Saturday, 30 April 2016

Make more of May - a quick life update

May is one of those months that everybody likes.  In May the weather takes a definite turn towards Summer, plants and flowers start growing, BBQs are dusted off, people spend more time outdoors and soak up a bit of well-earned sunshine and warmth.

I thought I'd take the opportunity to give a brief update on what's going on with me, and where life is currently going, especially for those of you that were concerned by my post back in February, where I shared that there were problems with the health of my kidneys being investigated, but I've not mentioned them since!

Let's do the health thing first.  At the kidney biopsy in February I was told that I would hear the results at my  next appointment in three weeks time, unless the results were urgent.  I got a phone-call from the Renal specialist three days later.  It turns out I have a type of Vasculitis called microscopic polyangiitis.  Vasulitis is where the immune system decides to start attacking the blood vessels.  There are lots of different varieties, and microscopic polyangiitis involves the blood vessels in the kidneys, and occasionally the lungs.  So my immune system had started attacking my kidneys, which were inflamed.  They wanted to start treatment right away.  The treatment involves starting on a hefty whack of steroids, which they taper down quite quickly because of the side-effects, and also giving a low-dose chemotherapy type drug infusion every three weeks for ten cycles.  Both of these treatments can have lots of side-effects so they keep a close eye on you, and also give lots of other drugs to try to reduce the side-effects as much as possible.  It means that I trek up to Birmingham every three weeks for the infusion, and again in between for a clinic visit, and also have a blood test here in Hereford mid-cycle.  Its a bit of a long-term illness - it should be in remission by the end of the ten cycles in the Summer, after which the treatment reduces to a maintenance dose.  I'm not sure how long that goes on for, but I think they monitor things and making sure there are no relapses over a couple of years and then gradually try withdrawing the treatment.  I've now had four treatments with the cyclophosphomide infusion, and am due my fifth on Tuesday, and the steroid dose has been reduced from 60mg per day to 20mg over the course of the treatment so far.  

I have to say there have been moments where the whole thing has been a bit overwhelming.  I mean, I'm 37 and previously healthy, reluctant even to take paracetamol most of the time.  Then suddenly I have this long-term illness and am chucking back so many tablets that I think I'm rattling.  Having seen some of the other folks at the clinics and in the infusion suite though, I think I've had it pretty easy.  First of all, thanks to the vigilance of my optician and the competence of the doctors, my illness was picked up and diagnosed very quickly.  I had already seen the specialist before I even felt unwell!  I'm also getting off fairly lightly with the treatments.  I get the impression that others can react pretty badly to it, or get many more side-effects.  I feel a little fuzzy, shaky and very tired the evening and next day after a cyclo infusion, and am getting other side-effects, but nothing serious, and am still managing to work full time.  My side-effects have included sleepless nights - I think that's the steroids.  I've been waking very early in the morning (like between 2 and 4am) and have often been up by 4.30am - also leading to me being pretty grumpy by the time I pick the children up from school at 5.30pm.  Luckily as the steroid dose has been reduced, this seems to be an improving situation.  I get puffy legs as the day wears on, the skin on my hands has gone papery and thin, I've got spotty, I've got a fat face, I've had bouts of nausea (better now, as they changed one of the drugs) and I have AN ENORMOUS APPETITE!  Seriously, I'm hungry all the time.  I lost quite a bit of weight in the few weeks before the biopsy, but have now put it all back on.  One of my  missions for May (and June, July, August etc), is now that the steroid dose is coming down, I've really got to get in control of my eating and try to shift some of the weight back off.  I can't do much about the vasculitis, but  I can make sure that the rest of my lifestyle is healthy.
my fat face today out walking the dog.
My family is lovely.  They've had a bit of a hard time over the last few months, as I've been tired and grumpy.  To be honest, Bug doesn't seem to notice much of the time, but  then she surprises me by making me a card asking "ar you ok?".  C gets more worried, and when he can see that I'm tired or feeling unwell, gives me big cuddles.  I've been trying my best to make sure the house is still clean and tidy, the dog is walked, we have clean clothes and food at the right times, but there have been times when all I've managed to do when I get home from work is curl up on the sofa, and leave it all to Hubby.  Despite my mood swings and fluctuating energy levels, he has kept going with everything.  The whole thing does seem to have sparked a bit of "living for the moment", and we've fulfilled a couple of dreams by going on holiday to Venice, and ordering a brand-new VW Camper.  Hopefully we'll keep on with that - I like that we're getting on with living right now. 
We like Herefordshire, it's a beautiful place to live.  We're still hoping to sell the house in Scotland (sooner rather than later) but currently have tenants in there and are renting down here.  We can't wait to finally buy a house here and make it into our own home - because we know we aren't planning to stay here we aren't doing anything that would need undoing at the end of the tenancy, it feels very temporary.  I'm pretty sure we'll be in this place at least until the end of the Summer, so another thing to do in May will be to get some veggies and flowers in the garden.  Last year I got a few tubs and pots around the place, and I hope to make use of some pallets and extend that this year, allowing space for the children to have their own planting area too if possible.  We can either take them with us or bin them when we finally do move.
Work - I'm really enjoying being back at work, though obviously with all the trips to doctors and hospital, blood tests and feeling unwell or tired it hasn't all been easy.  I'm currently covering a maternity leave at a tiny little school in rural Herefordshire teaching Reception Class.  It was a challenging start, as there were two classes sharing one classroom, which was slightly chaotic to say the least!  Things are now looking much better, as I have a huge classroom, which is beginning to look more like the way a Reception Classroom is supposed to look (though getting resources ordered via our "umbrella" school is unbelievably slow - we are definitely the poor dependent!).  In professional terms I am really enjoying the challenge of teaching a different age-range.  The LEA are coming in to moderate my EYFS judgements on the little lovelies at the end of May, and while I'm hoping that I'll learn from the experience, I'm also hoping that it won't be too much of a learning curve and that they'll agree with most of my judgements.  I'm feeling pretty good because I've already done a lot of the evidence gathering and preparation work ready for that, and by doing so, it will also put me ahead of the game when it comes to writing EYFS Profiles and school reports towards the end of term.
In the meantime, I'm also applying for jobs for September.  Watch this space to see how I get on with that!  

