Sunday, 30 November 2014

Silent Sunday

 Ok I know Silent Sunday is supposed to be one pic, but I liked these fungi pics too

Friday, 28 November 2014

Fit for Christmas

I don't do New Year's Resolutions to lose weight.  This is not because I don't need to lose weight, but because it's a really rubbish time of year for motivation and willpower - in the UK January is the coldest month of the year and my birthday also falls a couple of weeks after Christmas so any strict healthy eating plan would fall over as soon as the birthday cake starts calling to me.

We try to strike a balance between eating healthily and being able to enjoy treats as a treat, with the hope that this sets an example for a good relationship with food for the kids.  However, for the last couple of years in the run up to Christmas I have cut back my treats and increased my exercise in order to lose around 7lbs so I can go into the season of temptation without feeling bad every time I'm offered a mince pie or a cream drenched lump of Christmas pudding.  I can feel my clean eating friends wincing, but experience has shown me the limit of my will power and I'd rather end Christmas the same weight I started November than 7lbs heavier.  I'm over 3 stone lighter than I was in 2005 (42lbs) which I'm really pleased with for the benefits to my health and my wardrobe, especially given the 5 stone (70lb) I gained and lost during and after my pregnancies means a total loss during this 10 year period of 8 stone (112lb).  I don't want one season of festivity to derail this slow trend towards a healthy weight.

This year I have a new assistant in my fight against the flab. I received the stunning Ozeri Touch II digital bathroom scale last week and have been thoroughly impressed with it.  My old bathroom scales were as embarrassing as my waistline and as rusty as my joints, so to receive a good looking new set of scales was a real treat.  My old scales also only measured weight, which was useful for tracking changes and working out BMI, but so last century in terms of what we expect of modern bathroom scales.

The Ozeri bathroom scales are just as beautifully designed and well made as their other products. Ozeri made their name as a company supplying luxury hotel apartments, relying on the quality of the products to sell themselves to the visitors on these exclusive club holidays.  Now they have brought the same quality and design to the general market. According to their website they are the first manufacturer to champion the use of Microban antibacterial coating on bathroom scales, so they will remain hygienic and fresh smelling even if the feet standing on them are not.

The new scales are accurate to the scale of ounces (or grams if you prefer) which I tested by weighing myself, then stepping on again holding a 7 ounce bowl which I had previously weighed on my kitchen scales.  They also measure the percentage of body fat, water and muscle, plus give an estimate of bone weight.  A handy guide booklet is provided to look up what a healthy level of each is considered to be.  This was the bit I really liked - although my BMI puts me in the obese band, the measurement of my body fat (37.5% on my first weigh-in) dropped me into the next band of 'overweight' rather than obese. I could see from the scales that I was dehydrated, that I need to increase my muscle mass a little, but that my bone weight is almost double the minimum considered healthy for my weight band.  I am genuinely heavy boned (although undeniably also heavy fatted).

Curiously, it showed that Matt, who is from a visual inspection just perfect, is actually further below his minimum healthy muscle level than I am,  My days of running around after busy little lads who often want a carry home afterwards must be better for the muscle mass than working in an office, although since he is 2 stones lighter than me and has less than half as much body fat by percentage, I don't think he's too worried.

The scales are also useful for weighing the boys every so often for their growth charts.  Although this is something I don't worry about it's nice when the numbers confirm the evidence of my eyes that the boys are growing up strong and healthy and following their expected growth curves.  For much older children the other measurement functions can also be used.

The extra information from these elegant high tempered glass scales is now forming the basis of my plan of action to shift those pre-Christmas pounds.  I can see that I need to increase my hydration, so have started drinking an extra 2 pints of water a day, split into 4 servings.  I need to increase my muscle mass a little, so will ramp up the weight bearing exercise to include an extra run on the sea front with the kids as soon as I shift the cold I picked up from them. This will also help to maintain my healthy bone density.  Perhaps I should follow Toby's lead by finding the heaviest stones on the beach to throw in the sea to tone my arms and increase lean muscle there. I will also continue to resist the post-study late-night toast cravings.

