Stranger Things – The Upside down

For those of you hoping this is a blog about the series Stranger Things, you are sadly mistaken. Although the program itself is fantastic (for those who have not watched the series yet – sort your lives out!) the content of today’s blog is equally as enjoyable and involving things upside down! In Stranger things The Upside Down is a dimension existing in parallel to the dimension inhabited by humans. The Upside Down contains the same locations and infrastructure, but it is much darker, colder and foggier; it is overgrown with ropy, root-like tendrils and webs of biological matter which cover practically every surface, with spores floating in the air. The Upside Down I speak of is much more welcoming, friendlier, uplifting, exciting but also challenging and sometimes damn right scary! I am talking about the world of handstands!

Last weekend I took part in a “Handstand lab” run by the infamous Dan Morgan, and hosted in the Power and Flow Studio of Limerick City by Sara and Kevin.

Power and Flow is my local yoga studio and I am blessed to have such a nourishing, innovative, inspiring and educational centre literally 350 metres from my flat. I have been attending classes there for the past few years, but only really immersing myself into a diligent yoga practice over the past few months. Sara is an amazing teacher. She is kind, encouraging, inspirational, extremely talented and also very down to earth. She makes sure to push the class but only to their own limits and in a very individual way. Kevin is a trainee yoga teacher, but by the way he conducts his class, you would believe he has been teaching for all his life. His style is exploratory and he is always searching for new techniques and sequences to spice up the class and challenge himself and the students. He loves arm balances and was the first person to get me really excited about going upside down! Fantastic people over all.

Dan and I.

Dan Morgan is a super cool guy from Cardiff, Wales. Dan’s journey in yoga began with the combined interests of developing a healthy body, but also a healthy mind. This interest developed from a young age, spanning across a multitude of disciplines including; rock climbing, gymnastics, calisthenics, mixed martial arts, meditation and music. Initially, these activities were practiced individually, but then he found his true passion in the study and practice of Yoga as a lifestyle – both on and off the mat.

The “Handstand lab” consisted of three two-hour workshops. One on Saturday from 6:00pm-8:00pm and concentrated on inversion alignment & strength fundamentals.The other two took place on Sunday. The second commenced at 11:00am-1:00pm and was focused on inversions- flexibility & mobility .The final lab was from 2:00pm-4:00pm and centred on taking flight- learning to float, press, and find more dynamic movement in your Vinyasa.

I had taken part in an arm stand workshop with Kevin earlier this year, but aside from that and having a good head stand foundation, I was basically a newbie in regards to handstands. When I arrived at the first lab, it was apparent I was not alone! Roughly 25 people attended the first class. A mix of males and females, a blend of all ages and yoga experience, and even one person who wasn’t aware that is was a handstand workshop! After a circle of introductions, beginning with Dan and working its way around the room, it was time to begin!

We started with a warm up consisting of some sun salutations orchestrated by Dan. After this gentle introduction, Dan took us through an enjoyable but vigorous and fatiguing routine of exercises used for prepping the body for inversion work. This was the aim for this particular lab and the knowledge and information we received was invaluable. The workshop concluded with some handstand and spotting practice which was extremely enjoyable and had everyone excited about the following day.

Workshop two began the same as workshop one, with a round of introductions as new people has joined the crew since Saturday, followed by some sun salutes. This particular class was fixated on flexibility and mobility, getting your body in the right position for going upside down. Once again Dan’s wealth of proficiency and experience shone brightly, filling everyone with awe but also belief in themselves that inversion was possible. While also a challenging class, there was constant reinforcement, encouragement, progressions and regressions, and of course, constant laughing and fun. After another 2 hours of intensive work, it was other the lighter side of the day, lunch time!

Lunch for the group was provided by The Canteen, an amazing cafe in Limerick serving delicious coffee, scrumptious high quality food and a lovely atmosphere. It seems to be my catch phrase at the moment, but if you have not been there yet, sort your life out 😉 Lunch consisted of a tasty root vegetable curry served with a side salad and brown rice. This was accompanied by coffee, teas and homemade pomegranate lemonade. Delicious. This also gave all the participants some time to side around and chat, get to share stories from each others lives and just chill. A very important part of the yoga community and one of my favourite aspects of it. (see previous blog Easy like a Sunday Morning)

After this well needed rest, and with full bellies it was onto the final workshop – Taking flight. This gave us some precious experience and practice being upside down and combing all we had learned in the previous two classes. Dan also incorporated some animal flow movements which was very entertaining.

Overall the weekend was a massive success. Everyone who attended absolutely loved it and gained huge experience and confidence, not only in going upside down, but also in their own ability to do anything. I eagerly await the next time Dan comes to visit. For now I will continue to proceed into the world of the Upside Down.

 

Hips Don’t Lie.

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Shakira. What do you think when her name comes to mind. A gorgeous Columbian singer? A talented dancer? Gerard Pique? Waka Waka?(Its time for Africa……not Pac Man!). For me it is a drunken day in a building site in Lahinch Co.Clare with my good friend Declan Kennedy – a story for another day. Which ever memory or song springs to mind, Shakira has given the world plenty of food for thought. One of her best contributions in my opinion is the phrase she coined “Hips don’t lie”

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My squat from Thailand 2010. Rounder shoulders, curved back, feet pointed out and using my arms for support.

