Why a bit of drama is good for you.

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Ophelia brilliantly played by teenager Astrid Bishop Picture by Ellen Day

Years of research show that involvement with the creative arts is closely linked to almost everything that parents say they want for their children: academic achievement, social and emotional development, life skills and equality of opportunity among other things. As creative arts subjects in schools are squeezed further by the demands of the National Curriculum and the current regime of being in thrall to league tables and continuous testing, one of the few places where valuable life skills can be fostered in teenagers is by involvement in a local drama group. You know the skills I mean? All together now.

  • Communication
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-evaluation
  • Teamwork
  • Creative thinking
  • Marketing
  • Working to a budget
  • Meeting deadlines

 These are the skills everybody needs beyond school. Testing does not prepare a student for the real world. Life skills are what students need and what employers want.

Last week my local drama group put on a production of Hamlet in a fourteenth century Tithe Barn in the heart of town. It played to an audience of 900, over four nights and involved a team of over 60 diverse members of the local community, some of whom were under 18. The team has been working on the project for three months. Some of the youngsters appeared on stage, but there were more in the backstage crew and I am so proud of them all and what we achieved.

So exactly which skills did we foster in the last three months. Let’s explore my observations from last week.

Project Management.  A stage production is basically a business project involving multiple teams of people working together to bring in a project on time and on budget. If you do it well, you’ll make a profit and entertain a lot of people. Choosing people with the right mix of skills to get the job done, empowering them to make things happen and supporting them whilst they do it is part and parcel of the production manager’s job. Then there’s monitoring progress, filling in any gaps, trouble shooting and ensuring deadlines are met. It’s all in a day’s work for a production manager. Having youngsters assist or shadow a production manager is one of the most valuable opportunities you can offer young people.

Learning to improvise. The great thing about being on stage is that almost anything can happen when you’re in front of an audience. Forgotten lines, missed entrances, or malfunctioning props require you to improvise while maintaining your cool. You learn to focus, think quickly and find solutions. The same is true off stage if a prop goes missing, an actor is not where they ought to be or the lighting fails.

Working hard Entire weekends can disappear in the building of a stage set. Members of a production team can be set painting at midnight and sewing into the wee small hours. They may have banged more nails into their fingers accidentally than they care to remember and have to turn up early after a production to clear away the set and tidy up the performance space rather than basking in the glory of a job well done.  In life there will be periods of time with unbelievable workloads in which there are sleepless nights, endless days and tireless work on projects that will be presented and then will be over. Sometimes the critics and the audience don’t like what you’ve presented, irrespective of how hard you’ve worked. This will happen in life too.

Working with limited budgets.This is one of the most valuable skills you can learn. Most amateur shows are produced on a shoestring budget, which forces you to be creative, imaginative and thrifty. Sounds to me like a sound recipe for life.

Dealing with people/customer service and getting along with colleagues. Working with people of all types is essential in life and in am dram. Everyone has a part to play. Some people may be difficult but it’s important to try to understand, appreciate and effectively communicate with them all. The fact that sometimes the pressure is on and people feel stressed adds extra sizzle to the melting pot.

Doing whatever needs to be done. Any amateur theatrical company cannot afford the luxury of too much specialism. Therefore, even if you act, the chances are you’ll also be called upon to do any number of other jobs. You have to learn to do it all. Lighting, engineering sound, directing, production management, PR, marketing, set design, set construction, ticket sales, budgeting, customer service, Front of House duties, make-up, costume. I can’t begin to tell you how valuable it is for youngsters to be involved in developing skills in real contexts, be that woodworking, using their IT skills to work on sound, lighting or graphic design, baking, buying supplies, sewing, selling…. This fosters a  can-do attitude in young people and that is a valuable skill to take forward into the world of work.

Making difficult choices and dealing with disappointment In the world of work difficult decisions must sometimes be made. Putting yourself up for audition and not being cast is the start of learning that sometimes things don’t go your way,however much you feel you deserve it or however hard you’ve worked. Being on a casting panel and letting people down gently is a valuable skill to learn too.

