Why support International Literacy Day?

Tuesday 8th September is International Literacy Day 2015 and I’m going to spend it thinking about how much I love books.

I’ve pretty much loved reading since the age of 6 when I first made it the whole way through a reading book.  It wasn’t a hard book and it had lots of pictures, but I still remember the sense of achievement I felt in not having given up.

I was lucky.  As the child of literate parents, I grew up in a house full of books and with someone to support me with my reading.  I was also lucky to have been born in a country which provides free education for its children.

According to the World Literacy Foundation’s 2015 report on the economic and social cost of illiteracy –

  • around 67 million primary-aged children and 72 million adolescents in the world have no access to education, and
  • more than 796 million people globally can’t read and write.

Illiteracy is linked to higher rates of unemployment, crime, poor health and poverty.  The ability to read and write is life-changing, yet too many young people never get the chance to learn.

We’re very lucky in the UK.  Education is a basic right here and we don’t often think about what it’s like to live without it – unless we happen to see otherwise for ourselves.

DSCN8604Visiting schools in Bangladesh and seeing the pride young learners took in their education was one of the best experiences of my life.  Seeing the crowds of children hanging around outside the schools and unable to pay to go in was one of the worst.

That’s why I’m chuffed that my writing for children course supports the cause of global literacy.  For every course sold, a donation is made to the World Literacy Foundation.

DSCN8525Why not find out about the World Literacy Foundation and how you can help them help the world receive a quality education?

Read about International Literacy Day and activities you can do to celebrate it.

Have a wonderful International Literacy Day celebrating the marvellousness of the written word.


The Story Stones of Holy Island

Yesterday we had a lovely Bank Holiday Sunday walk on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.


This, despite me worrying that we’d not allowed ourselves enough time and would be caught in the tide as we left.  The fires of anxiety were stoked by a story the guys told of a friend of a friend who’d ignored the ‘do not proceed when water reaches causeway’ signs and had to be rescued by the coastguard, ruining a new, very expensive car in the process.  I needn’t have worried – we’d left enough time to eat delicious ice cream and buy some excellent locally-produced honey before joining the convoy of cars heading for the mainland.

We last visited Holy Island some seven or eight years ago when our children were still children, and we shared memories of that visit as we walked with our friends.  We talked of the history we knew of the place, too, and of other people we know who’ve been there.  Lindisfarne, it seemed to me, is awash with stories.

IMG_0401I was intrigued by some odd looking structures on the edge of the beach beyond the castle.  These turned out to be towers of stones, placed there, it seems, by visitors.  I’ve no idea what the structures are meant to mean, but I decided to add a stone or five to one of them. One of those stones looked remarkably like a cheerful face and I considered, momentarily, taking it home.  It was heavy and impractical to carry, though, so I put it on the tower.

The smiling stoneThen I selected a small, beautifully smooth red stone instead.  I’ve decided that it’s a ‘story stone’, as it holds the story of the world up to the moment I found it.

And for as long as it’s mine, it’ll also hold the story of the day we ambled in the Bank Holiday sunshine on Holy Island.

Click here for a Story Stones Writing Activity.

Life through writing – writing through life

Graduation - with an MA in Creative Writing

Basically, I really, really love writing.  I used to write for fun all the time as a child (my first full-length work – ‘Adventures of the Dolls’ House’ – handwritten in an exercise book at the age of ten and complete with illustrations, back-cover blurb and reviews from friends – is currently on tour in my attic).

Sadly, the possibility of a working as a writer was never mentioned at school and over the years, this thing I thought of as a hobby was squeezed out by the need to earn a living, run a home and raise a family.

Thankfully, word-crafting and storytelling clung stubbornly on, leaking into letters to friends and family as well as resources I made for my teaching job.

Eventually I realised I couldn’t ignore the stories knocking for attention on the inside of my skull. They’re part of who I am, of what makes me me, and the need to share them and have them validated by others became unbearable.  Luckily, at around this time I found a good, part-time creative writing course and it changed my life.

I’ve felt happier and more complete since I began writing regularly again.  And when I’ve worked on something and shaped it into a piece people connect with and respond to, there really isn’t a feeling like it.  Life makes so much more sense when I can put my experiences into words, and learning the skills needed to do that effectively has given me a new career as a writer.

I’m a very lucky woman indeed.

‘It’s only when you start to question that you find out who you are.’*

Last Monday I was lucky enough to be invited to a meeting to mark the Ladybird, Ladybird centenary project and its fantastic new exhibition area at Charnwood Museum.

There were a number of reasons why I was lucky, not least because the organiser – a lovely, chirpy lady named Tatty – had remembered I’m a coeliac and ordered me a beautiful lunch of salad with feta cheese.

Another reason was that I had the pleasure of spending two hours with a group of people who, rather unusually, overlapped three of those areas of my life which make my brain tingle: my creative self, the self which catches fire at the thought of history and heritage, and the self – and I surprise myself a little in admitting this – which is passionately interested in the education of young people.

