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My so far unpublished novel The Magic Carpet involves the demands schools make on families.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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A prescription for blocked writers

I’d written my Work In Progress into a dark, locked cellar. It was time for something to stimulate and inspire. My budget precludes a long writing course, and I don’t like online learning. But since 2014 I’d had positive experiences at a Guardian Masterclass with William Ryan, a summer workshop with Marina Warner, and a Spread the Word mentoring session. So I booked “Building Stories” with London Lit Lab. The course aimed to “use the experience of our public and private spaces to inspire evocative fiction.” At the very least I’d have the privilege of working in two of London’s most impressive buildings. At best I’d start writing my way back upstairs.

Attendees included published and unpublished writers, academics, artists and therapists hoping to write fiction or poetry, and our tutors were Zoe Gilbert (Folk) and Lily Dunn.

Riba hall
RIBA, 1st floor landing, with busy participants

Our Saturday setting was the Royal Institute of British Architects, designed by George Grey Wornum, with interiors by his wife Miriam. Light from huge windows and etched glass doors floods the gleaming floors and emphatic angled spaces. Why architects would need a ballroom isn’t obvious, but they have one here to suit the most demanding Cinderella, with a grand staircase for her glass slipper to trip down and curved sofas inviting assignations. The library was modelled on a cruise liner and the soundproofed council chamber had a throne. In our conference room, originally white leather walls had turned uncleanably yellow from the smoke of a thousand meetings. We creaked across sprung floors and hauled ourselves up from the public space to narrower private staircases. Then we jotted our sensory impressions in short unpolished phrases, some of which we shared, anonymously.

An architect helped us study plans from the RIBA archives, including homes, schools, a debtor’s prison, a pheasantry, and an exhibition space. Our new understanding transformed them from codified diagrams to pictures in the mind’s eye. Stories unfolded.

Next, we were to imagine a building used other than for its original purpose. Writing an activity that didn’t fit the space would subvert it, creating tension. A derelict house, bereft of domesticity, is sinister. A church converted to flats must be deconsecrated. When a psychiatric hospital becomes a gated estate of private homes is it more or less of a refuge for the residents? Tube stations in the Blitz with people sleeping on the platforms, stables for cars instead of warm, living horses, ice hotels, the ruined swimming pool where Djokovic practised tennis as a boy. Map the mismatch, said Zoe and Lily. We scribbled away under the nicotine walls. I found myself immersed in a semi-serious idea from years ago, clamouring to be used. It had come to the fore because repurposing a building activates parts of the brain we don’t often use.

After lunch we discussed the psychology of spaces. How conversations run depends whether we’re sitting in a cafe or on a roller coaster. The rooms we’ve lived in are repositories for dreams, thoughts, conversations we’ve had in them (think of Proust). I was reminded how unsettled my father’s house seemed, when he was in hospital and I was popping in to pick things up. Something intangible had left with him, as though the house already knew he would never return… In the deadly quiet of the soundproofed council chamber we read of a Kate Chopin heroine in her hallway and her bedroom, her emotions and expectations adapting to each. The more private space meant she could explore her own secrets, have her epiphany and the story could move on.

We imagined someone with a secret, in a place where they feel safe. What happens? Zoe had postcard portraits, for anyone without such a character in mind already. Hooray! One was Protagonist J, in my stalled WIP. Now I know what he looks like! I described his safe space, nothing like the cold flat air of the council chamber but encouraged into existence there. Then I threatened it.

For a final Point of View, we were given a secret character – mine was a woman with a migraine – and had to write her POV on entering RIBA that morning. Could the others guess her traits from our narrative? It was an elegant way to end the day by referring to how far we’d come since we met.

BL seen on a staircase
British Library foyer, showing “The Tapestry”, from a Kitaj painting with the same name.

