Thursday, 13 July 2017

LEGO WeDo 2.0

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I spent this morning playing with Lego.  I have to confess, it's not my first time.  I love playing Lego with my children, and often continue building happily long after they've moved on to something else.  Today is the first time I got paid for it though!
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I attended a Lego WeDo 2.0 workshop for teachers.  Maybe your children have come home talking about building Lego models and coding on the computers to make them do something and you have no idea what they are talking about - it's Lego WeDo and hopefully all will become clear.
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The "new" curriculum dropped ICT in 2015 and replaced it with Computing.  Children at Key Stage Two are expected, among other things, to design, write and debug computer programmes using coding.  There are a few great programs available to support Coding.  I've used Tynker, Espresso and Scratch myself.  The problem with them is that while the coding and debugging are fun and you can create some brilliant visuals, games and animations using the coding, you can't touch it.  Lego changes that.  Lego is something that most children have experience and confidence with, making the whole thing more accessible.  How it works is that the children build a model, and then write a program to make it do something.  On the original WeDo, they wrote the program on Scratch software, and connected to the computer.  The new WeDo 2.0 is run via an app on the i-pad.

As a teacher I have options depending on the age and experience of my class, and the topics that we are covering.  
1)  The Lego WeDo app (free to download) has a few Guided Projects that support the children through a whole lesson.  They provide a scenario, with a little Lego video to introduce it, for the children to watch.  They are then guided step-by-step to build a model that does something, and then to write a code to make it do it.  The example we followed this morning was Robust Structures.  A video explained the scenario that buildings in earthquake zones need to be earthquake proof, and that building designs need to be tested for robustness.  We were then guided step-by-step (proper Lego instructions) how to build a machine that would test this.  The Lego WeDo kit includes a hub that connects wirelessly to your i-pad, a motor, a tilt sensor and a proximity sensor.  The machine we made uses the motor to shake a second base plate, on which you place your model houses:
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We were then given an example code to copy or modify to make our machine operate.  We did it so that the shaking would repeat 10 times, increasing in intensity each time.  We tested the house structures using this to see which number on the "Lego Richter Scale" the house fell down at.

2) The second option is to use an Open Project, there are a few suggested ones on the App, but you can also make up your own.  For this, you use a bit more creativity, either giving them a scenario to test (great links to Science) and allowing them to decide themselves on the model to make, and the program to code, or giving them scaffolded guidance depending on their age and stage.  We had a go at creating our own lesson plan for a Year One class looking at Life Cycles in Science.  We decided that the first thing we'd do is get the children playing with Lego, building a bird or an insect from Lego and describing the features of each.  Next we'd give children pictures from the life cycle of an insect and a bird and get them to sort them correctly and put them in order.  We'd then show them the "Firefly" model from the Lego WeDo 2.0 design library, which are all models that can be made using the WeDo 2.0 kit, and allow them to make it.  We would give them an example code to build or innovate from that makes the light on the model change colour as it moves on its stand.

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I think this kit is BRILLIANT!  It has great potential for linking Science, Literacy and Computing.  I will definitely be planning to use it in my classroom during the next year.  Many schools won't be able to afford enough sets for a class (they aren't cheap) but club together to buy them and share them around, so I'll need to get it planned and booked in early!  

If your child has been raving about Lego WeDo and you think you'd like to get them a set to experiment with at home, it costs £120-£150 for the full kit, but would be great for budding computer programmers, engineers or inventors if you do happen to have a bit of cash.

Just to be very clear - all the opinions in this post are entirely my own.  I am not in any way connected to or receiving any benefits from LEGO for this post.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

How to work a 40 hour week as a teacher.

