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kim biddulph

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How did I get into freelancing?

I don’t want to use the J word, but I have been deleting old emails recently and it reminded me about the way my freelancing career has developed over the years.

At first it all started as an extra to full time work. I left English Heritage to work at the London Borough of Camden on a Heritage Lottery Funded project, but I was keen to continue to do something in association with the Charles Darwin Trust and, as it turned out, they wanted that too so I started to do some writing and teaching work with them. During the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth and 150th year since the publication of Origin, 2009, I was very busy with work for them as well as work for Camden. It quietened down a little in 2010, and then got quieter still after that, and I had a new baby which also reduced the amount I could do.

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Pitt Rivers Museum at night

I eventually moved from the London Borough of Camden to another employed role at the Pitt Rivers Museum and freelancing went by the wayside. After the maternity cover contract ended I decided to go it on my own. The costs of childcare while working full-time were too onerous and I wanted to spend more time with my little one. At first I trained to be a childminder and managed three months of this. Childminding is not an easy job, let me tell you. I was more tired doing that than any other job I have had, and I have worked as a field archaeologist, in the catering industry and now visit schools to do days of teaching, all of which are tiring but not like childminding. So I looked for other things.

All of a sudden, I found things. I had experience of writing for teachers through English Heritage and the National Museums Online Learning Project so a friend introduced me to a friend who had set up a business called Plan Bee. She needed a history specialist to write lesson plans and resources for the new curriculum so I took that on, writing lesson plans on the Prehistory of Britain, the Shang Dynasty of China, and the Kingdom of Benin, for instance. With this experience under my belt I approached the Hamilton Trust, on the advice of another friend, and said I could write their Prehistory of Britain topic. I found the Hamilton Trust work much more in depth and I still write for them, just recently having finished a recap of all British history for a post-SATS topic for Year 6s.

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Roman cooking day at Wycombe Museum

At the same time I had applied for two local jobs. One was as a secretary for my village’s Neighbourhood Plan at £10 an hour and this lasted for over a year with me working mainly in the evenings. I also applied to be a workshop leader at the Chiltern Open Air Museum and I work there still on a zero-hours contract mainly teaching schools but also families and home ed groups. I also volunteered for Kids in Museums and an opportunity came along to take over organising their workshops on working with families and young people.

I set up Schools Prehistory in order to get information out to teachers for the new topic in primary history, as it is my specialist subject, and I think on the back of that was approached by a contact from the British Museum (which was part of the National Museums Online Learning Project that I had written for) to apply for a job as a writer on the Teaching History in 100 Objects website that the DoE had funded to support the new history curriculum across Key Stages. I wrote about lots of objects for them from Late Bronze Age logboats from Must Farm to a cloth celebrating Ghanaian independence from 1957.

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Stone Age Woman, hear me roar

I also started marketing myself as a time travelling visitor with Schools Prehistory to schools and still visit schools across the south-east and midlands as a Stone Age, Roman, Saxon of Viking woman or as an archaeologist, sometimes with colleagues and sometimes on my own. I had difficulty in selling lesson plans through my own website so now they can be downloaded if teachers sign up to my newsletter.

As a time traveller, and for the purpose of developing a Mesolithic workshop at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, I developed some bushcraft skills and so my latest venture has been to set up 500 BC. I asked the Forestry Commission, who look after Wendover Woods near me, whether I could work on their site and duly applied for a licence to do so and now run toddler groups, home ed courses, family and adult bushcraft days, holiday clubs, school visits and team-building workshops. I am expanding to other sites and to sub-contracting.

I have also tendered for shorter freelance contracts conducting market research with families, or devising and piloting schools workshops but have not had much luck with those. Where I have been successful it’s usually through recommendations and word of mouth.

This isn’t meant to be a self-congratulatory post. I wanted to show how I built my freelancing portfolio, which is a little unusual, but has all the elements of how to be successful at freelancing whatever field you’re in.

  1. Network. Having a good network that you stay in contact with via social media and attending sector events is essential.
  2. Don’t be afraid to approach people cold. Before you do this you have to do your research and be sure that they want something only you can offer.
  3. Create your own opportunities if you can – apply for funding, see a need in the market you can fulfill.
  4. Collaborate. Find like-minded people you can sub-contract to (you’ll need employer’s insurance) or pass work to, and they will hopefully pass some back.
  5. Try to have a couple of relationships that bring in a regular income and supplement them with shorter contracts. Then when you need to find the next job, you still have a little work and money to tide you over (I can’t say I’m very good at saving!)
  6. Be flexible. Not everything you will end up doing is going to totally rock your world. As you get more confident and busier, you will be able to say ‘No thanks’ to those contracts that don’t totally float your boat.
  7. I hate saying this, because it’s not something I love doing, but you will need a brand. Either that’s your name or a trading name that will represent you. As you can see, I have a couple of different ones for different strands of my work.
  8. If something doesn’t work, learn from it and move on.
  9. Keep at it!
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Fossils and dinosaurs

I really enjoyed writing about fossils, while my co-writer wrote about dinosaurs, for the Hamilton Trust. I think it was one of the most enjoyable blocks I have so far written for them, despite having also written Stone Age to Iron Age Britain, the Shang Dynasty of China, the Ancient Greeks and the history of various sports.

