Summer Solstice

In the Northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is the name given to the longest day of the year – i.e. the day when the sun appears highest in the sky and there is more sunlight than on any other day (16 hours and 38 minutes in the UK this year).  It falls on 21st June, but celebrations relating to the solstice are held on the day itself and the days either side, depending on local traditions.

Celebrations to mark the solstice date back to ancient times, when the sun was revered as a deity in many cultures, and its movements were the subject of great interest and had many legends and stories attached to them.  The name “solstice” comes from the Latin words for sun and standing still, as it is the day the sun can be seen to reverse its course in the sky.  These days, when we think of the summer solstice we tend to think primarily of the pagan festivities that take place, as these can still be found in modern society.  As was also the case in the distant past, they are most prevalent in Scandinavian countries, where people actually experience a full 24 hours of sunlight at this time of year.  In the UK, the summer solstice is marked by a 4-day festival at Stonehenge, our most famous Neolithic site, where the alignment of the stones highlights the sunrise on midsummer day.  In past times, the most widespread practice was to light bonfires to symbolise the triumph of the sun over darkness.  Because it was seen as a time of warmth and light, when crops are in their main growing season, there were also fertility rituals at this time and it was considered an auspicious time for marriages.

Litha is the name that the Anglo Saxons gave to this much earlier festival, and that is the name by which most modern-day Pagans and Wiccans refer to the celebrations.  As well as watching the sunrise, it is a day for reflecting on “dark” and “light” aspects of your own life, looking ahead and planning for the harvest time and winter on the horizon, and also for spending time enjoying the sunshine in the outdoors with family, culminating with communal meals cooked outdoors and the lighting of traditional fires, accompanied by singing, drama and storytelling.  Generally speaking, it is one of the most light-hearted and festive of the major dates on the calendar.

As with many earlier traditions, the medieval Christian church co-opted existing festivals as days of religious observance.  In the case of the summer solstice, the midsummer celebrations became the feast days of St John the Baptist (24th June), with the bonfires lit to ward off evil spirits being a direct adoption of existing practices.

No matter what your religious beliefs, the summer solstice symbolises the arrival of summer (not that this is always apparent in the UK!).  As such, it heralds the time of year when we tend to spend more time outdoors – perhaps enjoying the sunshine on picnics or walks, or just experiencing the natural world – and when we take most of our family holidays.  And it’s interesting to think that if you are in the garden enjoying a barbecue or sitting around your fire pit with friends and family in the next few days, you will be doing the same as people the world over have been doing at this time of year for millennia.

Thank you again to my lovely husband, Ian Braisby (Blue Badge Guide), for writing this piece for me.

Related posts: Autumn Equinox, Yule

How to Study Smart: 20 Scientific Ways to Learn Faster – Daniel Wong

Most of us have to learn something new at some point in our lives. Thankfully my GCSE, A level and BA days are behind me, but I still like to do short courses and if ever a fairy godmother dropped a fortune in my lap I’d love to do a Masters in the future.

These tips, which I found on the Open2Study Facebook page are for everyone who still has exams to pass. I especially like the one about taking notes with pen and paper, because I always feel more creative with a pen in my hand than a keyboard at my fingertips.

How to Study Smart: 20 Scientific Ways to Learn Faster – Daniel Wong.

When is a test not a test?

It’s amazing what a difference a word makes. Say the word “test” and people fly into a panic: I don’t know it! I can’t remember it! I hate tests!

This year, instead of doing tests at the end of a unit, we have had quizzes instead. Now children are not stupid, and if you just swap the words “quiz” and “test”, they still know it’s a test. So we had real pub-quiz style quizzes. The children wrote their team name (which had to include their own name) at the top of the paper and then huddled their arms round it to stop anybody else copying, and before we started they had to switch off their invisible phones.

I put the questions into rounds and read them out in my best Quizmaster voice. For a bit of extra authenticity I made one of the rounds a picture round…. In fact the only thing we lacked was the chance to play a joker for double points! And at the end I announced the “winners” who won a round of applause from the rest of the class.

The children loved it. In fact if anybody was off sick on the day of the quiz I had to delay announcing the winners, because next lesson the children who had been absent would beg for the chance to sit in the corner quietly and do the quiz on their own!

Did it make the children who didn’t win feel bad? Well, actually – no. Because it was a bit of fun not a test, there was no pressure and I found that even the children who found the subject more difficult did really well in the quizzes. Sometimes they even won!

