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This week blwyddyn un stepped into 2017. That’s right, we have Seesaw.

For those of you unfamiliar, Seesaw is an app designed to make it easier for pupils to share their work with their teacher and their parents. It’s a bit like Facebook for the classroom. I’ve heard whisperings of Seesaw for a few months but it was following a very inspirational ICT course that we, as a staff, decided to bite the digital bullet.

I was nervous at first. I can be a bit of a technophobe and I’m always cautious of over-complicating matters in the classroom, particularly as one lesson generates so much paperwork and admin already, but I can honestly say after the first week of having it in our classroom, Seesaw is a success.

I started off with a class demonstration on Tuesday morning, taking the time to explain and model how children can access the software. The children were in awe as I told them we were going to start using a very special new app and they were immediately enthused when they saw how easy it was to use. Seesaw works by scanning a QR code, which I’d placed in several spots around the classroom to ease congestion. The children can then select their name and add a photograph of their work to their own personal profile. This is automatically shared with the teacher, who can approve posts for those already panicking. A notification can also be sent to a parent’s device once their child uploads a piece of work. There’s also an option to annotate with a caption or recording, giving the children a change to explain their work.

It’s not just a great way of sharing work between student-teacher-parent, but it’s also a good form of reflection and evaluation. We’ve already found ourselves taking the time at the end of the day to scroll through Seesaw and share the uploads from the day. This then gives the children a chance to talk about their work and discuss how they feel about it. As a teacher, I can also comment on pieces of work, similar to comments on social media, but the voice record feature is a great tool to cut down on marking time, allowing me to make clear reflective comments as I would if the child was standing next to me. Parents can also get involved with this, but as we continue to train the children and ourselves on how to use the app, for the time being Seesaw is only being used in-house.

A huge perk is that it’s simple to use. The children are already familiar with uploading work after just a week of getting to grips with the app. It’s also proving very useful in the challenge areas as the children are able to take pictures of their independent tasks, which I can then see at the end of the day. For example, today I asked them to build animal enclosures in the construction area, thinking carefully about measuring out the areas so they were big enough for the animal. It can be a struggle for me to see all of the children’s challenge area work as I’m often pre-occupied with the focus tasks, but today it was lovely to see the children uploading their work proudly to Seesaw which gave me a change to look at it and appraise after school. The children love it and, although I was tentative at first, I’m already pretty confident that seesaw will have a positive impact on the learning in Blwyddyn Un.

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It was the first week back after half term so the usual ‘stepping back on the treadmill’ stuff was happening. Planning, prepping, panicking, etc.

Then on Thursday, I was sent on a course at the last minute. It meant driving through picturesque Wales to Llanrwst, taking part in a drama workshop and, the clincher, a free lunch so, of course, I was on board immediately.

The focus of the course was Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert strategy. Having spent a lot of time researching this particular area of Heathcote’s work as part of my PGCE dissertation, I was really excited to see how a school in Brecon had put the strategy and pedagogy into practice. Mantle of the Expert is all about engaging pupils in a task by adding a sense of theatre. Obviously, this was my jam. After some hands-on examples of how this can be implemented, I certainly left Llanrwst feeling motivated and re-energised. It was a much-welcome boost.

The teachers leading the training were inspirational and it was refreshing to hear their realistic opinions and experiences. These were everyday teachers who experienced the same ups and downs as the rest of us, but were enjoying lots of success after taking a risk with their teaching. ‘Mantle’ involves putting the pupil in charge, whilst the teacher takes more of a directorial role. The pupil is given the freedom to explore and lead their own learning, whist in a role as an ‘expert’. For example, their role could be a leader of an expedition to the Titanic wreckage, or a recruitment agent for a Superhero agency. The trainers shared countless examples of how they have used Mantle in the classroom and I was pleased to see some of the techniques were already being touched on in my class. This term I’ve already asked year one to be wedding planners and party organisers, so I felt like a lot of the ideas shared would fit in with my teaching.

So, on Friday I bounced into class with a new idea. I needed to teach ‘Light and Dark’ to the children and I had an idea of how to introduce it. Using a pop up tent, some leaves and plenty of fabric, I built a cave in the corner of my classroom and set up the laptop to play soft snoring sounds into the class. When the children came in I greeted them with lots of ssssh-ing and gesturing to the cave. Straight away they were in total awe and began questioning what could be inside the cave, all through careful whispers so as not to wake our visitor up. I of course feigned ignorance and conjured up a story of how I’d found this cave when I arrived at school and wanted to wait for the children before I went inside as I wasn’t quite brave enough to risk it alone.

