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Adventures in Teaching

10 Aug

dead poets

I am now a paraprofessional (Teaching assistant if you’re from the UK) and for better or worse my job has pretty much taken up ALL of my mental capacity. Therefore, I thought I would throw down a few thoughts, fears and things I have learned over the past month as a way of freeing up more of my brain to do other things.

I work at a High-School in Colorado with kids with exceptionalities (I know this my seem a hugely hyperbolic ‘PC’ term but ‘special education’ and ‘learning difficulties’ just don’t cut it). Let me be 100% honest, whenever I heard about special education I guess I imagined students in wheelchairs, unable to communicate, colouring with crayons and dribbling down their shirts. I know, pretty bloody ignorant. I always imagined those people that did jobs working with these kids must have incredible patience and that it was not something I could do. I have since discovered that my understanding of special needs and of myself was woefully incorrect.

For one, my kids are impossible to define. My students have such a variety of personalities, abilities and disabilities I don’t really know where to start. For one, many of my students don’t look, or sounds like ‘special needs kids’. These kids ‘pass’ in the school, many of them don’t want anybody else to know they are in ‘special ed’, many of them have been haunted by that label throughout their lives. Those who do seem to fit the ‘mould’, those kids who stand out as different are some of the most incredibly perceptive, sensitive and thought-provoking people I’ve met. The idea of the ‘short bus’ full of dribbling ‘retards’ is so far from my classroom that now the mere thought of such a stereotype is abhorrent to me. My students never cease to surprise me.

As for patience, yes, patience is necessary, but once I cracked open all my preconceptions about these kids I find that patience isn’t really what’s needed. When a student is puzzling over a simple math problem, 1+0=? for example, I could get impatient. I could think ‘Why can’t this kid do such an easy problem? Is there any point trying? We go over and over this problem and still nothing.’ in fact, I used to think this way. But when you have spent time with this student and you know that he or she has done the sum ‘9×5+7=’ with ease, then you know that the issue is not that the problem is too hard. Then it’s not patience that’s needed, its creativity. Trying to work out how to explain what 0 is worth becomes a puzzle. Explaining what ‘abstract’ means is a challenge. Helping a student to recognise ‘nouns’ and ‘verbs’ is a game. Using metaphor, and by scaffolding meaning on top of meaning, you work with the students to get to the answer. For me this process is hugely stimulating. True, sometimes you’re tired and patience and frustration make an unwelcome appearance, but never any more than with my general education students.

And that’s something else I believe about my students, none of them are stupid or dumb. Some may have low IQ’s, well below the average in fact, but taking into account their individual abilities and deficits they are incredibly smart. One student may struggle hugely with short-term memory, or have an incredibly short attention span, so when these students crack a problem, write a sentence or finish an artwork they are having to create connections and use strategies that most of us never even have to bother with. These kids are playing the computer game of life at hard, when the rest of us are content with easy, and they’re playing it damn well!

Finally, it’s not all personal growth and joy. I don’t skip home every day singing my students praises, there is a dark side. Whilst I wasn’t blindsided (I have friends and family in teaching and so was expecting some of the negatives) living them is something else. One thing is how depressing it is to see students who have gone so far down the wrong path, who have home lives that are so toxic, friends who do all the wrong things and live in a world of razorblades. As a teacher I can do very little to change that, we have them at school and then we send them home to fight their own battle every night. Some of my students are losing that battle, some have already lost. I have met 14 year olds who are already cynical, hardened individuals. To be honest I don’t really know what I can do to help. There are just no easy answers.

Aaaaaand that’s where my heads been at!

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!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!

Why Facebook terrifies me…

14 Mar

I use Facebook every day, I check it so many times that it feels like a reflex. Like looking at your watch or scratching your nose. I don’t feel ashamed of this, in fact I’ll be honest, Facebook has made moving to a different country a much easier experience. How else would I be able to stalk all my mates on a night out in Soho, comment on my mum’s new painting or share a hastily drawn Microsoft Paint birthday card with a friend?
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Don’t get me wrong, I do know Facebook (and all social networking sites) are mainly full of boring/regrettable drivel. I am happy to say I am very much part of this; I post a lot on Facebook, I average about 1 status a day, generally some small observation about my own inability to function in society or self-congratulatory posts on my own awesomeness. Admittedly, I do feel sometimes when looking at my Newsfeed that we should all go back to the days when we spent hours writing poetic letters to each other, rather than minutes blasting each other with Youtube videos of cats or badly-grammered brainfarts. (When I feel this way I also remember that this was the same time that people threw their waste out of windows and left-handed people were thought to be possessed … so yeah give me inane Facebook updates any day!) But all in all, this doesn’t bother me. I laugh at people on my newsfeed for their boring/awkward/embarrassing nonsense and somewhere further up the e-food chain I’m certain others laugh at me with equal derision. I can live with that.

