‘Mummy has too many shoes and too many books,’ my daughters used to say to random strangers in shops (admittedly said shops were often purveyors of these commodities, as we trekked about the abundance of charity shops in Epping). I can’t argue with the former, but in the case of the latter it’s more that I don’t have enough shelves as you can never have too many books.
Imagine my joy, dear readers, when the development of the new museum gave me the perfect excuse to create a whole schools session ALL about shoes. When we were rationalising the learning collection prior to closure I made sure we kept the shoes (apart from the Crocs we used in the seaside session), and this week I have been testing the shoes session at a local secondary school. Called ‘If The Shoe Fits’, it’s a user centred design session for Key Stage 3 again and our guinea pigs were Year 9 students. An enormous thank you to my friend and crafty partner in crime Heather who is a DT teacher there, and to her head of department at Davenant Foundation School for letting me loose in her classroom.
We started by thinking about school shoes vs the shoes we choose to wear off-duty – who decides what school shoes look like; are there rules; what qualities the shoes need to have; why we choose our trainers (22 out of 24 Y9s prefer Nikes). Each group then did a ‘mystery shoe’ activity, comparing a historic shoe to a modern shoe. All the shoes were from the collection – from centuries old children’s clogs (these haven’t even been creased miss, are you sure they’re old?) to new pieces which will feature in the design gallery like Vans Autism Awareness skate shoes.
Then they had a go at making a model of one of the shoes, using materials like cardboard, lolly sticks, tape and more. Some were amazing – the exquisitely detailed version of a child’s leather party shoe created from masking tape and cardboard, complete with rosette, for example, or the clog, with paper straws to represent the ‘horseshoe’ on the bottom. Proper sparking clogs, as the song goes. The students demonstrated amazing creative problem solving skills, thinking about how to represent fastenings, how to make the cardboard curve more flexibly, and how to hold materials together. We deliberately don’t give them glue or staples, partly as there’s collection involved but also because Pritt Sticks are a waste of time with anything but paper and the students get frustrated and turn to tape anyway.
It was a fast paced session so we were strict on time and many of the students wanted to finish their models, but after we allowed this on day one we were firmer on day two. Removing the need to sketch or draw before making takes away the ‘I can’t draw’ problem (I have this) and allows them to get straight into working in 3D.
We then talked about being ‘fit for purpose’ and the idea of specific shoes being used for specific purposes – from steel-toed construction boots and firefighter boots, football boots and cycling shoes, pointe shoes and Lady Gaga’s ludicrous heels, running blades and running shoes for various conditions – and they annotated images in answer to a set of questions. I used images of female sports players and firefighters, male ballet dancers (urgh, look at his legs Miss!) and made sure they were diverse to reflect the students themselves.
The final activity was to create a shoe for a specific person – real or fictional – so they filled in a sheet about the qualities, materials and properties needed and, with additional materials like fabrics, felt, laminate insulation and more, created their own shoes. The outcomes were amazing, with super-bouncy running shoes, shoes for the art teacher, convertible heels-to-flats for their mum, and more.
I tweeted a thank you to the school for allowing me to pilot the sessions with their students, and this response came back, which made my day! This is one of the sessions we’ll be opening with next year, and I can’t wait to be running it alongside a whole gallery full of amazing design.
A note on Christmas music
If you’re like me, your Facebook feeds will be smattered with people going on about bloody ‘Whamageddon’ and whether they are in or out, whether a cover version counts and so on. SHUT UP. No one cares.
Other things making me happy this week:
Opening night at the Geek Retreat in Harlow. We had a lovely time.
A cracking day at Epping Christmas Market yesterday
Liqueur chocolates for breakfast. It’s advent, it’s allowed (thanks for the calendar, mum)
Now I must go and get ready for today’s Christmas fete, this time a school one in North London, and then the Museum of London grand reunion this evening. Same time next week!
Well, that was a week of highs and lows, it really was. One of those weeks (another one of those weeks) when you’re in so many meetings that you haven’t got time to do your job, but this week it got on top of me and sparked a meltdown panic attack on Wednesday which was definitely the low point.
The problem with not having a museum to do museum learning in is that every time you want to deliver a session – piloting new content – you need to take all the kit that in business-as-usual times would be in a handy cupboard, pack it in boxes and suitcases, seriously consider taking two 84 litre Really Useful Boxes and a massive wheelie suitcase on public transport to the school (in Ilford, in this case, on a train strike day) and then get real and book a cab. We had two sessions booked at a school where the DT department are up for almost anything, so we took the kit over on Monday – thanks to the aforementioned train strike and the seemingly interminable November weather, the journey took the best part of two hours to go 15 miles. Then, having delivered the kit to the school, I had another several hours in traffic to get home. Oh joy. What is described as ‘managed decline’ on the Central Line meant three out of four trains were terminating at Loughton, and there was an 18 minute wait for the first Epping train….which then waited five minutes at Loughton for the next terminating train as the changeover driver was on that one. I have decided every time I have to wait fifteen minutes for a train to Epping I am going to claim a refund. A faff, but the service is appalling at the moment: 42 minutes to do a 12 minute journey (four stops!) is unacceptable.
Tuesday – the day of the sessions – was amazing. I have been working with a designer called Lea Jagendorf to develop sessions which support two of the case studies in the new Design Gallery: ‘Design Can…’ is the starting point and these two sessions supported ‘Design makes things last longer’ and ‘Design responds to people’s needs’. It turned out Lea had been set as homework for the two classes, so she was confronted with 45 A3 posters all about herself…
We have built a learning collection of objects which will be in the new gallery, from the anti-hostile design DEFIANT by Hamzah Al Asadulloh to adaptive clothing by Tommy Hilfiger and Vans, alongside pieces by Petit Pli and Expandals. The sessions offer opportunities to brainstorm ideas, to try rapid prototyping with a variety of materials, and to collaborate on responding to briefs. Both classes had some amazing ideas and we’ll be seeing them again to do some co-curation for the same gallery in a couple of weeks. This week I am testing the final design session – ‘If the Shoe Fits’ – which explores user-centred design through our collection of historic and modern children’s shoes, with lots of practical making with a very varied set of materials. Support from my fabulous creative learning facilitator – who feels about materials the way I feel about shoes and books – has been invaluable.
