Education Article

Article written for the Education edition of Upon This Rock Magazine, published in Nov 2014.

I have been very fortunate to experience education in different countries and cultures as well as homeschooling. This has given me a different perspective now, as my children journey through their academic years. My eldest is now nearing the end of her childhood and my youngest is about to enter organised learning, her daily life of free play will soon be relegated to weekends and holidays.

I was born in Iceland where formal schooling doesn’t start till the age of six. So after kindergarden in the mornings my brother and I spent the day with our grandparents. As a self employed mother living in a country far away from any family, I am counting down the months until my youngest starts school so I can increase the amount of hours I can work. It would be great if my youngest could have another three years with her grandparents, going to the shop, and the park, or sitting at home on a rainy day singing nursery rhymes. I feel very fortunate, having had those years and all the memories of my grandparents. We rush our children into school so we can earn enough to live life to a standard that ends up distracting ` us from the important things. My brother and I didn’t need computer games or hundreds of dvd’s to keep us entertained. I would make a play house under a table, play songs on my toy record player and if we got rowdy and started chasing each other around the apartment or arguing, the firm words of my grandparents would settle us down.

When we moved from Iceland to England, I was a free spirited confident six year old. I was excited and fearless on starting school. When we were shopping for my first ever school clothes, I was told that it had to be black, grey, white, gold & red, in any combination, and I decided to go to school dressed entirely in red! I wore a red blouse, a red skirt that twirled when I spun, red knee socks, red ribbons in my hair and smart black shoes (they didn’t have red in my size). I stood out, literally, like a sore thumb! But I didn’t care. I skipped into school and was known from that first day as “The Girl in Red” to the tune of Lady in Red.

To begin with, I loved school. Flying through the reading levels and loving homework. Even changing school a couple of times didn’t dampen my enthusiasm, in fact it taught me how to make new friends and integrate into pre-established groups of friends. There was always a bit of trouble with one or two kids, I stood out and had an accent, I’m sure we all know that it takes less than that to make you a target for kids taking out their insecurities on others.

When I was 11 (my brother 13) my parents decided to do something radical. They swapped our house for 60ft catamaran! We left school at the beginning of the summer holidays and moved onto the boat. It was brilliant! We found out  about tides as we waited on mud flats for the boat to be lifted high enough to begin our journey. We became competent in using the ICAO Alphabet (Alfa, Bravo, Charlie…) on the ship-to-shore radio. We just had to look up into the sky from the aft deck to practice our cloud recognition and weather forecasting. My brother also became very familiar with the huge engines that powered the boat and assisted with their maintenance. Come September, as we slowly made our way down the south east coast of England and over to France, my mother took on the responsibility for our education. She had bought all the books she needed to keep with the curriculum and created a timetable including 15 subjects. We sat for three hours each morning to work or read. In the afternoons we had ‘Expressing through Art’ lessons and crafts like ‘Soap Sculpture’. Not only did we get one to one attention, but we got to study History and Geography by visiting places of interest where we stopped on our journey. When we were cruising down the Canal de Neuffossé through Arques we learned about glass making at the Arc International factory and the story of Joan of Arc. In Belgium my father taught us how to make bread dough, we built a portable oven by the side of the canal and baked our loaves over an open fire. We learned Dutch from children we befriended in Holland and when my parents were thinking of taking us on through Germany, we took German lessons with a lady she got chatting to at the local church. We came to understand about distances and depths as we watched the radar to see if we could make it along a particularly shallow stretch of canal.

Living in different cultures, shopping in the local shops, talking to harbour masters and lock keepers and children playing along the banks, this is how we learned respect for all, no matter what language they spoke or what colour their skin, everybody, everywhere was just getting on with their lives, working, playing, living, laughing, telling us their stories and wishing us well on our way, hoping to see us come back one day to regale them with our adventures some more.

For two years this adventure lasted, and when we re-entered institutional education, I was two years ahead of everyone else in my age group!

From this point, while I enjoyed the social aspects of being back in school, my enthusiasm for studying steadily declined. I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back I can see that having had such a rich experience, spoiled me for what now seemed a vanilla world of conventional education. My teachers’ enthusiasm for their subject became far more important than the information itself or the format in which it came. It didn’t matter if I was copying off the board, researching from books or watching movies on the projector. If the teacher didn’t care, then neither did I. If my individual passions and abilities weren’t nurtured, if I had to learn in a way that made the subject, even my favourite subject of art, become dull and lifeless, then I was unable to maintain my own enthusiasm.

I know that this is not everyone’s experience, or even anyone else I know! And what my mother managed to do, bringing learning to life like that, I’m not even certain I could manage myself with my girls. But I now know that there are other ways to learn, and the most important thing a teacher can do is to share their enthusiasm for their subject.