Presentation Skills. Whether you’re acting, serving interval coffee and cake or selling programmes the ability to connect with people is essential. Practice makes perfect and youngsters who belong to theatre groups get plenty of that. Taking things a stage further, the abillity to stand up confidently in front of a group of people and effectively communicate a message while  being motivating and a little entertaining is rare. To develop this, try acting for a local group.

Doing the best you can with what you’ve got. Am dram teaches you that you can sometimes create magic with no need for the latest technology or gimmicks. A passion for what you do and a sincere commitment to making it work is enough. One of the most memorable moments from Hamlet involved two men totally believing in the moment, a wooden box and a prop dagger.

The power of thankyou Everyone likes to be appreciated. Make everyone with whom you’ve worked feel appreciated and they’ll work twice as hard for you next time. Fact. The actors get the plaudits but the backstage crew are working just as hard. Recognise this and learn to be appreciative of everyone’s contribution in drama and in life.

Sporty girls are healthy girls

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tackle

Girls can play rugby

picture R Martindale

 

Sport has been in the news a lot this week – for all the wrong reasons. It’s time to look at the positive.

It’s Women in Sport Week and, in the light of Sepp Blatter’s resignation announcement, I was rather amused to hear some of his more cringeworthy comments. Notably the eye rolling one about increasing the popularity of women’s football by making them wear tighter shorts and low cut tops.

Time to celebrate the postives of women’s sport, I think. Taking part in sport can promote health, wellbeing, teamwork, camaraderie and confidence among girls that can last a lifetime. Something which is much needed if today’s published research on the massive increase in people being treated for eating disorders is to be believed.

School sport has moved on from circuit training in a smelly gym on ancient equipment. Truly there is something to suit everyone on offer in most schools although the demands of the National Curriculum has sometimes forced it into the domain of extra curricular activity, rather than being integral to the curriculum across all age groups. Local swimming pools regularly run free sessions for young people in school holidays and there are hundreds of sports clubs supporting girls up and down the country field  including Bradford on Avon rugby above where girls play on a level playing field with boys (excuse the pun) until they join the girls only Bobcats team at age 13. I know girls who do everything from competitive salsa dancing and badminton to triathlon and rugby and everything in between. And the element of competition is as valid for girls as it is for boys.Being able to face victory and defeat with equal grace is a vital life skill.

Celebrate Women in Sport Week by encouraging the females in your life to get active, get competitive and set themselves up for a healthy life, in the fullest sense of the word. There are plenty of sports to choose from.

...or girls can ride horses.

…or girls can ride horses.

picture T Fussell

The art of ‘welldoing’.

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do breathe

June is shaping up to be a very busy month for me. I have important writing deadlines to meet, a large outdoor theatrical event to manage, a new work project to get underway and three weeks’ classroom teaching covering  for a colleague that was totally unexpected. I am not one who subscribes to the glorification of busy. It’s overrated. Everyone needs time to chill, recharge the batteries, think through projects and directions and just be.  And yet, at this time of year especially it’s difficult to find down time. Teachers and students have reached that major stress point in the school calendar – exams. Time to take care of your wellbeing is so vital if focus and enthusiasm is to be maintained during stressful or busy times. I tell my students this all the time. Build relaxation time into your work schedule. Take regular breaks away from your revision books or pcs. Some follow the advice; others find it almost impossible. How opportune, then that a review copy of a pocket sized book by Michael Townsend Williams  should fall into my hands.

He’s a local man who exudes good health. Advertising executive turned yoga teacher and mindfulness coach, Michael is an advocate of ‘welldoing’, the art of leading a busy and productive life but not at the expense of one’s health.  Do Breathe his pocket sized reference explores some techniques to bring busy people focus, vision and organisation as they work through their to do lists. And it all starts with better breathing.

As one who is starting work on a new study skills and organisation programme with secondary school pupils, it has one or two tips I think I might use or adapt for with students. Organised into three steps – Prepare, Practise and Perform – Michael’s book leads you from the basics of confronting the stresses in your busy life , through the first tentative steps of setting up and sticking to new and better work habits to finally managing your time successfully and getting through an ever increasing list of demands, whilst keeping a healthy focus on your own wellbeing. There are hints, tips and exercises to try out and further reference material for those who want to delve a little deeper. Some of it is common sense, but scattered  throughout the book are a few gems you may not have thought of.

