Saturday 31 December 2011

Ye Traditional Wassail

We've been planning a Wassail, and being a bit of an urban chic hippy folky, I only had a vague idea it involved cider, making a noise, and possibly bearded men with bells.  So I did a bit of googling:

1860 Wassail Bowl Scene Moonlight Children John Gilbert
For history, Wikipedia was helpful dating it back to the 'Middle Ages' from southern England, christian celebration on the twelth night (6th Jan).  Other sources hint at a more general Germanic source, and pre-christian tree worship on the other twelth night, of pre Gregorian Calandar 1752 - (17th Jan), e.g.  this one, and ones here and here).
Thanks to Mister David

Wassail is a contraction of the Middle English phrase waes hael meaning literally 'good health', and most articles I read also refer to the 'Wassail bowl', filled with a mulled cider.  There are recipes for wassail, and some folk go further in suggesting particular woods needed for the turned wassail bowl, peculiarly Lignum Vitae from South America(?), or maple.

The art, and the music of Wassail tells of two different traditions merging slowly into one - a blessing of a significant apple tree, and door-to-door christmas carol singing, begging a sup of cider from the master.  See lyrics of the two most popular carols (of which there are many):

1856 London Twlefth Night Wassail Bowl Children Dog Party
Also hear the wonderful Kate Rusby singing one of them, or try youtube for range of folkies and others singing.

The Wassail Song

...We are not daily beggars 
That beg from door to door
But we are neighbours children
Whom you have seen before
Love and joy come to you
And to you your Wassail too,
And God bless you and send you 
A happy new year...

Gloucestershire Wassail

Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee 

So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek 
Pray God send our master a good piece of beef 
And a good piece of beef that may we all see 
With the wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee...

Wassail hasn't entirely been subsumed into any religions, and being an 'English' tradition it has few champions, apart from an unholy alliance of cider drinkers, morris dancers and carol singers.  It's got a clearer message than other new year 'traditions', like fox hunting, Jools Holland and heavy drinking, so  here's wishing you all  WASSAIL!

Useful links:

Friday 23 December 2011

Cake, pies and pomanders

Mincemeat from last week was ready to use - not enough time/ kitchen rather busy to do today, so left behind for another time.  We made one pomander, but spent the bulk of our time on the rather magnificent cake decorating:

Friday 16 December 2011

BMAG History Galleries ready to go!

Today as a CAP member, I was invited to an informal ceremony at BMAG, over a mince pie and coffee, to mark the handover of the Birmingham History Galleries from the building contractor.

The History Galleries are a major £9m capital project which will tell the story of Birmingham from earliest times to the present day.  The galleries are not due to open to the public until September 2012.  We had the opportunity to have a look around the new galleries before the exhibition fit-out starts and see the building in its 'natural' state. In addition to exposing and restoring the Edwardian historic fabric of the Grade II* listed structure, there are some nice modern touches including naturally lit arrival and orientation spaces and a spectacular oculus rooflight which descends through two floors of the building.

It's a fabulous space now, and really makes the most of the features.  Looking forward to seeing it filled with goodies!

CAP is the Community Action Panel - a group of local people from different backgrounds and cultures, including community workers, artists, teachers, parents and musicians. It is one of three advisory groups that have been adivising BMAG on the History Galleries - if you want to get involved, visit their site.

A crude 300 degrees view of the main entrance space - the main exhib spaces leads off here, along with toilets and other bits and bobs, all newly fitted and looking shiny new - with Richard Stratham, Interpretation and Audience Development Officer, BMAG

Thursday 15 December 2011

Co-construction of Wikipedia

On Tuesday I had the opportunity to do some Wiki training and become a Wikipedia editor, thanks Emma Buckler of the soon to end MLA.  Arts Council England takes over museums and libraries responsibilities, while The National Archives 'assumes responsibility for providing strategic leadership to the archives sector and advising government on its development.'  A curious arrangement leading to more unanswered questions over the future of libraries and museums.  But that's for another blog.

