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Category Archives: Environment

Capercaillie Stickers

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They’ve arrived! I really love them. I’ll be giving them to children at the Edinburgh International Book Festival events I’m doing on Monday and Thursday next week and at the Inverness Book Festival on Saturday 23rd August.

Choosing text and images

I wanted two types of sticker so the children could choose the character they identify best with. The red squirrel, Hazel is an older sister type character. She’s quite confident while Cameron the capercaillie is much less sure of himself (but he grows and changes through out the story).

The title of the book is ‘Can’t Dance Cameron‘ but I didn’t want to put that on a sticker – I don’t think children would want that as a label. I wanted to encourage the children so I chose a line from the book from Hazel:

You can dance!

And the final thing the crowd shouts at Cameron:

Kick it, Cameron!

I’m excited (and a bit nervous!) to say both Edinburgh Book Festival events next week are SOLD OUT!

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But you can still get tickets to the Inverness Book Festival here.

Make your own stickers and badges 

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The stickers were created using schoolstickers.com funky sticker maker. You can upload your own images and choose text and the great thing is, they don’t charge for the design – just for the stickers themselves.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2014 in Education, Environment, Events, storytelling, Writing

 

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Tales From Our Wild Park

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This is me holding a giant copy of the book I’ve written for Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park. It’s called ‘Tales From Our Wild Park’ and it launched yesterday at Glasgow Queen Street station.

The Launch

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That’s Paul Wheelhouse the Environment Minister in the middle and Fiona Logan (Chief Executive of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park) on the left and the park convener Linda McKay on the right – getting their photos taken at the launch. They were interviewed by the BBC too, you might have seen it on Reporting Scotland last night?

Behind them to the left is the green screen. It was used to create portraits of people in the park. For example, I stood in front of the green screen and cupped my hands and…. here I am holding a red squirrel in the Trossachs Forest!

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You can see all of the photos created by the green screen on facebook here. Read more about the launch on forargyle.com here.

Tales from Our Wild Park

It’s so exciting to see the book in print! It looks absolutely gorgeous. The designers (Create 48) and project manager (Aelred Nicholas) have done an amazing job in putting it together. This is one of my favourite spreads:

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John Muir’s quote, the designers beautiful word art, an amazing photo of the bog cotton and my writing.

The publication is 52 pages long. It focuses on five wild challenges:

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Half of Scotland’s population live within one hour’s drive from the park so really, the park belongs to all of us and this book is written for you. It sets out the priorities for the park over the next ten years and it invites us to get involved. It invites us to visit the park and experience the beauty of nature for ourselves:

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The book is free and is available at outlets across the Park. You can download it here.

My Brief

My role was to make the 150 page biodiversity action plan as relevant, engaging, exciting and easy to read as possible. I needed to write for someone with no background knowledge of the park. I read the action plan several times. Some sections, for example ‘our woodland habitats’, were several pages long. My challenge was to condense seven pages into the equivalent of two. Other sections like ‘red squirrels’ or ‘black grouse’ only had a few paragraphs so I needed to take what was relevant and research the topic elsewhere. I thought a lot about how to make things relevant to the public and proposed a general format for each wild challenge of:

  • Relevant quote
  • Descriptive intro
  • Why it’s important / why it matters
  • What we’re doing
  • How can you get involved / what can you do to help
  • Where can you see it / them (location and travel info)

Aelred loved this format and so I set to work on a sample spread. I wanted to check I was on the right track before I wrote the whole thing. I chose peat bogs first. I read the action plan section a few times and researched bogs in books and online. I spoke to a natural history expert, Kenny Taylor to find out more.

I submitted my first spread and received feedback. The good thing was the tone and style were just right but there were things I needed to work on. The team wanted more excitement and adventure. What is it like to climb the mountains and visit a peat bog? I’d suggested visiting Flanders Moss – the most famous bog in the park but this was the wrong type of bog.

This initial feedback was really useful and helped me to understand what the team were looking for. It also helped me to request the information I needed instead of coming up with it myself – like locations for mountain bogs (since there weren’t bog locations in the action plan). I asked for clarification on the angle of each section – for example with invasive non-native species I suggested as an intro we started off all gentle and beautiful and then switch to the destruction of the plants taking over. They liked that.

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I had to think about the best way to get key points and information across. Not everyone is interested in invasive plants (they’re not cute like red squirrels) so I didn’t want to use lots of text writing about each specific plant. Instead I suggested photos and a table.

