Friday 29 May 2015

Camping with the Guides: Girlguiding

If you picture a camp of Girl Guides in your head, you probably imagine something involving huge tents with heavy, wooden poles, dodgy food that is somehow both burned and undercooked, a large amount of rain, and girls in neat, prim uniforms sitting in a field tying knots.

Let me tell you what it's really like.

Think more like a free-wheeling life-affirming festival.  Think running around in fresh air which carries the scent of cut grass and woodsmoke; think making as much noise as you like; think midnight feasts with your friends (nobody goes on camp to sleep) and think two breakfasts minimum each day.

OK, sometimes you do get rain, but our unit seems to have the sort of luck that means we always camp in glorious sunshine. Going away on camp feels a bit like we're in our own Guiding bubble; there's an ethereal charm and it feels as though anything could happen.

I'm not an experienced camper, but I am a willing one.  Fortunately we have a Julie who is a veritable camp maestro and manages to get the whole shebang to run effortlessly, like clockwork. I don't know how she does it, because while camp is a lot of things, it is not effortless.

And then we have Alison who is QM extraordinaire, and who can whip up meal after meal on an open fire.  It is she who is responsible for the two breakfasts (minimum).  The first is so that they have something to eat while they wait for cooked breakfast. And she keeps the kettle singing (it really does whistle!) which is of paramount importance if you aren't really doing any sleeping.

I scramble around trying to help where I can. And I lead a mean campfire sing-song. I love huddling around a crackling campfire in the dark, mug of hot chocolate at my feet, marshmallow poised over the flames with the sound of eccentric songs sung enthusiastically and occasionally even tunefully drifting on the chilly air.

Camp means late nights and early mornings, but it's a lovely feeling to fall out of your tent in the sunlight first thing, put your wellies on over your PJs and go in search of that first, and most necessary, reviving cup of tea, while the dew springs off the grass and the sun turns everything into sparkles.

OK, sometimes you have to get up in the night to explain to the girls that there honestly are no Australian Red Ants in their tent (??? ) and that if they want the moths to go away, they should switch off their torches.

And flipping well shut up and go to sleep because it's 3 in the morning for goodness sake.

(You mutter the last bit to yourself as you try and find your own tent again in the dark.  There are other, unprintable things you can say to yourself when you don't locate your own tent as precisely as you'd hoped, and you end up in a heap on the floor due to excessive guy ropes).

But mainly, camp is a laugh from start to finish.

Of course it can get a bit grim at times.  I took this group of our older girls to our local campsite for a weekend to offer our services as volunteers.  There are always jobs that need doing to maintain the site, and in return we were able to stay indoors free of charge for a night.  Blissful!

The job we were given was to dismantle the bat tunnels: a series of passageways made out of old mattresses, corrugated iron and assorted bits and bobs. It used to be a maze for girls to explore with torches while learning about bats, but it had become quite dilapidated over time, and as no one was using them, it was time to clear the space.

The Guides were awesome at tearing down the bat tunnels.  We weren’t sure how they had been put together, and while it didn’t matter hugely, given that we were ripping them down, we didn’t want anyone to fall through the structure.  Some of the more enterprising girls clambered up onto the rickety roof to investigate.  Shortly afterwards, we had to pull out one girl's foot which went straight through the roof, and all of another girl who fell through completely. It's OK: everyone was fine and I had a risk assessment. Be prepared!

Abandoning the roof, the Guides swarmed over the bat tunnels with wire cutters like a small girly bomb squad in wellies.  It smelled like yuck, we found evidence of rats, it all squelched underneath and the whole thing was literally rotten.  We tore off the (rotted) canvas covering which encouraged all the things with too many legs to scuttle out from under it.  We hauled bits of wood off to be burned on a bonfire and we snapped metal in our bare hands.

Perhaps because it had rusted through, but mainly because we are really strong.

Five hours later found us clustered and slumped around the bonfire of our own making, post-apocalyptic style, watching bits of old bat tunnels burn and wondering if we’d ever stop smelling like rat wee.  The girls were tired and the promise of a massive hot dinner barely kept them out of bed. The idea of rat wee did make them shower though.

Possibly my most triumphant camp moment was the year I invented our alien-themed wide game.  We put the Guides into teams to explore a new planet, tied each team together (for safety in an unknown land) and affixed a helium balloon to each girl to be an air supply, floating along above their heads.  We warned them to beware unfriendly locals and sent them off into the woods to complete a series of tasks and colonise their new planet.

Of course we tailed them into the woods with water pistols.  Jumping out at unsuspecting teams was particularly amusing as they would all try and run in different directions at once, before pinging back together in a clump due to their ties. And when we started unexpectedly popping their balloons, their urgency to escape us increased!