I left them hanging for a bit whilst we carried out our usual morning rituals, then got them all riled up by asking them if they’d like to see what was inside. The answer was, of course, ‘YES!’. So, in my most Olivier-worthy performance, I crept over into the tent and performed my side of a conversation. When I emerged, the children were rapt with interest. I explained that inside the cave was a very friendly bear and the reason he was sleeping was because he had such a terrible night’s rest due to his fear of the dark. The children were very sympathetic and before I could explain further they were suggesting ways we could help. Which is exactly what I wanted them to do. So, following ‘their’ suggestions, we researched light sources on the internet and watched a video clip, dismissing sources which we couldn’t use, such as as the sun or car headlights, and made a list of possibilities. We tested a candle in the classroom, but the children were quick to point out that might not be a safe option for the bear. I then gave the children time to, in groups, test out some objects we’d found in the classroom (some handily placed) by taking them into the cave. If the objects helped them see the bear then they were light sources, but if they didn’t then they were not.

I can’t tell you how excited they were. Most notably, the children who are usually less focused and engaged were fizzing with energy and excitement. One boy was so animated, it was lovely to see him dashing around the classroom and testing things out in the cave, keen to find a solution for the bear. He was also using complex, topic-appropriate language within his investigation. It was fab!

The course trainers had shared how Mantle had not only improved standards of work and behaviour in their school but it had also given the children a sense of value. They knew they were being trusted with their learning so they made sure they didn’t abuse that trust. Differing to our usual Topic-based work, which change termly, Mantles can run for any length of time. In this particular school they stressed the importance of allowing a Mantle to run its course and not feel pressured to squeeze as many in as possible. Some Mantles can last for weeks whilst some can run their natural course in just a few days. It all depends on the children’s responses and the ideas they want to explore.

From my initial experiences with Mantle of the Expert I can already see that it is a powerful tool to enhance learning and self-confidence. After last week’s brief session, I’m going to try to develop the ‘bear cave’ idea to incorporate natural and man-made light, shadows and transparent and opaque materials. It was a huge hit in blwyddyn un and from the responses of the children it is definitely something I’ll be implementing more often in the future.

I’m conscious not to make these posts all about me. I know that that is sort of the point of some blog posts but I do try to steer the content away from myself whenever I can. Trouble is, I am all I know at the moment, so it makes it quite difficult, particularly when I’m in need of a good vent. Blogging is cathartic. Yesterday, I read something that was such a blatant massaging of the writer’s ego that it made me audibly shudder and make noises I was even embarrassed to make in an empty flat. I really hope this blog is never seen as self-indulgent, because that’s not my intention, but for the time being you’ll have to put up with the ramblings about half-written stories, experimental classroom content and rants about EastEnders until my life takes a more adventurous turn.

Anyway, last week was half term. A chance for a much needed recharging of the batteries before it’s full throttle into killer Christmas season (which, of course, I secretly love). By the end of half term my mind was typically racing and I was crawling towards that Friday finish. The problem with this job (and, I’m sure, many other jobs) is that you can never drop the ball. It’s impossible to switch off. I’ve spoken to teachers who say that feeling of unrest doesn’t leave you until well into retirement. You’re constantly feeling like you need to be doing something and the guilt that follows a duvet day is unreal. It’s one thing I’ve struggled with, as I appear to have lost the ability to relax. I was always a bit tightly strung but since starting the PGCE, it’s just been impossible to chill. Even on a Spanish beach, drink in one hand, book in the other, I had to take frequent breaks to go for a walk, check my emails or just do something! It’s relentless. And dangerous. Because, along with every other member of staff and the children, I was ready for a break.

Now for someone who enjoys being active, it’s not necessarily a bad thing (at the moment, but I’m sure in a few years’ time I’ll feel very different). I’m so precious about the time I have ‘off’ that I’ve started making a list of all the things I want to achieve over the holiday (that’s right. I’m setting myself targets. Welcome to the system.) On the list last week was; a blog post, work on a new story, edit an old story and another little project which I’m not going to talk about yet, but have been meaning to do for a long time. All little jobs that I’m sure mean nothing to anyone else but they’re important to me because, as I’ve said before, I’m finding it hard to express myself at this stage in my life, so I wanted to take advantage of the break from work to explore my ideas.

Guess what. Very little of it happened.