Couch to 5k

Article written for the Mind, Body & Soul edition of Upon This Rock magazine. It was edited slightly in the print version to fit the theme.

“I’m not a runner. Why would you do that to yourself, walking is fine, no need to put your joints through all that, it is boring”… these are all things I used to say. I used to say it but I didn’t go walking either, in fact my lifestyle had become very sedentary and the inches were creeping on to my waist, the middle age spread was taking hold but it was so slow, so subtle. Had I put weight on? Or had I just forgotten what I weighed the last time I subjected myself to the scales torture… It was easy to stay in denial. It was only when all my clothes felt tight and I started buying larger sizes and even bought maternity jeans to avoid a muffin top (yes you read that right, I bought maternity jeans when I wasn’t pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant! They were size 12 maternity skinny jean with a thick elasticated waistband and not the above the belly type though… does that make it any less shocking?) That was when it hit home that things were getting out of my control.

5 years earlier, when I was 29, I decide to start a “Fitter for Thirty” regime, I put myself on a diet and tried to start running, but failed miserably, ending up with shin splints (inflammation of the connective tissues that cover the surface of the shin bone) and then I fell pregnant with my second daughter! Getting fit flew out of the window and my focus went on making sure I had as varied a diet as possible and managing a particularly nasty case of pelvic arthropathy (a very painful sensation of your body trying to split itself in two which is most evident when walking).
So 3 years later, when my new baby was 2 years old, I bit the bullet and joined the gym. I could only make it twice a week between work and childcare constraints, but going to body pump, spinning or yoga twice a week was surely going to make a difference… no? Well not as much as you might think! My stomach got a bit flatter, my diet got a bit better (your desire to eat junk food declines due to not wanting the effort you put in at the gym to be wasted), but after a year I wasn’t particularly impressed with the results, working out gave me an appetite and although the food wasn’t that unhealthy, I did seem to still be stuck at the same weight and size. I spoke to one of the personal instructors in the gym and he gave me great advice about nutrition and, ironically, exercises that did not require a gym membership or equipment! If I had the money I would have signed up to be personally trained with his diet plan, lunges and resistance based exercises.

Then in spring of 2014 I went through a bit of a rough time emotionally, and within a month of not watching what I ate and missing a gym class here and there, I found myself at my biggest size yet (not counting pregnancy obviously). All that hard work, a year at the gym, £33 a month, £5 per session for the childcare… I daren’t even add that up as I may cry because it had all gone to pot in a matter of weeks. I was worse off than when I started!

Something had to change! If it was this hard to keep the weight from creeping on, how much harder was it going to be to get it back off if I didn’t get a handle on it straight away? And everyone kept telling me it gets harder as you get older!

The Belfast Marathon was happening at that time, friends of mine were running it, some doing parts of it with a relay team, some doing the whole thing for the first time. Also friends were flying off to Copenhagen to run a Marathon there… everywhere I looked, people were running… and they were all really fit! Slim, strong and healthy! The thought of a Marathon held no appeal to me at all… but if running did that to people then I was willing to give it another go!!

Low and behold, the next thing that popped up in my Facebook feed was an ad for The Color Run, a 5k charity run being held in the Titanic Quarter in Belfast at the end of August that has the added fun of a powdered paint finish line! The distance and the timescale reminded me of an app I’d heard about, Couch to 5k. I had a look around on twitter to see if anyone else was doing it. Twitter is my ‘go to’ Social Network for research with answers from real world voices. I soon found someone to ask, got advice on which of the many apps to choose from, and downloaded it for a nosey.

Now it’s all well and good to have the intention, having a reason and willingness to go out and start something new is great… but it’s only half the battle, I’d even say it’s only a quarter of the battle! There are a few things that have been monumentally helpful in this endeavour, some I found out through research and some I discovered for myself and wished I’d been told earlier! So here are my tips to getting out and moving.


1. Shoes!

Shoes!When I tried to start running the first time, on my “Fitter for Thirty” kick, I started with the cheapest running shoes I could find off the shelf in a big discount store. I told myself that once i’d shown I could stick with the running, then I would reward myself with more expensive pretty running shoes… I never made it that far… between the cheap shoes and running too fast, I was struck down with those shin splints, running was completely off the table for over a month, by which time I had lost all momentum.
Invest in the best shoes that you can afford, buy the right type for your terrain, it makes a difference if you are running, walking or playing football, it makes a difference if you will be on a track, grass, pavement or trail. If you can get your gait analysed all the better! I went to a good sports store (Podium) and ran on a treadmill while my feet were video’d, the sales assistant was then able to see that I had a slight overpronation in my right foot as if I was compensating for an injury, he showed me which range of shoes I should choose from that would give me extra support. The price ranged from £75 to £120! That seemed like a lot to me, but after researching online and asking around, I had gone to the shop willing to spend anything between £60 to £80 if it helped me avoid previous problems, so the £75 Asics were the winners, they weren’t the colours I had wanted (something with a solid bright colour or black or grey) but my vanity lost out to my frugality and I walked away with the best trainers i’ve ever owned! My running partner went out and bought herself new running shoes too, she managed to get nice grey ones for £50 and has had no bother with them, so shop around, there is something out there for all different needs. Comfortable running clothes make a difference too, long loose fitting vest tops and running leggings or 3 quarter length tracksuit bottoms have become my most laundered items of clothing!

