Monday, January 27, 2014

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot...It's Six Nations Time...! So here's my Girl's Guide to Rugby

WARNING: This blogpost has naked men and shameless sexism!

Yes, it's that time of year again, the start of the Six Nations. Long-time readers of my blog will know that I love rugby, well England rugby really. I went to the very first rugby world cup in Australia, got inadvertently tackled by an All Black in Bahrain - and I didn't spill my beer - and have sat on Murray Mexted's shoulders and sung 'Hi Ho Silver Lining'. I forget why now but he played No. 8 for the All Blacks and was very tall and the rugby club had a very low ceiling.

So that all you lovely people can share in my love of the Truly Beautiful Game, here is my Girl's Guide to Rugby which gives you all you need to enjoy the Six Nations.

The Game:

Firstly there are two types of rugby. Rugby League is generally played by rugged northerners who think that Rugby Union is only played by effete ex-public schoolboys and have never really forgiven Jason Robinson for giving up League to play Union for England. I mean, it's not what tough young blokes from Leeds do is it? Rugby League teams only have 13 players, probably because they've all gone South to play proper rugby. Rugby Union, or proper rugby as I like to call it,  is played by two teams of 15 brawny men with well muscled thighs and six packs that would make a lesser man weep.  They play with a funny shaped ball, which leads to countless double entendres, and which neither rolls or bounces straight. If you think it's going left you can almost guarantee it will go right. Mind you, predictability of bounce doesn't seem to help England's footballers that much.

The aim of the game is to get the ball over your try line or, if you don't have the ball, stop the other team getting it across theirs. This can be done either by fair means or foul depending on whether the referee is looking. The try line is the line underneath the funny H-shaped sticks at each end of the field. But, just to make it a bit more interesting, you can't throw the ball forward. Yes, I know, it makes no sense. You are trying to get the ball up the field but you have to throw it backwards. If you do throw it forward, that's a forward pass (obviously) and you will be penalised, unless you are French of course, which might mean you have to have a scrum. That's a sort of rugby 'group hug' which is the best place to spot a well-muscled thigh, or occasionally, as they tend to hang on to each other's shorts, a flash of firm buttock. Scrums tend to be very popular with the ladies. Just to make things more interesting though, you can kick the ball up the field.

You can stop your opponent getting the ball over the try line by tackling him. Tackling takes many different forms but all of them are painful. Rugby, like love, hurts. You can't tackle people above the shoulder or pick them up and dump them headfirst on the ground. The referee tends not to like that and will generally rummage around in his pocket and pull out a piece of red cardboard. This means that you have to go back to the dressing room and can't play in the match anymore. You will also be a symbol of loathing to rugby pundits the world over who will denounce this unacceptable play which just 'isn't rugby'.

When you get the ball over the try line, most of the opposition, and a few of your own team will jump on you, making a sort of human Jenga. That will hurt too. If the try is awarded, then the glory boy can come on and try and kick the ball through the sticks which will give you extra points. The glory boy is often easily identifiable as the one with hardly any mud on his shirt. Whether or not the glory boy manages to get the ball through the sticks, there will be comparisons with The God Jonny Wilkinson, either in the form of 'Jonny would have got that' or 'well,yes, that was good, but Jonny was better.'

Scoring:  You score 5 points for a try and then if you kick the ball over the sticks you get another 2 points for a conversion. Converting what to what has never been entirely clear. You can also get 3 points for a drop goal, which is when you pick up the ball mid-match and try and kick it through the sticks. Generally they miss and it is almost impossible to mention a drop goal without mentioning Rob Andrew and The God Jonny Wilkinson in the same breath. Those were two of the finest drop goals in England Rugby history.


Try - that's when you get the ball over that line I was talking about. No-one really knows why it is called a try when you have actually succeeded.

Conversion - see scoring above
Penalty - the best way to score points without doing anything. Wind up the opposition so they get really mad and break lots of rules

Drop kick - Aahh, Jonny... sorry, a drop kick can be taken at any point in the game but the ball must touch the ground first before you kick it.

Knock on - this is when a player fumbles the ball then drops it and knocks it forward. Well you try hanging on to a muddy, greasy egg shaped ball!