I, for as long as I can remember, have had insanely tight hips. I attribute this possibly to genetics but also many other factors. Prolonged sitting all my life. Terrible posture from my youth (Hoodie up, head down, school bag over one shoulder). Wearing awful footwear – (Adidas and Nike shoes with flat soles, look great, bad for feet). Playing football up to 5 times a week and never warming up or warming down. Etc Etc. Poor hips lead to an endless world of other catastrophes waiting to happen. As Shakira said, Hips don’t lie!

Negatives of tight Hips – A, B and C

As I mentioned in a previous article, I have been “practicing” yoga for the past few years. The reason I put inverted commas around the word “practicing” is that the word means “to perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency in it” With that definition in mind, I really didn’t practice yoga. I went to some classes sporadically over the years, attending a retreat here or there, occasionally stringing together a few weeks of self practice in a row  before eventually “giving myself a break” or forgetting my routine altogether. This occurrence has been common place throughout most of my life when trying to integrate healthy habits into my lifestyle. I have pinpointed many reasons for my repeated failures, the most obvious one being biting off more than I could chew. While starting yoga I was also trying incorporate going to the gym 3 times a week, playing football, going swimming, rock-climbing, hiking, cycling, etc etc. I became to know myself by my alternate ego, Jack. (Jack of all trades, master of none) I got a little bit better at most of those things, some more than others, but never really progressed sufficiently. Now, I still do believe variety is the spice of life, but sometimes it is essential to set aside time to concentrate on one thing alone, accomplish what you set out to do, and move on.

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This is the reason I began the 30 f0r 30 Ido Portal Squat Challenge.

For those not familiar with Ido, he is a coach who deals with any array of topics from nutritional approaches to movement & health to functional anatomy & physiology to methodology of the training process to mental aspects of movement practice and more. He recently achieved some added fame in Ireland and Internationally by being involved with The Notorious Conor McGregor.

Here is how he describes the benefits of the challenge : If you are serious about your mobility, hip/knee/ankle health, improving your digestion and elimination and more – you should take your RESTING squat seriously. Its free and will do you more good than a lot of expensive shit. I think he sums it up pretty well.

The Challenge consists of sitting in a  deep squat position for a combined total of 30 minutes a day.

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The Rule of the 30/30 Squat Challenge

Rules of thumb:

1. No REST days during the 30 days.

2. Relaxed spine – no need to try to remain erect or with neutral spine. Its a RESTING position.

3. Width between the feet – around shoulder width apart but should be individualized and experimented with – aim for maximal depth and relaxation.

4. How much feet should be turned out or should they be facing forward? Don’t let anyone sell you the idea of ONE perfect position – this should be individualized and experimented with – aim for maximal depth and relaxation.

5. Knee pain? Hip pain? stand up and move around. Resume the squat and work in small short bursts of squatting throughout the day.

6. Footwear? Best – barefoot. Second best – minimal footwear.

7. Keep your heels on the floor if possible. If impossible, try a small heel support until you gain the proper mobility to squat flat foot on the ground.

8. True sign of good squatting? When you get tired from STANDING – you squat and not vise versa! True story!

9. How deep should you squat? There is only one answer – DEEPER.

I should also comment that this was the third time I had attempted this challenge. The first time was in 2014, the second endeavour followed close by in 2015, with 2017 finally being the year I completed it. I mention this for a few reasons. One, I am taking myself and my personal development more seriously this year. Two, I am moving away from my alter ego “Jack” and spending more time as Cathal, who takes on one thing at a time and finishes it. He is more determined but also more understanding and kinder to himself. Three, I made the challenge as easy as I could for myself to complete it. This is a major point. The two previous times I undertook the challenge, I was frustrated by having to take out my phone each time I would squat, flick through the screen to find my timer (Hope I had not erased my earlier times or the clock was not still running and showed 3 hours and 20 minutes and counting!) and begin the process. This might sound silly to some but it did really annoy me. To make the challenge more accessible to me, I invested in a watch.

On my girlfriend’s brother’s recommendation (Thank you Shane 😉 ) I purchased a simple Casio digital watch. (One of the best purchases I have made in 2017, and subsequently I am now a watch person!)  This simple acquisition made my time tracking so much more manageable as I could simply squat, press a button, swear to sweet baby Jesus as my shins were burning, repress the button and stand up. The swearing became steadily less frequent and my time spent in the squat position lengthened. Strange how if you practice something consistently is gets easier eh!! 😛

The challenge still presented difficulties. My notoriously tight hip flexors and hips did not originally thank me for my deep squats. They moaned and complained as I would press my button and pop a squat. “Oh this again, fuck sake Cathal, I told you we don’t like this position, can you not feel the tightness and dull pain we are sending your way?”  I did feel the burn, but knew with time it would improve.

And it did. Originally I was using my coffee table for support, a door frame, a corner of a wall. Anything that was available at the time. Everybody is different, or should I say everyone’s body is different. Some people may find this position extremely easy, while others may not even be able to sit into it. Either way, this challenge is for you.

Eventually my times increased, I moved away from the tables and those pesky tights hip began embracing it. “Oh this again, this feels nice Cathal, maybe sit a little longer this time, we are feeling all loosey goosey 🙂 ” On my final day I sat in a deep squat for a full 30 minutes, something 30 days previous to this, I never would have imagined possible. There are plenty of progressions and regressions for this challenge/exercise which can be found on the Facebook 30/30 squat challenge page.  From this one challenge there are more benefits then just opening your hips.

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To conclude, this challenge brought me many things. Looser hips, increased foot mobility and ankle mobility, pride in the fact I completed a challenge, a new understanding of progression and discipline, a new friend (my Casio watch) and a deeper appreciation for Shakira. 🙂 Why not give it ago!

