21st Century Learning

>> Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Who can place this quote:

"... your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not that they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."*

I remembered this quote today when I was having a conversation  with a friend and we found ourselves pondering this question: how much screen time do our children get each day?

In fact, how much screen time does YOUR child get each day?

I'm asking this not because I'm trying to make you feel guilty about the kids flopping down in front of the tv the moment they walk through the door at the end of their school day, or to make judgements about the games they may be playing on the ipad, x-box or pc in their room right now.  No, I'm asking this because I suddenly realised during the conversation I mentioned that I don't know the answer to this question myself.

That is because the amount of tv / computer time that my children get at home each day is, in fact, only one piece of the jigsaw; for 8 hours of every weekday during term time my children are not at home.  They are at school, in an educational environment where, more and more, online resources are an integral part of the teaching lexicon.

And that's fine, that's wonderful.  There are now ways for teachers to enhance our children's learning experiences to a degree that was never even dreamt of when we - the pre-Internet generation - were at school.  Want to know about the recent landing on the comet?  It's there in glorious technicolour, tattooed genius engineers and all, at the click of the button.  Need to teach your class the life-cycle of whales or the migratory pattern of puffins?  Instantly accessible, engaging, and entertaining footage is only the correct search engine term away.  Want your class to research the history of the US War of Independence for a project on national autonomy?  Well, there's no need to send them to the school library or ask them to turn to the relevant page of their dry and dusty text book any more, is there?  You just get your pupils to reach for the nearest handy electronic device (be it school or parent supplied), and ask Dr Google (or the school-approved safe content guaranteed equivalent) to provide the relevant information.

And this is great, this is liberating, this is what the internet does brilliantly.

Except.  Scientists frequently tell us that there are limits to the amount of time that a child - with their growing, emerging, fragile brain and all the establishing neural pathways and synapses it consists of - should spend in front of any kind of a screen each day.  Guidelines vary with each new study but that's immaterial since how are we, as parents, expected to gauge what actually is a 'safe' amount of time for our children to spend using a laptop or similar at home when we have no idea how much time they have already spent doing the same thing at school?

Sure, the on-screen content they have been looking at in school may have been 'educational' - but does that actually make any difference?  Does the part of the brain that deals with cognitive development analyse the information that's coming in from the screen in front of it and make a judgement call on whether or not the length of time the child has been looking it is harmful, saying to itself  'Oh, it's about the lifecycle of an amoeba.  That's educational - part of the National Curriculum.  No need to worry about that screwing with the formation of my synapses, then'?

So when he got home from school this afternoon I asked my 11 year old son how much time he had spent in front of the computer today.  He reckoned 45 minutes in his maths lesson, 45 minutes in foreign language, and 30-45 minutes doing research for a current school project.  Unusually there was no writing on computers required for language arts today, so that was it - in school hours.  But add on the approximate 30 minutes he spent online this morning before school catching up on homework, and the 30 minutes doing the same thing this evening, and we are at, let's see, more than 3 hours on the computer today.

And that's without any screen-based game time or watching any tv (because we simply didn't have time for that), so I reckon it's actually a light day.

Which leads me to my ultimate question, I suppose.  Parents are constantly being asked to take responsibility for the amount of electronic input that their children's brains receive, and I'm happy to do that; I want to do that; it's my job.  But is anyone asking schools to factor the same calculations into their lesson plans and to take a similar level of responsibility in safeguarding their pupils' brain development?

Technology is the future.  It's the way ahead, an inescapable fact of life.  But schools need to work with parents on this whole issue of screen time, because it seems to me that there's a disconnect between what they consider acceptable educational practice and what we at home are expected to allow in terms of safe amounts of access.

*Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park - you can see the fantastic scene where he uses this line here.  Vintage Spielberg.



>> Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Yesterday it was Remembrance Day in the UK (and in various other nations around the world, I know).  I had hoped to take the Boys to see the amazing installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London when we were in the UK a week or so ago, but heavy traffic and a late-running doctors' appointment meant we didn't make it. Life, as ever, got in the way.

However, yesterday Boy #2 came home from school to tell me how his teacher (a South African) had shown them footage from Sunday's ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall London, regaling me with his tale as if it related to events from ancient history rather than to commemorate something that happened within still-living memory.

