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Back to school…

13 Oct

(Preface: I’m aware that this blog is becoming a bit of a funny beast, originally I intended it to simply be a record of my ‘American Adventure’, then I got distracted with Museum stuff and now it’s all got a bit pedagogical! So yeah, evolution in progress!)

So as of tomorrow I will be starting my second quarter working as a Special Education Paraprofessional at a High School in Denver. Having now got almost 4 months of experience under my belt and about to jump into another term I feel reflective and in a blog-writing mood. Also as I like lists, and the internet likes lists (almost as much as it likes cats) I will be making a list. In fact two lists! So without further ado, here are the 3 best things I’ve learnt from last term and the 3 biggest mistakes I made. (Let me underscore that 4 months as a paraprofessional does not make me some expert teacher or child-whisperer, far from it. Please see these lists as a beginner-teacher muddling his way along rather than some cribsheet handed down from a teaching guru!)

USEFUL THINGS I LEARNT!

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1. There are students you struggle with, who push all your buttons and can make your day a misery. I had students who (and it shames me to say this) when they were off sick I would internally breath a sigh of relief. Without battling with these ‘problem students’ I knew my day would be that much easier. Weirdly, my experience has also shown me that these kids end up being your favourites! I had a student who 2 weeks into the job had me pulling my hair out, he would not do any work, he was rude, dismissive and generally found my presence in his classes to be an irritation and embarrassment. Having tried every technique I could Google, from bribing him with cake to long heart-to-hearts I was at my wits end. And guess what, he’s still a difficult kid, but all that effort has paid off in that now we have this really cool relationship. I know now that when he tells me he’s ‘bored’ (for this particular student EVERYTHING is boring) all I have to do is roll my eyes and he’ll snigger and get back to work. When I kicked him out of class for making farmyard noises (this is a surprisingly frequent occurrence…) whereas before he would storm off calling me every name in the book, instead we actually had a mature conversation. I even got an apology! So here’s the thing, I know now that no matter how much I may struggle with some students, to the point of total exasperation, it’s those kids that you end up really getting to know. So for next term I will try to stay patient, I will know that the harder the fight the better the reward and I will never label a kid as a ‘problem’ again… or at least I’ll try…

Anger2. The next thing I’ve learnt is this, it is NEVER about you. When a student tells you to eff off (in a mock British accent no less!) it’s not about you. When a student questions your teaching credentials in a patronising and mocking fashion, it’s not about you. When after an hour long talk with a student they disregard everything you say and break all the promises they made it’s not about you. You get students for 8 hours a day, that’s all. You don’t control their home life, their friends, family or hormones, you are simply a small blip on their radar. My students come from a real mix of backgrounds, and some of these backgrounds are incredibly and frighteningly toxic. Therefore to imagine that, when a student screams at you, it has anything to do with you is incredibly arrogant. I think taking the ego out of teaching is hard work but it’s important, it sucks when students are mean, cruel, stubborn or rude but it really has nothing to do with you. So I’ve learnt to be less sensitive and self-obsessed and this term I hope to continue to not take the bad stuff to heart.

tumblr_m1rpykN54F1qdjogeo1_5003. PLAY GAMES! Yes, the best way to forge relationships with students is to play, or at least have fun. Particularly the more difficult students. One of my greatest experienced teaching was playing capture the flag with my students. It’s those moment  away from the classroom where you can enjoy being around your students and they can see you as a human. That translates back into better relationships IN the classroom. By the end of last term I was tired, real tired and I think I forgot how to have fun. No surprise my relationships with my kids suffered. I need to make sure next term that we have time to play games.

MISTAKES I MADE
personal-space1. Not giving students space. When a student is on the rampage, storming out of class or working themselves up into a rage I fear that I often responded badly. I would doggedly follow said student trying to ‘reason’ with them, or get up close and personal. I see now that this simply escalates the situation, and I regret that I have on 2 occasions made a bad situation worse… So my new motto is ‘give angry teenagers space’. I’m a teacher, not a negotiator in a cheesy action movie, I need to keep this in mind and not try and be superteacher!

clip_image00872. Being inconsistent. When I started working with my students I pretty much threw every trick I had read about, at them; A token economy today, then kinetic learning, then youtube videos, then trackers, stamps… etc etc. I think the novelty of a new teaching tool/gimmick held way to much sway and rather than sticking at any one technique I chopped and changed. The problem is double-fold, one inconsistency is confusing at does not help build stable teaching relationships and two, if you want to try a new technique and test it, you need to give it time. So, this term I will be less erratic and less influenced by bright shiny new teaching mcguffins!

