Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Reducing our Carbon Footprint

After being challenged by Riding Lights' performance of Baked Alaska, my husband and I came home and wrote a list of simple changes we need to make in our household to reduce our carbon footprint. Mostly, we need corporately to make small changes, to make different choices throughout our day, which will lead to changed habits. Perhaps these changes will be a little uncomfortable; perhaps they will make our lives a little more difficult; but they are small things really in light of the realities of climate change, and the devastating effects being wrought on communities in other parts of the world. The question is, do we care? Do we care enough to make these changes?

Here is our list .... Yours might be slightly different, but please think about what you can do in your small corner ...

1) Get an adequate washing line and reduce my use of the tumble dryer.
2) Fully insulate the loft, and improve the insulation of our house as much as possible.
3) Get a standby switch so all appliances can easily be switched off and not left on standby.
4) Make sure all our light bulbs are the new LED low energy bulbs (more expensive but last longer).
5) Buy more loose, local produce. Use our local market.
6) Eat less meat.
7) Use the car less. Walk or cycle when possible.
8) Set up a regular shopping delivery (to stop us having to nip to the shop in the car so often).
9) Sign up for The Rubbish Diet - and get others involved too!
10) Buy second hand wherever possible.
11) Take shorter showers; don't overfill the kettle when boiling it etc.
12) Consider investing in solar panels.

This weekend I had the chance to speak on a friend's show on a local radio station. I was talking about our Mustard Seeds Home Education group (Read post here) and reflecting on our involvement with the recent Reconciling a Wounded Planet conference and the impact it had had on me. I was billed an eco-mama, but I am more of a carbon addict looking for ways to tackle our societal addiction. Another friend posted to the show's Facebook wall what is called the waste hierarchy, or the 7Rs. I had never heard all 7, though I am familiar with the 3Rs "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle". Here are all 7, in case you haven't heard them either ....

1) Remove: eliminate waste by choosing not to buy things.
2) Replace things with lower hazard alternatives e.g. choose Ecover etc.
3) Reduce
4) Reuse e.g. repair damaged goods, use Freecycle etc.
5) Recycle
6) Recover - home compost.
7) Refuse - We can use our consumer power to say no, and make a difference.

Mustard Seeds

In the run-up to Easter this year, I noticed an idea circulating on Facebook, "Give up Garbage for Lent." I was intrigued, clicked on the link, and invited others in our home educating network to join us in taking up the challenge. As a teenager, I was pretty up-to-speed with the green agenda and was vegetarian for 8 years for ecological reasons, that is the idea that land can be more productively farmed by planting crops to feed the world, than by farming cattle so the wealthy can eat meat. I was passionate about things like that. Somehow the eco-warrior within me has been dormant for some years, but with this Lenten challenge began a journey of re-awakening.

We met as a small group of 5 families to discuss the challenges presented each week, and to encourage one another to make changes in our lifestyles to reduce our rubbish. Looking back, these were small steps really - We invested in a compost bin for the garden, and worked on reducing and reusing paper and plastics. We also reflected on our belief that the earth is the Lord's and everything in it, and thought about our Christian responsibility to look after God's amazing creation. I gave our group the name "Mustard Seeds" to the embarrassment of my older boys, but I love the image this name evokes. In our first meeting, I gave each child a tiny mustard seed. Even though we may feel as insignificant as that tiny seed; though we may feel our small actions don't make much difference in the grand scheme of things, we have to remember the mustard seed grows to be a dominant plant, the kind of plant farmers didn't want sprouting amongst their crops because it would take over and dominate its surroundings. Such is the potential of the mustard seed. We have to believe that by our tiny actions, a dominant culture can be challenged, and to do the good we know we need to do, trusting that together we can make a difference. So 'Mustard Seeds' was born.