There are, in fact, many thousands of wikis, but the English part of Wikipedia is what we were interested in.  Love it or hate it, it is the biggest, and most widely used encyclopedia in the world, with over 20 million articles and growing at an incredible rate. Andy Mabbett, our trainer, outlined just what makes Wikipedia:

  • is [only] an on-line encyclopedia
  • strives to be balanced and impartial
  • is free content
  • editors should be nice to each other
  • no firm rules
These are the five pillars of Wikipedia, although I'd argue #5 shouldn't really be there - maybe I can edit it out of Wikipedia?  As quickly as possible Andy moved us onto editing our own content - not an easy task as writing entries is a little clumsy, and knowledge of .html is helpful.

Once we started, I was surprised how stringent Wikipedia is.  I had thought to train primary children to enter their own entries about people they thought were important.  It might yet be possible, but may take longer as the pillars suggest entries need to be 'notable' - to be notable you should cite at least three 'reputable' sources, and ensure you are being 'impartial'.  It is frowned upon to reference to your own blogs or write about yourself or your own organisation.  You also need to have some understanding of copyright and permission to use photos and other material.  Plagarism, unsurprisingly, is a big no no.

What also became clear is just how many people are out there apparently spending large portions of their day prowling wikipedia, as both vandals and vigilantes.  There is even a 'random article' button you are encouraged to hit and check articles existing in Wiki, in any spare moment you have.

One trainee had not completed all her citations before saving to wiki.  Within five minutes the entry was being deleted by another editor somewhere in the ether, before it had even been completed.  Another trainee received a slapped wrist, again from a wikieditor out there, for too closely copying material from another source.  By the end of the day we also had a case of 'Geohacking' happen and resolved by another wikieditor: The googlemaps link to a nearby heritage site was sending the Wiki user to a webpage about a strip joint in Birmingham.  

What I think is most surprising, and promising for the future, is how quickly volunteer editors picked up on all the above problems and corrected them - an indicator of the quality of entries and editors.  I can see why more serious academics are increasingly using wikis in a similar way to the more specialist journals which are increasingly on-line too.  Instead of peer review only, wikis open up your article for review and editing to a far greater number of people who will have many different specialisms and knowledge.  Wikipedia and the other associated wikis opens up serious academic articles to a far larger audience instantly, with free content openly available to develop ideas for the good of all.

My first entry was co-construction  of learning -  considering what wikipedia represents, a bit of a shocker no one had thought to put this one in.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

More xmas crafts

The last two weeks we've been hard at work painting the salt dough xmas tree shapes, making the mincemeat ready for next time, making real holly and ivy streamers and table decorations.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Missing the Chickens at Four Dwellings High

Feather-footed friend at Woodgate
On a beautiful sunny November afternoon, I was with my kids, admiring the feathered feet chickens, and avoiding the chinese geese at Woodgate Valley Urban Farm.  Looking out from the corner of the field, I think I saw the astroturf (or something light greeny) of Four Dwellings High.

Chickens are something you can't help hearing when you walk around Four Dwellings High.  They are there, strutting around in the central square - a living school farm in the middle of the school.  Strangely, when you spend a bit of time there, the noise isn't disturbing.  It's actually quite comforting, and in keeping with the relaxed, warm, friendly atmosphere you'll find there.  As the Head, Bernie Smith, pointed out in 2002, the chickens do represent something of the philosophy at the school:

'to get chickens laying, you have to get the conditions right. Even then it will be some time before they start to produce eggs.'

Looking to pioneering work nurturing young minds, encouraging engagement and participation with important issues of today, FDH keeps popping up.  I was at an event looking to the future of green schools at Thinktank - Four Dwelling students were there.  The chickens weren't, but were much talked about.  I was talking to a teacher from a girls school recently about Birmingham suffregettes - FDH have done it already:

Children’s Lives, which will be the first major project in Birmingham and the West Midlands to consider children’s lived experiences from the 18th century to the present day, again FDH are there.  It was one of a handful of UK schools identified in a report written by University of Birmingham:

'As part of the Carnegie Young People Initiative and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation programme of work on pupil participation, we were asked to identify case study schools in different contexts in England, which demonstrate good practice.'

