Monday, September 24, 2012

London Baby!

What a weekend! We left Friday morning on the 6:30 train from Dunfermline to Edinburgh, where we changed trains and caught a fast train to London Kings Cross Station. The purpose of our whole trip was attending a Fulbright Teacher Exchange session and reception at the American Embassy, however since we were down here; we might as well have some more fun, right?!

The scenery from Edinburgh on south was gorgeous. The train went quite near the Firth and North Sea for a good part of the trip, so we had wonderful views of the ocean, crashing waves, green fields, sheep, church steeples, etc.  We went through a couple rain storms, saw some rainbows, and enjoyed being able to relax instead of driving.
Hey, hay!

We arrived in London and immediately asked about Platform 9 ¾. For those who haven’t read the books, this features prominently in the Harry Potter book series. The students attending Hogwarts school are supposed to be able to just go right through the wall with their luggage carts. I had read that it had been relocated because of construction, but we found it exactly where it was supposed to be. Carter and I tried, but we must be quite mugglish, because it didn’t work.
At Platform 9 3/4 from Harry Potter

We caught the tube to our hotel, and of course Carter was in heaven getting to add a new city’s subway system to his checklist! Our hotel was quite posh, but we didn’t discover this at first. Trying to check in, we were expecting our room to be taken care of because this was what we were told, however there was a little mix-up. When we got up to our room, we found only one (double?) bed (for the four of us). The hotel management was wonderful in doing their best to try to get us into a proper room. Once it was all worked out (with most of the other Fulbright teachers having problems as well), we were quite happy with a king bed and fold out sofa.

Jim departed with a large group of other US Fulbright teachers to head to the embassy for a discussion session with returning UK exchanges, so the kids and I headed down the street to Trafalgar Square. Cara and Carter were quite enamored with the lion statues.
In Trafalgar Square
There's a lion behind you!
Watch out!!!

After we got all dressed up, the three of us met two other Fulbright families and ventured out to the embassy as well. We were greeted at the side entrance to the Embassy, because there were protests occurring out front, and we felt secure as well as intimidated with the machine guns that some of the guards were carrying. After going through security, there was a nice reception held inside with drinks and appetizers. Our reception room was full of Minister/Ambassador paintings as well as a list of each person with dates served. Jim and I were surprised to find a listing for Walter Hines Page, for whom Page High School in Greensboro is named. It was really nice to be able to visit with other teachers, families, as well as Embassy and Fulbright personnel. By the time we left the reception at 7 pm, both of our kids were starving (since the appetizers weren’t quite to their taste). After getting some food in them, they both perked up and were ready to go.
Jim & Cara at the Horse Guards grounds

Saturday was a day of fun and getting the kids acquainted with the city. We went for a walk right after breakfast, down to Trafalgar Square, past 10 Downing Street, the Horse Guards grounds, Big Ben, and along the Thames River with views of the London Eye!
We want to ride the London Eye

We also did a little shopping and were hoping to find a Japanese food store that carried a few food items we’ve been missing. After checking out of our hotel, we went back to try to see Changing the Guards at Buckingham Palace, but it looked as though you had to get a good spot about an hour earlier, because we were only able to see one of the marching bands go by and couldn’t get anywhere near the Palace gates.
Parade toward Buckingham Palace

Next we headed to Borough Market which is an amazing farmer’s/foodie market south of the river. We each got to pick something special to eat, but will have to go back and find the elusive grilled cheese sandwich that we’ve heard about in the past.

After checking into another hotel which was really close to the Tower of London, Jim and Carter took the tube to watch their first EPL football match of West Ham vs. Sunderland. Cara and I ventured out across town in search of Hamley’s. Hamley’s is a 6 floor toy store on Regent’s Street, and Hello Kitty was supposed to be making a special appearance. We found Hello Kitty and Cara enjoyed spending time looking at all the amazing shopping possibilities. She ended up choosing to get her first ever British Build-a-Bear, a blue, sparkly bunny in a stylish purple outfit with matching boots. We made one other stop at M&M’s world in Leicester Square before heading back on a circuitous tube route to our hotel. We found the tube line we wanted to take was shut down, so we had to improvise. We arrived back at the hotel just minutes before the guys and then headed to Wagamama’s for dinner.

Sticky rice – yuuuuuuuuuuuuuuummm! Our restaurant served Japanese style food as was enjoyed by each of us. After dinner we took a short walk past the Tower of London to see the Tower Bridge lit up at night.
Nighttime view of the Tower Bridge

Sunday morning we were up and out early (before any sights were open), so we strolled along the Thames and walked across the lower pedestrian part of the Tower Bridge. We could see the beautiful city skyline from the center of the bridge.
View from bridge of the Tower of London & the Gherkin

We debated about looking at the Tower Bridge exhibition or just riding a city bus around, but since our hotel tube stop was closed for the day and the busses in the area weren't running due to a bicycle race and marathon, we headed back to check out the bridge exhibition.

