Plant potions

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Calendula salve, an easy make for children

Calendula salve, an easy make for children

Today at The Courts, despite a forecast of torrential rain and thunderstorms we had a lot of fun under the trees making ‘plant potions’. To many children ,particularly those who have experienced the delights of forest schools, plant potions usually means mixing up mud, sticks, leaves and water to make a sludgy brew. It’s great fun. Today however, rather a lot of children and quite a few interested adults went home clutching bags of beautifully scented pot pourri and recipes for comfrey feed, calendula salve and hints and tips for drying flowers, cooking with lavender, how to make dandelion jelly and why nettles are good for you, good for the wildlife in your garden and have dozens of uses. There are a thousand and one useful things that can be made from your flower patch

I promised a few people that I would pop up links to posts I’d included previously. Just click on the appropriate highlighted links above. I also said that I would include the recipe for calendula salve, which is one recommended to me ages ago by permaculturist and all-round good egg Carl Legge. Click on Cally’s Plant Potion Recipes for the recipe sheet we handed out today. Thanks to Jane Ingram for the design.

With a little supervision, even young children can make something useful and which looks professional enough to give as a gift. Calendula is one of those plants which has been used by herbalists since ancient times. It is known to have anti: allergic; inflammatory; microbial and oxidant properties. So it’s perfect for treating cuts and grazes bruises, sores and rashes. We always keep a jar handy in a kitchen drawer.

Calendula is one of my favourite flowers. It looks so jolly, is great for bees, cuts well for the vase and as well as made into a salve it can be eaten in salads or, as my granny used to do, added when making butter to make it beautifully yellow. The seeds are rather quirky too and look almost as though they might crawl out of your hand. They are easy to sow, grow well and self seed prolifically. Children can also collect the seed very easily and pack them up to give away to friends. A perfect addition to any garden, as far as I am concerned.

Tussie mussies, skeps and a bit of garden therapy.

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Learning the language of flowers

Learning the language of flowers

I’ve been running summer holiday activities again this year for the National Trust at The Courts, Gardens in Holt. Many of the children who come along are under ten, but it’s a delight to me that many of their parents and grandparents are just as keen to get involved, curious to learn and make something from or for the garden.

Yesterday was no exception.

When I returned from a quick salad and ginger beer lunch at nearby Sam’s Kitchen, a group of ladies were waiting for me eagerly so that they could do a bit of therapeutic tussie mussie making. They even followed the trail around the garden to find out more about the language of flowers.

Neil, who looks after the vegetable garden at The Courts has been bitten by the cut flower growing bug this year and his blooms are a delight, as you see. I’m always happy to share my enthusiasm for cut flowers with everyone and with three buckets of herbs and flowers from my allotment and a bucket of cheery dahlias from Not so Secret Garden at Hartley Farm I did just that.

A tussie mussie is a small posy of flowers and herbs carried by people in Medieval and Tudor times to hide bad smells. They were also thought to protect people form disease – particularly the plague. We used mint, rosemary, bay, lavender or marjoram as the basis for fragrance – although any sweet smelling herb will do. Then we added a couple of flowers with a special meaning, bound the posy with raffia and wrote the message on an attached label.

Both children and adults found the activity highly enjoyable and everyone went away smiling, clutching a posy with a message for someone special.

Flowers seem to be appreciated universally and a walk around the gardens at The Courts is always therapeutic.

cut flowers in the veg plot

cut flowers in the veg plot

Cut flowers are good for bees too and last week’s activity shone the spotlight on the bees. Here’s Di, the beekeeper at The Courts telling everyone about her passion.

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Di with some of her bees

Bee friendly

Bee friendly

While the adults listened intently the children and I took part in the’ Bee Friendly Games’, learning about how bees communicate with each other, protect their hives from intruders and make honey. Finally everyone followed the trail of beautifully handcrafted skeps around the arboretum to discover some fascinating bee facts.

And , of course I couldn’t return home without a jar to keep my family happy.

Local honey from Di's bees

Local honey from Di’s bees

Windmills and gardens in the sky

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Views in and from the Sky Garden, London

Views in and from the Sky Garden, London

We usually manage to find something free to do with the children when we’re in and around London and last weekend was no exception. A chance remark from someone on Twitter led me to discover the Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Streetopen to the public for free, if you book in advance and surrounded by some very swanky eateries.

It was the perfect day for exploring the Square Mile as it coincided with a family cycling event, which meant that most of the roads were closed to motor vehicles and there was a real party atmosphere, with jazz bands playing on street corners whilst we munched our picnic lunch. We combined our visit to the garden with a couple of free trails on the themes of architecture and Dickens (search online), a stroll through the foodie delights of Borough Market and a visit to the Museum of London, stopping off nearby to relax in a peaceful ‘art’ garden where the brave deeds of ordinary people are recorded on simple tile plaques. We shared the space with a group of mums who were enjoying wine and cake under a bunting-festooned tree.