I think mastering the art of welldoing might stand me in good stead over the next few weeks.

Coping with exams – a parents’ guide

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Stress-free school run

Stress-free school run

Emotions are running high in the UK and it’s not just the after effects of the general election last week. We’re in exam season. I say season but, to anyone involved in the business of education – be they student, teacher or parent – formal assessment is now a year round constant, reaching its zenith in May and June.

As a parent I have plenty to say about the wrongs of how a perceived need to drive up standards, offer choice and make teachers accountable are impacting negatively on the young people upon whom so much now seems to depend – school performance in league tables, parental views of which school is best for their child (and the consequences of not being offered a place there), teachers’ performance related pay and the student’s own feelings of self worth. All this is determined by the scores they achieve in their exams. But that’s for another post.

Whatever your views about the rights and wrongs of children sitting exams, they are here to stay and parents are in the business of having to support, encourage, engage and enthuse a generation who live their first quarter century constantly under the rain clouds of testing. I may shake my fist at the creator of the clouds but my real role as a parent and a teacher is part providing umberellas and part showing them how to dance in the rain.

Exams can be especially stressful for children in primary school. Only yesterday there were newspaper reports of ten year olds worrying so much about the SATS that they were either not eating at all or bingeing on sugary junk food and not able to sleep. A few had smoked cigarettes to cope with the pressure they felt under and there was a widespread feeling from parents that the behavior of their children was poorer during exam time. This is the stuff of tabloid newspapers but there is some truth in it.

The scientific explanation is that stress blocks communication from the upper cognitive brain. The brain’s lower core, which is more emotionally reactive is dominant during periods of stress. This means that just when children need it most, they have limited access to the areas of the brain which help self-control, and where the memories they need to perform well in SATS exams are stored. Put simply, when they are under pressure, students can become emotional, behave poorly and find it hard to remember vital information. Let’s not forget that most children are coping well with SATS. Some even enjoy the whole process! All have someone who cares about how they’ll cope. So here, in brief are my recommended strategies for parents who want to help children shelter from the storm of exam week and even encourage them to dance in the rain. It’s not all bad news.

  1. Get the SATS in perspective. They will NOT determine the rest of your child’s life. It is a necessary step. Thinking of it as a “life or death” situation will put them in survival mode and prevent them from thinking clearly. Remember this! Teachers may well feel that their salaries and school league table performance depend on it. (they do!) but most do not transfer this pressure to their students. This letter from some primary school teachers is fairly typical of the attitude I have come across in schools. All children should hear this message. Celebrate the work ethic and personal qualities of your children and they will feel better about themselves. Self confident children who are pleased that they’ve worked hard are well placed to do their best in the exams.
  2. Food is important. I have always thought so. It is vital both in terms of nourishing the body and bringing communities together. Schools (and families) would be well advised to make more of this. A SATS breakfast club is a perfect opportunity to make sure that all pupils have eaten well before the exams and is also a chance to settle nerves and provide an opportunity to relax and have fun with a group of people who have worked hard together and are facing the same challenge. If your child’s school runs one, encourage them to go. If your school can’t offer this, then groups of parents can get together in their homes to do it. It’s fun for everyone. That’s why business breakfast clubs are thriving and memorable and successful training events are the ones where the food is tip top. An army of children marches to exam success on its stomach. Make as much effort as possible to eat good food and to sit down as a family during exam periods.
  3. Nobody can work hard all the time. Everybody needs time to relax. Obviously a good night’s sleep is something to strive for, as is quality downtime. Yoga, sport, gardening, running, hitting a ball against a wall, reading a book, dancing, swimming, playing computer games – we all have preferred ways to have downtime. Help your child build in downtime and teach them the practicalities of coping with nerves. Feeling a little nervous is good but when your nerves overwhelm you and breathing becomes short and shallow, you feel awful. Take long, deep breaths in and exhale slowly. Do this for a minute if you are feeling overwhelmed. It will mentally prepare you to focus while also relaxing you. My daughter and I danced around the kitchen to Simply Red this morning and then told terrible jokes on the way to school. Highly recommended.
  4. Remember that how your child thinks determines how they feel and act. Notice possible negative and anxious thinking like “What if I do badly?” It’s important to acknowledge that these feelings are valid and chat through the consequences of having a bad day (which are usually not as bad as they imagine). Then encourage them to focus on what they have already achieved and will achieve in the future. Here’s another science bit. Visualising a successful performance activates the memory circuits that will be called upon to answer the questions in the test, like visualising a soccer kick activates the critical motor brain networks which enables a footballer to scare a penalty. If only I’d known this at age 14, I’d have been better at cross country. Not world class, but better!
  5. Live in the present Remember that all our worries exist in the future. Focus on the present. It’s called mindfulness and is highly popular at the moment. Some schools run sessions in mindfulness but listen! Just because it has a fancy name and a practitioner to run it, it doesn’t mean that you can’t use the strategies yourself at home.

