Perpetual insanity machine

Charlie in treeI may have been the only person in the country who was delighted by the arrival of torrential rain today. Torrential rain at about lunchtime? That’ll be perfect.

In not entirely unrelated news, we have been trying to get Ginger Cat to the vet for some time. His vaccination boosters are due, but every time we book an appointment for him, the weather warms up and Ginger Cat moves outdoors and disappears. I think he’s related to the Cheshire Cat.

Not to be outwitted by a small furry creature, we formed a cunning plan. We waited until the weather forecast was looking very, very wet. Ginger Cat hates being out in the rain. He always comes inside. We booked an appointment at the vet for early this afternoon.

Mr TLC advised me to hope for rain around lunchtime. Rather obligingly, it rained and rained and rained. “Aha!” I thought, “That’ll get Ginger Cat to go home.”

Ginger Cat did not appear.

Mr TLC tried all his best cat summoning tricks. He rattled the food dishes. He made tuna sandwiches for his lunch, something that normally causes the prodigal cat to fly in through the cat flap.

Ginger Cat did not appear.

Mr TLC pretended to go out. Ginger Cat loves to follow us, mewing piteously and being hard to leave.

Ginger Cat did not appear.

Mr TLC eventually gave up and rang the vet to offer yet another set of apologies.

Ginger Cat finally strolled in at around the time the vet closes for the evening. The cat that had supposedly been outside in the rain was warm, dry and not even slightly hungry. Hmm. That is suspicious. I think Ginger Cat shall henceforth be known as Charlie Twohouses.

What’s that quote about insanity? Doing the same things over and over again but expecting different results?

That’ll be us. We’ve booked another vet’s appointment for Charlie Twohouses tomorrow. Let’s hope it rains!

I receive an unexpected makeover

Q: What happens when you leave the sixth form alone for two minutes with your log in screen projected on the board?

MoreThanMaths, mustached and monocled

A: You acquire a rather dashing moustache. And a monocle. And a top hat (worn at a jaunty angle, of course.)

It’s a shame that the excellent local fancy dress shop has closed down. It would have been fun to turn up with the tache, hat and monocle on non-uniform day.

We get Gardened Up

It’s a long time since I’ve been to a garden show, but I was intrigued by the sound of Sheffield’s brand new Garden Up event. Held in the beautiful surroundings of the Botanical Gardens and full of interesting things, it proved to be well worth a visit.

There were a few show gardens, some highly professional, such as Phil Hirst’s beautifully planted garden promoting the National Gardens Scheme. Others were more homespun, several of them featuring creations made by local school children. The garden by King Edward VII School managed to be both of these things at once – it looked great and turned out to feature an array of nicely crafted objects. My favourites were definitely the milk bottle birds.

Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014

There was a fabulously futuristic… er garden? Or was it architecture? Or an art installation? The Social Media Garden, created by the University of Lincoln was probably all of these. A set of steel panels opened and closed, seemingly at random, revealing planting beneath them. The panels were in fact programmed to respond to keywords featuring on social media channels. The chosen word of the day, rain, was getting a lot of mentions, so the mechanisms driving the panels were kept busy.

Garden Up, Sheffield 2014    Garden Up, Sheffield 2014

The rain obviously had a big effect on the success of day one of Garden Up. The event was pleasant but not packed – which was great for us, but not so good for the exhibitors. I think many people were put off by the torrential rain that had arrived as promised this morning. We decided to give it a go and set off whilst it was still raining, but we were lucky – the rain eased off and a beautiful blue sky put in an appearance. However the rain took its toll on the site. Despite the presence of some matting here and there, the grass underfoot was very, very muddy.

It was worth squelching through a bit of mud though. Once we had seen the show gardens and lingered to listen to some music, we wandered around and had a look at what else was on offer. There were some interesting sculptures and structures on show, plus a couple of small marquees with floral displays and art and craft items. Personal highlights included the display from the Sheffield Orchid Society, James Green’s linocut prints and watching Andrew ‘Stoneface’ Vickers carving a new piece whilst we admired his work. I love Andrew Vickers’ sculptures – I have one of his beautiful stone faces in my garden, it’s gorgeous.

Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014

There were of course lots of stalls selling plants. I went with a definite list in mind, which was just as well, because it would have been very easy to go crazy. We came away with some gorgeous magenta and purpley-blue creeping geraniums, a brash but beautiful heuchera with acid yellow leaves and red veining and a couple of bargain sedums.

Whilst there were plenty of interesting things to see and do, the layout of the event could have been improved. There was no obvious route round and it would have been easy to miss things. In fact, we probably did miss things. Given that the Botanical Gardens has established paths, I’m not sure why the event organisers didn’t arrange the various stands along some of these instead of having everyone walk through the (very soggy) grassed areas. There were some exhibits along the main path, but other paths were largely unused.

Having said that, all in all, we had a very nice time. Garden Up is still on tomorrow, so if you are in Sheffield, you can see for yourself. If not, hopefully Garden Up will return next year – when they might just have better luck with the weather.

Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014Garden Up, Sheffield 2014

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!

rapunzel-cake

The occasion of the Younger Grandkitten’s birthday presents an excellent opportunity for a spot of baking. She is a huge fan of Rapunzel, which, combined with a dimly remembered picture from an old recipe book, gave me an idea. A few props were required – the top half of a doll from the discount store, some wool for the hair extensions, a paper crown – but most of it was made from cake and icing. Actually, it is only the adults who ever seem to eat the cake, the small ones just seems to eat the icing. Fondant icing proved to be much trickier to make than I had expected, so the final product had a definite homemade look, but that’s fine. It looked like Rapunzel, the Younger Grandkitten was happy and no-one thought it was a mouse. Success.

Looking back–and forwards. Well, it is New Year.

A New BeginningWhat kind of year was 2013?

It was a year that started well, with a relaxing weekend in London, taking in Cirque du Soleil and the Twelfth Night celebrations on Bankside, before delivering a winter that was rather too long for my taste.

It was the year when I completed the final module of my MEd with the Open University.

It was also the year when Supermum suffered stroke number three together with an infection that seemed resistant to all attempts to treat it. After a week when she had slipped from partially conscious to fully unconscious, we were told that her chances of survival were poor. In the face of this bad news, I remembered my Nan’s advice: put on a smile and keep busy. We visited Supermum regularly and talked to her as if she could hear us, then once visiting time was over I got stuck into reading, marking, school work and that all important final assignment for my MEd.

It was the year when against all the odds, just as she seemed to be slipping away from us, Supermum woke up and announced that she was hungry. Whilst she is still with us, she has lost so much that matters to her: her independence, many of her memories, her ability to keep the memories that she still has in any kind of order. For many weeks she clearly had no idea who I was. She liked us to visit though, so Mr TLC and I turned up and chatted cheerily to the confused lady whose mind wandered off to places where we couldn’t follow. She looked so familiar, yet she seemed like a stranger to us.

It was a year when I decided to follow Jay Lake’s excellent advice: be kind, and don’t miss your opportunities. Despite a nagging sense of guilt that I was planning to do fun stuff whilst my Mum was still in the hospital, Mr TLC and I stopped saying “one day…” and actually went out and did stuff during the summer break. Nothing of any great significance, just trips to the seaside, a visit to the Lake District, walks in the Peak District, visiting interesting places, that kind of thing. Most importantly, we caught up with our some of our neglected family and friends and reminded them who we were.

It was a year when some visitors turned up in the first week of the new school year and said “Could do better.” Like Arnie, they’ll be back.

