Back to the writing bored

(Before I begin, please award me marks for a title containing both an adapted idiom and a homophone. Actually, forget the idiom – I don’t think the Standards and Testing Agency like them much. Nor will I get many thanks for the double meaning.)

Anyway, I’ve been clearing out the cupboards at Grammarwise Infant Academy* (proper noun!) I’ve found lessons going back to the 1990s, when we did lots of exciting writing (rhyme!) activities. In between trips to the recycling bin I’ve listened as my Year 2 colleagues  fume about the judgements made on their pupils’ performance this year. This is going to be a cross post (homograph!)

I’m afraid we need two short paragraphs of background. 

When pupils are aged between 6 and 7, their writing ability may range from being able to hold a pencil correctly and form letters in sequences that conform to recognisable sounds and words, to being able to write in demarcated sentences and paragraphs with a coherent thread of meaning. Bear with me – don’t bare with me though, it wouldn’t be appropriate. (Homophones!) We used to assess them (the pupils, not the homophones) as having reached level 1,2 or 3 on a best fit basis: there were several statements of attainment in each category and if the child had achieved most of them, they were working at that level.

child writing edited

This year (I quote): To demonstrate that pupils have met a standard…, teachers will need to have evidence that a pupil demonstrates attainment of all of the statements within that standard and all the statements in the preceding standard(s). I’ve not been blogging long and can’t afford losing followers to death by boredom, but full details are at the link above if you’re really keen.

And so the moderators arrived in the third week of June (past tense!) At least one of them is actually (adverb!) just a teacher from another school down the road, something of a rival if the truth be known (subjunctive!) They spend a turgid (adjective!) afternoon looking through all the children’s (possessive apostrophe used with countable noun!) written work in year 2 to check we’re assessing them the same way all the other schools do. The government’s changed the requirements this year, although (subordinate conjunction!) it’s only an interim arrangement and they’ll change them again next year (future tense!) so nobody is quite as sure of the benchmarks as we were (comparison!) when it was a simple matter of levels 1,2,or 3. Heavens – I can’t believe I’m sounding nostalgic about SATs! (exclamation mark!)

Anyway, we (or our children) were marked down. Bright, bright children, shoo-ins for the old level 3, hadn’t achieved the “Working at greater  depth within the expected standard” level. Kareena* didn’t appear to have used the word “or” in her writing since September (or maybe she had but not in her school work). Faizal* had used “if” but not in a subordinate clause. Most hadn’t (contraction!) been writing cursive script throughout the year, so that’s not good enough even though they now are (because we don’t usually start teaching it until April). They had used exclamation marks but not with “How” or “What”. (How I can’t believe I’m writing this! What?!)

Never mind. We can be redeemed, it seems (dissonance? assonance?) It’s just a question of providing another sample of writing that does contain all the right ingredients, and our data will shine again.

So (coordinate? subordinate?) I’m now in a small group room with eight children of “middle ability”. This room has no white board so the stimulus is a black and white photocopy of a book about Brazil (colour too expensive), published considerably before Rio received the poisoned chalice it now holds. We have to describe Brazil, and persuade someone to go there, using exclamations, opinions, questions, contractions, adjectives and all the other elements of the expected standard. We read the book, consider the gravelly pictures, and discuss Pele, the Amazon, etc. I write the title on the board “Which would you like to visit, Brazil or the UK?” in the hope of modelling the “or” construction we need. Curiously, when the children copy it, many have written “witch wood you like to visit…?”  It’s supposed to be independent writing so I can’t correct them, but Jared’s yell of “Homonyms!” gives me a clue to their reasoning. Did they think they were supposed to substitute them? (Question mark!) Only last week that was what they had to do, and of course, some of them aren’t 7 until August. And as you can see from the writing here, (pre April cursive script) they can get muddled about the importance of component parts of the English language in our daily lives.

pulpit and vowels

“Time for a suffix!” calls Jared* cheerfully (J is always cheerful, and often supplies a commentary to events, including during tests.) Right now he is blissfully unaware that his suffixes have staged a coup over his previously correct full stops.