There were a couple of entertaining movies about the planning and execution of the bridge. We also were able to walk along the upper deck of the Tower Bridge. There was a kids Olympics quiz and a few games along the route as well as a pictorial and informational display about the history of the Olympics. Nearing the end of the tour, we walked through the engine rooms with the enormous green steam engines. The whole bridge looked like it had been refurbished & repainted recently & was definitely worth the visit.
Steam Engine in the Tower Bridge

Because of the transportation difficulties, we checked out of our hotel earlier and trekked up several streets to an open tube stop and made our way back to King's Cross Station to catch our train home.
King's Cross train station
Cool architecture in the station

It was really nice to get home after 6 1/2 hours of travelling, and it was nice that it felt like "home".

Mind the Gap

The underground is pretty cool. London overall is pretty cool. We’ve been to a zillion stations. This weekend was not that great of a time to ride on the tube though because they were doing a bunch of track repairs and stuff. That really messed up our plans on Sunday because about half of our options were closed. So we decided to take the bus. Some triathlon messed up the bus routes. Here are pictures of some of the stations I’ve been to:

It's cool how the train fits right in the tunnel!


Yesterday morning we walked down to Trafalgar Square.  We climbed on the lions for a little.  We also had a good view of Big Ben too! 

Then we walked up to Big Ben.  Next we saw a horse guard and got a picture with him. 

Then we walked along the Thames River and saw the London eye.  It was gigantic! 

Next we went back to our hotel and rode the underground (subway) to our new hotel.  Carter and dad went to their West Ham vs. Sunderland football (soccer) game.  Then mom and I went to Hamleys (giant toy store six stories tall).  Hello Kitty was there. 

I got a build- a-bear bunny named Angela.  She had sparkly clothes.  Her scarf was purple and had sequins on it.  Her shirt said BFF and also had sequins on it.  Her trousers (pants) had jewels on them.  Her shoes had sparkly bows on them.
I even met the queen and her corgi there in the LEGO department!

The mountains are calling and I must go

September 15
A few weeks ago we went to Braemar to watch some Highland games and one of the highlights of that trip was driving through the Scottish Highlands.  So with colder weather approaching, I wanted to visit to the highlands again and therefore we took a drive to the community of Pitlochry nestled in the Cairngorm National Park.

We arrived in Pitlochry and went straight to the information centre since we were looking for some possible trails in the area to get out and see some of the highlands.  In the centre, we were told about the youth treasure hunt around the community.  Cara was very excited about this so we went out on our walk around town, looking for clues.

The path of the treasure hunt took us across and along the river Tummel.  We walked across the river on a pedestrian suspension bridge and returned to the town by walking across the dam.  When we returned to the visitor centre, Cara turned in her treasure hunt form and received a bag surprise.  It was a green backpack with all sorts of things inside like a bear, 4 car stickers, and a t-shirt.  Carter was jealous and he wished he had the treasure hunt form so that he could also get the prizes. 

Our next stop was the House of Bruer, which is a rather posh shopping area selling tweed and cashmere clothing and other fancy things.  Stacy took a look around while the kids played on the playground. The main reason for stopping here was not the shopping but to take a hike to the waterfalls behind the shopping area.
Are we in NC or Scotland?

There were two waterfalls along a 2.5 mile loop trail so after a bit of playing, we headed off on our hike.  The trail followed the stream gorge and many parts of the walk reminded us of the mountains of North Carolina.  Carter took off his shoes and waded in the cold water, while all of us skipped rocks across the pool at the bottom of the lower falls.

While we did not really get on top of any mountains, it was nice to just the drive into the mountainous area and take some really nice walks.  Hopefully we will get the chance to climb some highland mountains in the future.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Kirkcaldy High School and Scottish education

I have been teaching maths (the UK version is plural) at Kirkcaldy High School now for 3 ½ weeks so I figured that I ought to write a little bit about my experiences in the job that sent me and my family on our year in Scotland.  Kirkcaldy High School has a student population of around 1200 students and houses grades S1 through S6.  These would be the equivalent to grades 7-12 or 6 through 11 depending on your interpretation since the age to start school is in the middle of February (Carter is a young S1 instead of being an older 6th grader in the states because of his December birthday) .  My timetable (schedule) is very strange by American standards but it is quite normal by Scottish ones.  I teach 23 out of a possible 30 periods during a week and I teach all year levels.  I see some classes only once a week (year 2 numeracy classes), some classes four times a week (Year 1, 2, 3, and 4), as well as one class 5 times a week (Intermediate 2 which is made up of 5th and 6th year students and actually meets 6 times a week, but the other session is with a different maths teacher).  What makes the timetable really interesting is the fact that I do not see the classes during the same period each day.  For example, on Monday I see my Int2 class 1st period, on Tuesday it is 2nd period, Wednesday it is 4th period, Thursday 6th period, and Friday it meets 3rd period.  All of my classes are that way so I am still very much struggling with what classes I see on a particular day.  One thing that is straight forward and that is I have a Tutor class (homeroom) every morning at the same time every day.