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I wrote the rest of the sections and simplified the vision and overview. The feedback was good – just some minor changes and a suggestion to find some alternative quotes (apart from John Muir). I’d chosen John Muir because I love how he captures the heart of the beauty of experiencing nature with so much simplicity. Also, he’s from Scotland, he founded national parks in the US and it’s the year of Scotland’s homecoming. But taking the feedback on board, I found some other relevant quotes and they’ve really added something – like Billy Connolly’s quote about a sexy raincoat!

Aelred asked partner organisations for quotes too – they really bring the topics to life.

I love that about the creative process. When others contribute ideas and vision it makes the whole thing so much better as a result.

Feedback

The style is completely different to anything the park has published before. Feedback and so far has been really positive. One staff member told me how she cried when she read it. It’s been described as a publication that engages with the head as well as the heart. 

I’d be interested to hear what you think too!?

Edinburgh International Book Festival

I’m really excited to say ‘Tales of our Wild Park’ is going to all the teachers visiting Edinburgh International Book Festival School Gala Day on the 26th August. I’m doing three events at the book festival this year including an event at the Gala Day. I’ve written another book that came out this week, this one is for children but it also features a red squirrel and a forest! It’s called ‘Can’t Dance Cameron’. Read more about it here.

Find out more about Wild Park on the Wild Park 2020 website.

 

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Dancing Capercaillies

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Tickets for Edinburgh International Book Festival go on sale tomorrow and I would like to invite you along to my event ‘Dancing Capercaillies‘ at 13.00 on Monday 18th August. I’m excited to be bringing my debut picture book:

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Here’s what page 75 of the book festival programme says about the event:

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If you come along you’ll be at my first public reading. There will football with giant pinecones, a naughty squirrel squirting water, sounds recorded in the cairngorms forest, video footage of real capercaillies dancing and a few other surprises. By the end of the event you’ll know some genuine capercaillie dance moves. You could try them out at a wedding?

Schools
If you are a school group, I’m also doing a schools event on 21st August, I wrote about on the blog here.
 
Love Birds
I love the Edinburgh International Book Festival bird graphics – Cameron the Capercaillie will feel right at home in Charlotte Square.
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Capercaillies

Capercaillies are rare Scottish birds – there’s only around 1000 of them left in the wild in Scotland. They dance every year and I’ve got up very early to try to see them the last three years in a row. Here’s how I got on

Watch to the video on youtube here

 

BUY THE BOOK

Can’t Dance Cameron is published this September by Floris Books as part of their Picture Kelpies range. Advance copies of the book will be available in the Edinburgh Book Festival Shop in Charlotte Square Gardens during the book festival. So that’s the only place you can get a copy before 18th September.

BUY TICKETS (with Oscar!)

Hello, I’m Oscar the cat – there will be a video of me impersonating a character from ‘Can’t Dance Cameron’ during the ‘Dancing Capercaillies’ event. You should totally come along to see that. Invite lots of friends. Especially the smaller noisy people (aged 4 – 7 years) but grown ups will enjoy it too. Get tickets from 8.30am tomorrow on the book festival website. Log into your account before then here (to make it quicker tomorrow).

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Thanks to everyone at Floris Books, especially my brilliant editor Eleanor Collins and to Katie Pamment the illustrator – what beautiful illustrations.

Also, big thanks to the Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland – the first version of this book was written thanks to them during my writing retreat (via the Reader in Residence post at Leith Library).

And thanks to Mairi Wilson who let me stay at her house in Ullapool for my writing retreat, she was the first person to hear Cameron’s story. Back then, he was called Colin.  

Read about Cameron dancing in the Floris Book Catalogue here.

 

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Timmy the Turbine on Tour

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This Sunday I’m taking ‘Timmy the Turbine’ on an adventure to meet families at Duddingston Festival. Soon after that on the 19th June he’s off to the Royal Highland Show to meet primary one and primary two children.

Timmy The Turbine is a nursery science show, story and workshop aimed at children age three to six years. The description for the Royal Highland Show Programme will hopefully explain what it’s all about:

Wind is wonderful and we’ve got plenty of it in Scotland! How can we use it to make things go?

Help Timmy the Turbine to find the perfect home in our interactive story with Nibbles the red squirrel, Honker the barnacle goose and Mr Haggis. Find out more about where they live and why Timmy can’t stay with them.