You'll probably have some view on this.  Maybe you think that teachers get really long school holidays and should stop moaning about their workload.  Maybe you know a teacher, and you appreciate how much work they put in over and above the time the children are in school, both during term-time and holidays.  Heavy workload is unmistakably an issue in the teaching profession, which is also comparatively low-paid.  In this article from the Guardian, teachers health and mental-health is said to be at risk from a working week often between 49 and 65 hours per week.
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On a personal level, I am on a 0.55 contract, which means that I have two and a half days teaching, and quarter of a day paid non-contact (PPA) time (a total of 22 hours).  In reality, my week looks like this:  Monday I arrive by 8.15pm and leave at 5.15pm (with a 30min break for lunch in the staffroom), I then work a further 2-3 hours in the evening marking.  Tuesday I work the same hours and do the same amount of marking in the evening.  On a Wednesday I'm usually in work by 11am, and stay until 5.15pm.  I would estimate that I spend AT LEAST two further hours per day on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  This puts my working week at a minimum of 35 hours.  It's hard not to do this, and I'll give my headteacher credit here because she has told me that I shouldn't be in at work as often as I am.  However, when the job needs doing and you want to do it well to give the kids the best experience possible, and also meet all the requirements for evidence required by the school and the lovely OfSted, you just get on with it.

I do think that reducing the working week is something worth doing, and I also think its possible.  I haven't tried this advice yet, but I will be in the coming year.  My part-time contract this coming year is 0.66 which is 26.4 hours.  I'm going to aim not to work at all past 5.30 in the evening, and no more than six hours outside of my three teaching days - a total of 31.5 hours.  For full-time teachers, I think you'd be aiming for your four and a half days contact time, your half a day PPA, leave by 5.30pm and work no more than six hours outside of this time, in your evenings or on your weekend.  Make sure that you get a half-hour for break.  This would be a total of 48.5 hours.  Once we're achieving this, we can aim to shave back those hours of working at home.

Here's my plan:

  1. Make use of the school holidays.  I know, teachers already work during their holidays, particularly the May half term which you almost certainly spend writing reports, and the last week of the Summer holiday which is nearly always spent setting up your classroom.  What I'm suggesting is more structured use of time.  If you want a 40 hour working week like those in a 'regular' job, then you'll need to take only 6 weeks of holiday like those in a 'regular' job.  If you want to chill out all through your 13 weeks school holidays, then accept that those extra weeks (7 weeks x 40 hours = 280 hours) will be added on your your working week during term time (just over 7 hours per week).  So take one week of holiday at Christmas and Easter and two weeks in the Summer, plus extra days to make up the other two weeks during half terms and holidays, and the rest of the time work an eight hour day.  For some people I appreciate that this may involve paying for childcare, as your kids will also be on holiday, but you need to balance this against the likelihood of having more time to see them on weekends during term time.  I'm lucky enough that mine will entertain themselves some of the time, and I will spread my working hours between early morning and evening as much as possible so I can do things with the children in between.  During your holiday: get as much planning done as possible for all areas of teaching; Prepare your schemes of work and your interactive whiteboard flipcharts; prepare your assessment sheets; get displays ready to go up for each topic as you reach it in the school year; prepare templates for PLPs, get classroom ready - drawer labels and labels for books etc.