So all this nurturing of young minds, is it working? Well, they recently beat Camp Hill to become Midlands champions in a national competition to inspire business leaders and entrepreneurs of the future last month - The National Final will be held at Wembley Stadium on January 25th 2012.  FDH also boasted two England shirts for the 1-0 victory against Sweden last month.

There are individual successes, but what is more impressive is the development of a community feel throughout the school, despite the distance many students live from each other, and 'many of the areas from which the school draws its pupils are deprived' (OFSTED).

I'm writing this blog because that feeling of 'family' - mutual support and empathy - includes staff and even visitors like me.

'Eternal Light' near Tommy Knocker's Tree
I first worked there in 2005 to support Graham Langley, working on 'Who are we?' - a project where we created a story (and a scrap model) from the wonderful local place names and performed to Four Dwellings Primary Yr6 as part of transition to the High school.

Since then I've worked on a range of projects as part of Creative Partnerships, with Birmingham Library Service and Birmingham Archives and Heritage, with various year groups, departments, staff and creative practitioners, all fantastic fun, and always reflecting the school’s philosophy to ‘make life better for all', listening and enabling students to make decisions, take action for themselves.

I agree with Bernie Smith and 'urge you to come and find out why it is so special', if only to sit and listen to chickens laying eggs.

Other projects:

The Goo!
Working with Science Embassadors (yrs 7 to 9) to make a short science fiction film and launch a school-wide 'science invasion' day.

Chocolate and Slavery

Film re-creation of a court case one hundred years ago in which William Cadbury sued the London Standard for libel, having been accused of using slave labour in his Sao Tome and Principe plantations.  Comparison with modern day slavery in chocolate industry and the positioning of media, the public and chocolate industry in light of continuing child labour, bonded labour and slavery.

Early Years Reflective Workshops

Sunday 27 November 2011

Community Health in my brave new world

Volunteers recieving award from Coop
Yesterday I took a couple of trees worth of willow along to the Heart of England NHS annual community health fair.  John Boyle from Midlands Coop had asked me to come - see Fairtrade Blog for more photos. 

I got lucky - on arriving a handful of volunteers from Joseph Chamberlain College helped me get set up, trial my activity, and spent the rest of the day wearing willow crowns and waving wands all around the event.  Someone from 'Heart of England NHS foundation asked if I could make a willow heart (why didn't I think of that?).  I gave it a go and before long, decorated heart wands were as popular as the stars.

Exchanging a 'wish for a wand' generated a tree worth of comments which reflected conversations we had making and decorating our wands.  The free chocolate, interestingly was turned down by many (on health and diet grounds?).  The event was really fun - great atmosphere, and got to meet loads of interesting and different folk.

It's glass half full, I know, but being cut off from my main source of revenue, training, networking, everything (creative partnerships) isn't all bad.  I probably wouldn't have got to go to this event, go to wikipedia workshop later next month, think more about what it is I want to do, sort out the garden, and generally work just as hard for half the money!  But today, I'm loving it.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Xmas tree hangings

Started on salt dough angels, father xmas, snowmen and three ships.  Will cook at home and have planned for xmas wreath, a bit of painting and natural streamers for next couple of weeks.  Return of xmas cake (for decorating and biscuits in last week before xmas!

Monday 7 November 2011


Last week a man came and painted a number 10 on the pavement outside our house.  I'd seen the lamp posts going up in the next street, so I knew what was coming.  Today we got our 'NOTICE OF STREET LIGHTING WORKS IN YOUR AREA letter from Amey, on behalf of Birmingham City Council.

The letter informs me we should expect nearly 100,000 lamp posts over the next five years, replacing 50% of street lamps in Birmingham, with new super efficient 'state of the art LED technology', helping Birmingham reduce it's carbon reduction commitments.  There is no mention of improving lighting, which as we are replacing lamp for lamp, I guess isn't the purpose of lamp post replacement.

My favourite Lamp post
What's happening to all the old lamp posts?  Maybe they've got some scheme, like the Blackpool lights going to Walsall?  100,000 lamp posts is a lot, and it would be kind of nice to know where my much loved green lamp post is going.  Also how much is it costing, and what is the carbon footprint for replacing the existing, working order, lamp posts?  Afterall, it only seems a couple of years ago the Council ran a consultancy to find out what colour we wanted them all painting.  How old is my lamp post, and what is the life expectancy of the new lamp posts?