Focus on the good things around you – flowers grown in the garden, the smell of your favourite food, a cuddle from your mum or dad, stroking your pet….

Suggest that in the exam they focus on one question at a time. When their mind wanders to a future possibility, tell them to shake their head and get back to the question at hand. Appreciate what they have completed not how much they still have to do. Teachers will have given them strategies to spend the right amount of time on each exam question.

6. Reinforce what your child has been told at school. Teachers are first class at training children in exam strategy. Things like:-

  • You don’t need to answer every question.
  • If you are struggling with a question, even one you think you should know, move on to the next one.
  •  You can save the harder ones for later if you have time.
  • It is better to answer as many as you can, rather than spend too much time on one question.

However good (or not so good) your child is at the business of exams, having a strategy will make them more successful.

7. Set an example You can minimize your child’s stress by managing your own worries. Remember that managing your own fear will help your child to manage his or her worries and actually increase their chances of a positive performance. Tests and exams are part of life. Show your children that you have concerns when you go for an interview, are appraised at work, run in a race or audition for a part in a play. Show them that these concerns are normal but you have strategies for coping. Tell them some anecdotes from your own school exam days. Model success, parents! If you’ve come through it, so will they.

8. Don’t reward their achievements with money or things. Reward their hard work with time and experiences. A picnic and a game of football down the park next Saturday or a fish and chip supper and board games on Friday will reap more rewards in the future than a £10 note if they achieve their target grades. Trust me on this one.

This advice is just as relevant for older students doing A levels and GCSEs too.

What advice would you give to parents of students sitting exams this week? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Off the bookshelf: The New Kitchen Garden by Mark Diacono

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The New Kitchen Garden

the latest inspiration from Mark Diacono

A few weeks ago I heard the sound of something solid and dependable landing on my daffodil doormat, as I pottered on the terrace, checking whether the twigs which pass for my lemon verbena at this time of year have survived the winter. It was a copy of Mark Diacono‘s latest, published by Saltyard Books. With unaccustomed patience I have waited until this Easter weekend to wallow in the aspirational and beautifully illustrated pages of commonsense gardening advice for those who fancy getting their hands dirty in the pursuit of a tasty morsel to excite the taste buds.

There was never any doubt that I would love this book. I have been a fan of the Otter Farm approach to gardening for quite some time. There are mulberries and carolina allspice on my allotment as a result of Mark’s suggestions and somewhere on his land there may be a patch or two of lime balm grown from seed I sent through the post by way of a thank you. It’s the kind of symbiotic relationship I create with my own pupils, recommending and lending books, reaping the rewards of seeing them flourish, experimenting with their own choices and form their own opinions.

I first came across Mark years ago when he was the head gardener at River Cottage. His vegetable garden was the backdrop to my evenings marking dozens of exercise books and making last minute adjustments to the following days’ lessons. The River Cottage experience on repeat play has eased me through the odd Ofsted inspection, GCSE coursework moderation and all-night report writing session. What teacher wouldn’t escape to River Cottage, given half a chance? In fact, I’d take all my classes there and teach them out of doors surrounded by borlotti beans and mint.