During lessons they became more willing to admit if they didn’t understand something, so any uncertainties and misconceptions could be dealt with more quickly. They became more willing to take risks because they knew that making mistakes wasn’t a disaster – it was just a step on the road to the learning – and this helped them to learn even more. And the more they learnt the better they did in the end of unit quiz.

At the end of the year the children voted the quizzes the most fun thing they had done in that topic, and as I looked at the class I knew that every single one of them had made more progress than I had imagined possible.

Would this work with every class? I don’t know. What I do know is that for this particular mix of children, turning those end of unit tests into quizzes made the children happy, relaxed and enthusiastic learners.

Of Einstein and Fish

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

This is a quotation, attributed to Albert Einstein, which is repeated over and again all over the internet every time our government makes a proposal about education that some people disagree with. To me, it’s one of life’s little annoyances. Why?

Well, for starters Albert Einstein never actually said it. If you don’t believe me take a few moments to Google it now, and if you find any proof at all that he did, please leave a link in the comments below.

Secondly, it’s untrue. If fish had never climbed trees there would be no tree-dwelling animals now and there would be no humans. We’d all still be swimming round at the bottom of the oceans.

Thirdly, it’s even more untrue. There are actually fish, living today, which can climb trees. Seriously. Google it.

Fourthly, it’s a downright lie. Not everyone is a genius. Most of us aren’t. The ones who are make it into the history books.

And Lastly? It’s just a cop out! It’s a way of absolving ourselves from the responsibility of educating our children.

When I look back over my childhood, there are two types of teachers who stand out. There are the ones who made me believe I could do anything if I tried and who then gave me the confidence to try, and there are those who told me I’d never climb trees because I was a fish. I’ll never forget Mr Holmes, who saw the potential behind the timid little mouse and gave me a speaking part in the school play. I’ll also never forget the music teacher (who I won’t name) who told me that with a voice like mine I really shouldn’t sing, because over 30 years later I can’t even sing along to the radio if I think someone else is within earshot .

Our job as teachers is not to look at our class and sort them into runners, swimmers, fliers and climbers. Our job is to equip every child with shoes, flippers, wings and ropes and to make sure that every single one of them achieves all of the skills to the best of their ability.

Some of them may run marathons and some may never run further than the corner of the road; some may swim the channel and some may just about doggy paddle their way to a 5m badge; some may soar high above the ground and some may only hover a few centimetres from the floor; some might make it to the top of the tree and some may never make it past the first branch. But with the right teaching and encouragement, there is no reason why any child in a mainstream school, and most children in special schools, shouldn’t run and swim and fly and climb.

So you’ll never find me retweeting nonsense about Einstein and fish. Instead you’ll find me in my classroom, helping some of the children build a ladder to reach the first branch and holding a safety net to encourage the others to reach for the top of the tree. Who’s with me?

Modular Changes

photoThis is another guest post from Natalie, who wrote the fabulous “Teachers – it’s time to face the music” post about teacher stereotypes.  She has more to say, and this time it’s the modular changes to exams that she is angry about.

Take a deep breath. One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. A slide, a scan, a sigh.

It’s over – you know them now. All the hard work, all the agonizing over dates and names and numbers; it comes down to those few letters on a page. And then, whether they were good or bad, you move on and make plans accordingly.

This year, like so many others 17 year olds in the country, it was in that unforgettable, nervous, sweaty-palmed fever that I got my AS level results. I am, however, one of the last to ever do so, because next year that qualification will no longer exist. Mr Gove and Mr Cameron are changing current examinations to cut out modules, which they say are making a mockery of the system. According to the new government changes, re-sits must be quashed and the old, final examination system has to be brought back in (a system where students sit one set of exams after two years at both GCSE and A level).

As a young person interested in bettering my future, I could not disagree more.

Let’s start by ignoring the fact that countless headteachers and school boards have rejected the proposals (after all, that’s what the government and Ofsted have done), and just look at the impact that changing the system will have on students themselves. When I entered Sixth Form last September, I had no idea how difficult Year 12 was going to be. I had no idea how much work I would have to put into my AS levels. With exams looming in January and June, however, I soon found out. Those initial exams are a crucial wake-up-call to every single student that decides to take A levels. Without them, there is no way that either myself or my friends could have achieved what we had hoped for this summer. And now, with one year left, we can make informed decisions about our futures. Some people will have to change their university plans, realising that perhaps lower entrance requirements are more realistic. Others might drop A levels all together and take up an apprenticeship or a job. A few may re-take the year, giving themselves a valuable second chance. Remove the AS modular system and this will not happen. Students will flounder for two years, convinced they are doing enough and that it will all turn out fine in the end. For those students, results day will really be a nasty shock.