Rucks and Mauls - these generally resemble playground scraps in inner city comprehensives or kick out time at a Cardiff nightclub.  In a ruck, the ball is on the ground, usually under a pile of bodies, which means that you can't touch it with your hands. You have to 'ruck' it out with your feet. And no, I don't know why. That's just the rules. In a maul, the ball is off the ground and the players have to stay on their feet. A rolling maul is when the players try to push the ball up the field, with players breaking off and rejoining at the back. It's a bit like a manic version of The Locomotion.  You can get a right telling off for collapsing a maul. Others players can join in the bundle but only from the back. If they join from the side the ref will blow his whistle and give the other team a penalty. However, in the thick of it, anything goes. It's not unusual for eyes to be gouged or body parts bitten off in a ruck or a maul

The scrum - Scrums involve eight players from each team in a 3-4-1 formation. In the front row you have a hooker.... no, no! Not that sort of hooker. The hooker is the player who is responsible for  hooking the ball out with his foot. And if his knee happens to make contact with the opposing hooker, accidentally  of course, so much the better. He is supported by two props, who, well prop him up really. behind him are a bunch of big, heavy blokes whose job it is to push.  They all kneel down and then the second row of the scrum put their hands through the legs of the front row and hang on to their todger. The last row then does the same to the second row. This is possibly what made it so popular in public schools, that and the communal baths after the match. The ref will shout instructions for the team to engage in the scrum. The instructions change with alarming regularity, as do the rules of the scrum but whatever happens, the props will generally use this as an opportunity to give their opposition numbers a playful punch or dead arm.  On the shout of Set, they will hurl themselves together like rutting stags with lots of grunting.  The scrum half will feed the ball into the hooker who will try and hook the ball through his legs and out of the back of the scrum to their team mates. A scrum is no place for the faint-hearted or those who are easily provoked. There is often a lot of conversation in the scrums, often along the lines of 'I'd like to give your wife/girlfriend/mother/dog one'.  At the end of some tournaments, the front rows often comment wryly that their opposite number talked to them more during the scrums than their wives had in the previous ten years.

The Players:

The team is split into two halves. The forwards and the backs.

The backs, all eight of them,  are the pretty boys of the team, often fleet of foot and able to get through an entire game without getting a hair out of place. They generally don't have noses or ears resembling a box full of organic vegetables. They are often very fast. South Africa's Brian Habana very nearly outran a cheetah and probably would have if they'd made the cheetah carry a rugby ball too. Their job is to kick and run the ball up the field while preventing the opposing backs from doing the same.

The forwards are the engine room of the team and like most engine rooms are not that attractive to look at and tend to smell a bit.  They will have flat noses and ears that stick out at alarming angles with all manner of lumps and bumps on them. They generally have thighs like tree trunks and are definitely more attractive from behind than from the front. Their job is to ruck, maul, scrummage push and shove and win the ball for the backs. Forwards have occasionally been known to score tries but they often look like hippopotamuses lumbering across the plains. They are man mountains, most towering well over 6 feet. Simon Shaw was 6' 8, a mere minnow compared to Martin Bayfield's 6'10 and Scotland's Richard Metcalfe, who stood at 7' tall.

The Teams

England. They generally wear white and have a nice little rose on their kit.

Italy - they always come last.

The rest... Gah! Who cares!

And just to finish up here's a totally gratuitous photo of James Haskell naked, and let's face it, you (or do I mean me?) can never get enough.

Never Google 'naked rugby players' - it's
not for the faint-hearted!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Guest Post: E-Learning - The Education of the Future?