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My squat today (5/3/17). Bum a lot closer to the floor, no arm connection, feet parallel, back straight and comfortable. Beard addition.

Sunday Morning Salutations.

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Sunday mornings. Are they really supposed to be easy? I am not so sure what Faith No More were thinking when they penned these lyrics. I suppose you need to dissect the word “easy” to understand it better.

Google dictionary defines it as “achieved without great effort; presenting few difficulties” If that is the definition we are going with, I suppose Sunday mornings are easy. They are easy not to set an alarm. They are easy to sleep in until lunch time. They are easy to laze around the house watching TV. They are even easier to be hung over from the night before, gripping the bed sheets with the fear of your previous nights antics slowing seeping back into your already blurred memory. These for me consist of “easy” Sunday mornings.

Fortunately for me, these easy Sunday mornings are almost a thing of the past (The final statement above still happens from time to time!) Although Sunday is globally known as a day of rest (and rightly so) my Sunday mornings are taking a slightly different course of action. This morning I woke at 9 a.m (Blasphemy in my younger days). I meditated for ten minutes using the Headspace App. My friend Sean Dillon called over after coming off a night shift from the Fire service. (Props to those guys and all the amazing work they do). We ate a lovely home-made porridge breakfast consisting of oats, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, crunch linseed mix, honey, cinnamon, raisins, maca powder, banana and cooked using rice milk. Although this may sound complicated, it most certainly fits in with the above definition of “easy”. Quick to assemble, fast to cook, rapidly devoured and super healthy. We then discussed our past weeks antics and what lay in store for the week ahead.

After our morning chin-wag, it was onto my new Sunday Morning tradition, yoga in the Milk Market Limerick. (for those not familiar with this place and living close to Limerick…. sort your lives out 😉 )

The Limerick Milk Market has something for mind, belly and soul every Sunday. Open for fresh food from 11am to 3pm. Yoga 4U with Vanessa from 11am – 12pm.

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I have been involved in yoga for a few years now, but have taken my practice more seriously in 2017. (I will write a blog on the benefits of yoga/ different styles of yoga/why everyone should do yoga etc in the near future, this particular blog is focusing on something else)

16997439_1469750363044664_1827750914_nYoga 4U with Vanessa takes place upstairs in the Milk market. The first thing to note about this fantastic class, it that is it outside. Obviously with Ireland’s climate/weather nearly all yoga classes take place behind closed doors. This class is a breath of fresh air (literally) by adding a new different dimension in its setting. The second thing to note, is the HUGE diversity of participants in the class. Ages ranged from teens to pensioners, all gathered together for primary reasons, to do something healthy and fun on a Sunday morning. A noticeable secondary reason (and possibly the primary reason for some) was the social aspect. As Sean and I arrived to stake out a spot on the extremely busy floor, our ears were filled with the sweet noise of conversation. With a 40 strong group of human beings, interactions were aplenty. I spoke with a lovely middle-aged woman who said her week would not be complete without this class, I conversed with a group that consisted off two female friends, one of their boyfriends, their younger sister and their Mom (who I found out later was also a yoga teacher!) This was more than attending a yoga class, this was a community gathering .

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Vanessa Clarke – Yoga 4U

 

As we settled to our yoga mats, Vanessa began the class. I had previously been to a class of hers at The Strand Hotel. She is a very clear, informative, attentive and conscientious teacher. While most yoga classes in Limerick consist of less than 20 people, Vanessa is not at all phased by the bigger cohort and still delivers a challenging, yet manageable class for all levels. As she took us through her flow, the energy and vibes  around were magnificent. While mostly being focused on my own practice, I somethings could not help but look around in awe of what was taking place here. After the class was brought to an end, and after a group round of applause, people began to roll up their mats, and once again engage in some friendly conversation.  The crowd of people slowing trickled downstairs to continue the chat, but this time over a cup of coffee from Harpers Cafe.

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What a way to spend as easy Sunday Morning 🙂

Anyone else interested in starting or continuing their yoga classes, Limerick is full of amazing places to practice. Two of my favourite beings Power and Flow Studio and The Yoga Centre

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A Weekend of Wander and Wonder in Co. Kerry

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It was 1.30am before I said good night to my book and bottle of wine. Probably not the ideal night time prep for hiking the highest mountain in Ireland, but hey, the book was The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss and the wine was a fine Malbec from The French Table, I never had a choice.

Upon the the mini heart attack sustained from my alarm squawking at 7.20am, a flood of thoughts streamed through my mind. “The Guys won’t mind if you don’t go, it is Saturday after all, you have hiked this mountain loads of times, no need to go again, you have had a busy week, doesn’t the bed seem even cosier this morning!” After a quick shake of the head and some deep breathing, I somehow broke the spell and untangled myself from the quick-sand grip of my bed sheets (Not without checking when all the others would be arriving and calculating how much extra few minutes I could steal in the love lock of my bed before we united!)

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I was fairly organised. Bags back and ready to go from clever preparation the previous night. I had spent 2 hours out at Sean’s house chopping wood to bring with us for the camp fire. I say this like it was a chore but really it was time to spend with my friend and time to feel like a man.

