Saturday, March 30, 2013

European Vacation – St. Louis Bale & Basel & Liechtenstein & Fussen

Even though we are not doing the Griswald version of a European vacation you have to start with this music.
On Good Friday we started our tour of mainland Europe with an early morning bus ride to Edinburgh airport.  Carter has been almost desperate to ride a bus so he was thrilled to be doing this (Cara was as well).  Fortunately the weather was not snowy for our walk to the bus stop and we did not encounter any difficulties getting the correct bus.  

We arrived at the airport, made it through security, and were sitting around waiting for our gate to be announced when Carter and I noticed Andrew (Carter’s cousin from Maryland) walking past.  We knew he was supposed to be flying back home today, but we really did not expect to see him. We found out that the reason we got to see him was that his plane was overbooked and he volunteered to give up his seat.  He made some money out of the deal and was going to get some time to tour Edinburgh which he missed out on last week because of the snow.  We visited for a bit and then went off to catch our flight to Basel.
Carter found Cousin Andrew!
The airport in Basel essentially straddles the Swiss and French borders, and as we go to get our bags we actually had to choose France or Switzerland customs (we choose Switzerland to get a new stamp in the passports).  Our rental car for the next week is an Alpha Romero and it is pretty nice even though the kids had difficulty opening the back doors.  Our hotel is in St-Louis, France and it is literally 50 yards from the Swiss border.  
Border crossing just south of our hotel (we were never stopped)
We had lunch at a kebab restaurant which was about the only place near the hotel that was open on Good Friday.  Later we took the tram into Basel and walked around the Marketplace.  There were quite a few neat old buildings and streets to explore and Stacy and I both commented how it would be very interesting to see the downtown area when it was busy with people since it was quite deserted. 
Walking in Basel
Today we got up and started our drive toward our next destination of Fussen, Germany.  Our journey today took us through FIVE countries – France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, and Germany.  I will admit much of the drive through Switzerland was disappointing since the weather was cloudy, foggy, and rainy and we were also traveling the motorway through a lot of industrial areas.  However, there were some parts that were extremely scenic and a few times we got a hint of what the Swiss Alps look like.  
It's the Alps!
We drove to Liechtenstein and had lunch in Vaduz which is the capital city.  Liechtenstein is quite small but it looked like a fun place to explore but alas we did not have a lot of time.

We drove on through Austria and then into Germany.  The route that we took for this stage took us off of the motorway and through the hills/mountains and through many small villages.  There was quite a bit of snow on the ground and the only thing keeping it from being an outstanding ride was the rainy cloudy weather.  It was still a gorgeous drive and I enjoyed it much more than driving the motorway earlier in the day.
Tower in Fussen
We arrived in Fussen and checked into our hotel.  Dinner was at a local restaurant and Carter, Cara, and I had wienerschnitzel while Stacy had schweinhauxen, pork knuckle with potato dumplings and sauerkraut.  While I enjoyed mine, I though Stacy’s was outstanding and I would definitely get that again.  After dinner we did a quick walk about town while snow was falling and then back to the hotel to get ready for tomorrow and our visit to Neuschwanstein Castle.
Fussen Kirche (church)
Inside the courtyard of the castle in Fussen

Friday, March 29, 2013

Teaching in Scotland

Now that I have been over here for almost 8 months, I feel like I am beginning to get a handle on how my school in Scotland works.  Teachers of high school are generally contracted to teach 24 out of a possible 30 periods (5 days in a week and 6 periods each day = 30).  My timetable is as follows:

1st period
2nd period
S2 Numeracy
15 minute break (duty free)

3rd period
S2 Numeracy
4th period
S3 *
50 minute lunch (duty free)

5th period


6th period


The “S” stands for secondary and the number designates the year level of the class.  Students are placed in classes by year groups (or grade level).  Only 5th and 6th year level students are mixed classes and all other classes are made up of students of the same year level.  For maths classes, the students are organized in ability sets so that the stronger maths students are in one class, and the next strongest in another class, working its way down to the weakest maths students.  Throughout the year, minor adjustments are made so students are moved up or down a math set depending on how things are going in the classroom.  I think maths is the only subject that ability groups students in the early secondary years.  All subjects deal with ability levels when the students get to the 5th and 6th year. 