It’s frustrating because I know I am to blame. I make the choice. But a contributing factor is the many online distractions. I’ve ranted about the online world before and I don’t want to run at it with a pitchfork because, obviously, it provides a lot of support for people, including myself. It’s bloody hardwork though, when you’ve got an idea, but you can’t quite pin it down because your phone is buzzing, or an email comes through, or you find yourself scrolling through Instagram without even remembering opening the app. I’ve heard interviews about the online world being an addictive space and I believe that is true. I can’t help opening up these apps in the hope that something will interest me or that someone has got in touch, when 9 times out of 10 those things don’t happen. So instead it’s just a big waste of time.  Time where I could have been writing.

I worry that it’s not just my written work that is suffering. I’m craving a book that I can be absorbed into. A world where I can just sink in and forget the real world. I’m a constant reader but, even with something I’m so passionate about, I’ll gladly interrupt my reading to reply to a whatsapp or a snapchat or check my twitter. I hold stories so highly yet I’ll stop to check my phone. What the hell is that all about?

At times I feel like I’m losing the ability to connect. I’ll choose the saddest film, because I want to feel sad. Just to know I’ve felt something. But lately, I’ll find I’m bored after ten minutes and reading old whatsapp messages. I’m desperate for a new TV series that will absorb me and distract me from my smartphone, but after watching introductory episodes of lots of programmes, I just can’t get into anything. I long for the days when I was obsessed with Doctor Who, Torchwood, Lost…..this was about ten years ago when I didn’t have the access to the internet that I have today. I used to just sit and binge and enjoy and feel. I worry that I can’t do that anymore. Nowadays I’m checking Twitter during ad breaks of American Horror Story to see how everyone else feels about the episode. Who cares?

A safe retreat from all this is the theatre. The theatre is different. That is a space where I can immerse myself and I can connect. And, what a coincidence – phones are not permitted.

I’ve heard of people going unplugged and I think there’s a lot to be said for it. It’s a brave thing to do in this era where we’re so dependent on technology but I’m sure it would be good for the mind and the soul. I long for a quiet space, physically or mentally, where I can just sit and think and write and flow, but I’m struggling to see where that would fit into my life at the moment. My goal for next year is to figure it out, express myself and find the time to be unplugged.

Image result for nightmare gif waking up

Things are taking a suitably nightmarish turn in ChezG, just in time for Halloween. Like everyone, I’ve experienced the disorientating cold-sweat of a bad dream on many occasions. Sleep paralysis has trapped me beneath my duvet several times too. But over the last few weeks, I’m finding myself regularly trying to shake off a nightmare, and spending the following day in a sleep deprived mind-fog.

It happened again last night. Having lay awake for a few hours I drifted off at about 2.30am but by 3 o’clock I was jolted awake by a racing heart, soaked forehead and thoughts of ‘YOU WILL NEVER SLEEP AGAIN’ drumming in my ears.

It’s hideous.

I’ve got two recurring nightmares that stalk me in my sleep quite often. The first is that my teeth have fallen out (I’ve been told that this is an indicator that I’m either going to come into money or that I’m pregnant. No further evidence for either yet). I’m sure this is a pretty standard nightmare but it always sends me rushing into the bathroom to frantically check my gums. The second is that I’m back in the part-time job that accompanied my Uni days. I’m trapped behind the till, forced to face the mundanity of scowling customers and scanning milk. The incessant call of the petrol pumps. The constantly broken lottery machine. I’m forced to relive a time when my only entertainment for eight hours was a never ending production line of ill manners, reduced pasties and body odour. *shudders*. I know it’s hardly the stuff of a Stephen King novel but I will always remember it as my personal hell.

The recurring nightmares are bad enough but I’ve built up enough a resistance to shake them off after a few minutes of feeling very sorry for myself. But this recent barrage of horror stories created by my own mind, is proving a little more difficult to get over. I’ve had allsorts over the last few weeks – from the death of family members to spooky intruders in the flat – but, sometimes, it not so much the content of the dream but my body’s response to it. That sicky feeling, where you’re not sure what is real and what isn’t, is horrible and impossible to identify in those jolting first few moments after a dream, making it very hard to talk any sense into yourself. Last week I actually woke up shouting, which is alarming in itself when you’re ripped out of sleep by the sound of your own voice. A few times, like last night, I’ve had such an adrenaline rush that I’ve just been totally unable to get back off to sleep, which, although it’s frustrating, I can cope with during holidays but during term time, I panic I’ll be tired for school and then can’t recover the next day because I’m in work. It just ramps up into a vicious anxiety circle. I’ve spent several days over the last few weeks feeling emotional and exhausted because, like anyone, I really bloody value my sleep!