Everything else - writing, crafts, model railway, Scouting, making stuff - It will come as no surprise having read all the above, that my writing, my crafting, the model railway (which came out of storage a couple of months ago), and all the other projects with which I like to fill my life, have taken a definite back seat over the last few months.  I am still required to make things by my demanding daughter, and do my best to fulfil her requests, but am also trying to teach her that with many demands on my time, I need to prioritise, and making a cat costume is lower on the priority list than filling in a job application!  I hope to get back to all these things of course, but just now getting fit and healthy, spending time with the family and keeping up at work are my three top priorities - in that order.

What are you up to in your life at the moment?  How are you getting on with your life dreams and priorities?

Monday, 11 April 2016

The Beautiful City of Venice (and taking children on a city-break)

We've just come back from our first European city-break with the children - to the gorgeous city of Venice.
Venice is breathtaking.  I'll tell you a little bit about the holiday, and throw in the things that we've discovered about travelling with a 5 and 6 year-old as I go along.

While C had been on an aeroplane before, aged about a year old, from Exeter to Edinburgh, this was the first plane trip that either would know about.  The airport and the aeroplane was every bit as exciting for them as the rest of the holiday.  We talked them through - several times - how the airport works and which bags would stay  with us and which go in the hold.  C got quite worried about having anything metal on his person or in his bag, so Hubby showed him the list of permitted and not-permitted items on the internet.  They packed their bags of things for the journey well in advance.  Despite my warnings about lugging a heavy bag around, C insisted on filling his with large hard-backed books about space.  Later, when he was beginning to tire of carrying the bag up and down steps and bridges in Venice, I made sure he kept hold of it!
We drove down to Gatwick on the Sunday afternoon and stayed in a nearby hotel, enjoying a meal at a local Harvester restaurant.  The hotel wasn't strictly necessary, but saved an unreasonably early morning drive, and meant that we were in plenty of time for the flight.  We used Purple Parking, who offer a hotel/parking deal and lay on a bus to the terminal.  This was, of course, all part of the adventure for the children.

Once through security, we made straight for the indoor children's play area.  One of us stayed and loosely supervised the children (did my puzzles), while the other went and browsed in the shops.
On the plane Hubby had booked two pairs of seats by the window, so we took a child each.  They had the window seat and we showed them all the exciting runway goings-on.  As we took off I handed out the sucking sweets - turns out not to be a good idea for Bug.  She was so busy looking about and chatting that she nearly choked on her sweet several times and had me worrying that we'd be turning the plane around and getting a paramedic!

On arrival at Marco Polo airport we got cash and bought our boat tickets across to Venice.  The Alilaguna boat-bus was quite low in the water and the windows covered in spray, but we still got a great view as we motored up the Grand Canal and disembarked just near the famous Rialto Bridge.  From there it was a short step to the hotel.  We actually weren't staying in the hotel (Ai Riali), but in a separate apartment.  Great tip for families by the way:  It didn't cost more than a room in the hotel, but our apartment (just behind St Mark's Square) had it's own kitchen, 2 bathrooms, sitting room and 2 bedrooms.  It meant that we could eat when we were hungry, the children had space to play, and we weren't stuck in the same room as them being quiet and dark while they went to bed early.  A porter from the hotel carried our bag and led the way to the apartment.  I nipped out to find a supermarket (marked on the map for me by the hotel receptionist) to pick up essential supplies.  I felt a bit like Audrey Hepburn as I trip-trapped along through back alleys and over little bridges.  I didn't even need the map on the way back!  I'm not sure Audrey Hepburn has ever been to Venice, but it felt like the kind of place that Holly Golightly would be very much at home.
Most days we breakfasted in the apartment, then headed out for the day.  We'd have a full hot meal at lunchtime, and then a lighter tea back at the apartment.  That's another tip for parents with children - Continental Europeans tend to eat later, and many restaurants don't start serving their evening meal until 6.30 or 7pm.  If your children need to eat earlier than this, then consider having your main meal at lunchtime, usually served between 12 and 2.
We bought a 48 hour tourist pass for the Vaporetto (boat bus) which takes you just about everywhere, and used that to space out the walking and give little legs a rest.  We also did one trip in a taxi boat, which felt very decadent (but was considerably cheaper than a gondola trip!).
It's worth heading to the toilet whenever you are in a cafe/restaurant or museum, because public toilets cost 1-1.5 Euros per person.  Most of the ones we visited were decent toilets, though I did experience one very dodgy one!
We visited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.  It's full of contemporary art which allowed the children to interpret it in whatever way worked for them.  Bug was delighted to find two Picasso paintings, as she's learned about him at school.  We also visited a couple of beautiful churches to see the Tintorettos and other beautiful Renaissance Art.  The children looked at the pictures and statues and tried to identify Bible stories that they had heard.  We climbed two bell towers, with views across to one another, as well as across the whole of Venice: San Marco is the tallest campanile in Venice, in St Marc's square and waking us at 6 each morning; San Georgio Maggiore is on another island just opposite St Marc's.  We also paid a visit to two museums: the Natural History Museum of Venice and the Murano Glass museum.  The displays on evolution and adaptation at the Natural History Museum are superbly curated, but we were less keen on the "collections" of dead animals, including a beautiful gorilla killed as recently as the 1920s.  The Glass Museum had a video at the beginning showing some of the techniques still in use today to make the different types of glassware, and that brought the collection of glass over the last two and a half millennia to life a bit, but the children definitely needed a run around in the garden afterwards.
In between these visits we just explored the city on foot and vaporetto, stopping for ice-cream, lunches, coffees and shopping whenever we needed, heading back to the airport on Friday afternoon.
They say that Venice is a city of romance.  It's certainly romantic, and we saw plenty of evidence of honeymooning couples and weddings.  The setting is stunning; the architecture and history fascinating; the buildings all showing signs of faded glory in various stages of restoration; the canals and the life people live around them and the multitude of tourists are intriguing.  It's also a great place to go as a family - small enough that you can get around the whole place very easily, big enough that there's plenty to see and do, enough interest with transport alone to keep small children happy, the pace of everything slowed down by the absence of cars.  We had a wonderful time and I would definitely recommend it.

