Not Minding – Flash Fiction Piece

This is a flash fiction piece that I had published by Reflex Fiction on 8th February, 2018. All feedback really appreciated!
It’s definitely reignited my passion for flash fiction and how much we can say in so few words…

Not Minding

“I don’t mind.”

Of course not. Violet should know by now not to expect another answer.

“Do you mind about anything?”

“I want you to choose.”

Oliver likes the easy option.

“Who doesn’t want to be the one not deciding?” Violet says. “I want to not pick, just once.”

Oliver’s sigh-riddled reply, performed with well-practiced patience, only tightens her tangled insides further.

“Look. It’s only dinner. It’s Friday night.”

“I know what day it is, Oliver.”

“Well. We could stay in? Cook? Pick up a takeaway? Or we could treat ourselves to a meal out? Pop to the pub, perhaps, or try somewhere fancy?”

Violet can’t stop it; a high-pitched squawk, like being agonisingly strangled, escapes her lips. She frantically recomposes herself, trying to train her signs of stress to stay below the surface.

“That’s not a decision, Oliver. You’ve simply outlined the options. I know the options. In. Out. Take-out. Just this time, can I be the one to not mind?”

“But—”

“No buts. Tell me, Oliver, what you fucking want.”

Violet sees him shiver. Oliver’s skin always bristles, like a cat under attack, when Violet lets slip a swear word.

“Fine. I’ll decide. But—please—let’s not have any fucking.”

“Fine. No fucking.”

A silence-weighted wait widens the cracks in their conversation. Finally, Oliver fills the growing gap. He has learnt not to expect Violet to give in.

“How about out? It’s Friday night, after all. We’ve spent too much time in, lately.”

“That’s a start. Out it is. Where shall we go?”

“I don’t mind.”

There it is. So instinctive, that poisonous phrase escapes Oliver’s lips before he can stop it.

“Fucking hell! Just for tonight, can’t you just try to just fucking mind! About something. Anything.”

That won’t be the evening’s final fucking. Violet knows that much by now. A sob chokes its way to the tip of her throat, although she hastily attempts to swallow it from sight. Now is not the time for tears. She and Oliver already have enough tears to last a lifetime.

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Social mobility: real or simply rhetoric?

Educational policy is in turmoil. Again. Things began to look slightly brighter before Christmas, with Justine Greening’s announcement in mid-December about the launch of the £23m Future Talent Fund. It sounded promising and a way to explore new ways of supporting bright students from poorer backgrounds to have the same access to opportunity as wealthier children. Social mobility has become a political buzzword and, whilst educational inequality is now frequently talked about, actions taken to address it remain limited.
So the government’s proposal seemed promising. The Future Talent Fund was part of a new plan for addressing social mobility in education called ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’. The plan included a variety of different focus areas, including increased research into the significance of early years intervention, with £50m reallocated to support the opening of nurseries in areas of the UK without enough childcare provision, as well as improved help with getting people into good jobs and making connections with businesses, particularly for disadvantaged families who, as Greening herself succinctly stated, lack “the networks, the smart advice, the confidence that employers sometimes look for”.
Of course, the announcement of the ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’ plan was only a start. And, of course, it wasn’t free from criticism. Policy was still to materialise into practice. How would these suggestions, as well meaning as they sounded in writing, actually impact schools across the country, particularly areas of extreme low literacy and deprivation where outreach has historically been so hard? How would these suggestions tackle the continual problem of teacher shortage, particularly in rural communities and less desirable schools and areas of the country outside of London? How would these suggestions address the backlash against the government’s previous lack of focus on social mobility, which had led to the Social Mobility Commission’s resignation?
Nevertheless, Greening’s continued focus on social mobility was a positive step. Then, of course, came 2018 and, at the start of 2018, came Teresa May’s cabinet reshuffle. The only consistency in recent educational policy is inconsistency. Justine Greening has now resigned and the new education secretary Damian Hinds may well bring some rather different ideas and opinions. His grammar-educated background is well publicised and there seems to be a renewed fear that he will back the Conservative agenda of advocating for an ‘elite’ secondary school in each town, despite the repeated evidence that grammar schools can harm educational equality. Indeed, removing the more able students from local state schools and leaves those schools with an even greater challenge to achieve strong educational outcomes. In the past, too, Hinds has made comments that are more than a little questionable. For instance, his statement in 2014 that only “mums” can make a difference is a worry, as it promotes stereotypical views of women as home-makers and child-raisers, which conflicts with attempts to make the workplace more equal through shared paternity and maternity rights and a push for businesses to make the transition for new mothers back into work as fair as possible. For every step forward, there seems to be a larger step backwards.
We can only hope that Damian Hinds focuses on social mobility as something that needs to be tackled with actions and not just words. It must not become simply a political buzzword. What is promising is that Hinds apparently shares Greening’s belief that educational reform is needed on a deep, infrastructural level and that educational policy must be far deeper than an issue of limited funding. Let’s put in place tangible support for schools to “narrow the gap”. This support could include a strategy to increase recruitment of high-quality graduates into teaching and incentives to stop so many teachers leaving after only a few years, more developed connections to businesses and local communities to give all young people access to workplace opportunities, as well as a continued focus on improving literacy and pedagogical practice. The future is still hazy but let’s try and make it bright.