The British Library was a contrast on Sunday, our home turf a colourless basement “learning room” with an enormous expanse of white table, and no natural light (but better than my cellar). In groups we tried Erasure poetry, extracting evocative words and phrases from existing work(s), erasing or juxtaposing them to “write” something new. I was tired so on this occasion it didn’t do much for me, but others were immersed and stimulated, creating new poems together on huge sheets of paper. (My Erasure on that sentence might be: It did       for me,      creating    on     huge sheets. ) I thought of Rachel Whiteread’s blank windowed buildings, and of my favourite sentence from Reservoir 13: “There was weather”. So often, silent spaces are as important as what’s there.

Riba writing in council chamber
Council chamber, RIBA
BL room
Our learning room at the BL

We wandered the British Library, making notes for a story about some aspect of the building, or an object housed there. Touch, memories, smells: not only visuals. We drew mind maps of our journey, and of imaginary places in the invisible, non public parts of buildings. This time the huge sheets did work for me, my notes proving fertile fodder later.

BL underground
Who knows what’s in the invisible spaces of our public buildings?

In the afternoon with much shushing and confiscation of pens, we wrote in the Reading Room, normally closed on Sundays. (Pencils only, for fear of marking valuable books.) This room exuded concentration, and we all wrote for forty minutes in palpable silence like brocade drapes muffling us from distraction. (Bit overwrought – Ed.)

BL lightswitch
We stood back for the bigger picture and homed in in the details

Lastly, we discussed editing, considering two versions of a Raymond Carver story. A useful, practical discussion, ending with wine and some shared readings of our stories, before I dived even further underground for the tube home.

Thank you to Zoe, Lily and colleagues for a constructive and enjoyable weekend. For me, the tendency to focus on more literary fiction was especially welcome. These courses don’t end with the final well earned glass of wine, but give participants ideas to draw on for years to come. I enjoyed taking the writing medecine so much, I’ve treated myself to a day at Chawton too. I’m on my way back upstairs!

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©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

Testing times

Sadly, the fronted adverbial raised its ugly head again this week, and prompts me to blog again about teaching children to use language. Cathartically, I imagine the fronted adverbial as a long necked carnivorous dinosaur, head waving from the primordial swamps in search of food. Entertainingly, it bobbed up on Michael Rosen’s Facebook page. Angrily, I read the rotten saga. Happily, I remembered I’m no longer a teacher. Crossly, I empathized with those who are. Achingly, I sympathized with the children.

Do you now know what a fronted adverbial is? Certainly, now I’ve modelled it ad nauseam, and you didn’t need to know the term for it anyway, because you’re not linguistics professors. Neither do children in junior school.

worksheet from Rosen
Worksheet quoted by Michael Rosen on his Facebook page

To be fair, I believe there’s some confusion over whether children themselves are supposed to know the term or just their teachers. I’m not churning through pages of Dfe* bumf to find out, but I can tell you enough people seem to think children need to know it for the 87,700 results of my Google search today to start like this:

fronted advbs(I’m not knocking my colleagues who produce these although I do think the one Rosen showcases needs to chill. You teach what you’re told to teach as best you can, and teachers are wonderful at sharing resources and ideas – the less prepossessing the subject, the more they rise to the challenge.)

A lesser relation of the fronted adverbial, the irregular past participle is another busy little pest that scuttles about causing mayhem to even younger children. Once it infested my classroom. The previous week, I’d teached regular past participles (a benign member of the same genus). We called them Ed. We walkEd about and talkEd about them, lookEd for them, hookEd some from the pages of our books, took – oh dear! and shook – gadzooks! – some into our writing and I releasEd the children into the playground where they shoutEd and playEd and exercisEd their dear little limbs in the satisfaction of knowledge learnEd (t?!) and a past tense story inventEd. Hooray!

DSC_0538
The awful reality of writing in Year 1, before teaching …ed. Teaching chronology looks overdue, too.

For the more literal minded of you, I didn’t teach the …ed suffix with a capital letter. I’m just banging home the point here. I did teach “…suffix ed” (yes, 6 year olds have to know the term suffix) with ellipses (I’m not sure they have to know ellipses but see comment on government documents above) and I telled them “Poor …ed. It isn’t a full name, it can’t go out on its own, it’s just the last part of another word, so it never has a capital letter.” “My name’s Ed and it does!” saided a boy. “Couldn’t your mummy have taken you on an unauthorised holiday today?” I spat through grat teeth.

