Writing Circles – One Year Later

writing-circles-logoWe finished up our last meeting of Summertime Spilling the Ink this Thursday in Harston.  It’s been a year since I opened up the doors and put out the call for writers to join me in a Writing Circle!  What a year.  I’ve written about it over here, on my Writing Circles website.

If you’re considering joining me to write, registration for the Autumn 2015 Writing Circles will open soon (details here).  And, coming in 2016: an online offering!!

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Some good news!

I had some good news a few weeks ago.

Among the many hats I wear, I am a science content consultant to a company in India called HeyMath! I work with them on a project called HeyScience! developing short (3-5 min), interactive animations used to teach physical sciences for students ages 14-18.  Founded in 2000 by Nirmala Sankaran and Harsh Rajan, HeyMath! is a well established company in the e-learning sector, being one of the first companies to bring interactive maths learning online.  Their work has been profiled by the BBC, the New York Times, and the Economist as far-reaching and innovative.

Over the past 15 years, they have extended their reach to students in over 50 countries, with major footprints in India, Singapore, South Africa, the US, the UK, and Colombia. The company keeps growing in new and exciting directions.  In 2011, they decided to extend their focus to include sciences, and thus HeyScience! was born. I joined as an independent consultant in 2012, which I wrote about here and here.  I have had the joy of working with the team in Chennai on the HeyScience! project for the past three years.

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Some high points: In order for me to work with HeyScience! whilst being based in Cambridge, I needed to set up my own business, which in addition to supporting my work with them has since grown into my creative writing business, Spilling the Ink. There was an amazing trip to India when I first started (photos and more photos).  That initial trip felt like stepping out into the unknown in a way I hadn’t experienced for years.  I had never been to India, I didn’t know what to expect, and it was the first time travelling so far by myself (without kids) since I had been in university.   Over the course of two years, we developed approximately 400 short animations covering topics in physics and chemistry from Newton’s laws of motion to reaction rates.  Completing materials to cover three years’ worth of high school physics and chemistry curriculum was a definite high point.

Another high point was the news last October that the team were ready to start development on the middle grades project for HeyScience! creating materials for grades 7-9, teaching natural sciences.  Again, I was so excited to be a part of the team and I happily joined. January brought the chance for another visit to Chennai. It was wonderful to see old friends and make new ones.

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Flower seller in Mylapore market, Chennai

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Vegetables for sale, Mylapore market, Chennai

In February, we had the great news that the first contract for HeyScience! to be used in classrooms in South Africa had been signed.  And in March, my colleague who led the development of the product brought the software and materials to South Africa, establishing the programme in about 80 state-funded schools in the Northern Cape province.

We waited with fingers crossed and holding our breaths.  Would it work well in the classroom?  Would it engage, challenge, clarify?  Would it bring science to life the way we have enjoyed it ourselves?  There have been so many people who have contributed to this project, so many sources of creativity and passion, so many hours of careful artistry, computer programming, and content development.  It felt like a lot was at stake when it was finally rolled out.

And now it’s in classrooms!  Our materials are being used!  Early reports (after about 4-6 weeks of use in the class) indicate that teachers and students are using the programme in many different ways to support learning.  Some teachers have been able to use our materials to get learners caught up on previously covered concepts that were tricky to learn; some schools have been able to provide students with learning copies of their own.  Of course, there are cases where the programme still needs help to unfold, to take root.  But we are in classrooms!  Our work is being used!

This is such a rewarding thought; knowing that all that hard work and imagination is finally in the classroom, reaching students and teachers.  Experience and common sense tells us that we will learn much from these first users.  Some things will work well, others not so well.  There will be areas for improvement that we couldn’t have seen without deployment in the classroom and there may be aspects which work well that, likewise, we couldn’t have predicted. It’s so exciting because the work is live!  It’s in the hands of students and teachers.

And that’s my good news.

We now continue, developing the next phase of curriculum, and I can see how all our experience from the first project is making this phase both more efficient and more focused.  The team is an energetic and imaginative bunch with whom I love working.  The high of seeing ‘ready’ animations pop up after hours and hours of hard work is just as thrilling as it ever was. This is work I am immensely proud of and so honoured to contribute to.

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Some of the many many people who are part of the HeyScience! team.

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With Nimmi Sankaran at Cambridge, recruiting graduates to work for HeyMath! in Chennai for a year (or longer).

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Making forays into fiction

I try to write every day. And while I gladly sit down most days to fill journal pages, dreaming up plans or composing love letters to landscapes I have known, fiction has been a genre that stumps me. Make it up as I go along? That’s where my writer’s block becomes a wall that becomes a barricade. I can’t make this stuff up.

So, I’ve been looking for ways into fiction. I’ve been playing around with short descriptions of scenes and I drafted a story earlier this spring. I had 5 requirements for myself:

  1. It had to be fiction.
  2. It had to be in third person.
  3. It had to have a plot.
  4. There couldn’t be mountains.
  5. There had to be some bad behaviour.