Measure how long Timmy’s arms are compared to yours. Sing the Timmy song. Learn the Timmy Rhyme and don’t forget the actions. Create your own mini Timmy and decide where he should go.

If that wasn’t enough to wet your windy whistle – Timmy himself (the mascot) will make an appearance…

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I wanted to invite you along to meet him with your family this weekend at Duddingston Festival (or at the Royal Highland show in a few weeks if you’re a school). Details are:

Sunday 25th May, 1.15pm to 1.45pm Duddingston Festival Edinburgh. We’ll be in the BB Commemorative Garden if it’s sunny. If not we’ll be in the Miller Hall.

Thursday 19th June, Royal Highland Show, all day schools event (book your class in here).

Duddingston Festival is a lovely wee community festival. Most of the performers are coming for free and all the events are free too (by donation). You can see John Hegley‘s Children’s show (the amazing famous poet) right after Timmy finishes.

Where Did Timmy Begin? 

Timmy the Turbine started life as a story written by Jay Butler, Managing Director of Renewable Energy Company vento ludens. Vento ludens approached me to ask if I could to put together a proposal to take Timmy’s story and create a nursery workshop based around it.

I loved the story, especially that it was so well balanced – it helped highlight some of the problems of trying to locate a wind turbine as well as the benefits of wind power. For example Timmy gets in the way of migrating geese and he makes people’s TV aerials go fuzzy.

I worked on a proposal for the project which included:

  • a shortened version of the blurb above
  • ideas for an interactive science show
  • a fun way to simplify and present story
  • a song
  • a rhyme
  • a take home sheet
  • a craft
  • a plan to pilot the workshop in two Edinburgh Nurseries.

I pitched the proposal to Vento Ludens and was delighted to get commissioned. After that came the bit I really love. Writing and creating all the different interactive elements to make the story and the science behind the story fun, memorable and engaging for 3 to 6 year olds.

Creating Resources

I researched the curriculum for excellence and checked which areas of science are covered for Early Years (3 – 6 years) to make sure I was writing something relevant and using the correct terms. I simplified the story and added some memorable phrases to help the children to join in for example Timmy says “Hi, my name is Timmy and I’m looking for a home” each time he meets a new character.

I commissioned Julia Holland (my lovely sister) to create a set of felt book characters, I was so excited when they arrived:

I commissioned Edinburgh Sketcher to create four big story images to be used for recapping the story. Here’s one of nibbles the red squirrel in the pine forest: SquirrelForrest_Colour I asked the Edinburgh Sketcher to create line drawing versions for the story so we could put them together to make a take-home colouring sheet to stick on their fridge with a Timmy fridge magnet: BfKCsQIIcAAqsX3 Once I was happy with a prototype Timmy fridge magnet, I cut out lots of little Timmy’s:

I worked on the characters to give them unique personalities. The squirrel is bossy, the resident is a bit like Billy Conolly (but no swearing). I watched YouTube videos to perfect my Russian accent. I discovered Honker the barnacle goose migrates to Iceland or Russia so I needed to get the right voice! I should point out that my Russian accent is still fairly bad.

I built a model wind turbine and the cat, as always, got in the way:

I wrote a script and lesson plan and I practiced the show with a run order:

Timmy Pilot

We piloted Timmy the Turbine in Edinburgh in two different corner house day nurseries. Photographer Chris Scott came along to capture the action at the first nursery. There were 29 children aged four and five.

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This was a big group and I felt a bit nervous knowing it was my first performance. There were six nursery staff, two vento ludens staff members and a photographer all watching too – that’s more scary for me than the children. Thankfully, as soon as I got started I forgot about the grownups and had a really lovely time with the children.

They discovered how wind can make things go: _MG_1975

Nibbles the red squirrel threw nuts and squirted water:

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We told the story using the felt characters as props:

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We chatted about what they remembered using the beautiful Edinburgh Sketcher pictures:

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We had fun singing Timmy’s song and doing the Timmy the Turbine Rhyme:

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After 45 minute of carpet time I told them it was time for the craft and they didn’t move. One boy put his hand up and said “Does that mean you’re going?” I explained we would be going soon because another nursery needed to hear Timmy’s story. The boy said “Ohhhh” in a very sad voice and hung his head. I explained that if I didn’t go, they wouldn’t get to meet a very special guest… Timmy himself:

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The children decorated their Timmy the Turbine fridge magnets and once they’d finished we helped them to stick on pegs:

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I listened to some of their conversations and was really chuffed to hear them talking about Timmy’s story:

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Making it Better

There were a few things that came up during the first workshop that could be improved. That’s why it it’s useful to do a pilot, to try things and make it better.