I’m not against teaching grammar. I remember starting French, discovering verbs, nouns and adjectives and thinking this is jolly useful. A rule to apply. An apparatus to climb. A tool for cobbling together sentences. I wonder if you can do it in English too? Ah, yes… Why didn’t they tell me at junior school? The 1970s approach needed and the current approach needs to consider what’s age appropriate, from either end of the spectrum.

The advantage of grammar is government can test it, (like testing scales or memorising the periodic table. But would anyone teach those before playing tunes or lighting a bunsen burner?) The advantage of test results is government can judge the test takers and test teachers easily, categorise a school as in “special measures” (ie more tests), and solve the problem with an academy that makes money for shareholders. I first heard that from an Ofsted inspector and suspected her of conspiracy theories. But fast forward six years and these tweets make the same point:

Twitter page

Oops. That’s what happens when I don’t plan a post strictly enough – someone else takes over the rant. Where was I?

Teaching grammar can be fun. I invented the “Full stop police” and the children begged to play again. One child reads aloud and the “police” clap where the full stops should be. “Pass the full stop” requires a satsuma, representing a full stop. It’s passed around and the child holding it when the narrative comes to a full stop gets a segment. Or throw a black foam rubber ball… etc. There’s pleasure in finding patterns and rules in every subject. Nothing wrong with that, but do it at the right age. Infant children should be playing snap, not bridge. They should absorb the harder rules by exposure to good and varied writing, and have more time to read and listen to stories.

Teaching grammar can also be profitable. Here’s an article about what grammar schools earn from publishing mock tests for their entrance exams. They’re expensive to a parent on a low income, at between £28 and £60, as are the tutors to mediate them. Do I detect another conspiracy theory?

Let’s return to my 6 and 7 years olds, in their second week of past participles:

Me: Hallo children. Today we’re going to write another story. (Some smile, some groan. Children can be irregular too.) Another story set in the past.

Child (sounds pleased): With Ed!

Me: Do not call out, Jason. No, …ed will not be in this story.

Children (chorus): We likEd Ed.

Me: This week, children, we’re going to meet the irregular past participle. Soliloquy: Irregular PP is to PP as the hornet to the honeybee. He stings big time, repeatedly. A single attack can be enough to kill a child’s interest in writing for life, without expert treatment. You are only 7 – many of you are only 6. There is no known vaccine. So tread carefully, my dears. Better staff than I have lookEd at their year 2s and quailEd. Time for the dreary trudge of exposition.

Me: Any suggestions from you? Hands up! Readed? No, sorry. Eated? No. Buyed? Wented? No. Ringed? Like “the bell ringed?” No. Singed …now, you heard what I said about “ringed” so don’t push it…

Child: (piping voice, shellshocked tone) We’d be safer if we just didn’t use verbs at all.  

Little Amaara: (weeping) We won’t be able to write anything without getting it wrong! And I was looking forward to finishing my story from last week with Ed. (Puts head in hands.)

I remember when there were few government teaching guidelines. Poor or nonexistent guidelines, poor planning (including mine), inadequate resources, firebells, abusive behaviour – all these cause difficulties and part of a teaching career (not the part they show in the recruitment ads) is learning to overcome them.

I “helped” children sew when I was sew untrained myself I sewed trouser legs together (that’s another story). I was tasked with explaining STDs to embarrassed teenage boys who spoke no English. I attempted painting when the only paint in the stock room was brown, and gluing with Pritt Sticks that dried up before the pupils were born. I triumphed over an interactive (huh!) white board that wouldn’t be reorientated no matter WHAT so the pen never connected with the surface. I taught forces with magnets that didn’t work due to badly designed storage. I’ve written poems about snow with children who weren’t allowed (health and safety) to play in it.