Early on, our group watched the inspiring film, "The Clean Bin Project" made by a childhood friend of mine who has lived for many years now in Canada. The film is the challenging story of a year-long competition between Grant and his partner, Jen, to see which of them can produce the least rubbish. Of course, the way to achieve zero-waste is by not buying 'stuff' and their ability to get through the year with just the tiniest amount of waste is heroic. Admittedly, Canada is ahead of the UK with less packaging on foodstuffs, but still, their film is provocative and memorable. We are left wondering, is it really possible to live waste-free?

I had long had questions about what exactly happens to our rubbish once our bins are collected. I was sceptical about whether the rubbish we put out for recycling is really recycled. I wanted to find out. In the film, Grant and Jen had visited their local rubbish dump and recycling centre, and I wanted Mustard Seeds to do the same. It was funny, because the children all wrote and emailed our local council to try and arrange a visit but, in the end, it was asking around whilst my eldest son and I were visiting the tip that resulted in making the right contact to arrange the visit. I felt triumphant because, with all the concerns about health and safety, it felt like a privilege to be allowed in. Our visit was very informative and surprisingly inspiring. The men we spoke to were genuinely concerned about the city's waste and were working hard to do all they could to deal with the problem and to make our rubbish work for us. We discovered that the content of our recycling bins does indeed go to be recycled at another centre, and the content of our non-recyclable bin goes to be incinerated, generating power which is utilised to light and heat buildings in our city centre. It was an enlightening and memorable visit.

After this, the children in our group began to make their own small protests, petitioning McDonalds to provide recycling bins, for example.

I noticed that there was a conference being organised this September at a local Cathedral entitled, "Reconciling a Wounded Planet" - exactly in line with the themes we had been studying as a group, and I contacted the organisers to see how we might be involved. One of the conference objectives was "a 40-year legacy", so they were delighted at the prospect of having young people involved. So, this month, the Mustard Seeds children prepared work to display at the conference on the theme of "What we want our world to look like in 40 years time." I loved watching the children work together in their multi-age group from 3-14 years, producing two short films, some posters, a poem and an aquatic car of the future across two days. As well as having our work displayed alongside some submitted by local primary schools, we had the privilege of attending part of the conference. Following hearing the keynote address by Sir Ghillean Prance, the younger children had their own environmental art workshop, and took part in a fun interactive activity about sharing the earth's resources. The older children and adults were able to join the various seminar streams. The older boys were inspired by a session on Developing Technologies, whilst others of us attended the Community Engagement stream, hearing in particular from the founders of The Rubbish Diet and the Incredible Edible Network. What was most inspiring about these speakers was the way in which a green initiative became an engine for community involvement and transformation, far exceeding the aims of the original idea. Mustard Seeds germinating.

The highlight of the conference for me was attending the debut of the brilliant new production from Riding Lights entitled, "Baked Alaska". It was during this performance that I really felt convicted of the part we all play - by nature of our carbon addicted lifestyles - to climate change, and to the impact that has on other parts of the world, contributing to so many other problems in the world. Riding Lights are so clever in their script writing and in the way they present the parables so that we are challenged to think in new ways. I was challenged. Who is my neighbour, and how by the choices I make each day, is my carbon footprint impacting their life? Recommended viewing - now touring the UK.

At the end of the performance, members of the audience were immediately called upon to write a message to our local MP encouraging them to take positive action on climate change in the run-up to the UN summit in Paris at the end of this year. We all did this, and then a local volunteer was sought to deliver the messages. Sitting in the front row, our Mustard Seeds group volunteered, so we now have an appointment to visit our local MP to deliver the messages and share our concerns about climate change. I am looking forward to it.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Off-peak with a teenager

One of the best things about home educating is being able to take spontaneous holidays, off-peak - and therefore at lower cost. In our case, this happens when my husband's work allows. Such a window of opportunity appeared last week and as his week off approached, we were watching the UK weather forecast. We decided quite spontaneously and rather last-minute to head to north Wales, which has become our default family holiday destination, mainly due to our budget. We were so last-minute on this occasion, however, that we managed to book some really beautiful accommodation - a converted barn equipped to 5* standards and sleeping 10 - for half the normal price, and we took my parents with us.