None of the links or mentions on here are in any way affiliated to me, nor am I getting paid in any way to write or endorse any products, attractions or accommodation.  All opinions are entirely my own.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

An Ethical Life - choosing what fruit and veg to buy

As part of my series on living more ethically, I'm going to start by thinking about fruit and veg.

It seems an odd thing to worry about, when so many people in the world don't have enough to eat at all, or are suffering the ill effects of malnutrition.  So many people live without the luxury to be able to choose what kind of fruit and vegetables to eat, they are just glad to get anything to eat.  But actually that's just the point.  Those of us who do have that luxury, should take advantage of it to make good and wise choices about the provenance of our food that will, in the long run, benefit those elsewhere in the world or our communities who do not have that luxury.

Every time we look at our plates we should ask ourselves where the food came from, how it was produced and what it cost - not just in terms of money, but in terms of the environment and social justice.

So what about fruit and vegetables?
We are advised by health professionals that for good health we should be eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.  Actually, the food gurus suggest this should be closer to nine portions per day, but with average consumption at only three portions, a push to five seems slightly more realistic.  However, eating more fruit and vegetables, while beneficial to health, isn't about ethics.  What is about ethics is how we eat and buy those fruits and veggies.  We are living in a time when you can walk into a supermarket at any time of day or night, any month of the year, and expect to buy a pineapple or some strawberries - despite the fact that these products do not grow locally, or are in completely the wrong this right? 

Every time we pick up an apple or pineapple we need to consider:

  • pesticides
  • food miles
  • grower and picker rights
  • season
To entice us to buy fruits and vegetables, supermarkets lay out stacks of perfectly formed specimens.  Unfortunately, this means that 20-40% of farm produce is wasted, because it isn't perfect enough for our shelves, even though it tastes absolutely fine.  It also means that to reduce the risk of blemished produce, the farmer relies more and more on a range of pesticides and fertilisers (the fertilisers also keep the food available out of season, which we'll come back to later).  The fertilisers also cause massive problems in the environment, as soil biodiversity and water courses are polluted by the run off from farmers' fields.  The very creatures on whom we rely to pollinate our crops (bees and other pollinating insects) are damaged by the chemicals we put on the crops to help them grow better.  In developing countries, without such stringent safety controls, farm workers handling these chemical pesticides are often also put at risk to their health.
As a consumer, we can change things for the better by:
  • accepting (or even seeking out) fruit and veg that doesn't necessarily look perfect.  Jamie Oliver is on a mission to sort this out and has convinced ASDA to try a "wonky veg bargain box" which seems to have gone down very well. 
  • Buying organic produce.  Yes, it costs a little more, but organic farms do not pollute the environment.  Plus, because they use natural methods to keep their farms healthy, such as crop rotation, they tend to be more biodiverse environments rather than the big swathes of monoculture operated by industrial pesticide farms.
  • Growing your own.  If you've got even a small space and can grow a few of your own fruits and veggies in season, then you know you've got something on your plate that hasn't contributed any pesticides to the environment (as long as you grow organically of course!!)
Food Miles
Is it crazy that for every 100 items of fruit and veg eaten in the UK, only five are grown here?  In 2003 the Guardian bought a basket of fresh food containing twenty items.  It included pears, tomatoes and lettuce.  The total food miles of the produce in the basket was more than 100,000 miles!  Peas are being air-freighted from South Africa, lettuce is being flown in from Spain, tomatoes from Saudi Arabia.  Supermarkets want to give us what we want, and we want a wide variety of cheap fruit and vegetable available year-round.  So they provide it, shopping around globally for the best deal.  The problem is that this is not the best deal for the planet.  Food miles, and in particular air-freight food miles, contribute 20% of the UKs greenhouse gas emissions.
What can we do about it?
  • buy local (not just "British grown" from the supermarket, as despite the fact that your apple may have been grown in the orchard next door to the supermarket, it will still have been taken to a centralised sorting/storage point, then perhaps somewhere else to be packaged, then somewhere else to be distributed, then back to the supermarket to be sold.)  Buy from local green grocers, farmers markets, box schemes or farm shops, where the food is actually locally sourced.
  • Grow your own, then the food miles are food steps - close to zero pollution.
  • If you really want to buy fresh fruit and veg that isn't in season (more on seasonality later) or doesn't grow locally - and who doesn't love a banana or pineapple - then try to get food that has been trucked in from mainland Europe rather than air-freighted.  If you're still hankering for that fresh pineapple that you really can't source locally, then think carefully about the country that it came from, and try to make decisions not to buy things from countries who make poor ethical decisions.
Grower and Picker Rights
While it's great to get fresh fruit and veg for a bargain price, we need to think about how realistic those prices are.  If we are paying next to nothing for fruits and veg, then it's highly likely that whoever grew it is getting even less - I mean, even with economies of scale, the Supermarket is focused on profit isn't it?  Because supermarkets buy in such large quantities they can force the farmer to accept a lower price than they would normally.  This means that either the farm becomes unprofitable, or the workers on the farm are paid less, or put in more dangerous or awful working conditions to cut costs.  In addition, because our farmers receive subsidies from the government and the EU, it makes sense for them to produce more than we need, thus making it much harder for farmers in the developing world to make any money.
To shop ethically with regards to grower and picker rights:
  • seek out the Fair Trade logo, which ensures that farmers, usually in the developing world, have been paid a fair price for their produce;
  • grow your own - you are the grower and picker;
  • buy from local farm shops, farmers markets or pick your own, where you can see or ask questions about conditions and prices;
  • ask questions - are the strawberries you are buying picked by migrant workers, and if so are they treated fairly and paid a decent wage?  I live just up the road from a massive S&A soft fruit farm, and I often wonder how the workers there are treated.
Science is a wonderful thing, and advances in agricultural and food storage science have meant that we are able to grow or preserve fruit and veg to such an extent that from somewhere in the globe, we are usually able to get pretty much any fruit and veg that we want, year round.  By doing this we are a) increasing our food miles, b) losing biodiversity, because we tend to only cultivate the fruits that will have the longest storage, or the longest harvest time, c) losing out on taste and nutrients because fruit and veg loses out during storage and transport, d) blighting our countryside with the polytunnels that we need to grow this fruit and veg over such an extended period and e) losing touch with the cycle of the seasons.  
  • grow your own
  • buy from farmers markets, farm shops and pick-your-own etc. 
  • in the supermarket, seek out British grown produce that is in season now (this is not easy.  I live in Herefordshire, one of the biggest apple producers in the UK, and yet even as the apple harvest was in full swing all around me, and there were free windfall apples on offer at nearly every farm gate, the choice in the supermarket was still pretty much limited to imported Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious!).
How do we shop for fruit and veg ethically in the Ink-Spots household?