One of the things that is difficult to understand over here is that students do not fail classes.  For example, if I have a student that does extremely poor work in S2 maths, he/she does not fail the course and does not have to take the course again.  The student simply moves on to S3 the following year.  This is very frustrating for me with some of my classes because I have some students that just will not do the day to day classwork and do not care about how they perform on any assessments since there is no immediate accountability.  They know that they will move to the next year group (with all of their friends).  The one bit of accountability is at the end of 4th year, when all students are heavily tested in a great many subjects.  These test results will follow the students as they try to apply to colleges and universities or go to trade schools or get jobs. Students do not get a high school diploma based upon credits earned.  Instead their 4th year test results tell others what he/she accomplished in high school.  Additionally, students can stop going to going to high school after the 4th year (abt 15 or 16 years old) at which time they can elect to go to college, trade school, or get a job.  Students that decide to continue school, choose senior level classes which are tested at the end of 5th and 6th years.  The test results in these classes are big players in determining which university a student will get into.

Over here there is a bigger expectation for the student to take control of his/her learning.  Students have planners that they can use to keep track of assignments, to set targets for test scores, and to create a plan for attaining those test scores.  Students are encouraged to revise (review) their work as they prepare for their national exams.  This is done outside of class on their own but they do get a study leave of 2 weeks where they do not have to come to school, but instead use the time to study for their exams.  The study leave is an interesting concept but I feel that most students do not use it very effectively. 
The Head Teacher (the principal back in America) has the freedom to hire some teachers part time, working as little as one day a week or just teaching 18 or 19 periods a week.  One person in the maths department teaches part time and has her timetable set so she has 5th and 6th periods off so she can get home when her kids are out of school.  Another teacher at the school has every Thursday off.  It feels like the school here has much more freedom to make the individual decisions that make the school flow better.   Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of bureaucracy here, but it seems like there is quite a bit less than back home.  I suspect it is because there is one less layer in process since over here the players involved are Fife Council (kind of county since there are not states here) and the Scottish Qualification Authority (federal).  At my school in the US, the federal government, the state government, and the county all want to have their policies and initiatives put into the curriculum and it often feels that we are doing more administrative paperwork than actual teaching or preparation to teach.  I will say that there is fair amount of paperwork here, but it seems to be more to the purpose of providing feedback and information to the student (even if the student doesn’t care about it).

My school here has significantly more support staff on site to assist teachers.  I would guess that the office staff alone has at least 10 people.  I wonder if this is a product of one less layer of administrative control or if this is a conscious effort to put the school in control as opposed to a central office.  Another big difference that I see is that the school gets used for all sorts of things in the community.  After school, there are meetings, activities, sports, music practices, and all sorts of things planned by non-school groups.  These events are not school sponsored or organized; these are events for the community and can involve ages from 5 to 95.  My school back in NC gets used by the school for all sorts of school events, both sporting and extracurricular and very rarely gets used by the community (in fairness there is little time and space available for the community because of all of the school activities).

Overall, I like some of the educational things that are done here in Scotland, such as the student has a greater responsibility to prepare for their national exams and the seemingly less bureaucracy.    However, I really do miss the idea of passing a class and moving on to the next level.  I know there is a stigma for failing a class and sometimes it appears that students are not allowed to fail, but the idea of a minimum grade to advance is greatly missed by me.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Snow, snow and more snow!!

It feels like it has been snowing non-stop for over a week now. You wouldn't know it by just looking outside because the “snow” we've been having are tiny pellets of white frozen precip and there’s nothing on the ground, but it will snow for 5-30 minutes and then stop, and then come back again, all day long! We have had a few snow showers that actually accumulate 1-3 inches, but the snow is usually gone by the middle of the day.
Our drive north
This last weekend, however, we had plans to drive 1 ½ hours north to a tiny town called Kirkmichael and stay in a log cabin hotel. Weather predictions seemed to be predicting a good amount of snow, there were high wind warnings for most large bridges and some roads were even closed up north on Friday when we were supposed to depart. We made the drive and enjoyed larger amounts of snow, the closer we got to the Cairngorm Mountains. Once we were on the tiny back roads to our hotel and almost there, we found the car couldn't make it up the last hill. There were two other cars with the same dilemma! After watching one car back WAY up and get a “running start”, they disappeared from view, so Jim followed their example, and fortunately we made it safely to the parking lot. Carter was in “snow heaven”! He had snowball fights with anyone who would join in, played some snowball basketball, and collected several icicles.
Just a wee bit o' snow
 The next day we woke up to another nice covering of snow (it didn't seem to have melted much) and made our way over slushy roads to the town of Pitlochry. We visited the Heathergems Factory, where they collect heather branches, compress the stems in resin and make original Scottish heather jewelry. It was a neat process to see and of course we came away with a few heather souvenirs!