It is becoming increasingly challenging to keep all our boys happy. Our eldest son is now almost 14, whilst our youngest is only 3. Our eldest wanted to stay at home where he has his welder, tools and car project on the go, so we had protests all the way. He was quietened somewhat by the fact he had his own room at the cottage, complete with TV. This meant that he wanted to spend most of his time watching 'Quest' - Scrap Heap Challenge, Wheeler Dealers, American Chopper - all research for his project work back home. We figured it could be worse, and just made sure his viewing was punctuated with plenty of time outside. The cottage had an amazing garden with a huge trampoline, climbing frame and set of football goals, so games out there with his younger brothers were played willingly enough. We managed to get him down to the beach several times - where our younger three boys will still wile away many happy hours - and, again, we found ball games and athletic pursuits were undertaken with some enthusiasm, once we got him there!

I also taught him Slam, a fast game of cards for two players, which I loved in my student days. This, too, seemed to grab his enthusiasm and he would happily take on any willing challenger, swiftly mastering the game to beat us all, which gave him great delight.

As we considered things our eldest son might enjoy in the area, I had the mad idea that perhaps he would relish the challenge of climbing England and Wales' highest mountain, Snowdon. He seemed quite keen on the idea, so then we had to think about who might accompany him. Obviously, he couldn't go running about the Welsh mountains on his own, could he? I would have to go with him. Panic! My husband was very reluctant to commit himself. We are neither of us feeling particularly fit at this time of our lives. My parents fairly swiftly counted themselves out. My Mum, who had climbed Snowdon as a child (almost 60 years ago!) began to tell us about it. She didn't make it sound too bad ... According to family legend, my Grandmother had climbed up in her high heels. Well, I thought, it can't be THAT hard. So, one fine morning, leaving our youngest son to enjoy the beach with his grandparents, my husband and I and sons 1, 2 and 3 left on our mountaineering adventure.

Well, if I had known what I was in for, I probably would have never set out. And maybe sometimes it is best not to know in advance. Once you get so far along a path, it becomes imperative to make it, to press on for the summit. This hadn't much mattered to us in the beginning. We thought we could always turn back; we could just enjoy a pleasant hike in beautiful Snowdonia. The summit was not the be all and end all. Except that once you are two thirds up the mountain, the summit beckons all the more strongly and a resolve grows within you. You can, will and must make it. So we pressed forwards.

We were not too far into our walk when our eldest son asked to go on ahead as our pace was hindering him. Fine, I said, as long as you promise to stay on the path. I thought he might wait for us further up the track. But, who can blame him, our level of fitness meant we were walking at a very different pace. All credit to our other two sons for encouraging us along and keeping us on track. So, one step at a time, we climbed a mountain. I am amazed! It was really hard. But we did it! And in fairly reasonable time - three and a half hours to the summit, and six hours for the round trip. We didn't see our eldest son again until we were about an hour from the summit, on a really tough part of the climb. He strolled past us on his way down having got to the top in under two hours. "Easy," was his comment, and he really did make it look that way. It made me realise how big the challenges need to be to inspire our young men.

As we climbed, there were moments when I thought, "I really cannot take another step" but you just keep going, and then you'll get a new surge of energy and feel you must press on. The hardest part for me was the last hour down, when we were just so, so tired and my hip began to ache, ache, ache. Not young anymore. But our boys were amazing. Not one complaint, not one, "I'm tired ... How much loooooonger?" Not one whine. They rose to the challenge, and I was proud of them all - and myself and my husband too. It really is a beautiful mountain and, no, I do not believe my Grandmother can possibly have climbed it in her high heels.

When we arrived back at the cottage, elated but completely finished, my Mum asked me, "Haven't you ever climbed a mountain before?" Well, no actually, Mum. But I have now, and it makes you feel you could do just anything!!