So what is causing it? I’ll admit my bedtime reading hasn’t been the most pleasant recently.  I’ve had American Psycho, Carrie and some very graphic Torchwood novels in the last few weeks but I’ve always been able to cope with anything I read before. I’ll often leave the TV to send me to sleep but it’s always with a light comedy (typically French and Saunders) or a Disney film. I’ve even taken solace in Desert Island Discs! I’ve found the internet is the worst pre-bed activity, because whether it’s twitter or Instagram or BBC news, whatever I read seems to buzz around my brain for the rest of the night. It’s a horrible feeling that I just can’t come down from. A theory from a friend is that heat can trigger nightmares, which is tricky as hot water bottle season is in full swing. I suppose it could be a combination of things. Either way, I’m spending Halloween Eve exhausted, looking hideous and dreading going to bed. Great.

It’s that time of the term again. Just a few days left and we’re all slogging away with the last of our energy, dragging ourselves towards Friday (and I include the children in this. We’re all exhausted.). With the end of term being typically hectic, it’s been hard to pin down any kind of thoughts to blog about. However, there is one thing I’ve been thinking about over the last week or so.

Beliefs. What we believe in is important to us. For a lot of people it gets them through their day. Some have more beliefs than others. Some think it causes a lot of problems. Regardless, what we believe in is an important human trait.

In education, we’re expected to be a whitewashed, stripped down version of ourselves. We’re not allowed to appear to have any kind of life outside the classroom at risk of appearing ‘unprofessional’. In most other aspects, this makes me cross, as I think sharing our true selves is part of being a role model of diversity and reality for young children. However, when it comes to religion, I think there’s a thin line we need to tread.

It’s important for us to get the balance right. It’s OK for us to talk about religion, after all it has been around for a very long time and will continue to be around long after any of us have shuffled off, but to impose a view on others is definite no-no. We wouldn’t do it to an adult, so to push a religious view point on a child is to take advantage of their impressionable position.

My Grandad always says ‘Never talk about religion or politics’ and as I’ve grown up I’ve realised this is excellent advice (unfortunately, a couple of times, I’ve learned this the hard way). It’s a road that can easily lead to trouble. Whether we’re the teacher or the parent, we should be opening doors for children, not closing them. Our role is to present the world with an open mind and allow the child to make their choice. We must only educate. There should come a time when each child should be allowed to explore their own thoughts.

Religion can be a fantastic gateway into exploring other cultures and whether you’re Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Agnostic…whatever, it’s a subject that should be respected and used to educate.  I know lots of people who are agnostic but wouldn’t dream of pushing those opinions on the children. I know some people with strong religious beliefs who wouldn’t do so either. I know some people who are less likely to follow that road. There are even more people whose religion I don’t even know because….I don’t need to! It’s a personal choice that doesn’t necessarily need to be worn on a sleeve.

This might seem like a strange stream of consciousness but the position we’re in, as adults, and the way it can effect children, for better and worse, has crossed my mind a lot this week. It’s a powerful position and one that should never be abused.

Image result for halloween craftWe’ve got a bit of a dilemma in Blwyddyn Un at the moment. Our topic is ‘Celebrations’ and at the start of the term I asked the children what kind of things we celebrate. We had the usuals – Birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Weddings etc….

But then came the word we’d been dreading: Halloween. I managed to brush the suggestion off but it kept creeping up.

‘In the craft area, I’d like you to draw something to do with a celebration that we can put on display, please,’ I announced the following week, expecting an influx of birthday cakes and Christmas trees. One boy drew a spider. Another a pumpkin. Another child drew a ghost! ‘What’s this?’ I asked with annoying faux-ignorance. ‘For Halloween!’ they all chirped excitedly. ‘Oh, great,’ was my reply through a very forced smile.

See, personally, I don’t have a problem with Halloween. I love it. And I’m all for any celebration that breaks up the monotony of everyday life. I’m not a horror kind of person but in October I just want to watch American Horror Story, eat lots of chocolate (OK, that’s a constant urge) and dress as a vampire. It just comes naturally this time of year. But, professionally, I’m stuck.

When I first started working in schools I was surprised that the H-word had become so taboo. I’ve got a lot of fun memories of Halloween as a child and a teenager (well, from about 14 onwards. Before that I was actually scared of Halloween, much to my mother’s embarrassment, but I realise I was a minority). I get that the roots of Halloween have connotations to paganism and I’m not saying we should making any sacrificial offerings or anything, but I believe Halloween is a different celebration to what it used to be centuries ago. It’s part of our culture now, whether we like it or not. It’s something that we do. And if it’s true that Halloween stems from Celtic festivals, then shouldn’t we, as descendants of Welsh Celts, be using it as a point of education?