But despite Jared’s efforts, we sigh. We’re bored. Conversation, always random with 6 year olds, seems to involve guinea pigs and someone’s uncle. Handwriting seeks a distraction anywhere but the line, with unwieldy f’s (always a hard one) and enormous loops like dropped stitches. Nobody learns much about Brazil, and what they do learn is inaccurate (“How happy all the Brazilian people are! What an amazing capital city Brasilia is!”) It’s taken an hour so far and we are still not finished.

I apologise for being another moaning teacher. I’m not holding my breath that the minstars will change direction any time soon although their directives change every full full moon. But next time I blog about children’s writing, I’ll take inspiration from the historic contents of my  cupboard and write about how teaching it should be.

*Some proper nouns have been changed for the purposes of this post but as far as possible no children were harmed in the production process.

© Jessica Norrie 2016


“Walking a fine line between chance and control…” On the narrative of abstract art

My friend Sharon Drew is showing two paintings in the 2016 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. I’ve watched Sharon’s art develop over many years. You don’t have to be an expert to spot the confidence and versatility of her work. At each annual Open Studio event I find a different style, and there is never anything tentative about the way she uses colour. More abstract work can need more thought, so we discussed parallels between the visual arts and writing, and between viewers and readers, and it’s helped me open up a world that I hope you will enjoy too. 

Reculver, Thanet 2015

Reculver, Thanet  2015 (Watercolour landscape study) size 15 x 25cm

Obviously the familiar “Old Masters” tell a story (eg the nativity), but do you think more modern, perhaps abstract paintings can do so as well?

SD: Abstract painting can make a direct connection with the emotions, like listening to classical or contemporary music.  It can create a mood, atmosphere or sensation and also transport one to another place and time.

Abstraction also has a place within the narrative of 20C history of art.  Modernism, in this case, focuses on process and materials and lack of recognisable imagery. This links with similar attitudes in architecture and design as well as literary and performing arts of the time.

JN: So the literary parallel here would be with writers such as Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Kafka, Faulkner, up to Beckett…where the “story” may be a different shape from a conventional narrative, but themes and forms emerge and words play with each other to make another kind of sense.

Do you think it’s important that viewers “understand” a painting straight away? Are you concerned about providing an approachable way in? Does it matter to you if their interpretation is different to yours?

Each person brings their own experience to the work – I cannot predict or control how others interpret my work – I like this! I’m often told that my paintings remind people of something they have seen or even a particular time in their life, which I could never have imagined. As far as I’m concerned this type of response enriches my experience as an artist. I also use fairly open titles such as Undercurrent or Conceal in order not to completely pin down the meaning.

Way Through 2web

Way Through(2)  2016 (acrylic on canvas) size 64 x 76cm

Some viewers are able to engage with abstract paintings without any introduction to the work, maybe in terms of colour and surface, others see an association or meaning. Some people need more background to the work to help make connections. Others may prefer figurative and representative imagery to suggest symbolism, scenario or narrative to satisfy their curiosity and analytical skills. Imagination and interpretation are key to viewing most artworks – (JN: just as they are for fiction, poetry and theatre).

Technical skill can be harder to identify compared to a realistic image and so abstract paintings can easily be dismissed, hence the comment … “my 4 year old could do that!”

Can you describe the process of getting ideas for a new canvas? How might a painter’s planning differ from or resemble that of a fiction writer?

There are many different approaches. For me it’s often a particular process, such as a decision to work with diluted paint or the gestural brush mark, that is the starting point. I usually work in a very intuitive way, walking a fine line between chance and control, deciding to intervene and making adjustments or just leaving things as they are.

I regularly travel to the North Kent and West Cornish coasts and make sketchbook drawings and paintings out in the landscape. On these occasions I am working from reality – sea, cliffs, clouds etc., and these studies record my observations, like a visual journal. Back in the studio I’m not aiming to reproduce these studies but perhaps the sketches and the sensation of being out there inform my paintings in terms of light, colour, space, and rhythm. JN: The writer’s notebook as used by the artist…

The Island, St Ives (2014)

The Island-St Ives  2014 Sketchbook (Watercolour)

As I am based in East London the urban landscape also feeds into my work creating, at times, a clash or fusion of the two contrasting environments.

JN: I also found on your website this quote which could just as well be about writing: Surprisingly perhaps creativity can come from regular daily practice. It’s no good just waiting around for a brilliant idea, it is much more likely to come through consistent work.