So far in the week since receiving the scales and implementing just the extra water and toast reduction elements of my plan I have lost 2lb 4oz, and a little over half a percent of my body fat, plus have increased my percentage water by 2%.  Interestingly, after just a few days of reduced activity due to my cold I could also see my muscle decreasing - down by 1% in a very rapid space of time, emphasizing the importance of daily exercise.  The scales have a feature I have never seen before too - when you set your initial details such as height, age and gender you can also select the option 'male athlete' or 'female athlete' - a great addition as I'm sure folk who are more muscular than the average person get annoyed by having a high BMI when they know that they are heavier but not overweight.

For my own health as well as to provide the kids with a good role model who is able to keep up with them as they grow taller and faster I am glad of this extra boost to the healthy plan.  I have measured myself every day this week as part of my trial of the product, but from here on in I will be stepping on less regularly and enjoying the weekly treat of seeing muscle go up and fat go down.  For all those amazing folk out there who enjoy stronger will power than me and do head into January with good resolutions, this set of scales would be a good present to yourself for Christmas.

Note: I received the scales for free in order to review them, but opinions given, embarrassingly high body fat stated and gorgeous cheeky boys are all my own.  I just had a look on Amazon and the scales are currently (28/11/14) on sale at 57% off and have free delivery.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Learning at the zoo

We are very fortunate to have a wonderful gift from my in-laws each year - membership of our local zoo.  Drusillas would be hideously expensive if we weren't members, but with that precious plastic membership card we can go several times a year, usually at least once a month.

The learning opportunities this presents changes as the boys grow.  What started out as a lovely place to see small zoo animals and pets, with a Thomas ride and a great adventure play park, has grown into a place to explore geography, habitats and adaptations.

On our visit yesterday we addressed the following themes:

  • Geography and habitat: looking at the maps on the information boards for each animal and talking about where it lived and what it's habitat was
  • Adaptations of feet to animal's lifestyle, e.g. how the rhinoceros iguana had sharp claws for climbing, the monkeys had dexterous hands and feet for climbing and handling food, the meerkats paws were adapted for digging
  • Adaptations of eye orientation depending on whether the animal was a predator or a prey species - eyes in front for predators and on the sides of the head for prey species who need to see a predator creeping up behind them
  • Fur adaptation - Ollie was curious when stroking a pygmy goat why it had soft fur near it's skin and wiry fur on the outside, so we talked about properties of fur and feathers such as insulation and waterproofing
  • Adaptations of tails for balance and climbing as in the monkeys, and for communication in the ring tailed lemurs who use a combination of boldly contrasting banding on the tail and scents applied to it to communicate as they hold their tails up vertically as they walk along.
  • Animal's diet - exploring what each animal ate, how it was similar or different to us and any adaptations to that diet, for example there is a nice model of a cow's teeth and digestive system at the zoo.  We also talked about how the flamingo's diet of shrimps contains carotenoid pigments, similar to those that give carrots their orange colour, and that the flamingo stores these in it's feathers, turning them pink.
  • Animal sizes, Toby liked shouting biggest and smallest answering questions about the cut out models of the world's biggest and smallest pig species for example.
  • Camouflage and warning - we looked at different examples of animal colouring including the well camouflaged stick insects versus the warning colours of the corn snake (mimicking a venomous species).
Some of these topics I am familiar with because I am by original training an environmental biologist, and by inclination a naturalist, but even if I had walked in off the street with no pre-existing knowledge the interpretation boards for each animal give a huge amount of information which can be shared with children, in addition to the important skill of just carefully watching and listening to the animal (and in a few cases even touching them).