The most obvious change is that it’s now commercialised. Children are unaware of its original meanings and enjoy Halloween just because it’s a bit of fun! We all like a good scare to get the adrenaline going and on these winter nights there’s nothing better than curling up with some sweets and Hocus Pocus. It’s become bigger, even since I was a child. Chances are they’ll be trick or treating with their parents so why should we pretend like it doesn’t exist and ban it from the classroom? I’m not saying we spend weeks preparing for it, like we would Christmas, but I don’t see why we can’t treat it like Bonfire Night and have a couple of Halloween-themed numeracy or literacy sessions. We could base some work on Funnybones or Winnie the Witch. We could design a costume. We could be developing our fine and gross motor skills by pumpkin carving! Oh my goodness, think of the scope for craft activities! Further up the school we could touch on the historical links, more so to the Welsh and Celtic side of things. We’re encouraged to bring the children’s interests into our teaching so it seems ridiculous to just ignore Halloween. I understand it would have to be watered down to suit the age group but, come on, it’s just a bit of hocus pocus! Children learn most when they’re interested and having fun, and I think Halloween ticks both those boxes.

‘We are made to feel poor on thirty thousand pounds a year. To feel poorly travelled if we have been to only ten other countries. To feel too old if we have a wrinkle. To feel ugly if we aren’t photshopped and filtered.’ How to Stop Time, Matt Haig.

I hate social media.

I’ve referenced it plenty of times before and, yes, I’m aware of the irony of the situation but still, I bloody hate it.

I’ve ranted about the frustrating fakery and mundanity of Facebook before, but this quote in Matt Haig’s book highlights just how awful and problematic social media can be.

The main problem is it’s just so easy to manipulate. I’m not saying everyone who uses social media lies but I’ve encountered plenty of people who will use it to paint their lives as blissful perfection, when in reality they living a normal life that rises and falls like the rest of us. It’s so transparent and incredibly annoying, particularly when you know the person well enough to understand that they’re fabricating a false life online. Then, perhaps even worse is the attention seeker. The kind of person who tags themselves at the hospital and then signs off. No explanation. Lots of messages of support and well wishes. All to cause worry and get people talking about them. You wouldn’t do it in real life. You wouldn’t walk into a room full of family and friends and say ‘Oh I’m just off down A&E’, then disappear, allow them to panic about yours safety, then rock up hours later and explain you were only driving past A&E on your way to the post office. You wouldn’t treat your loved ones like that in real life so why do it online?

I’ve been 100% facebook free for almost a year now and I don’t miss it one bit.

Twitter, to me, is a different kettle of fish. It’s less personal, I’ve found, and you’re more likely to actually learn something or reach out to someone. It still has its annoyances but it is far more bearable than FaceyB.

Then there’s Instagram. I have an account and I could happily spend hours scrolling through my feed but I’m starting to understand the dangers of that too. I was one of these people who thought ‘Oh, God. Instagram. All those gorgeous models pouting and posing. It’ll never effect me.’ Wrong. It’s not until you’re almost on the verge of tears looking at the one hundredth posing, leather-skinned, tensed and airbrushed six pack that you realise just how much it’s effecting you. We’ve all been there. ‘WHY can’t I look like that?’ ‘WHY am I stuck at home whilst he’s posing topless on a beach and being paid for it?’ ‘Why can’t I go on all the holidays he goes on?’ ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ‘I’ll never look as hot as that…..’

WHOA! Hang on there. Suddenly I’m thinking thoughts that are against everything I stand for. It slowly gets inside your mind, robs you of your self-confidence and sends you into a miserable spiral of self-loathing.

If you’re not careful.

I’ve always been very proud of how far I’ve come and growing up I wasn’t really bothered what I looked like (and there are photos of the haircuts to prove it), but my personal social media boom does seem to have an impact on my thoughts. I’m more likely to stress out about not being able to afford a holiday, or go out on adventures or not living in the city I want to live in, because my Instagram and twitter feeds are full of people living the lives I dream of. I do have a thirst to do those things but my anxiety is certainly enhanced by watching other people document their adventures online. In reality, I’ve got a lot to be grateful for and my life is pretty full. I once advised someone to not compare their life to others, because it gets you nowhere, but I’m well aware that I need to take my own advice. I’m guilty of wishing for changes in my life and I always end up pining for the life of a city-dweller or a creative type.