As time has gone on, I found an ally in Mark as he developed his own Devon smallholding. Always one to kick against my family’s postwar allotment approach to growing – hard double digging, oodles of fertiliser, the backbreaking work of planting up potato trenches on Good Friday, an assortment of mismatched clutter which ‘might come in handy one day’, regimented rows of cabbages and runner beans so abundant you had to leave them under cover of darkness on the doorsteps of unsuspecting neighbours –  here I found someone who positively encouraged experimentation, dabbled with companion planting, even mentioned moon planting, the benefits of growing herbs and making life easy for yourself by growing perennials. (I am sometimes a lazy gardener and often one lacking in time.)

The ethos of Otter Farm shines through this book and so it is the perfect reference book for anybody who fancies growing a little of what they love to eat, irrespective of their space, time or situation. The traditional kitchen garden – walled, south facing, beautiful, where fruit, vegetables and cutting flowers grow in abundance tended by an army of bewaistcoated gentlemen is beyond most of us but the spirit of such a garden is not. This book provides the inspiration, advice and the headspace to consider how anyone can create a patch which is both productive and beautiful, which will feed body and soul and will enhance what goes on in the kitchen, without it all taking over your life.

The substantial middle section of the book provides detailed reference material for growing anything worth growing – cut flowers excepted, but this is about taste after all. I suppose I could offer to write the companion book!) There’s the kind of no nonsense back to basics information about starting it all off and keeping it going. I particularly like the opportunity to have a nose around the existing gardens of other growers in the ‘Open Gardens’ section too. By the time you’ve finished the book you’ll be itching to get started, to work together with your neighbours, to grow a few herbs in pots, to pop a small fruit tree into a barrel, to edge your flower border with alpine strawberries or to plant a hanging basket with tumbling tomatoes. In fact, you’ll think anything is possible and you’ll still have time to go surfing, meet your friends for coffee or prepare for a visit from OFSTED.

And in case you think that I am writing this with the benefit of a weedfree allotment and a greenhouse stuffed with verdant seedlings, think again. I’ve been far too busy writing and teaching this year to have sowed a single seedling yet. Nevertheless, I have been able to cut a few daffodils and tulips for the house over Easter, harvest plenty of herbs, dig up some jerusalem artichokes and pick rhubarb and chard. My larder has a few pots of jam and chutney made from last year’s harvest and I have some pea shoots springing up on the windowsill planted in an old tin can bound with hessian and raffia whilst the kettle boiled. That’s a kitchen garden, after all. I’m sure Mark would approve.

Mark’s book is available to buy at a range of prices. Check his website for details.

Character in the classroom and outside it

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building a den

building a den – not as easy as he thought.

Yesterday I headed to Bristol for a day’s training with the good folks from The Cambridge Schools Classics project and got caught up in a debate on what schools ‘ought’ to be teaching. An early morning train journey is the perfect opportunity for a trawl through the newspaper, Twitter and a number of online blogs for the latest opinions on the state of education. Yesterday’s hot topic was about the teaching of ‘character’.

As a parent and a teacher I cannot fail to raise an eyebrow at the ever-lengthening list of topics which schools are ‘supposed’ to be teaching. Who says? It’s a partnership after all – this business of educating our children. Ultimately the buck stops with parents. No parent can do the job alone and so extended family, friends, teachers at school, sports coaches, scout leaders, orchestra conductors, and any number of others who run the activities in which our children take part have their part to play.

This business of teaching ‘character lessons’ bothers me. Character, grit, determination, resilience – call it what you will – is an attitude of mind, an approach to life which develops over time as a result of exposure to situations which are less than straightforward. It starts at home the moment your toddler attempts to build a brick tower and it collapses. Doubtless having ‘grit’ makes children better learners. The ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and have another go is a recipe for a happy and successful life. I doubt it can be taught in a series of 40 minute lessons over several weeks on a Tuesday afternoon. Anyway I’m more interested in the science teacher explaining fractional distillation to my teenage son – because I can’t. I can do the motivational speech before Cross Country, the blister plasters and sympathy at the end and the encouragement to have another go, though I do rely on the PE teacher to organise the race in the first place.