Grumpy-Cat3. Negative thinking. I told myself I wouldn’t be negative, aaaaand….. I failed. I have to avoid negative conversations with staff and pointless ranting in the office. It doesn’t help and it’s just not good for me or my students. Teaching is hard, sometimes it sucks, sometimes the administration do stupid stupid things and sometimes it’s all just plain unfair, but bitching gets you no where. Venting once is fine, but if you vent over and over about the same thing all is communicates is that you’re not doing anything proactive to change it. So no more endless complain-athons!!

And that’s it, wish me luck for round two!

P.S. Talk about bad formatting, it looks like I just puked HTML over this page, sheesh!

!kcohS erutluC

26 Mar

Nope, I didn’t fall on my keyboard. What I’m referring to is something I’d never heard of before tonight, something called reverse culture shock (get it?!). The reason I’m writing this is to try and piece together something odd I’ve been feeling these past few days, something I can hardly put my finger on and something that I think is fully explained by this term!
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So I have just returned to the UK for 10 days. I have been looking forward to this SO much! The past few weeks I have been so thrilled to see my friends and family, to be a Londoner again and to revisit all my old haunts. After arriving back in London I felt that familiar sense of madness that I felt last time I visited: Everything was moving so fast, more traffic than I remember, everybody’s accents sound so… so… ‘British’. Just like last time I decided I needed to sleep it off. The crazy feeling of dislocation was just the jetlag and strong painkillers (wisdom teeth and travel get on like a nerve on fire…). So I slept… and when I woke up, I still felt totally lost.

I met up with my friends, and seeing them all was fantastic. I couldn’t stop grinning, and after a few drinks I was convinced I had gotten over my weird unwelcome feeling of ‘otherness’. Then, after stepping into a nightclub it all felt so strange again. I had been there 100’s of times before, with these same people, but it felt so odd. Like a dream everything was a little ‘wrong’. The music was a little off (where was the cheesy country tracks?) and the drinks were incredibly expensive (What?! A Coors-, uh I mean Stella costs 5 bucks-, uh, I mean quid?). But there was something else, I just felt like a total stranger there.

This feeling of weirdness has persisted. Today whilst out with three of my closest friends, friends who I know like the back of my own hand, conversation and jokes kept slipping over my head. They were talking about things and places and people I had never heard of. Whilst I know that time has passed, that whilst I’ve been away things have happened (I’d be incredibly arrogant not to!) it left me a little lost for words. Seeing that I had withdrawn from the conversation (not like me) one friend asked if I was ok. I admitted that I had been feeling a bit out of it, a little bit like a foreigner in my own ‘home’ and that I wasn’t really sure what was up but that I’m sure it wasn’t serious. I left early and got the tube home in a daydream. I was not depressed or upset but definitely unsettled. I have always been very good at being a Londoner!

Now it’s clear to me. Travelling has changed me. Not that I have somehow ‘found myself’ or become some deep profound person. But, my view of the world has somehow shrunk whilst what I once thought of as normal and homely has stretched. I love London, but it doesn’t quite feel the same as it once did. I find myself constantly contrasting it with Denver in my mind, and in the end you feel a little untethered from both!

Don’t get me wrong. I am having an incredible time, and now I think I know what’s going on (and that it’s not just painkiller induced brain damage!) I think I will be able to relax back into being here. But as a brief word of warning to long-haul long-term travelers, don’t underestimate reverse culture shock! Fitting back into your own culture of origin after a long time adapting to a new one is definitely a bit of a shock to the system!