Social media can be an amazing thing but I understand why so many people are unplugging. Sometimes I have to switch everything off, including the TV and the lights, spark up some candles and sit quietly, reading or soaking in the bath. It’s during this time that I’m at my most relaxed. When I’m switched off from the outside world. This is when I start to think more clearly and, often, ideas for writing will creep in. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, sick of reading about misery, or bamboozled by the lives of others, unplug yourself, be grateful and remember no one is perfect.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a strong believer in bringing drama in whenever possible when it comes to teaching (and also, when it comes to life). After all, teaching is very much a performance.

Our topic this term is ‘Celebrations’ so, before we hit the traditional up-coming festivities, we’ve been looking at ‘family celebrations’.

Last week, we threw a birthday party for Hilda the Hippo.  The children were visibly excited about Hilda’s birthday and even made cards and presents for her at home. We had a problem solving activity which involved planning the party and dividing party items between the guests. We even wrote a recipe (which linked nicely into our ICT work on algorithms!) for a birthday cake. As a special treat on a Friday afternoon we threw the party for Hilda, which included lots of music, party games, balloons and, of course, pass the parcel.

This week, we moved on to Weddings. Earlier in the week the children received a wedding invitation from Candy and Kevin (two characters we had in the role play area). The children were so excited to be invited to a wedding that they didn’t need much encouragement to get working. First we ‘helped’ Candy and Kevin by designing our own wedding invitations. Then they designed their own wedding cakes and delivered the invitations (using algorithms to find the correct address – It’s all linking in!). On Friday, drama took centre stage in Blwyddyn Un, as we staged a wedding for Candy and  Kevin. Then children took turns sharing roles in the ceremony. We had some super-eager ushers and a very nervous father of the bride. Complete with costumes and traditional music, the wedding was a success and one of those rare moments where you think ‘everything is going brilliantly!’. The children were engrossed in their role play, taking their parts very seriously and needing very little encouragement from the adults in the room. We had loom bands for wedding rings and we even had a wedding cake to cut! (And a couple of guests who were eager to skip the ceremony and get to the reception to eat cake. It was all very true to life.) I felt that by bringing elements of role play and performance into our topic work and actually re-enacting a wedding ceremony, the children really got a feel for the experience and it was an opportunity for some rich learning.

Next week, we’re having a christening in Blwyddyn Un, so let’s hope it’s just as successful!

 ‘It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to talk about what’s wrong. It’s OK to play with girls if you like them, to dress like girls if you want to, to like the colour pink if you like it, [..] to not be all that bothered about football if you’re not all that bothered about football.’

‘How Not to Be a Boy’, Robert Webb.

We’ve all read special books that really mean a lot to us. I’ve got a shelf full, but How Not To Be A Boy felt very personal for me. In my review last week I discussed the messages Webb shared and some of the shocking anecdotes he recalled, but I was wary of including too much of my own personal experiences in a review of a book that was written by somebody else. So I’ve saved them for this week (you lucky things).

I know it’s not my parents or my family who were to blame, this isn’t a dig at them, and I’m not saying that the past has traumatised me beyond repair, but the rules of the patriarchy and society that Webb discussed definitely loomed over my childhood.

For me a big issue growing up was ‘football’. I just didn’t get it. It wasn’t that I hated it (although I have grown to hate the sound of football due to a) Too much exposure of football crowds chanting tunelessly on the TV as a child and b) Now living within ear shot of a football ground.  Why can’t they sing something with words rather than sounds? Songs that I know. ABBA, for instance.) Football just never interested me. Being a fan, my Dad was, I’m sure, disappointed at first but he’s accepted it, after a lot of perseverance. As I grew up, I knew that it was weird that I didn’t like football. After all I am male and all males have to like football, right? I began to notice that people found it hard to talk to me after I dropped the ‘I don’t like football’ bomb. We’d go to parties at the local club or get visits from extended family members and every conversation seemed to go like this.

‘And what team do you support lad?’

‘Oh, I don’t like football.’

‘Ahh…..’*quizzical look*

END OF CONVERSATION.

There were rare instances where, following ‘the look’, I’d get ‘So….do you like any other sports? Rugby? Cricket?’ To which I’d fail to redeem myself by saying ‘No’ or when I was feeling particularly brave ‘No but I do like to read.’ It was just totally incomprehensible that I was a boy who wasn’t involved in sports. I started to get sensitive to it and, knowing I was odd, anxious about the conversation which I knew would come. In a lame attempt to tackle it I started to answer with ‘Liverpool’ in the hope it would shut them up.