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  3. Be more organised - folders all ready and prepared with all the resources needed for those schemes of work prepared during the holiday.  Next year I have a pupil with quite complex needs in my class.  In order to provide the best scaffolding for her to develop more independence in her work, the TAs need to be able to adapt the resources or scan them into her computer ahead of time.  This will be much smoother for everybody if they are there and easily accessible.  Also plan ahead for things like assemblies, Christmas craft projects, report writing and parents evening as much as possible.  You know these things are going to crop up, so being prepared for them will save a weekend of panic before each one.
  4. Marking during the working week - Marking is probably your most time-consuming daily activity (apart from teaching!).  Assume that four pieces of work per child require marking every day.  Even a cursory glance and a quick comment will probably take at least one minute per book - that's a minimum of half an hour for a class set of books, multiplied by four.  In reality, when you're marking English books and the children have written a page of text, which you have to read, highlight and comment on errors, and provide positive constructive feedback and next steps, each book will take at least five minutes - a total of 2.5 hours for the set!  I can very easily do four or more hours marking from one teaching day, and I know I'm not alone.  So, plan more thoughtfully to reduce marking load.  Plan more time in to lessons for children to self-assess and peer-assess, and teach them the skills to do this; or plan for you to go through and mark the work with the children.  This isn't a cop-out for the teacher, and it won't lessen the expectations on the children.  According to the Education Endowment Foundation, little research has actually taken place into the effectiveness of written marking, which is bizarre considering that schools place such emphasis on it, and teachers spend so much time on it, but it seems that the most effective marking gives early, specific feedback to the children, with clear targets for next steps, and the opportunity to respond, either extending understanding or clarifying misunderstanding.  If this can be done effectively with the children, then it is worth looking into, and could take hours off your evening.
  5. Labels - If you find yourself writing the same comment over and over again on your marking, or you have several children who you know will require the same constructive feedback / next step, then consider using printed sticky labels.  I will definitely have some labels marked: please underline, DUMTUMS for date and Next Step please, remember to join your handwriting for those basic presentation issues which our OfSted consultant has suggested we need to pick up in our marking as part of having "high expectations".
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  7. Use technology - We have i-pads in the classroom, and I don't use them enough.  There's a useful platform called Google Classrooms - it will take time to set it up for the class and train them to use it, but in the end this will pay dividends.  Rather than printing off and trimming worksheets, I can set them as an 'Assignment' in the app, and they can just read off the i-pad.  If they are working with practical activities, I can set this as an assignment, and they can photograph it with the i-pad and it will upload into a folder in the app.  I can even comment on it (providing feedback) there and then in the app.  To provide evidence for their exercise books, they write the date and objective, and I print them a sticky label with a brief explanation and a QR code linking to the folder.
I look forward to trying out my own advice, and will get back to you with feedback next term on how its going and whether I am restoring some of my work-life balance (if I am you'll probably see more posts on here, and a bit more craft going on!)  I think the basic rules that I'm applying are: less written work for me and the children but higher quality and more effective.  Fewer hours working for me.