There are few things you need to bring on a hike, but those few things are the difference between a joyful experience and a “I never want to do this again” experience. A good pair of shoes/boots are essential. The on point quote from Nate Green applies here – “Buy once and buy right” Your feet are your foundation and need to be treated with the same respect as the foundation of a good house. If not fully sported, kept dry and taken care of, they will hamper the upper part of the structure and possibly end up sinking! Keeping dry on a hike is essential to add to the longevity of the trip (Unless you purposefully want to get wet, I shall get to that part later) Anyway enough about my boot rant, anyone who knows me know how much I advocate a good pair of boots. Everyone go out and buy a decent pair, they last for years, if you have a pair you are more likely to use them, they will not only protect your feet but also add stability to your whole upper body and those tricky ankles. They are also my favourite companion at any music festival/rave for all the above reasons. (There is a significant cross over between raving and hiking but that blog is for a different day!)

Going with the trend of keeping yourself dry, a suitable pair of water proof pants and jacket, gloves, hat, scarf, good socks, a back pack with wide straps, a bottle of water, flask of coffee/tea and some food and you are ready for your adventure. (Irish coffee optional)

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With all these being packed from the night before, I quickly made a breakfast of scrambled duck eggs (thank you Sean 😉 )with chopped bacon, shallots and tomatoes. I added this to a French baguette I purchased from The Coffee Pot in Killaoe, Co. Clare. If anyone is ever in that region and likes eating extremely high quality produce, hit that place up. Kenny was the first to arrive, followed closely by Ciara and Andi ( Danke for the coffee ). After our formal greetings and swapped stories of why we were up this early, we hooked up with Peter, Eimear and Sean. Sean drove in his campervan, kitted out with other essentials and full with wood chopped from the previous night. I rode shotgun with him while Eimear, Peter, Andi, Ciare and Kenny followed behind in the mighty Toury! With Ab-Souls new album serenading out ears, with cruised down to Kerry as smoothly as his flow. Carrentoohil was our destination.

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Carrauntoohil (Corrán Tuathail) is the tallest peak in the McGillycuddy Reeks mountain range of Co. Kerry at 1,038 metres (3,406 ft) and is the highest peak on the island of Ireland .

Before arriving , we stopped for valuable camping/hiking supplies in LIDL, Killarney. Nuts, fruit, vegetables, steaks, milk, water, juice, beans, bacon, bread, beers, gin, Prosecco. After a brief de briefing, it was onwards to our location of sleep and tranquility for the night, Carrauntoohil Eco Farm.

For those who have never visited Kerry, sort your life out! Although without sounding harsh the great thing about never visiting a certain place, not trying a new type of food, wine, beer, coffee etc, or not watching an epic movie is that you have all those things to look forward to. Just make sure you get around to doing them at some stage. Variety is the spice of life after all. (Well after smoked paprika that is ☺ ) Kerry is picturesque, a suitable setting when describing the “real Ireland”. Only my own opinion of course. It is always disappointing for me when I hear tourists saying they visited Ireland, but never left Dublin. Dublin is fine but the authentic Ireland is all about the West Coast baby. Long story short, get to Kerry.

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We reached the Eco farm at 12.30am. A very kind friend of ours Vikki Cullen (who owns and runs the farm) let us use her beautiful facilities for the weekend. Adding to the above rant about getting to Kerry, if you are going there please stay at this farm! It is located at the foot of Carranuntoohil, in one of the most beautiful ,isolated, untouched and actually humbling parts of the country. You will not find Wifi here but you will certainly be connected. Apart from Vikki and her human family, the other residents on the farm consist of chickens, donkeys, Shetland ponies, sheep, goats, alpacas and some extremely friendly cats! (Peter the Cat Whisperer!) After we had collected our jaws from the ground, it was time to set off on our hike.

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Carranuntoohil has many different routes to take you up to her many different peaks. Instead of opting for the traditional route, we decided to take a different passage to a peak we had not ascended before. I am certainly glad we did. Throughout our group the level of experience and fitness varied. We stopped for suitable breaks along the way, enjoying the magnificent views, each others company and for some well needed photographic documentation. We were outrageously blessed with perfect conditions, sunshine with a gentle breeze (Not bad for the 18th of February and sandwiched between 2 days of rain!) The terrain itself was wet and marshy at times, hence why boots are essential (cough cough Kenny). After a moderately gentle slope, we came to out first major elevation. The team spirit and determination was plain for all to see, as we trekd up a very steep incline that would be challenging for the most accomplished hiker. The phrase “is the juice worth the squeeze” resonated through my mind as sweat streamed down my face and into my contact lenses. With some sing songs and sea salt dark chocolate as fuel we bridged the apex. Was the juice worth the squeeze? FUCK Yeah!! We were greeted by the charming surroundings of a Lough Googh, a crystal clear lake surrounded by more peaks and troughs, the perfect place to stop for a well deserved rest and lunch.

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After our bellies were full and our energy restored, we set off to scramble up the surrounding areas of the Lough. When I say scramble, I should really say we vertically climbed, because that is what we did! Every metre forward was nearly also a metre up. This wasn’t no stroll in a park. Each foot and hand had to be carefully placed, assuring no loose stone or boulder was sent down crashing on the heads of our comrades behind us. That on top of increasing wind speeds and increasing vertigo, mindfulness and awareness were the key to this success. Next was some more well deserved juice. This peak contained views as far as the eye could see of mountains, valleys, lakes, islands and of course the Atlantic Ocean (told you guys!) Physically being somewhere and actually being present somewhere, are two completely different things. To fully soak up the benefits of being outside in nature, you need to leave everything else behind, thoughts included. We sat for a few minutes, silently taking it all in, the only sounds were those being made by nature, our own breathing included.