For example I discovered the children weren’t too clear as to why Timmy couldn’t stay with Honker the goose. I asked them about it using the Edinburgh Sketcher pictures during the recap. Clearly I’d lost them somewhere, probably due to my Russian accent and the description of geese flying “Ve fly in a vee”.

So the second time around I made it really clear. The goose said “I vill bonk my head on your vings” multiple times to Timmy who said “Do you mean you’ll bonk your head on my blades?” “Yes, zat iz vhat I said. I vill bonk my head on your vings” and so on.

In the second workshop during the recap, they all remembered why Timmy couldn’t stay with honker the goose. The change had worked. Nibbles the squirrel was helping with the recap, she bonked her head on the picture several times with glee due to her being very pleased they had remembered – this made them all laugh a bit too much (naughty nibbles got carried away).

The second session was with a smaller group of 15 children aged 2 – 4. They were younger children so I shortened the workshop but they were still engaged for half an hour of carpet time. After the carpet time they drew Timmy on the Timmy Take Home sheet.

Evaluation

Overall we were really pleased with how it all went, especially with how well engaged the children were. The combination of different types of activities seemed to hold their attention. 

Here are a few of the nursery teacher comments:

They really enjoyed taking part in the story and I think it made them really feel part of it.

I thought it was a good story that covered different elements of the curriculum for excellence

It was really fun and informative. You managed to hold their attention for the whole length of time.

I’m sure they will be talking about Timmy for a while!

We also asked the teachers if the children could remember it after the event and if the parents had any feedback. Here’s what they said:

They were telling their parents all about the story and in particular the squirrel! Parents said they thought it was great that you guys had been in and done the story etc with the children. We have heard groups of children discuss it with each other.

I’m excited to see how Timmy gets on with family audiences this Sunday in Duddingston Festival and then with school children in June, at the Royal Highland Show.

Read about Timmy the Turbine on the vento ludens website.

Thanks

Massive thanks to everyone at vento ludens, to Jay for writing the story and huge hurrah for Susanne Mueller – for all your hard work, creativity and enthusiasm and for getting inside the Timmy suit with a smile. 

Thanks to Julia Holland and the Edinburgh Sketcher for creating such lovely resources. 

Thanks to staff, children and parents at the Corner House Day Nursery for being part of out pilot.

Thanks to our photographer, Chris Scott for all the lovely photographs.

 

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Working with Libraries

I wanted to let you know about a few projects I’m doing with libraries.

Forest Families in Gorebridge

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Tomorrow I’m off to Gorebridge library to run some woodland themed storytelling workshops with the local primary schools at the launch the Forest Families project. Here’s how the facebook page describes Forest Families:

A project providing positive, nurturing interactions and free play in natural environments, for children from Mid Lothian,aged 3-8 years and their parents

Oak trees are the theme for tomorrow’s workshops. We’re hoping the children will recognise the shape of an oak leaf. It happens to be the Midlothian Council logo so they won’t have just see it on trees. I’m even going to be wearing an oak leaf dress – now that’s commitment!

I’m working with craft maker and educator Jaimie MacDonald. The last time we worked together we were running crafty storytelling training for youth leaders. This time we’re storytelling and making crafts with the children ourselves. I’m excited to hear Jaimie will be wearing a mushroom jumper (in keeping with the forest theme).

Each workshop is a taster session. We’ll have an introduction from project founder Stephanie Walker. Then it’s me with the story bag, leaves, imagination exercises, stories and some songs. Then it’s Jaimie making nature journals and finally we finish up with a wee song from the little oak story as we plant some trees:

Wonderful, beautiful, there’s only one like you.

There’s only one who was made to do, the things that you will do.

Families in Gorebridge will have an opportunity to sign up to monthly Forest Families workshops. The first one is Saturday 22nd February.

Social Media Training for Edinburgh Libraries

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Last month I ran a training session with team leaders and staff from across the Edinburgh public libraries. I was asked to share examples of how we used social media to promote reader development at Leith Library during the 9 month residency I did with the Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland (read the highlights here).