But when the irregular past participle came buzzing along for the 6 and 7 year olds and nouns became noun phrases and verbs became present progressives and exclamations had to start with What (How ridiculous!) I wented home and choosed a fortifying drink and after 32 years I writed an email with my resignation.

exclamation
From 2017 KS2 grammar test paper

Mischievously, here’s a possible slice of revenge. On many Government web pages, there’s a bit at the bottom that says:

Government website 2

Have fun! But remember not to include financial information, duh.

Sorry about the rant. Will be back to posting about books, next week, via Smorgasbord,

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Jessica Norrie’s Literary Column – Reading from the very start.

This was my first post for Sally Cronin’s “Smorgasbord” blog this week, hence no Friday post here yesterday. Do visit her blog. It has a wealth of posts on a wide variety of subjects! Wherever you read this post, I welcome comments as always, and will be back here next week as usual.

Smorgasbord - Variety is the spice of life

Reading from the very start

Greetings to Smorgasbord readers! Some of you know me already from Sally’s reblogs. Now I’m invited to write a four weekly post on books and literature. It’s an honour for me to think what may attract a new audience as my own blog is verging on the niche… so let’s start at the very beginning!

What is the beginning?

Before I wrote fiction and blogged, I was a translator, teacher and teacher trainer, with students ranging from 3 – 80+. I learned if a child learns young enough to appreciate different points of view through reading stories, the habit ebbs and flows but is never quite lost, with huge repercussions for how their lives develop.

Non-fiction can be told as stories too. The beginnings are usually clear, the plotting goes all over the place, the ends may be murky, but there’s always a story in…

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A Word About World Book Day

I support everything World Book Day stands for. Who wouldn’t want to support reading, advance literacy, encourage authors and readers, swell the book borrowing and buying audience of all ages and races? Do you sense a BUT coming? It’s only a small one.

book-day-ros-and-rob-weasleys
Ginny and Ron Weasley, 2002

The schools I taught in and the ones where my children went celebrated World Book Day. One way to do this was by inviting the children and staff to dress up. (Fortunately for you, ex colleagues, I’ve lost the photos.) For me as a parent it was, mostly, fun deciding with the children who they would dress up as, how to put together the costumes, working out the inevitable challenges (Babar’s ears, Pirate Pete’s parrot). Some of that time I was working from home as a translator; at others I had access to my own school library and stationery cupboard which clearly did make my challenge easier. Even so, making a costume at home, if the school gives you enough notice, is not usually difficult.

book-day-ros-and-babar-jpg-1
Babar, 1998

It’s creative, collaborative, and involves exploring the story, characters and illustrations in more depth than you do by “just” reading the books where they feature (I put “just” in inverted commas because learning to read and continuing to want to read are incredibly complex processes – but that’s for another post).

Making a costume together promotes all the following skills: gross and fine motor skills; listening; decision making; art and design; interpretation; acting/role play; compromise; language – receptive and active; imagination; mathematics (measuring, perception, shape, calculation); sense of humour (yes, humour is an innate skill but if it doesn’t get practice, it withers). And it promotes parenting skills and the right to a childhood. All that, just from making a costume! (Oh, and thrift, as ideas can be reused – Babar can be adapted for Jill Murphy’s Mr or Mrs Large, or for The Elephant and the Bad Baby. Meg can grow into Ginny Weasley, the Worst Witch or witchever you prefer.)

So I was saddened to read this year, that by 27th February British people had spent at least £386,000 on World Book Day costumes. If you DO want to take the quick and easy route, of course you could buy next year’s costumes in the Tesco sale now. When I was trying to consult the Asda cheap costumes page a BMW advert kept driving over it: perhaps you could wear officially licensed Dorothy Deluxe Red Slippers available on Amazon for £80.45 as you go for a spin. But if parents are going to spend £80.45, or £386,000+ for World Book Day, shouldn’t it be on books and literacy projects, not in supermarkets and online giants?