Do you know on starting a painting whether it will stand alone or be part of a series?

The best advice I was ever given was to work in a series. This helps to build up momentum and get into the flow and also to be my own critic as each work informs the other and assists in resolving problems. However ultimately I want each painting to be able to exist alone, unless it’s intended as part of a diptych or triptych.

There are no “characters” in your paintings as such – or are there?

The paintings do have different characteristics – i.e. strident, understated, brash, excitable, energetic, mellow etc., and so can directly affect the energy, atmosphere and mood of a space.

Clodgy Point(2) 2015

Clodgy Point, St Ives  2015 (oil on paper) size 17 x 23cm

Is there a narrative to how your work has developed? Does it have to be linear?

Definitely not linear! I follow my instincts and do not worry if a new process seems to be taking me in another direction, it is something I welcome and enjoy the difference. Having said that I do see that colour has been a constant presence in the work, and also my intermittent sketchbook drawings and paintings of the garden and coastal landscapes have been produced throughout.

Very early on I pulled away from representation into semi-abstract painting with abstract shapes, colours and textures with flower motifs. Then I became interested in more formal grid structures and bands of colours before breaking out into free-form flowing paintings made of highly diluted paint. During my MA at Central Saint Martins I made a departure to installation which I felt was a meeting point of painting, sculpture and installation. After this I went back to painting and for the past few years I’ve been particularly interested in light, colour, space, and rhythm and the use of the expressive, gestural painted brushstroke.

The two painters who have influenced me since my Art School days are American Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning and British colour abstractionist Patrick Heron, so in that sense I feel very rooted to this tradition of painting.

I know you were recently part of a narrative yourself, when your paintings were used as the work of an artist whose story was being told in a film, “Art Is…”.  Can you describe your feelings about having your work “fictionalised” and apparently painted by someone else?

Yes, a rather surreal situation of being simultaneously detached and intensely involved. To be surrounded by my paintings and the contents of my studio, but in the middle of a film set, the boundaries of art and life were constantly blurred. I also loved the way the different teams – lighting, sound, set – dressing, costume etc. – worked together with the Director to produce his vision for the final work. Such a contrast to my situation! One of the main things I remember is the sense of real time disappearing, especially as the film shoot is not made in chronological order, day and night get very mixed up.

Great also meeting Paul McGann, Gary Kemp and Emily Beecham … so lucky!

St Ives Boats(2) 2015

St Ives Boats (2)  2015 (oil on paper) size 15 x 21cm

There are glorious visuals in children’s books and I think adults need them too. Could you see yourself collaborating with a writer? I don’t want to use the word illustrate, as I’m thinking more in terms of two people telling the same story side by side but independently and with equal status. 

Always open to suggestions of collaboration!

Thank you so much, Sharon, for helping me to elucidate parallels which I always knew were there but had never managed to put into words. You can find out more at Sharon’s website, her Open Studio coming up on 25/26 June in London, and of course see those two paintings at the Royal Academy.


© Jessica Norrie 2016

Reading with Mother (or whoever)

Reading with Mother (or whoever)

Once a week we send two “reading books” home from the school where I teach.We also send a library book, English and Maths homework from year 2 onwards; requests for help with projects like family trees, local history or holiday diaries; pleas for junk modelling materials and Sainsbury’s vouchers; payment demands (technically optional) for school outings/ visiting performers/ tuition in musical instruments, sports or drama; slips to be returned with appointments for parents evenings and curriculum information sessions; reminders to bring in PE kit /suncream /rainwear / asthma pump /no cuddly toys in in case they cause arguments; occasional instructions for special clothing, eg red for Red Nose day, jeans on Jeans for Genes Day, superheroes on – you get the picture – or once, crazy hair (can’t remember why)… Then there’s a newsletter containing information about everything else, except what’s forgotten and has to be disseminated via separate letters, and what is officially copied from Important Sources such as Ofsted or the Government. Most of this is on the website too. Simples.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that reading with your child can seem a bit of a chore, let alone recording their progress in the diary that arrives with the book. Here’s a little bit of context, and some ideas to help resolve the problem.