Alison was stationed back at camp, and she said all you could hear were loud screams and louder bangs as we hunted them mercilessly, challenging them to outwit us and complete the game.

And the Guides LOVED it.  They loved being scared, they loved the competition and it kept them busy for hours!

Our unit are definitely fond of food, but are still developing their finesse as chefs.  All girls are natural pyromaniacs, and cooking over a fire is always exciting. However, they tend to expect jacket potatoes to be cooked after a scant ten minutes, but will forget about their s'mores tucked in the embers of the fire until it's too late and they find themselves unwrapping sticky, blackened caramelised charcoal. Yuck.

I made special triple-decker s'mores for the leaders.  If you've never tried them, layer up a digestive biscuit with chocolate and marshmallow, and squish another biscuit on top. Wrapping the result in tin foil and leaving it tucked into the glowing remains of a fire for a few minutes will result in a lovely, sticky, squidgy, sweet biscuity treat.  Lush.

It's absolutely vital at camp to have a late night run-around.  Whether that's a wide game in the woods, or an obstacle course in the dark, you need to completely wear the girls out if they're going to stand any chance of sleeping.

And you can tell if they haven't slept because their participation in morning made-up-on-the-spot aerobics lacks enthusiasm. But by the time they've had first breakfast, second breakfast, morning cake, elevensies and lunch, they usually pick up again.

Going on camp is one of the things that makes Girlguiding really special. It gives the girls some independence and challenges them, it offers them new experiences and they get to spend some time outdoors. But mainly it’s an enormous amount of fun! I love that we can spend a full weekend getting to know our unit better, and that the girls’ friendships really grow and develop.  They always remember camp fondly, even years later when other activities have been forgotten.

After all, being chased through the trees by a leader with a water pistol, a pointy stick and a sense of theatricality probably sticks with you.

Kirsty xxx

P.S. We're going on camp again this summer, and even though it's been two years since we played the game, one of the girls asked if camp was going to be like that this year.  I'll have to get thinking.  Meanwhile, if you'd like a copy of the rules, ping me an email on kirsty dot merran at googlemail dot com.

P.P.S. This post is part of a series on my wonderful experiences with Girlguiding.  Pop back on Monday as we head into international waters and talk Guiding overseas, and you can find links to the other posts below:

This is what Girlguiding means to me

My Life as a Guide Leader

Thursday 28 May 2015

My Life as a Guide Leader: Girlguiding

Every Friday night, I head off after school to go to my Guide unit meetings.  We are a large and thriving group with just over 40 girls on our register aged from 10 to 14 years of age.  Every single one of them is brilliant.

Oh they’re absolutely nuts too, don’t get me wrong, but they’re brilliant. 

We meet on a Friday night as they can let off a bit of steam after a week of school work, and they don’t have to have homework in the next day.  More and more, we find girls feel the pressure of school  exams at a younger and younger age, and believe they have to sacrifice their fun in order to keep up with the studies. 

Our Guides don't really do quiet.  They make an enormous amount of noise.  And mess. Tidying is a foreign concept.  Carefully thought-out ideas descend into chaos.   As a teacher, this would drive me to distraction. 

But as a Guide leader, I don’t hear noise: I hear laughter and fun and friendship. And I contribute cheerfully to the melee.  As I Guide leader, I don’t see chaos, I see creativity as the girls take the ideas and run with them.

I still see the mess, but I cheerfully believe that eventually the concept of tidying up will catch on, and until then we chivy them along and remind them.

I can’t really complain as I once accidentally spray-painted the kitchen floor in a not-quite-pleasing combination of metallic blue and pink. We all make mistakes.

I think we have a lot of variety in our unit meetings (and I hope the girls would agree!). Some will be active, outdoorsy, sporty; some crafty, creative, constructive; some adventurous and challenging, and some informative and thoughtful. One of the things Girlguiding aims to do as a whole is to encourage independence and leadership.  We place emphasis on hearing from girls about the things they want to do, and encouraging them to lead on those things. 

At the moment, our unit is working on completing their chocolate badge. Chocolate as a concept is always a winner.  The girls perused the badge syllabus last week and selected and planned the tasks they would need to complete in order to earn their badge.  They work in small groups of around 6 girls called patrols, which encourages them to team up with girls of different ages and school years, and get to know more people in the unit.

This week, the chocolate action began in earnest.  I set myself up in the kitchen to help out and generally supervise (and to make a quick round of tea for the leaders – a very necessary ritual in every meeting). Looking after the kitchen proved interesting.  It’s not huge, and with half a dozen girls crowding in, there’s not much room to move, so different patrols had to take it in turns.