"The ceremony happened at 11 o'clock, Mum."  Do you know why that was, I asked.  He didn't, so I explained about the significance of the 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month.  He nodded sombrely.  "They had rows of soldiers, Mum, all saluting" he said in a low voice, as if to emphasise the importance of what he was telling me.  "The Queen laid a wreath, and then a man shouted something, and all the soldiers stamped.  Then, they played a tune on trumpets that didn't have any buttons on the top."

Cornets, I said.  They were called 'cornets'.

And I was momentarily transported back to when I was similar age and listening to the Last Post being played on various chilly November mornings throughout the years.  My sister and I used to march with our Brownie pack (and later, as Girl Guides) along with veterans, civilians, the mayor and town council, the cubs, the boy scouts, the local army, RAF and naval cadets, and so on in a parade through the very small town where I grew up, every year on whichever Sunday fell closest to 11th November.  We walked from the parish church to the town square, where a stone cross embellished with the names of the local men who had fallen in World Wars I and II stood by the doctor's surgery and bus shelter, and each of the organisations represented laid their flag and a wreath on the steps of the memorial.

It seemed to me, at 8 years old standing in my best coat and uniform listening to the 2 minute silence, that the streets were heaving with poppy-wearing people who had come to pay their respects.  I used to catch the bus to school from the memorial every week day and on the days that I wasn't wrapped in my own thoughts I remember marvelling at how short some of the lives commemorated on the stone had been; only 16 or 17 years long, in a couple of cases.  And I especially remember that even at 8, 9, 10 years old I was struck by the horror and the pathos of realising that some family names were repeated - 3, or 4 times in some cases - denoting the fact that multiple members of the same family were commemorated as having died during the same war.  Imagine being their sibling, I thought then.  Imagine being their mother, I think now.

It seems so impossible to us; the white-hot fervour that drove entire families of young men to enlist.  From our relatively safe 21st century existence, I don't think many of us can imagine it.  But then, because 100 years ago - and more recently - they did, I don't have to.

Back in 2014, Boy #2 was still talking to me in the same low, insistent, serious voice.  "And then we heard a poem, Mum.  I can't remember the words, but they were good..."

Did it go; 'They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.'?  I asked.

"Yes!  That was it exactly!"

And I was struck yet again how many key milestones from my childhood are not present in my sons' lives.  There's little of that here, you see.  I'm not saying that the Russians don't venerate and respect their war dead, they absolutely do.  But the key difference is that the calendar date on which they do so is not called 'Remembrance Day' or 'Armistice Day'.  It's called 'Victory Day', and that is the aspect that is publicly celebrated.  It's more about military parades than about standing in silence, so that's what the Boys have known for the last 5 years.

For some reason I rarely went a Remembrance ceremony in the UK once I became an adult.  I can't think why; I suspect that I simply allowed Life to get in the way.  I hope, though, that if we return to the UK perhaps that might change, and my sons will get the chance to appreciate the value of standing in silence for 2 minutes to honour those who have died in their country's service.  In the meantime I'm going to reproduce the relevant stanza of the poem that the Ode to Remembrance is taken from.

Lest I forget.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon; 'For the Fallen'.


The curse of Halloween; I'm just going to come right out and say it...

>> Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Want to hear a rather unfashionable secret?

Deep breath.

I hate Halloween.

There, I said it.  And if you want to accuse me of being a boring old fuddy duddy, go ahead, I really don't care.  It's not that I hate the Halloween I grew up with, you understand.  No, it's more that I hate the way that we (as in, those of us who didn't grow up in North America) are being shoe-horned, cajoled and emotionally blackmailed, however you want to put it, into the Hallmark-isation of what was previously a low key event on our festive calendars.

As a kid growing up in the UK during the far distant days of the 1970's and 80's (or as Boy #2 so charmingly put it yesterday, 'The Olden Times'), Halloween was celebrated, but slightly differently.  It saw a profusion of pipe cleaner spiders festooned across classroom windows, the exuberant use of black and orange sugar paper, perhaps a small pumpkin Jack o' Lantern at the window, and maybe a school event or a party featuring apple bobbing*, iced ring doughnuts hanging from string**, and teens or adults running a Dark Room*** which you went into to be scared, if you dared.  And if the grown-up running the festivities was particularly imaginative they might turn out the lights, put a candle in the middle of the floor, and in a suitably sepulchral voice tell a story that began 'Once upon a time, in a dark dark room, in a dark dark house....' and so on.