Classrooms of today bear very little resemblance to our classrooms of 20 or even 30  years ago. While frontal teaching is still the preferred form of classroom management in most schools, educational facilities are increasingly turning to different types of e-learning in an effort to cut costs, increase scholastic success and prepare the students for the new technological age.
Universities and other institutions of higher education have been putting their courses online for over a decade but the growth of e-learning for elementary (primary) and high school (secondary) students is relatively new. The explosion of new e-learning tools, forums and platforms -- both free and with varying degrees of cost -- speaks to the need that online learning fulfils for 21st century schoolchildren.
There are numerous reasons that schools are incorporating more online learning in their classrooms. Even though e-learning programs demand that each child has his or her own laptop or tablet, entire school districts are investing in the equipment because they believe that, in the long run, the children will perform better and learn more than they do in a conventional learning situation. The United States Department of Education's Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices of Online Learning reviewed  50 independent research projects and concluded that online learning is more effective than traditional face-to-face instruction.
Some of the reasons for expanding online learning include:
  • It's cheaper. Even taking into account the cost of the laptops/tablets and access to the online programs, online learning requires fewer staff members and no text books.
  •  There are more possibilities presented by e-learning programs. Teachers can set up lessons that are asynchronous (independent learning), synchronous (group learning) or blended.
  • Classes can flip. Flipped classrooms are becoming more and more popular, especially in high schools where the students are more capable of learning independently. In a flipped classroom the students review pre-recorded material online and then do the "homework" in the classroom where the teacher is available to assist.
  • It's easier to adapt online learning to varied learning styles than with conventional learning. Students who learn online tend to automatically adapt the learning strategies to their own particular learning style. The teacher's time is not occupied with developing different techniques for individual students since the students can adapt the materials to their own particular learning style on their own.
  • Online learning is flexible. If a student must be absent from the classroom for a period of time, s/he can easily access the material and complete the assignments online.
  • Homeschooling parents have more opportunities to present their children with more and varied information and materials. Homeschooling kids can also connect online and engage in a virtual classroom while enjoying all the benefits of a homeschooling environment.
The benefits of online learning are no longer in question. The role of the teacher in the online classroom, however, is not always clear. Many education professionals, parents and community members are curious about how a classroom teacher facilitates an online lesson. Many people wonder, if the lesson is online, what does the teacher do?
Interestingly enough the teacher's role in online learning is as important as ever. The teacher creates the lesson, facilitates it, guides the students and evaluates their successes in the same way that teachers have always worked. Effective teachers:
  • create new learning environments that allow the students to explore and experiment, think critically, reflect, work creatively and create new knowledge.
  • make learning more effective by using customized tools that aid preparation and programming assessment
  • customize learning experiences
  • build partnerships beyond the classroom
Teachers in an e-learning classroom adopt new roles and skills but continue to serve as the central figure in the student's learning. As educational leader Lowell Milken has noted, "The most direct and enduring way to reach the mind and imagination of the learner is through the mind, imagination and character of the outstanding teacher." This holds as true in the e-learning classroom as it ever did.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Here we come a-wassailing...

Who has a bucket list? Me! And on that bucket list is 'Go Wassailing'. What? I hear you shout. It also has 'Take a Hot Air Balloon over Ayers Rock' but the opportunity for a cheeky wassail presented itself before a trip to Oz, sadly.

I'm the first to admit that I haven't really been a fan of Christmas since round about my 10th birthday and I discovered Santa wasn't real.Quite who that man in the red suit with the reindeer and sleigh that my brother and I SWEAR we saw one Christmas Eve, I have no idea. Christmas seems to have become this revolting fest of consumer-overspending where people drive themselves into debt to buy Little Sally and Little Jonny the newest toy/laptop/iPad/XBox just so they can ignore them for the rest of the  year.

It doesn't help that Christmas starts round about August so by the time December arrives, we are all heartily sick of 'White Christmas', Mariah Carey, Slade and effing chestnuts roasting on an effing fire! And then there's the Christmas Album. Jeez, who doesn't have one these days?  You  mean you don't have Mojo Nixon's 'Horny Holidays' or the Yin Yang Twinz 'We Wish you a Merry Twerkmas'? Really?

What I do like is old traditions - well not wife-beating and drowning witches, obviously - but I have always fancied the idea of a bit of a wassail. The first thing I discovered was that wassail is a noun, not a verb. Wassail is the drink you drink, not the act of drinking it. The second thing I discovered was there are two types of wassailing, One is when you take a communal bowl of wassail from house to house wishing them good health and the other one is when you go to an apple orchard and toast the trees with the wassail, thus encouraging a good harvest in the autumn.

It traditionally takes place on Old Twelvey Night, which pre-Gregorian calendar days, was 17th January. Now it takes place on or around 6th January. So, last Saturday, myself, a friend and her son set off to Ashley Wood Farm in nearby Fonthill Gifford to experience our first Wassail.