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The Final High-Five

When we high-fived tonight—before you left my bedside for the final time—I became ten again. I remember now; we never stopped until the slapping clap of our palms was perfect. Forever twinned together, as your hand touched mine.

Double trouble. That’s what Mr Clay said, in our primary days. I remember now. When we super-glued his seat, squeezed tomato ketchup into his coffee, scribbled hearts in permanent markers on his very white walls, he’d sigh, exasperated. Double trouble. We high-fived each time.

Until tonight, we hadn’t high-fived for fifteen years. Tonight, I felt that slapping clap more than ever.

This is a 101 word flash fiction piece published by online writing site 101 words – flash fiction is a brilliant test for any writer to hone their skills and be ruthless with editing. As someone with a tendency to be overly descriptive and verbose, flash fiction is the perfect challenge to become more refined. All comments and thoughts appreciated on the piece above really appreciated – I am always looking to share tips and tricks with other writers!

You can check out the website here:
https://101words.org/the-final-high-five/#comment-23329

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Behind The I (Blog Published in HCE Review)

How much do we ever really see? In today’s ever-hectic society, with its never-sleeping cyber world and a thousand different tasks to do at all times, our eyes and our every sense are becoming too distracted; there never seems to be a moment to spare. A moment to step back. To observe our world. To see.
Interestingly, we are becoming, quite literally, more and more short-sighted, with up to 60% of the world’s population now requiring glasses or contacts. Indeed, eye strain is an increasing issue with proven links to alterations in lifestyles, particularly the constant virtual pressures on our vision. Many studies over the past decade have shown the undeniable connections between the plummeting rates of people with perfect sight and society’s soaring addictions to all types of technology. Research by King’s College London in 2015, for instance, documented the rising number of diagnoses for myopia in the UK, with those of us between the ages of 25-29 most affected (a frightening 47.2%) and with the majority cases recorded in those with higher education post-16. The study concluded by deducing the central contributing factors: we spend more time studying and reading texts, we spend less hours outdoors and, most worryingly, we spend more and more time tied to computer screens.
This escalation of literal eye problems, however, could be the start of a whole different article. It could kick-start a persuasive piece about the ever lucrative laser eye surgery market, for instance. Or perhaps rant about how reading books offline and online is actually a health hazard. By spending more time indoors, buried in books and, crucially, stuck to the glaring screens of laptops, phones, iPads and whatever other gadgets have most recently hit the headlines, we are becoming dangers unto ourselves.
Perhaps one particularly prevalent learning point here is the extent to which our fading eyesight is symptomatic of wider societal concerns. We are, it seems, living in a world with a population less and less able to step back and see the details of its experiences and environments. This article, though, is of course far from being a warning against too much reading! Books are a beautiful gateway into exploring other ideas, experiences and emotions, into developing empathy and a wider cultural understanding, into escaping our own fraught and faulty surroundings by diving into all sorts of imagination-firing fictional worlds instead.
However, this recent research is a wake-up call; it is a warning that we should consider what other factors are stopping us from stepping back in order to see and to sense the streets of our habitual comings and goings. Our incontestable collective addition to all sorts of screens and smartphones suggests that such overwhelmingly addictive technology is not, perhaps, all that smart after all. Proven to make stress levels sky rocket and to skew self-perceptions about the importance of our own individual problems and priorities, our societal short-sightedness runs far deeper than just a statistical report of the rising number of myopia sufferers. Whatever the condition of our corneas, we are failing, not only literally but metaphorically, to see the details of our everyday existences.
We live in a country scattered with all sorts of sounds, sights and smells, with so much for our senses to make sense of that it can be hard to know where to start. Although this is particularly apparent for the busy bees bustling through London’s streets, it is apparent in all sorts of urban and rural locations across the country. With faces forever glued onto gadgets, everyone’s eyes remain diverted onto email checking and social media obsessing and away from observing any of society’s often spectacular specifics. What about the magical colour conglomerate of an autumnal sunset? Or the mysterious expressions of a row of city centre gargoyles glaring down on the pedestrians below? Or that one gorgeously flourishing evergreen, still growing strong along the side of an otherwise empty fence, despite the cruel winds weathering attempt’s to tear it down?
It is an increasing concern that we are too absorbed in our omniscient online world and too dangerously distracted by the tens of thousands of things we assume we have to be juggling at any one time that we forget to ever really see. This is not to say, of course, that we are not continuously overloaded with tasks and to-do lists, or that it is wrong to use commuting time to cram in as many catch ups as possible. There are quite palpable pressures to meet deadlines to be to available long after hours or to manage fast-paced family life alongside work’s difficult deadlines and do-now demands. And, after all, if we can tick off our admin and odd jobs whilst walking from one meeting to another, or when travelling from the office towards whatever more relaxing post-work destination awaits, or whilst taking a train from one stress to the next, then we can, theoretically, get everything done and put away the work later on, focusing entirely on an evening with a partner, family and friends, or simply to soak up the change of environment and the headspace it should bring.
We can all see, figuratively, that this is simply not reality. Not only do we miss actually looking at the little details of our routes by trying to reply to those last minute requests or complete that one final chore– from architectural anomalies, to the magical skyline and its magically moving shades, to protesting posters and paint patches that scratch out heartfelt messages – but our inability to notice is so ingrained that it stays with us even when we’ve met up with friends and family. Even when we have supposedly, but only superficially, switched off our devices and switched off all other demands on our thoughts. Even when we’ve arrived at the time that we’ve theoretically decided to set aside.