Monday, 26 June 2017

The Missing Blogger

This blogger has been decidedly absent.  I have good intentions.  Writing on the blog has been on my "to do" list for a long time.  I like blogging.  I love to write and this blog has been a creative endeavour since 2010, when my almost-eight year old was tiny.  

Life, however, has me spinning many plates, and inevitably one or two get dropped.  

Tonight I set aside the marking, though I may get back to that later as I'm quite enjoying marking beginning attempts at poetry.  I ignored my list and went straight for the blog.

Here's a quick summary of what's going on in my life:

  • Home - I'm a bit on edge at the moment about my home.  We've been in Herefordshire now for almost three years, hoping to sell our lovely house in Scotland so we can put down roots here.  I've been getting a bit pot-bound in this rented house that was always supposed to be a temporary situation.  We finally had an offer on the house, and accepted.  In Scotland, once the missives are exchanged, which usually happens very early in the process, the deal is legally binding.  We went ahead and started looking at houses, an found one that we absolutely love, went ahead and made and offer and were accepted!  Now we're just waiting for everything to be finalised.  The missives in Scotland have NOT been exchanged yet, our buyers have their loan agreement, but are waiting for their buyers to get their loan agreement through (this week we've been told) so that they can exchange missives with them, and then with us.  Our buyers are hoping to move in July, so I'm very much hoping that this will be a simple process and then we can start asking about a completion date for our house - we have our loan agreed, and hopefully move in late August.  In the meantime, I'm thinking about starting to re-paint the magnolia walls here.  We carefully didn't put any pictures up to avoid having to repaint when we moved out, but after three years, two children and a dog, the walls need repainting, and in some cases a bit of polyfilla, so the sooner I get started on that (and then keep everybody away from the paintwork!) the sooner it's done.  I'm actually finally getting happier with how the garden is looking.  This year I decided it was time to stop waiting and to just plant stuff, so I bought a lot of cheap tubs and planters and ordered bulbs and perennial plants and just chucked everything in, and now I actually have flowers growing on my large patch of gravel.  I'm planning to make the most of this Summer of countryside living with some wild foraging, and lots of time outdoors for the children, as our new house will be in the city.  Yes, you read right.  From seven years living in a small village (lovely community) to three years living in the middle of nowhere (not even a pub to walk to!) to a house where you can walk or cycle all over the place and a top-up pint of milk is very literally just around the corner.  I can't wait! 
  • teaching - I'm very much enjoying my teaching job.  I love teaching. The lady I'm job-sharing with is lovely and I think we work very well together. The class we're with at the moment are quite chatty and VERY untidy, but I think that's partly because I didn't set up expectations on that front very well in the first few weeks of the year.  We seem to be constantly chasing our tails just to keep up with the marking and planning, let alone getting the displays and things sorted out.  Next year I'm delighted to be in Year 4 again - The planning for all the topics and units is there, so I just need to rework it to make it work for me and the new class.  I'm going up to three days per week, and will probably have a different teacher working with me (to be appointed this week).  I'm looking already at what I can do during the Summer to get the classroom looking nicer.  
  • Campervan - that's right.  We got ourselves a campervan.  We are beginning to get the hang of just jumping in for a weekend away, and are planning lots of trips around the place with it, and are working out the best way to store things.  It's a VW T6.
  • Health - So I've still got microscopic polyangiitis.  Apparently Vasculitis doesn't go away.  I'll be on the immune suppressants and steroids and blood pressure meds for a long time.  Kidney function has stabilised at 50% which is good, and the Drs are quite happy to tell me how well I look, check my bloods and send me on my way again.  Apparently all the weird little oddities my body has come up with are nothing to worry about, so I'm just trying to ignore them and take them in my stride as long as the blood results are okay and nothing drastic happens.
  • The family - The husband and kids are still gorgeous.  The kids of course drive me absolutely bonkers, and I occasionally have a crises of confidence that they aren't being very kind to one another, or are becoming selfish.  I am reassured by everybody else telling me how lovely they are, and wonder whether they just save it all for me.  Sadly, I am no longer wearing a wedding ring but it's not as bad as it sounds - Hubby is still putting up with me despite my careless ways, I just no longer have the rings!  A couple of years ago the diamond fell out of my engagement ring while I was doing housework, and I never found it.  Last Summer the sea at Durdle Door in Dorset sucked my wedding ring off (I've lost a bit of weight, and I think it must all have been on my fingers!) and that disappeared into the blue.  I was wearing a stand-in as I really wanted to be wearing a wedding ring still, but took it off the other day while making pizza dough.  One minute it was beside me on the counter, the next it wasn't.  I told everybody to look out for it in their pizza, but nobody found it.  I'm hoping to get a replacement at some point, but it's not really the kind of thing you are supposed to buy for yourself, is it?  We're also sad to have lost our dog Tara three weeks ago.  She was such a wonderful warm and loving pet, and we had her for nine years, so it's a bit strange to get home and not see her wagging tail in the back door, not to get up early and take her out for a walk, and not to have her warmth spread across my lap on the sofa or my feet under the table.
  • Scouting - Having done a LOT of Scouting in the past, things are pretty quiet since we moved to Herefordshire.  We've both got lots of skills and experience, but nobody here seems very interested in what we have to offer.  This is probably a good thing since I was poorly last year, as I was able to give myself a bit of a break.  Now we're both working with the Group where Bear and Bug are Beaver Scouts, and hoping to help it grow and develop.
  • Crafting and Writing - This will be a very short paragraph.  It's just not been happening.  Too tired.  Too busy.  Bug got a mini-sewing machine for her birthday in February, and I confess I only just got it out with her this weekend (and can't make it sew properly so need to take it to Hobbycraft for instructions) so that she can sew her own apron - I'll try to post about that in the next couple of weeks when we complete it!
So there we go.  A whistle stop update of where I am and what I'm doing and a promise that I'll try to blog again at least once a week.

