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My so far unpublished novel The Magic Carpet involves the demands schools make on families.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

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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.)

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The world in four short blocks

printerApologies for more infelicities than usual this week. I lost two hours to a petulant printer which didn’t welcome my novel’s complete first draft, grinding out crumpled disordered sheets and requiring intense therapy every ten pages. A charming (no, really: I requested and value her knowledge) Gujarati friend then pointed out everything that was wrong with the chapters featuring a Hindu family. Ten percent of the 300 hard won pages is effectively waste paper.”See?” crowed the printer.”I said you should wait.”

kwikfitWell, wait I did last night after a puncture revealed contemporary repair kits are a poor substitute for a spare wheel. Three hours later the efficient Turkish breakdown man arrived; then there were three more hours at Kwik Fit this morning. It was my turn for petulance. Friday mornings are my blog writing time!

The charms of the Kwik Fit waiting room are limited (despite the cheerful efficiency of the Afro Caribbean manager) so I wandered along Leyton High Road, which I hadn’t explored since it was tarted up for the 2012 Olympics. And you know what? We writers should get out more. Immediately I found enough material to keep a modern Dickens in business. My quick photos tell a story of their own, just waiting to be peopled with loves, misfortunes and human warmth.Please read it, if possible in conjunction with my posts Peace and about teaching in multicultural areas. This scruffy corner of a soon to be gentrified corner of London deserves to be recorded, and I’m only sorry I did it in such a hurry.

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The peculiar hair salon and the monstrous fruit

Peculiar Hair and Mush Turkish Traditional Barbers both looked welcoming, although I avoided Mermaid Massage (special services available) in favour of the Chinese acupuncturists:

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Our household now has the shoe rack, door handles, green nail polish, and banana sweets we didn’t know we needed courtesy of the “Carnival” cornucopia, where I was served by an Irish lady while the cashiers chatted in Urdu. Sadly I couldn’t see anything in Blackwell’s window to tempt me, since I don’t need any old toy cars or dusty Tower of London souvenirs.

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Zoom in for the Mama Afrika Kulcha Shap and Cleopatra’s, to the left

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For the first year in many, I’m told no new Eastern European children were enrolled where I used to teach. Here, three miles west, Romanians and Polish seem to enjoy mixed fortunes: this van certainly wasn’t delivering to Sainsbury’s, and “Gaska” is moving up and down the parade.

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I didn’t get photos of the Muslim Cultural Centre, the Al-Jazira cafe, the yam and plantain displays or the (excellent) Portuguese restaurant but I did discover where in East London Malaysia meets Mogadishu…

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…and where you can find Somali, Romanian and Spanish food sharing a block with a more traditional tyre provider than KwikFit.

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For a breath of relatively fresh air I could have walked around Coronation Gardens but the cricket ground was in use, unlike (apparently) Billy’s wooden workshop by the gates:

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A bar whose name I forgot to record (sorry) provided some great street art:

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…and I now know where to take clothes for repair:

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Last came the moment that may even make a three figure bill and the loss of six hours worthwhile. I didn’t stage this juxtaposition. It was just waiting for a writer to use, outside another empty shop relocating along the parade.

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I ♥ London too. Please keep the connection, everyone.

©Jessica Norrie 2017