Big Schools’ Birdwatch

It’s that time of year again. Each year the RSPB organise the Big Garden Birdwatch and the Big Schools’ Birdwatch. There is very little food around for birds at this time of year and putting some food out can have incredible results. So why not visit the website for ideas, get a bit of food in and hang it outside your classroom window, and take this opportunity to encourage your children to “engage with nature”. There are lots of learning activities that you can incorporate into your teaching from bar graphs to represent the results, creative writing, art, etc. Why not visit the RSPB website for some ideas?

Spreadsheets and food security

In primary schools I find that spreadsheets are often glossed over, staff often aren’t aware of the power of spreadsheets in modelling and performing repetitive calculations and they can’t think of appropriate examples.

Likewise, food security is an issue that is hardly touched on, it is seen as a difficult concept and a political one.

Recently I was working with a school studying World War 2 and they had several propaganda posters on their walls including “Dig for Victory” and appeals for scrap metal to build more ships. WW2 saw Britain being blockaded by the Germans, u-boats were sinking our cargo ships and huge quantities of food, along with ships and lives, went to the bottom of the sea. As the recent Wartime Farm program has reminded us, Germany was trying to starve us into submission and our farmers had to grow as much food as possible if our population was going to survive long enough for us to win the war. Food security then was about growing enough food in a resilient and sustainable way, an issue which we are becoming aware of again as we wreck our ecosystem.

Besides farmers, local people turned every green area over to food production, parks, school grounds, gardens and even grass verges – something we see happening today in places like Todmorden and is now beginning to happen here in Leeds.

20121120-092357.jpgThe task I set some pupils in year 6 was to look at the school grounds, identify areas that would be easy to grow potatoes, measure these areas and calculate how many potatoes we would need to plant the areas up and the cost of the seed potatoes. This they managed very well with a little help from Mr Google who supplied the price of seed potatoes. Two of the pupils then wrote reports to the head asking her for the funds to buy the potatoes! You can see their reports on their class blog.

Fifty things to do before you’re 11 3/4

50thingsOne of my first blog posts on this site was about how little contact children have with nature these days and the impact it can have on their health and wellbeing. Last night the Country File TV program on BBC referred to the National Trust’s campaign to encourage children to get out of doors, they have published a list of “Fifty things to do before you’re 11¾”, a quick Google this morning brought up the list on the CBBC Newsround site along with a video report and the site that the National Trust have set up for their campaign.

The list is quite exciting and the activities would lend themselves to all sorts of classroom activities as well including literacy and numeracy. I’m sure that with a little imagination teachers would be able to tick off some of their required boxes whilst the children are happily ticking off some of their 50 boxes!

Of course, one of the big questions is, which ones have you been able to tick off, either before you were 11¾ or since then?

Me, I’ve got a couple to do still – where’s my GPS?

Permaculture Course

Over the next few months I will be taking part on a Permaculture Design Course. This is partly to help me develop the “half-farmer, half-X” lifestyle I have blogged about elsewhere, but also so that I can offer more help with schools and other other organisations that I work with to reduce their carbon footprint and to become more sustainable organisations. In fact, it would be great if we could become more than just sustainable, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we became re-creative or re-generative in how we live! Impossible? I don’t know, but we won’t know until we try.

If you want to follow my journey on the Permaculture course then see my personal blog, if you would like to know more about what I might be able to offer your school or organisation then do please contact me.

Scientific investigation

What food do birds prefer?

If you have a classroom that looks out onto a green patch, flower bed or hedge why not help your children to do a scientific investigation into what types of food each type of bird prefers? The children can help to plan a fair experiment but at the simplest level the experiment involves putting out piles of different bird food or filling different feeders with different foods and seeing which birds go to which food. Some suggestions for different types of food are:

  • fat or suet balls (you could make your own or buy them)
  • fruit such as apples, pears, etc
  • sultanas and raisins
  • peanuts – these should be in a proper peanut feeder, young birds can choke if they try to eat a whole peanut
  • bread crumbs
  • porridge oats
  • different types of seed eg sunflower (compare hearts with unshelled), Nyjer, etc
  • grated cheese

And don’t forget to supply some water as well! You will also need some bird identification charts -the RSPB do some excellent wall cards.