The less said about Wednesday morning the better, but luckily the team around me are amazing and they got me through the rest of the day – which finished in Bethnal Green with a ‘sneak peek’ for local teachers. I overcatered, but the staffroom at the school benefited the next morning! It’s so good to be able to share what we’re doing behind the scenes and to ask teachers what they want from us. Miriam retrieved me from the station, fed me dinner and we played D&D which is always a high point of the week. Three of us brought lebkuchen as game snacks – it’s that time of year again!
Thursday was a day of actually achieving stuff (emails! work! planning!) which made me feel a lot better, and Friday was an adventure to Clerkenwell to meet the designer Sam Hecht of Industrial Facility who along with his partner Kim Colin made a collection of under-a-fiver objects from all over the world. They are loaning it to the new Design Gallery, and this is what we’ll be co-curating with the Ilford school the week after next. The collection is full of little oddities like magic potato peeling gloves and a terracotta foot scrubber: things designed for a specific purpose, some of which meet the need and others – like a combined craft knife and scissors – don’t. I’ve had fun tracking the objects down to create a handling collection, so my Amazon algorithms are a bit skewed at the moment. Clerkenwell is one of my favourite bits of London, all little courts and alleyways with a mix of new and ancient buildings. I also got to use the Elizabeth Line – the easiest change at Stratford and only three stops! It’s making my inner tube nerd very happy, that line, and I am looking forward to being able to hop onto it at Stratford and go all the way to Ealing to see London sister.
Other things making me happy this week…
Speaking of London sister – it was her birthday on Friday and despite postal strikes her present and card arrived, and she likes them.
The Christmas cake is baked and ready to be fed with rum for the next few weeks
Lots of crochet done in preparation for the Christmas Market next week
Dog walk with Miriam, Jill (who’s got up two days running!) and the house elves, followed by a mooch round the market, coffee, pastries and a good therapeutic giggle.
Tom Waits on Spotify
A glorious swim at 9 degrees with Jill this morning, with much swearing as we got in.
Now I must go and do the ironing, before spending some time with a glue gun and various other bits and bobs.
On Thursday morning I found myself at St Pancras station at the ludicrously early time of 7am, ready to catch a train to Derby for the GEM Conference 2022. GEM is the Group for Education in Museums and a key source of useful information, jobs in the sector, and occasionally some very bad Friday afternoon jokes (you know who you are!). My lovely colleague Chinami and I were down to present in the graveyard slot on Friday afternoon, when I fully expected there to be about three people left to talk at. Chinami kindly let me do all the talking myself in the end and acted as my cheerleader.
The theme for this year was how museums can think outwards, and there were some amazing presentations from members. Some member presentations that really stood out for us were the Street Museum project from Durham, the Cornwall Museum Partnership’s Culture Card for young people in care and care leavers, how Welsh museums can engage with schools and the new Curriculum for Wales, and Hull Museum and Ferens Art Gallery’s project around expanding relationships with deprived communities. I was also inspired by the workshop I attended on Friday afternoon on making museums more accessible and inclusive with the Yorkshire Accessible Museums Network. We held a minute’s silence for the Queen on Friday morning, acknowledging her patronage over the decades to museums and the arts in general.
It was good to be back in person at a conference, and to see an ex-colleague, to talk about our own museum and to find out about others. Hopefully we’ll be able to go and visit some over the next few months!
Anyway, for once the train was on time and we made it to the utterly wonderful Museum of Making in Derby Silk Mill without reference to a map, thanks to our visit in March with the rest of our team. It’s a lovely walk along a river, past lots of Victorian buildings and geese and, for some reason, some nice bronze sculptures of turtles. I like Derby more every time I see it: the town centre has some amazing old buildings and an enormous number of historic buildings. And a LOT of places of worship. I mean A LOT – even the restaurant where we ate on Thursday night was formerly a chapel. (The restaurant was Annie’s Burger Shack, by the way, where I had the the New York Yankee Brisket burger and Chinami had the Bacon Blues with extra mushrooms.) I even like the baby goths and emos hanging out along the river, listening to the Smiths.
On Thursday afternoon there was time built in for delegates to go and see a range of places, including the Crown Derby factory. We chose to go to the Derby Museum and Art Gallery where we were given a very light touch tour by their head of visitor experience. Derby Museum is one of those wonderful local museums that’s a bit of everything: a natural history gallery that’s been beautifully co-curated and co-created with local families who selected the exhibits and then helped to build the cases in a re-designed space. There had previously been a smaller room, which was much loved by families, so it made sense to involve them in developing the new one. There is a fox by ethical taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long, which is touchable and at child height, which can be seen in the bandaged tail. There are wooden masks which help you to see in the way an animal does, and the birds are cleverly displayed in a ‘forest’ of wooden trunks. The skeleton of a prehistoric hippo lives in here too, and some wonderfully pickled specimens like an octopus.
We also liked the archaeology gallery and the peek into the atrium above the library. There’s a corridor with a display of busts, which a small child was saying hello to, and a gallery dedicated to local painter Joseph Wright. The museum’s young people’s group had worked on the interpretation in this space, and had created a timeline of his life where they had highlighted his struggles with mental health as well as his successes. I loved the fact that they had called him Joe, and with the number of self-portraits he painted in different costumes he was clearly an early proponent of the selfie!
We had time to pop over to Pickford’s House too – a Georgian house museum about three minutes walk away from the Museum. There are four floors, where you can see recreated rooms and – the reason I wanted to go – the Peacock Revolution exhibition about men’s fashion from 1966-1970. This has some gorgeous clothes and a great soundtrack, and I coveted several of the brocade jackets. There;s a new Toy Theatres room too, taking me back to the first exhibition I worked on at Museum of London Docklands.
The final exhibition we saw was at the Museum of Making itself, called Do It Yourself? which is in partnership with the BBC’s centenary celebrations. Bright, open and cheerful with lots to do for children, it didn’t take long to go round. We liked their charging model, where your ticket is valid for the length of the run and they also have pay-what-you-think days and a monthly free day. Under 16s are free. The rest of the museum is free and well worth a visit.