We didn't walk around with a clipboard of questions to answer, but this was as sure an educational trip as any you might go on with school, where kids rush to fill in their booklet so they can dive into the gift shop.  The principles of stop, look, think, question, discuss, read, listen, explore are important ones to gently guide children into, with which every trip becomes a more interesting one, stimulating ideas and knowledge.  Plus at the end we spent the afternoon in the play park climbing and sliding and jumping, so that's got to tick the 'physical activity in an outside space' box that kids of the age mine are probably need more than all the rest of it.

So well done Toby, for insisting yesterday morning 'we go zoo today, we see mammals and ride on Thomas' ('mammals' is how he says 'animals' - it made me chuckle that he was being apparently anti-bird when we were watching the penguins and he dragged us away saying 'no more penguin, we see more mammals now').  Especially since now I'm stuck home today with a stinking cold and a deadline looming for an assignment on seawater.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

How to introduce sight reading high frequency words

There are two main techniques by which children learn to read.  The first is one which anyone who learned to read before the 1970s will be most familiar with -  'sight reading'.  This is the technique by which children acquire reading skills by, for example, being read to by an adult who is running their finger along under the word. The child starts to assign meaning to the shape of the whole word by seeing it at the same time as hearing it, or by looking at books with the word under a picture e.g. first alphabet books with 'A is for apple' and so on.

The second technique familiar to younger generations is that of 'synthetic phonics', where letters are pronounced as letter sounds 'a' for example is 'ah' not 'ay' and children are taught to 'sound out' as they go 'cuh, ah, tuh says cat' and then progress to learning combined sounds for example 'tuh and huh says thu' (I haven't written this quite correctly as the long 'tuh' pronunciation isn't used, it is a much shorter sound, but I use it here so you don't read it as 'tee').  This is useful for basic words and for teaching in large groups, and has fans and critics in almost equal measure.  The critics have a point in that English is a largely non-phonetic language - consider for example the pronunciations of the 'ough' combination of letters: 'dough' (dohw), 'tough' (tuff) and many others.  Phonics is generally useful however, and this is the method by which school children are taught to start with.  

Even if phonics is used early on, at some point children need to move on to sight reading, for the sake of speed and the comprehension of a text that can only come with a fluid pace of reading.  The first words which children need to learn to sight read are generally what are known as 'high frequency words', i.e. those that crop up over and over again, and which often also fall into the category of 'tricky words' because they are hard to sound out phonetically.  The word 'the' is a perfect example.  Pure repetition is generally the way these words are learned, which can often be very time consuming and if done through pages of the same word written over and over, or through flashcards, is disengaging to young readers through it's sheer boredom factor.

This is where a former teachers great company Love2Read comes in with an ideal solution.  By choosing from a variety of topics such as 'I love...', inserting your own family photos and writing a short line of text below the photos, children have their very own reading book which they will come back to time and time again because the topic material is personal to them. They are able to link the written words to the images they love, and repetition of such a book is a joy rather than a bore.

 We chose the title 'memories of 2014' but there was a wide range of other ideas, such as producing a book about a family member, or a holiday, or your own creation entirely.  The website was really simple to use and gave clear instructions for each easy step.

The amount of text you can write beneath each picture is quite limited, which is perfect because it keeps you on track in making simple descriptions to assist you child's reading, rather than getting carried away and producing an essay.  When the book arrived we were really pleased with the good quality glossy finish and the size, which was ideal for small hands but large enough to be able to clearly see the text and pictures.  The boys were hugely excited to see themselves in print in a real book just for them, and especially so as it coincidentally arrived just in time for Ollie's 5th birthday.  As well as being a wonderful gift to produce yourself, you can even buy gift vouchers to give an opportunity to someone special in your life to make their own book.

I have no doubt that this resource is going to contribute greatly to our learning adventure, as well as being a lovely reference to help remember this time in our lives.

Note: this post includes a review of Love2Read and their lovely book, which we received for free in order to review it, but opinions given and cheeky Tigers are all my own.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Why do people home educate their children?