It was the year when we had to break Supermum’s heart by moving her into a care home. I was lucky, my sister did the all the difficult stuff: finding somewhere, making arrangements, dealing with the seemingly endless administrative and financial complications. Of course, Supermum hates it, which is entirely understandable, but I don’t know how else we can provide the 24 hour care that she needs. I’m not rich enough to give up work and do it myself.  And there is some good news: Supermum is still struggling with her memory, but since moving into the care home she now (usually) knows who we are. I am fantastically grateful for that.

It was the year when I finally passed my MEd – woohoo! I told Supermum, who was very pleased, but clearly had no clue what I was talking about, so I told Mr TLC I’d passed eleventy-nine times to make up for it. Then I told my Dad, who was most delighted indeed.

It was a year of running away to the seaside. I’m not sure why Mr TLC and I spent so much time at the coast, but it was surprisingly good for me. From the majestic bleakness of Maryport’s deserted beach, to Scarborough’s picture postcard resort, to Cherbourg and Utah Beach, I found our seaside sojourns incredibly calming.

And it has been a year of digital absence. Analogue events took precedence. That’s life.

What kind of year was 2013? For me it was a roller-coaster year, which makes it just like any other year – although this year’s roller coaster was a lot scarier than I would have liked.

What am I hoping for in 2014? Frankly I have no idea. It’s the wrong time of year for resolutions (I make mine at the start of the academic year), but we’ve been making a few plans and have some interesting things lined up. And (hopefully) 2014 will be a year when I re-engage with some of my digital friends and colleagues.

Bring it on.

 

Photo: A New Beginning by Éktor on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Licence.

A bit of housekeeping

Dustpan KittyFirstly, my apologies to anyone who tried to use this site in the last couple of weeks and found it difficult to navigate. An automatic update left me with no menu, no header and various other problems. Since I’ve been a bit busy and haven’t looked at the site, I didn’t notice that there was a problem. Sorry about that.

I think I’ve fixed all the problems now – but please let me know if I’ve missed anything.

 

Photo: Dustpan Kitty by Juco on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Licence.

Rebooting my language learning with Duolingo

duolingo-bannerWhat happened when I went on holiday to France for the first time in about 3 years? Obviously I had a very nice time visiting interesting places, enjoying the local cafes and generally relaxing – but I’ll tell you more about that over the next few days. I also discovered that I had forgotten a lot of very basic words and phrases. Not good – and entirely down to a lack of practice. It seems I need to do a little more than read the odd article in l’Equipe from time to time in order to maintain my limited language skills.

Since I’ve finally finished my M.Ed course (huzzah!) I’ve got some time available for languages again, so I decided to give Duolingo a try. I’ve been impressed so far.

What is it?

Duolingo is a website that allows you to learn a language for free. The activities that I have used are a mixture of simple tasks to practise reading, writing, speaking and listening. The activities are straightforward, but they are sufficiently varied and introduce enough new material each time to keep me interested.

What’s so good about it?

It’s free and easy to use. I find the Duolingo lessons are most effective on my laptop, where I have a keyboard, but there is also an app, which works quite well on my iPod. I’ve not tried the Android version, because nothing works well on my phone!

Regular practice is encouraged. The lessons are short, varied and can be completed at any time. Duolingo also sends very polite (and very optional) daily reminder emails to encourage me to keep going. Finally there are virtual rewards available for regular daily practice.

French skill treeProgress is recognised and rewarded. The lessons and practice drills for each language are arranged in a ‘skill tree’, which unlocks gradually as each level is completed. Duolingo also awards points and a virtual currency called ‘lingots’ for successful completion of lessons, levels and so on. I was a little surprised at how much this kind of gamified scoring appealed to me once I got started.

Regular reviews of earlier work are encouraged. Each block of activities has a bar indicating progress, but this progress bar doesn’t stay at the maximum level unless you practise the skills regularly. After a week, I discovered that some of the bars on my skill tree had started to drop down. Redoing some lessons or completing a practice session topped them back up.