Book bag

When I first started teaching infants two decades ago after switching from secondary, most children had no computers at home, there was very little other homework, and the parents took the reading book very seriously. An unfortunate few took it too seriously in fact: they sussed within days that the bookshelves numbered 1-9 along the long central corridor reflected their child’s reading level. We overheard playground conversations: “My son’s on bookcase 4.” “Oh is that all? Shahzad’s on bookcase 7!” Cue first parent to teacher: “Why isn’t Deepak on shelf 7 like Shahzad?” We had children told to fetch books from shelves they couldn’t yet cope with, parents surreptitiously swapping books or rejecting those with large print/ few words/ bright pictures in favour of “chapter books” that their bemused child couldn’t make head or tail of, and what had started with just a few parents had become a worry for everyone.

So we jumbled them up,  chucking out the existing reading scheme which was about some deeply boring people with the unlikely names of Roger Red Hat and somebody Yellow Hat who lived in the anodyne Village with Three Corners among badly drawn cottages and unrecognisable jalopy style cars, the text only marginally less boring than Janet and John but with cheaper pictures. We sorted our stock into four wide ability bands, a set each for each class. Parents and children both took longer to work out who was “winning”, and the unpleasant competitive pressure on the children diminished. We added new books and from various schemes, mostly from the Oxford Reading Tree. Aside from more characters with stupid names (BiffReading corner? Chip? Kipper, why?) ORT books are much more attractive and children still love them now. We included “real” books (remember that debate? We thought there was a place for both.)

Up to recently, the system worked well because almost all the children read their books regularly at home. Many now don’t. They complain of too much homework or tuition, busy parents who don’t have time, or just shrug that they “forgot”. The parents rarely write in the reading diaries, but they do request more maths homework or ask how they can help their children through SATs. So it’s not that the parents don’t care, but something isn’t working in terms of finding reading at home a valuable, educational, enjoyable activity. Yet all the research agrees that parents who regularly appreciate sharing books with their sons and daughters produce happier, more mentally healthy, socially adaptable, empathetic and higher achieving children than parents who don’t. Especially if they don’t wait for school days to make a start!Baby Ros reads_NEW

So how can we make it easier for parents (and please for parents also read carers, childminders, family friends, grandparents…)? Here are some practical ideas that have worked well in school, and there’s no reason not to try them at home. Not everything will work for every different family – the last thing I want to provide here is yet another compulsory checklist for how to be a good parent, but I hope everyone finds at least something here helpful. Often just 10 minutes a day will do!