I had conversations like this:

Guide: Is there room for us to cook?
Me: Probably, do you just need to use the hob? What are you going to do?
Guide: We just need to melt some chocolate.
Me: Yum! And yes, there’s some space for you.  What are you making?
At this point, the Guide looked at me pityingly, as though I were a small child who was being a bit slow to catch on.

Guide: We’re making melted chocolate.
Me:  Oh. What are you going to do with the melted chocolate?
Guide: Put Oreos in it, and eat it.
Me: Fair enough.

And actually, I think that is fair enough. Because they all learned that you melt chocolate in a bowl over a pan of water. I didn’t help; I let them figure it all out for themselves. I was just there to in case things went wrong and to remind them that electric hobs stay warm for a long time after they are switched off.

I had the “we’re-making-melted-chocolate” conversation around 3 times, and one group made hot chocolate. By melting chocolate bars and adding it to milk, but it’s a variation on a theme. One group were more adventurous:

Guide: Can we use the kitchen?
Me: Of course, come on in.  What are you making?
Guide: Honeycomb.
Me: Oooh, yum! Have you got a recipe?
Guide: No. But I read one on the internet earlier.


Guide: Kirsty?
Me: Yes?
Guide: How much do you think a good amount of sugar is for honeycomb?

I had absolutely no idea, but somehow they got on with it. There was a tremendous smell of burning as they boiled sugar (my idea as their slightly-warm solution of sugar and water didn’t thicken). Fortunately the kitchen has an outside door which I flung wide to let out the fumes, and then sent away a stream of Guides who popped by the kitchen to find out what had caught on fire.

Strangely, nothing actually seemed to burn, and my vigorous investigations were inconclusive.

Most strange of all, was that the crazy honeycomb experiment worked and that somehow without a recipe, the girls managed to produce something that looked and tasted like the inside of a Crunchie. Which they then, obviously, dipped in melted chocolate.  Maybe that’s how Cadbury's got started.

You might wonder what value doing a Chocolate badge has, and it’s easy to be cynical about these things.  But the girls have had to work together and demonstrate teamwork; they have had to plan and resource two meetings-worth of activities themselves as well as budgeting (we allowed each group £10 for their supplies and equipment).  They have learned a little something about working in the kitchen and melting chocolate, they have had to research the history of chocolate, and look up ethical trading and Fair Trade to give them an appreciation of the impact of their purchases on other people, and they’ve done it all themselves

There seems to be quite a bit of value in that to me.  And a lot of chocolate.

This is just the story of one meeting, but we really do get up to all sorts of things. We have participated in charity projects by collecting, filling and wrapping shoeboxes, and we have made bunting for local charity Noah’s Ark in their world-record bid.  We have had visits to the panto, wide games at our local campsite, jewellery-making for mothers' day and an internet-safety workshop.  We have played jousting energetically (and almost alarmingly violently, but girls will be girls), learned how to knit determinedly, hiked through the woods to a chip shop, and tried to learn the moves for a folk dance. We’ve been zorbing and climbing and campfire singing, and we’ve curled up in sleeping bags on a pile of cushions to watch films.

We’ve been Guides.

All of this is made possible by a truly wonderful leadership team.  I am an assistant leader with the group.  This works really well for me and the time I am able to offer. I can still plan and run some meetings, but I’m not the overall responsible grown up for the unit.  That's because I'm not an overall responsible grown-up. I don’t have to worry about things like doing the accounts and I am forever grateful for the other leaders in my unit who do take on these responsibilities willingly and highly efficiently, as well as running meetings and coming up with ideas. Best of all, joining this team has brought me new friends.

I don’t want to give you an unrealistic picture.  There are always going to be meetings that don’t go to plan, and that can be frustrating. There are times when I feel like I need the girls to just make a bit less noise so I can get to the end of a sentence. When I don’t really want to wash hard-set caramel off another bowl, or scrape candle wax out of a saucer. When I wish they already knew that 7 grams of bicarb is really not the same thing at all as 7 lbs of bicarb (I like to think of that as the mis-fortune cookie incident).

But then I remember that this is not school. And I want the girls to have the time of their lives, to feel safe and free to be who they are, to enjoy being with their friends, and to try new and occasionally outrageous activities.

I think the best advice for times like this is to try and see the funny side.

By the end of July, I will have been with this unit for 5 years.

I sincerely hope there are many more to come.

Kisses xxx

P.S. We are always on the lookout for new and exciting ideas, so if you have any to share, let me know!  And if you're interested in volunteering a little of your time, you can find out more at the Girlguiding website here: Get Involved

P.P.S. This post is part of a series I'm sharing all about my experiences of Girlguiding.  You can read the first post here: This is what Girlguiding means to me. Stay tuned tomorrow for an introduction to the world of Guide Camp!