But how did your presentation go, I know you are all dying to ask. I was talking about the Young Collective project that I have written about previously and I think it went quite well. Well, no one got up and ran away and they laughed in the right places, so I will take that. One nice chap said afterwards that I had the ‘room in the palm of my hand’ which was very sweet – it was only half full at that point, of course. I was very nervous, having never spoken at a conference before, and I will probably hate the recording when they share it, but I enjoyed writing it and there is a lot of interest in the museum in the sector. The next one is at M-Shed in Bristol in October, which will be the Dress and Textile Specialists 2022 Conference. M-Shed is another of my favourite museums, so I am looking forward to going back there too!
We made it back to Derby station in between thunderstorms (just!), the train was on time and I think the children were pleased to see me…
Other things making me happy this week:
an inspiring morning at the Make First symposium at the Crafts Council
a visit to the library today
2/3 of the children back at school
the prospect of a couple of trips to Wales in October
This week our new learning facilitator joined the team, after a gap of five months since we broke the last one left us to go freelance. It’s a funny time to be recruiting for a museum team, as we don’t have a physical museum and we’re all working in interdisciplinary mode to support the different projects. This new one – we shall call her E – was a printmaker and an art teacher before she joined the gang this week.
One of the questions several of the candidates asked us when we were interviewing for the role was ‘what does a typical week look like?’. Once we’d done the sage ‘oh yes, what a great question’ bit, followed by the slightly hysterical laughter bit, we were quite honestly able to tell them that at the moment there is no such thing. When we are back in the museum next year (from my lips to God’s ears, as the saying goes) things might settle down as we can set up a programme, but right now we’re all about R&D, testing new sessions, keeping ourselves on the radar and supporting each other’s programmes (formal, informal and creative). Formal, for me, means Early Years in formal settings right the way through to teachers – both serving and trainee – and post-grad students. Informal is families, early years informal settings, and pretty much everyone else. Creative is pop-ups, festivals, salons and everything else.
This week, for example, was only four days thanks to the Easter bank holiday but I like to think we packed enough in for five. E joined us on Tuesday morning and we introduced her around the museum, dragged her off for lunch in the staff canteen, made her sit in on Teams meetings about projects she knew nothing about (to be fair, they are in the development stage!) and abandoned her to the tender mercies of the IT team. Wednesday started at South Kensington and then ended in East London with a DT teacher training session for my favourite teaching alliance, including the bit where I didn’t have enough resources and challenged one team to find their own in the classroom (amazing result) – the outcome was a brilliant parrot house from the Think Small session, created from lunch bags and things they found around the room.
Thursday was a stay and play session for early years children with speech and language delays in Whitechapel, where we were testing a sensory play kit designed by Play Build Play, followed by more time at the museum. Friday was back at South Ken, where we had meetings, lunch in the garden and then spent a couple of hours prepping for a filming project, making fans and colour samples.
Another week might have seen us out with the blue blocks at a pop-up, a play street or a school playground; running an afterschool club; delivering sessions in a classroom or hall; working at a youth centre with a designer; filming with various creatives; or any number of other things. Some weeks have a lot of meetings in, these days mainly on Teams or Zoom so we do get excited when we meet actual people. Sometimes we go and have brainstorm sessions at another museum, or go and see other galleries. Some weeks we get a day at a desk! I love the days when I’m out working with people of all sorts of ages, interacting, building, playing and making up stories and mad ideas. Equally I love being with the team, bouncing ideas around and problem solving, being creative and thinking about the potential for the new spaces we’ll be working in. I love researching and creating sessions, using museum objects to inspire. I consider a teacher training session to be a failure if at least one of the trainees doesn’t ask me how to get into museum learning, and this week it was a whole table of them.
But a typical week? There’s no such thing. Thank heavens.
See you after the next one!
What I’ve been reading:
Piece of my Heart/Friend of the Devil – Peter Robinson
This week I celebrated not only the 4th anniversary since our stroppiest cat and this week’s cover star, Lulu, came to live with us, but also my 20th anniversary of working in museums – a long time, I agree, but a decision I have never regretted since making the leap out of the classroom way back in 2002.
One question I get asked a lot, usually by teacher training students who are already looking ahead in terms of their careers, is ‘how did you end up in museums?’ ‘By accident’ is my usual answer. Back in the heady days of properly funded Education Business Partnerships, when teachers not only got to go and do CPD but had supply cover paid for by the EBP as well, I went on a couple of training days – one at the Golden Hinde, where we got dressed up in Tudor sailor gear and spent the day doing the sort of thing children got to do on a school trip, and one at the National Army Museum where we experienced object handling and various other aspects of museum learning. I don’t think I had realised that working as an educator in museums was an actual career choice until the then head of education there, Andy Robertshaw, said that they were recruiting and on the off-chance I applied. I had just started an MA in Museums and Galleries in Education at what was then the Institute of Education (now gathered under the wider UCL umbrella) but not with any intention of moving out of teaching, more as a way to be a better humanities co-ordinator. I moved house a month later, and hadn’t heard anything, and a few months after that in February half term I had an irate phone call from the HR team there asking if I’d be attending the interview the following day. Somewhat bewildered and battered from OFSTED the week before and – quite honestly – out of my head on Benylin Day and Night tablets from the inevitable half term germs, I went for the interview. To this day I remember very little other than ranting about the marginalisation of history in the curriculum but something must have worked as they gave me the job.
I loved it. I got to teach the subject I loved but without parents evenings, PE or music lessons in the week, and on weekends and in the holidays we did family events, live interpretation, talks and conferences – in that team, we all did everything. Interminably, at times: if someone gave me the kit and the powerpoint I suspect I could still do the Florence Nightingale session, fondly known as the Mary and Flo Show, or the Civil War. I moved to Museum of London Docklands three years later, where I got to learn a lot about London (one of my other great loves) and create a lot of sessions, and then to the V&A Museum of Childhood in 2017 (now the Young V&A, of course) where I am helping create a new museum.
There have been tricky moments, I’m not denying that: the repeated restructures of the last few years and seeing the impact of these on colleagues has been really hard. Every so often I throw my toys out of the museum pram and declare that I can’t possibly work for them any more and last year that tantrum lasted about six months instead of a couple of weeks, but then I remembered that I actually do love my job and want to see the project through.
I still tell those teacher training students and serving teachers who ask me that it’s the best job ever, and happily attend careers sessions and work weeks to talk about what not only I do but all the other people who make a museum work: kids assume that the only staff are the ones they see, like the security, shop and front of house teams, and are amazed when they hear about the back of house team who make sure everything runs smoothly. Mine’s the best job, though.