So many questions I wanted the Council to shine a light on, so I rang the 'further information' number helpfully provided on the letter.  Within ten minutes I was talking to the helpful Mo, who not surprisingly couldn't answer my queries off the cuff, but has given me a service number, taken my email and phone number.

In the lamp post lottery, and recent re-surfacing of our road, our street has done rather well.  Can't help worrying about the overall strategy and costs.  The street done before us was Wheelers Lane, where kerbs have been raised, lamp posts cut and replanted, all along the road, including the entrance of Wheelers Lane School.  Outside the school has made national and local headlines for cars parked dangerously, and a lollipop man run over three times.  Despite the school entrance being built 5 years ago and many of the staff, parents and children having accidents and near accidents, only objections from the Headteacher has prevented the (inadequate but better than nothing) temporary barriers put up only this September from being removed completely.

Please follow Wheelers Lane Safe Route to school to find out more, and keep up the pressure on Councillor Martin Mullaney and others in our Council to prioritise the safety of our children.

Useful Links:

Thursday 3 November 2011

Are young people 'Angry, Violent and Abusive'?

Barnardos research has rekindled the old 'young people are animals' debate again, which hadn't really died down since the riots, and draconian sentences of a month ago or so, and before that, the rolling press coverage of various 'hoodie' related and other generally lazy 'children-are-not-what-they-used-to-be' stories.

In their survey they found that Almost half of Britons think young people are angry violent and abusive, with one in four thinking troubled children are beyond help by the age of 10. there was plenty of other equally scary stats (see Children behaving like animals, Barnardo's survey finds).

So which two thousand people did they ask?  Were any of them under 18?  Constant debate among (only) adults about changes in childhood is really rather dull and a bit meaningless.  It does however, reveal a far more interesting and useful question:

How much (and what quality of) social contact is there between younger and older people?

Going back to the figures, I'd really like to ask the 24% of people who thought those who behaved badly were beyond help by the age of 10.  How many of them have any meaningful relationship with any children?  I find it hard to believe anyone who lives or works with children (angels or bad boys) can possibly imagine any child being beyond help.

Looking to our politicians, have any come from troubled childhoods?  Boris Johnson, Dave Cameron and their Bullingdon Club mates have certainly done quite well despite, in their youth, trashing pubs and restaurants.  Even Cleggy, given his previous arson conviction, has done quite well.

Dave Cameron in his now famous 'hug a hoodie' speach, to the Centre for Social Justice founded by Iain Duncan Smith (not many under 18s there) says:

The first thing is to recognise that we'll never get the answers right unless we understand what's gone wrong...We - the people in suits - often see hoodies as aggressive, the uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters...

The complaints are identical.
Young people are out of control.
There's nothing for them to do.
Why can't their parents do their job properly?

...And if the phrase "social justice" is to be meaningful, it has to be about justice, as well as compassion and kindness.  It has to involve a sense of cause and consequence - of just rewards and just deserts.  One of the most important things we can teach our children is a sense of justice.'

The 'suits' is an interesting stereotype of his audience (their website certainly doesn't suggest that); The 'hoodies' in his speach remain a voiceless stereotype. When he talks of 'justice' all I can see screaming out is the injustice meted out everyday on young people by adults. ASBOs, mosquito alarms, and the recent use of heavy custodial sentences in the riots are obvious recent injustices, but they also model division between young and old, exasperating entrenched attitudes of young and old.

David Cameron goes on:

'Too often, the reality is that for "partnership" you can read "takeover."
If we're serious about the social sector doing more, then government and the public sector has to learn to let go.

There are two values at the heart of modern Conservatism.
Trusting people, and sharing responsibility.'

He was, of course, considering 'state' and 'private' sectors. However, if we make the leap to consider children themselves as part of a 'partnership', a trusting relationship, sharing responsibility, then we can look to real 'justice', and an opportunity for all of us to work together to challenge criminal behaviour and promote 'Big society' values.