The way you’d imagine heaven must look at night

29 Oct

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They say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. It’s been called: Sin City, Lost Wages, Disneyland for grown ups and the desert mirage. When you tell people you’re going to Vegas people raise an eyebrow and smirk, as if you just told a dirty joke. When Stephen King wrote his end-of-the-world epic ‘The Stand’, all the good guys go to Boulder (obviously) and all the bad guys go to Vegas. So having now spent 4 days and 3 nights in that big-little town in the desert I thought I’d try and surmise my experiences.

To start with, as shown in the titular Chuck Palahniuk quote, Las Vegas is a place of contrasts, light and dark. So I’m going to try and divide this into the dark and light side, the things I love and the things that made me feel less comfortable (and occasionally frightened.) So without further ado here’s why you definitely should/shouldn’t go to Vegas.

Vivaaaaaaaa las Vegas!

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First let me start with this, I had an amazing time in Vegas. From start to finish I enjoyed every moment of it. Whether it was indulging in Margaritas by the lazy river, enjoying some cava by the fountain at the Wynn or simply strolling through the indoor reproductions of Paris and New York, I loved everything.

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The Strip itself is a lot to take in; brightly coloured signs glare and flash, jarring with reproductions of world wonders in glitzy neon, all crowding for your attention. And it’s not just a visual assault, there is constant noise, whether its 90’s power ballads, gushing fountains, shouting pirates or the merry clinking and boinging of the slot machines. I can honestly say I spent my time perpetually stimulated, euphoric and excited. It all took my breath away!

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And Christ on a bike it’s fun! Rollercoasters and waterfalls at every turn, boredom just isn’t an option in Vegas. Other than a few quiet hours by the pool I think I spent the entire time in pupil-dilating hyperactivity! Also whilst Vegas is famous for being tacky and over the top, if you take in the scale of everything it somehow stops being tacky, it becomes amazing. Not only this, some of the design and sheer imagination that went into Vegas is staggering: The lightshow at the Wynn was incredible, we were completely taken aback when a giant woman rose out of the water, or when two giant flowers appeared and danced in front of us. Nothing in Vegas is subtle or small scale, yes, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have moments of incredible artistry and beauty.

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I would also recommend wondering through Paris and New York New York. They’re complete fabrications, more movie sets than accurate adaptations of the real places, but walking outdoors/indoors never ceases to amaze. Also get the bus down to Freemont, the older side of Vegas, it’s seedier and less slick than the strip but the Freemont light experience and seafood buffet at the Golden Nugget are worth the trip alone.

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Finally, I felt like one of the Jetsons; If you decide to use the monorail, which is sincerely recommend, despite being in the middle of the desert you can spend the entire time in hermetically sealed air-conditioned bliss. I felt so space-age flying through the themed hotels in a glass bullet and never even having to even set foot outside. Yes, Las Vegas is luxurious and oppulant first and foremost it’s not ‘classy’ or ‘clever’, so forget any pretensions of ‘real culture’ just go with it: See the sights, ride the rides and be prepared to spend way more than you budgeted!

There are no clocks in Vegas…

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Vegas has a dark heart. There’s the friendly neon exterior that you see; the brightly coloured drinks and the smiling waitresses, and then there is the side you don’t see, at least not overtly. The underlying manipulation of people, the push to spend more, care less, keep gambling, bet higher and raise the odds. The music is always inane and optimistic and whilst having a coffee at 10am I noticed that the lyrics were packed with references to gambling and taking risks: ‘It’s taking me higher!’ ‘I can’t get enough, I can’t get enough’ ‘show them what your worth’ etc.

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As I stated in the heading, there are no clocks, the lighting is always the same whether it’s 4pm or 4am. The tinkling of the slot machines is endless and mesmerising. One game shouts ‘you’re the best!’ and ‘you’re awesome’ at every crank of the handle. I later found out that the exact pitch of the sounds is actually engineered to be reinforcing as they trigger the reward centres of the brain. So there were times, particularly when I was by myself, and I found myself listening to the heartbeat of Vegas, the chimes and tinkles, when I felt a little like I was sitting in a giant Pavlovian box.

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And it’s obvious, but worth mentioning, the pure extravagance of a place like Vegas is built on the fact that the house always wins. Over all, Vegas has to make more than it loses, it wouldn’t exist if it were any other way. Now, for a lot of the people that come and go in Vegas, gambling is just fun and you expect to lose. But what of the sad slumped figures at the slot machines, day or night, cigarette in mouth and money in hand? I saw my share of heavy gamblers, none of them in tuxedos surrounded by sexy ladies like in the posters on the walls, all of them vacant and radiating a sense of loss.