As if by magic, the Shopkeeper appeared
This week the great shopkeeper in the sky appeared to take beloved author David McKee off back to reality. Those of us of a certain era will remember the bowler-hatted and suited Mr Benn and his visits to the fancy dress shop where he was cast into a series of costumed adventures before heading back to his peaceful existence on Festive Road. King Rollo was also his creation, and younger children will know Elmer the Elephant, the mischievous patchwork pachyderm.
My favourite, and one which I have read literally hundreds of times to both my own kids at bedtimes and to classes of children at storytime, is Not Now, Bernard, the story of a boy who finds a monster in the garden. He tries to tell his mum and dad about the monster but they’re too busy to listen. Poor Bernard gets eaten by the monster, who proceeds to go into the house and create chaos, but the parents don’t even notice their son has been eaten. The bemused monster finds himself tucked up with milk and a teddy bear.
This was a wonderful book to read aloud: the children recognised the distracted parents and gleefully acted out the repetitive ‘Not NOW, Bernard’ lines as we read through. I can still hear Thing 2’s baby croak as she joined in. Thank you, David McKee.
See you next week,
What I’ve been reading:
Dry Bones That Dream/Innocent Graves/Wednesday’s Child/Dead Right – Peter Robinson
This feels like a pretty momentous week, what with it being my 100th blog post and so on, but in reality it’s been one where I have mostly been unconscious at 8.30pm every night after a full-on day – yes, even on Friday when London was being battered by Storm Eunice, for which I have been soundly told off by the clan.
As I may have mentioned once or twice before, the museum I work for is in the middle of a spectacular reinvention and part of the process is making sure we have young voices throughout the museum, reflecting what’s important to them in the 21st century and co-creating work with them which will be on display. I am attached to the Design gallery, where we are exploring some key messages – one of which is around sustainability. Our target age range (though anyone can use the space) is 11-14, and so we’re working with a local youth service called Spotlight.
Spotlight is the sort of youth space that I would have loved to have access to growing up (heck, I’m pretty keen on it now!). It has media spaces like a radio station and tech rooms, a boxing gym, dance studio, cafe, games room, fully equipped music studio, health and wellbeing services on site, friendly and accessible youth workers who have a great relationship with the young people and (where we’ve been working this week) an art and fashion studio. This last is underused, as it’s a space where the young people aren’t quite sure what they can do in there, but hopefully we’ve changed that this week!
The project kicked off on Tuesday with a trip to the V&A all the way over in South Kensington, with 15 young people, the designer Scott Ramsay Kyle who was the creative on the project, one of our freelance team, a few Spotlight staff and me all on a minicoach bringing back memories of school trips for the adults at least. In stop/start London traffic it was a miracle we only had to pull over once for a girl to be sick, but it was a close call!
The V&A is still closed to the public on Tuesdays so the young people (YP) were in VIP mode – we fed them lunch, where they were joined by our Director and some of the curatorial and learning teams, and then we took them to Gallery 38 where our collection is currently being stored and conserved in preparation for going back on display in 2023 when Young V&A opens. Katy and Trish, two of the curators, showed them some examples of historic clothes and talked them through some of the processes used to make them. The YPs were amazed that sustainability was a ‘thing’ several hundred years ago although not so much in the 1960s. I won’t go into too much detail here as I have to write an ‘official’ blog post about the project soon.
We spent some time in the fashion gallery exploring clothes through the ages, mark making in their new V&A sketchbooks and focusing on detail and embellishment. Watching children and YP make the mental connections between new and existing knowledge is always a joy – the gaggle of Year 8 Bengali girls who had been learning about the East India Company in school spotted a dress made from the very fabric they’d been learning about, which caused a twitter of excitement and recall of history lessons. Only one of the YP had been to the museum before, on the previous project so the space was very new to them. South Kensington is a long way from Poplar both physically and psychologically, and while many had been to the Science Museum or the Natural History Museum the V&A hadn’t figured. Being able to sprawl on the floor to draw, to have access to all the knowledge they needed from curators and to navigate the space on their own terms made the galleries accessible.
The rest of the week was back at Spotlight with fluctuating numbers of YP – but always a hard core of two or three who came along all week and surprised themselves with what they created. Wednesday was all about fashion and nature, so we worked with two creatives on different aspects of this. Hanna Whiteman explored natural dyes with the YP, helping them create swatches from red cabbage, turmeric and safflower and exploring the effects of different additives. Memunatu Barrie worked from cut flowers and textures found in the park outside, exploring how to create texture and line on paper. We finished up with a dye experiment, hanging the sleeves of a pink hoodie into the dye vats overnight. We only had four YP that day which given the messiness and excitement of the dying was probably a good thing! We were also joined by Maraid Mcewan, our inclusive designer in residence who came along for the rest of the week.
On Thursday we broke out the deadstock fabric and charity shop finds and introduced some sewing skills – curator Trish joined us again, and we explored mark making on fabric with embroidery thread and layering using bondaweb and felt. Some of the YP took their hoops and threads home to work on, as they were so engaged in the process. Trish, Maraid and I also got pretty attached to ours, as did Lydia the brilliant youth worker. There had been an SEND open day in the morning so we attracted a range of YP with different needs in the afternoon, and as there were so many adults it worked really well in terms of the level of assistance we could provide. As I know from helping the Things sew at home, it’s much easier with many pairs of hands to help thread needles and untangle knots! Although our target range for the project was 11-14, the centre works with YP with additional needs up to the age of 25 and we will be an inclusive museum so everyone was welcome to join the session.
On Friday, despite Storm Eunice making an appearance just before midday, we saw 15 YP over the day – some carrying on with their embroidery, some remaking clothes by embellishing and adding materials, some discovering the studio for the first time as they had only signed up to the centre on the previous day. There was some knitting, some draping on mannequins, fabric painting, more bondaweb as the YP customised clothes, but such a creative buzz all afternoon. We sent them all away with their hoops and embroidery (‘what – we can keep them? They’re for us?’) and the things they’d made. The injection of coffee mid afternoon from the cafe was much needed – if you find yourself down in Poplar in need of refreshment, the cafe makes quite possibly the best chocolate brownies I have ever tasted, and a good range of other food at very reasonable prices too.
