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Black Holes and Hot Chocolate

2011-12-10 13.54.12

I’ve written my first radio story. It’s about space and mental health and it’s aimed at upper primary school children.

A friend who listened said he thinks it’s a helpful way of talking about mental health for adults too.

I wanted to write about what it’s like for children and families when one family member disengages. Here’s a wee section from the middle of the story, Ben and his mum are stargazing but Dad has stayed at home:

She poured him a cup of hot chocolate and they sipped together. It tasted good.

“It feels like he doesn’t like me” said Ben.

“That must be so hard Ben. But it’s not true, we both really like you a lot – we love you Ben!

Ben sipped his hot chocolate. He didn’t look at Mum.

“When your Dad sips hot chocolate, it doesn’t taste good to him just now. So it’s not just you, he just doesn’t enjoy things like he used to, because of the way he’s feeling. It’s not because of anything you’ve done and we can’t fix it”

“I wish we could. That must be rubbish for him” said Ben “I love hot chocolate”

“But sometimes he does enjoy things though, like the other night when you laughed so much that milk came out of your nose?”

“Yeah, that was gross. Dad really laughed. I wish he was always like that!”

“Me too Ben……         Do you see the moon?”

Ben forgot they’d come here to look up.

“We can only see a bit of it, but is the rest still there?”

“Of course!” said Ben

“But how do you know it hasn’t gone, you can’t see it?”

Ben thought for a moment.

“Well because the crescent is enough of the moon to know there’s a moon. The rest is hidden in shadow but I know it’s there”

“Well it’s the same with Dad. He’s with us but we might just see bits of the old Dad, the one who laughs lots. But he’s still here. And in time – he’ll be back to his old self”

Listen to Black Holes and Hot Chocolate on the BBC Scotland Schools radio website here, play from 9 minutes 20s.

The commission was to write something for KS2 with a stargazing theme and a link to Australia. I set it on Blackford Hill in Edinburgh but it could be any hill near a town or city in Scotland.

Half way through writing the story, physicist Stephen Hawking gave a lecture to celebrate his 70th birthday. He talked about black holes and compared them to depression. I’d pitched black holes as a metaphor to the BBC before Stephen did his lecture (tiny bit annoyed he got there first!) but I loved his beautiful words:

Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up – there’s a way out.

Stephen Hawking

Read more about his lecture on ‘Image’ here.

Here’s how I wrote about black holes in the story, They’re looking at the constellation signus the swan:

“Signus is where the first black hole was discovered. It’s called Signus X1. The X means black hole…

“And one because it’s the first one?” Said Ben

“Right. It’s kind of darker than the surrounding area – can you see?”

Ben could see a sort of dark shape but he wasn’t sure if he was just imagining it.

“It sucks everything in, even light.”

“Do you think that’s how it feels for Dad?” asked Ben.

They were quiet for a moment, staring at the stars.

“Maybe, sometimes” said Mum “I think sometimes he feels like he’s in a dark tunnel but he’s holding on. Like if you’re on a train – you don’t jump off when it’s dark, you wait until you come out of the other side.”

“Do things come out of the other side of the black hole?”

“Well, not exactly… they get squashed.”

They laughed.

“I prefer the idea of a tunnel” said Ben.

“But things can’t just disappear. No one knows what’s on the other side of a black hole. Energy can’t be destroyed, it just changes from one form to another. There’s always hope Ben.”

The BBC team tested the story in school at different stages and I worked hard to rewrite it while keeping the story to it’s 8 minute broadcast length. We knew this was a potentially difficult subject to engage children on, I was asked to give it a happier ending. We also knew that one in three men in Scotland suffer from mental health problems in their lifetime so this is something children in Scotland will have come across, even if they’ve not talked about it. That’s why it’s important people do talk about it.

So often it’s the stories of people with metal health problems we hear but there’s also the story of those around them. Their story is just as important.