Another very valid criticism leveled at Facebook is that it’s evil. You know that South Park episode where Stan’s Facebook Profile grows into a massive monstrous entity that owns his life? Well, that is a pretty fair representation.
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They own all your photos, videos, opinions and (perhaps most worryingly) your drunken 3AM rantings. Not only that, but they will happily use your face to sell all your mates diet pills… or so I hear. But to be honest that doesn’t bother me. My privacy isn’t all that valuable, I don’t really care who sees a photo of me drunk on my 19th birthday, or whether my face is being used to sell acne cream, or if a corporation owns my immortal soul. If that makes me morally shallow… sorry.

The thing that ACTUALLY scares me, the whole reason I wrote this blathering post is this: Facebook is making me get a bit Dorian Gray.
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To explain I’m going to ask you to do this for me. Open your Facebook profile. No really, do it.

Done?

Great, now look at your most recent photo. (My guess it’s one of 3 things. You standing in front on an exciting location designed to make you look well traveled.  You and your friend’s faces closely pushed together on some forgettable night out. Or you and your significant other looking so in love that you could be a Rom Com poster. Am I right? I’m right!) Now… take a deep breath… hit the lefthand back button…
WHAM!!! It’s way-back-machine time!
This is the first photo of you on Facebook. When you first joined.

….
Now some of you will be wandering what the big deal is, why should a picture of you from 8 months ago be such a horror? But most of you, who joined facebook 6, 7 or 8 years ago will know what I mean.

Just for verification, here’s what I get when I accidentally hit the dreaded back button.
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Me at the tender age of 18, leaning on a stolen shopping cart during my first term of university. (P.S. whenever you try and delete people’s faces for the sake of privacy it always looks like you’re some crazy jealous ex or serial killer!)

That was 6 years ago!!! In another 6 years time I’ll be in my thirties. (Yes I know I’m incredibly young and that 30 is not old at all blah blah blah) Facebook, I’m sure, will be alive and well, and I’m sure I will still be using it. There comes a point when Facebook will become a frightening testament to your youth. I’ll be able to look back and see myself age over time. I’ll see people who are no longer in my life for one reason or another. With every click I’ll see my life drift away like the pages of a calendar in a cheesy 80’s time-passing montage.

So, in a moment of obsessive compulsive clarity I did this. I took an image of my face from every birthday party (all of which are recorded on the Book’o’faces) and laid them end to end. Could I see a change? Would I feel anything looking at 7 different me’s from birthday’s past? So for your viewing pleasure here they are, my grinning mug on May 23rd for the past 6 years!
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Kind of disturbing isn’t it? One, seeing that many shiny drunk faces in a line. Two, that any sane person would spend 45 minutes putting something like this together… But there you have it, that’s me from 19-25. I really can’t say I’ve changed all that much, I was skinnier back then. I had slightly worse haircuts… but really there was no real revelation to be had.

So what’s all the fuss about? Why should Facebook scare me so? Well because one day it won’t look like that, one day I will start to see changes. Over 20, 30 years I’ll see myself growing older, my hairline recede, my hair grey and my skin wrinkle. So I’ve started to feel as if Facebook is the loading of a progress bar, with 100% being death. Yes this is vain, melodramatic and rather morbid, but that’s why Facebook scares the crap out of me. Facebook is a rather chilling reminder of my own mortality. One day, when I’m gone all that will be left will be photos of me drinking beer, posing in front of dinosaurs and giving thumbs up. (Along with insightful comments like ‘Just had the BEST sandwich’ and ‘I got banana in my laptop disk-drive.’)

Sorry for the downer folks!

The Land of Forgotten Projects

26 Feb


This is a bit of an odd post, especially after such a long hiatus but whilst walking home today I started having this germ of an idea, within minutes I was convinced I had this great arty, existential, project that would be awesome and cool… and then I remembered that I’ve gone down this road before…

Many times before in fact…

I am the kind of person who has ‘amazing ideas’ for ‘awesome arty projects’ and then never ever follows them through. After really thinking about the logistics, the time, the reality, well I just can never muster the energy to do them. So, rather than just let this idea ebb away, I thought I would record it here. Not just that, I thought I’d list 3 ‘awesome’ ideas I’ve had but never actually done anything about.