The children will need to plan the experiment, or a series of experiments (they may compare the same food but put one on the ground and one in a feeder, etc), how to record the results, how they present the results (tables, graphs, pie charts?), how to write a report and how to interpret the results. They also need to identify who their report is going to be for.

Once they have done this why not publish it on your school website or blog, publicise it to other schools and to parents, give a presentation to other classes or parents, send details of the report to the RSPB, bird food producers (they might send you some free samples!), the local press or local shops that sell bird foods. Send me details of your online report and I will publicise it for you.

Having identified the best foods for particular birds why not make some advertising leaflets promoting the feeding of birds, give them out to parents, leave some in your school entrance to show off your work or take them to your local bird food suppliers?

A search on the Internet should also identify other schools and organisations who are reporting about their bird life and nature studies, maybe you can connect up with them and compare results.

If you need help with identifying birds why not ask the parents, most schools will have one or more “twitchers” amongst their community – just warn them not to give all the answers away!

If you do any of this, sit down at home with a cup of tea looking out of your window at your own bird feeders and reflect on what changes have occurred to your class since you introduced them to birds …. And to you!

Building Relationships

I remember a colleague once saying that education was all about relationships. Relationships with pupils, with colleagues, with parents and of course with your own family.

Since I started reading more about sustainability and well being I have realised that another relationship that is very important is the one with your school building and grounds. The environment that you work and study in affects you in so many ways. Are you going to feel comfortable or study well if you sit in a draught, experience lots of distracting noise, if you are surrounded by drab walls, don’t have a nice view out of the window, sit in uncomfortable seats for hours, if you have too little space because of overcrowding, if things don’t work, if it is far too hot, or you are in a massive building where it feels like you are just a tiny little insect? Are you going to respect the school building and surroundings if nobody else seems to care about looking after them and there is litter everywhere, if the windows are falling out, the roof leaks and doors don’t shut properly? Will you be bothered about saving energy by switching off lights and closing doors if the windows don’t shut and the classrooms are uncomfortable due to excessive heat or cold?

Yet despite BSF and PFI, global warming and financial crises, Ofsted and Academy status we are still planning to build schools that depersonalise us and don’t encourage us to develop a good relationship with them.

I’ve seen how new buildings and carefully developed school grounds can make a huge impact on behaviour and motivation of staff and students and how they start to respect the school fabric in a way they didn’t in their older buildings. The buildings can become part of the learning process as well as part of the learning environment, they can inspire learning rather than distract. And if the staff and students are allowed to have a say in the design of their new working environment then even better. Why shouldn’t students be aware of the process of planning a school? Let them know that someone has decreed that each student is allowed a certain area of floor space and why the windows are the size they are. Let them make suggestions as to how their learning environment can be improved.

So all you architects and school planners out there, when you go to visit a school to look at how it might be rebuilt or extended, go and sit in the classroom for a day, talk to the students and staff and get a feel for how you can help them improve their relationship with their learning environment. And when you go back to your environmentally controlled, plant filled, light and airy office just think about the environments you are creating for our learners for the next 40-60 years.

Green Doctor – helping to tackle fuel poverty

Fuel poverty is on the increase. Fuel poverty is said to occur when in order to heat a home to an adequate standard of warmth a household needs to spend more than 10% of its income on heating. Many pupils in Leeds come from homes that are experiencing fuel poverty and often there are quick and cheap ways to remedy the problem.

Green Doctor is a free service provided by Groundwork to help tackle fuel poverty. The service provides an initial friendly home visit to assess energy use, helping to identify how a household could be using less and saving money.

Following the initial assessment Green Doctor can install any necessary energy-saving measures, provide advice on energy bills and make referral  to sources of grants for insulation and central heating.