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Gambling is designed to be addictive and Vegas plays on this, makes it an art-form. The oxygen they pump into the hotels, the timelessness of the casinos and the bright lights are designed to tap into that reptilian part of the brain, the part that can’t say no. So there is definately a dark manipulative side, Vegas is designed to be fun, it taps into everyone’s inner child; the love of theme parties and magic tricks. Do you remember Pleasure Island in Pinnochio? Just like that, the fun is a vaneer, and underneath is a well oiled machine; Once you pass through Vegas, one way or another it will take the cash out of your wallet, just make sure that it only takes what you can afford to give.

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Why I Belong in a Museum

13 Aug

Let’s face it, most of us feel a bit like this when we go to a Museum:

I’m the first to admit that my experiences of visiting Museums can mostly be placed into two categories.

A) School trips: You and the rest of your class are dragged around room after room of old stuff, wishing you hadn’t scoffed your packed lunch on the coach and waiting till you can go to the gift shop and buy a glow in the dark keyring pencil thing.

B) ‘Cultural’ holidays; You’re in Rome/London/NY/Athens and you have to tick off the highbrow bit of your Lonely Planet guide. So you go to ALL the Museum(s) and spend the whole time bored, hot, angry and waiting till you can go to the gift shop and buy a glow in the dark keyring pencil thing.

BUT surprisingly there is also a 3rd experience (dun dun dun)

C) Go to Museum, learn something, enjoy yourself and leave feeling engaged and inspired!

This third option is obviously what most Museums aim to provide, sadly most of the time they fall short. This is a real shame because I believe Museums are AMAZING places even if they don’t always get the best rep and, understandably, aren’t always the first thing on people’s to-do list.

So with my limited experience as a Museum worker/volunteer/visitor I thought I would write a little bit about why I think Museums are great but why they often don’t seem so great. Also, without being massively patronising I’d like to give a few tips on making a Museum trip a pleasurable experience rather than the boring hassle filled sweat-fest that they often are. So without further ado…

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Uh, yeah, thanks for that Indie. (Yeah I really had to shoe-horn that in, so shoot me!) So why are Museums awesome? Well most Museums do 3 important things that I think makes them great:

ONE they’re a place which aims to educate the public and inspire children. Lessons and books are all well and good but real, concrete things are much more powerful learning tools. When it comes to getting kids excited about the world they live in what can beat a REAL apatosaurus skeleton, lump of Mars rock or gladiatorial helmet? I’m all about packaging science and knowledge in ways that get people excited and Museums are the perfect place for this. Interactive exhibits and big flashy visual displays may seem kitsch or ‘gimmicky’ but if they inspire future scientists, artists, mechanics and astronauts how can that be a bad thing?

TWO I feel Museums level the playing field somewhat, not all Museums are free (GO POST-THATCHER UK, WOO!) but even those that require an admission fee have free days throughout the year. This means that visitors from all  backgrounds get the opportunity to see things they might not normally have access to. Also, current research, science and art has always been something for the elite. Expensive universities, private schools, personal collections and incomprehensible journals make knowledge a kind of magic; inaccessible, arcane and completely irrelevant to the lives of most people. Occasionally ‘science’ gets wheeled out by the tabloids in ‘intelligent’ articles such as this but otherwise it belongs entirely to the ‘Powers That Be’. Museums take all this knowledge and give it back to the community and for that I think they should be applauded.

THREE Many museums are hugely important centres for research. True, the specimens, objects and curios that are owned by Museums are (normally) dead BUT through research they are brought to life. Without Museums we wouldn’t know that many dinosaurs had feathers, that some famous artworks actually hide previous discarded sketches and paintings or about the ‘sexual depravity’ of penguins! So, much more than simply being great storehouses for old stuff, Museums are some of the worlds most productive research institutes paving the way for future knowledge.