There might - MIGHT - be call to dress up at said party, but generally a black cape with a touch of glitter and a home-made black witch's hat made out of black card, or a white sheet destined for a second life as a duster doing temporary service for Halloween with holes cut for eyes would do the job.

But spending a small fortune on plastic tat to dress your child up as some kind of monster or ghoul, or walking around knocking on strangers' doors begging for sweets?

*Assumes best Lady Grantham stare*

I think not.

However, my point of view on this matter is extremely unfashionable, especially living where we do right now.  'Little America' doesn't begin to cover it when we are talking about October 31st.  So rather than following my instincts and locking the doors before turning the lights off, I grit my teeth, stock up on on enough 'candy' (SWEETS!  They are SWEETS!) to sink a battle ship, and turn my children loose on neighbours who are far more excited about this event than I am and who are generous enough to allow my kids to experience a Halloween more suited to the one the kids take part in in 'E.T.' than the paltry celebrations I grew up with.

This year it was a little more challenging; we had unseasonably cold weather in Moscow on the night it was celebrated (because, you know, half term and all that), and the temperature on the Halloween Trail was a balmy -7degC.  As you can imagine, that rather put paid to some of the more adventurous costumes.  It didn't slow Boy #1 down, mind you.  He disappeared with a couple of friends wearing a viking helmet and brandishing a plastic axe (a very practical nod to dressing up, I thought, what with also needing to wear snow gear due to the freezing temperatures) and turned up blue-lipped and shivering an hour later, clutching a bag of booty and grinning from ear to ear.  

Boy #2?  He's more like me.  I think we made it to 2 houses, where he accumulated a grand total of 4 pieces of candy (Candy? See? They've got me at it now...) before telling me it was just too cold, that he had enough, and anyway, he wasn't interested in the sweets on offer.

"Because, well, none of them are 70% chocolate, mum."

Chip off the old block, that boy.  Now.  Anyone for apple bobbing? No?

This post was inspired by my good bloggie mate over at Talk About York.  Solidarity, sister!

*Apple bobbing: fill a bucket or barrel with water, float apples in the top, and children need to pick them out with their teeth.  And yes, there are germs.  Adds to the excitement, I suppose...

** Iced doughnuts hanging from string, have to be eaten with your hands behind your back.  And why not?

***Dark Room: Take one darkened room, add a number of plates covered with black cloth and invite the children to lift the cloths to put their hands underneath to feel the eyeballs (peeled grapes), intestines (sausages), maggots (chopped up cooked spaghetti).  Such fun!


Big A's Culinary Adventures

>> Thursday, 23 October 2014

This is another post from my sis on fb.  It just made me spit tea all over the keyboard, so wanting to bask in the reflection of her glory (yet again), I have nicked it for your reading pleasure.

A bit of background: my sister (the former blogger known as Footballer's Knees) lives with her husband Big A, and 18 year old son, J.  Once a week she spends the night away from home on business - no prizes for guessing which day that is...

Big A's food baby is hanging around, despite frequent grym visits, so his personal trainer has suggested that he keeps a Food Diary for a week. Here follows my imagining of that diary:

This is the food what I have eaten this week, by Big A:
Dear Diary, tonight we had super noodles and potato waffles and crispy pancakes cos it was Boys Teas. Mmmn, lush, brill. J said he wished we could eat that every night and I said yep but we wouldn't be allowed because of the bad fat. And then we were sad until Defiance came on. Style.
Dear Diary, today the grown up was back so I had to eat boring healthy food, yuck. I said that it made me a bit sick in my mouth and she got cross so I had to stay at the table and miss New Girl.
Dear Diary, tonight it was Lamb Tagine and something called Cush Cush which tasted like tiny ants' brains. Diary, I tried to eat it but it was totally disgusting and I had to keep it in my mouth and then go to the toilet and spit it out. J saw me and I had to pay for his petrol so he wouldn't tell.
DD, tea tonight was so lush, we got a curry. And poppadoms. And naan. And beer. And special rice. I was a bit tired afterwards and I fell asleep in front of Suburgatory and then got told off for farting and laughing at it. Tomorrow we're going out for teas, I wonder what we'll eat?
DD, last night I drank a lot of beer. Today I was quite tired. I ate a bacon sandwich, a grab bag of Wotsits, a Ginster's pasty, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, treacle tart, a ham sandwich, a bag of Maltesers and a bowl of Cheerios. And an apple. Pie.
The End.


