Things to do in the holidays that don’t cost the earth

A few days ago someone commented on a supply teaching group I belong to that she was worried about being bored in the long summer holidays.

Holidays are difficult for supply teachers, because we don’t get paid, and although in theory the daily rate includes holiday pay, when for some that daily rate is as low as £85 and they’re not guaranteed work for every day of the school term, it’s hard to budget for holidays.

Any holiday activities therefore, need to be cheap, or preferably free! As someone who never gets bored, I find the worry in the first paragraph difficult to understand, so here are some of the things I do in holidays that don’t cost the earth to do.

Blogging: Well, obviously – you’re reading this and it didn’t just write itself! On this blog I share some of my ideas for teaching and give my opinions on education related topics. I’m always looking for guest posters, so if you have an education related idea and you’d like somewhere to share it, please do get in touch with me.

Walking: At the weekend I went out with my husband and dad and we visited a couple of our local nature reserves. We took a picnic and stayed out all day, enjoying the fresh air and each other’s company. We saw several birds (including buzzards,  jays, thrushes and treecreepers, as well as the more common blackbirds, robins, magpies and crows), several different types of bee (including red-tailed and buff-tailed bumblebees) and lots of unusual flowers. There were apparently red deer also to be seen, but we weren’t lucky enough on this occasion.

Cycling: I live in a big city and I’m terrified of the traffic. Gone are the days when I happily cycled to my city centre office job. But even here, there are plenty of quiet roads and designated cycle paths, and I’ve spent a very pleasant day cycling through one of our large urban parks this week.

Catching up with friends: I hardly speak to my friends in term-time, so holidays are a time for seeing the ones who live close and having a good old natter, and putting pen to paper/fingertips to keyboard to write to the ones who live abroad.

Reading: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love reading. I buy most of my books from supermarkets when they are on offer and pay about £3.50 per book, but if this is too much there’s always the library. I read a whole range of fiction: thrillers, horror, chick lit, fantasy, children’s books, young adult….and then I don’t get bored with any one type. There’s nothing better than curling up in a corner and getting lost in a good story.

Fiction writing: I love to take a pen and paper and get creative. Sometimes shorter pieces; sometimes poems; sometimes even longer works. I’ve shared some of my flash fiction on my personal blog, and I have one finished book and one in-progress book locked in my desk drawer waiting for me to have the courage to submit them to a publisher.

Stargazing: even if you can’t afford a telescope or binoculars, you can still take a blanket outside, lie down and look up at the night sky. You can watch the constellations as they appear to move over time, pick out several of the planets (we’ve seen Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter this year) and watch out for the ISS as it passes overhead. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a decent telescope you can see the bands on Jupiter and watch Gannymede, Europe, Callisto and Io as they dance around him.  I have writing a blog post about what you can see with the naked eye on my to-do list – it just hasn’t reached the top yet!

Learning new languages: last summer I went on a (free) intensive Chinese course. I was really diligent over the summer, revising what I’d learnt on the course and teaching myself the next steps. Once the school year started I ran out of time for it. I’ve retained some because for two terms I did teach what I’d learned so far, but I’m looking forward to having time this summer to recap and move on. I’ve also been trying to learn German forever, and above my desk I have some Flashsticks that I look at whenever I sit down to work.

Learning other new things: there are so many sites offering free courses now that it’s easier than ever to learn new things. I’ve only signed up to FutureLearn and Open2Study, although there are many more, and so far I’ve learned about the new computing curriculum, archaeology, forensic psychology, how Shakespeare’s life experiences influenced his plays, how to write newspaper articles, the moons in our solar system, how to teach languages to people with dyslexia, the forgotten stories of WW1, Maori and Aborigine culture…….and too many other things to list. The day I want to stop learning is the day I’ll give up teaching!

Watching TV: I’m not one for sitting for hours in front of the box (although I do like Dr Who and Strictly Come Dancing) but there are some good programmes on. Last Sunday was the first in a series about the Spanish Armada which I’m looking forward to watching with my husband when he gets back from his week-long Harry Potter tour.

Craft: I’m hopeless at arts and crafts, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to be good at. I’ve tried a few different things, and like with most things in life, the more I practice the better I get. I’m probably never going to be good enough to be able to sell what I make but I find it relaxing and I’m happy just to be able to see progress. I bought a teach yourself to draw book (£2 from The Works) and I’ve been having a go at sketching. I’ve tried painting and although I’m no Constable there is definite improvement from my 1st to my 3rd ever attempts. I’ve decorated boxes and jam jars with tissue paper and beads, and I’ve taught myself arm knitting! And I’ve not used anything I couldn’t have got from Poundland.

week1week2the final mess





Cooking: This isn’t my favourite activity, but it’s useful and a girl’s got to eat. Usually my husband does the cooking in our household, but sometimes in the holidays I’ll set aside a day or two when I cook all day and then put everything in the freezer to use up when we both get too busy to think about preparing meals.

By the time you add in life’s necessities – housework, grocery shopping, and keeping the garden under control – just about every second of my holiday is accounted for. There’s no time for feeling bored. What do the rest of you do in your holidays? Why not share your ideas in the comments below.

Why MFL is good for children with SEN

A few days ago I read something that made me really angry. It was an article written by a parent about how the education system is letting her children down. At first I was sympathetic, and found myself nodding along with what she was saying. I agree that the education system isn’t perfect. I agree that sometimes, some children slip through the net and don’t get the help they need. But then she used the words that are guaranteed to infuriate me: “What’s the point in making them study French when they can’t even read and write English?”