I got to write about some very interesting characters in the history of science, including Mary Anning, Charles Darwin and William Buckland. Mary Anning and Charles Darwin are specifically mentioned in the Key Stage 2 science curriculum, of course, and both their stories are very engaging, if very different.

Mary was the daughter of a cabinetmaker and lived in Lyme Regis. She managed to get some rudimentary schooling and learned to read and write, but that was it. She made her living by finding fossils on the beach and selling them to collectors. Most of these were wealthy, educated gentlemen dabbling in natural history who went on to publish the finds as their own. Now the specimens she uncovered are being reclaimed for her. I was excited to see a huge ichthyosaur (a marine reptile from the same time as the dinosaurs) she found in the Natural History Museum in London recently.

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Ichthyosauria.001 – Natural History Museum of London” by Drow maleOwn work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

I am very fond of Charles Darwin, and I have written about him elsewhere, but I didn’t know very much about William Buckland before writing this block for the Hamilton Trust, so it was quite a journey of discovery! I wrote the block using a ‘Take One Picture’ model, which has been used for museum teaching quite a lot. The image in question was a silhouette (very popular in the nineteenth century) of Buckland and his wife and son and several of their fossils.

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Buckland family silhouette” by Mary Buckland, née Morland (1797-1857) – http://blogs.royalsociety.org/history-of-science/2011/02/07/females-fossils-hyenas-1/ Originally taken from Elizabeth Gordon’s (1894) The Life and correspondence of William Buckland, London: John Murray. p.103.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Buckland found many Ice Age fossils in his explorations of Britain’s caves, including Kirkdale in Yorkshire and Goats Hole Cave on the Gower Peninsula of Wales. Famously, he discovered a skeleton in the latter that he named the Red Lady of Paviland and posited that she was a Roman camp follower. In reality the ‘Red Lady’ is actually a man and may date back as far as 30,000 years, a burial from the Upper Palaeolithic.

He’s more famous, though, for identifying the first dinosaur, although they weren’t called that at the time. Earlier finds of the same dinosaur, Megalosaurus, had been thought to have come from Roman war elephants. He noticed that a jaw bone looked very much like modern lizards, but much larger, and therefore coined the name. His wife, Mary, was an excellent scientific illustrator as well as a natural historian in her own right, and drew the Megalosaurus jaw in question for her husband’s publication.

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Buckland, Megalosaurus jaw” by Mary Morland (later Buckland) – http://www.lhl.lib.mo.us/events_exhib/exhibit/exhibits/dino/buc1824_l.shtml. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Quite wonderfully, he also coined the term coprolite for fossilised faeces, having first been notified by Mary Anning of strange stones found in the abdominal area of the ichthyosaurs she was finding.

The block gave me an opportunity to explore the history of science with children, and to reflect on how science works, how it is important to publish and get your name on discoveries, and the social history of the nineteenth century where women were not given the scientific kudos they deserved. I may also have revealed Buckland’s proclivity to eat every animal he came across, from bluebottles to mice on toast by way of panther. Well, I couldn’t not, could I?

Discover Darwin

I’m always a little daunted by the prospect of reading the classics. I don’t get on well with Charles Dickens or Thomas Hardy, though Jane Austen is my all time favourite writer. So I didn’t expect to be able to follow the writing of Charles Darwin when I first read On the Origin of Species. Amazingly, I could, and very easily. Darwin had not written a dense scientific treatise. It was a popular book intended for a very wide audience. It’s wonderfully poetic in places.

If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to read just the last chapter of the book, or even just the final paragraph if you’re that worried. The final chapter summarises the entire book, and the last paragraph is an even more succinct precis.

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

I used this paragraph as the basis for a few lessons work on non-fiction writing for a set of lessons The Charles Darwin Trust educational consultants (including me) wrote for the London Borough of Bromley. The borough had unsuccessfully attempted to get the natural environment around Down House listed as a World Heritage Site as it was there, in Darwin’s Landscape Laboratory, rather than the Galapagos Islands or anywhere in South America, that Darwin did most of his thinking, observation and experimentation that confirmed his ideas about natural selection.

entangled bank

I contrasted Darwin’s writing with that of modern science writers such as E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins (in hindsight I should have included some female science writers). I wanted to get across the idea to children that writing in science doesn’t have to be impenetrable and that by writing in an engaging and even poetic way, it can bring science to a wider audience.