  • Have fun with the text. Read in different voices, silly voices, ham up the expression with exaggerated snoring or weeping or evil chuckles. Try regional and foreign accents. Try singing it or rapping it.
  • If it’s hard going, the parent could read alternate pages. The child may choose the page with least text and read that and parent takes the bigger chunks. (Always swap at the end of a sentence if it runs across two pages.)
  • Play “full stop police”. Full stops are the equivalent of red traffic lights! Police officer (child or parent) claps or blows a whistle at each full stop to make the reader halt. (This helps children become aware of phrasing and punctuation.) Or bounce a ball for each full stop.
  • “Be the teacher”, reading the book to dolls or teddies and ask the teddies comprehension questions, or a younger sibling. They need to listen carefully so you must read clearly and make sure they can see the pictures!
  • Deliberate mistakes – insert a non existent character, change an ending, replace every seventh word with “bath plug” and see if your child notices (I’m getting a bit subversive here, but the point is to have fun).
  • Choose a character each and only read the sentences with that character’s name in it.
  • The parent reads dialogue, and the child reads narration, or vice versa. Over time, this helps children to distinguish between the two.
  • Act out scenes or stories. Behave as though you’re one of the characters for the day, or just duringHungry Cat Arabic supper.
  • Your child may bring home a book that’s in two languages. Whether you know the other language or not, discuss why this might be and how the text differs from English.
  • Finish one book before starting another (unless you’re hating it – see below). Make sure you and your child know what has gone before – eg the Magic Key adventures start when the key glows, the children shrink and go through a magic doll’s house into an adventure; Narnia is accessed via a wardrobe (in the most famous story). You’d be surprised how many children don’t notice they’ve picked up book 2 before book 1.
  • If your child brings home a book of poetry, try learning one each and recite them to each other with lots of expression and body language. Choose a favourite and stick to that if you don’t want to read everything in the collection.
  • Read in a comfy place you both like. A favourite sofa, or with cushions on a rug in the garden. Not while you’re driving with the child on the back seat (which may suit you) or under the kitchen table (which may be your child’s choice). If you can’t manage it this week, ask someone else to listen instead, and present it as a treat for both.
  • Encourage slow, clear reading. Tell them it isn’t an Olympic race – there’s no gold medal for reaching the end first. Demonstrate – breathlessly – how silly manic reading can sound!
  • Enjoy the rhythms of the text – The Cat in the Hat or The Gruffalo are great for this.
  • Mouth the words on a page silently to your child and see if the child can lipread them. Then swap.
  • Tell the child to miss out a word or line or page at random and you’ll see if you can spot it – do this again the other way round.
  • Use a favourite birthday card as a bookmark, or make one for or with your child with a favourite character or picture.
  • old ORT 1“Improve” a very old battered copy with sellotape (please). Schools try to weed these out but money is tight! Talk about any older children or grown ups you know who may have brought home the very same book (it’s worth checking the publication date in the small print to see how long this book may have been going back and forth).
  • Accept your child’s choice 80% of the time, even if you’re fed up with endless books about football or star wars or princesses.
  • Retell the story in your own mother tongue, if you were raised speaking a different language. That way grandparents who maybe don’t speak English can join in – or take over!film or mem stock
  • Talk about things that come up that are clearly out of date, and why. A child will have no idea what putting a film in a camera means, for example and if they don’t get an explanation it reinforces the idea that it’s ok to read without understanding.
  • “Doing the reading book” should be neither punishment or reward – a good read should be its own reward. But see below*
  • Avoid putting pressure on children to “go to the next level” (give it time, then see the teacher if you’re really worried they’ve plateaued).
  • There’s no need to finish a “chapter book” in a week. But if you’re reading the book bit by bit, stop reading at logical points – paragraph or chapter ends, or just when the action changes.
  • Relate the pictures or story to real life. Have you visited these settings? Have you had a similar misunderstanding/ family event/ special day? Peace at Last is good for this.
  • You may have to point out or explain jokes in pictures or text – young children love humour but they can find it hard to spot.
  • Who might the author be? Do you think they’re a funny person like Allan Ahlberg or perhaps a bit grouchy (Roald Dahl comes to mind!)
  • Can you spot Floppy (the ORT dog) in real life? Could your child be a character in this story? What would their role be? What magic key adventure could your family go on? Why is the Gran so crazy? Or whatever your school’s reading scheme involves…
  • Keep discussing the pictures even when they move on to more complex texts. They’re there for a reason. Do they match the text? Are they any good – children’s book illustrators range from absolutely wonderful to dire. Could you or your child draw better pictures? These are family favourites of ours:

    (Left to right: “The Twelve Dancing Princesses“”When Grandma Came” and “The Tower to the Sun)

  • If your child has friends whose parents speak other languages better than English could you offer your help over coffee to go through some of the reading books with them? That way their English improves, you make new friends and you may both find things in the books you didn’t realise were there.

Maybe your child prefers non fiction- some children do. Ask them to teach you things you didn’t know, picking out the most important/interesting/serious/silly things. Let your child read their own book instead – (just let the teacher know that’s what you’re doing).

*Don’t stop at the first yawn, but stop at the second. Reading is worth making an effort with, but not worth turning into a chore. You can give yourself a reward after the child’s in bed – I used to find a glass of white wine and my own choice of book worked well. Does your child see you read? That would help them know you think it’s worthwhile.

A couple more don’ts:

Don’t go on and on about phonics and sounding out. If your child points out a sound, praise and encourage them, but the overall meaning is always, always more important (whatever the government says!) They get enough phonics at school, and sounds and words almost always have to combine into phrases and sentences before they mean anything. (But you could find ones that don’t: “Fire!” “Pudding!” “Naughty!”)

Don’t assume because your child can read a text correctly or even with apparent fluency, that means they’ve necessarily understood what’s going on. Most adult readers can, technically, read a page of Italian, or a Physics textbook, and sound more or less right, without understanding a word of the content. Clues include your child ignoring punctuation or making mistakes without noticing, reading without any expression, and not being able to remember where they were up to, or what’s happened so far.

