stored, listed and separated by slashes. You can go straight to the Burns Supper page by entering http://www.holiday.scotland.net/guide/p_info/faq_supper.htm .

This type of researching is ideal for "reading for information" in 5 - 14 English. The page, contributed by the Burns Federation, explains what speeches should be included and the tone and length appropriate for each. The words of The Selkirk Grace and To a Haggis are given and a suggested menu - including, of course, haggis - is also listed. Concern is expressed that guests should sing "Syne" and not "Zyne" and apparently it1s also wrong to include "for the sake of". Now you know.

The page answers the questions which anyone organising a Burns supper might ask. In fact pages which include the abbreviation FAQ always give answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

Standard grade candidates writing about the life and times of Rabbie Burns can find out details and see pictures of the poet on the Web. He was, it's suggested, a private in the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, the Dad1s Army of its day. Burns as the young Private Pike is a lesser known image. There's a wide choice of photographs of people and places but, as always with images, these can take a while to download. If you want the information without the pictures, turn off the automatic loading of images. It's in the Options menu.

Appreciation of Burns music is also well supported on the Web. The Scottish Music Information Centre has a bicentenary guide to his songs, including a list of the scores held in the reference library and a detailed discography. Music departments studying Scottish music will find this site of great value.

Eighteenth century people, poems and songs investigated through twentieth century technology, with relevance for twenty-first century assessment in the guise of Higher Still .

And it1s not just the Web. Using Altavista to search newsgroups reveals 164 messages about Burns currently posted on the noticeboards of various online discussion groups. One honest soul has asked the question "Who is Burns?" not as an existential exercise but in the hope of a helpful reply. He knows that Burns was Scottish but wants to know what contribution he made to history. Significantly there is ten times more information about William Wallace than about Robert Burns on the Internet, no recent movies to enhance the image, yet.

The seeker of knowledge has been rewarded with a detailed reply giving biographical and literary details as well as the useful hint that a hardback book published in 1905, The Complete illustrated Poems, Songs and Ballads of Robert Burns, is currently available at bargain book shops for £5. He is also warned about "Syne" not "Zyne". Perhaps someone could write a song or a poem about this, perhaps entitled It's Syne with an S, not Zyne with a Z. Both message and answer can be read at the Celtic music newsgroup.

Any students preparing a CSYS dissertation about Burns could add their own questions and take part in the discussions about the poet's works. Several American universities seem to take a great interest in the achievements of Burns and answers would be sure to follow.

The University of North Carolina even has files which you can download or copy to your own computer, including audio recordings of some of the poems. Students can hear To a Mouse. being read by a wee Scottish girl who sounds as if she's a participant in a primary school Burns competition. She says it with feeling and pupils could listen to grasp the tone, listening in order to respond to texts. The opportunity to perform on the school Web page, with a world wide audience, is a now a real possibility and fifteen minutes of global fame could well prove a motivating factor in talk assessments.

UNC has no doubt made these authentic Scottish recordings available to ehance understanding of the poems but I1m not sure what audiences unfamiliar with the Scots tongue will envisage when they hear about a "Wee, sleekit, cow1rin, tim1rous beastie". (... the best laid schemes o1 mice an1 men?)

Information about teaching Scots can be found at the Scottish CCC where there are details about The Kist , an excellent resource pack which inludes poetry, prose and drama activities as well as audio recordings.

For real enthusiasts some newsgroups also have details about Burns Suppers in Virginia and San Diego. The Virginian one sounds a good deal at $59, including an overnight stay. Unfortunately I don1t think the flight's included.