Please re-think, Mr Gove

I don’t blog that often on school-related things. I’m toying with the idea of setting up an English Teacher blog, but in all honesty, I have enough trouble keeping up with this one. But this weekend, something has happened which I feel too strongly about not to discuss.

The issue is that of American Literature being part of the GCSE English Literature syllabus. Michael Gove, apparently in line with his own personal tastes, has stipulated that students must be assessed on literature written in the British Isles. This is as part of his minimum ‘core’ that must be studied. I should clarify here that teachers can still teach American Literature, but they will not be examined.

I have been teaching English for nearly 10 years, in contexts which have repeatedly been described as challenging. I have taught The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird and, most often, Of Mice and Men. These novels are amazing. Themes of growing up, friendship, racism, innocence and dreams permeate them. These novels engage and capture the imagination of 15 and 16 year olds across the country. So why would Gove want to take them off the curriculum?

I believe he is trying to extend the depth and breadth of GCSE English Literature. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. Yes, many of our children do come through our education system without having read Austen, or Bronte, or even Dickens. Many more will never have heard of Orwell or Huxley. But is effectively banning Of Mice and Men the best way to improve standards? I don’t think so.

There is simply not time within the English Curriculum to study more than one novel. Once you start English Language and Literature at the beginning of Year 10 (or even in Year 9, as some schools do), there is no let up. Controlled Assessments follows Controlled Assessment. Speaking and Listening assessments still have to be done, despite not contributing to the grade. Dozens of poems have to be studied and understood for the exams, all with significant contextual factors. There is no let-up.

In addition, many of our students (in my experience) start Key Stage 4 without secure ability in the skills they need. No matter how much we teach our students to write analytical essays in KS3, they cannot do it to an adequate standard by the end of Year 9. Many of my students don’t really have a grasp of Standard English, and struggle with spelling and grammar.

I, and my colleagues, and teachers across the country, work exceptionally hard to engage and motivate students like these. Often targeting the elusive C grade, these students can easily become frustrated and disappointed with the results that they achieve. Having engaging, and, to an extent, accessible texts like Of Mice and Men is such an important part of their course. So many times, I have heard students (who would never read a book independently), discussing their love of George and Lennie. Disaffected lads will say to others, “No, don’t tell me how it ends, we’re reading it later.” There will always by at least one student who cries. The themes of friendship, loneliness and dreams are powerful ones to a teenager. They are relevant to every teenager, irrespective of their academic ability.

I taught ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ in a very culturally-mixed class. Atticus was our hero. For many of the students, he was an example of a good father-figure. Surely we need these heroes in our classrooms and our imaginations?

Surely, every English teacher in the nation is, to an extent, angry about Gove’s decision. Our curriculum is being based on his personal tastes. Our students’ grades, and their futures, are being based on his personal tastes. When, and how, can we say, enough is enough: this is in bad taste?

I’d like to link to Geoff Barton’s excellent blog post on this; he is much more eloquent than I.

 

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The Cake and Bake Show

 

After finally updating my iPhotos, I’ve been able to take my photos off my small camera, so I can finally write some of the photo-heavy blog posts that I’ve been holding back.

Back in April, Tim suggested I went out for a few hours on my own while he looked after Ben. I didn’t have to be asked twice. A quick train ride and a walk later, and I was off into the Cake and Bake Show in Manchester Central.

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As you can see, it was a pretty wet and windy day!

I hadn’t been to an exhibition in Manchester Central before, but the whole process was fairly smooth. I arrived around 1pm, and some people seemed to have been there all day. There were queues to the demonstrations, which were ticketed. Although this would have been nice (demonstrations are often the best part of a day like this), the tickets were gone by the time I got there.

So I spent a few hours happily perusing the stalls, and looking at some of the incredibly decorated cakes on display.

I thought these were quite simple ideas, but incredibly effective (the flowers can be made with a cutter):

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Kimberley and Frances from GBBO 2013 did a baking demonstration in the ‘Competition Theatre.’ However, they were baking scones. I love GBBO, I loved Kimberley and Frances, and I would love to see them bake in real life. However, I can bake scones. So I moved on.

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One of the themes for the professional cake decorators was Childrens’ Cartoons. These were incredible. I really loved the How to Train Your Dragon cake.

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Heston Blumenthal-style cakes that didn’t look like cakes at all:IMG_3970IMG_3971

These cake animals were incredible:

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It wasn’t all cake: there were biscuits too!

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The main theme for a lot of the cakes was ‘Welcome to the Jungle.’ This incredible elephant was created by CakeBomb artists. I witnessed the moment it was cut into (such a shame really), and it was all cake and icing!