I've previously talked about our own reasons to home educate, but I have recently been following a number of conversations on home education forums where the issue of 'why' has been discussed at great length and I thought it would be interesting to set out the main reasons given.  Many families home educate because they feel that this is a lovely time they want to share with their children, but others are pushed out of the mainstream by a whole host of perceived problems.  This article is very much looking at the negative reasons for the choices, I know this does a disservice to the many positive reasons why people choose to educate at school or at home, and I can only apologise for that and promise a more positive article in future.  Since this is all drawn from recent discussions on the forums, the reasons were however by far weighted towards the negative reasons, and so this is what I am reflecting here.

By far the largest response to the question 'why do you home educate' was lack of special educational needs provision in schools, lack of good training of teachers in this area and children suffering as a result of it.  The needs were wide ranging, including life limiting progressive conditions, frequent illnesses, conditions such as diabetes, physical needs, emotional issues and 'ADD'.  The most frequent need quoted that was not dealt with well in school was regarding children on the Autistic Spectrum, with large classrooms, large schools and poor teacher training being given as the main issues.  There were stories of children being battered and bruised by being physically restrained during rages brought on by the unsuitable environment, and of parents being treated like the problem rather than partners in their child's education.  A particularly worrying lack seemed to be in staff's awareness of children's illnesses.  This is something I experienced myself as a teacher - the parents would carefully fill out all the health information when they registered the child, which was available in a file in an office for the form tutor to note down, but the information wasn't given to subject teachers and cover teachers were particularly in the dark - an issue I raised several times.  The solutions to these problems would include simply better staff training with SEN being a core subject during teacher training rather than just an option, but my old bugbear of schools and classes being too big are an issue here too.

This is a shame because when schools are properly set up and run for inclusiveness or as specialist schools they are a fantastic environment to provide children with an individualised plan to support their educational, emotional and social development and work in partnership with parents to provide strategies that can be used at home to support the child's progress.  It can be done well, but the hundreds of families pushed into home education who had intended to have their children educated at school is testament to the lack of provision and understanding in this area.

The second largest area of concern was bullying.  Gone are the days when a child would be expelled for assaulting another child.  Now schools are judged on retention, paid bonuses for taking violent children expelled from other schools and issues of behaviour management are firmly in the classroom teachers area of responsibility rather than that of the family or the senior management.  The bullying I experienced at primary school - the name calling, silent treatment, exclusion - made me miserable enough, but the bullying of today goes far beyond this.  Children are being home educated after being subjected to nothing less than daily torture, with beatings and physical violence such as being stabbed with compasses and slammed into desks being commonly reported.  'Cyberbullying' was also mentioned, with children receiving vicious abuse, even death threats, and having their torment in school filmed and put on the internet.  A friend who teaches recently brought to my attention the phenomenon of 'banter' where every verbal or physical assault challenged by a teacher is met with a shrug of the shoulders and the recommendation that the teacher 'calms down - it's only banter'.  In some cases the teachers themselves were the bullies, with constant criticism and sarcasm being used.  Children as young as 5 were stated as having been withdrawn from school because they were depressed, self harming, talking about wanting to be dead.  Parents talked about having spent years repairing the damage and getting their children back to the happy, confident, keen learners they had dropped off at the school gates at 4 years old.

This seems an insane situation, where the quiet studious kids are forced out of schools and the education they crave because the bullies who have no intention of opening a book are the ones who are pandered to, rewarded and praised.  Every child has the right to an education in safety, whether at home or at school and as much as I believe every child can be supported to behave in a considerate way, our current school system doesn't seem to foster that.  It is undoubted that many of the bullies are victims in their own right - perhaps of neglect, disinterested parents, abuse at home, but this does not give any child the right to make the lives of other children a misery.