The school curriculum in Scotland has relevant outcomes that all children are required to learn in school from nursery age upwards including:

  • I am aware of and able to express my feelings and am developing the ability to talk about them.
  • I know that we all experience a variety of thoughts and emotions that affect how we feel and behave and I am learning ways of managing them.
  • I understand that there are people I can talk to and that there are a number of ways in which I can gain access to practical and emotional support to help me and others in a range of circumstances.
  • I understand that my feelings and reactions can change depending upon what is happening within and around me. This helps me to understand my own behaviour and the way others behave.
  • I understand the importance of mental wellbeing and that this can be fostered and strengthened through personal coping skills and positive relationships.
  • I know that it is not always possible to enjoy good mental health and that if this happens there is support available.

I’m so grateful for a school system in Scotland that supports conversations like this one. I really hope you enjoy it. Please pass it on to any teachers you know who might be interested.

Listen to the whole program for a fab space story from author Gill Arbuthnott proceeding mine, it’s called ‘A Long Way From Home’. Black Holes and Hot Chocolate starts at 9.20. Both stories were first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 22nd March 2017. Listen to the whole episode here.

Thanks to Rob Pearson, Producer at BBC Scotland Learning; Angela Darcy and Terence Rae who read the story; to the school children who fed back on the first version, to my agent Lindsey Fraser and to everyone else involved. Finally – thanks to you for listening. 

 
 

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Timmy the Turbine on Tour

timmy book

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. Find out how Timmy can generate electricity. 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…

_MG_2103

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:

_MG_2001

We told the story using the felt characters as props:

_MG_2016

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

_MG_2038

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

_MG_2026Even the grown ups joined in!

_MG_2028

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:

_MG_2101

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

_MG_2068

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

_MG_2136

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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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!

IMG_20130804_143409

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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Goodbye Changeworks

Friday was my last day at environmental organisation Changeworks.

I’ve been working in the Waste Prevention department for two years. It’s been a total pleasure to work in a passionate and creative team with people I now consider as friends as well as colleagues.

Kathleen my manager made this leaving card, our magic words are ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ so she came up with a new 3 R’s for me (brilliant!). We take worms to nurseries so she’s drawn our wormery (worm house) and me on a banana (we feed banana skins to the worms and sing about in the composting song). My new book is called ‘Banana me beautiful’ and includes artwork of bananas that are people so this card is totally genius!

Thanks to Changeworks for such a great send off, I absolutely love the heather, scarf and butterfly necklace (and love that I was told it’s like I’m flying off as a butterfly, awww!) and it was a lovely night of drinks, food and demonstrating how bad we are at guessing whisky (all I can say is it’s not Laphroaig, and it was…laphroaig!).

My job at Changeworks

I worked visiting Edinburgh schools delivering assemblies, workshops and storytelling. I encouraged schools to finish their food with Mr Silly Sausage, trained eco teams to be Zero Waste Heroes and made paper and compost in bottles. I also spent time developing new resources, organising events, managing projects, writing press releases and writing for the Changeworks website. I delivered training to teachers and local authorities too.

I started full-time at Changeworks in September 2009. In February 2010 I reduced my hours to 4 days a week to have a day to focus on writing. A year later in March 2011 I reduced my hours further to 2.5 days a week and finally decided to make the difficult decision to be a full-time freelancer (yikes!). Changeworks have been incredibly supportive, when my CBeebies programme was taken into development Evelyn brought out the champagne and colleagues later came along to my CBeebies premiere and to my book launch. I am so grateful to them for all their encouragement.

Highlights

There are so many to choose from, here’s my top 10:

On that note, does change work?

Working for Changeworks has totally revolutionised my thinking. I wrote a poem about Energy Saving Light bulbs in response to this change and even jumped in the sea on the 1st January to try to persuade people to consider green new years resolutions. If you knew me before I worked at Changworks, you’ll know this is a big change!

What’s next?

Thankfully this is not really ‘Goodbye Changeworks’. I’ve been working for Changeworks on a freelance basis making films and audio. I’m glad to say this looks set to continue. I’m currently producing a fuel-efficient driving audio feature for the Energy Saving Scotland Advice Centre and making Greenerleith Zero Waste Podcasts that involve Changeworks projects too.

What’s next for me aside from that? Well that’s another blog post…

 
2 Comments

Posted by on September 19, 2011 in Banana me beautiful, Education, Environment

 

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