But would benefit would this article be if it simply complained about the state of society, without making even the simplest suggestions about how to make us start seeing once again? Let’s celebrate the already evident attempts to awaken us to the world. From tour buses to themed walks to free exhibitions across many cities’ most spectacular sites, there are opportunities for us to get observing. However, whilst such examples allow us to nominally notice what’s happening around us, they can actually encourage us to actively hide our eyes behind a screen, camera-shot or smartphone; we can become too busy tweeting, texting and taking pictures of what we’re seeing to really take time to see it. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with snapping away in this way (indeed, photos are special ways to keep our memories alive), we must make seeing, and not selfie sticks, the new normal. Like taking up exercise after a long stretch of lethargy, or cooking fresh new recipes rather than falling back on the same tried and tested dishes, observation will only happen when we make it a habit. And, like any new hobby or habits, change takes perseverance but it can absolutely be learning, improved and enjoyed.
Here are two examples of recent London events that focused on encouraging participants to really observe. The first was an Alternative London street art tour, winding its keen walkers through East London’s streets to see all sorts of rather talented graffiti and to learn about different artists and genres of graffiti. Whilst there is an overload of tourist-attracting walking tours to choose from in the capital, what made this particular event stand out was the walking group leader’s insistence that we keep phones silenced and, most importantly, refrain from camera-clicking. More than just off-putting fellow participants, our guide made clear just how much it would stop us really seeing. And how right he was! We spotted small and intricate designs on the edges of lampposts, in the hidden bits of buildings, as well as patterns or repetitions in the art as we walked along. Having arrived with next to no knowledge of well-known graffiti artists or what graffiti meant beyond some late-night spray paint on street walls, we soon found ourselves able to recognise the unique style of certain artists and to see where faded designs had been drawn upon with new ones, with such layers giving us insight into how London itself has changed over time. We saw, too, political angst and injustice-driven anger behind many pieces of art and became able to detect tiny shifts in messaging or tone, depending on the street or sign or wall or window that the work was created on. Although the attendees of the walk will inevitably go on to wander East London’s streets with heads buried in social media and sending messages, when there is no longer a guide to bring us out of ourselves, such events undoubtedly help to change perceptions of what it means to see.
The second example also took place on a similar section of East London, but with a creative writing focus. We were given observational foci on each new road. For instance, what eclectic examples of red do you see between here and our next stopping spot? What do those different shades mean? This second walk was so creatively engaging, it also served as a sad reminder of how much our imaginations can ebb when we don’t let our eyes mindfully soak in our surrounding sights more frequently. Nevertheless, these examples are undoubtedly replicable across other boroughs, other cities, other counties and, hopefully, other countries, making more reflective behaviour a regularity.
It can be easier to start honing our observational ways in a new place, where each detail is a new discovery. We often overlook the intricacies of our home environments and experiences simply because we assume we know the details of our doorsteps. However, approaching familiar faces and places like a stranger can help our minds to reimagine and to start to see all the finer sights we have somehow previously missed, engaging with our environments through new, more thoughtful eyes.
Even if we have to force ourselves, at first, to properly pay attention to the details of our daily grinds, it’s still a start. It is such a habit to be too busy bouncing around inside our own minds that forget to be present. We are simultaneously sorting out the day ahead, whilst worrying about our loved ones, or a heated conversation we had with a flatmate or friend the night before, whilst also making sky-high plans for the trillions of as yet unmade plans, such as squeeze in that run, or re-learn the dust-covered cello from your childhood, or sort out the pile of half-nearly completed knitting projects that have grown over the months – or years. We are too busy ovr-thinking to step back and notice how distracted we’ve become.
The advantages of taking time to observe are too many to mention in detail. This is the simplest of starts: we are, contrary to what our stress-soaked brains may think, decreasing our risk of burning out by buying time to see, we make smarter, more thoughtful decisinos and, as one study by the University of Amsterdam excitingly revealed, a more mindful attention to detail makes us more creative. With attention fully aware, we have far more descriptive capacity and our imaginations are almost instantly released.
We have, due to the draw of creating cyber connections rather than connecting with the world around us, become worryingly too secluded. Now, that
And we have become a species that spends too much time secluded! Now, this isn’t to say that we should be skipping work hours to stand around outside just absent mindedly observing. But being outdoors a little more is not only a huge victory for our health (fresh air, Vitamin D, the sun’s nourishing effects on the eyes… the evidence is pretty solid). but being outdoors psychologically alters the way we see things. Staring at a screen plays damagingly with our eyes, whereas outdoors, observing, things tend to present themselves in clearer ways. We can re-connct with our creativity if we leave the screens inside just for a while.
Finally, perhaps the biggest gain from taking more to observe is the impact on our emotions. Our online obsession does, it seems, makes us far too self-obsessed – and often without realising it. By taking time to see and sense and soak in our surroundings, we can move away from becoming unhealthily absorbed in our own lives and can gain perspective beyond all those individual situations and stresses. Slowing down helps to boost our memories of life’s moments, as we take the time to step outside our minds and experience the world and its wonders vividly and meaningfully.
I have – until this sentence – refrained from overdoing the ‘I’. By replacing our ‘Is’ with our ‘eyes’, after all, is the central message. Let’s step back and really see the details of who and what we have around us; let’s experience the wheres, whens and whys of our surroundings; let’s see if seeing more can help us become a happier and healthier society.