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After this energising respite, we were off again! With time against us, we decided to head back towards the lake, but not before using the mountain as a jungle gym and practicing some yoga poses and body weight exercises! As we made our way to the lake, we formulated a plan. Let’s go for a swim! Although is may sound strange/crazy/lunacy to sum, swimming in extreme cold waters has amazing benefits. It improves lymphatic and cardiovascular circulation. Reduces muscle inflammation (particularly beneficial after a long hike 😉 ), boosts happiness levels and even increase weight loss. Why wouldn’t you want to go for a nice cold dip!(also a blog for another day!) After all our well guided preparation, we missed the memo about packing swimming togs. Fitting as it was Peter’s Birthday, we proceeded into the water in our birthday suits. Some submerged more then others, some stayed in longer then others, and one person tried an unusual technique of only feet, knee and genital submersion! Either way the deed was done and we were all sufficiently invigorated.

By this time, it was getting dark and our bellies were calling for some well deserved BBQ steaks and brews to wash them down, so we made our final descent back to the the sanctuary of the farm.

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Once again it was teamwork personified as there were potatoes (one again kudos to Sean) and carrots to prepare, steaks to marinate (although Ken wanted to serenade them), a BBQ to prepare, a Bon Fire to build and cocktails to mix! We were also joined by our friend Karen (aka Kazzy) and a brief visit from Philip and Domnic (who were on there own adventure around Cork/Kerry). Simple things done well, turn into fantastic things. The food was better then some home cooking I have witnessed, the phrase living/eating like kings was casually thrown around all night. Once we had devoured ridiculously good food (forgot to mention our BBQ asparagus) we headed to the fire pit for the main event of the night.

I would like to consider myself a moderately content and positive fellow, but there are seldom moments I am as happy as I am when sitting around a roaring, open fire surrounded by friends. It was difficult to decide where to lay your gaze, at the wonders of the burning wood or the dazzle of the vivid stars above. Truly epic. As above, so below! To close the evening, we toasted to our health and toasted some marshmallows (thank you Kaz), finished our drinks and made our way to the leabas. Everyone was sound asleep by 12pm.

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We were awoken by the cock-a-doodle of the dawn keeper himself. Between rolling over for one more well needed snooze, and contemplating the previous days adventure, we jumped out of bed to welcome the day, and welcome some well needed coffee. After that it was breakfast time, feed the animals, tidy our extremely hospitable hosts place and get the fuck out of dodge. Overall a trip to be remember and cherished. The first of many for this crew of 2017.

 

 

 

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‘Pedro Hunt – EL Kitty Whisperer’

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WHAT MAKES A GREAT TEACHER IN THE 21ST CENTURY?

Observations and opinions from a 26 year old teacher from Ireland

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Aristotle*.  C.S Lewis*. Frank McCourt*. Annie Sullivan*. Albert Einstein*.  All prestigious teachers, amazing educators and extraordinary human beings.  What was their secret? What makes a great teacher? These well-established lecturers have had a major impact on pupils in the past; would they be as effective in the present day classroom?

Across the world, teachers are coming under increasing pressure and scrutiny from pupils, parents and educational officials. Teachers are being blamed for dramatic global decreases in educational standards and statistics. Are the standards of teachers dropping in general? In this blog, we will examine the main characteristics of an exceptional teacher in the 21st century.

1) Teaching with respect, and not fear.

I believe there are two types of teachers. Those who teach with respect, or those who teach with fear. There are times when I expect total silence in a classroom, other times I disapprove of it. People forget who we are teaching in our classrooms. Children. Children are not supposed to sit, stuck to their chairs, furiously taking down notes that the educator is scrawling endlessly on the whiteboard, silenced for fear of retribution from this person. A classroom should be an innovative, creative hub where students are happy, enthusiastic and excited to ask questions and take part in class discussions. If your pupils respect you, they will listen, engage and prosper without needing to be asked. This is not an easy feat to accomplish but it is much more effective and competent then the other method, teaching by fear.

I have observed classrooms where pupils did not speak until spoken to, listened intently, took notes without questioning and barely moved in their seats. Some teachers would consider this the ideal classroom; I would consider this the ideal robot factory. So why are the children so docile? Because sitting and listening is a far better option then the repercussions of defying the teacher. I know this particular teacher who I was observing, had spent countless lessons drilling in the importance of being silent in class, not misbehaving and going through the general “rules and regulations” of the classroom. This teacher’s chosen tactic was to scream, shout, instill fear in the very children they are supposed to be inspiring, and generally bullying them into submission. I have also been told and overheard on many occasions, that this teacher’s pedagogy was considered amazing and that is was fantastic that their classroom was always so quiet. I have observed many lessons like this and while in school had many teachers who followed this type of protocol.

Both tactics can be effective, but what classroom would you rather be in? Earning pupil’s respect is one of the most essential characteristics to becoming a successful teacher, and the following traits are interlinked with this.

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2) Having a sense of Humor.

Having a sense of humor is extremely important to gain your pupils respect, make them feel at ease and create an engaging learning environment. Due to my lifestyle and work situations, I have worked as a substitute in many schools and have had a great deal of experience with new classes and pupils. The first interaction between teacher and class is severely important, and will often set the tone for the future relationship. Students will always test teachers in their first encounter. They will try to ridicule you, embarrass you and in general test the boundaries. If you can make light of this situation, crack a few jokes and retaliate with your own witticism, pupils will feel more relaxed and comfortable in your company.