The reason for doing this? Partly because I feel sorry for all these little ideas that never get born; this is a way to give them a place to exist. Also as an impetus to actually do some of them by holding them up to public scrutiny. And finally, because I think they’re cool! They’re waaaaay pretentious, yeah, BUT COOL!

1. I found this T-shirt…

So, this was today’s proto-project. The premise is to get 100 T-shirts printed. Plain white T-shirts with text on the front. Each would be left randomly around a city, indoors and out, left to be taken by strangers. Each would read ‘I found this T-shirt’ and then where the T-shirt was left. For example, ‘I found this T-shirt whilst buying coffee’ in a local coffeshop, ‘I found this T-shirt whilst learning about dinosaurs’ in a Museum and ‘I found this T-shirt in the library’ in, well you guessed it, the library. The reason I would do this? Well, that’s a little difficult. I like the idea about starting something, creating something that will mystify people and doing something that will brighten people’s days. After finding these T-shirts people would wonder who created them and why? Yup, it’s pretty egocentric but I like the idea of starting a mini-cult, something people might talk about on the internet. Who knows, maybe ‘finders’ would try and track down other T-shirt wearers. I know that if I found a ‘mystery’ T-shirt whilst out and about I would think it was pretty awesome, I’d treasure it.

2. OneTwoKnow

When I moved to the US I had this idea for a project to keep me occupied before I could work. I wanted to create a website called OneTwoKnow where people could submit videos. The videos would all be about things that people ‘know’, things they’re an expert on. Starting among my friends I would get my mates to help me make videos on things they are passionate about and experienced in. The idea would be that ‘experts’ would write a brief script or record a voice over for a video to be created by someone artistic or creative. Therefore all videos would be short, concise and visually entertaining. Think a sockpuppet explanation for string theory, stop motion outline of the history of the European Union or stoicism illustrated using youtube videos of cats. I think the idea came from watching videos on http://www.ted.com/. I love the idea of having hundred of fun, inventive, bitesize factoids instantly accessible. A bit like a simplified video-wikipedia. This never really came to be because 1. I can’t create websites 2. I was too lazy to teach myself and 3. I could not motivate myself to do much more than watch Netflix when I first got here.

3. Letters on the Tube

Similar to the T-short project, this one is perhaps even more egoistic. I wanted to write letters to strangers. I would introduce myself, write secrets that I’d never told anyone, talk about my worries, doodle pictures. These letters I would then leave on the London Underground (the Tube) simply entitled ‘Read Me’. The reason? Well, it’s all a bit wanky-selfloving-pseudoexistential… but I guess it’s all to do with fearing death, wanting to be remembered, wanting to leave something behind and wanting to make an impact on people blahblahblah. I like the idea that people would read these letters, wonder who wrote them. I know that when I am moved by a stranger, connect with someone I’ve never met, it always gives me a thrill.

So there you go, not sure why this post felt so important to write… it just did. Aaaaaaand, that’s it! Something a bit more readable and accessible soon… promise.

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]

Your Very Extended Family

6 Aug

So, this is likely to be a big, vague, ‘PROFOUND’ post but I will try to pepper it with pictures and stuff so it hopefully won’t be too dull.

So for those of you who don’t know I’m a bit of a science-buff, in particular I am an evo-nerd (Yes, that is now a word… its my blog so shut up!). I’ve always been fascinated by natural selection, genes, the way in which animals and man are connected yada yada. I studied evolutionary anthropology and whilst I was no prodigy it felt like a good fit: It’s just something that always seemed hugely important, something that on some level I wanted to devote my life to. And by devoting my life I don’t mean studying evolution, I just don’t have the patience, but promoting it, teaching it and making it something fun accessible and relatable.

BUT I’ve had to ask myself does the world really need people who think evolution is cool and want to shout about it? Is that really contributing, is it useful? There are so many worthy occupations, things that the world could do with; Things like doctors and nurses, (good) politicians, teachers and environmentalists, social workers, psychiatrists, international aid workers not to mention plumbers, electricians, engineers and farmers. I’m not saying that the human race has to function like a giant ant colony, but on a personal level I need to feel like I’m doing something good and useful, I’m a bit utilitarian like that.