The venue was stunning; a huge barn, set in glorious Wiltshire countryside overlooking a lake. The weather had been absolutely vile all day so we were lucky that about an hour before the start of the evening's festivities, the rain cleared and we were treated to a beautiful starry night.

At 6pm we set off by torchlight to an orchard close by, led by the White Horse Morris Men (and women). In the orchard was a large fire surrounded by 12 smaller ones, representing the Twelve Apostles. (There goes myth number two, that it is a pagan festival). The biggest and best tree was selected and a toast made to it, before the wassail was poured over the roots - what a bloody waste! Bits of cider soaked toast are placed in the forks of the branches and lots of noise was made, banging pots and pans and even a couple of gunshots to wake The Sleeping Tree Spirit and scare off the tree demons. Apparently, there was method to the madness of stuffing bits of toast in trees as it apparently encouraged birds and insects and, thus, pollination.A wassail song was sang and the trees blessed, then the twelfth fire, signifying Judas Iscariot, was kicked out with great gusto. There was a slight comedy moment when the Fire Engine was seen racing to the farm, no doubt somebody had reported a large number of fires burning in a field.

The Wassail Toast is read
Then it was back to the barn for food, dancing and drink. The torches had, by now, burned out and we discovered the first slight oversight of the evening as we all stumbled and slipped our way back through a very muddy orchard in the pitch black.

Local company, Toby's Kitchen, provided a great barbeque with proper burgers and sausages and even celeriac soup and with the temperature hovering just above zero, his red hot barbeque was a popular place to hang around.

The dance band struck up a tune and the White Horse Morris started to strut their folky stuff. I'll be the first to admit that I'm a little bit suspicious of men who skip, especially while waving white hankies, but their enthusiasm was infectious and before long myself and my friend were doing the Wiltshire Six Hand Reel with gusto. And I had completely underestimated how tiring all this skipping lark is. No wonder there was barely a beer belly among them. What was really nice to see was several  young people in the Morris and in the band. I would imagine admitting that you like to spend your weekends skipping around with bells on your legs might well leave you open to a certain amount of banter.And being an accordion player in a folk band is unlikely to have quite the same cachet as being the lead guitarist in a rock band.

Having shown our willingness to join in with a bit of audience participation, we found ourselves constantly whisked onto the floor for a bit more country dancing.  I even got a proposal of marriage after my polka - all those country dancing lessons at primary school were finally paying off!

'You polka very well, my dear' said my dance partner (that will probably also give you a rough idea of the age group we are talking about). 'I bet you say that to all the girls,' I replied.

The best dance was a Swedish one which involved lots of polkaing and waltzing which enabled me to channel my inner Strictly Contestant. It was one of those dances where you change partners after ever few minutes and it was actually very enjoyable to be waltzed round the floor by men who had grown up with waltzing. By the time we left, I was almost ready to join up...almost!

So, I have wassailed. I can tick that off my list and start looking forward to that hot air balloon over Ayers Rock.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Happy New Year!

So, goodbye 2013 and hello 2014.  Last year was, for me, my annus horribilis (that's annus, people!)  Not just for me though, for an awful lot of people I know. I've never been superstitious about the number 13 but I certainly wonder whether there might just be something to all this triskaidekaphobia business. How could it be that so many people had such a bad time. I'm talking about cancelled weddings, unexpected and very early deaths, marriage and relationship breakdowns, illness, plague and pestilence (almost).

Anyway, it's over now and I, for one, am really looking forward to this  year. After all, it can't be as bad as last year can it?

Here is my 'in a nutshell' review of 2013.

In 2013 I have:

Refound old friends 
Met some amazing people who I hope will be around forever (you know who you are)
Discovered I was more resourceful than I ever thought possible
Learned some pretty tough lessons
Been to too many funerals
Lost some wonderful friends who left handprints on my heart
Discovered who my real friends are
Not employed a hitman though I have been sorely tempted
Counted my blessings
Started my next book

This year I am hoping to be more active on my blog now that family stuff has quietened down a bit and I already  have some people lined up to do guest post.

Here's to 2014. Please let it be good for me and everyone else I know who has had a truly shitty year!