Some examples of on-going collaborative work with young people in Birmingham:

 The Future Melting Pot  empower young people to achieve their potential through enterprise

Children's Lives -  Birmingham's Young People's Archive

No Postcode - Young people from the West Midlands has made a video to stop people joining gangs

Please add more you know about in comments.

Other links

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Chris Upton's Local Heroes

Thanks again to Dr. Chris Upton, senior lecturer at Newman University College Birmingham, who came to Paganel Primary School to present his local heroes to years 5 and 6.  An inspirational speaker as always, he identified a Victorian writer,  a landowner and builder of Weoley Castle, an industrialist, a writer, a very, very tall lady, and a tree - five of his heroes from our local area.

Please see 17 minute edit of his presentation below:

Paganel Primary School will continue to develop work with all children and parents to identify, and then to document our own local heroes throughout 2012.  The lives of people in our school and community represent the social and cultural changes of our times - We are in a unique position to both document social life and engage children, parents and local community in our rich heritage, across all generations.

Chris Upton comments , 'this community – exceptional in Birmingham – makes it a potentially very rich area for oral history.'  I'll keep posting updates on work at Paganel.

Lacewing hotels

Monday 10 October 2011

Willow crowns and wands

We made crowns, bracelets, wands and stars ready for 'The kiss that missed', medieval & magic themed Garden club at Kings Heath Community Centre this Wednesday.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Search for a hero

Last week has been really exciting as Paganel Primary School decided to take a whole week to explore heroes in every class - Greek, local, vegetable and every other variety.  Everyone loves heroes.  It's a great tool for learning - to think about our heroes and villains, those we know, we imagine, or the ones in all of us.

I was leading two days of workshops on, 'Food heroes and villains'.  First thoughts on 'Food Heroes' was nutritional and healthy food - Initial chat with school suggested children and parents are not necessarily very familiar with fruit and veg (See brown bags vs. mystery meat).  This fitted well with my feelings to try and keep what 'heroes' and 'villains' the children chose (and why) open - partly to see what they already knew, but mainly to see what they thought about fruit and veg.  We choose to only look at fruit and veg, and not muddy the waters with processed or other foods.

Only veg and fruit (no obvious sweets, crisps or other bad boys) meant focus was on veg and fruit, but also on what children thought about the good stuff.  Not surprisingly, the look or the taste seemed more important to children than any health or other considerations.

So what makes a hero, or a villain?

Spiky Cucumber is caught stealing.
 Pumpkin and Sweetcorn save the day.
'Heroes save the world.'

'Heroes always help people.'

'Heroes are kind and think about other people.'

'Villains want to rob and keep it all for themselves.'

'Villains take over the world.   They want to control everything.'

The children understood straight away.   Every child in the school has been encouraged in this week to tell us about their own (personal) hero.  Children as young as four were quite capable to articulate what made a 'hero' and why.  Whether it's a Daddy, an Uncle or a family friend, children understood:

'He is kind because he helps people by taking them to hospital for treatment.'

Pyn Stockman, the creative practitioner working with other classes was making masks of heroes, based largely on the children's personal heroes.  We had vegetables, and not really enough time, staff or proper risk assessment to introduce carving.

So we concentrated on accessorising our vegetables, and creating scenery, lighting, other means of making a story, with the help of our storyboards.  Every child made their own hero or villain, but worked towards developing teamwork - children working together to create their stories.   The stories needed at least one hero and one villain for a story anyway, and this provided a means to make teams and explore why or how a hero does what he or she does.  Teamwork is recognised as important by teaching staff, but:

'We don't often work together like this.  It's not easy to assess individuals.'

The heroes lent a helping hand for the children to reflect:

'Heroes can work together.  Villains aren't very good at it.' (child comment)

The project has been really well supported by all the staff at the school, and both the Head and Deputy visited and talked to the children.  For a moment I worried what response the head teacher would get when he walked into a lively class and ask children, 'Where's the learning?'  Everyone was having fun, but the heroes were working tirelessly on the learning - children were having discussions together about what being a hero is all about, and the challenges of working together to save the world!