Teaching teachers about Darwin and evolution

The new Key Stage 2 curriculum has brought in various new topics, including teaching evolution in Year 6 science. Previous to this primary school biology had included variation and adaptation, the cornerstones of evolution, but not explicitly required teachers to teach Darwin’s theory. The non-statutory guidance also mentions learning about famous figures in the history of evolutionary biology including Mary Anning and Alfred Russell Wallace alongside Darwin himself.

A colleague, Ewa Prokop who is Mad About Charles Darwin (literally), wrote a children’s book about Darwin and his work (Darwin’s Wild Pursuits), exploring some of the aspects of evolution through imagined conversations he has with creatures he meets on his perambulations in the countryside around his home in Kent, Down House, where he spent the last 40 years of his life. I particularly like the last story about the orb-weaving spider who tells Darwin that one of her sisters on suffering an accident that meant she could no longer make a web learned how to hunt on the ground instead. I’m quite fond of spidery tales.

IMG_8186Ewa put together a plan to run some teacher training on evolution in Yeovil Country Park, a wonderful setting, with their rangers. I went and co-delivered that recently. Along with Ewa’s book, a precis of Darwin’s life and work (which is often misunderstood) and the steps in his theory of evolution I demonstrated a number of possible activities teachers could do with children that Darwin himself did. I was pleased to note that several of the teachers had come across the blocks I wrote on Darwin and Anning for the Hamilton Trust.

The Charles Darwin Trust, one of the organisations whose umbrella I work under, identified certain ways of working that were typical to Darwin, though not confined to him, including using everyday materials to conduct simple experiments; talking to many other people, not just scientists, about their particular expertise; and close, frequent and sustained observation of certain habitats. His method is quite accessible to primary aged children.

Experiments included wrapping unopened flower buds with kitchen muslin (with quite an open weave) to see what effect preventing insects visiting will have on the flower; taking pond mud and seeing what grows from it; and feeding carnivorous plants toenails and hair. Another simple experiment involved eating several ‘purple ones’ from a certain chocolate box (I suffer for my work, I really do!) and using the cellophane wrapper to simulate the ultraviolet eyesight of bees. If you hold them up against certain flowers (we tried celandine and wood anemone) you can see the darker markings that are not otherwise visible to our eyes that guide bees towards the nectar. Work by a team at the University of Arizona have found that this reduces the amount of nectar robbing that bumblebees undertake and so is a very successful strategy for flowering plants. This demonstrated, in a very Darwinian way, that there has been work on evolution since Darwin. This is especially important because the guidance in the national curriculum suggests not mentioning genetics.

The rangers also showed how teachers can very simply sample the environment at Yeovil Country Park with sweeping nets, tree beating and pond dipping so that children can get closer to nature, observe the animals and plants around them and start to make their own observations.

Trace fossils

I volunteered for the Oxford University Museum of Natural History yesterday on one of their Dino Days that they do for Year 7s. I wanted to remind myself what secondary school students were like, plus I’m fond of dinosaurs. It was a great day.

I was helping with casting dinosaur footprints and other fossil casts with plaster of paris. One of the conservators had made silicon moulds for the job, and the kids had to follow instructions to mix the plaster and pour it into the moulds. While it hardened, they found out a bit more about trace and true form fossils.

I’m particularly fond of trace fossils, from coprolites (fossilised faeces) to footprints to skin impressions. I wrote a block of work on trace fossils, the study of which is called ichnology, for the Hamilton Trust. While the conditions for fossilisation for both true form and trace fossils are similar, there is so much more potential for greater numbers of trace fossils than true form, since every single dinosaur could have left thousands of footprints or specimens of faeces behind, but only one body.

 

A large coprolite (fossilized feces or dinosaur poop) from South Carolina, USA..jpg
A large coprolite (fossilized feces or dinosaur poop) from South Carolina, USA.” by PoozeumOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons.

One of my favourite finds for the block I wrote was a quarry in Bolivia where thousands of dinosaur footprints have been found. Due to the movement of the earth’s crust since the time of the dinosaurs, these now appear to be walking vertically up the wall.

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Dinosaur tracks in Bolivia 1” by Jerry Daykin from Cambridge, United KingdomFlickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

I also like this one where the dinosaur had clearly sat down and then moved away again, found at a farm in Utah.

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Squatting dinosaur tracks at Johnson’s Farm in St George, by Nancy Carruthers, Utah Geological Survey

Early and modern humans have also left tracks (though not in the same strata as dinosaurs as some would have you believe) like the famous ones at Laetoli in Tanzania (probably 3.7 million years old and belonging to Australopithecus afarensis), but also at Happisburgh in the UK (about 800,000 years old and possibly Homo antecessor) and modern humans, Homo sapiens, around 7000 years ago at Monte Hermoso in Argentina. What better way to get children to engage with what these footprints can tell us (height, gait, speed) than by getting them to make dinosaur feet, dip them in paint and run across paper with them, or make their own footprints in wet sand and fill them in with casting material?

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