Dec 172009
Mathematics homework

Image via Wikipedia

The twins had finished their homework, and had gone off to play. Next to me the little one struggled on valiantly, ploughing through maths, reading and several worksheets before moving on to rehearsing her lines for the upcoming school Christmas concert. She could hear her sisters playing in the next room, but was keen to keep Miss happy by getting all her homework. It was too much.

Since school restarted in September, when the little one, who’s six-years-old, got a new teacher, we’ve seen the volume of homework she brings back each afternoon increase. Now it’s reached a level that’s bordering on the ridiculous. A six year old is already tired after being at school all day. The last thing she needs when she arrives home is big chunk of homework. To her credit she does it diligently every day, except Friday, which is thankfully homework free.

As I help her with her maths, reading and writing, I can’t help thinking that enough is enough… that outside school hours the priority for young children should be to play and have fun — to learn through non-academic pursuits that expand knowledge, promote problem solving, stimulate imagination, develop spatial awareness and all those vital things that you can’t teach in a classroom. Instead they have homework, which after a long day at school leaves them mentally exhausted, tired, cranky, and almost incapable of constructive play.

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Sep 072009
Carpenter school bus
Image via Wikipedia

Column for 02/09/09

I woke up early. Outside the rain, which has been such a prominent part of this summer, pounded on the window and I decided that another five minutes under the duvet wouldn’t hurt.

When I finally surfaced the weather hadn’t improved; resigned to the fact I plodded down to the kitchen for my compulsory caffeine fix before putting the girls’ school lunches together. The mind-numbing routine of school mornings was upon us once again.

The rain kept falling as the girls had their breakfast and we checked and double checked that they had all the bags, books, pencil cases, lunches, water bottles and other paraphernalia that a new school year demands. So much for my recent prediction that the start of school would bring some long overdue sunshine. If anything it just started to rain harder.

After one last check to make sure they had everything we headed out of the house to find a flood forming outside our front gate. Just as the bus pulled up I grabbed my wellies and ferried the girls across the pooling rainwater so they could climb aboard with dry feet. I waved them a hasty goodbye and ran back indoors to dry out.

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Sep 022009
birds of the night

Image by Adam Foster | Codefor via Flickr

Column for 26/08

It’s getting darker noticeably earlier in the evenings again.

This is proper dark — not the "light obscured by banks of horrible black cloud" that has been the hallmark of a summer that simply never happened. We had one week of nice weather towards the end of June, and then the heavens opened. I know Ireland’s famous for being green, but this summer has been ridiculous.

No wonder the travel agents are seeing a surge in business. It’s enough to make anyone want to hop on a plane.

But back to the darkness…. it’s getting properly dark much earlier. Yet another reminder that we’re running out of summer with just the occasional glimpse of sunshine.

Perched out beyond the western edge of the time zone we tend to enjoy a little bit more light than our neighbours to the east (when the clouds don’t obscure it, that is). In midsummer I can be outside at 11pm and there’s still a glow in the sky to the west. It’s not light, but it’s not quite dark either — more of an elongated twilight. But despite a daylight extension courtesy of our peripheral geography, the nights are definitely starting to draw in.

Like everything else that life throws up this presents yet another dilemma for parents. With the school term literally around the corner, do you start to re-establish school-time routine and get the kids to bed earlier, or do you let them stay up later to wring every ounce of potential out of the rapidly evaporating holidays?

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Aug 062009
MEXICO CITY - APRIL 29:  People sit in the wai...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Some things in life are too dreary for words… but I’m going to give it my best shot, so prepare to be completely overwhelmed by mindless tedium.

First my own particular pet hate on the "boring things to do" front: painting. Not the artistic rendition of a scene in watercolour or oil, more the "slap it on the walls" kind of painting. Painting in the interior-decorating sense of the word is one of those agonising jobs that demands just the right level of concentration to prevent you thinking about other things, but not quite enough to keep you actively engaged in what your doing. I find the combination is agonizing.

Another one that’s bound to be high on anyone’s list of tedious pastimes has to be sitting in traffic. Yes, you have the radio to keep you company, but that can be as much a curse as it is a blessing… particularly when a cheery "eye-in-the-sky" presenter informs you, rather helpfully, to avoid the tailback you’re already sitting in. Of course, depending on the particular backlog of traffic you’re stuck in, you may have time to turn your mind to other, more productive things. But when I’m behind the wheel I can never really disengage; driving demands concentration… even if you’re crawling along at six-inches per hour. You never know when you might need to react to the unexpected.

Never, is the rather obvious answer… but the point is you have to be ready. I’ll drive for hours on the open road… but fifteen minutes in stop-start traffic has me tearing what little hair I have left out.

What, you may be asking, has inspired me to share this mind-numbing tirade with you? Possibly the biggest waste of our limited time and resources that exists on this or any other planet, that’s what.

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Jul 302009

Image by Amanda-Ruth via Flickr

It seems like eons ago that the WHO declared an imminent pandemic of the A(H1N1) derivative of influenza. The world’s media hit the big red PANIC button. We were all convinced that global human overpopulation was about to be solved by the killer flu strain as it rampaged across the planet. Swine flu coverage was everywhere: on the telly, on the radio, in the papers… and saturating that undisputed barometer of contemporary human interest: Twitter!