Current Issue

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NUHA Blogging Competition: Find Yourself Within Stories

I posted the blog below a while back and am delighted that it is now part of the NUHA Foundation Blog Competition. Any’likes’, tweets and comments really appreciated!
http://www.nuhafoundation.org/home/blog/bloggingentries/2017/adult/find_your_self_within_stories_a_penfold#.WdXqY1tSyig

By Alice Penfold. Alice, 26, was a secondary school English teacher. Alice now works for the National Literacy Trust and is starting an MA in Children’s Literature. She lives in London, United Kingdom. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

___

“She remembered, as every sensible person does, that you should never never shut yourself up in a wardrobe.”

Clearing out my cupboard of children’s classics several months ago (a perfect procrastination from the mountains of marking that became a permanent feature of every weekend last year, when working as a secondary school English teacher), I rediscovered an old, well-thumbed copy of The Chronicles of Narnia; as I started to read it once again, I simply couldn’t put it down. This subsequently inspired one holiday homework idea, ahead of the upcoming school essay.”

I’m not going to set a single essay, comprehension test or written assignment for this half term!” I exclaimed to my rather disengaged Key Stage 3 class, with misplaced enthusiasm. “Your homework is, instead, to read a book. For pleasure.”

What I naively supposed to be a superlatively generous suggestion was met, unsurprisingly, by silence. As the class groaningly grabbed their school planners and began obediently – almost robotically – to fill in the task and due date, one particularly annoyed (and book-avoiding) child popped up his hand.

“Miss, why would I read a book for pleasure in my spare time, when I could play Call of Duty and have more fun?”

The question left me speechless. I could give the obvious answer, one I unthinkingly ramble to anyone asking anything about why reading books really matters. Reams of research proves to us over and over again that reading for pleasure outside the classroom is life-changing: it raises your grades; it enhances your empathy and emotional awareness; it helps you to understand your own and others’ identities; it empowers you to be an active citizen, promoting a healthier and happier society for yourself and others. It improves not only your literacy levels but your wider well-being and likelihood of future success. (1)

That answer, however, would have switched off my audience in seconds. After all, teachers are designed to dictate what you must do! Homework will always be a horrible hardship, and that includes being told that you must read! As the class scribbled down ‘read a book‘ in their student homework planners, before scurrying away to their next lesson, it was clear that I needed to rethink how to not just tell but to properly show young people that reading books really can be favourable and more fun to plugging into the play-station, again, or wasting time on silly and often unsafe websites, again, or hanging outside on the streets not really doing anything, again.

C.S.Lewis gets it right. Books – and particularly children’s books – should not be seen as simply something to keep children occupied. Reading for pleasure, whilst it remains as something that we adults do not actually engage with ourselves and therefore actively prove is pleasurable, will continue seeming to children as a chore and not a choice. And it is that word – choice – that makes the difference. The benefits of reading for pleasure are undoubtedly bigger and better when reading is something students self-select through their own free will. Of course, we know that the concept of free-will is a fallacy. There is much detailed research into the subjectivity of choice, from debates about self-determinism to conversations about social and experiential conditioning. This is not, though, a blog about the endlessly unsolvable psychology of choice. Crucially, what underpins arguments about reading children’s books, both as children and as adults, is the question of how far the choices we make (freely or not) are made by the choices of those around us.

For now, let’s take at face value the fact that teachers and families have an irreversibly huge impact of young people’s decision making. Telling students to read for pleasure (as I mistakenly did) can end up having a detrimental effect, turning reading into a to-do list task rather than an enjoyment. Throughout my teaching career, the difference between students (usually but not always those in higher sets) who had been brought up with book-loving friends and families, where reading recommendations would be swallowed up more speedily than their sugary break-time snacks, and those who struggled with reading or for whom reading for fun was not a normalised part of in or out of school life, never failed to shock.

However, by observing adults – teachers, professionals and, most importantly, parents – actively reading, not only adult fiction but children’s literature too, students are far more likely to pick up a book. They’ve not been told to sit and read, if it’s promoting passively in this way; it is (fallacy or not) something they have selected to do themselves. Whilst C. S. Lewis’s views about choice are connected to his Christian faith when he suggests that “every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before”, this message undoubtedly speaks to us on a bigger level. As we adults choose to let go of phones or laptops (even if infrequently!) and give a dedicated space for reading stories a go instead, I have no doubt that we’ll see the transformative effects that reading for pleasure can have on the mind-sets of both children and adults. (2)

Indeed, C. S. Lewis could not be more right. By consciously demonstrating that reading for pleasure is not compulsory but is a choice that we, as adults, freely, unfailingly and frequently select, young people will subconsciously seek out more stories for themselves, their behaviour influenced by those around them. Not having time to read is – like free choice – a fallacy. We can find a few minutes each day to dive into a book. If parents, teachers and all grown-ups give explicitly increasing importance to reading both adult and children’s literature, then gadget distractions and unhealthy attitudes to reading will diminish. Currently, children see us adults (who are all role models, really, whether we like it or not) continuously answering emails, scrolling through social media and generally giving in to technology’s addictive power, they will inevitably be more likely to follow suit, picking up a smartphone rather than a good story in their free time.