But lets face it Museums can be overcrowded hell-holes, with elusive toilets, confusing signage and overpriced food. And because of this most visitors to the Museums I have worked in don’t look like this

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They tend to look like this

How can you appreciate the wonderful objects on display when surrounded by a heaving miasma of screaming children, lost tourists and dodgy air conditioning? So here are my 5 (blatantly obvious) tips on how to enjoy a Museum more.

1) Go when there are fewer people. This mainly applys to the bigger museums but the first day of the school holidays, or early on a Saturday are likely to be HEAVING. Go midweek, or if you go at the weekend go in the afternoon, 2 hours before closing is always nice and relaxed. That way you’re not swimming through a sea of school groups, hassled parents and careening buggies. Particularly if you’re bringing children going at a more relaxed ‘slower’ time of day will really help you take some of the pressure off.

2) You don’t have to see EVERYTHING. Pick a few things, a couple of choice exhibits and check those out. Having to drag yourself (and your kids) around every exhibition and every gallery is a chore. Go for the things you know you’ll find interesting, or ask of the visitor assistants what they’d recommend. A short 1 hour stint in a Museum where you see 3 things you like is SO much more rewarding than 5 hours seeing everything but remembering and caring about nothing!

3) Bring Lunch. Museum food is expensive, understandably as Museum’s need the money but if you don’t want to spend £8/$13 on a stale sandwich and a coke prepare. Also use the lunch break, go outside if the weather’s nice, have a picnic and use the time to plan what you’re going to do next.

4) Hidden Gems. So most Museum’s have some interesting little quirks. (For example the dodo in the Natural History Museum of London is made out of bits of swan and the dioramas at the Denver Museum of Nature and science have fairies hidden in them). Every Museum will have a specimen with a great story, or a secret annex, or something worth looking at. If you can go armed with a couple of ‘in the know’ facts before going (google is your friend) then your trip will be more fun and more personal. Staring at an ornate wooden stick is all well and good but when you know that the curator who found it used it to kill a king cobra suddenly its a lot more interesting.

5) Special events: Most Museums will hold evenings once a month, or the occasional themed night. These ticketed events really show the Museums off in their best light. You’ll often get to meet some of the scientists, go behind the scenes, see things that aren’t normally on display and have a glass of wine (or six) whilst you’re at it. Believe me, a silent disco under a replica of Saturn = AWESOME!

So yeah, support your local museums and all that.

 [Shameless self promotion] Here is a link to a video I made for the Natural History Museum which kind of expresses why its such a special place. [/Shameless self promotion]

So you’re about to move abroad…

10 Aug

It’s now been 4 months and a bit since I packed up my old life and moved to Denver, I can honestly say that I’m still learning and adapting every single day so I’m nowhere near living-abroad-Nirvana. With that said I’d like to offer 5 tips; bits of advice etc that (should I find a handy time machine) I would want to tell my pre-USA self. Also, if you find yourself in a similar situation, about to move far away from home then hopefully these might be of some use. Everyone’s different so I’m not sure how applicable these titbits will be for everyone about to take the big step, anyway, enough with the apologetic preamble: These are the 5 things I would definitely bear in mind.

1. Finding friends:
So if you’re at all like me your friends are pretty much your world and one of the most exciting/terrifying experiences is having to start from scratch. As soon as moving to the US my first goal was to find friends, I had set myself a friend finding mission! Now, call me arrogant, but I didn’t think it would be too hard to make a new set of mates. I think I envisioned it as being a repeat of Fresher’s week, rather stressful but after 2 weeks I’d have all my BFFs sorted. NOT SO! If you are moving in your mid-twenties or later remember that most people your age have already found their friendship groups so unlike Fresher’s week it is JUST YOU on ‘the friend finding mission’. And as they are unaware of ‘the mission’ this means that whilst many people will be friendly, chatty and more than happy to share their evening with you, don’t expect to find those deep kind of friendships that you had back home straight away. I met a few people in a bar who seemed reasonably friendly, we swapped numbers and I patted myself (metaphorically) on the back, Mission Achieved! Or was it… I went out with said people and felt like a total hanger on the entire night. Whilst these guys were friendly enough it turned out we had very little in common and I found the number of injokes whipping over my head completely bewildering. Safe to say I ended up feeling drunk and more homesick than ever before. So my advice, be constantly open to making friends BUT, remember, it may take some time till you meet ‘your people’. Don’t be hard on yourself, enjoy the company of all those you meet but don’t worry if it takes a while. (Also, don’t drink at altitude whilst homesick and slightly lost in a new city… not fun!)