Other quotes from the week included ‘I’m eleven years old and I’ve made two outfits in two days!’ (one of which was his own interpretation of a 17th century waistcoat he’d sketched on Tuesday), and ‘This is the best place EVER’ from one of the new sign-ups.
Although Scott and I were shattered by the end of the week, we were blown away by the talent and creativity we’d seen over the week and we can’t wait to go back to finish up their co-creation at Easter.
See you next week!
What I’ve been reading:
Torchwood – First Born (Audible)
Ninth Doctor Novels vol 2/Tenth Doctor Novels vol 1 (Audible)
The Lost Art of Letter Writing/The Witches of Cambridge – Menna van Praag
An early start day as I was heading back to one of my regular schools, this time to deliver the Think Small sessions – a 9.30 session start, preceded by an 8.30am meeting at another school about the Kids in Museums Takeover Day happening on Friday. Takeover Day is, in terms of organisation and the level of buy-in from the rest of the team, the biggest day in the formal learning year. Also, to add to the fun, this year we are doing Museum Takeover Day with half the usual staff and – to make it really fun – no museum, If I’d had any sense at all I probably shouldn’t have booked in two days of teaching and the central heating fitting.
My house is in chaos. Only one person at a time can watch TV and all my craft kit is hidden behind a pile of god knows what. The company told us they’d be sending a moving team down on Monday to – you know – move things, but by the time the poor lads had arrived from darkest Yorkshire my beloved had moved everything possible and they were at a bit of a loose end. He had a lovely time over the weekend being all ‘but they won’t know how to empty a fish tank!’ and ‘they won’t know how to dismantle the railway/small nuclear reactor/quantum leap thingy’. Gentle suggestions of ‘well, perhaps you could do those bits and they could do the furniture’ were unwelcome, apparently, and he had a great time hurling things into boxes and piling them up.
Today’s sessions were great fun, though: we had started the school year here with the giant blue blocks, so it was lovely to see the kids again. The appearance of the museum team means fun, apparently, which isn’t a bad thing to be known for! It’s such a warm and friendly school to visit, and the children are kind to each other. The Y6 teacher and his teacher trainee clearly have something going which they probably need to keep a bit more to themselves in front of kids and visitors (it was reaching the ‘would you like to be alone?’ stage while I was setting up my session) but there we are.
Central heating day! No 8 is being dragged (kicking and screaming, naturally) into at least the mid-20th century! With two key Teams meetings scheduled for the morning which would almost certainly not be improved by background drilling! I decamped to Miriam and Roy’s house, round the corner, and where I can more usually be found on Thursday nights playing D&D. Dobby, one of their mad but adorable rescue dogs, took possession of my lap as soon as I sat down and stared intently at the screen till she was properly introduced. She kept my knees warm and her mistress passed me coffees to keep my spirits up. Two meetings and a visitation from their other lovely hound Kreacher later, I headed home to inspect the chaos. One radiator had been fitted and a lot more furniture had been moved as it is apparently not the done thing to put radiators under windows – also, they didn’t have any skinny radiators. The singing Yorkshiremen spent the day hammering and drilling under the watchful eye of my beloved, who was feeling a bit surplus to requirements as there was nothing much he could do. He did go and get them samosas for lunch from the bakery, which I think they enjoyed. The samosas are excellent but the owner is a bit creepy with the females of the species.
Technically, I had a block of time set up in the afternoon for prepping the Takeover Day session. I did manage some admin but failed utterly to do any of the resource prep: we do at least have an activity pack to distribute to the teachers and a timetable. Still, I now know what everyone wants for lunch and just how excited a museum team can get at the thought of fish fingers and chips (samosas again for the vegetarians) followed by school sponge and custard.
Two cats were shut in the kitchen and one in the extension so the fitters could work without interruption from furry fiends intent on homicide. Lulu was distinctly unimpressed, slashing my thumb when I attempted to move her from her perch and I remained unforgiven for the rest of the day. I eventually managed to feed everyone about 8pm, and then sent them to bed.
Up with the lark, or at least my beloved who was on an early shift. Yes, I had a bath and the kids and I revelled in the heating in much the same manner as the Aardman Animations tortoise in the electricity adverts. Yes, that was electric and we are now on gas central heating but it is, as they say, easily turn off and on-able. The bath was so good I almost forgot that I had three kids to get to school.
As it happened, there was an epic bus fail so I had to spend some time having words with the bus company about buses that either don’t turn up, turn up 15 minutes late and then don’t stop, or which just disappear off the tracker. I was late for my own meeting, the kids were an hour late for school but I did at least get the resource prep done.
True to form, just when you need the printer to behave itself it decides to throw a wobbler. Paper jams, communication breakdowns, random cancelling of jobs, refusal to print from powerpoint/word- or printed one and then not the rest. Much threatening of said printer with percussive maintenance, replacement with a pen and paper failed to do the trick Eventually I fooled it by printing to PDF, emailing them to myself and printing from the PC which was apparently acceptable.
And then the stapler gave up. Paper clips to the rescue!
My beloved was replacing plug sockets in the afternoon so no gadgets for the kids. Instead I bribed them with cold hard cash to help me cut up the t-shirts for the takeover day session into strips for rag rugging. My mistake was to give them the cash before the job was finished. I eventually finished about 8pm, with my shoulder frozen. My work table was still inaccessible so most of the work was done on the floor which probably didn’t help!
Started with a late bus, followed by a long gap between tubes so I was running late from the moment I left the house. The school emailed and asked for my DBS number at 9.15am, so of course I didn’t have it with me and had to be escorted everywhere. I missed the 12 o’clock meeting as I was still teaching (must remember to build in contingency time to my diary!). Thank heavens for my line manager who lives round the corner from the school and who fed me coffee and lunch afterwards and restored my sanity. You can’t beat a cheese bagel and salad with a friendly cat.
The electrician phoned on my way home: could he come and fit the spur for the boiler, which was currently plugged into an extension cable, in the next half hour. Nothing like a bit of notice, is there – we compromised on 45 minutes and when he arrived we couldn’t find where he was supposed to be connecting the thing to. I missed another meeting and was late for the next…but we made it to the end of the day.