There’s a way of getting ahead of the game for next year, spending just £1 and benefiting Book Aid International, by using one of their 18 costume templates. The World Book Day site’s inspiration page also refers you to Book Aid International, and has plenty of other ideas. Book Aid International aim to equip and run libraries in sub-Saharan Africa: a better cause than Tesco, surely, at 25% of the sale price of their cheapest item today? (I’ve added the link to show I bear no grudges). Tesco do at least manage one black child model out of 20+ (unless they’re all hiding under the superhero costumes), but Book Aid International – sadly, in view of their aims, but in fact in view of everything – none at all. Whoops, I’m going off post again.

The photos on this blog post, rather dog eared and faded now, from pre digital days, are not intended to be smug. I was a good parent in this respect because it appealed to my own interests, but inadequate in others (nutrition, sport, and patience come to mind). I’m now milking the experience by writing in the novel in progress about the relationship between parents and schools and the everyday pressures and joys involved for both – the first rough draft went to the agent this week which is a milestone of sorts. But what my photos do illustrate are happy memories of joint parent/child projects, inspired by books we read together.

I’m quoting from the Manchester Evening News now: With the … finding that 28 per cent of children will choose to dress up as fictional characters that aren’t even from books, and a further 33pc as a character from a book they have never even read, the company is reminding people to not lose sight of the real meaning of the event

book-day-rob-artful-dodger
The Artful Dodger, 2001

We used to have a poster at school, in the library, which we showed to parents who asked about tutors and workbooks and extra homework. Often they were stressed themselves and were stressing their children and the poster was intended not to criticise but to help. It looked more exciting than this but all it said was:

Ten Ways to improve reading:

1.Read. 2. Read. 3.Read. 4.Read. 5.Read. 6.Read. 7.Read. 8.Read. 9.Read. 10.Read. 

I would add: 11. Enjoy! (See my post from 2016 for some more ideas – and they don’t involve dressing up.)

No children were hurt in the making of this post and we all continue to live happily ever after.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

Words from the wise: writing with Marina Warner

Dartington courtyard

In the warmish summer of 2016 there was a wise and beautiful lady who ran a writing course in the grounds of the medieval hall at Dartington, among the trees and flowers where music plays and voices sing from dawn until the moon rises shimmering over the river.  I stumbled onto Marina Warner‘s course by accident, having been too dreamy to read my brochure attentively, and expecting only music in this enchanted place. But her welcome was as gracious to the wandering stranger as to the more studious participants, and this is what happened over the next five magical  days.

Replete with a breakfast of local fruits and meats, we passed through fertile gardens and followed a green slope shaded by a spreading mulberry tree.writng hut outside Steep stone steps led to a small wooden hut whose interior swelled Narnia-like to encompass a bay window and another storey below. Here we descended to write our stories on days when the rain lashed the leaded panes and the clouds grumbled through the grey skies. But such times were few: in sunnier hours we found secluded dells and tranquil shade wherein to nurse our newborn words.

“Cross-currents in the Ocean of Stories” was the theme: Marina led our journey through stories past and new, across oceans and deserts, from Mount Olympus through Arabian nights, crusades and silk roads and Celtic woodland, widdershins through conflict and desire and the eternal plight of the refugee. In safety we met monsters and explored the byways of fairy tales. We were a varied group of ages and styles, with backgrounds in writing and teaching and radio and television, psychotherapy and the visual arts. One of us could say with proud truth:”I was born in a place called Drama”. And because Dartington is a meeting place for young and old, raw and persevering and gifted and internationally famous musicians, we were also viol players and lutenists and singers, and when we were not listening, reading and writing, we were making music together.writng hut with flowers

Marina spoke of realism and fantasy, how Ted Hughes and Philip Pullman make the fairy-like corporeal and psychological, of the highly valued slave musicians of the caliphs and of the souls of trees. In our hut in the garden, we considered plants: no respecters of borders, cross fertilising, blow-ins without language. We agreed that fairy tales can be told and retold ad infinitum, in an oral tradition that seems everlasting but is yet vulnerable, a tradition that is bottom up, but used and reused by the gods of literature, by Chaucer and Shakespeare and Boccaccio and Dante, Kafka in his “fairy tales for dialecticians” and in our own times by Angela Carter and AS Byatt.