It was a good challenge. Once I got started – prodded into action by noticing a cat walking across frost on our garage roof – the writing became incredibly freeing. These people weren’t real, so they couldn’t come and tell me that I remembered it wrong, or missed the most important part, or didn’t portray them fairly. Or when they did, it was all in the relative privacy of my own head.  I felt a huge lift of responsibility in the creation of the story.  I could change details to become telling details instead of accurate ones. It’s a work in progress, but I’m glad to say it remains a fiction.

Pulling characters, emotions, and critical moments out of thin air is a mystery to me. How do we call characters into being and breathe life into them? How do we not only describe their outer appearances so our readers might recognize them, but also populate their inner worlds to give them the weight of existence? How do we convey that they want different things from the same encounter? How do we say just enough to provide the outlines of what we want to draw, leaving the rest to our readers’ imaginations? In an attempt to answer these questions, I came up with another avenue into fiction. I tried it out today on a willing group of guinea pigs, aka the Angles writing workshop.

I won’t go into too much detail of what we did, but here’s a peek at some of the materials we used.

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I played along with my own activity, I always try to. It was a good way to force me to draft something that met those 5 requirements I mentioned above. Not quite sure I managed a plot, but the seeds are there. The best part, though, was hearing the other participants’ pieces. This group is primarily fiction writers, so they were on familiar ground. It was exciting to see stories rising from the bones of the activity. I’m hoping I’ll get to find out what happens next, or what happened first, and where these starts will finish and how they will get there.

As for my own scribbles from today, I managed to break all the rules that I set, fall into all the traps I was hoping to get the writers to avoid. But at least I think I know what tripped me up on my way down! Awareness is, if not everything, a great place to start. I’ll refine and focus the activity for an upcoming Writing Circle. Maybe you’ll join me?

 

 

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Radio waves.

Friday afternoon, one week into May, a soft rain outside.   I can now see the blossoms on the pear tree that had been blocked from my view over the past few years by a sneaky tree that popped up and changed the landscape while I wasn’t looking. Does that ever happen to you? You look away for a moment, or a decade, and the landscape has changed without your awareness or consent.

I Feel Pretty from West Side Story is on the radio. I love the unpredictable stream of this radio station . In a world where we have days, even weeks, worth of songs on playlists, when we can filter the views we have of the world by our choice of social media, websites and newspapers, I choose serendipity.  Now I am listening to Al Martino sing I Have But One Heart. I have never heard of him or this song, but he is a crooner like Bing or Sinatra. Lovely to hear on a Friday afternoon.  He starts singing in Italian. My daughter comes in to show me an advert she has written for our cats, Pandora and Zelda.  We aren’t trying to sell them, she’s just gotten interested in writing adverts. The radio changes to an acoustic guitar and trumpet duo, AIRELLE BESSON ET NELSON VERAS. Wow. They might be my discovery of the week.

The news update is in French. Aside from studying the language in school many years ago, I don’t really speak French. But I like trying to figure out the odd news item from the bits and pieces I can remember. Maybe this is how I tend to view the world anyway – La vie en rose.

All this randomness is a way of opening doors to the unexpected. Of reminding me that there are always other songs, other languages, other everchanging landscapes to embrace, if not completely understand.

20150508_175103 (768x1024)Update, 9.00 pm – The Radio Gods must have been listening (or reading my blog).  Here’s what happened tonight: Sibelius Symphony no. 2 is a symphony that I love love love. It was one of the first symphonies I ever played in a full orchestra as a student and that experience is one of the reasons I love playing in orchestras. One of my friends arranged the last movement for a small ensemble of musician friends to play as the processional at our wedding.  Later, it was the first symphony I played when returning to orchestra after my first baby was born.

But I have a funny rule about that symphony – I cannot own a recording of it.  It has to find my ears by serendipity, by radio waves.  I never know when it’s going to be broadcast, but whenever I do happen to hear it on the radio it’s a good omen and I remember it.  I remember hearing it being broadcast through the sound system of a museum where I was looking at an Ansel Adams exhibition in Houston when I was at university.  It came across the radio waves the first weekend I was in Scotland when I lived in Edinburgh for a year.  After a really good catch-up with teaching friends about a year ago, I was heading home to pick up my kids and there it was, on the radio, accompanying me. 

I’ve long wanted to write about Sibelius Symphony no. 2.  And earlier today when I wrote about radio waves, it must have let the Radio Gods know it was time to send this glorious music my way once more.  Tonight, after picking up my son and his friends from Scouts, most unmistakably, coming through the radio speaker, my old friend: Sibelius Symphony no. 2.

The finale is playing as I type. It is a finale of triumph and sunshine.  I’ll stop typing now and listen. And I shall enjoy every gorgeous note until our next auspicious meeting.

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New landscapes, fresh eyes

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Duck pond at Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Beginning of the Easter holidays. In just under a week, family will be arriving to visit: my in-laws, both my brothers, nieces and nephew. We will be a group of eleven. My brothers and nieces and nephew have not visited us here in the UK. I wonder what Cambridge will look like through their eyes. We’ve been here long enough that I’m no longer sure what it is that I don’t notice anymore.