We enjoyed walking through town looking in several shops and eventually settled on Hettie’s Tea Shop. We have really enjoyed an afternoon tea and wanted to try it again. Hettie’s has some very interested tea mixes, the one I chose was called Hettie in the Heather and actually had heather flower buds in with the tea leaves. There was another one that looked like it was made of thistle flowers, and some included rose buds or dried fruit. Our tea trays had a couple of sandwich choices and a TON of sweets (pretty much an assortment of all the cakes and bars they sold in the shop). By the end, we were a lot sugared out!
He wasn't sure this was his kinda thing until he got to the sweets!
It started spitting snow pellets again as we took a walk past a stream, playground, and to a pedestrian bridge over the river. The winds were blowing so hard that the bridge was moving a good bit as we got to the middle. That was enough to make us turn around and head back to warm up.
Cool playground!
halfway across the bridge
Snowball fight!
He got an earful!
Our hotel has small bedrooms, but a really nice lounge area with tv, bar, fireplace, and multiple sitting areas (including a kids area with a giant Connect 4). We enjoyed hanging out there in the evenings playing card games and keeping warm by the fire.
a young Highland Coo
two even younger cows

On Sunday, we drove home and decided to stop at Scone (skoon) Palace which wasn't open for the season yet, but I thought we might be able to get onto the grounds and take some pictures with no one else around. We were in luck! The front gate was open and although there were a few others with the same idea, it wasn't crowded. Our first visit was to a small group of Highland cows. There was a blond one without horns that must have been a “teenager” who came over and ate grass out of our hands. There were also two very young brown calves and at least 2 maybe 3 adult cows with horns (both males and females adults have horns). Jim found a half eaten root vegetable outside the fence and threw it in to the blond cow who quickly munched it up and caused two other adults to come running over for their share (but no more veggies to be found). One of them wasn't very happy to find the food all gone and kind of charged a couple of yards toward the fence (or maybe it was just a protective mum?) which kind of startled us all and made us back up a little. The little calves even came over to investigate, but didn't get too close to the fence.
Jim is backing up on the right as the cow charges

Pielows at Scone Palace
The grounds were nice to walk around and we found a kids adventure playground, some peacocks, and a couple of really tiny ponies. We look forward to going back again next month to see some more of the crowning site of the Kings of Scots.
Peacocks roam free on the grounds

snowdrops carpet a path in the gardens
a field full of snowy sheep (seen on one of our drives)

Monday, March 18, 2013


This weekend we went to Inverness to see Andrew again. On Friday, when we got there we went to a place called Blackfriars for dinner. 
on the banks of Loch Ness
The next day we got up and ready then went to Urquhart castle(and picked up Andrew). Mom printed an activity pack from the computer for me to do. After we saw everything we went back into the gift shop. I got a Scotland activity pack. 
Urquhart Castle
I couldn't find Nessie anywhere!
I forgot to tell you that the castle is right next to Loch Ness but we didn't see Nessie. After that we drove back a little then tried to get on a cruise but could not. We walked back up to the visitors center. After an hour we went back down to the cruise place and got on the next one. Another hour passed and we got back but still no Nessie! 
still no Nessie!
on our Loch Ness cruise
Ready, aim, fire!
Then we drove to Fort George and only stayed a little bit. After that we went to our hotel until dinner. We ate at the Snow goose and I had cod nuggets. For dessert I had apple fritters. On Sunday we got ready, packed up then headed off to go to Glenfiddich distillery. 
I got orange squash (which is like orange juice)
Next we drove all the way back home.

Ceilidh and Company

On Friday the 1st March, my school hosted a ceilidh (Kay-lee) for the Friends of Kirkcaldy High School.  A ceilidh is very similar to square dancing that we do back in the states but with a Scottish twist.  The plan was for the whole family to attend the ceilidh, but Cara came home from school with a fever so only Carter and I went.  We had hired (rented) kilts for this event because we wanted the opportunity to wear a kilt at least once while we were in Scotland.

Carter picked out the McRae tartan for us and we had fun figuring out all of the pieces.  Part of the evening was eating our fish supper, but most of it was doing the different ceilidh dances, some of which Carter learned this year in his PE classes.  We both had a great time and I know I would like to find another one to go to so that the whole family can participate.

The next day, we had guests arrive from the States; my sister, Ginger, and Stacy’s nephew, Andrew.  They were supposed to arrive on the same flight on Saturday morning, but weather messed up Ginger’s connection and she arrived later in the day.  During the afternoon, Carter and I took Ginger and Andrew for a walk around Dunfermline town, going past the Abbey area, through Pittencrief Park and coming back along the High Street. 
Although we wanted to serve our guests some traditional Haggis, neeps and tatties, we opted for a safer route and had grilled lamb chops and mash.

The next day, since Cara was still not fully recovered from her cold, Carter and I took Ginger and Andrew to Stirling Castle.  We had a brief snowball fight (everyone versus Carter) while the car was warming up and then we set off.  Snow was falling while we toured the castle but not much was accumulating.  It has been about 6 months since I was at Stirling Castle and the tour made more sense now that I have figured out more of the history of the Scottish kings and queens.  