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So the conclusion I have come to? YES I think evolution is important and YES I think it is relevant. Why? Well here goes: I think there is one massive point you can take from evolution as a concept, something that I feel could do the world of good (pun, lol!) and it is this: We are all so very closely connected, so much more closely connected than I think most people even realise. Genetics, evolution and anthropology really helps to give us some perspective on this. Let me elaborate.

In one of my first lectures on human genetics our class was asked how closely related everyone in the room was. We all looked around at each other, we were a class of roughly 10, all of us were caucasian that much was clear. Also as it turned out all of us were of European descent; largely British but we had a Dutch guy and an Italian girl. So clearly we must be reasonably closely related. With this in mind and the little we knew about human migration and origins, we went for what we though was a reasonably short time ago relatively speaking. I think we arrived at about 40,000 years ago. Our lecturer nodded, smiled to himself, and made a note. We were then asked to estimate when we though the ancestor for EVERY living person on the planet lived. This person would connect every single living person on the planet today…

Ok FREEZEFRAME first I want you to get an idea of the sheer enormity of this question. So let me put this in perspective. Take a look at the 11 people below.

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Firstly an introduction, these people are (in no particular order) The Queen of England, Yu Yang the disqualified Chinese olympic badminton player, Nicholas Biwott the Kenyan billionaire, Kajol Mohammed a 9 year old snake charmer from Uttar Pradesh in India, Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie, the woman who served you at Starbucks last month, Terri Munro the 2008 Australian Big Brother winner, Stanzin Namgyal a Ladakhi tour operator, Andry Nirina Rajoelina the president of the high traditional authority of Madagascar, and Zeinia Zaatari the Lebanese born, feminist activist. Phew… now to add one more person into the mix. YOU.

Right, so these 12 people (that’s including you) come from almost every continent on the planet. You are a mix of men and women and you represent a host of age groups, religious backgrounds, political persuasions, ethnic classifications. Some of you are hugely rich, some incredibly poor and as far as I know none of you have ever met and probably never will. (You don’t even have any mutual facebook friends) So, with this in mind, how long ago do you think the person lived who linked all of you 12 people? …..A long time ago, am I right?

Now expand that further, massively further, to every single living man woman and child on the face of the Earth. As a class we imagined that it must be a really loooooong while ago. We had a rough idea that the human species evolved around 3 million years ago. So we predicted that the last time all of the disparate peoples of the world would be able to trace a line back to a single ancestor would be back in Africa, back when the human species was located in one place and not scattered accross the globe. Therefore the very earliest would be 50,000 years ago, around the latest time in which humans began to leave Africa.

Our lecturer made another note, smiled again, and then told us what the current estimate was…

How wrong we were…

The most recent genetic and computer modelling evidence puts the most recent ancestor for ALL living humans at just 5,000 years ago. In fact this is really a conservative estimate, the ancestor could easily have lived as recently as 2000 years ago. This is not back in the mists of Palaeolithic time, this is well within recorded history. At the most we’re talking Ancient Greece, or pre-Christian Rome.

This blew my mind. Every single person on this planet could be traced back to one person just 5,000 years ago. Also, 5,000 years ago is actually the LONGEST time between any two living people. This would also mean that on average most people would in fact be far more closely related to each other. For example Europeans, yup that includes all Americans, South Africans and Australians of European descent, you all share a relative roughly 1,000-1,500 years ago. (arguably Charlemagne, the horny bugger!).

Now I don’t know about you but I think that is AMAZING!

Right, I’m sorry if this post has become woefully overblown, flabby and long-winded. Let me return to the point, why does evolution and genetics matter? Why should we all know where we came from and how closely we are related? I believe that the knowledge that every person we come across, no matter what culture or ethnic background, is actually our brother or sister of (at the very very most) 310 generations ago. That knowledge I think, if instilled at an early age, can help to bridge the gap between cultures. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that wars will end and the world will become one big happy John Lennon song BUT I think if you can start to think of every living person as a relative, as a member of our own vast extended family then maybe it can at least help.

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Maybe it will help inspire future leaders and activists to be humanists and to care a little bit more about each other. Also, going back even further, the fact that EVERY living thing shares a common ancestor means that every organism is also part of an even larger and even more extended family. So without going all ‘Ferngully’ I think teaching evolution and trying to make it something relevant and important is actually a worthwhile persuit.
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Addendum: WOW, you made it this far? That was a lot of preachy happyclappy babble! Forgive me if that came across as condescending self-justifying rubbish, but you know what… I stand by it! So now for one final cheesy statement: Hey bro, hey sis, whoever you are take care, let’s try and make our great (x 309) grandfather/grandmother proud!