2. Work IS good for you:
Maybe you’re moving with work, if so ignore this. If on the other hand you don’t have a job lined up then read this it’s important! I came to the US without work, without even a work permit or social security company. Whilst I had tried to mentally prepare myself for a number of months without work I still think I underestimated the impact it would have. It really is worth mentioning that being jobless and friendless in a new place is not at all easy. The first 2 weeks were fine, I had so much to see, there were so many things to organise that I barely had a free moment anyway. It was a month or so down the line where I found myself watching yet another episode of Flashforward in my underwear (eating scrambled eggs out the pan) that things got rough. Now of course if you’re the kind of person who can set yourself exciting projects and tasks then more power to you. Unfortunately whilst I had all these ideas for projects (start a website, edit a showreel and write a story) the incentive to do them was often lacking. Personally I am a product of living in highly controlled work-orientated western society, I need structure even if I don’t think I do! So my tips to those of you moving abroad without work, obviously try and manoeuvre yourself into a position to get work as soon as possible but before then KEEP BUSY! The best thing for me has been volunteering, not only will this fill time, make you feel useful, it will also help you make connections that could end with gainful employment. (Those of you moving to the states definitely look up the American Red Cross, they’re a great organisation and have really helped me keep myself occupied.) Also coffee shops are your friend, take your laptop and a book, buy a Starbucks and you’ll suddenly find yourself being 100x more productive. Not only that but the simple process of leaving the house and going out to a place with people is an incredibly positive experience!

3. Don’t be a Troglodyte:
Thank god I live in the 21st century. Skype is really your friend when you move a kabillion miles from home. Talking with your friends and family and being able to see them is really really good. It makes you feel the distance between you drop away, and being able to share all your new experiences with them via facebook is just fantastic. I worried about overusing these tools, I feared they would become a crutch and thought I would have to be more hard on myself. Luckily a well-travelled friend (thanks Tom!) told me that I should not try and hold myself back. Being able to drop in on your friends back home does NOT make you feel more homesick, the opposite is true, it reassures you that they are still there and still thinking of you. Embrace the future people!

4. Homesickness, there is no vaccine:
Some people never feel homesick when they move and that’s great but most of us will and do. Either way prepare yourself for it, you probably will have moments where you miss your friends and family terribly. Sometimes really stupid things can trigger it, finding a note of your own currency in an old bag, not being able to find the same brand of cream at the supermarket or seeing your friend’s photos from a night out. With this in mind just see it as part of the process, you WILL be fine just give yourself 25 minutes to wallow then go out and do something in your new home. Go for a walk around downtown, find a new cafe or get a bus to anywhere. Even if you feel like crap whilst you’re doing it, it will help you cement the idea that this is home now and you’ll soon be too distracted to feel lonely. Also, why not send your friends an email telling them about what you’ve seen, keep it positive and upbeat, sharing your experiences helps. You knew this wasn’t going to be easy right? So be strong and keeps busy.

5. Embrace the cultureshock:
Things will be different, possibly very very different, from home. Even if the language is the same, the food people eat, the things people say, what is acceptable humour and all those other little cultural nuances may be new and frightening. Very rarely have I found this to be a huge problem, in fact I’ve quite enjoyed all the cultural differences I’ve noticed, that’s part of the reason I moved. This leads into my point, embrace the differences, this is your home now so try the local cuisine, see the local sports and adapt. This doesn’t mean change yourself to fit in, I just think that if you’re flexible to what’s on offer in your new home then you’ll get so much more out of the experience. Also, if you resist everything and anything that differs, people may regard you as a snob and nobody wants to buy a snob a drink. Cases in point: I would never snowboard in London: This winter I am going to embrace the winter sports here as much as possible. I would cringe at anyone saying ‘dude’ in the UK: here is the US if you bump into someone ‘sorry dude’ is informal, courteous and not ridiculous.