That was back in April. Then, as quickly as it had flared up, the radio and television coverage waned, stories about the "Swine Flu" pandemic were relegated to the inner pages, and Twitterers started to tweet about more pressing concerns like the colour of Stephen Fry‘s socks or Britney‘s dog’s favourite ice-cream. Swine flue didn’t just fall off the media radar, it plummeted out of the public consciousness.

The trouble is nobody bothered to mentioned that fact to the virus, which continued its microbial business of infecting anyone and everyone it came into contact with.

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Jul 092009
Nathusius' pipistrelle bat (Pipistrellus nathu...

Image via Wikipedia

I was sitting watching telly the other night when a movement outside the window caught my eye. I took a closer look, but couldn’t see anything, so turned my attention back to the television.

There it was again. This time I looked for a bit longer, and sure enough I saw a tiny creature emerge from the eaves of the house, silhouetted briefly against the darkening sky.

The bats were back.

Irish bats hibernate through the winter, and stir into life again the following spring. In summer the expectant females set up maternity roosts in old buildings, attic spaces, under bridges and other suitable locations, where they give birth to and rear their young. Despite their small size the bats I was watching were adults, leaving the roost to feed on nocturnal insects.

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Jun 232009
WASHINGTON - APRIL 17:  Pope Benedict XVI spea...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

So the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, has said "it is no longer tenable" for the Catholic Church to manage 92% of all primary schools. What a revelation! And it’s taken the Church until now to work that out?

Dr Martin, of course, is furiously back-peddling, squirming to try and salvage some form of "face" in the wake of the damning Ryan Report into what it described as "endemic" child abuse by clerical institutions in Ireland, and the public backlash that has ensued both here and abroad. But there’s no face to be saved… the Church’s reputation is in tatters. Any parent worth their salt will tell you that its involvement in even 1% of our primary schools should be more than "untenable"… it should be absolutely criminal!

Those are emotive words because, quite frankly, when it comes to the safety and security of my children I am emotional!

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Jun 042009

Adult blue tit bringing food back to hungry chicksWe live in an old schoolhouse, and bisecting the garden is a six-foot stone wall — effectively separating what were once the boys and girls yards. It’s a charming throwback to a bygone era, a lovely original feature of the property, and this spring it’s also home to a family of blue tits. They’ve chosen to nest in a small hole between the stones about a third of the way up, the entrance secreted behind the leaves of a young pear tree that’s fanning across the wall.

I first noticed the parents coming and goings a few weeks ago, but thought I’d keep it to myself until I was sure the eggs had hatched. The girls love nature and wildlife, but their enthusiasm they can get the better of them sometimes, and the last thing I wanted was an abandoned nest. Once both parents were busy feeding their hungry chicks the likelihood of that happening was pretty slim, and so when I could hear the insistent cheeping that told me they’d arrived I showed the girls the adult birds’ comings and goings, the caterpillars and grubs they were bringing, and, in between the parents’ visits, I showed them the nest itself.

In the darkness of the hole you could just make out the bright yellow gapes of five hungry little mouths. The excitement was palpable.

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Jun 042009

They’re back!

It’s election time again and the country’s lamp posts and telegraph poles have been festooned with an assortment of dodgy-looking mug-shots that do little to improve the view.

Let’s face it, by and large pictures of politicians aren’t pretty. Even the polished practitioners of national politics struggle to look good when their faces are blown up to poster-size and put on display. Local wannabe councillors have no chance.

One such unfortunate suddenly appeared on the telephone pole outside our house recently. When I went to bed at midnight the pole was bare… the following morning at 7am there he was, grinning down at the house like some voyeuristic lecher. Was this supposed to inspire me to vote for this man? Think again! It makes you wonder who’s giving these people their marketing advice.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t for the life of me work out how poster politics is supposed to work. Yes, it raises public awareness, but more often than not it’s the groan-and-cringe kind of awareness that does nobody any favours. And let’s be blunt here, on balance your typical local election candidate isn’t particularly pleasant to look at; it’s no beauty contest, that’s for sure. So what do you have? Just a bunch of ugly mug-shots sullying the Irish landscape, and for what? Do they tell me what these people stand for? Do they tell me what they plan to do for me, my family and my community if I help elect them? No, they just distract and irritate me, and if anything have the opposite effect.

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Jun 042009
Making cheese and cucumber sandwiches

Image via Wikipedia

Ah the humble sandwich.

It comes in many shapes and forms, using different varieties of bread combined with a dizzying array of fillings that span the gamut of texture and flavour. With countless options, there’s literally a sandwich for everyone. It’s the staple of family picnics, and the stalwart of childhood nutrition that is the school lunch.

Yes, despite originally being considered as "man’s food" to be shared during late night gaming and drinking sessions, the 19th century namesake of the 4th Earl of Sandwich has, over the years, migrated across the social spectrum to become the mainstay of children’s lunch boxes around the country and around the world. Which is all well and good, but filling my daughters’ lunch boxes has evolved into one of the most trying parts of the daily grind.

School lunches have become the bane of my weekday mornings, and constructing them in the early morning tends to bring forth a tirade of under-the-breath expletives than wouldn’t be out of place in a Gordon Ramsay kitchen.

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