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Nature Study

I have always tried to incorporate more time outdoors into our lives - at some times more successfully than at others. When my older boys were small, I used to say - and I still believe - "Small boys should be exercised outdoors daily!" and getting out of the house felt necessary for our wellbeing. There seems to have been a lot of publicity in the last few years around children's disconnect with the natural world, and a focus on trying to get them out into the wild.

My boys generally enjoy being out of doors, and spend a great deal of time playing in our garden. My second son used to walk in the countryside with his grandma, and from her he learnt a great many of the names of our native trees and wildflowers. My own knowledge of these things remains somewhat patchy, and I would really like us to develop our ability to identify different trees, birds and flowers. So I am very thankful this year for a new resource, "Exploring Nature with Children" by Lynn Seddon.

Lynn has laid out a focus for nature walks each week through the seasons of the year, and I love this idea of picking up the rhythms of the natural world and becoming more aware and attuned to seasonal changes. She has incorporated ideas for books linking to each week's theme, and to related art and poetry - as well as giving extra ideas for extending the topic throughout the week. The book, which is available to download at a very reasonable cost, has inspired me to get out and get on with the nature walks I have long wanted and intended to do.

This week we enjoyed a familiar walk around our local park, but were amazed how many 'treasures' we had spotted before we'd even gone 10m from the car park. Many berries and seeds were picked and pocketed by my interested troupe of the three younger boys - aged 12, 9 and 3 - and brought home to adorn our nature table. We managed to identify several of our finds using a selection of field guides, and also The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, which I have so enjoyed discovering - and which has inspired my own intention to keep a nature journal, though I am more of a photographer than an artist. The author, Edith Holden, lived in our area, and so the places to which she cycles and walks are familiar names to me. I love the simplicity of her observations and note-takings, her beautiful handwriting and lovely paintings.

Followjng our walk, issued with notebooks, pencils and watercolours, the boys drew and painted some of their finds. To my astonishment, my third son was so inspired, he wrote some lines of his own poetry - completely unprompted by me. What a delight!

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Boys and Risk

Bear Grylls hits back at critics after leaving son on rocks for sea rescue.
"The survival expert argues children need to take "more risks" after being criticised for leaving son alone on rock out at sea for training rescue mission."

Bear Grylls has also come up with a manifesto for children, saying "computer games should be banned, troubled teenagers compelled to climb mountains and mandatory community service brought in for all."

Bear Grylls' Manifesto for Children
1) Get fit
2) Outdoor classes for all
3) Ban computer games
4) Climb mountains
5) Take risks
6) Community service

What do you think? Recently, the boys and I have enjoyed watching a TV documentary entitled, "Earth's Natural Wonders" which tells the stories of people surviving and thriving in some of the most dramatic and spectacular environments on earth. One of the things I have noted and mused about as we have watched is the way in which the men in these communities go out into the wilds and risk their lives to provide for their families. They go together, and the young men are initiated into manhood by joining the adventure and by being trusted and enabled to take risks by their elders. Though they are afraid, they face their fear and go forwards, spurred on, supported and encouraged by the men around them. When failure comes, they are downcast, but they try again. And when they succeed and their elders pat them on the back, affirming and cheering them on, their smiles are as wide as their faces, and their self-esteem and confidence is surely boosted too.

Our boys need not face tigers, crocodiles or killer bees in their journey towards manhood, but I find myself agreeing with Bear Grylls' assertion that "when we try to strip our kids' world of risk we do them a gross disservice. We teach them nothing about handling life. All children have a right to adventure... these moments allow children to get excited about the possibilities the world has to offer. They teach independence, initiative, self-reliance and resourcefulness: skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives."