End of the Winter term. I’ve led three rounds of Writing Circles since starting them last September. I’m learning more each time. The view of how to shape this programme and spend my energies is becoming more clear. People have come to the circles from many walks of life: art, journalism, finance, healthcare, bodywork, social work, sciences. Perhaps what everyone shares is a desire to be heard and a willingness to listen. They bring perspectives that come from a richness of experience. In one sense, they are finding their voices as writers, yes, but in another, they have already found their voices as people. I think this is what I love most about the writing groups: I don’t know what each participant will bring to the table, but I do know that each will offer something unique. To me, the most exciting moments in teaching lie in the intersection of careful planning and openness for the unexpected.

What happens next? For April and May, I’m going to take a step back and get a different view on my Writing Circles. I’m starting to see how I might create circles for people at various points in their writing. A circle for those who are looking for places to start differs from one that supports writers on continuing projects. Once again, I’m happy to inhabit the realm of possibility. Ready to dream for a bit and see where it takes me. The next circles may be in June or September.

What else happens next? For April and May, I’m also going to take a step forward, and get a different view on my own writing. I’m wanting to try out more fiction, change my narrative stance (i.e. stop the first person), experiment and find more edges. I’m wanting to get a bit closer to the page and further from the product. Whilst planning and leading Writing Circles, my writing focuses on the content of the programme. My writing has a constant awareness of its purpose and audience. I think I want a bit of distance from that end of the process.  I’m wondering if stepping back from facilitating and stepping forward towards the empty page will offer new landscapes, new vistas.

Perhaps those fresh perspectives will be as eye-opening to me as this ancient city will seem to our visitors next week. I’ll let you know.

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Under the sleeping grass

under the sleeping grassIt’s been quiet in the forest this month.  For me, February is the stillest of months.  More than the winter solstice, February feels like the turning point of winter towards spring.  This transition is largely hidden, occuring below the surface of the cold earth.  Snowdrops and early bulbs indicate that the stasis is only apparent.  Underneath the layers of muck and decay, there is a bursting, an impatience for new growth.

I feel like that.  I have many plots to tend this spring.

My work with HeyMath! has restarted.  There was a period of about 9-months during which the project was at a lull and I focused more on my own writing and creating writing groups.  But now the project is entering a new phase and my trip to Chennai in January was to meet with the team to shape the next year’s work.  We planted so many seeds during my time in India, now we are nurturing them.  It is wonderfully rewarding to see something that we put so much heart and thought into over many years gaining momentum.  We expect our materials to be in classrooms very soon!

The Writing Circles have entered a third round, with faces both familiar and fresh. We are in a different location and the group has a different tone. I believe that the people who show up each round are the exact people who hold the next puzzle pieces in how this vision of mine will all fit together.   Right now, I’m immersed in the challenge of finding ways to use what I learned in the autumn Writing Circles to help develop and define the current experience.  I’m after some kind of mysterious, shifting middle ground between reinventing the wheel and sounding like a broken record. Instead of the heady, breathless excitement of just starting out, it feels more like the crafting and drafting of revision.  The writing process, the creative process, they are all iterative.

And on a personal level, I’m aware of  big events in the lives of my friends and family.  Some joyful, some difficult, some whose boons are unknown.  These stories may be mine to hold, but not to tell.  They are others’ stories, yet they fill my mind and heart and bring me to stillness, trying to make a space for understanding.

It all adds up to a lot of activity under the sleeping grass in one tree bohemia.

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A Chennai Photo Essay

I have been in Chennai for one week.  This is my second visit to India.  I came to Chennai in 2012 when I started working on a science education project with HeyMath! I wrote about working with HeyMath! here.  Happily, the project continues and  I’m back again for another two-week working trip as we begin the next phase.

Chennai is a city of contrasts.  Perhaps this is true of all cities.  Perhaps this is true of life; we live surrounded by contrasts.  Yet when a landscape becomes part of the everyday, its disparities can blur into the background.  By visiting somewhere new, the differences jump back into relief.  We look for ways to establish context, this and not that, here and not there, and in so doing, the differentiation defines our place in unfamiliar terrain.

I find myself not only noting polarities in Chennai itself, but also pondering the changes between this visit and my last one: who I was then and who I am now, how we approached the project then and what we understand now.  For all that I am taking in and all that is new, I don’t know what to tell you about my trip. There is so much to consider. I have so little to say.  It is too early for words.  Oddly, when I look back at my blog entries from my last visit, I find I was similarly tongue-tied at this half-way point.

So, in lieu of any more sentences, I offer you images of my week in Chennai.  I hope you enjoy discovering some of the contrasts yourself.

View from my window 1

View from my window 1

View from my window  - 2

View from my window – 2

Autorickshaw outside guest house

Autorickshaw outside guest house

Autorikshaw ride through Chennai

Autorikshaw ride through Chennai

Mylapore Market

Mylapore Market

Mylapore market

Mylapore market

Sea urchin at Marina Beach

Sea urchin at Marina Beach

Trees to think under

A good thinking tree

Nightlife - Tea Shop

Nightlife – Tea Shop

Marina Beach

Marina Beach

Textiles

Textiles

Street life

Street life

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