shot from above, a child's hand hols a colouring pen above a sheet that spells out STAY SAFE. Other colouring pens are scattered across the table and in the top left of the image, the corner of a picture book pokes into shot.
School Days, Thinking Out Loud

Home Learning: the reboot

My social media is full of references to being “back in lockdown”. The only difference this week to the last few weeks is that now we’re back to home learning. We’ve been at Alert Level Four (yes, in Wales we are not in tiers but alert levels, which is disappointing for a pun lover like me “we’re all in tears/tiers”) since before Christmas so I’ve only been to the supermarket, daily dog walks around the same local park and to drop things to family and friends. We haven’t been on walks with other people because we’re not allowed.

I’m not shocked at being trapped at home again because it doesn’t feel like anything has wildly changed for us.

Home learning is a kicker, but I think we’ve got it nailed this time (she says with a warily smug tone). It’s early days but on our fourth day in I feel a lot calmer and more in control than last March. My kids are used to the platforms and the tech they need to get their tasks done and to communicate with their teachers. There’s a vague routine rather than any timetable or sticker charts. It’s a bit like in Lord of the Flies when they start using the conch shell, a little bit of order in the pandemonium. (Here’s hoping things don’t spiral in the same way). We’re breaking for lunch together and they can finish at 3pm to watch telly or play.

In the first few hours I’d sat in my home office flanked by a primary and secondary aged child being bombarded with a constant stream of seemingly random questions:

How do you spell apocalypse? What’s a parody? How do I work out 1 5/13 + 2 5/13? How many rebellions did Henry VIII have? Which animals could eat me?

I’m trying to have a tad more structure this time around so things can feel a bit more normal and less chaotic. The younger one finished all his teacher assigned activities by lunch time, so I sent him off to read his book in bed. After that he did some Zombie proofing (DIY to you and me) with his Dad who works shifts so happened to be home. The older one is sullenly spiralling (both literally on his office chair and mentally) as the perfectionist in him stresses out over an unsatisfactory (to him) attempt at his art lesson. At least I know what he’s winding himself up (and down) about this time.

We are the lucky ones. We have enough devices for them to use a laptop each (thank you Grandpa for donating your old one), we have WiFi (which as anyone who’s had dodgy Zooms or Teams with me knows isn’t great but it’ll do) and I’m fairly confident with helping them when they get stuck. I’ve only had to brush up on a few maths bits I had wiped from memory.

For all the middle-class mum memes of pouring Baileys onto Bran Flakes, we know there are plenty of families really struggling.

It’s all pants compared to what we were able to do this time last year but 2020 has ground down my expectations. Last January I saw in NYW at a bar in Bristol, went ice skating, to the museum, the beach, Wagamamas, saw Six at Wales Millennium Centre, had a rooftop brunch in London and a work trip to see some awesome work like Death of England at the National Theatre. Maybe January 2020 over achieved but it blows my tiny little frazzled mind to compare that month to this month. We’re only just a week in but there’s no way I’ll be getting my kicks anywhere other than treating myself in Morrisons. By “treat” I’m thinking posh yoghurt instead of an own brand version. Oh the thrills.

Whether you’re balls deep in lockdown after a bit of festive freedom or, like us, there’s not been a huge change in your day to day liberties, be kind to yourself and to others. Remember school staff are human too and they could’ve done without panicking parents poking them with questions on their weekend when they had no idea what decisions would be made either. It’s hard to be a school leader when everyone finds out the same information at the same time and wrong dates get shared through WhatsApp groups and mis-spelt Facebook posts (ginpig I’m looking at you). If you’re struggling, tell the school, tell your employer, ask for help. And for the love of cheese, wash your hands, stay at home and wear a mask when and where you can.

Thinking Out Loud

Working from Home

With Coronavirus forcing lots of us into a self-isolation, social distancing hibernation, many of us will be working from home for the first time. Not me. I’ve worked from home for the last five years.

Instagram would have you think I sit on my bed in tasteful loungewear with a slim expensive laptop, photogenic dog and a classy mug of posh coffee. Not so. That, my friend, will give you backache. And hairy, stained sheets plus fancy strong coffees give me tummy cramps and aggravate my piles.

I get dressed every day. I walk my youngest to school, get home and open up the big laptop at the dining room table because I’m so messy I’ve filled up my lovely bureau. Then I work. With my two scruffy dogs snoozing at my feet but barking when the post comes. I put on the kettle at 10:25 so I can drink my tea while listening to Pop Master and cursing any fool who dares to phone at half past ten. Who does that?!

Then I do some more work, eat my lunch at my desk (because it’s the dining table) and then get back to work. Sometimes I go out for meetings, take the dogs around the block but you get the picture. I drink too much tea and there’s a fair bit of daydreaming but I don’t switch the telly on, I don’t go on long lunches and I always wear proper clothes.