Teacher comment:

'Some of them found it quite difficult to work together...[The children said] 'I don't want this to happen, I don't want that to happen'.  They're a very independent bunch that like their own ideas.  They all enjoyed will help teamwork in the class, and tomorrow if they actually put other people's heroes into their [creative writing] stories, that'll be great!'

Child comment:

'It's hard to work together when it is working in a noisy team.  It can be hard.  You need to listen to each other.'

Useful links:

Fruit and veg city

Bad School Lunches uncovered

What is a fair share?

Friday 30 September 2011

Bright Space ends

Proud moment - receiving award from Barbara Nice
for networking at the Bright Space Oscars July 2011.
Photo thanks Gillian 
Bright Space closes it's doors today, and so ends an era for me.  Personally, it is a great loss, having worked as a creative agent and practitioner with both Bright Space and Creative Partnerships, but I think a far greater a loss for the children and schools who have benefited the most.

Despite it's well measured and documented achievements and the 'value for money' invested into the programme, there are no plans to replace Bright Space or Creative Partnerships.   The work ends, even if the database (and website) lingers on.

There are far fewer creative practitioners working in schools, and we all wait to see what changes are still to happen in the education sector.  There is, however, one legacy recognised by the present administration - the value of collaboration (Big Society), and the importance of our networks.  Now, more than ever, we need to pull together to make the most of every opportunity, and to shape the way education and other policies can most effectively support learning in our schools.

Thanks everyone who has worked at Bright Space, Creative Partnerships, and everyone connected to it. Let's keep in touch.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Do Cooperatives miss the funding bus?

Today I went to MAC for Co-operatives West Midlands networking event for 'creative cooperatives'.  Nick Matthews introduced the day, highlighting the continuing problem the coop has in promoting itself, with classic response, 'the Coop, is that like Tescos?'

No it isn't, and interestingly enough, despite a more troubling UK retail Coop, Cooperatives in Japan are apparently out competing Tescos.  Nick talked about organising creatives as like 'herding cats'.   He suggested the coop model works for creative types.  I'd agree they have a talent for working with a wide range of people, as was evident with the next presentation from Electro-swing Circus - Birmingham's newest Performance Co-operative.

There was discussion about the 'resilience' of cooperative structure in present eco climate - afterall, advantages of a workforce which owns the business works harder, and people buy the 'coop' brand believing it to be more 'ethical' (even if, returning to coop promotion problem, few people seem to know why coops might be better).

There was also mention of potential economic advantages in regard to taxing.  Steve Holdworth from IGNITE creative discussed why they became a Coop, initiated by advice from their accountant.

Maybe I should be more bothered by the hard financial advantages of coops, but I went to the event  because I wanted to explore the social benefits of sharing embodied in the Coop.  What advantages are there?  Well, Co-operative Futures were on hand, highlighting the 'family coop', and used a Bus analogy - a coop is like a bus taking people to profits/benefits.   A key question - Who do you want on the bus and why?  Who claims the dividend and who are your customers?  Does your model really work?  Hard questions, and subtly different from other business model questions.

Recently I've been thinking more about 'the funding bus' - a phenomena which is growing in our (creative and education) sector, where practitioners increasingly look to the funders first, and find a client to match.  The model is embodied by playground equipment manufacturers like Playforce, who provide support for schools to make applications to funding sources they have already identified, to buy the equipment they sell.  It's a tough challenge , when some applications require a great deal of knowledge, time and effort to complete, and where experienced form fillers are at a distinct advantage.  Surely this is a valuable skill we should be rewarding - if some of the funding targeted at schools goes to pay for fund raisers, isn't that OK, as long as they get some cash for the school?  Operating in a competitive market, some businesses may not be offering schools the best value - isn't that up to the schools to work out?

I was there because I thought the cooperative model may offer some solutions to these problems, sharing info, experiences, practice, to provide the 'best quality' creative work efficiently.  I was also pleased to see Future Melting Pot there, already on the way to being a cooperative - collective experience across a range of sectors to support and promote each other.

Coops don't necessarily avoid the funding bus, but they can provide social benefit and business solutions which ensure needs are more properly analysed, and more of the money is spent most effectively.  Coops seem to win hands down, financially, providing quality services, treating workers properly, generally more ethical, and yes, Coops, are sexy again.