I say I’m a little surprised because when I was made redundant from teaching, I swore I’d never engage with the education system again.  And yet here I am, almost three years later, employed by a University and increasingly involved with schools through my work as a governor.

One of the topics at Monday’s meeting was the importance of creativity and culture to our happiness and well-being.  I agree whole-heartedly with that.  Having lost my place in the world of work and freed briefly from the need to earn a living (thank you, redundancy money!), I took the opportunity to do something I’d been wanting to do for some time.  I developed my writerly self.  I read books, attended writing workshops, joined classes.  I networked with other writers, joined a writing group.  

And it wasn’t just writing: when offered the chance to do something ‘different’, I took my lead from Danny Wallace and said ‘Yes!’  Which is how I came to train as a local tour guide, how I came to work with the local youth service and why I went on so much excellent training about what makes young people tick.  As well as how I came to hop on trains, visit museums, listen to lectures, apply for jobs I’d never have considered before, meet people from all different spheres of life, have sooo much fun. 

Basically, I had the time and financial freedom to experiment for a while, to try out new things and question who I am.  I’m really pleased with the answers I came up with, as well as surprised to remember how many of these new interests existed within me as a child.

Childhood should be about experimenting, about having the time, freedom and opportunity to try out new things and find out who you are.  That point was made several times on Monday and is one of the reasons I’ve become interested in education again.  There’s an awful lot about the current education system that I don’t approve of and I can be very vocal about that when prompted.  But it’s all we have for now, and the best hope for the young people within it is to work with what’s there and make it the best it can be.  

So that’s what I’m trying to do, to do my bit to help make things better.  But I’m still hoping someone, soon, will make bigger, lasting changes, to give our young people the childhood they deserve.


* The Ladybird, Ladybird project involved young parents receiving storytelling training from the UK’s National Storyteller, Katrice Horsley.  The results she achieved – and the knock-on effects of her training on the confidence and skills of those she worked with – were one of many positive outcomes of the project.  In this video Katrice tells the story of how she became a storyteller: I particularly like the sentiment of her closing line.

Finding Mum: A Beginning

‘All facts, however microscopic, are important in the building of real history.’

E L B Blanchard

‘Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects.’

Herodotus, The History of Herodotus

The Birth

SCENE – early evening in the February of 1934, the kitchen of a docker’s cottage in the East End of London. The kitchen is empty except for a young man dozing by the fire. 
“Dick, Dick!” A scream wrenched Dick awake and he leapt up and across the kitchen in one movement, pulling open the door to find his sister trembling in the passageway. 
“Lord Jesus, Dudie, what’s happened to you?” He followed her gaze to the pool of liquid spreading around her feet. 
“I don’t know! Get Ma, get Ma!” Stella’s words ended in another feral scream and bracing herself against the wall, she lent forward, clutching her belly. Struggling to think through the remnants of sleep, Dick rubbed his head and frowned. 
“She aint here, Dudie, she’s … Lord, here!” He grabbed her arm and pulled her into the kitchen, looking frantically over his shoulder as he backed himself in. Still holding his sister with his right hand, he grabbed the coal bucket with his left and tipped its contents in a pile on the hearth. “Here, sit on this for a minute” he ordered, placing the bucket under her. 
“I’m dying, Dick, I’m dying!” Stella screamed, hysterically. “Lord help me, its blood!” 
“Nah, you’ll not die just yet, gel,” Dick tried to laugh, though his eyes were wide and his pale young face betrayed his doubt. “It looks like yer baby’s coming, that’s all.”

Crouching uncomfortably over the bucket, her hand gripping into Dick’s shoulder and her body bent forward, Stella turned her tear-stained face away in shame. 

“I want Ma!” she sobbed noisily. “Where is she, Dick? Get her for me, I need her!” 
“I can’t, Dudie, I can’t.” Dick reached up and rubbed his sister’s hand aimlessly. “She won’t be back for hours.  She’s gone to a lying in…” His words trickled away and he listened to Stella’s sobs for a time, trying to work out what best to do. The old woman next door would be useless; she was semi-invalid and deaf as a post besides. And he wasn’t sure what reaction he’d get from his older sisters, even if he was able to find them at home.

Stella groaned suddenly and throwing her head forward, vomited onto the floor. That decided him.
“We’re going to the infirmary,” he stated, “it’s the best place for you.” He snatched a drying-up cloth from the fire-front and gently wiped his young sister’s face. 
“I aint goin’ to the workhouse, Dick, I aint goin’ to the workhouse!” Stella whimpered, shaking with weakness and fright. 
“You aint got no choice, Dudie. Ma aint here, nor the gels, and I can’t help you with the baby. I don’t know what to do!” He shivered at the thought. “Besides, you know Ma said she don’t want nuffin to do with it.” He brushed the damp fringe from her eyes, cooing soothingly. “You’ll be alright, gel, you’ll be alright. I’ll look after yer. Don’t I always?”