2. Get a running partner!

Having a running partner is like having a magic trick up your sleeve! The difference between getting yourself out to run on your own and getting yourself out to run with a friend was, for me, the difference between success and failure. When I texted my friend Karen about starting the Couch to 5k app, I got no reply! I thought it may possibly have been the end of a beautiful friendship!! But low and behold, when we met up the next day for our usual Wednesday morning walk with buggies and coffee, she was all for it! She was planning which nights we could go, who could mind the wee ones and what routes we could run! The amount of times we have said “If it wasn’t for you I’d be sitting on the sofa watching the telly right now” or “If you weren’t here I would have walked that last hill!”
I first met Karen when I went to the breastfeeding clinic at our local health centre, my youngest was 4 weeks old and her daughter was 6 weeks old. I left my house to walk round, consumed with nerves about trying to be sociable with strangers while trying to keep my colicy baby settled! Once I got on to the main road above my house I saw another mum pushing a buggy in the same direction and wondered if she was going to the same place as me. I tried to catch up but she was gone like lightening! It wasn’t until we were all sitting in the little room chatting that I managed to get speaking to her and introduce myself as living round the corner. We have been firm friends ever since… and she has never slowed down! Her walking speed is as fast as it is possible to walk! So when we do the walking portions of the app, she sets the pace and stops me from slowing down to an exhausted meander!

3. Walk Fast & Run Slowly!

SplitsThis is the other reason why my previous attempt to run had failed. I had it in my head that running meant going fast. Granted I wasn’t sprinting, but I was going as fast as it looked like other people were going. I would start off, stretching my legs towards some unknown finish line, feel great for the first 100 metres and then end up unable to breath, gasping like a fish out of water, with a stitch from my belly to my shoulder and shins on fire!
Obviously it occurred to me to go a bit slower, but my pace would always speed up, if I was running on a footpath then my pace would change depending on whether there was anyone in sight! Even now, if I run beside a road, I tend to speed up, trying to hurry to the part of the run that is away from the prying eyes of commuters. But once I started running with a partner, my pace became much more controlled, I didn’t want to run so fast that she would be put off running with me. So when we are going uphill we have a pace of between 13 miles per minute (mpm) to 15 mpm, downhill no faster than 12 mpm. This feels very slow when I compare myself to other runners who rarely seem to run at anything slower than 8 mpm. But when I run at that pace, I get this never before experienced feeling… the feeling that I could keep going and going and going!

Runkeeper4. There’s an App for that!

I ended up going with the C25k Change4Life by NHS Choices App but they are all pretty similar. I like this one because the narrator is very supportive and shares tips from her own experiences of doing the app! You also don’t need a gps enabled phone to use it, any app compatible iPod or device will work.
Having a training plan, gradually going from short runs and long walks to longer runs and shorter walks has been a priceless asset in this project… so the free app is great value for money!
I also use Runkeeper, I love sitting down and going through all the stats, how far we went, which parts of our route we go the fastest (always seems to be the second mile), comparing the pace to the last run and seeing the calories burned and miles travelled build up way above and beyond Runkeepers Goal Target marks.
In June I logged 28 hours, 6,200 feet of elevation (I’m sure you guys in Gibraltar could beat that easily!), 10,400 calories burned with 26 activities averaging out at a pace of 19min/mi, so you can see that I tracked my slow walks with my kids as well as runs, because all of it counts! It is also it’s own little social network, you can share your achievements on Facebook and Twitter, add friends and see, like and comment on their activities, there is even a leaderboard! I love this feature… mostly because I’ve been at the top of mine for over a month!
I’ve also invested in a second hand Garmin watch and heart rate monitor, these aren’t necessary, but as my obsession grows, I need to find more ways to geek out about it all! The watch is very handy for keeping an eye on my pace and the heart monitor stats are reassuring to see that I am exercising in the optimal fat burning range. If you are exercising to increase your fitness because of health issues, it would be a great help to make sure you don’t overdo it.
If you don’t have any way to use an app, use your watch! Write down the plan for your run, stick it in your pocket, time your 5 min walk, time your first 60 second run… stopping to get your plan out to remind you what bit comes next can be a nice little breather excuse. You can even use the website to plot the route on your home computer before or after your run, it allows you to plot points on a map and it will tell you the distance – There are already a few popular routes logged in Gibraltar. Sorry! Not giving you any excuses to get out of it in this tip!