Thursday is D&D night and as lots of us had an early start we kicked off early – it turned into a board games evening which was just what I needed. A couple of games of Bang! (during which I was forced to shoot both the kids several times – I refuse to sit between them again if we’re playing that!) and a couple of riotous rounds of Scrawl later I was a lot more relaxed. Dobby and Kreacher are very democratic and take turns climbing on everyone’s laps: I think they just like having their ears rubbed.
Awake at 4am once again, which has been a bit of a pattern this week – argh! Takeover Day and I haven’t done this, I haven’t got enough staff and I haven’t got a bloody museum to do it in! There will be an ‘official’ blog over on the V&A site at some point so I won’t go into it too much here.
I abandoned Thing 3 with wonderful Miriam to take to Breakfast Club so I’d be able to get to Bethnal Green on time – bless my lovely friends (like Toby, who also retrieves Thing 3 when I can’t get back in time!) – and headed off on the 7.13 bus which was mercifully on time. I treated myself to an almond milk hot chocolate (try it, it;s delicious) from Starbucks on the way past and headed to Globe where most of the team were there before me.
True to form, as the blue blocks were involved and I was due to be outside it rained, so we hijacked the hall for the morning. Helen the director and I worked with the nursery and reception classes all day and we had great fun building and adding in things from the mountain of recycling that parents had donated. I was given a new dress made from gold and bubble wrap, went on a road trip to Australia in a car, slept in a mermaid’s cave, watched a small child disguise herself as a sausage roll and was also treated to the sight of my director being a cloud. The other team’s sessions were equally successful and many, many parents were dragged upstairs to our ‘museum’ by their excited children at the end of the day. We ate school lunch with the kids, who were outraged that we got extra fish fingers and lots of chips.
The traditional debrief followed at The Florist Arms, where they do excellent pizzas and where some of the teachers were a bit bemused to see the museum team reviving themselves with a tequila slammer before 5pm. We were also saying goodbye to our creative practitioner, Fran, who was my first recruit after I joined and who is leaving us to be a freelancer. She’s brilliant and we will miss her very much – she’s kept me sane for the last few years, is wonderful with kids and adults alike, creative, and extremely accident prone. I was home by 9pm and blissfully unconscious on the sofa shortly afterwards.
Started with a positive Covid test handed to me by Thing 2, leading to LFTs all round and ordering PCRs for the family. If anyone wants me for the rest of the weekend I am in the bath (and thanks to Miriam for the bath bombs!) and I’m not getting out till Monday.
See you next week!
Windswept and Interesting- Billy Connolly (Audible)
Dreams Underfoot – Charles de Lint
London Bridge is Falling Down (Bryant and May) – Christopher Fowler
The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman
The Long and the Short of It – Jodi Taylor (Audible)
Saving Time – Jodi Taylor
The Quantum Curators and the Missing Codex – Eva St. John
This week I took my new school session out to Thing 3’s primary school to test it on Years 5 and 6 – still playing with blue Imagination Playground blocks, but this time the tabletop version which are definitely easier to carry around. Added to these were scraps of fabrics, pipes, string and other loose parts, building on the work we’ve been doing over the summer.
The session, called ‘Think Small’, is an introduction to user-centred design, helping children to understand the iterative design process, work collaboratively and communicate ideas, and finally to work creatively with materials. These are some of the 5Cs of 21st century skills and are the some of the building blocks for learning in the new museum.
We started by thinking about chickens, and what they need to be safe and happy: brainstorming ideas as a class, and then looking at the Eglu. The chickens in question can be seen above – Mabel, Doris and Tome, who belong to one of my colleagues and who were previously commercial egg-laying chickens. We’re in a relatively rural area, so some of the children already had experience of chickens, and were keen to share their ideas. ‘Space to play’ was the most important thing according to one child whose granny is a chicken keeper. We looked then at the Eglu, a chicken house which was designed to make it simpler to keep chickens in garden and which you can see on the left of the picture.
We moved on to talking about what pets we have at home – cats, dogs, guinea pigs, chameleons, geckos, the odd bird and tortoise, hedgehogs – and how they need different environments. I split the classes into four groups, and each team picked a mystery bag with an animal model. As a team they generated a list of things their animal needed which became their ‘client brief’. They were surprised to discover that they wouldn’t be the designing the home for their animal, but had to swap their briefs with another team. Each group then became ‘animal architects’, looking at the brief together and each child designed a home that they thought met that brief. The hardest bit, we discovered, was when the children had to decide which design from their group met the brief best and would be the one put forward to the ‘clients’. Some groups decided quickly, while others needed some support.
The clients gave feedback on the designs and then the architects used the creative kit to build the chosen design, incorporating the feedback, and finally the groups looked at all the designs while the architects talked us through them.
Over the four sessions I refined the format and changed some of the timings, and delivering it to the different year groups allowed me to see how it works with different abilities. The classes are quite small, with less than 25 in each which meant four groups in each session was viable. One thing about working with ‘animals’ was that it gave all the children a chance to shine and share prior knowledge from their out-of-school experience rather than reinforcing classroom learning.
I didn’t let them use sellotape or glue, so they had to come up with other solutions to hold objects together or in a particular shape. One boy shone as a project manager, helping his team realise the design he’d created.
Feedback from the children themselves was entertaining: one of them informed me that he didn’t know DT actually involved ‘making things’, another was keen to find out more about making structures stable. Apparently it’s harder to build than to draw, and it needs more brain power than they expected. Building with blocks takes a ‘lot of thinking’. They were surprised when they had to swap their animals to let other people build their ideas; DT is not just on a computer; and it was interesting to think about what other people need. One asked how long it takes to become an architect, so I’m counting that as a win! One wanted to know if I was really Thing 3’s ‘actual mum’.
Thing 3, of course, was mostly just concerned that I didn’t embarrass him too much…
As you can see I have some sewing to be getting on with! My first foray into swimwear, for example: a two piece that will be easier to get out of in the winter swimming. The water was 12.6 degrees this morning, so we’re on our way to single figures. There’s also been cross stitch in the evenings, which I’ll share when it’s finished. See you next week…
What I’ve been reading:
Forests of the Heart/The Onion Girl – Charles de Lint
Back in 1999, when I was still a Tower Hamlets primary school teacher, I taught a year 3 class. It was a typical class, with the full range of abilities from ridiculously bright to identified levels of SEND. It being Tower Hamlets, the intake was both socially and culturally very diverse, with the usual levels of kids on free school meals, in social housing, etc. This was in the glory days of ‘education, education, education’, as Tony Blair would have it: I didn’t agree with a lot of his policies but that one I could get right behind.