The walk through the dark streets to the infirmary was a difficult one, though the distance was short and Stella such a slight thing that Dick had no trouble supporting her tiny body. But every few yards Stella’s stomach clenched in spasms of pain and she’d stop and tense herself against it, waiting for it to let her free. By the time they entered the porter’s lodge of the old workhouse, their hands had been numbed by the bitter wind, their faces stung by the sharp, icy rain.

“Are you the father?” Glancing quickly from Dick to Stella’s hand and back to the ledger, the duty nurse wrote down the particulars with a stern, efficient manner. She moved round the table and, putting one hand under Stella’s elbow and another on her back, began to shepherd her along the dim, sterile corridor. “Dick? Dick!” Stella looked over her shoulder, her eyes pleading with her brother to follow. “He can’t come any further,” the nurse’s clipped tones bounced back off the walls. “Let’s not have any fuss. We’re to take care of you, now.”

© A S Mott, 2011

On Changing Trends in Education

Offspring 2 (I can call him ‘child’ no longer) left it till almost midnight to put clean bedding on his bed last night, and mindful that he was tired and that the time we will spend together is decreasing alarmingly before my very eyes, I offered to give him a hand.  We pillow-cased a pillow each, then stood on either side of the huge bed that replaced his boyhood single, to stretch the sheet over the corners of the mattress.  By the time it came to the duvet, his phone had announced a message and I began the quilt alone, tucking a corner into the Union Jack cover and handing it to him to hold in place whilst I tried to tuck in the others.  But I’d done it all wrong and was making a right mess of it.
‘I usually turn it inside out to do it,’ he said, finishing a message with his thumb and putting his phone in his pocket.  ‘Here, let me.’ And he took the lumped-up mass of duvet back out, flipped the cover inside out and with a flick of the hands that Dynamo would’ve been proud of, had the cover on the quilt in a flash.
‘Mrs Chirp taught me that,’ he beamed proudly.  ‘When we went on residential.’
‘Fancy that,’ I said.  ‘All those years ago.’
‘Yup, residential was cool.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘and so’s Mrs Chirp.’
Only the day before I had sat in at a café having a half-term hot chocolate with Mrs Chirp and a crowd of other former colleagues from the school which gave my son such an excellent education.  Like me, all were employed there in a supporting role – specialist teachers, admin staff, cover supervisors and teaching assistants.  We were, as someone once termed it, ‘extra bodies in the class’. Like me, the greater majority of the group no longer work in the school, their jobs deleted through budget cuts, shifting government priorities and the pursuit of the latest trends for educating children. 
Those still in post spend less and less time interacting with individual children.  It’s fair to say that morale is low. 
Educational fads come and go, often with a new change of government and the subsequent need to be seen to ‘improve standards’.  Some of these fads will be successful and some of them won’t.  It seems to me, though, that success has more to do with the skills of the people delivering them than the actual schemes themselves.  Good teachers generally manage to teach successfully, no matter which system they’re required to use.  It’s such a shame they’re not trusted enough to simply get on with it.
I personally believe that a lot of the problems with education could be solved by having two teachers in every classroom.  Children learn by talking and doing, and whilst much of this can be implemented through group work with their peers, all children benefit from regular one-to-one interaction with caring, informed adults who have the skills, knowledge and ability to pass on what they know.  It’s simple, really.  The more adults there are in a classroom, the more attention each individual child within it receives.  The positive effect on mental health and wellbeing is huge, too.  We’re social creatures who thrive on interaction and connection, and whether we’re grown-ups or children, working alongside someone who listens to us, knows a bit about us and can give us help when we need it is priceless.
The more interaction a child has with such an adult, the more they will learn from them, whether that’s practice in reading, learning the continents of the world or knowing how to find information they need in a library or on the computer.  Or how to put a cover on a duvet, even.

I’d like to thank Mrs Chirp and the many others who’ve had a hand in my son’s education, for the part they’ve played in developing the wonderful, witty and knowledgeable young man that he is.

Wordsmith Ancestors

Words are an integral part of my family history.
I’ve known this for some time with regards to the maternal side of my tree, what with my mother and the few relations of hers I’ve known having been such gifted storytellers, for one thing.  Then there was the discovery of her ancestor – John Courtney – being a comedic playwright and contemporary of Charles Dickens.  Of course, I thought, that’s where it must come from!

What I’ve never given much thought to, though, is where my father’s family fit into all this.  After all, Dad’s a lovely man, but his storytelling skills leave something to be desired.  He certainly likes to recount stories, largely from his childhood and youth.  But he doesn’t have the gift of crafting a story the way that my mother had, of creating an arc, building tension and dropping nuggets of information in just when needed to keep the listener enthralled. Instead, Dad takes the blunderbuss approach, bombarding you with every fact and occurrence until his head is clear and you feel like you’ve lost the will to live. We still listen intently, but largely to jump in on a pause for breath with a ‘yes, you’ve already told me.’  Not that that generally makes any difference; he’ll continue with the story anyway, bless him.
So, I often forget about his father – my grandfather’s – contribution to our literary skill-bank.  But contribute he did, because Granddad Edgar was a typesetter for a newspaper, and the skill that he gave us was a love of the printed word and a huge collection of books with which to satisfy it.