Of course, as you get older, you realise that you’re not as odd as you thought and there is nothing wrong with being a boy who is not interested in football, but it was such a big deal for me as a child that I remember being elated if I heard a celebrity on TV admitting that football doesn’t interest him or met another anti-football freak like me. Last year, an ex-family member said, whilst I was in the room, ‘Imagine having a son who didn’t like football. You’d be devastated wouldn’t you?’ This is the kind of message I seemed to be confronted with regularly, that I’d failed as a boy because I didn’t like football. Of course, as an adult I was able to shrug off his comments and stick two fingers up behind the idiot’s back, but a comment like that during my childhood would have really upset me.

So I was already failing the stereotype via my choices of hobby, but ‘the rules’ really started to affect me when I started school (Note: this was probably the only time I was ever seen as a rule breaker during my childhood). I don’t know how it happened but I ended up having a circle of friends who were all female. Perhaps I didn’t prove myself to be included as ‘one of the boys’ or perhaps I just thought ‘God, I’d rather be sitting over there with the girls than having competitions about who can wee the highest up the urinal with the boys.’ Perhaps I took part in said competition, failed, and was therefore excluded from anything ‘Boy’ for the next ten years. I don’t know. I just preferred to stick with the girls. ‘Oh, he’s a ladies man’ teachers would tease. ‘Oh he’s gay’, older boys would decide.

I didn’t want to be a girl or dress like them. Apart from a bit of an obsession with the pink power ranger, I wasn’t overly fussed about the colour pink. To me, I just had a bunch of friends. I couldn’t understand why it was an issue for a lot of people. The way I was spoken to, it was almost like I was letting myself down by hanging round with girls. Like I was showing a weakness by associating with them, because they were lesser beings than men (which is obviously totally incorrect). The fact they were girls never bothered me, until people started telling me very bluntly that I should be bothered. I remember in the last few weeks in year six, one boy in my class gave me a bit of a thumping in order to prepare myself for secondary school, where, in his opinion, I was going to get regular thumpings because of who my friends were. Great. It’s always good to have something to look forward to, isn’t it?

And so, like Webb, the ‘Sovereign Importance of Early Homophobia’ came into play. It seemed that because my friends where girls this made me more susceptible to becoming gay and in my town that is a big no-no. Throughout high school the same message haunted me – Do Not Be Gay. Whether it was someone in my family tutting when a gay character was on the TV or one of my English teachers reacting like I’d asked for it when a bunch of nasty girls humiliated me during class. It might have been listening to my Mum use some mildly offensive term to ‘joke’ with my brother or it could have been the time someone close to me gave me a very serious talking to because my gay friend had signed off a message on my Facebook wall with a kiss and, to them, it ‘looked really, really bad.’ The message was loud and clear. Some people decided for me and took it upon themselves to spread the news. All assumed from the company I kept.

I met my then-Best Friend in secondary school and she was a very vibrant and resilient girl. It never crossed my mind that I shouldn’t be friends with her because of her sex, I just thought she was really cool and I admired her confidence! But, by choosing another female friend, I’d inadvertently chosen five years of people telling me I was wrong, without even knowing me properly. I wouldn’t say I was bullied any more than the next person but I did have a label, which I could never shake. I was the boy who had girl friends (never to be confused with girlfriends. That didn’t start until well into my teens and the plural was never necessary). Whether it was a friend putting in a sneaky comment or an older boy humiliating me in front of the whole class just to get a few laughs, there seemed to be something every day. I’d never change it because I believe that my best friend was a better friend to me than any of the boys at my school would have been. We had a lot of common interests and we used to laugh so much! And there were others. I had a whole bunch of friends, most of whom were female, and I don’t regret meeting any one of them. But it’s a shame that my school life was tainted by the most humiliating and hurtful actions just because I chose to be friends with someone of the opposite sex. That decision seemed to put me into a category – I was a boy who chose female company so I must be weak. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that the females I befriended were probably more bolshie, stubborn and tough than most of the year 11 boys put together. But they were also the funniest and most supportive people I could wish to be around.

Secondary school was tough for other reasons.  It was a time of unrest in my home life and I needed someone to confide in, a service which was gladly provided by all of my female friends. Had they been boys, it may have been a different story, because society doesn’t take kindly to boys who listen or care.