The course was full and it was a good opportunity for people to share ideas between libraries. With that in mind I didn’t want to be doing all the talking. For part of the session I got people to slit into groups and discuss different ways to tell stories digitally – audio, video, photo and combinations of the above. Through the discussion and feedback people came up with loads of great ideas for things to do within their libraries and that was all before I shared some of what we did in Leith.

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Science Poetry at the National Library of Scotland

I was delighted to be asked to run a science poetry masterclass this April as part of the great big science read. I was also a little bit nervous since it’s called a master class. Did that mean I had to be a master of science poetry? Images of Yoda sprang to mind. But then we had a planning meeting at the National Library. We got excited about the titles of the science collection as inspiration for poems and I had a few ideas for exercises that the team really liked so that has put me at ease. There’s enough inspiration in that collection and in science itself so I figure I’m just going to be facilitating an opportunity for people to be inspired, connect and share.

If you’re interested you can find details of the event in the Science Festival Programme or in the latest National Libraries of Scotland what’s on leaflet.

You can read my most recent science poem ‘Relativity’ in the latest issue of The Istanbul Review.

 

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Shaking Shells

Last month I led a 3-hour Filmpoem workshop with five children aged between five and ten as part of the first UK Filmpoem Festival in Dunbar.

The workshop started with exercises and games to get the children thinking like poets (I wrote a bit about it here). Then we spent the second half of the workshop writing a group poem on a poetry walk.

Each section of the walk involved a different poetry challenge and at the next stop we heard the results of the last challenge and I set the next challenge. For example when you’re walking:

  • Explore the wall, touch it, smell it, describe it
  • What sounds do you notice? Describe them
  • Find your favourite object on the beach, if you find a better one, swap it. Describe it.

Each child worked independently during the challenge but we came together in a circle at the end of each challenge and each contributed one line to the poem.

Favourite Moments

Three moments really stood out to me. The first was when we stopped after the first poetry challenge. I wrote down each of their lines as they said them. I rearranged the order slightly and read it out. All of the children looked at each other with amazed faces and they said things like “Wow!”. From that moment on they were totally focussed.

During the walk artist Alastair Cook was capturing film and composer Luca Nasciuti recorded sounds. When we were down on the beach Donald (5) was in the process of finding his favourite object when he made a discovery….

“I’ve found a sound for the film!” he shouted. He was sitting down with a handful of mussel shells in his hands and he shook them to show me. He tipped his ear towards the shells again to make sure they sounded right. “That’s brilliant Donald” I said. “Let’s show Luca so he can record it” and I called Luca over and Donald shook his shells again.

My final favourite moment was the screening. The film premiered later that day at the Filmpoem Festival. The children brought their parents along to see it. I think you’ll agree their poem is amazing and the film (thanks to Alastair and Luca) is wonderful:

Filmpoem Workshop – Shaking Shells from Filmpoem on Vimeo.

I want to add at no point did I suggest lines or change their words, I only changed the order of some lines so perhaps Donald’s line came after Kitty’s instead of before. Every section was written during that stop on the journey and so the poem is linear in the order of the journey made.

My Thoughts

I enjoyed planning the workshops activities and the stops on the walk. I hoped it would work well but until you actually do something you don’t know how things will turn out. I was impressed by how well the group responded and how they worked so brilliantly as individuals to create something wonderful together. It was as if something magical happened, they seemed to share one collective creative brain that was five times better than any individual’s could be. Their lines fitted perfectly together and each section fitted perfectly with the last. They had so much freedom to create and they were enjoying every minute of it.

I love the film, Alastair and Luca did an amazing job of putting it together.

What did the children think? 

They were proud of their poem and they said it was fun and not like writing poetry at school. They also said it was easier to write about things when you’re outside experiencing them.

Here’s some of their comments:

Today was a very good workshop because we were all working together making a beautiful poem in Dunbar…

I loved working together with everybody and thinking of good words for the poem…

I loved feeling the wall and going to the beech..

You can see the rest of their comments below, It’s good to see Donald wrote about his shells!

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The Filmpoem Festival was created by artist and Filmpoem project founder Alastair Cook. The Filmpoem Festival was supported by Creative Scotland, East Lothian Council and North Light Arts. Find Filmpoem online or follow Filmpoem on twitter (@filmpoem). 