The government counters this argument by saying that the final examination system worked in the past and will work again. To say this, I feel, is to be completely ignorant to the fact that the world of work and education has developed dramatically. Since the modular system was brought into A levels in 2000, we have changed as a nation in unthinkable (and not always positive) ways. Jobs for young people in Britain are now scarce, youth unemployment is high, and the value of a university degree is not only academic but sensible – why not study for a further 3 or 4 years and wait out the economic storm? Why not better your chances at finding a job in the future?  The expectations of young people are that much higher now too, as we are repeatedly told that we must compete with nations across the globe. How can we do this if less people are going into higher education? How can we start to repair the economy of tomorrow if we are not given the opportunities to do so today? After all, employers are not going to know if you sat the 2014 system or the 2015 system. They will simply see your qualifications as they are. For me it all gets a bit personal too, because if I had been born 4 days later I would have been in the year below, putting me in that new final examination system. I am beyond grateful that this isn’t the case.

On top of this initial problem, there is the ever increasing pressure that this sudden change will bring. Balancing an entire future on one set of exams seems absolutely insane to me. One bad day can change everything, and that simply doesn’t work when the stakes are higher than ever before. A level examinations have always been intense, but over the last few years this intensity has multiplied threefold, as my parents’ and grandparents’ generations have told young people that the system will not allow us to achieve. We are told to reach for the stars but are apparently embroiled in incompetence that ties us to the ground. Our exams are ‘easy’, our learning ‘bite-sized’ and  – this is the most common thing we hear – we are given too many second chances. Quite frankly, this makes no sense. As far as I am concerned, second chances are not bad. In fact, I see them as necessary.
Students need to be taught that hard work, and nothing else, leads to success. The most effective way to prove this to young people is to let them experience it first hand – to show them what happens when you do not work hard enough. Is that not what the government wants? A generation that understands what it means to work hard and persevere? Modules encourage this by showing students their potential futures at the end of one year of A level study. This gives them a choice – work hard or give in. It is only by using this system that we can learn the value of hard work, something that pushes people to advance their futures. I have seen this transformation myself in some of my closest friends. It works, and consequently they work.

The government also claims that by removing the modular system they will make exams harder and stop the current ‘dumbing down’ of students. Not only am I shocked at the lack of thought put into this, but I am also insulted, and I have every right to be so. I am not naive, and I know that allowing countless re-sits is not sending the right message to students. However, I also know that the exams I sat this May were not easy. If Mr Gove disagrees with me, he is welcome to try a few. How belittling, how infantilizing, how patronising to say that the exams we work tirelessly for are easy! It is completely unfair to say that one year ‘had it easier’ than the other in the same way that it is impractical to pretend that a string of results reflects a whole person. Not everyone is an academic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the chance to go to University and further their study. After all, modules reflect working life much more than the final examination system does. No employer allows their employees to mess around for two years and then produces a test and expects them to get 100%. In the real, working world employers expect consistent hard work, and modules teach such consistency in a very structured way, giving students employable, transferable skills. Where exactly, I must ask, is the problem?

In the end it comes down to the simple fact that the proposed radical changes to the examination system will affect negatively on students and their exam results. That this is true I have no doubt. And yet, it appears that these changes will take place anyway. Given this, I call upon the government to give us the other part of the plan. Because surely if you are going to make it harder for students to get to university, there is a plan to provide for them elsewhere? Some super-duper apprenticeship schemes set to roll out across the country? Some foot-in-the-door tips and advice to give young people a chance at finding work? At the very least a plan to reduce youth unemployment? Please, do reveal all.

I was always told as a child that you shouldn’t take one foot out of the canoe unless your other foot is firmly in another. It’s too risky. When it comes to my future, I don’t want to take risks, but want to feel supported by a government that believes in my generation’s ability and wants to help us achieve. Instead we’ve lost both canoes and are facing the reality of plunging into murky, uncharted waters.

Take a deep breath. One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. A slip, a crash, a fall.

What do you think? Are these changes a bad idea? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. Natalie has a lot to say on a lot of different subjects, so if you want to read more of her writing, visit her blog Life as a Unicorn.