Mark my words: teaching, writing, learning

My so far unpublished novel The Magic Carpet involves the demands schools make on families. I was pleased to see my themes reinforced this week by Andria Zafirakou who’s been named “the world’s best teacher”. Ms Zafirakou is one of so many committed, imaginative colleagues who deserve awards, and interestingly, she works in ways this government may barely regard as teaching. With characteristic goodwill she’s now using the prize and publicity to reinforce the same messages I believe in.

Ms Zafirakou teaches creative subjects, art and textiles – yes, they do matter, Mr Gove and successors! She provides breakfast because hungry pupils can’t learn – take note, ministers who proposed abolishing free school meals for over a million children this week? She knows their housing conditions because she makes home visits, unlike the council leader who’d never entered a tower block before Grenfell burned down. She sees children onto the bus at night to protect them from gang violence. (How sad – senior staff were doing that when I was on teaching practice in 1983.) She greets them in their home languages and shows them art from their own cultures before asking them to appreciate  “our” Renaissance.

A G girls use this one
I’ve blanked these faces in a snap I found from a 1985 school outing, as a courtesy to their now middle aged owners. If one of you sees it and wants the original, get in touch!

I got burnt out after far smaller efforts than Ms Zafirakou makes. When you leave teaching to be a writer, you swap wielding a red pen over other people’s work to being marked yourself, first during the writing process and then at the final exam. It’s a salutary lesson. I’ve been working out level descriptors and grade boundaries for The Magic Carpet since my agent began submitting it.

A* I thoroughly enjoyed reading it / absolutely loved this / a great cast of characters / Jessica is a very accomplished writer/ it was such a topical read / engagement in such a wide range of contemporary issues

A – a clever idea / certainly timely and thought-provoking / an enjoyable read / really authentically written / I thought that was a really nice touch and something quite different

B a nice premise / it’s a lovely novel and I wish you lots of luck placing it elsewhere / well written

C –  I couldn’t quite see how we would position it on our list and it is for this reason that I’m going to have to pass / I wish you the best of luck in finding the right home for it / We were a little conflicted on this one 

Dconcept a little contrived / the pace suffered a bit / this didn’t quite grab me enough to take forward / voice not distinctive enough

Edifficult for me to invest in the characters / a bit confusing due to the amount of characters and the contrast between children’s and adult voices / too many changing viewpoints so the narrative didn’t quite have that flow

Fail – I may have been a little over generous to myself with these grade boundaries, as none of the (real) remarks above have led to a bidding war or indeed a single offer, so in a sense they’re all fails. 

What to do? I could move on – my sardonic mother would say: “If at first you don’t succeed, give up!” I could revert to teaching. Or I could learn from the grade E lesson – too many viewpoints.

One theme of The Magic Carpet is how differently people experience the same intended provision. My story shows diverse pupils in a typical London school, the contrasting ways their families support them (or don’t/can’t) through one school demand, and the implications for their futures. The story theme and structure involve multiple experiences stemming from the same request, so I’ve written several viewpoints. But I did whittle them down from the standard thirty in a class to five, and each voice does have discrete chapters. In real life they’d all be clamouring at once! I also focussed on a single homework project, whereas as any parent knows, schools often make simultaneous demands: uniform, outings, payments, charity events, sports, closures, exams…

Although the disparate audience is any teacher’s everyday reality, successive governments have proved increasingly dense in their pursuit of a one size educational model for all. (Stay with me: it’s a novel, not a political discussion paper.)

School languages
My bible, for many years of my career, published by Reading University in 1996.

Families don’t have a simple, single point of view. I chose the voices of two mothers, a father, and a grandmother who provides daily childcare. Also one child, because too much discussion of schools doesn’t allow children to speak. They’re from different ethnic backgrounds, because around 37% of Londoners were born outside the UK.  Readers need to get their heads round these five viewpoints, which are initially separate but link as the story progresses. By comparison, a teacher seeing infants off at the end of the day routinely receives random information from up to thirty carers of any gender, orientation, religion, mother tongue, ability or class (potentially involving housing, health, safeguarding, relationships, finance, tuition, leisure, progress, immigration status…) I wanted to get a flavour of that onslaught, without leaving anyone as overwhelmed as teachers often are.

But the E grade editors tell me it’s confusing. A simple aid, discussed by Book Connectors recently, would be to insert a list of characters by household at the beginning. I prefer that to radical surgery. Cutting the viewpoints would weaken the point: the mix of generations, heritages, preoccupations and capacities sharing the same space.