Not nearly as well as I'd like, which is what this series of posts on the blog is all about really.  Working full-time, I still rely on the convenience of the supermarket for much of my shopping.  

I've made enquiries about a fortnightly delivery from a local fruit and veg box scheme, and have now prioritised it to get on and join the scheme as soon as I'm back from holidays ( if you're interested).  I did get a veg box delivery when we lived in Scotland, but found the choice in the bag limited in the winter, and in the Summer grew most of what we wanted anyway so didn't bother in the end.  

Here I have a rented garden with very limited growing space, so while I grow my own herbs, and plan to grow lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, chard and a few potatoes again this year, my growing-your-own options are pretty limited until we've got a long-term home and garden again.  

I do opt for Fair Trade wherever there is a choice.  

I love our local pick-your-own, and the children love to go there with a shopping list for fruit, which I also found remarkably inexpensive, and will continue to visit there as often as I can.  

Organic produce is still all too often a little too pricey in the supermarket, but I think I should go for it a bit more often.

I'm not too good at seasonality - partly because we always want a nice salad, tomatoes and so on.  The strawberries I've bought recently have been noticeably tasteless, so I'll give them a miss now until they are actually in season.  I think using the fruit and veg box scheme should help me to keep a bit closer to the seasons.

The same applies to air miles.  I love a banana, a pineapple, and chillies and lemongrass and so on, even though I know that they are air-freighted across the world.  Hopefully having a bag of local fruit and veg that needs using up will encourage me to be a bit more inventive with local foods, and have the air-freighted foods a bit less frequently.
court farm leisure, my local pick-your-own and farm shop, Tillington, Herefordshire

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

An Ethical Life - What is ethical living?

What is "ethical living"?  How do you know when you are living ethically?
According to Wikipedia, "Ethical living is the philosophy of making decisions for daily life which take into account ethics and moral values, particularly with regard to consumerism, sustainability,environmentalism, wildlife and animal welfare. At present it is largely a personal choice, and not an organized social movement.
Ethical living is an offshoot of sustainable living, in which the individual initially takes a series of small lifestyle changes in order to limit their effect on the environment. Making the decision to start to live ethically, can be as easy as beginning to recycle, switching off electric lights when leaving a room, buying local organic or fairtrade produce."

Everyday life is full of small decisions and big decisions.  From whether to pop into McDonalds for tea, to whether to buy a new vehicle and which one.  What kind of house to buy, which bank to use, whether to put that in the compost or just chuck it in the bin.  To pick up a take-away or rustle something up with the left-overs in the fridge that need using up.  What kind of nappy to put on the baby and whether to let your children watch TV.

Every one of these decisions has an impact on the world around us.  Each determines how much energy and resource we consume, how much waste we produce, and how we impact on our local and global communities.  Yet each decision has also to be balanced with the impact it has on our lifestyle and our purse.  We have grown up in a generation of consumers, in a world of consumers, and bucking the trend takes effort and willpower, changes of habit and mind-set.  

The decision to live life more ethically is usually done one decision and one step at a time.  There are times when life gets in the way and you slip easily back into easier old habits, but as long as you have the intention to make a smaller and more positive footprint on the world we live in, you'll take more of the small steps in the right direction, and some of the big ones too.  

I like to believe that I think carefully about the impact of what I do and how I live my life with my family.  I know I don't always get it right, but I do try to think about how what we do affects the planet.  Over the years on this blog I've posted a few times about how we try to do things, and I'll be revisiting ethical living in different areas of life in future posts too.