Tuesday 26 May 2015

This is what Girlguiding means to me

I am a member of Girlguiding.

That’s not something I write about here very regularly, but Girlguiding has become a huge, and very valuable part of my life.  The last few months have been particularly jam-packed and over the next few posts, I've got a lot to share.  But first, in case you’re not familiar with Girlguiding in the UK, let me tell you a little bit about it.

Girlguiding is the leading charity for girls and young women in the UK.  With half a million members including 100 000 volunteers, girls can meet regularly with their friends to learn new skills, try out a wide range of activities and build their confidence in a space that’s just for them.  Rainbows is for girls age 5-7 years, Brownies for the 7-10 year olds, Guides for the 10-14 year-olds and Senior Section for young women aged 14-26.  There are also lots of ways to be involved as an adult (I myself am a Guide leader), and we aim to encourage girls to raise their aspirations and make a difference to their lives and communities.

I suppose that would be the official description, and I think it’s impressive.  But it’s not very personal.  It doesn't capture how I feel about this incredible organisation to which I belong.  I’m going to share a few of my recent experiences with Girlguiding in the next few posts, but today I want to share with you what Girlguiding means to me.

To me, being a member of Girlguiding is about leadership, independence, empowerment and confidence.

It is about warmth, unconditional friendship and strong, unshakeable support. It’s about being surrounded by inspirational women of all ages who will always find more time to offer, who know how to listen without judging, and whose experience has enormous value.  It’s about giving something back and supporting those around me.

Being a member of Girlguiding means I belong to a local community, and it gives me 10 million sisters around the world with whom I share a common bond.  We may not share a language, a home, an alphabet or a culture, but we share this experience and it connects us.

Being a member of Girlguiding is about laughter. It's about fun, laughing at the ridiculous, at the hilarious, laughing because it’s going well, laughing because it's all gone wrong, laughing at yourself and knowing it's all OK.

Being a member of Girlguiding uncovers potential; Girlguiding raises my aspirations, encourages me to challenge my limits, to do more, to pick myself up from my failures and to aim my sights ever higher.

Being a member of Girlguiding gives me a voice. I can stand alongside a movement that champions the rights and opinions of girls and women worldwide, that says no to Page 3 and promotes body confidence, a movement that says no to violence against women and promotes education for girls, a movement shouting for women’s issues in the UK and the UN, telling girls their votes matter, and showing them they can change the world.

Being a member of Girlguiding is about cups of tea and cake. It’s about being in a tent in the rain with your best friends and it's about watching films in a onesie at a giant sleepover. It’s about backpacking through the back of beyond, it’s about sewing badges on my camp blanket, it’s about thinking that it is a good idea to make gingerbread houses from scratch with 40 girls and one oven, it’s about toasting marshmallows on an open fire, it’s about running around shrieking and it’s about standing by a promise.

It's now been almost 5 years since I found a phone number on the internet of a nice lady who ran a Guide unit, and asked if I could come and help out at the meetings. That was possibly the best decision I ever made and it's been the most wonderful adventure ever since. I hope you'll join me over the next couple of weeks for a little series of blog posts all about Girlguiding, from weekly meetings to summer camps and international volunteering. 

I am a member of Girlguiding, and this is what it means to me.

Kisses xxx

P.S. To find out more, you can head to the Girlguiding website.

P.P.S. Any members of Girlguiding out there?  Or Guiding/Scouting abroad?

Saturday 9 May 2015

one photo and twenty words

It's a lovely discovery to find that someone has captured a perfect, candid, special moment. And I never even noticed.

Kisses xxx

P.S. One photo and twenty words is hosted by the lovely Abi over at Creating Paper Dreams. You can pop by her blog to see the pictures, memories and words of others.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

crafting my travels

My giant map is finished! 

This is an incredibly good feeling: I have a real sense of accomplishment as this has been a very long-term craft project.  I've documented the progress of the giant map in a few blog posts along the way, but now it's done, I've gone back and pulled out a little timeline of progress photos to document the full project.

It all began back in January.

As in January 2014. Almost 18 months ago.

I had purchased a giant canvas; as in same-as-my-armspan-and-I-struggle-to-carry-it giant. I also picked up a world map, and I got both for bargain, reduced prices at discount book and stationary shop The Works. First I traced round the map in sharpie to emphasise the borders of each country, then I taped it to the back of the canvas , propped the whole thing against the window and pencilled the world onto my canvas.