Before I left for my teacher exchange, many people asked me what the education system was like in Scotland and my answer at the time was “I don’t know; I will find out when I get there”.  Well I am here and while I cannot fully answer that question yet, I do have a better idea of it.  The Scottish education system has many of the same problems and difficulties that all schools in the US are facing.  There is very much an achievement gap that correlates strongly with socio-economic status and there is often student apathy about doing schoolwork.  The Scottish Fulbright teachers were told in a meeting the other day that for students beginning school, there was almost a full reading level difference based upon high and low socio-economic levels.  As at home, there is still a great deal of parental apathy and often not enough money to fully staff the schools properly.  However, I will say that it seems Kirkcaldy High School has much more support staff than Northeast High School where I teach in North Carolina.  I am not really sure why this is, but I think it may have something to do with the fact that in Scotland, the individual school has much more control over things and it appears that there is not a huge “Central Office” looking over the shoulder.  In NC, we always hear about state plans as well as Guilford County plans, but here in Scotland, I have only heard about Scottish plans, not Fife ones (Fife is the “county” that we live in even though it is referred to as “the Kingdom of Fife”).  The Scottish plan is called Curriculum for Excellence and most secondary teachers are having a difficult time trying to implement the ideas that politicians have put into it.  Doesn’t that sound like a US plan???

When I have told some Scottish people where I was teaching, I got some replies like “good luck” or allusions that the school is not the best and the kids are rough.  So far I have not seen much difference from the students that I teach back home.  The higher level kids are chatty but they will get work done and the lower level students are very chatty, have some discipline issues, and I have to stay on top of them all of the time.  Again, this seems just like my school in NC.

My biggest complaint or worry is that I struggle with order in which material is presented.  In most schools in the US, math is taught as a subject, i.e. Algebra 1, geometry, Algebra 2, Trigonometry, Calculus, etc.  However, Scotland takes a much more integrated approach and therefore students learn pieces of algebra, geometry, and trig throughout their maths career.  Since I am new to the system, I do not know what has been previously taught to the students, so often I am assuming the topic is review when it is brand new material or I treat it as new material and the kids have seen most of the information previously.  I think it will get easier as I go through the year since I do teach all year levels.

Overall, I am very pleased with Kirkcaldy High School and I am very happy that I am doing this teacher exchange.  I believe the experiences that I am having professionally will make me a better teacher.  Additionally, the adventures that my family and I are experiencing in Scotland are going to stay with us for a long time and hopefully give each of us a better understanding of other cultures.

Carter's Funny Blog

Hi everybody! Carter here! Time for another one of my CARTER’S FUNNY BLOGS!!! Scotland jokes: Knock knock? Who’s there? Interrupting Scottish highland cow? Interrupting Scottish highland cow… och, MOOOOOOOO!!!

This joke goes out to my Aunt Ginger from Cara. What do you call a sheep that lives in Loch Ness? Sneep (sneep is a writing mix up from about a year ago)! Send in your jokes in to me now and I might use them in my next CARTER’S FUNNY BLOGS!!! I’m waiting…………come on, you know a few. Send. Them. In. Now. OH, NEVER MIND, NOBODY EVER GIVES SUGGESTIONS ANYMORE!!!!!!!!!! I QUIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, September 7, 2012

A day on the Firth of Forth on the second (of Sept)

For those who don’t know, a firth is a long narrow inlet of the sea, where the river Forth empties. I spotted a Groupon for a boat cruise with the possibility of landing on an island with a castle! We booked our tickets and when we arrived in South Queensferry, we parked, found the pier & walked out and waited for our boat to arrive.  The pier we were waiting on was not at all covered with water when we left, but almost completely covered when we returned!

Pier that we left from behind the kids


Our boat docked at Inchcolm

2 Forth bridges

We chose to ride on the uncovered part of the deck, and ate our picnic lunch as we cruised along the water soaking in all the sights and taking pictures. The red bridge you see in the pictures is a railroad bridge called the Forth Bridge, which was built in 1890. The other more modern looking bridge is the Forth Road Bridge, which we crossed our first day in Scotland.

South Queensferry
As we cruised along, we saw huge ships, oil rigs, small islands, and quaint villages.

Oil rig in the Firth


Inchcolm Abbey

As we approached Inchcolm Island, our captain pointed out two seals who were very interested in us as we sailed by. We disembarked on Inchcolm to tour the island and walk through Inchcolm Abbey. We climb all over the ruins enjoying reading about the different areas. Eventually we found an extremely small & narrow stone spiral staircase. The steps were so small, I could only fit about ¼ of my foot on each step!

After ascending the spiral staircase, we got to an open area that had a steep wooden staircase that led straight to the top of the Abbey – what a view!

View from the top

Some of the rooms were still intact and one was set up for a wedding that very day. A little later we heard a bagpiper playing for the wedding party!


Later, with just a little time before the boat returned to pick us up, Jim and Cara walked to the eastern side of the island to look at the World War I and II bunkers while Carter & I (mostly Carter) made our way down to a rocky beach.  As we waited in line for the boat to pick us up, Carter found a friendly seagull.

We rode at the front of the boat on our return trip, which was quite windy and cool, but the boat took us by a small group of rocks where there was another group of seals basking in the sun & showing off for all the cameras!

What a beautiful way to see Scotland – and sunshine as well!
Pielows on Inchcolm Island