An article from The Independent in February 2008 suggested the following ten tips to start living more ethically.  They suggested:  
  1. use energy efficient appliance such as washing machines and dishwashers to save energy and money.
  2. Stick to the speed limit and save fuel.
  3. Make sure you buy fish carrying the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo which is sustainably fished.
  4. Put on a jumper rather than put up the heating.
  5. Don't send flowers.  They are flown in from around the world.  Instead give a house-plant.
  6. Missing for some reason!
  7. Have a shower rather than a bath.
  8. Use a "hippo" water saver in the toilet cistern to restrict the amount of water used with each flush.
  9. Buy ethically sourced jewellery - respecting the communities where the gemstones and precious metals come from.
  10. Drink tea sourced as part of the Ethical Tea Partnership, where certain minimum working and environmental standards are met.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Feel better this February

I know, I know.  I've been a very absent blogger.  I have great intentions but two very good excuses.  

The first is that I am now working full time and have two children.  The job I'm doing is taking a little adjusting to as they have some very "exacting" requirements on paperwork, most of which are bizarrely inefficient and seem designed just to increase teacher workload without offering any benefit to the children's learning... but with only a two-term contract I'm not sure that's a battle I'm prepared to fight, so I think I'll just submit and buckle down.

A much more pressing excuse for my absenteeism is that I've spent most of January feeling really very unwell and with ZERO energy.  For somebody like me who, umm.... how to put this... aims to be superwoman and be brilliant at everything this has been a very hard month.  

To start with I have a virus of some sort.  My first week at my new job I was fine, but then on the 11th Jan I suddenly felt awful.  It started with a sore throat and jabbing ear-ache and then progressed to a cold and racking cough.  THIS HAS NOT GONE AWAY!  It's got to the point where I'm coughing so much that I'm sick, I'm coughing all night and my stomach muscles and ribs are very very unhappy.

To add to this joy, it turns out my kidneys aren't working.  This is an interesting story, because we wouldn't have found out had it not been for a thorough optician!  In October at a normal eye check-up the optician noted a bulge in one of the blood vessels at the back of my eye, and suggested that I should get my blood pressure checked next time I was at the health centre.  Two weeks later I did and it was very high, so the nurse told me to come and get it checked again two weeks later - still high.  Next I was to see the GP, who told me I probably drank too much tea and coffee, and that I should buy a blood pressure monitor and check my blood pressure at home over a few days, she also arranged for a blood test and dismissed me.  The blood test must have shown something interesting because in the few days before Christmas I got a flurry of phone-calls, "you've been referred for an ultrasound of your kidneys", "you've been referred for some more blood tests", "we need to fit an ambulatory blood pressure monitor at 9am on Monday 4th January"... all with no word of explanation from the GP.  I said no to the latter.  How could I go and have a blood pressure monitor fitted when I was supposed to be starting my new job, and with no way of contacting work over Christmas?  I got another appointment with the GP... who didn't even look at the blood pressure readings she'd asked me to take, and who hadn't yet looked at the ultrasound report which had been sent by radiology 2 days previously.  She told me there was no evidence of my high blood pressure until I could get the ambulatory blood pressure monitor fitted so I should make an appointment for that, did an examination of me (without even speaking to the two children I'd had to bring with me) and basically dismissed me saying that everything seemed normal.  A few days later, when she had the results from the blood tests and the report from the ultrasound man in front of her she obviously changed her mind, because she phoned and told me I had "nephrotic kidneys", she was putting me on blood pressure medication immediately and referring me to a kidney specialist.  WHAT?  I looked up nephrotic kidneys and thank goodness didn't have half the symptoms of that, so resolved not to see this GP again, who seemed to veer from dismissal to panic and back again, and to wait and see what the kidney man said.  He was very calm and matter of fact.  He told me that my kidneys weren't working properly and that they needed to find out why, so they would do a biopsy of my kidneys, have a look at the results and then decide what could be done.  In the meantime, he doubled my dose of blood pressure tablets to try to bring that down to normal.  

That pretty much brings me to now.  Over the last couple of weeks I've had increasing pain in my back, which may or may not be to do with my kidneys; increasing fatigue and lack of energy which may be to do with my kidneys, or the fact that I'm coughing all night.  On Thursday I went for my pre-op assessment in Birmingham, and then went to the GP (saw a different doctor!) who felt that most of what I'm feeling is down to my cough, and prescribed me some anti-biotics in the hope that we can get rid of that before Monday when I go for my biopsy.  After the biopsy I have to take a couple of days off too, so I hope that some enforced rest will help me finally lose the cough before I go back to work on Thursday.  With any luck I'll have all my energy back over half-term and for Bug's 5th birthday (and if I don't I'll know that the kidneys are to blame for that).  The biopsy results have to go through both microscopy and spectrometry, so I don't see the kidney specialist again until the end of the month, and hopefully he'll tell me that I have something that can be fixed nice and easily.

So, all in all a pretty rubbish January, but hopefully I'm going to start feeling better very soon, and by the end of the month have a plan to sort the rest out.  Just reading this back and it seems a bit of a self-pity-a-thon, sorry about that, and if you've read this far, then thanks for sticking with me.  Hopefully Mel's smily service as usual will resume again soon.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

We've made it to the holidays!

Woohoo!  It's the holidays.  