The age of school entry was a third large reason, with many parents stating their belief that 4 was far too young to start school, especially for the summer born children who were closer to 4 than 5 when they start full days in September. A few schools, at the discretion of the head, still offer settling in terms of part days, but this is increasingly uncommon.  Even 5 is felt to be too young by many, with the trend for starting formal education at 7 in the countries with the best standards for literacy and numeracy in Europe being given as proof of this.  Daily homework was a complaint, especially in light of research which shows that it actually damaged young children's learning.  Restricted movement and opportunities to spend time playing and being outside was also a concern of parents with primary aged children.  Age structuring of classes was also mentioned, in that in no other place would you expect to spend all your time with people the same age as you - in social situations and in the workplace you have friends and colleagues of every age.  The one size fit all approach is a concern, both in terms of what children should be achieving and who they mix with - we all know 6 year olds who are happier in the company of smaller children, and others who prefer to make friends with older kids and adults.

Bright kids were another group that were commonly home educated - 'my child was told they were naughty, but they were bored because they had done everything'.  What do many overstretched teachers do with a bright kid who has finished their page of sums?  They give them another page of the same kind of things - an approach that can make kids feel like they are being punished for being quick.  What do they do to the child who always has his hand up to answer questions?  They ridicule them by using 'that tone of voice' to say that there are actually other children in the class, always pick them last to answer, make them feel like a nuisance.  All things that can be avoided by decent teacher training and providing support with differentiated lesson planning and questioning techniques.

Another concern was that children were not having their basic needs met - not being allowed to go to the toilet as needed, not having access to water, being hungry.  Hassle from schools over children needing to be home ill from school was mentioned - including the recent instructions to parents in Wales of the list of conditions that the child should not be kept home from school with, including glandular fever!  With my own little ones poorly this week, I was certainly glad that I didn't have to phone them in sick to school and nursery while trying to get a doctors appointment at the same time.  I'm also glad that with Toby having been on a nebuliser twice, and prescribed antibiotics, steroids and an inhaler I didn't have to drag him out in the rain to take Ollie (who also had a cold) to school.  Being educated at home gives the kids permission to be ill, to recover properly, to go to the park for some air in the afternoon if they feel better without worrying about being spotted out and about having been taken out of school sick.

None of this is intended as a slur against teachers, this is just an overview of the most common reasons why kids were taken out of school, or never sent.  The over riding theme was that the children were miserable and failing to thrive.  My own opinion is that since our national wellbeing and economic success in the future depends on these children that are being made so miserable at school, it should be an absolute priority to provide safe, inclusive, academically and socially good schools for those who want the option.  Class sizes should be capped at 20 to give teachers the chance to actually get to know their students, provide for their individual needs and mark properly (tick and flick marking gathers data, it does not support learning), schools should be small enough that the Head knows every child (I've worked at a big school were the Head didn't even know the names of the rapidly turning over staff, never mind the kids, a big difference to the schools I attended where the Head greeted each of us by name), violence should never be tolerated, teachers should feel valued, have good training, including in special educational needs of all kinds such as supporting educationally high potential students and those with statemented issues, and they should be allowed to offer a wide curriculum with literacy and numeracy integrated into creative and investigative projects,

Even if every school was a safe, welcoming environment there would still be lots of families choosing to home educate, and I don't want to give the impression that home education is a 'second best' always chosen by families with no other choice.  However, there do seem to be an increasing wave of families voting with their feet because they can't bear to see their children suffering and this is not fair to anyone.  Since it costs the Government around £6,000 per year to educate each child at school, I'm not sure that they have the will to reverse the trend for home education, especially in light of new research that shows how well home educated children do academically and how they contribute to the workforce and society as adults.  In one study in Canada I read about for example it was found that not one adult who had been home educated was claiming social security benefits, and the percentage of the population who participated in weekly social and sports clubs was far higher in adults who had been home educated.

This all sounds as if I'm very anti-school - I'm not.  The right school, with the right staff, can be an amazing place for learning and growing, and many schools are trying their best to put children first despite all the restrictions and counterproductive initiatives thrown at them.  I'm also not anti home education - it's not always something forced on people, and when it is for the vast majority it is in the end the best outcome for the children involved.  I'd just like to know that every family has a genuine choice between the different and equally good forms of education.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Little engineers - how to make a junk robot toy

I have written before about the shortage of STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) graduates in the UK.  I think a great deal of the reason that people don't choose to study these subjects is partly because they are perceived as hard, but also there is a perception that they are boring.