We all have our part to play in providing children with opportunities to try something new or difficult, even “risky” and to support them through the business of trying and failing and trying again until they get better at it. And –  here’s the shocking truth – schools are engaged in the business of doing this right now on the rugby field, in the gym, in the drama studio or the art room, in the school garden, on field trips as well as in the classroom and the examination hall. If we want schools to play their part in teaching character then more time should be devoted to these opportunities, not less, as sport, the arts and the extra curricular programme is squeezed even further by the need to spend more time and divert more resources to  the traditional core subjects on which schools are judged by Ofsted and by those who scrutinise league tables.

finally got her hands on that rugby medal

finally got her hands on that rugby medal

 

Thinking on your feet

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picture from Dogo News

picture from Dogo News

I’m a black belt in thinking on my feet. Ask any of my friends and family. Some of my best lessons have been planned between the classroom door and the *blackboard/OHP/interactive whiteboard (*please delete as appropriate). It goes with the territory of teaching a subject like Classics or English, where a discussion or topic can head in a completely unexpected but profitable direction. Just don’t tell OFSTED. I’m not sure they would approve of this gung-ho approach.

I have no idea from where the idiom originates. Does anyone know? It could refer to the work of a barrister (or witness) who has to respond under pressure (and on their feet) to the business of the courtroom, I suppose. Whatever the reason, the possible benefits of thinking on your feet have been  under investigation in schools recently across the USA and Australia as well as in a Yorkshire school (Grove House, Bradford) and I, for one, am very interested in the results.

The story was reported here back in May here.

Allowing children to stand and even move around the classroom might give some teachers the heebie jeebies but I can see the advantages of being more active in the classroom, both in terms of combating the sedentary nature of modern living and being more engaged with the activities. Early on in my teaching career I was party to the implementation of just such an idea with a “bottom set year 7″. The lesson was  broken down into ten minute activities; the children moved around the classroom after each activity and stood up to complete most of them. It worked in that it resulted in a significant drop in disruptive behaviour and children were on task for more of the time.

The link between body posture and concentration is fairly well documented among occupational therapists including Sheilagh Blyth, who writes that “The human body has to work hard to either stand up or keep sat in one position. If we overuse our muscles perhaps by sitting in one place for too long we then can use excess energy. Thus causing us to lose concentration.” Shelagh is more in favour of allowing children ‘movement breaks’ to improve concentration.

Most teachers stand up to teach; those who want to close a deal on the telephone stand up to do so. Why not students at school? Certainly my experience of teaching children outdoors with the Our Flower Patch programme bears this out. An active student is a more engaged student, as far as I am concerned. Certainly it requires a different strategy for classroom management but teachers in some subjects manage this already – PE, Food Technology. Children and teachers are infinitely adaptable. Replacing the classroom furniture might be the most problematical aspect of the issue.

What do you think? Does anyone have any first hand experience of managing a standing room only classroom?

Back to School

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tes

You may have the app, the qualifications and the experience but the road back to the classroom seems an uncertain one

In two weeks I return to proper classroom teaching after a break of fourteen years. Yes. Fourteen years of working from home, writing teaching resources, running workshops, tutoring students and caring for my children. I’m easing myself in by covering some classes in Latin and Classics for a few weeks for a teacher who’s away. It wasn’t part of the plan but I’m rather enjoying the prospect. Maybe absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Stepping back from the ‘chalkface for such a long time has given me time to reflect on the reasons I became a teacher in the first place and the contribution I can make now, free from the stress and pressure which many teachers face every day. And free from all the management responsibilities around which I fitted my teaching timetable all those years ago. Interestingly, my friends who have given up teaching and escaped to other professions and those who never went away, think I’m bonkers.