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I did notice a few trends. Macarons are still around, and some cupcakes, but brownie-style slabs are becoming much more popular, and the slices were generous – definitely enough to feed two. I didn’t see many whole cakes, and certainly not for sale, but I suppose they wouldn’t have been that convenient.

Peanut flavour things seems to be increasing in popularity, which I personally find disappointing as I’m allergic to them, and it possibly suggests an American influence. Flavours definitely tended towards the sweet and spicy, rather than fruit, so cinnamon, caramel and chocolate were everywhere.

Decorated wrappers, colouring sprays and other accessories were everywhere. I was tempted again by a patterned rolling pin, which rolls out beautiful icing, but I don’t know if I can really justify it… I guess I need a bigger kitchen.

I love cake. I love baking. But I think I would be hard-pushed to spend all day there if I’m totally honest. I had a lovely couple of hours, but that was enough for me.

What I think about Diets

Last week, I started on the Paleo diet. I know many people will be offended by my use of the word diet there, as it is considered a Way of Eating by Paleo devotees, but to my mind, it is a diet.

Paleo is the latest of any of the food and dieting trends. I started noticing the hash tag being used on Pinterest about 18 months ago. The idea is very simple: you eat like a caveman. Meat, eggs, fish, vegetables and fruit. No wheat, dairy, grains or processed food.

I can’t count the number of times, especially since having Ben, that I’ve thought, I must lose a few pounds. Not much, I grant you, but I am completely in that trap of thinking my life would be better if I were 5 or 10 pounds lighter. If only I didn’t have a bit of a tummy. If only I were one size smaller. I’m embarrassed by this kind of thinking. It’s a cliche, that 30-something year old women must be obsessing about their weight. And yet here I am, in the same evening pinning a recipe for a calorie-laden cheesecake and one for ‘the best way to lose weight.’

So I decided to try Paleo. This was also because I really wanted to kind of ‘reset’ my system – I am far too dependent on sugar and caffeine, and I wanted to break out of that. I also liked the ‘real foods’ element of it.

Anyway, my attempts at dieting often follow the same cycle, and I think I have learned a bit over the last few weeks, so I thought I’d outline these.

  • The first three days were pretty hard. I had to be organised, and take lunches into work with me. By 4pm on day 1, I had a caffeine-withdrawal headache, and was really hungry. My boiled-egg breakfast and ham-salad lunch wasn’t enough.
  • Cutting carbs and grains at dinner time was mostly easy – I had planned eating things like pork chops with a spicy sauce and vegetables. I could easily do some rice for Tim. Unusually, I didn’t crave sweet things in the evening.
  • By Day 4, I felt quite stable, and as I was at home, I could eat a bit more. But I really wanted a cup of coffee. I didn’t have a headache, I just wanted a hot drink more than anything.
  • On Day 5, Tim and I went out for a special lunch. I allowed myself to eat bread, cheese and a small piece of rocky road. I enjoyed every mouthful, although I was really conscious of the sugar rush.
  • I relaxed a bit over the weekend – a bit of bread with dinner on Saturday, and a bit of pavlova – but I didn’t go crazy.
  • At the end of the first week, I had lost two pounds. It seemed like an awful lot of self-denial for 2 pounds.
  • I started this week with good intentions, but have cheated a little bit – I’m back on the occasional decaff coffee. I don’t think that’s too bad.
  • I went a bit overboard this afternoon. It was raining, and I was tired and cold. Ben was asleep. I ate some custard, a pancake and then some chocolate. This is typical, and it’s at this point that I think, what’s the point? I’ll give up.

See, I can see that I’m trying to excuse myself for what, in my head, I consider ‘bad’ eating. But this is part of the issue. If you completely exclude food groups, you then consider some foods bad. And I know that I view my eating in terms of days – if I eat something bad, I may as well have written off the whole day.

The other issue is that, at my lightest, I still had a bit of a tummy. I still wasn’t happy with my figure. I was always cold. So the issue isn’t to do with the number on the scales.

When I went back to work (albeit part time) with a toddler, I knew I wouldn’t be able to fit much exercise in. I consciously gave up my gym membership – not only was it a luxury, but I wouldn’t find the time to fit it in. To be honest, I don’t know if I’m that much less fit. I went for an impulsive run a few weeks ago, and felt good after 3km.

However, I can’t deny that I felt less bloated, and I am glad I’ve given up the caffeine again. Even Ben’s current 5am starts haven’t driven me back to that. I also want to remember the enjoyment I got out of the lunch – too often, food is a means to an end, and I want to enjoy it as much as I can.