What have you all been up to?  Anything exciting?  Do comment below.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

A Mediterranean Diet

Turn on the news these days and nearly every week you'll find some advice on what you should or should not eat - much of it contradictory.  Fad diets - 5:2, superjuice, "you are what you eat" (I know a brilliant joke about that one),carb free, gluten free, red and green days and all the rest make me want to go and stick my head in an oven.  I really like food - tasty and delicious food.  Some foods I like are healthy, some are very unhealthy (chip shop chips, blackforest gateaux etc.).  

I don't want to feel guilty about any food.  I want to nosh it down whenever I feel like it... within reason.  

I also want to be healthy.  

I accidentally lost quite a bit of weight between the Summer and Christmas.  I just lost my appetite through some combination of Vasculitis or the drugs I'm on to treat it, and managed to shift some weight that I've been trying to get rid of for about ten years.  Now that the appetite has come back, I'm keen not to pile the weight all back on if possible.  Hubby is also conscious that he's approaching half a century at the end of this year, and is anxious to lose some weight and live a healthier lifestyle.

One type of eating that we keep hearing about in a positive light is the "Mediterranean Diet".  Nobody is quite sure what it is about this diet that appears to have health benefits and support longevity - whether it's the red wine, the olive oil, the abundance of tomatoes, fruits and vegetables, the sea food, the cheese, the nuts and pulses, the convivial shared eating experience of "picking at" dishes or whether its some combination of all the above (or more sunshine), we just don't know.  What we do agree on is that both Hubby (and usually the children) love the flavours.  Spanish, Provencal, Greek, Turkish, Moroccan, Italian - all are food cultures that we thoroughly enjoy. 

This January I've heard Hubby harping on about extolling the virtues of both smaller portion sizes and "a more Mediterranean diet" a lot so on a trip to Waterstones decided to see if I could find a suitable new cook book to support the crusade.


It's always a good sign when reading the cookbook makes your mouth water and you can't wait to get to the shops and buy in some of the ingredients you need to get started.  In this family there will always be room for Pie and chips or Staffordshire Oatcakes, but maybe we'll insert a bit more pitta with houmous, prawns dripping with garlic and chilli, olives and delicious salads in between and just possibly be a little healthier for it.  Or we'll have friends queueing up to partake of a bit of convivial red wine, cheese and garlic, and we won't care how healthy we are!

What's your latest new cookbook and what will you be cooking from it?

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Making an annual wish list

We all know that writing New Year's Resolutions doesn't work.  We just don't stick to them, we fall off the band-wagon and then very quickly give up and forget about them.

This time I've followed the lead of somebody I know from the Vasculitis UK Support Group on Facebook.  She writes an annual "Wish List" and refers back to it through the year.

I like this - it's more like a Development Plan... firstly I can frame it and put it somewhere prominent to remind me of my plans and ideas (and let others know what I am wishing for), at the end of the year I can write another one for 2018, transferring some things across and developing new priorities.

Here's mine:
What are your plans for 2017?  Please share...

Monday, 26 December 2016

Family fun in... London

 In October half-term we spent a few days exploring London.  We took them a couple of years ago, and decided it was time for another trip following our successful city-break to Venice at Easter.  Here are my suggestions for great things to do as a family in London, based on our trip and trips in the past.

Depending on your budget there are lots of options for accommodation.  Last time we went to London we took the caravan and stayed in an excellent site near Maidenhead (Hurley Riverside Park) from where we could visit Windsor and Legoland as well as catch trains into London for daytrips.  The time we went to London before that we stayed at YHA London Thameside at Rotherhithe, which offered an en-suite family room at a very reasonably budget.  This time around we chose a serviced apartment on Commercial Road.  This allowed us a good base to stay with the children, allowing them some space and freedom, us the option to self-cater and space to sit up and chat later into the evening which we wouldn't have if we were all sharing a hotel or hostel room.