We considered riddles, quests and prohibitions, objects that come to life and speak, (magic carpets; violins strung with the hair of murder victims), astrology and imprisonment, the princess who says no and the princess who yearns, the ghost and the creature transformed. We found love, hate, desire, and shame and redemption in these stories; curses and physical deficiencies; possibilities that break all known rules and yet reside within a universally recognisable framework.

And what of language? There were proverbs, rhymes, repetition, alliteration, rhetoric…strange languages and onomatopoeia. We learned from admonitions and fables and received advice. We told the time: predictive, recollection, time stopped as in the Sleeping Beauty, time postponed as in the Arabian Nights. Who is the narrator and what does she know? Is the child reliable; does the old crone tell the truth; can the messenger be believed?

We talked of modern fairy tales, making sense of horror. Marina told of a Nobel Prize winner writing of Chernobyl and of the Last Wolf of Extremadura. Does cruelty in fairy tales incite, or comfort? She is working at present on storytelling projects with refugees; some psychologists do not want to add to their trauma by using fairy tales; others see it as cathartic. But refugees are not a blank slate: they disseminate and collect their own tales on their journeys, as did the men (and women?) who accompanied Marco Polo and Richard the Lionheart. (See more details of the Palermo based project here.)

writing hut inside

Marina set us tasks. We’d to find an object in the garden and set a riddle; we’d to use repetition as in a traditional tale (I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll BLOW your house down). We’d to write of an item precious to ourselves: jewellery proved popular here, but one man chose the participant badge without which he would not be fed, instructed or entertained at Dartington and I chose my glasses which enable me to see. We were asked to write a piece of persuasive dialogue.Some of us faltered, some of us omitted it, nobody failed, most of us bloomed. This was not a modern course, with aims and objectives and evaluations at the end, or if it was they were well disguised: it appeared that we meandered from curious to fascinating, from touching to heart-rending, from personal to universal, but in the terrible world of today it all made perfect sense. Marina quoted André Jolles: “The miraculous is here the only possible guarantee that the immorality of reality has stopped.”

It’s too early to say that we all wrote happily ever after, but we were set on our way, and I cannot recommend highly enough a reading of Marina Warner’s work. If you can combine it with a visit to Dartington, you will be in a fairy land of your own. May your good wishes be granted and bless you for reading.

Dartington window seat

 

©Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

 

All human life is there

I’m a writer now but this is my prologue. I’ve just retired: Thursday was my last day in school. Thirty four years have included teaching in Paris, Dijon, Sheffield, and various London boroughs, moving backwards from adults down to Early Years. Although “trained” (in inverted commas because the training of the time was frankly inadequate and mostly irrelevant) to teach English as an Additional Language, I’ve taught right across the curriculum, from design and technology (badly) to French (well).

leaving 1

When I started, children with EAL were often taught separately, in a mobile on the playing field, down the road, or in some dilapidated annexe no one else knew existed. In theory, when their English was good enough, they’d “enter the mainstream”. But many staff were less than welcoming and anyway mainstream lessons didn’t stay still for them to catch up, so many never made the transition. Therefore they never saw specialist laboratories or technology rooms, rousing (or not) assemblies or school performances. Quite rightly,  the then Commission for Racial Equality challenged so called “withdrawal”, and an in-class support model developed instead.

Sometimes it worked. EAL pupils were inspired by subject specialist teaching, we differentiated materials and used any means we could to help them access information, they were surrounded by stimulating, varied models of peer and teacher English and many left school with good results. Sometimes it was difficult: one needlework teacher set the whole class to embroider “church kneelers” and from a junior and younger position I had to mediate on behalf of the 90% of the class who were not Christian. Sometimes it was ridiculous. My most embarrassing moment? “Supporting” a newly arrived 14 year old Bengali boy in a Biology lesson on STDs (at a time when I was heavily pregnant). I decided discretion was the better part of teaching that day, chickening out of trying to explain the diagrams of genitalia; his vague, accepting beam suggested he hadn’t really picked up the finer (if any) points of syphilis.