Inspirational Quotes. Or not...

>> Tuesday, 21 October 2014

I love a good inspirational quote.  In fact, I have to admit that there are couple which I have even copied out into the front of my notebook to refer to in times of need.  What would Edmund Burke* say about this, I ask myself as I ponder whether giving the kids shop-bought pizza for the 2nd night running makes me a bad mother.  What would Marcus Aurelius** say?

(Just kidding.)


Is it just me, or are we currently drowning in a sea of facile truisms being spread through the internet by social meeja? Most are so superficial that it seems to me that almost anyone could come up with them.

So, based on some of my own deep and meaningful recent life experiences I've given it a go myself. I've even added extra exclamation marks and the odd emoticon instruction so that you can experience them to their full potential.

(I expect Hallmark to be in touch shortly to discuss royalty fees before they start the presses running on the first of a series of Potty Diaries Inspirational Quotes, coming to you on mugs and greetings cards soon...)

Life is Short; Eat Dessert First.  (OK, I didn't come up with that one myself, and have no idea who did.  It was probably Hallmark, now I come to think of it.  But it is one of my favourites...)

Life:  too short to eat bad chocolate / drink bad wine / eat low fat spread / knit your own pasta (delete as appropriate)

Leave that blocked pore ALONE!  (Insert stop sign)

If you can't leave the blocked pore alone, a good beautician can work wonders!!!

You can never have too many scarves (to hide the damage from the badly handled blocked pore, if nothing else).  Smiley face smiley face

Taking down your kids' trampoline before the temperatures drop below freezing is good use of a spare hour!!

Taking down your kids' trampoline after the temperatures have dropped below freezing will remind you to do it earlier next year!!  (Insert smiley face here)

Freshly varnished nails and taking down your kids' trampoline are mutually exclusive concepts. (insert sad face and advert for intensive treatment hand and nail moisturising lotion)

Do you have any inspirational quotes of your own to add?

And now, the real McCoy...

*"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

** "Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be.  Be one."  (Marcus Aurelius)


Writes of passage

>> Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Today, I had to do something unexpectedly difficult.

Regular readers may have picked up on the fact that sometime in the next year there's a strong possibility we'll move on from Russia.  In an effort to minimise the fuss when / if that actually happens, I am slowly but surely trying to empty the house of 'stuff' that we won't want to take with us (for which read; pay to move from one country to another), which we have accumulated during the last 5 years.

Mostly, this 'stuff' is associated in some shape or form with the Boys.  Toys, books, outgrown clothes, skates and shoes. You know; all the things that you curse when they stop you closing a cupboard door or the lid of a toy box, or which form an unsightly heap in the corner of your children's bedroom.  Things that you want to pass on that aren't quite good enough to give to friends, but which are too good to just throw out.

There are no Oxfams here, you see.  No handy shops on the high street that will be happy to pass your kids' pre-loved snowpants on to less fortunate children.  Certainly, there are charitable organisations that will do a similar job, but you have to know where they are and then - in this traffic-congested city - get the 'stuff' you want to donate to them delivered.

Catering to an expat population constantly in motion, the Boys' school does a good job of taking some of the strain; there's a thriving exchange for slightly worn unwanted school uniform items, there's a second-hand library where you can sell or replace books that are no longer relevant with ones that your kids might actually read, and there's a yearly 'skate swap' that takes some of the financial pain away, but there are still some things that there just isn't much call for.

Like, dressing up clothes.

My two boys have, in their time, loved dressing up.  Boy #1 is mostly past that now (sadly), but Boy #2 less so - the knights' outfit, the cuddly lion, the Power Ranger and the wizard still surface from time to time.  Unfortunately, however, there were a plethora of other dress-up outfits that whilst still much loved, don't fit anymore.  That'll happen when the label says '4 - 5 years' and your youngest child is going on 9...