How I’m going to carry on as usual with the kids home next week is another thing. I’ve been seeing loads of home schooling resources and top tips, both primary and high school have given links and all that for home learning in the coming weeks. Which all sounds very jolly but not so fun while I’m trying to work.

So, my top tips for working from home:

  • Get dressed, be comfortable but get out of your damn pyjamas and have a shower
  • Pace the tea drinking
  • Pause for Pop Master
  • Skype or phone your colleagues instead of an email once in a while
  • Get a bit of fresh air for a break, walk, take your lunch into the garden, do some parkour (not really, just checking you were paying attention)
  • Don’t have your kids home with you.

Ok, we have to suck it up on the last one. I understand why we’ve come to this. It’s surreal, it’s scary and being stuck in the house getting cabin fever is something we can take on the chin if it helps stop vulnerable people getting ill.

Places To Go, Things To Do, Thinking Out Loud

Urdd Eisteddfod 2019 and Welshness issues

I’m Welsh but I’m not a confident Welsh speaker. On the daily, this doesn’t make me ponder on Welshness, on national identity and bilingualism but last week I took my boys to Cardiff Bay for this year’s Urdd Eisteddfod where it felt like a bigger deal on the Maes.

We were non Welsh speakers at a Welsh speaking event in Wales. We had a lovely day and we did feel welcome but also at a remove. I felt like a visitor, an outsider, somehow other.

The Urdd Eisteddfod is one of Europe’s largest touring youth festivals. As well as all of the stalls and activities on the Maes, there are loads of competitions for children and young people in things like singing and dancing following regional rounds. About 15,000 competitors take part through the week. The Urdd was set up to give children and young people the chance to learn and socialise in Welsh.

A sign post in Welsh language with the Pierhead building and Wales Millennium Centre in the background
Ble mae’r bar?

We toyed with sending the boys to Welsh school back in 2012 but our closest English primary school is behind our house. We cross no roads to get there, I can hear the playground from home and garden and it’s a cracking school.

The seven year old was in his absolute element in the Senedd display of the 2D and 3D art and design competitions. He’s a model making fiend and a puppet fan boy. He was so genuinely impressed with the paintings and drawings “wow, I can’t believe this one only came second, it’s a winner for me”, it was unsurprising when he looked up at me, his eyes glowing with creative crafting ideas and asked “how can I join in Mum?” like it’s Blue Peter and anyone can enter. Sorry babes, you can’t because you don’t go to a Welsh medium school. *insert sad child’s face* That’s where it feels excluding and exclusive. Which is understandable knowing that the Urdd exists for Welsh speaking children.

When I posted about this on Instagram I had a reply from a teacher at an English medium high school who told me that they had pupils compete so it turns out they don’t have to go to Iaith Cymraeg schools to participate. I did not know this. I thought the Urdd Eisteddfodau were a cultural rite of passage that my kids would have no part of in the same way that the opportunity wasn’t there for me as a child who grew up in Wales at English language schools. And that’s as a pupil who did extra Welsh (true story) and chose to do Welsh GCSE and A Level.

My Welsh is OK, I can get by to a limit. If you did A level French, that’s the kind of language vibe. Except it’s not. I’ve got an A Level in it but I don’t only encounter it at the boulangerie on my holidays. I work all over Wales so Welsh is at meetings, seminars, conferences, it’s in the lunch time chats and evening meals out, it’s sprinkled through emails, it’s on print, websites, in theatre productions, social media strategies. And that’s just work.

At the Urdd Eisteddfod we made an effort to use as much Welsh as we could all day. The 10 year old ordered his hot chocolate all by himself and enjoyed his “un siocled poeth”, the 7 year old  said “diolch” to pretty much everyone in Cardiff Bay.

They were in awe at how much Welsh I used (my children are very easily impressed) “how did we not know you can speak another language?!” I can’t, I’m really not that confident with it but I do try when I can. I felt guilty and lazy for not using it more at home when I do make the effort in work emails and events. I want to use Welsh with them more at home, beyond our current “nos da cariad” (good night love) and “pwy sy’n barod?” (who’s ready?).

Inside the roof of a teepee style tent with bunting and garland lights.
Inside the Children’s Commissioner for Wales tent

It was a lush day out though, one of those exhausting days where you walk for miles, while away time soaking up live music, have a nosey in every trade stall, race cars in virtual reality, golf, join a band, colour in, trampoline, make a bead bracelet, toast mshmallows and bump into a couple of people you know. As it was free entry this year I treated us to drinks and a fairground ride without the inward panic about spending all of the money.