This image of these subjects as hard and boring can overcome if you get to the roots of what a scientist is - an adult who never lost the curiosity in the world that a child has before they get indoctrinated to learn 'old facts' and not ask questions.  There is also the problem that most people don't know what people in these professions actually do - I'm studying Oceanography as part of my degree - currently a section on seawater, and was surprised that by funny coincidence this happens to be what Matt is studying as part of his Masters degree in Engineering.

There is an additional problem now in UK schools in that
children are underdeveloped in certain areas including those to do with
volumes, weights, measures and strengths because they increasingly have no contact with real objects in their play.  Children know how to swish a screen, but have no idea how to make a model that balances without falling over, or make estimates on whether a thing will be heavy or light, weak or strong.  According to a lady I talked to in the summer who gathers information on such things, a growing number of children are now what would have been classed as 'developmentally delayed' in the 70's because they lack such instincts.  Kids are afraid to try things out because they lack the confidence that would normally come from the repetitive play of childhood - handling objects, pouring liquids, building things.

As usual the answer isn't rocket science (pun intended), it's play with real objects.  We have a long history in the UK (and as a species) of inventing things by tinkering about with materials, and this is at the heart of helping your child to develop their creative and scientific abilities.

 The process is really simple - start with a problem that you want to overcome (plus a box full of junk such as old cereal packets, and some glue and tape).  In our case Ollie's problem was that he didn't want Daddy to go to work because he wanted him to stay home and build a tower with him.  The solution he came up with was to invent a robot that could go to work and do Daddy's job for him.  The boys worked cooperatively to put their robot together - Ollie in charge of the tape dispenser because Toby always loses the end of the tape, Toby in charge of putting tape everywhere.  They quickly found that one off-center leg caused the robot to topple over, so they had to find another box the same size to give the robot two legs.  Likewise with the arms - when they tried a big box for an arm the robot fell over, so cardboard tubes were used instead.  The last balancing lesson came with the head - sticking a box to the front unbalanced the robot, so an egg box on the top was decided on.

When happy with the shape, Ollie then pointed out that the robot needed to be metal, so I brought out the foil and the boys wrapped their robot.  Ollie wanted to know how we could be tearing metal since metal is strong, so we talked about how the strength of a material is relative to it's thickness.  He then wanted to know how it was made, so we had a quick search for a video of it being made - there's a great show 'How it's made' which has lots of episodes on YouTube - I searched 'How it's made Aluminium Foil' and quickly found a video showing how the big block of Aluminium had impurities removed, then was solidified again, the block of pure aluminium was then sent many times through heated rollers which pressed it to 5mm, before it was sent through cold rollers which pressed it to the very thin final product.

The final stage of the robot was to make it move and think, but Ollie conceded that he would have to do that bit later when he was 'a bit older and bigger'.

If you look at the actual skills involved though in this simple creative play session it's impressive what kids this age achieve.  They have worked cooperatively and with a high degree of perseverance to produce a toy that looks the way they want and can stand up without falling over - the ability to make an object balance requires an understanding of weight, shape and forces (even if they wouldn't know by these terms that this is what they know).  When something didn't work they searched for a solution both by trial and error and by using their existing knowledge from previous play.  They used their imagination to visualize what they thought a robot should look like, then tried things out until they found a configuration that both looked like their imagined robot and was structurally strong enough to play with.  They researched materials.  They even seemed to understand that this was a prototype and would require further development when they had greater knowledge and skills in the future.  This is no different to what a design engineer or a host of other STEM professionals do in their jobs.

I've chucked a lot of analytic words at describing what they were doing, not to look like I'm over analysing every element of children's play but rather to give an idea of the fact that play is science, and science is play, so lets raise kids who are confident tinkerers and understand that STEM careers are just as fun and accessible to them as any of the other fantastic professions they could aspire to.