So this morning, I took 13 - yes, THIRTEEN - dressing up outfits to the school, for the pre-Halloween costume swap.  As I stood there handing them over one at a time and explaining what they were, I was struck by an almost overpowering impulse to stuff them all back into my blue Ikea hold-all and run away with them.  All of a sudden it seemed as if I was giving away my children's memories rather than just random pieces of material.

I know, I can't keep them.  That would be ridiculous.  I already have a basket containing various small items of clothing that I can't bring myself to part with; a baby-grow, a blanket, that lovely shirt they both wore one after the other when they reached 4 years old, those cute baby socks.  That revolting sweater that was part of Boy #1's school uniform in London, the faded over-sized t-shirt they consecutively wore on beach holidays to keep them out of the sun.

Yes; keeping their dress up clothes as well is out of the question.  And it's certainly not necessary from their point of view; they were completely unconcerned when I suggested we get rid of the Bob the Builder / Fireman Sam outfit (reversible and oh-so-handy), the skeleton, chef, vet and doctor outfits, the 3 sets of pirate garb in varying sizes, the princes cloaks, the fireman kit, and police uniforms still with matching hats.

It's me who has the problem.

I think it's because this is such tangible evidence of the fact that Boys #1 and #2 are growing up.  This morning I felt not as if I was simply handing over brightly coloured pieces of material.  I felt rather that I was saying goodbye to the two small boys who used to race about the house chasing each other with pirate swords, or stopping traffic on the floor of the playroom, or helping me in the kitchen dressed in a floppy chef's hat.  As if I was bidding farewell to the sensation of a small warm hand in mine during the walk home from school, and the feeling of the embrace of a hot sleepy pre-schooler's arms around my neck when they were too tired to walk up the stairs to go to bed.

You would have been proud of me, though.  Instead of snatching it all back and wailing 'I don't want to!  I'm not ready!  Give them back!', I smiled, watched the other mums with kids younger than mine get excited about what we'd donated, and walked on to the next stage.

Because that's what mums do.

(Mind you, god knows what I'm going to do with 13 swap tickets.  I would say there is every chance that come Saturday, when the swap actually takes place, I may actually find myself buying half of the costumes back...)


Today's 'Through The Looking Glass' moment is brought to you courtesy of...

>> Tuesday, 7 October 2014

... Auchan supermarket.

When I first began to visit Russia in the mid 1990's there was what seemed to me to be an antiquated payment system in place in many retail outlets.  It worked as follows:

1.  The customer selected their item.

2.  They would inform the shop assistant of their choice (it was usually stored out of reach, often behind glass).

3.  The shop assistant would then remove the item from the shelf but instead of taking payment and handing over the purchase, they would put it to one side, hand-write a sales ticket, and send the customer to the caisse (or payment till).  Often this would be on the other side of the shop floor.

4.  The customer would take their ticket to the caisse, where they paid and were given a receipt as proof of purchase.

5.  They would then return with proof of purchase to the original desk where they had selected  their item.

6.  At this point they would present the new receipt to the shop assistant, and only then would they take possession of their purchase.

Now it may be that this is a system in wide-spread global use, but in my life up until that point I had never encountered it outside of the UK tv series 'Are You Being Served?'.  (A sitcom about an outdated department store).

Consequently I was somewhat relieved when we moved to Moscow at the beginning of 2010 to find that this system had mostly been abandoned and paying for goods was now a lot more straightforward.

Today, however, I wondered as if I might have fallen through a crack in the time/space continuum (yes, I HAVE been watching the new series of 'Dr Who') when I encountered this at Auchan.

There are still cashiers (and queues, which I suppose is not suprising since both staff and customers are like rabbits in headlights when faced with this new system), who run all the items through the till as usual.  However, payment is made by taking the receipt that the cashier gives you to a machine sited a few metres behind the till, scanning the receipt, and paying the machine directly.  Once you've done that, the machine prints out another receipt, which you need to scan to get through a security gate (complete with security guard) to exit the till area.

Tell me, please, that time isn't slipping backwards?

Now, for persevering through that bit of a moan, here's your reward: an excerpt from the episode 'Are You Being Served' where the staff are learning to ballroom dance.  I particularly liked Captain Peacock's and Mr Humphrey's demonstration with the fishtail....


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