Rather delightfully the building next door to the one housing the sky garden was graced with a living green wall and the Sky Garden itself, topped with a glass dome, not dissimilar in look to a small scale Eden project biodome. Native  Mediterranean and South African planting dominated over the several terraces of the garden (agapanthus, santolina, rosemary…) but it was easy for the children to spot which was the north facing side of the building from the predominance of shade loving ferns on one side of the garden.

The panoramic views over London were spectacular, superior even to those afforded from the London Eye –  and easier to cope with for those who have an anxiety about heights. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Upminster Smock Mill

Upminster Smock Mill

On the following day we headed out into semi rural Essex to visit the Upminster Smock Mill prior to its closure for an exciting Heritage Lottery-funded restoration project, which will take two years and see the mill restored to its former working glory with the added benefit of a purpose-built education centre on the site. Set in a field in the middle of a residential area of Upminter, it has story which deserves to be told to a much wider audience.

Mr Country Gate had last visited the windmill as a young cub scout and knew that it would fire the imagination of a wife who has spent the last two years telling the story of another heritage site with a rich history and bringing it to the eyes and ears of a young local audience.  Little had changed in the intervening years internally, although the Friends of the Windmill have continued to spread the word about it and fundraise to carry out essential repairs. We were guided around the interior by a friendly and knowledgeable volunteer, spending an enjoyable hour exploring the space, understanding how the machinery worked, discovering the story of the millers who worked it and realising what a truly green, local industry looked like.

It truly is a gem. I shall be following their progress with great interest as they move towards becoming a working mill again. You can follow their progress on Twitter.

Get me out of here – learning in the open air

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Explorers – then and now

My children have been outdoor explorers for years.

Teenagers now, one of them is halfway up a small mountain in the Lake District with a small band of Explorer Scouts on a quest to secure a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. His mobile phone has been unused, but I’m sure we’d have been contacted if he wasn’t safe.

The other two have occupied the first few days of the summer holiday alternating between sorting out their wardrobes, recycling an accumulation of bits of paper and string, pre-season rugby training, playing badminton in the garden and emailing their friends about swimming dates, shopping trips and holiday plans. It’s hard to stay away from screens entirely but my three are not completely bereft without laptop or phone. (We don’t have tablets or games consoles)

It seems parents who want their children to spend time having outdoor adventures in the school holidays have a champion in Chief Scout Bear Grylls. Recently he launched a summer manifesto of suggestions to get young people out and about enjoying the great outdoors. For those of us who work with children in this context it is nothing new, but Bear Grylls gets noticed so why should I complain that he’s taken up the flag that others have been waving for years? 

Not so many weeks ago,  school children were stuck in classrooms for days on end tackling examinations – SATs, GCSEs, A levels,school’s own. For weeks beforehand many pupils were undergoing booster sessions or completing practice papers on a daily basis in an effort to improve their chances of obtaining a higher level and the school’s chances of creeping up a few places in the performance league tables. PE was on the back burner for some. Yet in enlightened schools, headteachers prescribed time spent outdoors as relaxation for stressed out pupils.

Being outdoors is good for children. There have been numerous studies citing the positive mental and physical benefits of being outside looking at nature. Nature has a rejuvenating effect on the brain, boosting levels of attention and improving performance in cognitive tests. As well as outdoor PE, some schools run Forest School sessions and horticultural programmes as an alternative to traditional classroom based lessons.

Children are genetically predisposed to move, to explore the space around them, and to discover its contents. All green spaces offer physical activity and free-range learning. The richer the  environment, the richer the learning will be. Schools with extensive grounds have an advantage but for those who don’,t local parks are a great alternative.

For some time now I have been working with Eco Kids in Northampton on a lottery funded project to explore Abington Park,an urban green space with a rich history, as an outdoor classroom.

aplogo

Many outdoor learning programmes already exist which cater for children’s emotional and social needs and provide practical, problem solving opportunities in an outdoor environment and an antidote to the sedentary, screen-based activities which fill the days of a number of youngsters.

Heritage sites provide rich hands on activities for studying history and the natural environment is well catered for in environmental education centres up and down the country.

Many children do not learn effectively, exclusively within a classroom. They need alternative, hands-on learning environments to match their varied learning styles.

The packs I’ve written for Eco Kids, in addition to learning about the flora, fauna and history of Abington Park itself provide teachers, parents and youth leaders with the tools to encourage them to take learning outside and reap the rewards of this approach.

Learning in the open air builds resilience, encourages creativity, develops resourcefulness, sparks discussion, fosters team building and inventiveness.

What’s not to love?

Abington Park in its heyday

Abington Park in its heyday

 

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

 

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