Obviously it is still very important to set certain boundaries and make sure that the pupils don’t take advantage of the situation. Using the right balance of humor, wit and authority is extremely effective and creates a lighthearted environment that pupils enjoy and respond too. The days of standing in front of a classroom full of children, writing notes on the board are long gone. Why should children listen in class, when they can look under the table at their smart phones with HD screens and be completely enthralled? Teachers need to create a learning environment that pupils want to be involved in, and having fun in the classroom is a good start.

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3) Adaptation

In this fast paced and changing world, teachers need to stay up to date with new teaching techniques and pedagogies. As discussed in the previous point, children have a great deal  more external stimulation than previous generations. It is a proven fact that the human attention span has dramatically decreased over the last number of years.

Teachers can no longer get away with boring lessons filled with teacher talk and little pupil interaction; they also have to be entertainers. I know I will get ridiculed for this statement but it is true. Average class times last from thirty to sixty minutes. That is a long time to keep a students attention. We as teachers must change and adapt to make our lessons more interactive, engaging, stimulating and interesting. Our lessons need to be more exciting than the latest blog on buzzfeed or video on youtube. Education and learning is a two-sided coin and I constantly learn from my pupils about my own teaching style and delivery. It is essential to incorporate new ideas and concepts into our classroom to suit the ever-changing human mindset.

4) Being Human

Teachers have always been highly regarded in society. In Ireland in the 1900’s the tier of respect and discipline in society would rank, priests, teachers, and police. Teachers are often put on a pedestal and seen as an “elite” member of society. People sometimes forget that teachers are humans too, and showing this side of you is important.

Pupils will respect someone they can relate to and building a good rapport with your class is essential to being a great teacher. There is obviously a thin line between being their friend and being their teacher but it is a line that can be muddled at times. If you discuss your interests and hobbies with your class, you can also find out what they are interested in, which you can then incorporate into your teaching. Last year while working in England, I discussed angular motion and velocity using an angry bird*. themed lesson. The pupils were engaged, interested and enthusiastic about completing their homework that was two levels of the game!

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5) Remembering that your students are human too

Treating each pupil as an individual is essential to becoming a great teacher. Children can easily get lost in the vast sea of statistics and numbers. Each student is different to the next, and treating him or her as unique is crucial. It is essential that each child feels special and important, because they are. This goes beyond the academic protocol and onto a personal level. There will be days that some students are not as receptive, are tired, are having a bad day etc. It could be to do with something in school, something at home or something we have no idea about, they key is to be understanding. I always encourgae my students to come to me for help or a talk whenever they like.

One of my proudest moments as a teacher was when a student came to me distressed last year. He had been distracted in class and was noticeably down. He had been having girlfriend problems and needed someone to talk to. We had a great chat, discussed the pros and cons of his relationship, and he left the room in high spirits. His appreciation of me taking time out to chat with was astounding and he was a lot happier in himself in the coming days.  Being sincere and showing understanding of pupil’s everyday problems goes a long way in becoming a great teacher.

Do you agree with the above statements? Please feel free to leave comments and opinions below.

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Assessment: How should we be evaluating our children’s education?

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“Students can escape bad teaching, but they can’t escape bad assessment” – David Bou

To ‘assess’, is defined in the oxford dictionary as “ To evaluate or estimate the nature, ability or quality of”. So when assessing our children, we are evaluating or estimating the nature, ablility of quality of their learning. There are many different forms of assessment but the two most commonly used in our classrooms are summative and formative.

Formative assessment is educational measurement that is used to inform the teaching and learning process. Ideally, both the teacher and the student will gain information from the assessment and use it collaboratively to plan future learning activities. The important thing in formative assessment is to gain as much information as possible in respect of what the student has achieved, what has not been achieved, and what the student requires to best facilitate further progress.

A good teacher practices formative assessment constantly on an informal basis through classroom observation and interaction. At its most informal level, formative assessment can be a conversation between a teacher and a student. As this type of assessment is low stakes, there is less need to establish processes to ensure the reliability of the assessment.

Summative assessment is measuring the outcome of an educational programme for the students who participated in that programme; that is, what skills and knowledge, relevant to the programme, do they have at the conclusion. Although it is desirable to use the results to inform further learning, for example, results from end-of-year assessment are used to inform programmes for the following year, it is typically the results of the assessment that are the primary focus of attention.

Summative assessment is typically used for credentialing (awarding of qualifications), selection (for jobs or university places, for example), or as accountability measures for educational providers. Because all of these purposes involve outcomes with, to a greater or lesser degree, high stakes for individuals or providers, the fairness of the assessment process is a very important concern.

Because summative assessments often have high stakes, they can have a blowback effect on teaching and learning; there can be pressure on the educator to narrow the focus of teaching to ensure good performance in the assessment. Students can similarly narrow their focus, or lose intrinsic, curiosity-driven motivation as they become concerned about the consequences of a poor assessment outcome.

Summative assessment is intended to summaries student achievement at a particular time, whereas formative assessment is intended to promote further improvement of student attainment (Crooks, 2001).

Formative and summative assessment both have roles to play in a child’s education. The problem occurs when one is given complete emphasis over the other. This links to my previous blog in which children are being evaluated in blocks instead of as individuals. Formative assessment (assessment FOR learning) is affiliated with pupil’s growth, learning, progression, self evaluating, motivation and self esteem. Emphasis on summative assessment (assessment OF learning) can lead to increased pressure, low self esteem and increased extrinsic motivation to study. Although I believe formative assessment to be the most beneficial to pupil’s overall learning and success, I am not so naïve to see the positive side to summative assessment. When both combined effectively and adequately, they can have huge benefits to children’s education. Unfortunately all major priority lies with summative evaluation. The contrasts between the two forms of assessments is summarized in the below picture.