But it’s not too late to reclaim the power of children’s books. C. S. Lewis’s belief that children’s books are also meant for older audiences reminds us of how reading for pleasure can change the perceptions and perspectives not only of young readers but adults too. To see children’s fiction as irrelevant once we’ve grown up and grown more grey is – like free choice and our self-convincing lie that we don’t have time to read – yet another fallacy.

As adults who actively read so-called children’s books, we will not only be re-immersed in their magic but can also dive into deeper meanings. Us adults will also be taken on memorable adventures and re-adventures through fictional worlds (as we always tell children they will), form more meaningful relationships and re-learn to understand ourselves and others a little better, as well as discover new values and appreciation of different cultures and human behaviours. The emotions and experiences explored in good children’s literature remain at the heart of human experience, regardless of how long we’ve been adults.

Reading children’s books, then, as both young people and adults, opens the metaphorical wardrobe door, left too long locked. Like Edmund, Susan, Peter and Lucy, C. S. Lewis’s fantastic protagonists in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, re-visiting children’s books, particularly when read collaboratively with young people, unlocks deeper ideas and insights. ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ provides a wonderful insight into the transformative potential of reading. As C. S. Lewis’s captivating character Arslan claims, “This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” Young people will continue to disbelieve that reading can be about real life until we model it and make ourselves re-find the deeper meanings in children’s fiction. Let’s stop simply parroting the positives of ‘reading for pleasure’ and make space to do so ourselves.

(1) Wilkinson, S (ed) (2015), https://readingagency.org.uk/news/The%20Impact%20of%20Reading%20for%20Pleasure%20and%20Empowerment.pd, p.4-31.

(2) Clark, C and Rumbold, K (2006), ‘Reading for pleasure: a research overview’, National Literacy Trust.

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Find Your Self Within Stories