If you or your child really don’t like a book, stop reading it. Very briefly note why you didn’t like it in the diary. You’re allowed not to like a book (and to disagree with each other), just as you may dislike certain clothes, pictures or music. There are enough good books in the world for everyone not to waste time on ones they aren’t appreciating.

And one final do: When your child leaves, if you can afford it please donate one of the books they liked best to the school library (if there still is one!) or reading boxes, with a message inside from them saying when they were at the school and that this was their favourite book. Years down the line, it may be that very message or that very book that kickstarts another child’s love of reading.

Parkhill library

© Jessica Norrie 2016

On not writing a blog post

There’s a very friendly facebook group called The Bookshop Cafe, whose members from time to time post photographs of beautifully arranged bookshelves and comfortable, coordinated reading corners. But oh dear, here’s a picture of mine, and however artfully I crop the photo, it won’t look any better. Instead it provides a clue  to the dilemma I’m about to describe in this article. 


What to write, what to write? It’s not that I’m short of ideas – they and the notes for them already take up six different drafts on the “for my eyes only” pages of my WordPress blog. Salvation may lie in the half squashed guide to Mindfulness for Dummies, which could help to focus my untidy state of mind. Select party of readers, lick your lips in anticipation.

When to write, when to write? Almost certainly first thing in the morning would be best, from the point of view of clear ideas and flexible typing fingers. But some days I’m at work and the other days I’m having breakfast in bed on principle, simply because I can. My thoughts trail from the cereal bowl to last night’s unfinished Evening Standard crossword (which I can always complete in the freshness of morning), and from the second cup of tea to commenting on whatever dashes past on Facebook before I lose it forever. Arbitrarily, I seem to have settled on posting on a Friday. Tiny little band of appreciative fans, please take note (but don’t hold me to it).

Where to write, where to write? My study is the intstudy floorended place. But what’s the collective noun for things that arrive from real life and get in the way? Could it be an “interruption” of papers, or a “bureaucracy” of bumf? These piles increase more than they diminish, and sorting them out takes precious minutes hours days weeks months years of my life… For some reason this always involves crouching on the floor until the joints freeze into the filing position. Then they can only be unstiffened through repeated use of the yoga mat which fortunately has been left rolled up next to the bookshelf. Faithful followers, you may have to wait while I roll my shoulders and bre…e….e…eathe.

How to write, how to write?  I’m so impressed by the stern colleagues on blogging advice sites who say: “Blog a coherent sequence of themes”. But my highly exclusive little fan base will know from previous posts that I’m a bit of an anti planner. In other words, I like to catch an idea as it happens to butterfly past, gather a few images (concrete or metaphorical), bung in a prissy bit of moral tone and some rhetorical fulmination, and embark. I note these random ingredients and tug them into some sort of order sandwiched by a starter’s flag and a finishing line. But I often don’t know where they’re going to lead me when I begin, so the racing metaphor, although apt for a deadline beset blogger, goes off piste here. Maybe that’s where the excitement lies for my loyal fan(s)?

And yet, I seem to be writing. Have courage, small group of expectant readers! Because Who To Write For – is you!

But now I’m distracted by my son coming in. He mentions needing to get something from the loft today. Ai caramba! I can’t get into the loft without help, so here’s a rare chance to sift through generations of family photos whose copyright NOBODY can challenge and which are therefore invaluable for blog articles. Loft 2And they’ll lead to all sorts of new possibilities – posts on gardening, on tennis, on dust and insulation, on assorted crockery and mouldy cushions and paintings I no longer want on the wall, on why paintings work on the wall for a while and then don’t, on the seaside, on studying, on travel, on domesticity, on childhood, on friendship, on generational similarities and differences, on work, on work outings, on dumping work and possibly missing work … and of course while I’m up there I’ll be ambushed by boxes and boxes and boxes of books.

Meanwhile my son will just quietly retrieve what he came for and wait, and my dwindling group of readers will sigh… and sigh………please let me know you’re still there, fans, readers, tolerators and incidental visitors by posting a comment. Do any of you also live like this? In return, I promise a blog post a week and a second novel (one day).

Robs feet 003



© Jessica Norrie 2016