One child in my class was B, a very sweet boy who these days would probably have been identified as having ADD. I tell a lot of trainee teachers about B when I am talking about the importance of museum visits, and the need to offer children a range of learning activities to meet different styles of learning. His cartoon equivalent would be The Simpsons’ Ralph Wiggum: I was never sure how much of what happened in the classroom actually went in and he was a by-word for vague in the staffroom.
Like most year 3 classes, we covered Invaders and Settlers – Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and during the Romans topic I organised a trip to the Museum of London for an object handling session. These school trips are so important: yes, they are ‘nice to haves’ but they are also the experiences which build cultural capital for children, and what I like to call London capital. London, especially diverse and poor areas, is not a city but a connected group of small villages. People tend to stay hyperlocal, and museums are often not on a family’s agenda: a day out costs money, even when museums are free, and there is often a feeling that a museum is ‘not for them’ (that’s another rant for another day). School visits help children experience the tube, the museum, social norms and more – it’s never just about the workshop. This is particularly important with families where the children have English as an additional language, and the parents may not have any English at all.
Anyway, back to B and the handling workshop. The facilitator held up an object – a wax tablet and stylus, in fact – and asked the children if they knew what it was. My class looked at him as if they’d never even heard of Romans…. except B, who put his hand up. I braced myself for a Wiggum-style non sequitur and out of his mouth came an explanation of what the object was, how it was used and re-used, and the name of the writing implement. My jaw dropped. 29 children’s jaws dropped. And he flew for the rest of the session. He knew what things were, he was confident in sharing his knowledge, and I went away with an entirely new view of one small child. I’m not saying that the effect lasted for ever – but we had seen hidden depths and I made sure that object-based learning made more frequent appearances in the classroom.
These visits and other experiences are ‘nice to haves’, yes, but they also provide key learning experiences for children who are not auditory or visual learners. It would be nice to think that teachers could just talk at children for 13 years and they would leave school knowing all the things they need to know, but for many children that isn’t the case. They need these ‘nice to haves’ to embed their learning and to help them connect understanding and knowledge. There have been so many occasions since I left the classroom and became a museum educator where I have seen the same thing happen to other teachers: a floodgate opens in a child’s mind when the connection is made, and both teacher and learner go away with a new understanding.
This week, for example, a child with autism focused for longer than he’s ever focused before on one thing: building with the blue blocks. Over three days this week we saw every class in a primary school, working on coding, creativity and collaboration and giving children a chance for some physical play, some kinaesthetic learning. The headteacher came to see us on our last day and said that so many parents had come to her and said their children hadn’t stopped talking about their session when usually they answer ‘dunno’ or ‘can’t remember’ to the ‘what did you do today?’ question. Teachers had also raved, and would we come to their other school as well please. These sessions were a ‘nice to have’ too, as are those days when companies like Time Steps or History off the Page come into school and your kids spend the day immersed in history and come home with peg dolls or Stone Age bread.
You may well wonder what’s brought this on. Read on…
This week, Google offered up this article for my reading pleasure. I’m quite sure that inciting me to fury probably wasn’t its intention, but that was the result. The article was about how schools would tackle the issue of ‘catch up’ following last year’s closures. It talked about schools focusing on the poorest pupils, ensuring they had food (gasp!) and ‘going out visiting’ (ditto!). Apparently this meant that they weren’t providing an education offer for all children. It was acknowledged that private schools had three times as much money than state, which was nice to know if not really much of a revelation.
Who knew that children might need to eat? Who knew that their families might need to eat? Who might have suspected that the poorest families, who rely on school dinners to ensure that their kids are guaranteed a hot meal every day, might need pastoral support – especially when dealing with a government who were prepared not to feed these kids in the holidays? When their parents, if they were working at all, were furloughed on 80% of a minimum wage that wasn’t enough to live on anyway? She didn’t mention digital poverty, which meant many of these children were trying to work on their parents’ phones, or the problems with getting laptops to these children, or unreliable/non-existent broadband. I have sung the praises of Marcus Rashford before – although I haven’t mentioned Maro Itoje who campaigned for children to have access to laptops and the internet during Covid. (Gavin Williamson, the mercifully-now-ex Education Secretary, managed to confuse the two earlier this month.)
Selfishly, though – speaking as a career ‘nice to have’ – that wasn’t even the paragraph that made me most angry. It made me pretty angry, because – working in Tower Hamlets – I believe that schools made the right decision and the wellbeing of their pupils absolutely should have been their priority, especially at the beginning of lockdown. None of us had a crystal ball and could not have known that we’d still be doing lockdown learning a year later.
No, this was the one that really got me: “‘Nice to have’ things could be cut out for worst-hit pupils” to ensure that pupils are ‘catching up’.
Apparently, most catch-up would take place in pupils’ “main classrooms with their normal teachers”. They referred to a “sort of everyday magic that teachers do of really motivating children to want to learn and introducing them to the whole curriculum, taking them through in a well structured way with the minimal wastage of time…There are experiences, ‘nice to have’ things that are often built into curricular, and I suspect a lot of those will get cut out for the children who have missed the most.”
The comments follow guidance… which warned that “time is not infinite and so, alongside identifying what content from missed topics should be prioritised, careful consideration must also be given to choices of teaching activity”. “Do the pupils who spend a lesson on the Egyptians wrapping their friend in toilet roll remember the details of Egyptian religious beliefs, or do they just remember the fun activity,” the guidance said.
Well, speaking from experience, I am pretty sure they remember both….because the practical activity embeds the learning into their brains. Learning is supposed to be fun. The teachers you remember decades later (for good reasons) are the ones who made lessons memorable, and not the ones who treated you as vessels to be filled with knowledge. I think if we take away the ‘nice to haves’ we run the risk of not a lost generation of learners but a disengaged generation of non-learners. There is no one size fits all, which teachers have known for years.
Speaking as a kinaesthetic learner…
I like to keep my hands busy, as you know – and apparently so does the person who said all the things above. She knits through meetings as it helps her focus. I do wonder sometimes what goes on in people’s heads.