Apparently “around 10,000 ex-teachers return to the profession each year, bringing with them valuable skills and experience”. I wanted to find out how they get on. The press and social media are full of stories of why teachers are leaving the profession in droves, yet, apart from a story about a recruitment agency (in Rochdale, I think) actively encouraging experienced teachers back into the classroom to fill vacancies I could find precious little from anyone willingly stepping back into the classroom. A thread on the TES website from someone wanting to return was a study in doom, telling the poor prospective returner that her knowledge was probably out of date, her child protection knowledge was certainly inadequate and she’d be lucky to get even a supply teaching contract. Very encouraging! And all this when some schools are desperately short of enthusiastic, experienced teachers.

It’s not much of an incentive to return. What are schools and individuals afraid of? Maybe teaching is akin to running a marathon when you’ve been a coach potato since you stopped playing hockey, aged 14. Clearly you have to be mad or very determined to do it. I am probably both. Tick.

I may not have stood in front of a class of teenagers for a few years but I haven’t forgotten how to do that. Teaching is about engaging with people, working in partnership towards a common goal. I do that every day. (What’s more, as well as the energy and enthusiasm that many of my colleagues who have remained on the treadmill don’t seem to have and a first class knowledge of my subject, I am now the mother of three teens/pre teens. My battle armour and tactics are in place, if indeed I need to do battle. Tick.

The other aspect that seems to trouble people is that my own children and husband will have to do more around the house (is this bad?) or I’ll never have a tidy house again and my social life will go into a downward vortex. Tick.

Maybe I should start blogging about my return to the classroom to redress the balance. Of course there will be terrible days. That’s life; but I think that the road back in, though it may not be paved with gold is not altogether bad.

Watch this space.

Io Saturnalia! Partying just like the Romans.

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ready to party Roman style

ready to party Roman style

Io Saturnalia!

This is the traditional greeting for Romans at this time of year, (the Io pronounced Yo!) When it comes to partying, noone does it quite like the Romans. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival honouring the god of agriculture Saturn, held on the 17th of December and continuing through to the winter solstice. In fact it’s still popular in Deva (Chester.) 

Saturnalia was celebrated with a public ceremony followed by private celebrations in the home, where the traditional roles were switched. A Lord of Misrule was chosen; masters waited upon their slaves (although the slaves had prepared the food, beforehand). Everyone got to wear colourful clothes and the red pilleus, or freedman’s hat; gambling was allowed and normal business was suspended during the holiday period. Elaborate feasts and banquets were held; candles were lit and it wasn’t unusual to exchange small gifts such as wax candles, oil lamps, small earthenware figures, small writing tablets, cups,spoons, items of clothing or food. Citizens decked their halls with green boughs, and even hung small tin ornaments on bushes and trees. Bands of revelers often roamed the streets, singing and carousing. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.”

Thinking about the school Christmas dinner tradition this week, where everyone wears a hat and colourful clothes, teachers serve dinner to their students, the hall is decorated with greenery, ornaments hang from the tree and music plays, it’s not that far removed from Saturnalia.

Holding a Saturnalia party is a great way to round off the term with students studying Latin.  I have often helped local primary schools round off their topic work on the Romans at this time of year by teaching them a bit of Latin, making some Roman food and pilleus hats and recreating a carnival procession with singing. Obviously, we all dressed up and had a thoroughly good time.

I would urge all homeschoolers and primary teachers to do the same. Partying just like the Romans is a great way to reinforce learning. Preparations for the party involve research into Roman costume and hairstyles, worship of gods and goddesses, slavery, festivals, food, the role of women… And the sites and smells of Saturnalia will stay with your students long after the ink has dried on the page of their workbooks.

Io Saturnalia!

Tradition

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One of My Flower Patch wreaths on our front door .

One of My Flower Patch wreaths on our front door

On Advent Sunday, the fittest member of the family climbs up into the loft to retrieve the Advent calendars (we use the same ones every year), the Christmas CDs and DVDs and the decorations. The Christmas cake (made during the October Half Term) is fed with more brandy; the kitchen table candle changes from cream to red; the John Rutter Christmas CD is on repeat play in the kitchen and we prepare for the first of our December film nights curled up together on the sofa in front of a log fire. Christmas, like all festivals is a time for tradition, for doing things together as a family which ‘lend a certain magic, spirit and texture to our everyday lives’.