Confession: I had to trim the Atlantic ocean down a little so that Fiji and Hawaii could both fit on the edges. But I won't tell if you won't.

Then I stitched along all the pencil lines.

I will fully and freely confess that stitching was a stupid idea.  But once you've started, you've got to carry on. It was hard work reaching around the canvas due to it's size,some of the coastlines are very intricate and fiddly, and the canvas has big wooden supports in the back that were a real pain to embroider around.

Having said that it was a stupid idea, I should also say that I LOVE the result. It has texture and dimension and looks brilliant. I hope I never have to do anything like that again.  I'm incredibly glad I stuck with it!

So it took a long time, other craft projects came and went around it, but eventually I defeated the embroidery beast. The next logical step is to paint in the countries.  I liked the idea of leaving the oceans clear and white, and having the countries in a variety of matching shades. After mucking around with a few ideas, I opted for shades of blue and turquoise.  I found an art shop, and purchased some decent quality acrylic paint.

And you know what?  Those paints were rubbish.  I'm happy to accept that this could be due to user error, but they were uneven and streaky and the canvas looked like a three-year-old had tried to paint it.  Blindfolded.  With their fingers.

And of course, I had started with Russia, thinking it would be good to get the biggest country out of the way,

Convinced I had ruined my canvas, and unable to face the prospect of starting again on the embroidery, I pottered back to The Works and bought some ultra-cheap acrylic paint in blue, dark blue, green and white. And I mixed my own shades as I went.

Worked like a charm.  Hurrah for cheap paint that looks fab!  I painted over Russia and the minor set-back was soon overcome.

This also took a long time.  See points above regarding unacceptable wigglyness of country borders and size of canvas. If political leaders got their collective act together, I'm sure they could negotiate some territorial swapsies and organise straighter borders.

Although that might be awkward for the residents involved, and also then my map would be wrong and I've to start again, so maybe let's just leave everything as it is.

But it is done!  All finished!  And I'm so pleased with how it turned out.  All that remains is to work out where (and how) to hang it, and to mark on the places I have visited. I haven't decided how to do this yet, so suggestions very much appreciated!

I like that this will be a work-in-progress, like a giant, wall scrapbook showing my travels. I'm looking forward to adorning it with journeys past and journeys yet to come.

Kisses xxx

P.S. Aw shucks, now I'm going to need to think up a new giant project to take up space in my flat...

Monday 4 May 2015

study leave shortbread

It's come to that time of year where my students are leaving the environs of school to hole themselves up in libraries, bedrooms, cafes and any other convenient nook they can find to do their revision. They will pop in and out of school, mostly to sit their exams, and sometimes because they need a little bit of help, a lot of sympathy, and a perky you-can-do-this pep talk.

I sort of miss them when they go.  The time that was previously filled with teaching, lessons and working with students becomes instantly inundated with report-writing, university references, planning and strategising… basically, it's paperwork. 

My first two classes went on study leave on Friday (I have one more group who will be starting their study leave in just over a week). I thought I'd bake them a little something to see them on their way, and to wish them luck. Caramel shortbread it is then.  I use Nigella's recipe from How to be a Domestic Goddess, because it’s brilliant, it works, and you make the caramel in the microwave. What’s not to love?

Also, I'm a firm believer in layer equality. Lots of caramel shortbread has a thick layer of shortbread, a little smear of caramel and a hint of chocolate. This is obviously foolishness of the highest degree.  Caramel should have a layer of caramel equal in thickness to the shortbread, and ditto the chocolate.  The chocolate should crack, splinter and shatter when you take a bite, and the caramel should squidge out the sides.

True story.

So I needed enough caramel shortbread for two classes.  And the staff have worked pretty hard too, so probably a good idea to make some for the maths department too. And actually, Friday is Guides so if there are a few extra slices, the leaders might appreciate some.

As the clock crept round to midnight on Thursday evening, I had managed it: 59 slices of caramel shortbread, glistening and chocolatey, and a very sticky kitchen.

Why 59? I have no idea.  It sounds like I made 60 and ate one doesn't it?  But I didn't, it was pure coincidence. The chocolate wasn't properly set, so I had to play fridge Jenga to get the whole lot to cool and harden over night. But 59 it is.

And don't worry: I ate plenty.  I belong to two A-level classes (as their teacher, I think I get some too), and I’m a member of the maths department, and I’m a Guide leader. So by my reckoning, it would be rude if I hadn't joined each of these groups for a little nibble.

4 pieces for me!

Kisses xxx 

P.S. Actually there are still a couple of pieces left, casually hanging out in my fridge.  If a girl can't find a way of vanishing that on a bank holiday Monday, she's not really trying...