Driving home, we drove through a short but very dense snow blizzard and stopped at the airport (3rd time this weekend) so that Andrew could pick up his rental car.  Andrew is working in Inverness for three weeks and came into Scotland a little early so he could spend some time with us.  Ginger was here for 4 days and then set off to London for a few days before heading back to Buffalo.
On Tuesday, Ginger and I drove into Glasgow, walked around the city and riverfront and enjoyed a chocolate tea. Because Ginger is a pretty big chocolate fan, I thought this might be right up her alley, and sure enough, we both really enjoyed it. Now our tea at the Number One Chocolate Factory didn't have a very traditional setting, but we still had small sandwiches, scones, and small desserts. It was topped off with a small serving of a very rich hot chocolate that tasted like drinking chocolate ganache!
It was fun having visitors from home and getting to show them how we are living here in Scotland.  Hopefully they had a good time and have a little better understanding about how our year abroad has been spent.

How school works in the UK

I've been at school for about 7 months, and I want to explain how school works here to my American school friends. 
Our school day is about the same length as the American school day, 6 hours, 45 minutes. I can't really compare a British high school* to an American middle school since I've never been to middle school. The basic school day for me is:
1. Get up at 7:30 and have breakfast
2. Get dressed in my school uniform (a tie and everything!) I know, it sucks.
3. Walk 1.5 miles to school (with friends, of course)
4. Registration (homeroom)
5. Period 1, period 2
6. 15 minute break, you can go outside or stay in and have a snack or something.
7. Period 3, period 4
8. 50 minute lunch. You can go out of school if you want to go out to the fast food restaurants. I usually stay in with a packed lunch
9. Period 5, period 6
10. Walk 1.5 miles (uphill!) home
I have a lot of classes (too many to count or name) during the week, and I have memorised my timetable. I don't have the same classes every day so every day is different. For example, maths (math) is 4 times a week, but I only have social education once a week.
PE is different because you do rough sports. In America, parents would sue if their child got hurt in PE, but here parents don't sue. So that means we can do rugby (pretty much American football, but without the body armour. LOL).
I am in a brand new school which was built just last year and I really like it.
Some of my best friends are Calum, Grant, Cameron, and many more.
I hope this has given you a better understanding of what school is like here in Scotland. I think it is better than school in the US.

* British high school is basically American middle school and high school put together.

Walking to school on a snowy morning

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Caravaning at Lochgoilhead

This past weekend, we met up with the Scottish Teacher’s Exchange Club, other Fulbright teachers and some exchange teachers from Australia. We all stayed at Drimsynie Estate Holiday village. We rented a caravan (aka small mobile home) that had all the amenities. 

We met up with the other members of our group on Friday evening and walked into the village of Lochgoilhead (on the north edge of Loch Goil) to eat dinner at a local pub. The food was excellent and the company even better! We finished our evening with a “surprise” birthday cake and song for Rebecca, a Fulbright teacher from Edinburgh. As I was preparing to carry out her birthday cake, I realized that there weren't any matches to light the candles. Imagine my surprise when Rebecca “blew out” the candles as soon as we were done singing even though they weren't lit – what a great sport!!

On Saturday, we had a leisurely morning and took advantage of their indoor swimming pool for the kids to work off some extra energy. After lunch, we headed to the other side of town for a hike along a waterfall path accompanied by Wilson, one of our hosts. Right at the start of the hike we walked past a farm field with sheep and highland cows (most hikes start or go through farm fields). Highland cows are interesting because they have immense horns and shaggy bangs that hang in front of their eyes.

Our walk was up a beautiful wooded path with streams running alongside. The sides of the path were covered in ferns and green mosses, and Wilson was great to have along so we could ask him the names of everything we saw growing. Carter even challenged him to a “Guess the world capital” game since he was a former geography teacher. I think it was a pretty good match up!

After our hike was over, we treated ourselves to some appetizers outside on the picnic tables with lake and mountain views.
Slushee time
On our last day, we took a walk along the road that ran on the east side of Loch Goil. 

We went past the Highland cows again, and were even able to walk almost up to one of them on the path. On our walk, we skipped stones, saw a mailbox installed in an old rock wall, saw a house across the loch with an amazing tree house, and even found some frogs in the ditch with visible frog eggs!
Got mail?
Lakehouse & tree house - I want one!!
Frogs and soon to be tadpoles
 We took a scenic drive home with lunch at another pub (I enjoyed Cullen skink, a creamy fish and potato soup). Along the way we found a playground, some small ponies and saw a hot air balloon in the sky.
Amazing views
Cara was SO funny, she put grass on the end of a long stick to feed this pony (so she wouldn't have to get spit on her hand)