August – a month away.

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So many beaches, so many waves. Santa Barbara, CA.

We’ve been in the California for the month of August. I haven’t spent this long in the US since before we moved to England, nine years ago.  Unlike most of our other trips to the States, we haven’t been racing around visiting family and friends.  With the exception of a trip I took with the kids to New Mexico to see my family, we’ve stayed in Santa Barbara, as my husband is here on an extended workshop at the university. In many ways, it has felt like a quiet month. Time away from the usual rhythms and patterns of our full lives in the UK.

Sure there have been a lot of adventures and outings: We went to the Channel Islands! We hiked up Rattlesnake Canyon! We play at the beach! We saw the Barringer Meteor Crater in Arizona! We watched the sunset from the top of Sandia Peak! I could go on and on.  Time spent outside in the wide open spaces of the western US refills every reservoir that runs low when I am away from these landscapes.

View from Cavern Point, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

View from Cavern Point, Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park

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Barringer Crater in Arizona (2.5 miles around, 4000 ft across, and 550 ft deep) created 50,000 years ago by a meteor about 150 m in diameter.

Watching the sunset from the top of the Sandias, Albuquerque, NM.

Watching the sunset from the top of the Sandias, Albuquerque, NM.

Northern New Mexico. The landscape I love most.

Northern New Mexico. The landscape I love most.

But for me, the tone of the month has been quiet. I think what I mean is that by stepping away from my multi-faceted roles in Cambridge, I have found a brief respite from the tug and push and pull of all those projects. I can stand back and look at the lives we are creating, see how we are filling them with passions and growth.  It’s all a matter of perspective. I get to see the forest for the trees.

When we return to the UK, the academic year will start rolling, picking up a momentum and shape of its own.  We’ll find our ways back into school, work, music lessons, activities, committee work, etc, etc.  But for now, for one more week, I’ll relish these quieter mornings with a relatively uncluttered desk and time to write, play, and be outside.

A very inviting writing desk. At the Presidio, Santa Barbara.

A very inviting writing desk. At the Presidio, Santa Barbara.

Posted in Kidstuff, New Mexico, Non-parabolic trajectory, Present not precious | Leave a comment

Not Just for Writers

20150611_103704Who will come?

When I first started my Writing Circles, this was one of the biggest questions in my mind. Who would want to participate in a writing community where we would be sharing fledgling words, witnessing each others’ growth, and learning together as we went along?

As I put adverts in local village magazines and stuck posters up on notice boards and telephone poles, I felt like I was calling out, “Welcome!  Please join me, whoever you are, wherever you are!  You know who you are, even if I don’t.”

Slowly and surely, names and registrations started trickling in.  Who were these people? A scientist, a nurse, a yoga teacher…

Read more at my guest blog post over at What Now, What Next. You’ll also find information about a chance to join me in an online taster session of Spilling the Ink on 22 Sept.

And while you’re there, take a look around.What Now, What Next is a collaborative network of women 40+ who are leveraging their experience to launch & grow new ventures. There are conversations and community about topics ranging from careers to family to creativity and much more. If you are a woman entrepreneur, you can promote your brand, business & expertise with a FREE web page in a growing community. 

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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).

Posted in Non-parabolic trajectory, Physics, teaching and learning, Travel | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

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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