It’s not the first time I’ve come across this attitude, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but it makes me cross and it makes me sad. I’m an MFL specialist so maybe I’m biased, but I can see plenty of reasons not to withdraw children from MFL lessons – including and especially those with learning difficulties. Let me explain….

What do French, Spanish, German, Italian and Dutch have in common? That’s right…they are all languages. So is English, so already we have identified something that English and whatever foreign language the child is studying have in common!

As languages, French, Spanish, German etc use grammar – just like English. And so here is my first reason for not withdrawing a child from their MFL lessons: in MFL we talk about grammar. We use words such as noun, verb, adjective, definite article, preposition….all the words the child is being taught in their English lessons are being reinforced in their MFL lesson. If they didn’t understand it first time, here is a golden opportunity to go over it again, in a different context. In MFL lessons we talk about the fact that verbs change their endings depending on who is doing them, and compare this to English “I look, you look” but “he looks”, so again there is more reinforcement of grammar. We talk about the different tenses and when to use them, and we look at how to structure a sentence and guess what…..we compare all this to English too. We look at similes and alliteration. We practise dictionary skills. In MFL, more than in probably any other lesson, we reinforce what they are learning in their English lessons.

It’s not just grammar that MFL helps with; it’s spelling too. In MFL lessons we look at spelling patterns and we talk about which ones are similar to English and which ones are completely different. More importantly, we think about how to remember the spellings of the words, and these techniques can be transferred to their English lessons.

It’s not just their English that benefits. When we learn how to count in a different language, or how to tell the time, we’re reinforcing their maths. When we look at countries where that language is spoken we are reinforcing their geography. The children study the culture of those countries (PSHE and RE), investigate the rhythm of language (music) and perform role plays (drama).

The other important thing about language – all languages – is that they are a means of communication. It isn’t just about reading and writing. Communication also involves speaking and listening, and we do plenty of that in MFL lessons. Just because a child struggles to spell, or to hold a pencil, doesn’t mean that they can’t excel at speaking, and just because a child finds speaking and listening difficult doesn’t mean they can’t do well with reading and writing. Last year I taught Spanish to a child who had several learning disabilities including dyslexia. He found writing difficult, but he really got the concept of adjective agreement and was able to show his understanding with the way he pronounced words when speaking, and he was really proud of his achievement. I’ve taught French to Deaf children because the school believed that they should have the same opportunities as hearing children. Some of them found it difficult, but some of them did really, really well with it. What a shame it would have been for those children if they’d been pulled out of language lessons because somebody decided it would be too hard for them.

My dream is for more people to take this attitude. To stop saying “What’s the point?” and to start saying “Why not?” Because maybe, just maybe, MFL could be the one subject the child excels at.

Addition 17-08-16
I came across this article recently, which gives a few more reasons: Why foreign languages have a place in autism education

Summer Reading

It’s the summer holidays. Hopefully everyone is enjoying the time off, but if you or your young ones are getting bored, why not have a look at these books?

For KS1: Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Williams. This is an old book now – I remember reading it when I was a child myself – but it’s still just as appealing now as it was then. You can’t help but feel sorry for poor Gobbolino who really doesn’t want to be a witch’s cat. The story tells of his adventures as he searches for a home where he can be just a normal cat.

KS2: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. Poor Percy Jackson doesn’t realise that he’s a demi-god until one of his teachers tries to kill him. After that his life gets seriously turned upside-down when he discovers that his best friend is a satyr and that the god of war really has it in for him If, like me, you have an interest in Greek mythology these books are even more special, but even if you’ve never been a fan of classical history the Percy Jackson series is a great read that will appeal to boys and girls alike. Start with Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief and just keep going! I’ve finished this series, but on my summer reading list I have the second series: The Heroes of Olympus.

KS3: The Everlost Trilogy by Neal Shusterman. What happens when you die if you don’t end up where you are supposed to be? You end up in Everlost, and the only ways to avoid sinking into the centre of the earth are to keep moving or to find a ‘dead spot’ (a place where somebody else has died) to stand on. Everlost is divided into those who want to help the lost souls find their way to where they should be, and those who want to stop them. With a cast including pirates, ogres and people who can take over the bodies of the living, there is quite a battle. For younger readers it’s just a good read – for older readers it has quite an existential feel – Jean-Paul Sartre would have been proud!

KS4:Unwind (also by Neal Shusterman). This one covers some quite gritty issues. Imagine a world where it is illegal to terminate a pregnancy, but when your child reaches the age of 13 you can change your mind. If you decide that having your child was a mistake you can apply to have them ‘unwound’, which involves every single part of their body being used in transplants to save other people’s lives. How would you feel if you had grown up believing your family loved you until the day the authorities come to unwind you? How would you feel if you had grown up in a family that believe in donating 10% of their possessions to charity, and you are their 10th child? This book follows the lives of some children who are on the run to save their lives. To escape the ‘unwind order’, they must stay alive until they are 18.

Young Adults: There probably aren’t many people who haven’t already read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy, but if you are one of them – what are you waiting for? It’s set in the future after there has been some sort of uprising, and the divide between the rich and the poor is very clearly defined. As a punishment for the uprising, the various districts are forced to enter two of their young people, one boy and one girl, into a contest where they have to fight to the death in the name of entertainment. Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark may be teenagers, but the action is tense and fast-paced enough to keep adults turning the pages as well. I have heard a few critics say that this book is just a rehash of Stephen King’s The Running Man, but to me this seems a bit harsh. It is true that The Running Man was probably more visionary at the time, because reality TV wasn’t the bulk of entertainment in those days, but The Hunger Games is more than just reality TV taken to extremes – especially as the plot unfolds further in the second and final books.

These are my recommendations for summer reading. What are yours? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.