As for talking about my feelings, I’ve been fortunate to have plenty of people to confide in over the years, should I need to, but the pressure of ‘manning up’ has certainly been there. I had to be strong, solely because I was a man. During a particularly grim period a number of years ago, I confided in a doctor about feeling constantly on-edge and miserable (at the time, dismissive of the ideas that I might be anxious or depressed, because I’d been conditioned to think of those illnesses as weaknesses. I now know that the strongest person can suffer these conditions). The first doctor told me to buck up and fix my feelings ‘the British way’. The second one told me to find a good woman. I’m thankful that, after many dark months of feeling awful and constantly on the verge of tears, I was able to manage my feelings in my own way, but to someone less fortunate than me, that advice from a professional could have been very dangerous. Webb’s book highlighted just how dangerous the pressures society puts on men to bottle up their emotions can be and it’s terrifying to think so many suffer in silence.

So in 2017, I finally got the advice I needed twenty years ago. It might have come too late, but as I grew up I taught myself that ‘normal’ didn’t exist, that I shouldn’t be ashamed of who I was and that the problem lay in the way my life was viewed by others, not with myself. It would have been great to have been given this advice when I was younger, and I’m sure in a way it was hinted at by some people, but I can’t regret anything because it’s made me who I am. That’s sort of why I shared it (or a slice of it. I have enough material for many, many blog posts).  Yes, it’s been a bit of self-indulgent therapy for me, but I hope that if the teenage me is out there reading this they’ll realise that they don’t need to be ashamed, or feel like the odd one out because it’s absolutely OK to be themselves. You might feel like a failure at the moment, but in time you’ll realise you’re only failing a stereotype, and that can only be a good thing.

Image result for How not to be a boy In the last year I’ve been lucky enough to experience two works of art that have really ‘spoken to me’, having never really understood the phrase before. The first was the touring production of Rent in October 2016 (after which I spent several weeks sobbing). The second was How Not to Be A Boy by Robert Webb.

I knew from pre-publicity that this book would be right up my street, and I was correct. Not only was the main thread relatable, but How Not To Be A Boy is beautifully and passionately written by Webb. I absorbed this book. It was actually ‘unputdownable’.

How Not To Be A Boy is Webb’s memoir with a focus on the pressures he encountered to conform to society’s ideas of masculinity. Webb writes honestly about his upbringing and childhood, and with hindsight is able to identify some of the dangerous messages he was given which effected his adult life. It begins with his closeness to his mother and difficult relationship with his father, and ends with his modern day struggles to steer away from following his father’s path.

Webb’s discussions on gender go beyond the ‘blue for a boy and pink for a girl’ debate, and he relives insightful anecdotes, (some warm, some hilarious, some tragic), in a way that had me unable to resist the urge to fling my hands in the air and shout ‘Amen!’.

Webb talks about the patriarchy, and how the rules and gender stereotypes created by society are damaging to both women and men. A striking moment is when he talks about how ‘clever’ boys and girls are viewed by society. He notes how when labelled ‘clever’, girls have to respond with how hard they’ve worked for it, whilst boys are expected to shrug it off, as if it all came naturally. If you’re a boy who does well at school, excuses have to be found for this ridiculous behaviour, and often you’re labelled with having no common sense. ‘He’s a clever lad, no common sense though.’ (How many times did I hear that growing up?)

A common thread throughout  is of males suppressing their emotions. One of the most heart-breaking parts of the book comes at the mid-point, where Webb tells of the loss of his mother. Webb writes about his grief and suffering so eloquently that it’s frustrating to comprehend why we are constantly told to ‘man up’ and hide our true feelings. We’ve all had experiences with this, to various degrees, and it’s important that Webb highlights the problem in his book. With almost three quarters of suicide victims in the UK being male, it’s of vital importance that we breakdown the ‘man up’ culture and talk about our problems, as Webb does in university. The patriarchy strikes again by enforcing a false notion that only females open up and talk about their feelings. What a dangerous message. Webb talks candidly, and admirably, of his battles with suicidal thoughts and his subsequent therapy sessions, in a way that may give hope to many.

How Not To Be A Boy also brings to light just how old fashioned words such as ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are. As Webb explains, all they do is conjure up archaic stereotypes which, in 2017, are unnecessary. He describes masculinity as a repressive process which needs to be recovered from and explains how the term only really means ‘not being a woman’. Why not a woman? Women are strong, brave, loving, thoughtful, sensible, loyal, trustworthy and millions other admirable adjectives so….why do we have to avoid being like that? Why do we need these words?

The restrictions that we live under should be blindingly obvious, but Webb unmasks these hideous stereotypes with flair and style, adding his own thoughts, warm humour, and prompting many outbursts of ‘YES!’  from this reader. In an era where people are angry at clothes shop for removing labels, and the walls of gender stereotyping are being slowly eroded, How Not To Be A Boy is essential reading and a book I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.