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As emphasis and “value” lay deeply with summative assessment, children are much more inclined to put greater effort into these appraisals. This can lead to symptons like cramming, rote learning and “learning for the test” I myself got through most of my school exams by studying teachers “tips” (basically studying questions teachers say may come up on the test so that children will pass the exam) and cramming. This technique was beneficial as I usually achieved a good grade and most importantly my teachers and parents were happy, so I was happy. It was also extremely ludicrous as I usually forgot most of the information the following week.

While working in a secondary school in England, I was teaching a class of Year 10’s Science. There was one particular student, was by “normal standards” was a teacher’s nightmare. He was cheeky, defiant, never did his homework, was always late to class and rarley positivley contributed to the class. Yet when it came to any end of topic or final summative exams, he would get an A. So his final report/grade for his “learning” in that year was an A. I also had another pupil in the very same class, who was a joy to teach. He was exceptionally motivated, showed a keen interest in the subject, had a lovely demeanor and always did his homework. He could explain the most complex equations and sequences but when it came to written formal tests, he crumbled. His overall report/grade for his learning that year was a D. Is this a fair reflection of both pupil’s learning and education?

The argument for re-thinking assessment is not new, but while it has been debated for some time, there has been little done to act on this thinking. “The existing exam system is unable to distinguish between test performance and knowledge and does not lead to genuine progress“, according to a leading educationalist reported in the Times Education Supplement (TES)

What we need is a massive re-think, a revolution in our approach – and a new report titled “A Renassance in Assessment” authored by Sir Michael Barber and  Dr Peter Hill provides a thought provoking response. The report is critical of current testing regimes for focusing on a narrow set of low level skills. The authors criticize an over-reliance on grades that reveal little about what the student can do and call for “validated learning progressions” with efficient processes for collecting and analyzing data and easy-to-use assessment tools.

If a child ever asks, will this be on the test? …. We haven’t done our job – Unknown

While summative assessment is still leading the way in assessing our children, and will be for the foreseeable futher, here are a few tips to incorporate alternative techniques into the classroom.

Unique adaptations

There are non-traditional ways to use summative assessments to enhance the learning process. Many teachers find it useful to:

  • Create the test after the learning plan. Though it may seem obvious, the best evaluation covers the material the instructor and curriculum meant to emphasize. If, for instance, a teacher holds a final exam in literature to the constant standard of “Does this student read deeper into the text?” he or she will have crafted a summative assessment that stays on point with learning goals.
  • Offer different options. Standardized state and national tests have very little room for re-imagining. A classroom final, however, could be given as a visual/audio presentation, a long-form test, or an individual essay. By allowing students to explain the material in a medium they feel comfortable with, teachers get an accurate picture of their understanding.
  • Move it out of the classroom. Unfortunately, many students decide early on that they are not strong in academics. By making the final resemble a real-world application, much of the pressure and stigma is removed, along with the temptation to plagiarize. Have biology students identify animals in nature or at a preserve, or have business students create job descriptions and resumes. This style of assessment can cover a broad range of material, and more closely emulates performance reviews and projects in a career field.

Assessment

“The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn. It is the skill of being able not to give the right answer to questions about what you were taught in school, but to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared” – Seymour Papert

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Incite Insight – The Freedom Handbook Review

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The Freedom handbook, written by Luke Michel and Chris Hampton, is as the title suggests, a manual for worldwide equality, social justice and freedom of the human race. The tone for the book is set in the opening chapter called “The Challenge” This title is applicable as the author is challenging the ideas of society, challenging the very fabric of how the world is governed and challenges the reader to question both his and their own thoughts on how our world is run and how we can make it a better place not just to survive, but to thrive.

The author’s overall goal is to create awareness of the vast problems we face as a society, and to offer all the world’s brightest solutions in one spot, in the strictest common-sense form. The book covers vast topics such as education, legal systems and law, war, health care and food systems, which arouses interest and is utterly thought provoking. Covering controversial material such as GMO foods, the war on drugs and our religious institutions, the book operates as a conversation innovator for the target audience, humankind.

Throughout the book, the author reinforces his theme, which is for us to take control of our own lives, by providing ample amounts of links to articles, videos, blog posts, etc for the reader to educate themselves and empower their minds.

The author does not demand you to agree with his agenda or outlook, rather leaves it for the individual to decide. Whether you agree with the views of the author or not, is completely up to you, but either way it makes for a very compelling and interesting read.

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Our Educational System: Manufacturing apathetic students since 1715.

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Learning. Education. Knowledge. Growth. Creativity. Five beautiful words, all interlinked with personal development. If asked, where do all these words come together in an institution, what would you say? School, of course. You could not be more wrong. I would answer, Life. I myself am a secondary school teacher and have seen first hand the benefits of an educational system, but more often than not they are outweighed by the suppression and demoralization of the pupil’s mind.

Our schools are now plagued with apathetic children. Apathy is a lack of feeling, emotion, interest, and concern. An apathetic individual has an absence of interest in or concern about emotional, social, spiritual, philosophical and/or physical life and the world.