“She remembered, as every sensible person does, that you should never never shut yourself up in a wardrobe.”
Clearing out my cupboard of children’s classics several months ago (a perfect procrastination from the mountains of marking that became a permanent feature of every weekend last year, when working as a secondary school English teacher), I rediscovered an old, well-thumbed copy of The Chronicles of Narnia; as I started to read it once again, I simply couldn’t put it down. This subsequently inspired one holiday homework idea, ahead of the upcoming school essay.
“I’m not going to set a single essay, comprehension test or written assignment for this half term!” I exclaimed to my rather disengaged Key Stage 3 class, with misplaced enthusiasm. “Your homework is, instead, to read a book. For pleasure.”
What I naively supposed to be a superlatively generous suggestion was meant, unsurprisingly, by silence. As the class groaningly grabbed their school planners and began obediently – almost robotically – to fill in the task and due date, one particularly annoyed (and book-avoiding) child popped up his hand.
“Miss, why would I read a book for pleasure in my spare time, when I could play Call of Duty and have more fun?”
The question left me speechless. I could give the obvious answer, one I unthinkingly rambled to anyone asking anything about why reading books really matters. Reams of research proves to us over and over again that reading for pleasure outside the classroom is life-changing: it raises your grades; it enhances your empathy and emotional awareness; it helps you to understand your own and others’ identities; it empowers you to be an active citizen, promoting a healthier and happier society for yourself and others. It improves not only your literacy levels but your wider well-being and likelihood of future success.
That answer, however, would have switched off my audience in seconds. After all, teachers are designed to dictate what you must do! Homework will always be a horrible hardship, and that includes being told that you must read! As the class scribbled down ‘read a book‘ in their student homework planners, before scurrying away to their next lesson, it was clear that I needed to rethink how to not just tell but to properly show young people that reading books really can be favourable and more fun to plugging into the play-station, again, or wasting time on silly and often unsafe websites, again, or hanging outside on the streets not really doing anything, again.
C.S.Lewis gets it right. Books – and particularly children’s books – should not be seen as simply something to keep children occupied. Reading for pleasure, whilst it remains as something that we adults do not actually engage with ourselves and therefore actively prove is pleasurable, will continue seeming to children as a chore and not a choice. And it is that word – choice – that makes the difference. The benefits of reading for pleasure are undoubtedly bigger and better when reading is something students self-select through their own free will. Of course, we know that the concept of free-will is a fallacy. There is much detailed research into the subjectivity of choice, from debates about self-determinism to conversations about social and experiential conditioning. This is not, though, a blog about the endlessly unsolvable psychology of choice. Crucially, what underpins arguments about reading children’s books, both as children and as adults, is the question of how far the choices we make (freely or not) are made by the choices of those around us.
For now, let’s take at face value the fact that teachers and families have an irreversibly huge impact of young people’s decision making. Telling students to read for pleasure (as I mistakenly did) can end up having a detrimental effect, turning reading into a to-do list task rather than an enjoyment. Throughout my teaching career, the difference between students (usually but not always those in higher sets) who had been brought up with book-loving friends and families, where reading recommendations would be swallowed up more speedily than their sugary break-time snacks, and those who struggled with reading or for whom reading for fun was not a normalised part of in or out of school life, never failed to shock.
However, by observing adults – teachers, professionals and, most importantly, parents – actively reading, not only adult fiction but children’s literature too, students are far more likely to pick up a book. They’ve not been told to sit and read, if it’s promoting passively in this way; it is (fallacy or not) something they have selected to do themselves. Whilst C. S. Lewis’s views about choice are connected to his Christian faith when he suggests that “every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before”, this message undoubtedly speaks to us on a bigger level. As we adults choose to let go of phones or laptops (even if infrequently!) and give a dedicated space for reading stories a go instead, I have no doubt that we’ll see the transformative effects that reading for pleasure can have on the mind-sets of both children and adults.
Indeed, C. S. Lewis could not be more right. By consciously demonstrating that reading for pleasure is not compulsory but is a choice that we, as adults, freely, unfailingly and frequently select, young people will subconsciously seek out more stories for themselves, their behaviour influenced by those around them. Not having time to read is – like free choice – a fallacy. We can find a few minutes each day to dive into a book. If parents, teachers and all grown-ups give explicitly increasing importance to reading both adult and children’s literature, then gadget distractions and unhealthy attitudes to reading will diminish. Currently, children see us adults (who are all role models, really, whether we like it or not) continuously answering emails, scrolling through social media and generally giving in to technology’s addictive power, they will inevitably be more likely to follow suit, picking up a smartphone rather than a good story in their free time.
But it’s not too late to reclaim the power of children’s books. C. S. Lewis’s belief that children’s books are also meant for older audiences reminds us of how reading for pleasure can change the perceptions and perspectives not only of young readers but adults too. To see children’s fiction as irrelevant once we’ve grown up and grown more grey is – like free choice and our self-convincing lie that we don’t have time to read – yet another fallacy.
As adults who actively read so-called children’s books, we will not only be re-immersed in their magic but can also dive into deeper meanings. Us adults will also be taken on memorable adventures and re-adventures through fictional worlds (as we always tell children they will), form more meaningful relationships and re-learn to understand ourselves and others a little better, as well as discover new values and appreciation of different cultures and human behaviours. The emotions and experiences explored in good children’s literature remain at the heart of human experience, regardless of how long we’ve been adults.
Reading children’s books, then, as both young people and adults, opens the metaphorical wardrobe door, left too long locked. Like Edmund, Susan, Peter and Lucy, C. S. Lewis’s fantastic protagonists in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, re-visiting children’s books, particularly when read collaboratively with young people, unlocks deeper ideas and insights. ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ provides a wonderful insight into the transformative potential of reading. As C. S. Lewis’s captivating character Arslan claims, “This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” Young people will continue to disbelieve that reading can be about real life until we model it and make ourselves re-find the deeper meanings in children’s fiction. Let’s stop simply parroting the positives of ‘reading for pleasure’ and make space to do so ourselves.

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The Write Way Forward: The Importance of Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers

After another day of long lessons, Ofsted-prepping observations and mountains of marking (not to mention any of the many unforeseen fights, sudden Smartboard breakdowns and unplanned parental meetings), there is one sentence that will undoubtedly make any time-stretched, over-tired teacher spontaneously combust.

“Could you just find the extra time to…?”

In days filled with decisions, disasters and dead-lines, finding extra time is, quite frankly, a near-impossibility. Stealing a few seconds for toilet trip or a cup of tea is tricky enough in a chock-a-block teaching day, let alone finding substantial time slots, for instance to deliver after school clubs or to run exciting off-site trips. With schools already swamped by performance measurement pressures, exam results reporting and countless different league table targets, extra-curriculars can often be seen as desirable but optional extra accessories, rather than fundamental opportunities to find time for and embed. Indeed, a lack of hours is perhaps the main hurdle facing external organisations hoping to collaborate with schools and run curriculum-enhancing clubs, CPD and/or cultural events.

What is crucial, perhaps, is that any ‘extras’ do not require schools to seek out hours before or after the main teaching day but rather, can fit within already existing curriculums and lesson times. However exciting the school opportunities and offerings are from outside charities or clubs, however clear their purposes and evaluated evidence of how they enhance the curriculum or contribute to children’s out of class learning, they need to slide smoothly into teachers’ already hectic hours in order to stand a chance of long-term success.

So what does this chaotic school climate mean for teachers, writers and, crucially, teachers as writers? The ever escalating need for schools to meet quotas and requirements and achieve routinely excellent results can lead to more regimented, assessment-focused approaches to teaching, with room for imagination increasingly squeezed. Indeed, one central frustration, particularly for English teachers, is the desire to stop creativity disappearing completely from the curriculum. With constantly changing and increasingly over-stuffed schemes of work focused on SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) and very structured exam requirements, there is often little room left for more relaxed and spontaneous story making. Whilst there are thousands of teachers across the country keen to get more creative, nobody wants to deviate too far from strict assessment obligations and then end up anxious about not setting students up successfully for the unavoidable exam hurdles. After all, students’ results do help to open so many doors, and those of us in the classroom want students to achieve the best possible measured outcomes, alongside less measurable educational progress. Having the capacity (and energy) to find exciting and imagination-engaging extras can often feel impossible and, with so many demands and deadlines, making space for creative writing, freed from rights and wrongs and curriculum checklists, can be a real struggle.