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2013 in Education, Environment, Events, Film, nature, poetry, Writing

 

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Filmpoem Children’s Workshop

Hazel

This weekend I’m running a three-hour Filmpoem workshop with six children aged between 6 and 10. The workshop is part of the first Filmpoem Festival in Dunbar and I’m excited to be facilitating the workshop with artist and Filmpoem project founder Alastair Cook.

What is a Filmpoem? 

The programme puts it like this:

A filmpoem is a single entwined entity, a melting, a cleaving together of words, sound and vision. Poetry often tries to deal with the abstract world of thought and feeling, rather than the literal world of things. The filmpoem is the perfect marriage of the two.

Find out more and see examples the Filmpoem website.

How do you make a Filmpoem with children?

I’ve been planning lots of short interactive activities to get our workshop participants thinking like poets.

  • We’ll explore how we interpret our world through memories, imagination and observation
  • We’ll investigate rhyme, rhythm, meaning and anthropomorphism
  • We’ll take a sensory walk to collect new memories, objects and words

Every time I introduce a new concept we will do an activity or game to make it fun and relevant. So we’ll meet the camera as an example of anthropomorphism (he has three legs, one eye and 1 ear – he hates having his ear tickled!) and all of these activities will help us to think like poets and will work towards producing a brilliant final Filmpoem.

The workshop concept was created over tea and cake at Alastair’s many months ago. I chatted through ideas with Alastair and following that he ran a pilot with poet in residence Rita Bradd. Here’s the film they created:

Filmpoem Workshop/ All Tangled Up from North Light Arts on Vimeo.

I’m really looking forward to creating something wonderful with Alastair and the participants this Sunday. I’m also looking forward to the rest of the Filmpoem Festival!

The Filmpoem Festival is supported by Creative Scotland, East Lothian Council and North Light Arts. Find Filmpoem online or follow Filmpoem on twitter (@filmpoem). I contributed to one of Alastair Cook’s Filmpoems last year and blogged about it here.

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2013 in Education, Environment, Events, Film, Media, poetry, Writing

 

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Wood Foraging in Pictures

I’ve recently installed a woodburning stove in my lounge and I totally love it. So when Daniel said:

Doddsy, wood foraging next week?

I said YES! Daniel is a wood foraging pro:

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Back in the day when we worked at Changeworks, I dreamed of getting a stove but most people told me it was a bad idea. Most people, but not Daniel. He had a stove and pointed out how easy (and fun) it was to forage for wood in Edinburgh. Four years later and there we were.

My bow saw was a bit smaller than Daniel’s so it took me a bit longer to cut through the logs:

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This was the pile we cut between us in less than an hour:

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Daniel suggested bringing a wheelie bin but I only had a wheelie suitcase. I filled it just as it started to rain:

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I felt proud of the wood we’d chopped as I walked back through the trees:

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But when I got to the streets I suddenly felt a little self conscious. Did people assume I lived in the wild and had decided to return home and all of my worldly belongings were logs?

When I got home I started my first log pile, hurrah!:

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My arm ached a little but I loved the experience of cutting my own fuel and being outdoors. Thanks to Daniel, I’ll be foraging again soon and next winter I’ll have the pleasure of burning those logs!

Just in case you were wondering, the wood was already dead and lying on the ground, we just cut it into bits. 

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2013 in Education, Environment, nature

 

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Firefly Magazine

There was a big white envelope waiting on the doormat. Inside was my copy of the exciting new children’s magazine Firefly:

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It’s a seasonal magazine which includes outdoor activities, puzzles, comics, wildlife, books, craft and cooking. The magazine is aimed at children 5 to 10 years or as the cover says “it’s for families who are wild at heart”.

Flicking through the pages you’ll notice Firefly is visually stunning. I think what makes it special is the contributions from many different illustrators and writers. I was commissioned to write a 2 page nature feature for the magazine and I chose to write about otters:

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Why Otters? 

Otters are an animal most children won’t have seen but would like to spot. They’ve got character, they do funny things like pooping on the tops of rocks or tufts of grass so everyone can see where they’ve been. Urban otters are getting much more common so even if you live in a city you won’t be too far from an otter. They’re inclusive but not too common to be ordinary. I’ve tried to spot otters myself a few times so otter spotting is something close to my heart.

The Writing Process

First I found out as much as I could about otters online, in books and by asking people. I interviewed an otter expert (Chris Cathrine from Caledonian Conservation) and I spent time choosing the best bits from everything I learned. The hardest thing I think is condensing all of that research. Which bits stay and which bits go?