To qualify for the Green Doctor service the householder must live in Leeds or Calderdale, be on a low income, and either:

  • Have children under 16 living in the house
  • Have a disability
  • Be aged 60 or over

If you have pupils in your school who you think are living in a household experiencing fuel poverty why not download and print out the Green Doctor Information Leaflet and make it available for parents in your school?

If you want to know more about what the Green Doctor scheme has to offer contact them on:
Leeds – 0113 238 0316
e-mail –

Where does all our food waste go?

I’ve always been shocked at the amount of food that is wasted and the huge environmental impact food production has. We grow food and transport it all over the world, often flying it thousands of miles and then transporting it by road for hundreds of miles only to throw half of it away because it is the wrong shape, colour or past it’s “best by” date. We eventually get the food to the school, restaurant, hospital or home, prepare it and then leave some of it on the plate. Next it goes into a bin to be collected by bin lorries that transport it miles to dump it into land fill sites where it decomposes to produce methane and carbon dioxide – more greenhouse gases – and because it gets mixed in with all the other rubbish it is of no use to anyone.

I believe that it is important for us and our children to understand where our food comes from and the real cost of producing it. Many schools are already growing food so that their pupils realise that peas and tomatoes come from plants and not tins or packets from supermarkets.

But it is also important to understand where our food waste goes and the impact it has on the environment. Some schools have started compost heaps to dispose of vegetable waste but this usually deals with a small amount of the food waste produced by a school.

A company called Ridan was a finalist in the Devon Environment Business Initiative (DEBI) awards for its Ridan Composter, a carbon negative device that can turn food waste into useful compost that can be used in the school grounds. There is also a cash saving in the money saved on disposal costs and the opportunity to teach young people how food waste can become a valuable resource.

The Resurgence article that introduced me to the Ridan composter tells of a school that installed a Ridan composter and then had an assembly about it in which the children sang ‘I’ve got a brand new Ridan Composter’ to the tune of the Wurzels classic song!

The Ridan website also includes more information about composting. If your school is interested in installing a composter you may be eligble for a grant from organisations like Biffa.

Solar power

imageWe have just had solar panels fitted to our home (see my personal blog for more information). This week I have also come across an organisation called Solar Schools who want people to chip in to buy a solar roof for their local school. It’s a fund raising site run by 10:10, an organisation that encourages us to cut our carbon footprint 10% at a time – in other words, in manageable steps. This is a very exciting idea and could make a huge difference. If you want to know more visit their website. If your local school might be interested then point them at the website but it would also be useful to talk to your LEA as well since some of them are investigating ways of putting panels onto as many council buildings as possible.

And if you are interested in solar panels for your own home then see my personal blog.

Autumn leaves

Hawthorn Berry

The winds of the last few days are causing the leaves to start falling and even though it is only September it feels like Autumn is on its way. As I walk around my local patch the hawes are ripe on the hawthorn trees, beech mast litters the ground and rowan berries are a brilliant bright red. All around us are the seeds of the next generation.

Many children are totally unaware of this. They don’t see the trees and the berries because they don’t know to look, they spend most of their time indoors. Richard Louv coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book “Last Child in the Woods” and he uses this phrase to describe the alleged trend that children are spending less time outdoors and are losing touch with nature and the seasons. There are many reasons suggested for this occurrence and Louv says that this has profound implications for the health of future generations and the health of the planet. Attention disorders, depression and obesity all get a mention.

There is an increasingly large movement of people who take this work seriously and are working to get children outside and actively learning. One way is to take children out to gather the seeds of the local trees, identify them using books, databases, websites or other people, and then to plant the seeds. Hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel and beech all make good hedges and would make a brilliant green corridor if you planted them around your school boundary. They would also disguise those horrible metal fences most schools have – those ones that make the school look more like an open prison!

Besides fallen leaves, a lot of twigs and branches have been brought down by the winds. Rather than clearing them up and binning them, why not make small piles around the school grounds as insect hotels. A quick google will bring up lots of suggestions as to how to build them and how to use them to teach children about wildlife and food chains.

And all of this will provide opportunities to teach numeracy, literacy, art, …. and all those other subjects, and to tick all those curriculum boxes.