If tradition was a rock band, I’d be its number one fan. We have rituals and traditions in our house for all sorts of times of the year, not just Christmas. Traditions are important. They provide a sense of identity, strengthen bonds with family and friends, connect generations, teach values, offer comfort and security, pass on cultural and religious heritage, add to the rhythm and seasonality of life and create lasting memories. In other words, they’re uber-good for our health and wellbeing.

Some Christmas traditions are pretty universal. Most people decorate a Christmas tree, although this is a relatively ‘new’ tradition, not becoming popular in the UK until the early nineteenth century, whereas others are more personal. Most of us maintain some of the traditions from our own childhoods but some are new introductions which come about after we have our own children. And even these change as they get older. For years we did the whole ‘Stir up Sunday’ thing like a friend of ours who remembers the making of the Christmas pudding to an old family recipe. Everyone in the family from youngest to oldest had a stir, a taste and made a wish. The huge mixture was divided between a range of bowls for members of the family to take away. However, guess what? None of the five of us actually like Christmas pudding so we very quietly stopped this tradition. Now we have a homemade chocolate roulade (my recipe), which is made on Christmas Eve, whilst we listen to the Carol service from King’s College, Cambridge. What’s more, it has reduced the potential stress of how to steam it on the top of our hob, when there are so many other foods to cook on Christmas Day. We transferred the stirring ritual to the Christmas cake instead.  I like the idea of providing my children with a memory box of traditions, some of which have been in the family for generations, from which they can evolve their own when they have their own families.

I asked some friends about their Christmas traditions and rituals. Many Christmas traditions concern the preparing and eating of special foods. The making of the Christmas pudding, the recipe for Christmas cake, the journey with Dad to the butchers on Christmas Eve to collect the turkey, satsumas in stockings and making mince pies with mum whilst listening to special songs.

Others are to do with decorating the house – the ritual of choosing and bringing home the tree, making the wreath for the front door, putting up stockings and making or buying one new tree ornament every year for each of your children so that they have a beautiful collection for their own tree when they leave home.(I love this idea!)

Still more are about the giving of gifts, the sending of cards and the writing of letters. We have friends who remember having to book a Christmas Day telephone call to relatives overseas in September. Others phone friends in Australia, after returning from the midnight communion service on Christmas Eve. The whole ritual of giving out the gifts struck a chord with many too – when it happens, who does it and whether or not they wear a special hat to do it.

The modern day Christmas has evolved from centuries of tradition. Some elements have their origins in the pre-Christian pagan festival of Yule, celebrated around the winter solstice. The traditional yule log was ceremoniously brought in and burnt all through the winter festival. Decorating the house with evergreen boughs hails from here too, although in the fifteenth century the church adopted the tradition, recognising that evergreen boughs and red berries could symbolise the gift of a child from an ever-loving god, whose blood was to be shed on our behalf. The traditionally round Christmas door wreath symbolises the love of God which has no beginning and no end. The Roman festival of Saturnalia (beginning around December 17th) gives us the idea of exchanging gifts and the wearing of special hats (now made of paper). Christmas Carols, I believe, have their origins in the January wassailing ceremonies which took place in rural communities to awaken the spirits of the orchards to bless the trees and give a good harvest in the year to come.

The prevailing atmosphere of Christmas has continually evolved over the years. In the middle ages it was more raucous and community based. In the nineteenth century it became a more peaceful family and child-centred festival. Much of the modern day ‘traditional’ Christmas is the invention of Charles Dickens and the Victorians. The shift from a church and community based celebration to a family-centred one with seasonal food, Christmas trees, Christmas cards, lights, tree decorations and a seasonal spirit of generosity only dates back a hundred and seventy years or so. In fact, even up to the 1950s families with modest means celebrated with a joint of beef on Christmas Day and a stocking with an apple, an orange and a few sweets for the children.

Traditions are important but they can change. Whether you are decorating your home with evergreens, lighting candles, trimming the tree in red, green and gold and looking forward to a family day of seasonal food made to traditional recipes, or having a barbeque on the beach with a few friends, it’s good to store up some special memories and establish some traditions for your own family.

I’d love to hear what you do.

 

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