There are flexible start points. In German, I simply started at beginner level. I have studied German before, but I had forgotten almost everything. However in French I was rusty, but not a total beginner, so I opted to do an assessment test. This immediately ‘unlocked’ a large section of the skill tree and assigned me a starting level. The level was obviously about right – I’ve been able to complete the tasks, but I made a few errors and needed to learn a few new words. There are also options to take tests that unlock all activities up to certain key points, so if I did find the work too easy, I could move on.

After 10 days, I’m already seeing an improvement in my vocabulary, which is exactly what I’d hoped for.

What’s the catch?

Well, Duolingo is free with no ads, which made me wonder how it is being funded. According to their site, Duolingo has received some capital from investors and it makes money from what appears to be crowd-sourced translations. I’m not sure how viable that is as a business model, but I really hope they succeed. It’s a great site – I’d happily pay a subscription or donate to keep it going.

 

 

Picture: Duolingo banner © Duolingo, Inc.

Thought for the week

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

attributed to Seneca (via Lifehacker)

How true. I’m hoping that my hard-working Y11 students make their own luck when they take their GCSE Mathematics exams this week.

___________________________________

I had forgotten that I had written this post. Given what happened since I drafted it, it no longer seems entirely appropriate, so an update is in order.

Like many schools, mine faced an impossibly difficult decision when changes were announced shortly before the November exam. The result is that my hard-working Y11 students are now taking mock exams this week – but have continued to work just as hard as if it was the real thing.

Best of luck to them – and to all the students who are still taking their GCSE Mathematics exams this week.

Wirksworth Festival-Part Two

Where was I? Some visitors turned up, so I’ve been a bit busy with other  things ;-)

Anyway, here’s a few more bits and pieces from Wirksworth:

We went to see Niall Young, who was dotting away on Rainbow Warrior – I forgot to take a photo, but came away with a very nice print. We loved Lucy Gell’s whimsical illustrations – and I’m sure Mr TLC’s granddaughters will love the greetings cards/mobiles that we’ve stashed away for their next birthdays.  The granddaughters aren’t really old enough to appreciate Corrina Rothwell’s quirky humour, but we liked it – so that’s a few more greetings cards stashed away ready for the forthcoming October-birthday-fest.

We found Rupert the Bear in the maker’s market  (and yes, of course we sang the song – but only quietly, because we are very polite):

Makers marketRupert the Bear

There was a “SQUIRREL!” in a garden – one of several woven sculptures by Paul Higginson:

Squirrel

And finally, one of my favourites this year: Olivia Punnett’s ‘Greenhill Intervention’. Greenhill is a narrow street, lined with stone cottages. Olivia Punnett had painted lots of patterns of ‘light’ on the ground, as if they were shining out from the windows of the cottages. It will wash away, but it’s rather beautiful while it lasts.

Greendale with artLight patterns

Wirksworth Festival–Part One

The Art & Architecture Trail is easily the highlight of the Wirksworth Festival, with a wide variety of buildings becoming galleries for the day and playing host to an amazing number of artists. We spent most of Sunday visiting churches, gardens, the library, tiny cottages, large houses, schools, shops and even the railway station. The array of work on display was as large as ever, with paintings, photography, sculpture, baskets, pottery, jewellery, quilts and more.

We also spent quite a lot of time soaking up the atmosphere, whether it was enjoying a cup of coffee whilst listening to a busker in someone’s gorgeous courtyard garden, dancing to one of the bands that took the stage in the market place or sampling the beer at the local brewery. Definitely an eat, drink and be merry sort of day. With glorious sunshine. And art.

Not so many photos this year – I was still getting to grips with my new camera – but here’s a few highlights:

Some of Duncan Thurlby’s sculptures:

CrabFishgorilla-3HoundphoneTitanicAnyone want some toast

Paul Smith’s work always makes me smile:

Paul Smith Sculpture 1Paul Smith sculpture 2

The local quilting group had a chapel full of beautiful quilts:

Sampler QuiltQuilting display 1Quilting display 2

But was the window display at the vet’s surgery just a load of balls? ;P

A load of balls