Here are just some of the activities that we've got up to on our trips:

  • Bus trips - lots of them!  We've previously done one of the open-topped hop-on, hop-off bus trips, but found that the children weren't really in to listening to the tour guide, so it's a bit of a waste of money.  Instead we found the Number 15 bus from just outside our apartment on Commercial Road went right past Tower Hill, and St Pauls Cathedral to Trafalgar Square.
  • Boat trip - we went on a boat trip on the Thames from Tower Hill to the London Eye, which was pretty awesome!
  • The Emirates Airline Sky Ride over the Thames was also a great addition to our day.  We had been to Greenwich so it was a short hop to the sky-ride and then back on the DLR to Shadwell to get back to our apartment.
  • The London Eye is a favourite for our two.  Over three trips to London we have been during daylight, in the dark, and this time at twilight.  It's nice to get a broad overview of London.  I'm convinced that C and Bug spend more time looking at the touch-screen interpretation computer thingy than actually looking out of the window, but I quite enjoy the space to admire London from above.
  • Museums and Galleries - we have been to: the Natural History Museum - great for budding geologists and naturalists, and of course dinosaur and fossil enthusiasts.  We went on our last trip, but not this time, which was a disappointment for C who has been studying Mary Anning at school and was keen to see the Icthyosaur fossil that she unearthed on the Dorset coast; the Science Museum - we went here for a good look at the Space stuff and enjoyed an IMAX show about the view from the Space Station, and a moving theatre experience about the shuttle trip to the moon.  Disappointingly you have to pay extra to get into the interactive exhibits and the queue was phenomenal; the British Museum - it's such a huge place that it's a good idea to have a specific theme in mind.  We aimed for the areas that we knew would fit into the History Topics that C will be studying this year - namely Stone and Iron Age and the Ancient Egyptians.  The Audioguide picks out highlights and explains them; I visited the Horniman Museum when C and I were much smaller, there's an interesting collection of artefacts, and a small aquarium in the basement; the Docklands Museum - another one we did when they were toddlers, quite an interesting look at the history of this part of London with a great interactive gallery for the kids with plenty of things to play with; the National Gallery - we didn't spend long in here, having already been to St Pauls and the British Museum on this day, but we again had a specific plan - Bug wanted to see Picasso and C wanted to see Van Gogh.  We went for those areas, admired a few other paintings on the way in and out and then left.  The AMAZING thing about all these museums and galleries so far mentioned is that they are all FREE ENTRY - only asking for a donation.  Of course, they won't be able to stay free unless people donate - so please do.  Finally, Greenwich Observatory, where we went on this occasion with cousin Rachel - a great place to learn about clocks, navigation, longitude and latitude etc.  I don't think the kids got it all that much, but there were just about enough interactive bits to keep them busy while the grown-ups did some learning.
  • Other great buildings - St Paul's Cathedral - You'd think that a Cathedral wouldn't be a great place to go with children, but ours quite like the huge soaring spaces, the paintings and statues and especially the audio guide.  They were very taken with the crypts, where Bug was delighted to find the memorial to Edwin Landseer who sculpted the lions in Trafalgar Square where she had been sitting the previous day.
  • Camden Market, Covent Garden Market, Portabello Market, Spittalfields Market - Portabello Market is great for antiques but not for children, only go if you don't have them in tow.  Spittalfields Market and Covent Garden Market also not that great for little ones, though there are plenty of places to stop for coffee and cake.  Camden Market on the other hand is a wonderful place to lose track of time and spend lots of money.  I particularly like the clothes on sale here, and C and Bug both managed to spend a large proportion of their pocket money.
  • Other spots - we didn't go into the Cutty Sark, but walked around it admiring from the outside; Trafalgar Square - a place to climb on the lions of course!  I love the signs - not forbidding you to climb, but warning you not to fall off!
  • A Show!  This time around we thought that the children would be old enough to see a show,  We looked into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Lion King and Matilda, and eventually settled on The Railway Children at Kings Cross Theatre.  It was wonderful, with a real steam train playing a leading role and chuffing into the stage at several points in the performance.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Crafty Mum - crochet pyjama cases

I've been teaching myself crochet for two or three years now, and this has been my most ambitions project yet.

In the Bumper Book of Crochet (from Dorling Kindersley - no affiliation) they have a pattern for a turtle back pack.  A couple of years ago my big sis (Seaside Belle blogs here) mentioned that her children might like a hand-made pyjama case for Christmas, but at the time I had a backlog of craft projects and not enough time.  I did remember though, so this year started to make the turtles,  I just left off the straps to make them pyjama cases and not backpacks.