It felt right to expose the boys to a world where people assume you can speak Welsh, it opens their mind up to realising it’s the first language for some people and it’s alive in Wales, not just something to learn in the classroom.

Places To Go, Things To Do

The Big Pit

Boom! It’s National Museum Week 2019 so I’ve been thinking about the last museum I went to, Big Pit National Coal Museum, Y Pwll Mawr. I bloody loves museums I does. The best of them stir a little something in your soul, leave some new knowledge nestled in your brain and get my kids buzzing with the experience. The Big Pit delivers on all three.

The first time I visited, I was excited to get free entry with my Blue Peter badge (which I’ve sadly lost, do they do replacements?) in about 1990. Another time, aged about 18 with my 9 year old brother the day after watching How Green Was My Valley, he produced a white cotton handkerchief to mop his brow because that’s what they’d done in the film. A few weeks ago we took our own similarly aged children and it’s still a thrill to travel in that dark lift 300 feet underground, to stoop through the tunnels, to momentarily stand in darkness, feel the terror and thankfulness that life has changed.

One of the themes of Museum Week 2019 is #WomenInCulture and the vital role of women in the mining industry and mining communities is explored in the Pithead Baths exhibition. Women were only banned from working underground because the inspector was shocked at their state of undress. The work they did was so physically demanding that they were replaced with ponies. Ponies.

As a museum, the displays and experiences above ground have had a hell of a lot of work since becoming part of National Museums Wales, which gives so much more to explore than the 50 minutes down the pit, the shower block was especially effective with interactive bits. Plus, it’s been free to visit since 2001. FREE. (Think it’s £3 for parking though). It’s set in a unique industrial landscape, designated a World Heritage Site.The guys, real life miners, who lead the tours of the mine are essential, their wit, knowledge and warmth give visitors a flavour of the camaraderie and banter of the place.

That said, I’m not writing this wearing rose tinted glasses about the job of mining. My grandad, great grandad, great uncle, my dad’s cousins all worked in the mines of the South Wales valleys. My grandad hated it. “No son of mine is ever going to work down a mine.” The day he started working at the pits as a teenager, a body was brought up from underground (the deceased man is mentioned in part of the museum), so I can’t say I blame him and he worked his arse off to have a career in another sector.

I am, however, writing this sat in the second largest town in Wales that only sprung into existence on this scale because of the coal industry but I’m also writing this in a time when we’re looking for cleaner energy sources than fossil fuels. Museums are powerful when you can make those connections.

The Big Pit

For more info, opening hours, directions and all that, head here: museum.wales/bigpit/

School Days, Thinking Out Loud

Babies Starting School

My social media is abuzz with school admissions posts and wails about “my baby” going to school. Excuse me while my lack of sympathy and I snicker darkly yet sagely into our milky tea.

I hear you, I do, but I also raise you this: MY BABY IS GOING TO HIGH SCHOOL. They will eat him alive. He is tiny and geeky and high school is not the nurturing, learn-through-play haven of Reception. He will be spat out at the other end as a legal adult.

Ok, he’s not a baby. He’s 10. Double figures and all that. And yes, I may well be projecting my own fears about moving from Primary to Comp. I blame Grange Hill. My comprehensive school looked like the fictional hell hole, it was populated with the same permed, mean eyed, all-knowing teenagers. I was definitely going to get my head flushed down the toilet or be tricked into taking an acid tab. One of the boys in my year 6 class who had an older sister there assured us that it was a rite of passage. The toilet thing, not the drugs.

I’m still yet to ever have my head flushed down the loo or trip on acid (in the words of Zammo “just say no”) and if I’m honest, I’m sure my son will be fine. He’s friendly, he’s sensible, he’s a good guy and he’s feeling cautiously confident after plenty of visits to the school and transition days.

I’ve written about it before, this ever marching time of childhood, not standing in the way of them moving on and developing, of celebrating change and not infantilising them when they’re not babies anymore.

Don’t let your 4 year old see you cry when you drop them off that first week. Please. It’s not about you. Letting them see you panicked, upset or overwhelmed is unhelpful. The same goes for all those future residential school trips. Imagine starting a new job with your partner, parent or friend crying at the entrance. I’ll be doing just that very soon (the job not the weeping) and I’d prefer a thumbs up and a snazzy new lunch box.

My step daughter’s been in high school for two years now and is having a grand old time of it. We see her so much less than we used to but that’s a whole other blog post. I’m sure my son with throw himself into a new school, make new friends, have great experiences but it’s still the great unknown. Think of all those positive things if your child’s starting primary school too.

Of course, I’m writing all of this before his Hogwarts letter arrives this summer and there’ll be a whole other level of worry going on.