After my first term back to work as a teacher I am remembering the feeling of relief when you wake up in the morning realising that you've made it.  A lot of people look at teaching and think it's an easy option - you get so much more holiday than everybody else and the kids are only at school from 9-3.30 right?  It's true.  We are pretty lucky.  What the public don't necessarily see though are the hours of preparation, marking, assessment, record keeping, report writing and creating resources which means that many teachers work well into their evenings, weekends and holidays.  Or that when the kids are at school you are never really "on a break" as you're preparing for the next lesson, running clubs, on playground duty or interrupted by a knock on the staffroom door - and that interacting non-stop all day with thirty seven-year-olds can be pretty intensive.  I'm not looking for any sympathy here, it's probably the most rewarding and wonderful job there is, I'm just explaining why teachers start exulting, cheering and whooping, before dropping onto their sofas for a sleep, when the end of term arrives.

It's also pretty exhausting for the children.  Bug has just reached the end of her first term at school too.  Aged four, she has found the last couple of weeks stretched her a little thin.  Christmas fair, school play, school disco, swimming lessons, Mummy's school play, with the addition of Breakfast Club and After School Clubs to fit in with my work has meant that she's been asleep almost before her head's hit the pillow this week and is now full of cold.

So waking up this morning and knowing that it's the holidays has felt pretty good for all of us.  Even Hubby gets to join in, as he also now has a week off work - so we're all in "beginning of holiday" mode together.  Today's tasks involve Christmas cards, wrapping gifts, last minute gift shopping, housework, haircuts and bathing the dog - all of which can be done with no real urgency.  Thank goodness!

I've also reached a milestone.  I was pretty disappointed not to get the permanent teaching jobs I applied for at the school where I've been teaching this term (on a one-term contract).  I know they liked me and my teaching, but my job application and interview did not do me justice.  The headteacher gave me a lot of really good feedback, and was able to give me some great advice and support writing my next job applications - so I did get a job from that one.  I'm starting at a new school in January, this time teaching Reception Class for two terms.  It's going to be interesting as I will be team teaching for the first few weeks, before the current teacher goes on maternity leave.  I'm also intrigued by the classroom set up, as the school has rapidly grown, and their building expansion hasn't yet kept pace, so there will be two classes (with all the Teachers and Teaching Assistants) in one classroom until the new room is built.  Watch this space for an update!

Monday, 23 November 2015

Bug's Bucket List

My 4 year old daughter has made a "Bucket List".  For anybody who's never heard the term, a Bucket List is a list of things you want to make sure that you do before you kick-the-bucket / die.

Fear not, my little bundle of crazy is in perfect health, but bucket lists cropped up in conversation a few weeks ago, and she's obviously been mulling over what she wants to do in life.  Her list is below, it gives a real insight into her wishes and dreams at this age, and is totally gorgeous:

  • have my own hotel;
  • see a bear in the wild (not a polar bear);
  • have a baby;
  • climb right to the top of a cliff, from the bottom, with a ladder;
  • go to Africa;
  • go to Australia;
  • see a volcano;
  • have my own pond;
  • have my own cooker and freezer;
  • make my own proper (pottery) bowl;
  • learn to play the guitar properly;
  • learn to play the piano properly;
  • learn how to do a cartwheel;
  • marry someone.
I asked her if it was private or if it was okay to share.  She told me it was private but that I could put it on Facebook!  Umm... okay then!

I urge you to write your own bucket list and to get your children to write one too.  It's not at all morbid, just a chance to put your dreams on paper so that you can aim to gradually achieve them.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Managing Behaviour For Learning

I'm doing an on-line course called "Managing Behaviour for Learning" provided by the National Science Learning Network and led by Paul Dix, of Pivotal Education.  It's a five week course with an average expected time commitment of about three hours per week, and you can do it in your own time.  Although we're now at the end of Week 2, I've been busy this week with a job application and writing some articles, so I'm only at the end of the content for Week 1, but can catch up as soon as I have the time.

One of the suggestions is that you keep notes, or a record of your thoughts and aims as you go through the course, which can be recorded in a digital scrap-book, in a notebook or in a blog if you have one.  I do, so here's where I've got up to with Week 1.

The first task had us watch a video of Paul Dix reflecting on his worst ever, most chaotic lesson and the impact it had on the students.  We were invited to reflect on our own worst and most chaotic lesson and how we dealt with it and what we then did.  Almost all the reflections on the discussion forum were about moments where teachers felt out of control.  In mine, I actually left the classroom and stood outside the door while I counted to twenty.  I was then able to go back in and calmly sort out the class of ten-year-olds who had been fighting and brewing mutiny.

Looking at the difference between teachers who get out of control and those who are in control you find four key traits:
CONSISTENCY - being fair all the time.
PERSISTENCE - keeping going even when the kids are ignoring you
FOLLOW UP - if behaviour has been poor, while you might ignore it at the time so that the lesson can continue or so that a confrontational situation is avoided, always follow up later at a more suitable time.
CERTAINTY - if you have threatened a sanction you must always deliver it if merited.

Next we carried out a self-audit of how we interact with students.  From this I think that the areas I need to work on are making expectation or rules clear from the outset, and on being more consistent with behaviour management.  Sometimes I let a bit of calling out slip by, which can escalate quickly into happening all the time - then I get more firm, wheras if I had been consistently not allowing it, and praising those who don't it wouldn't escalate.

The next part of the course was about the fight or flight response in students.  How a confrontation situation will often put a student into this high stress response where their rational brain is actually shut off for a moment.  It's important, while being firm with rules, to de-escalate confrontation situations and allow a student time to calm down so that they can engage their rational brain again.  After this I resolved to try more and more positive and pro-active behaviour management techniques.  That's what I always try to do anyway, but sometimes when you are tired, or try to squeeze too much into a lesson, it can be easy to forget.