Anyway…as well as finishing the socks I have been working on for ages, I started a dragon scale dice bag (and then started it again when I realised I’d done it upside down) I also made these pouches which can be used for jewellery, shiny rocks, dice, sewing kits and more. They have little compartments and again were made of fabric leftovers.
The blue one is from a tutorial by Wandering Hare on Etsy and the patchwork one is from a free tutorial by Serendipity Studios, found here. Both very similar, but the second one has a padded bottom which will keep your preciouses safe from knocks!
That’s it from me then – see you next week! There’s a bacon sandwich with my name on it….
What I’ve been reading
Unseen Academicals/Going Postal/Making Money – Terry Pratchett
Thief of Time/Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett (Audible)
This week has felt almost normal: two days of delivery and a day in the office, drinks with colleagues on Wednesday and a noisy evening in a pub on Friday night. Never mind that one of those days of delivery was outdoors, with sessions bracketed (but not cancelled) by torrential downpours – we were doing our job, the reason we went into learning in the first place. I did have to wring out the bottom half of my dress while I was wearing it, as we cleaned 100 or so pieces of play equipment under a shelter made pointless by the rising waters and the horizontal rain, but there we are. We had a great day! It was noisy, joyful and inspiring.
I have mentioned the Imagination Playground Big Blue Blocks we are using before: it’s quite well-known and is used all over the world. We also have a kit designed by CO-DB which can be used to create pop-up spaces for craft workshops and more, and we had some of those pieces with us as well. As soon as we started to put out wooden structures we were surrounded by children who had some very firm ideas about how they thought it should be set out: they wanted to build a house, and when there weren’t enough pieces they collected other objects from around the playground to make their creation. They carried across tables and chairs, a giant Connect-4 game, and PE equipment. The house was initiated by a couple of small boys and others soon joined in, bringing their own ideas to the game.
My role that day was supporting our Informal Learning producer. Later in the day we were joined by an artist, Matt Shaw, who has been commissioned to create a ‘plus’ set to add to the Blue Blocks – he brought some rolls of corrugated card with him, some cut up plastic pipes and connectors and large pieces of fabric, to see how they added to the play. The Theory of Loose Parts is behind this. We introduced those about halfway through each session, when the children were evaluating their creations to see how they could add or improve them – something they did independently, rather than directed by us.
It was an interesting day: we had children ranging from Early Years to young teens, and we were presenting them all with exactly the same base equipment. We wondered whether the older ones would engage with the blue blocks or if they’d think they were too babyish for them, but we were surprised by how much they enjoyed it. All the sessions started with free play so they could see how the blocks worked together and could be connected, and then we threw in a challenge to finish off. Often this was to make the tallest structure they could, which they then enjoyed knocking down. Matt’s fabric was used to create dens and sails, and some ripstop fabric lengths became roofs for a shelter built by a team of girls called ‘the prime house’ because it was all primary colours. We asked one group to design and build a way to cross a river, so we saw some great bridges: we’d tested this with schools in early July.
The free play was interesting, as every age group made some kind of fitness equipment, often from a starting point of a dumbbell made from a noodle shape and two round pieces. The oldest group made theirs very elaborate, with a bench press and a leg machine, while the younger ones were more basic. Most groups made a marble run: if two sets of children started making one and discovered there weren’t enough pieces, we encouraged them to team up and create one large one. It was brilliant to watch them testing angles to make sure the ball would move smoothly, tweaking things to ensure it didn’t fly off, and solving problems together. The activity brought children together: this was a council play scheme which had only been open a couple of days, with children from all over the borough. Many had never met before that week, and the blue block activity got them talking to each other for the first time, according to the adults.
Of all the loose parts the children chose to add to their creations, the most popular were a set of marker cones which had been left in the playground – so much so that we will be adding them to our own kit for other events. They became decoration for houses, stoppers on the marble run, wheels, eyes and more. So simple that we wouldn’t have thought of them ourselves, but every group added them in to their creations. They also enlivened the Blue Blocks, which are otherwise just – well – blue.
The idea behind our participation in this playscheme, the school sessions I have mentioned in previous episodes, play streets and festivals is to support creativity and the skills that creativity builds: confidence, communication, collaboration and more (yes, they all begin with C) and I think we saw that in spades this week.
My other delivery day was at Spotlight, an amazing youth space in Tower Hamlets where I was supporting our Creative Producer. This was part of a local transition Summer School for Year 6s going into Year 7, and were working with School of Noise who run workshops encouraging the exploration of music and the science of sound. I learned loads – about how sound travels, chladni plates, about making sound effects and more. The students were really engaged too, and were amazed at how the sounds they could make with their bodies could create music. We tried some Foley in the afternoon, making the sound of fire with bubble wrap, tin foil and a plastic shopping bag, and we saw this video which left us in awe of Foley artists. I have had some strange requests from my Foley artist neighbour over the years but this video really put them into context.
Just having these days with the team in real life, and Friday in the office at South Kensington, reminded me why I love my job and the people I work with. We went out on Friday night to the Zetland Arms in South Ken to say a goodbye to our wonderful director. I saw people I had previously only met on Teams calls, and others I hadn’t seen since before lockdown – it made the ludicrously expensive G&Ts worthwhile. (Lovely director has just messaged me to say thank you for the letter and crocheted angel I handed her on Friday night – when she arrived two years ago we had just been through a horrible restructure and we found guardian angels on our desks waiting for us, so it seemed right to send her off with one too!)
And now it’s August. How did that happen?
All this travelling on tubes has meant that I could spend some serious time crocheting daft things – more jammy dodgers, in fact. Here’s eight I made on the tube – there would have been nine, except a small girl was entranced by what I was doing so I gave her a finished one. I think it made her day. These are very satisfying to make, as other than weaving in the ends there is no construction: you join as you go. They will either end up as brooches or tree decorations – these are made with the 2mm hook, rather than the larger one, so the stitches are tighter.
The background is, of course, the Hobbit Hole – I am now onto the bottom half and will be starting a new page this evening. And now I am off to do some other sewing. I should be constructing jeans but I have a PDF that needs sticking together for a dress, so let’s see how far I get!
What I’ve been reading
The Shadow Wing (Crow Investigations) – Sarah Painter
Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (Audible)