I have to confess that this has taken me a very long time.  To begin with I started learning to make the first hexagons for the turtles back when I was on a pretty high dose of steroids, so I had terrible cramps in my hands and found any kind of craft work hard-going.  I decided to make one in fresh jungle type colours for my nephew (age 4), and one in Frozen colours (turquoise, pinks and purples) for my niece (age 6).  
I was making pretty good progress with the Frozen one, and had made the front of the turtle, the head, tail and all the legs, but somehow they didn't seem right.  It was only as I looked much more closely at the individual stitch instructions while completing the back of the turtle around the edge of the hexagons (away on holiday in August) that I realised I'd been using entirely the wrong stitch for all the other pieces - doing them in treble instead of double.  That was why they looked like cones instead of disks!  Once I realised this it didn't take me long to undo them and re-use the wool to crochet correctly.  I then had a plan to get them completed by the end of October, but failed because I hadn't ordered the zips.  I wasn't far behind though, and I think I can safely reveal them before I pop some pyjamas in them and wrap them up for Christmas ready for niece and nephew.
What's your latest project?  What's your next one?

My next one is to put some scenery on C's model railway which is looking sadly unloved and empty.  I've set myself an ambitious deadline of Christmas (ahem, that's not very far away!) to create a hillside, cliff, railway tunnel, cave for the dragon, and ruined castle.  I'll post again on here very soon and let you know how I'm getting on with that!

Sunday, 18 December 2016

My Bake Off Challenge - Week 2 - Biscuit Week

 Everybody loves the wonderful Great British Bake Off, right?  I do, and I had a plan to spend ten weeks setting myself my own Bake-Off challenges based loosely on the challenges set in the marquee.  Week One was cake week.  Of course, I then immediately failed, because by setting myself a one per week timetable, I didn't stick to it.  Even if I did bake every week, I certainly didn't post about it!

So here we are with Week 2 (two months later).
I love the idea of cookies, particularly since one day an American pupil gave me a gift of hand-made cookies, including a recipe, for Christmas.  What a lovely gift!  I've occasionally repeated the gesture, and given cookies and a recipe, since then.

Anyway, here's this gloriously simple recipe:

1) Preheat the oven to 190C and line two baking trays with greaseproof paper.
2) Beat 150g of softened butter with 80g light brown sugar and 80g granulated sugar until soft and creamy.
3) Beat in 1 egg and 2 tsp of vanilla extract.
4) Sift in 225g of plain flour, 1/2 tsp of bicarb of soda and a pinch of salt and then mix with a wooden spoon.
5) Stir in 200g of plain chocolate chips.
6) Put teaspoon sized blobs on the baking tray (leave plenty of space between them as they spread!)
7)  Bake for 8 to 10 minutes - they'll be golden brown but still soft in the middle.
8)  Leave on the tray for a couple of minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Yum yum, they don't last long!

What's your favourite biscuit recipe?

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Swimming Lesson parents

When you become a parent you discover new places and situations that probably never entered your head before you welcomed your baby into the world.  

First there are the ante-natal classes, where you meet other bumps and their parents (we didn't bother with this one)

Next you've got the Doctor's Waiting Room on Health Visitor Clinic days... how's your little one?  Is he sleeping all night yet?  Have you not started him on solids yet?  Really?  Mine's been sleeping through since he was seven days old and is already humming along to Mozart.

You then brave the minefield otherwise known as Toddler Groups.  Some mum's love this and attend different toddler groups every day of the week - from story telling at the library to the one in this village and the next, and the breast-feeding support group and the rest.  My first experience of toddler group was terrible for various reasons, but I braved going back (eventually) and ended up running the one in our village.

Later you've got the school gate - many parents get stuck right in, joining one of the cliques, others will flit among a few groups, and still others will always be on the side-lines.  I don't need to write any more about this, because this article on netmums says it all.  