There was very little prescription when I started. For second year (now Year 8) English, the only class set of books I found in the stock cupboard was “The Nigger of the Narcissus” by Joseph Conrad. Historical context notwithstanding, I thought I’d be better off making up my own anthology of materials. The hapless head of English had 25 other random staff to deploy, of varying enthusiasms. One, technically  a geographer but the Geography department had jettisoned her, based all her lessons on dogs. (She liked dogs.) So I wasn’t against the National Curriculum when it arrived. There was still room for interpretation; you could teach didactically or collaboratively or it could be pupil centered or mixed ability or cross curricular or delivered through practical activities, but there was at least some general guidance which was quite welcome after the dogs and Joseph Conrad. But now there is far too much prescription. Teachers are becoming deskilled. They fear using their initiative, developing their own approaches, trusting their own judgement, and that has a narrowing effect on everything. Potential exploration and enjoyment is reduced, creativity  stifled, enquiry and dexterity and empathy discouraged in favour of facts and measurable outcomes. Of course schools should be accountable, but whatever happened to individualised learning?

Later I taught infants, and at the same time I taught French and Spanish at evening classes. The government introduced modern foreign languages to primary schools and I delivered training on how to teach it, often to staff who had no modern language qualifications and a deep fear of making fools of themselves. But any kind of teaching, or training, is the same. You find out where someone or a group stands in terms of their knowledge and ability, and you make progress by building on from there.You achieve this through humour, sensitivity, flexibility, and a range of varied activities. Failure shouldn’t be in your vocabulary if you are a teacher, of any age group, in any subject. Instead, you cajole, you encourage, you reframe, you adapt, you repeat, you reinforce, you inspire. It can be emotionally exhausting as you process everyone’s fears and transform them into attainment. I think teachers could often do with the sort of regular debriefing and counselling that therapists get, for it’s not so different from therapy, except with thirty subjects at once. Everyone remembers their best teachers, but why when you tell people what you do, do so many people love recounting stories of the teachers they reduced to tears, the paper darts thrown and lesson objectives derailed? Is it because deep down (or not so deep down) we all want revenge for years of boring assemblies, ugly uniforms, and perhaps patronising treatment? I think that will get worse in future, as ever younger children encounter stress. Teachers and pupils alike are human beings, with good days and bad, flailing about under constantly changing, increasingly idiotic government initiatives and fads, with a scandalously variable quality of management and all in an environment which would give a germ warfare researcher new ideas. The successes teachers achieve in the face of this are akin to those of overworked doctors steering patients through treatment or social workers (the ones we don’t hear about) providing comfort and reducing abuse.

I also remember pupils who didn’t make it. The two brothers with Duchenne’s whose condition deteriorated as they moved up the school and whose mother was one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, the nursery boy killed in a house fire, the 9 year old shot by his own father and the teenager who came off his motorbike. Also A. who died suddenly in her sleep aged six and Y. whose brave, generous parents provided funds for an entertainer for the whole school on what would have been his fifth birthday. There must be others I don’t know about.

Ayushi's garden 2 Rest in peace.

I wouldn’t have stayed in it this long if it was all doom and gloom. Thank you, children, teenagers, students and colleagues for your support, your thanks and your warmth. Thank you for your interest in what I had to say; thank you for making it clear when I’d said enough; thank you for your hiccups and your successes and your languages and your cultures. Thank you for showing me parts of society I’d never have encountered and for teaching me more than I taught you – all human life is truly there, in a school, and most human beings do not enjoy the privileged access teachers have. I wasn’t the most patient of teachers, I wasn’t a conscientious marker, I didn’t much like helping with extra curricular activities or going on outings, and I have a bad temper. But even though you were a captive audience you always did me the favour of laughing at my jokes, and that’s one of the best ways to reinforce someone’s ego that I know. Long may the humour and humanity continue in education, for even the current regime can’t, I think, snuff it out completely.

thank you

 

copyright Jessica Norrie 2016