However, what use would this article be if it did nothing but complain? This is not a lament about our over-controlled educational climate, or the death of creativity, but instead, a consideration of how we can kick-start creativity within the context of the inevitable reality of our school culture. What better time than now to focus on – and celebrate – the impact that teachers being writers themselves can have on students’ own intrinsic motivation to get their imaginations invigorated and re-discover a love of words, without the worry of what grade their stories may be stamped with? As a former teacher, now employee (and long-term volunteer) at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, I firmly believe in the transformative potential of students seeing their teachers taking part in creative writing tasks simultaneously alongside them, making mistakes, brainstorming ideas and explicitly revealing their enthusiasm for writing. By having the confidence to deviate from unwaveringly exam-linked lessons and actively building in time to write – to really write, free from ‘Assessment Objectives’ or red pen marking, to write without worrying about whether our stories will match up to the current GCSE requirements, to write in a way that celebrates individual imaginations, where all ideas are valued, freed from reservations of being ‘right and wrong’ – we can build creativity into the school day, without trying to find non-existent extra time. And creativity is, of course, more than just a nice little extra. Through writing, students not only develop their literacy but also can make sense of different emotions, different cultures, and different sides to their own characters.

But what might this idea of ‘teachers as writers’ look like? Let’s start by reflecting on the exciting potential of a recent and on-going piece of research by Arvon Foundation, which supports creative teaching, provides extra cultural and CPD opportunities and fits smoothly into existing English lessons, without the need to squeeze creative writing into the tired hours at the edges of school days. Arvon’s ‘Teachers as Writers’ project is definitely worth diving into (http://www.arvon.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Arvon-Teachers-as-Writers.pdf), as it outlines the impact that teachers identifying themselves explicitly as writers and working closely with professional writers can have on the quality of writing produced in class as well as the interest that students take in engaging their imaginations.

Moreover, Arvon’s ‘Teachers as Writers’ project focuses on developing the confidence of classroom practitioners to self-identify as writers and monitors the impact that teachers calling themselves writers and offering students more ‘writerly’ feedback has on classroom teaching. There are so many reasons why encouraging collaboration between teachers and writers is beneficial (and far too many to focus on them all in one article). However, just for starters, involving professional writers can really enhance classroom practice, inspiring creativity during scheduled lesson time rather than attempting to find time for early morning writing or additional after school sessions and, of course, having educators clearly defining themselves as writers helps develop students’ intrinsic motivation and belief that writing is important, particularly when teachers can then make more insightful connections to students’ own personal, social, cultural and emotional experiences. Arvon’s ‘Teachers as Writers’ project has already collected clear evidence of success and indeed, teachers who participated in their control group have recorded the effects of the programme on their pedagogy and classroom practices, particularly the impact that allowing time for free-writing, without immediately introducing the critical red pen to spot the spellings and grammar mistakes or straight away connecting every student’s story to a set mark or level, has on letting students let go of writers’ block. Working with with professional writers also helps teachers to provide ‘writerly’ feedback, focused on craft and content aside from exam board mark schemes, as well as engaging students as autonomous and imaginative individuals, finding ways to draw out students’ inner stories without always connecting feedback to stringent ‘right or wrong’ requirements.

One of the most exciting part of Arvon’s Teachers as Writers projects, though, has emerged as one central recommendations from their evaluative report: the transformative impact of Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers. In other words, what is the impact of teaching by doing (in this case, writing), where pupils to see their teachers completing creative tasks alongside them? If teachers can find the confidence to call themselves writers and make free writing, content driven creative sessions a part of (not a tag-on to) the curriculum, writing side by side with their students, then undoubtedly this has the exciting potential to improve writing skills and the motivation to focus, engage and improve, as well as to remind us all of how powerful imaginative engagement can be.

This is not a radically new idea, of course; years of well-researched pedagogical practice demonstrates the impact of less didactic and more immersive teaching on students’ sense of independence and interest in writing. Nevertheless, by showing enthusiasm and taking an active part in creative class tasks, students so often feel empowered and motivated, rather than being’ talked to’ that can be a result of more –teacher led lessons. Teachers are essential role models, after all. How else can we expect students to love writing and shed their fears of whether their writing is right and wrong unless we teachers and educators actively and obviously show our own passions for imaginative writing.