Next there was a video talking about a particular teacher who allowed himself to get out of control - he actually became a figure of ridicule.  Teachers who shout (I think it's okay to raise your voice occasionally) are viewed as out of control.  It's worth asking yourself whether you would shout at a child in the same way if their parent was in the room - if not, should you be doing it in class?  If you behave and respond to the children in an emotional and unpredictable way then the children spend time trying to press your buttons for entertainment, or to guess what mood you are going to be in today.  They don't feel secure and ready for learning.

It's important that we model good emotional management:  "I am beginning to get cross, so I'm going back to my desk to count to ten, then I will come back to you and we can have a calm conversation."

Manage behaviour by being very clear what behaviour we want to see.  Be empathetic.  Praise in public, discipline privately (or quietly, think about Safeguarding).  When you have to intervene make sure it's the behaviour that we criticise - not the child.

Sometimes negative behaviour is attention seeking behaviour, or behaviour designed to rouse our emotions and press our buttons because it makes a child feel in control.  Keep control of your emotions in this situation, mechanically follow your behaviour management procedure (have a plan that you can follow easily) and save your emotional responses for when you are excited about great behaviour or work.

An example procedure when a child is not doing what they should is to:

  • imagine their parent on your shoulder (so you remain calm and positive)
  • state the problem "I can see that you are having trouble getting started"
  • quell any defensive reaction or confrontation by immediately reminding them of something they did well and what they should be doing, "last week you managed to finish the whole piece of work, and I was able to give you a gold star.  I know that you can settle to do some good work.  Once you have written the date and title, if you are unsure what to do, Patrick (helpful kid on the table who will be mostly finished by then) will be able to recap the instructions for you."
The next task was a problem page.  There were three letters from teachers who were having problems with aspects of behaviour management, and we had to choose one and respond to it.  The letter that I chose was about unprofessional staff-room talk.  In the staff-room the teachers were labelling a child based on their family background and were making generalisations about their behaviour.  In my response I suggested that, depending on the relationship with those particular members of staff I would either talk to them about whether or not this was appropriate, or I would ask for this issue to be discussed at a staff-meeting (without naming names) to underline how inappropriate, unfair and unhelpful such talk can be.

Finally, we watched a video clip of a teacher responding to some poor behaviour in her class, and commented what we thought she should have done differently.  That's where I'm up to so far.  Basically, we can't necessarily control what our pupils do in class, but we can control what we do, and if we make the right choices, then the likelihood of the pupils making the right choices is vastly improved.

It's striking me that there is plenty of transference here between behaviour management in the classroom and at home.  I can't make my son get dressed in the morning (technically I still can, I'm bigger and stronger than he is, but that's not a route I want to go down), but I can control my own emotional response to it, so that I don't end up going to work a ranting wobbling mess!

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Christmas is coming!

Yesterday on Facebook I saw a post from a friend saying that his wife had the Christmas cake in the oven, and we get to the sudden realisation that Christmas must be coming. 

I remember as a child that Christmas was not allowed to begin (i.e. talking about it, shopping for it, getting excited about it) until after Dad's birthday (20th November), which held back the craziness nicely.  We have a similar rule here chez Inkspots - Hubby's birthday is the 29th November.

Not quite that easy though.  Here are the things that thrust Christmas earlier onto our conscience:
  • THE SHOPS.  Yes, the Christmas things came out as soon as the Back to School things went away, shoulder to shoulder with Halloween delights.  Now that Halloween is out of the way they can go at Christmas with gusto!
  • MAIL ORDER.  Many of us now do the bulk of our Christmas shopping on-line, preferring an evening with the laptop and a glass of wine to the hot shops/ cold outdoors crush of pre-Christmas shopping (except maybe as a one-off to buy a couple of things and smugly sample the Gluwein at a Christmas market while raising your eyebrows at the antics of the non-mail-order shoppers).
  • CRAFTING.  Anybody who plans to make gifts for Christmas, table decorations, Advent calendars and so on will should already be well underway with their endeavours to have any hope of getting it all done in time.
  • SCHOOL.  If you're a parent you may well be aware that the children are already practising Christmas songs (that's me doing that!) and the Christmas play - all that starts straight after half term.  If your school is one of the many that sells Christmas cards designed by the children themselves, then your child will have designed their card weeks ago and you'll probably already have had to submit your order.  Teachers are right now planning what Christmas delights they will be making to send home with the children so that they can squeeze it all in with the Christmas play, carol concerts and maybe even a bit of reading and writing. 
  • FAMILY PLANS.  I've had the message from one sister asking for ideas for the children's gifts, to which I have duly responded, keeping a few ideas back for when my in-laws ask the same question nearer December, and one or two for me too.  We've made our plans of when we are visiting each part of the family over the Christmas period and where we'll be on Christmas Day, and have also got another invitation to reply to.
So far I've got as far as: 
  • preparing the Christmas songs to inflict on the children at school, 
  • contributed to the ideas for the Christmas production at school, 
  • planning the school PTA Christmas fair,
  • making a list of what I am going to gift each member of my family, highlighting things that need making,
  • planning our Christmas, including trying to work out when the best time will be to go to the supermarket... too early and the food will go off while we're away visiting the in-laws, leave it until we get back and it's OMG CHRISTMAS EVE AT THE SUPERMARKET!
I still need to:
  • plan what and when I'm going to cook or bake,
  • actually do something to help with the Christmas fair.
  • Sing the Christmas songs with the children at school so that we don't deafen the old folks at the residential home we are visiting at the beginning of December.
  • make stuff on my list,
  • buy stuff on my list,
  • write Christmas cards, and oh... everything else.... jingle, jingle... Christmas is a-coming!

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The teaching of Handwriting

I'm currently teaching handwriting to two different classes, Year 3/4 and Year 5/6.  Not quite satisfied that I was doing this in the best way I did a little research and came up with the post that follows.  I'm now planning my handwriting lessons for the rest of term, and am much more confident that the children will actually be improving their handwriting.