I wrote sections in bite sized chunks and gradually and ruthlessly chopped out sections until I was only left with the best. I want to make children laugh or tell them something so weird and wonderful that they would want to tell their friends or family about it. That way they’re much more likely to remember it.

If I used a complicated word I made sure I explained what it meant. I used to write the Dino’s Dynamos Kids Club magazine for Dynamic Earth so that really helped with knowing how to write and plan to communicate science to children. I had a good editor back then so I got told which bits worked and which didn’t. Later I edited the magazine when new writers started writing it so I think that whole process helped me to be objective and to really weed out every word that isn’t necessary.

I included Chris Cathrine’s answer to “What is the funniest thing you’ve ever seen an otter do?” because I knew children would love finding out something like that from an otter expert. I thought about the illustrations we would need to go with the text and made notes and found examples in books so I could send these to the illustrator who was working on my section (Cat O’ Neil).

I spent lots more time rewriting and cutting to get down to the word limit I’d been set.

Help, I can’t think of an otter joke!

I was desperately trying to come up with a good otter joke but hadn’t managed it. I went along to the Edinburgh Literary Salon for a much needed break from writing. It’s a monthly get together for writers and anyone involved in books and publishing. My friend Alan McIntosh was there (I interviewed him on this blog here) and knowing how quick-witted he is I explained I was trying to come up with a good otter joke. Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:

Alan: Tell me about them, where do they live, what are the names for things?

Me: Their homes are holts, their poos are spraints, they eat fish…

Alan: What do you get if you tread on an otter poo?

Me (smile)

Alan: A spraint ankle!

It was perfect, exactly what I was looking for. Any joke about poo is a big hit with children but they also love to learn a new word that they can show off with by using it in a joke. Funny and educational. When you laugh you learn more so massive thanks to Alan for that one!

Finishing

When I finally submitted my feature it included a page of extra ideas, things like a dot to d’otter (otter dot to dot) or having a hidden spraint (otter poo) somewhere in the magazine for children to find. Firefly Editor Hannah Foley liked my ideas. She decided to add an extra page called ‘Otter Fun’ to include the puzzles and extra ideas so now I’ve ended up writing a three page spread on otters. My text went to copy editor Genevieve Herr and she was happy with it, she made some minor changes and that was me done.

It really is amazing to see the magazine in print. I just need to order a copy for my nephews and nieces!

Order your copy of Firefly Magazine on the Firefly website here

 
 

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Social Reporting from the Capercaillie Lek

If you live tweet from a bird hide does anyone care? How can you capture nature as and when it’s happening? Can you create a story around something that may or may not even be there?

This Easter I challenged myself to try social reporting from the caperwatch 2013 at RSPB Loch Garten.

Social reporting is about capturing an event from the inside using audio, video and photos.

Caperwatch is about waking up at 4am to see if you can spot a big black turkey like bird dancing, while peering through the window of a little wooden hut on the side of a loch.

The bird I’m talking about is the capercaillie and here’s how I got on: Watch to the video on youtube here

I interviewed Richard Thaxton from the RSPB to ask why we have to get up so early to see the capercaillie dancing, here’s what he said: Watch the video on youtube here

On the way and during the caperwatch I live tweeted some photos, here’s a couple from the carIMG_20130330_051821 IMG_20130330_052451

We watched the sunrise from the hide, wow!:

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This is the osprey EJ, taken through a telescope with my phone on the eyepeice:

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Can you spot the red squirrel in this shot?:

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But the bird didn’t dance. Does that matter? We also went to see golden eagles but they didn’t fly in:

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And we visited the national dolphin centre but we missed the dolphins by an hour:

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I didn’t mind and the things we did see were beautiful. Getting up at 4am was worth it just to see the sunrise. Eagles would have been a bonus but mountains were enough.

Life can be a bit like that sometimes, you don’t always find what we’re looking for, things don’t always turn out how you planned but if you didn’t look for things in the first place you’d never see the wonderful things there are to see along the way.

Just wanted to point out the kindest way to watch a capercaillie is in the RSPB Loch Garten hide. The capercaillie are critically endangered and when they dance every day they sometimes just drop dead. Bop till they drop. If you go looking for them in the wild and one sees you it will dance to defend itself. The purpose of dancing (or leking) is to attract a mate and you are not that. You will be wasting the poor birds energy and it could be enough to push that bird over the edge. Please let him save the last dance. 

 
 

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