Monday, 17 August 2015

The Perils of "Growth Mindset" Education

"An awful lot of schooling still consists of making kids cram forgettable facts into short-term memory. And the kids themselves are seldom consulted about what they’re doing, even though genuine excitement about (and proficiency at) learning rises when they’re brought into the process, invited to search for answers to their own questions and to engage in extended projects. Outstanding classrooms and schools — with a rich documentary record of their successes — show that the quality of education itself can be improved. But books, articles, TED talks, and teacher-training sessions devoted to the wonders of adopting a growth mindset rarely bother to ask whether the curriculum is meaningful, whether the pedagogy is thoughtful, or whether the assessment of students’ learning is authentic (as opposed to defining success merely as higher scores on dreadful standardized tests)." Alfie Kohn: "The Perils of "Growth-Mindset" Education: Why we're trying to fix our kids when we should be fixing the system"

Challenging my Perception of Reading

Recently I have been challenged about my perception of reading. The truth is: I love books. I love reading, and always have done. I was the kind of kid who had six books sitting on my bedside table in various stages of progress, and would read under the bedclothes at night. And I have always wanted my boys to enjoy books too, reading to them faithfully pretty much every day of their lives. The reason is that I truly believe their lives will be the richer for being readers. I cannot imagine living without the forays into other worlds that great books provide. I cannot imagine not engaging with all the wonderful characters that inhabit my imagination as a result of extensive reading. English was always by leaps and bounds my favourite subject at school, and the area in which I excelled. But it is also true to say that my formal study of literature slowly destroyed some of the pleasure I derived from books. After achieving an A grade in A-Level English Literature, I was utterly fed up with tearing apart books I loved and over-analysing characterisation and author intention. For that reason I decided not to take my formal English studies any further and studied something new and different at University. I have never wanted my boys to be forced to read so much that there is no joy in it.

Recently, though, I have been challenged about my attitude towards reading, my prejudice towards it. It has gradually dawned on me, though it may seem glaringly obvious really, that not everyone is as enamoured with books as I am, that there are people around me who do live happy and successful lives without this literary dimension. I live with one: My husband is not a reader. And last summer, when we had a builder working on our house, I asked him about books he had enjoyed in an attempt to get some recommendations for my sons. He confessed, "I only read my first book last year - and that was only because my wife insisted!" Well! I was flabbergasted. Yet, here are these men to whom reading is simply not important. And the thing about this realisation is that it has made me analyse what I value, and the way I regard activities my boys engage in, whether consciously or subconsciously. Do they have to be reading or looking at books for it to count as real learning? Well, of course not. It's just that in some deep part of myself I wish so much that they would. Much to my disappointment, the two eldest are not great readers. Does that make them - or their choice of other passions and pastimes - disappointing to me? It shouldn't, should it? That is why this article "Addicted Generations" challenges me so deeply. It is a timely reminder not to cast my eye so disapprovingly towards my gaming son, who now talks about pursuing a career in technology. Just because it is not my passion doesn't mean I cannot encourage him to pursue his chosen path wholeheartedly. Who knows, in this new digital age, how far it may take him?

“Imagine a little girl reading her book intensely. While she reads, she can tune out everything around her. She reads under her covers with a flashlight. She reads in her bath. She walks on the street reading her book, likely bumping against a pedestrian. She spends every extra dime she has on books. She is never without a book or two in her bag. She would like to read at the dinner table if her parents let her … Most people I know will react to this girl with an automatic approving and wistful smile. How bright! How intelligent! How curious! How gifted! I was that girl.”
“How do people react to gamers who are as passionate about games as book lovers are about books? Negative, prejudiced and stereotyped. It is almost a fashion to bash gamer children and their irresponsible parents who are bad for letting their children be glued to the screen.”
“My son is also talented and passionate about many other things. … He loves to spend time with his family. He is not isolated from us. In fact, every game he wins or loses, the first person he shares and critiques with is me, his ‘mother’. No, not all teen gamers want to run away from their family, wear black, and start shooting at strangers. He loves his extended family and is close to his cousins … When you characterize gaming negatively as an addiction, remind yourself that the opposite of addiction is connection. If you see a child who is gaming, connect with them. Engage with their passion as you would engage with a child who is pursuing passions approved by the society. Get to know them and then tell me that a gamer child is disconnected, antisocial, and a danger to the civil society.” #nexstep2nirvana