The Teaching of Handwriting – A progressive approach
The purpose of teaching handwriting is to enable children to communicate effectively in writing.  Their writing will be legible (easy to read), fluent (they can write reasonably quickly with a good flow) and comfortably (children who have not learned to handwrite properly or who employ poor posture often find writing painful as they become quite stiff).
The teaching of handwriting is often provided as a whole class activity, with children assiduously copying letters, joins or words from the board and repeating.  It is true that handwriting can only be achieved by regular practice.  It is also true, however, that children enter school with differing handwriting readiness.  Their motor skills both gross and fine are at different stages, and therefore their readiness to pick up a pencil and begin making marks and then letters will all be at different stages.  It is as important with handwriting as it is with reading that we take each child from their own starting point and provide the relevant practice to enable them to achieve success and to progress at their own pace.  Here then is a progression chart for handwriting (the first two stages are concurrent).  In your class, whatever the age group, assess the handwriting skills level of each child, group those on a similar level together for handwriting work, and provide the relevant activities to enable them to progress to the next level.  While in some classes the children may all be at a similar level, in others it will become clear that there are children attempting to join their handwriting who have still not mastered letter formation, or who are not yet forming their letters in a uniform size.  In younger classes you may have some children who still do not have the physical readiness for writing, and who are not yet ready for letter formation, certainly not trying to write on lined paper.  In handwriting lessons, while the copying and practice is very important, it is equally important for the Teacher or a Teaching Assistant to give direction and feedback on letter formation, sitting position, evenness of script, achieving smooth flow, and pencil grip.
Contrary to popular opinion, the advent of the tablet, the smart phone and the computer has not replaced the need for fluent, neat handwriting and this life skill needs to be taught with care and attention.  Children leaving primary school must be able to write without thinking about it, so that they can concentrate on the content of their writing.  Research also demonstrates that children with neat handwriting tend to feel better about their writing and are more motivated to write, and are also better at spelling.  Every child should be supported to develop good handwriting.

Activities to support progress
Developing core strength and stability, bilateral co-ordination, sensory perception, hand and finger dexterity – core strength and stability are required to develop posture and coordination; bilateral co-ordination allows the child to cross the body successfully; sensory perception allows the brain and fingers to communicate effectively about textures and pressures; hand and finger dexterity involves the ability to hold and manipulate objects of different sizes.
Curl-ups, balance along a ‘tight-rope’ line along the ground, walking up and down stairs.  ‘Simon says’ using left and right, rolling and catching and then gently throwing and catching a ball, touching left toes with right hand etc. Feely bag, tactile play, being able to press gently or hard into balls of playdough.  Picking up and holding small objects, two or three objects at a time.  Finger dancing.  Rolling and releasing dice.  Cutting things up with scissors, moving on to accurately cutting out shapes.
Mark Making (these two stages run concurrently as children will be beginning to make marks while still developing their physical readiness).
Provide tools in a wide range of thicknesses as the child is developing their dexterity, they will be able to choose thick or thin brushes, crayons and pencils.  Provide sand trays to trace in, large sheets of paper and paper with widely spaced lines or squares.  Provide vertical or sloped writing surfaces as well as horizontal.  Trace large scale shapes and patterns.
Pre-handwriting patterns.  These establish the correct pull and push movements for all the shapes which make up the letters.
Teach correct pencil grip (sometime between age 4 and 6), and establish a good table height and sitting position for writing.  Trace over shapes and patterns.  These can start at quite large scale and then gradually become smaller and finer.  Patterns will include waves, circles, vertical and horizontal lines and circles. 
Letter formation – letters should be taught in groups based on the shape, rather than in alphabetical order.  Once the letter shape and how to form it has been established the children move through these stages as their fine motor skills develop.
Tracing over and forming letters with plasticine or playdough, in sand or salt trays, with whipped cream, on large pieces of plain paper.  Lower case letters (plus capital for their name), then numbers, then upper case letters.
Tracing over and copying letters on widely spaced lines.
Tracing over and copying letters on narrower lines.
Letter joins – a child is ready to start joining their writing when they are consistently forming their letters correctly, positioning them correctly on the line and maintaining a uniform size
Teach and practice each of the four main join types one at a time.  Diagonal join e.g. a-i, a-r, u-n, i-r, i-g, m-a, a-d; upper horizontal join, e.g. o-u, o-v, v-i, w-i, w-o, o-n, o-x; lower join to tall letter, e.g. a-b, u-l, i-t, t-h, b-l, l-l, l-k, e-b; higher join to tall letter, e.g. o-l, r-t, o-b, r-k, w-l; special joins f-f, f-t.  Break letters z (before) and g, j, q, y, and x (after)
Join whole words together.  It can be helpful here for the children to practice handwriting with their spelling words, developing two skills in one.
Developing fluency and style – Children can be encouraged to slope their handwriting slightly and to develop their own handwriting style.
Copying poems or making neater copies of their work for presentation.
Some key points in handwriting:
·         Pencils must be sharp
·         Short pencils (below 8cm) should be discarded.
·         Sit up properly with chair upright (not rocking).
·         Writing surface can be tilted to the left (right handers) or right (left handers) but by no more than 45 degrees.  The non-dominant hand should be on the table in a supportive position.
·         A clutter free table is best.
·         Left handed children should always sit on the left side of the desk

Children can be taught to be self-critical and even pedantic with their handwriting.  When working with a group, expect them to copy EXACTLY, and nothing less, as this will avoid any poor habits being deemed as acceptable.  As long as the work is pitched correctly for their ability and motor control then they will be able to succeed and will look with pride on their improved writing.