By becoming creative writers at the same time as their classes, the role of teachers immediately becomes more impactful and more interesting. Trialling this with one class last term proved to me the importance of children seeing their educators writing alongside them, not simply setting tasks that they oversee but do not actively participate in. Specifically, I decided to emerge as a teacher-who-is-also-a-writer with one of my an exam classes, who were arguably a little too overly used to lessons (not just in English but in all their subjects) which crawled through exam specifications step by slow step, with little scope to think outside the assessment box, let alone be actively encouraged to write creatively, free from restrictions and red pens. Putting in practice Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers (ideas for catchier names welcomed!) showed how effective it is for students to physically see their teachers diving into writing and enthusiastically wrangling with words, writing stories, speeches, poems, anything at the time as their students. No completing a lesson plan at the computer. No circulating the room and pointing out the odd SPaG slip-up. No setting strict tick-box Success Criteria. Every student (including the teacher-student) started with the same visual prompt – a picture of a forest, with the afternoon light starting to dim and the trees lined like front-line soldiers along the tentative edges of the pebble-strewn path. (It’s hard not to get carried away with imagery and imagination once the creativity is given the go-ahead to flow! Creative but not correcting feedback on my writing welcomed…). Unlike most class tasks, in which the layout of the classroom remains untouched, we cleared all desks to the sides of the room, did not set a strict or visible timer, and banned red pens for the lesson. No strict Success Criteria in sight. It didn’t matter, this time, if students struggled with double letter spellings, or hadn’t started a sentence with a subordinate clause, or included at least one correct example of a semi-colon and parenthesis. Accurate SPaG, for once, was not important, with connections to GCSE-style ‘creative’ questions (AQA’s Language Paper 1 Question 5, in which students write a description inspired by a picture, may be coming to mind for some teachers reading this!) sent out of sight. A tiny handful of students inevitably felt a little stuck, frightened to move beyond the rigid and overly ingrained curriculum requirements, checking up words in the dictionary and ensuring that every paragraph had a clear connective, simple sentence, compound sentence, complex sentence, rhetorical question for effect, a simile or metaphor, alliteration, different adverbs… well, you get the picture.

Nevertheless, the patent enjoyment of nearly all the class was nothing short of magical. I let students chuckle and look at one another confusedly as I sat beside them on the carpet, settling down with sheets of plain paper and a pen, showing through my face and body language my delight at moments of inspiration, my struggle with writers’ block, my perseverance and passion for, quite simply, writing. The students got stuck in with a sense of independence and intrigue I had rarely seen previously. Understandably, exam classes can approach any creative task not explicitly linked to the final year assessments with a ‘So what?’ or a ‘How will this raise my grade?’. I completely empathise, of course: having been schooled to associate success simply with the final levels on a page, it is hard to let go of the need to succeed in a structured, curriculum-driven way. This time, though, the group thrived on completing writing free from GCSE requirements and even surprised me with their attentive behaviour, peer support and pleasure in putting unrestricted pen to open-minded paper. Sat on the floor, with plain sheets and their own choice of what pen to get creative with (what freedom!), the class produced writing that showed both potential and personality that I hadn’t previously seen, as well as genuine delight in sitting cross-legged and letting their imaginations run wild. Indeed, by writing at the same time as the students, becoming genuinely immersed in my free-writing response to the picture, it was only after we finished writing and energetically shared snippets of work that several of the students mentioned, giggling, quite how expressive my face became when drifting through the ‘writerly’ feelings of flair and frustration, of concentration and contemplation, of perseverance and pride.

What is exciting, here, is that this style of teacher-student work is replicable across a range of settings, with students seeing their teachers being writers even in exam-based tasks as well as more free writing environments. In addition, it is a reminder of how a change in physical setting and learning style can prompt unexpectedly wonderful results. Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers is a key way to release students from feeling restricted and to realise the transformative power of imaginative immersion. Again, this is not a breakthrough innovation but, in hectic term times, the importance of adults writing side by side with young people can be overlooked. It’s a model that drives not only classroom practice but many successful extracurricular organisations. For example, The Ministry of Stories, a children’s writing charity based in Hoxton, offers creative writing workshops to schools, many of which take place within lesson time, which undoubtedly enhance primary and secondary curriculums in over-squeezed schools and encourage teachers and volunteers to write alongside the participating students. It is an organisation that shows the benefits of letting a little lesson time go towards creative writing that remains adamantly free and untied to exam requirements. The workshops run by the Ministry of Stories, like the feedback already received from Arvon’s Teachers as Writers research, aim to leave teachers feeling re-inspired and reinvigorated about the importance of giving space to write within the curriculum hours, rather than worried that another task has been added to their ever-growing to-do lists or that there is not enough time for imaginative activities independent from Assessment Objectives.

By giving real credence to the concept of Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers, we can assess the potential it has to impact the way we approach English teaching. In fact, teachers identifying as writers, scribbling out stories simultaneously to their students, can change whole school approaches to working with young people, particularly developing their intrinsic motivation to write, without negatively affecting those inevitably important exam results by taking away time for curriculum-driven lessons. Rather, a small but regular unrestricted writing activity, in which teachers and students engage with creating stories side by side, will undoubtedly enhance their love of writing and have a significantly positive impact on students’ wider school attitudes and achievements.

Exam results are incredibly significant, undoubtedly, not only for schools but for the future life outcomes of students. However, they will only be improved by giving weight to the wordy possibilities of Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers. Of course, there are fewer things more interesting or important for young people than to have their individual voices recognised, beyond grades and spread sheets. Let’s let ourselves enjoy story making, free from Success Criteria or creative-stealing structured requirements, regardless of whether we are students or teachers or neither or both. Let’s keep explicitly displaying our delight in writing. Let’s see how much the Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers concept can change classrooms forever.

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