So I want to eat by the following principles:

  1. Base most of my food intake around fish, meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables.
  2. No food is ‘off-limits’ or ‘bad.’
  3. Treats should be occasional (i.e. weekly, not daily).
  4. Treats should be special, or you won’t enjoy them.
  5. Enjoy every bite.

The Big Allotment Challenge

A couple of years ago, I was with my sister, discussing TV programmes. We both loved the Great British Bake Off, and she had got into the Sewing Bee. Although we both like the idea of gardening (she’s much better at it than I), we weren’t too keen on Gardener’s World.

“What we need,” I said, “is an allotment challenge. Like the Bake Off, but with vegetables.”

I know this conversation definitely took place, because last month, she texted me: “There is a new programme coming to BBC2 about allotment challenge – like you suggested would be a good idea for a programme last year.”

So, just before Easter, I sent Tim out to the pub, and I settled down for an hour of TV heaven.

For the last 5 weeks, I have been hooked every week, as pairs of gardeners battle it out to win ‘Best in Show’ in produce, flowers, flower-arranging and making preserves. Each week, one couple have to leave, and the others are left to the mercy of the elements and the slugs as they try to grow the best fruit and vegetables around.

Comparisons have inevitably been drawn to the Great British Bake Off, and the show’s producers seem to have encouraged this with the innuendo in the voice-overs. But why not? It’s a winning formula, and I loved the bunting, the mugs of tea and those gorgeous greenhouses.

As with the Bake-Off, the contestants are the most interesting parts of the show. I loved Jo and Avril, a down-to-earth all-girl pair. And I’m sure most viewers will remember Gary and Pete, who seemed to stop shaving in Week 1, and whose beards grew almost as prolifically as the plants. Ed and Alex seemed a bit too sure of themselves to start, but by the end, they were definitely the deserved winners.

As someone with no interest in flower arranging whatsoever (isn’t that what posh women did in the 1980s?), I didn’t expect to enjoy the “Make” challenge at all. This was what the contestants seemed to like least as well. But Rupert and Dimi really excelled at it, and I found myself loving their blousy, vintage style.

The “Eat” challenge did really appeal to me, even though I have never even attempted to make preserves of any kind. The BBC have listed the best recipes on their website, so now we can all have a go. Although, it might be worth just looking at the Best in Show ones, as there were definitely some disasters on the way! I personally want to have a go at picalili, which is something I really like.

But the stand-out element of the Big Allotment Challenge were surely the allotments themselves. I’m sure the contestants were encouraged to think about the aesthetic aspects as well as the practical, and their patches were stunning. Set in a beautiful walled garden, and with a lovely combination of fruit, vegetables and flowers, along with the aforementioned greenhouses, they were the star of the show. To be honest, I’d love a copy of the list of 83 plants they had to grow, along with site plans of each of the allotments. I don’t even own an allotment!

I seriously hope the BBC gives this another series, as planting should be well underway by now!

Soup Up Sunday: Spiced Carrot Soup

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I am aware that it is Monday. But it is a Bank Holiday Monday, so it kind of counts as a Sunday. At least, we’re in work tomorrow, so soup is appropriate.

It looked to be quite a pleasant day outside today. After a few hours of playing in the sandpit, chasing footballs, having jumping competitions and chasing the neighbour’s cat with Ben, I realised that it was actually quite chilly. I also realised, when I turned my attention to lunch, that we had a surplus of carrots in our fridge.

We also have a lot of potatoes that need to be used up. This recipe hasn’t really helped that much with the potato situation, but the carrots are definitely looking more manageable.

One thing I’m pleased with in this soup is that it doesn’t require fresh herbs. Of course, if you have some fresh coriander growing on your windowsill, it would be lovely. Parsley would also work well. But I had basil and mint, and I didn’t think they would go, somehow. The cumin and dried coriander work really well.

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 500g carrots
  • 1 large potato
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 750ml vegetable stock

Method

  1. Finely chop the onion and garlic. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry for 5 minutes until soft.
  2. Dice the potato and carrots. Add to the onion mixture and fry for 1 minute.
  3. Add the spices and stir well.
  4. Make up the vegetable stock and add to the saucepan. Bring to the boil.
  5. Turn the heat down and simmer for 20 minutes until all the vegetables are tender.
  6. Using either a stick or jug blender, blend half the soup until smooth.
  7. Season to taste. Ben liked this with a spoonful of natural yoghurt stirred through.