The soft-play and the playpark deserve special mention all of their own.  There are three possibilities - you either helicopter on your own children (depending on their age), playing with them, checking they are okay, or nursing their insecurity on your knee; or you go with a pal or few, you spend the time sipping coffee and chatting and occasionally check to make sure your children are not terrorising anybody else; or you go on your own, settle on a bench with a magazine or book and a hot chocolate and relish in some time all to yourself, looking up to make eye contact with your children in between pages.

The situation I've recently encountered is another category again.  Its the extra-curricular activity, and it seems to be a middle-class thing.  Some parents will never take their children to a ballet lesson or to Brownies, they just get them home from school and then playing out with their mates.  To other parents there is no such thing as an empty hour after school, as children are taxied to football, swimming lessons, Cubs and tae-kwon-do.  Asking for a playdate with these parents involves a frantic flick through the diary to find an empty slot.  My children currently both attend swimming lessons, and C is a Beaver Scout, and Hubby and I both also volunteer with the Scout Group.  Sitting in the humidity of the viewing area to the side of the swimming pool I glance around at the other parents and listen in on conversations.  Some are entertaining smaller children and using food to distract them from their boredom or the lure of climbing all over the crowded seats.  Others drape themselves over several rows of chairs, chatting about the latest school trip, the merits of the swimming teachers or their latest holidays.  It seems we've outgrown comparing our children and their skills and stages of development, and we are now on extended small-talk and complaining about school or social activities.  Others snatch the half-hour to catch up on Facebook, blogs or reading.  

I'm not sure where I sit in this mixture.  I don't do a lot of these activities, and at the swimming pool I'd say that I'm in the catching up with reading team usually.  But I am a social beast and I don't think that we are designed to sit in isolation in a crowded place.  I've tried joining in a conversation with the loud chatters, but was pretty quickly frozen out - I was clearly not in the clique!  

Since unfortunately, with the plethora of extra-curricular options, its unlikely that your schedule of taxi-worthy activities will match up with those of the friends you've built up on the parenting circuit, wouldn't it be great if we could  view these activities as opportunities to meet new potential friends for you and your children.  Why don't we put down the phones, look around, make eye contact, and introduce ourselves to new people.  Why don't we have real and fulfilling conversations while our little darlings are bobbing in the pool, learning how to kick box or pirouette?  I for one, would like to have actual social interactions much better than scanning my social media for some fragment of my friends' lives.

Who's with me?  Who would like to look up, smile and make conversation?

Thursday, 6 October 2016

My Bake-Off Challenge - Week One - Cake Week

Everybody loves the Great British Bake Off, right?

And, always up for a challenge, I'm going to endeavour, over the next ten weeks, to post my own Bake-Off Challenges based loosely on the challenges set in the Bake-off marquee.

Week One was cake week.

I was thinking about starting this challenge, and wondering what cake to make for my first challenge.  C helped me out:  "Mummy, there's not much in the sweet treat box" (they can have something from the sweet treat box in their packed lunch each day).  "No, I was thinking of making a cake in the next day or two."  Without a moment's hesitation he replied, "Yes, a pineapple upside-down cake please.  I've seen a tin of pineapple in the cupboard."  I couldn't argue with that now, could I?

Here's my recipe:

Set the oven at 180C.

Beat 50g butter and 50g soft brown sugar together and spread over the bottom and up the sides of the tin.

Lay out your pineapple slices over the bottom of the tin, filling any gaps with smaller pieces of pineapple or some glace cherries if you prefer.

Beat together 100g butter, 100g caster sugar, 100g self-raising flour, 2tbsp baking powder, 2 eggs, 1tsp vanilla extract, and 2 tbsp pineapple juice or syrup from the tin.  Spread this mixture evenly over the pineapples in the tin.  

Bake for 35 minutes.

Notes - if you have an awful oven (that heats from top and bottom rather than sides) then be prepared with some foil to cover the top once golden brown to prevent it burning.  Don't use a loose-bottomed tin as the sugar/butter topping will seep out.