On a lighter, equally important note, The Magic Carpet is about stories, creativity and drama, learning through fun and allowing children a childhood.

I’d love this quote from Ms Zafirakou on the cover of The Magic Carpet: It’s great to say every child should have the same potential, but you need to know the personal background and the lives of your children, and how different and complex they are.” I hope she’d approve of my fictional children who in their creative storytelling are, as she advises, “communicating…  building up social skills, talking about and breaking down role play…  life skills that every child needs.” They’re being entertained and entertaining too, as my readers will be if/when the magic carpet makes its maiden voyage and lands on the booksellers’ tables.

So I’ve decided neither to give up or cut viewpoints for now (unless a publisher offers to guide me). I’ll maintain faith in my product, and wait for one of the people who “absolutely loves this” to be Chair of the Board and override everyone else. I’ll continue to advocate for children, through writing, not teaching. Meanwhile congratulations, Andria Zafirakou and all the teachers and assistants like you.

©Jessica Norrie 2018







14 thoughts on “Mark my words: teaching, writing, learning

  1. Children are incredible; each child has a magical place, a secret house into which they can go and dream and create. When adults come into the picture, they often enter those secret houses without even wiping their feet, and they proceed to take every single dream hidden inside and change it to meet society’s expectations that have absolutely nothing to do with the children.

    I remember being a substitute teacher for a group of special needs children. The teacher had been teaching them the word “glider” as something that was representative of the G letter. When I came to the class, I asked the children if they knew what a glider was and they all looked at me as if I were speaking some other language. So I had the aides all get paper and give each child a piece of paper, and we all made gliders. I helped them to write the word, and then had them all decorate their own gliders, and then we had a glider race, five children at a time, and each time the winners would go against each other until in the end we had one winner, but all received “prizes” for their creativity, and I can tell you that each child knew what it was they were learning and it meant something to each one. They were able to take their treasures into their secret houses to place with the rest of their dreams.

    Make a child’s learning meaningful, using color and dreams and magical things. Let them experience it and create it in their own way. it doesn’t have to be “right,” or even be anything like what everyone else is creating. Let it be the wonderful magic that is waiting to come out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a beautifully written comment. You should publish this as a manifesto for teachers and children everywhere! I love the “not even wiping their feet”! Let’s hope the legislative pendulum swings back very soon. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you so kindly. Yes, I come from the world of teaching and being an aide, and I can tell you that the schools are all about attendance and the money it means from each student being in school. And the teachers are all about their personal achievements as teachers, which these days have nothing to do with the quality of what the students are learning. I recently was asked to tutor a child in math. One day the school was teaching them multiplication and division (and they had not gotten yet into fractions) and the next day, quite literally, they were working on coordinates and Algebra. No wonder children come out of school with no understanding or inspiration from what they have learned.


      2. It’s terrible if it’s come to that. Here (UK) I would say the majority of my colleagues cared first and foremost for the children, , but are intimidated by management and limited in what they can do by endless government pronouncements that show little understanding of child development. But I think, eventually, things will right themselves (just glad I don’t have children or grandchildren in school this decade)! Thanks for your comments and stick to your principles, there are many worldwide who share them.


    1. Thank you most kindly. I am so inspired by your writing and that of Sue Vincent that it has awakened my soul within and I am finding my words again. This is wonderful; I feel brand new!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the idea of a simple map of family groups, it would be a shame to pare down the colourful mix of pupils and familes. I was amused at the thought of the infant teacher confronted with such a mix of carers. At playgroup we had one boy whose parents tended to forget him and the mother’s ex husband would turn up to collect him!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Jessica Norrie pays to tribute to the consummate educator Andria Zafirakou who has been named World’s Best Teacher.. Jessica also explores Ms. Zafirakou’s philosophy on the role of the teachers which sounds much more appealing than some of the ‘rote’ style of teaching I enjoyed at some of my several schools. Also a look at Jessica’s new book The Magic Carpet with too is set in a school and she shares some of the feedback she has received from those she has submitted her book to for consideration. It has thrown up some issues that require more thought but from my perspective it sounds like a book that will appeal to many parents, those who have been through the diverse classrooms we have today and to teachers. I look forward to reading. #recommended

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Sally. Easter holidays now for my erstwhile colleagues and my goodness they deserve it. I hope the book makes it through the process but for now I’m off to do some wallpapering. Have a lovely Easter everybody.

      Liked by 3 people

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