5. Music!

MusicWhen we finished week 3 of the app and were looking ahead at what week 4 entailed, we baulked at the thought of the two 5 minute runs that were being introduced. At this point the longest runs we had done were 3 mins and we had found them hard enough! Karen was being driven to distraction by the sound of her breathing and had nicknamed herself Darth Vader! I was struggling to concentrate, constantly looking around me or just feeling like the time was dragging on forever in the silence as we weren’t able to continue our conversation AND breath. We were both pretty convinced that we would need to repeat week 3 before we could move on. We had been walking out of town before switching on the app, it calls for a 5 minute brisk warm up walk as well as a 5 minute cool down walk but we were walking 15 minutes to get to the point where we were comfortable running, we had our phones strapped to our arms to leave a hand free to carry a bottle of water and an earphone in one ear so we could hear the app prompts but still hear and chat to each other. So when the next week came and we were out walking to our off road run route, we decided to give week 4 a go, but when it came to a run, we would stick music on, plug both earphones in and crank up the volume! We ran single file if there was a chance of a car coming, Karen checking periodically to the rear and me keeping an eye up ahead. It worked so well that not only were we able to do all the runs in the plan but we even ran the 5 minute cool down!
So have music, put the volume up where it is safe to do so and you need a little help getting up a hill or getting to the end of the run portion of your plan. Just make sure you are aware of your surroundings, keeping an eye out for cars, cyclists and pedestrians.
I have been listening to the Mumford and Sons album Sigh No More. It’s bluegrass folk rhythms and literary based lyrics can put a spring in my step when heading up a hill like I never would have expected, the vocals and rhythm of songs like “Little Lion Man” and “Roll Away Your Stone” become epic in their ability to lift your feet off the road.Running

6. Don’t mind the weather!

When it has been 30 degrees here (what is called a heatwave here is the norm for you in Gibraltar) we put ice cubes in our water bottles, wear a peaked hat to protect our eyes and skin from the sun, put sunscreen on and use vasaline on any skin that can chafe, we run slower, hydrate before we go, during and plenty after too, the one thing we don’t do is cancel our run! You could also go out later in the evenings in Gibraltar, after the worst of the heat. But then if you are out at dusk you might want to use mosquito deterrent, or cover up arms and legs!
When it is cold we enjoy being able to wear long sleeves and the peaked hats keep the rain out of our eyes. We actually prefer running in the wind and rain because it cools us down! The sense of achievement after a run in the kind of weather that folks wouldn’t go out walking in, is very satisfying.

7. Make a habit of it!

The app is set up so you do 3 runs a week, it recommends that you have a rest day between each run. We haven’t had that luxury, between work and having to work around older siblings or partners to mind the 3 year olds, we have only been able to run on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. Thursdays I do notice my legs hurt a bit more to begin with, but apart from that we have managed OK without the rest days, so don’t let staunch adherence to the training plan suggestions be the reason that you don’t do it at all. Find a way to make it work for you. I’ve developed the habit of stretching my legs for as long as I can after a run and also the next day. I haven’t given up the gym entirely, I still go one morning a week to do a Body Pump class because I really enjoy it and my daughter loves the gym creche.
Find the right times for you (and your running partner) and make it part of your weekly routine. You will end up stretching, hydrating and planning your meal times to make sure you get a couple of hours to digest before your run! It ends up becoming a big part of your life, making your whole life more healthy and active.

8. Keep an eye on that appetite!

An increased appetite is inevitable with an increase in activity. Your body needs to adjust to the change. You need to have fuel to have energy to burn and you will only get to that Aerobic heart rate Zone where you burn the most fat if you have the energy to keep moving. I have been being more careful with my portion size and focusing on high protein for post-run meals, healthy complex carb snacks like banana and chunky peanut butter when I get hungry between meals or to temporarily replace a meal that would have been just before a run, so that I can wait till after the run to eat dinner.

If you aren’t ready to start running, walk! When we can’t go running because there isn’t anyone to mind one or the other of our toddlers, we get them into the buggy and bring them with us! Walking up those hills pushing a buggy is a great work out. And the more you walk, the fitter you’ll feel, the faster you’ll go, the further you’ll get… and eventually you might just want to break into a jog 🙂

Oh and if your interested… I’ve lost a pound a week since the 2nd week of the C25k training plan! I’m not wearing extra baggy t-shirts anymore and the large leggings have been thrown out… too baggy round the rear!!


My couch to 5k article in print ??

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