Our educational system is severely outdated. Although curriculums and modules change, the same basic outlook on what is important shines through, reading, writing and arithmetic. Although these skills are extremely valuable, even essential, the structure of a modern day classroom should not be based around them. Sugata Mitra *is Professor of Educational Technology at the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University, England and reveals how our educational system came to be. He explains that the British Empire needed a way, to mass-produce identical people to ensure they kept a firm control of their subjects and sustained smooth running of the empire. The schools produced these people. They wanted them to be indistinguishable citizens so if one was taken from New Zealand and placed in Canada, they would be instantly functional. The Victorians are such immense engineers that they invented a system that is so robust, it is still used today. They were indeed bred in the Platonic model, prepared for public service and the running of an Empire (McCullock 1991)

“ If there was a family tree, hard work and education would be related but school, would probably be a distant cousin” – Suli Breaks

Is school a fertile environment for children’s minds to grow and flourish? I would say yes and no. Unfortunately the overall goals of school are to behave, excel in your schoolwork and prosper in your exams. If you tick all of these boxes, the chances are you will “pass”. If you do not, the chances are, you will “fail”. To tackle problems like bullying and social exclusion in schools, they have set up campaigns such as “Be Yourself” and promote captions such as “Everyone is an individual” and “An original is always worth more then a copy”. If this is the case then why is standardized testing so important to our system?

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

 Standardized testing was introduced into Europe in the early 19th century, modeled on the Chinese mandarin examinations, through the advocacy of British colonial administrators, the most “persistent” of which was Britain’s consul in Guangzhou, China, Thomas Taylor Meadows. Meadows warned of the collapse of the British Empire if standardized testing was not implemented throughout the empire immediately. It was from Britain that standardized testing spread, not only throughout the British Commonwealth, but also to Europe and then America. Its spread was fueled by the Industrial Revolution. Given the large number of school students during and after the Industrial Revolution, when compulsory education laws increased student populations, open-ended assessment of all students decreased.

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Standardized testing puts increasing pressure on pupils to “perform”. Ireland and the UK, (I have taught in both) throw conventional methods of teaching out the window for exam classes and adopts the safe method of ‘teaching for the test’. Days are spent rote learning definitions, constantly reading through textbooks and incessantly completing exam papers. Teachers/pupils study past exam papers to learn a trend to predict the questions coming up in the present year. All this information is extremely important as it may come up on the test, which if it does, will lead to good grades, which will lead to entry into college, which will lead to happy parents and teachers. From a study done in high schools in America, when asked about their motivation for doing well in school, fifty percent of students cited outside sources such as “college acceptance” or “good grades”. On the contrary, only fourteen percent cited “gaining an understanding of content knowledge or learning subject material” as their motivation to do well in school. As a result of these outside sources, and not a genuine desire for knowledge, students often do the minimum amount of work necessary to get by in their classes.*

“I don’t want a nation of thinkers. I want a nation of workers” – John. D. Rockefellar.

Another fantastic tool the educational system has come up with in the UK (and other parts of the world) to create more apathetic school children is the setting of ‘target grades’. Target grades are statistical numbers, generated by private companies, such as Alps and Fischer Family trust, to make students, but more specifically teachers; accountable for the grades they receive. Through standardized testing, extrinsic pressure can be put on pupils to achieve their ‘target grade’ if it is set as too high. On the other end of the spectrum, if the target grades as set too low, it can have a harmful effect on pupils self esteem and promote them to work less. They can create divide in the classroom, segregation of the “bright” and “slow” pupils and lead to pupils discussing each other’s grades instead on concentrating on their own.

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This system also makes teachers completely answerable for pupil’s grades and leaves very little emphasize on the pupil’s themselves. A teacher’s job is to inspire, create a love for learning and to facilitate a pupil’s education, not to force feed them stats, dates and numbers so they can reach their target grade and move through the educational system under the radar. This puts increasing pressure on teachers and treats pupils as if they are machines. This system does not take into account that some students are afraid to fail, have troubled home lives, experience peer pressure, have realized that they can get by without working hard, or one of the other hundreds of reasons why students don’t try in school. Grades can also have a pernicious effect on mindsets. It seems clear that formative assessment encourages growth mindset whereas grades (especially target grades) encourage students to have fixed view of their intelligence and potential. * I will come back to this in-depth topic in future posts.

“If we teach today’s students, as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow” – John Dewey

The Future of Our Education

Although this post takes a negative view at the current situation of our educational system, all is not lost. This is a topic that has been reviewed, discussed and dissected and will continue to do so until an improved and enhanced version is created to suit the needs of education for the 21st century human being. School is so important in the shaping of all of our futures. As an educator, I do not want schools to be just about rote learning information. If should also be an influential tool in helping pupils social skills, their self-esteem, their creativity, curiosity, diversity AND learning. Each person is an individual, an amazing one of a kind combination of DNA that will never be replicated for all of time. Let’s start treating/teaching children as they are. Huge strides towards alternative programs are already underway and with some open mindedness and hard work, anything is possible.

What can we do for now?

In Wounded by Schools, Kristin Olson shares the results of a study of 100 of students “on the margin.” She shares some advice for teachers on how to respond to students who have withdrawn from education after negative experiences:

“Hold your child or your student to very high standards because you believe it is possible for them to grow into it. My interviewers said that it was that teacher who believed they could do so much more than they thought possible of themselves who really began to change the way they saw the world and their own place in it. Having someone in your life who holds you to high standards and believes you can achieve is so critical. Teachers need to do that too.read full interview

I agree that high expectations are crucial to increasing student responsibility and ultimately, achievement. This is true not just for students in schools, but for all people in life.

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