Here is an extract from our interviews with some Maple Walk grandparents in 2017 talking about their memories of school holidays. (Edited by Rachel Shelley)
It is nice to see our efforts recognised as we all need a bit of positive affirmation, but what is even better is to get the sense that the idea of intergenerational storytelling at primary school level is gaining traction.
Being featured in the summer issue of Brent Magazine seems to be more than a nod to OUR STORIES (and everyone who has been actively involved) as an initiative, but it is perhaps the acknowledgement of a wider issue that I am convinced we can at least try to help address with this project.
What prompted me to think about this, was reading about a study by the RSPH (Royal Society for Public Health) published last week (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jun/08/ageism-widespread-in-uk-study-finds). It highlights the rise of negative attitudes towards growing older, particularly amongst the younger generation, ie millennials, who imagine old age to be lonely as well as defined by memory loss and depression.
These are troubling findings and undoubtedly, this narrow view of what old age represents has been fed by decades of ageist attitudes across most sectors of society but also by the marginalisation of the role that family elders play in most families. If families were less fragmented and intergenerational exchange was still a part of daily family life across the UK, we would be looking at a different level of awareness in adults and children and of course, a different quality of ageing, too.
But I feel quite strongly that a simple initiative like OUR STORIES, if adopted across all primary schools between years 3 and 6, can counter this trend:
Finding out about a grand- or even great- grandparents’ journey in life through a mixture of methodical questioning, contrasting and spontaneous storytelling gets children to think about those elders as a younger version of themselves, with more facets than they may have previously noticed. Listening to the adventures, challenges and successes their older relatives had to face might help them to frame their own experiences in years to come. Ad finally, learning about one’s family history and heritage helps to strengthen one’s sense of identity and belonging, regardless of socio-economic circumstances.
Here is a clip of the Year 5 children at Malorees Junior School talking about their diverse backgrounds.
Here is another taste of Our Stories’ foray into audio from our sessions at Malorees Junior School back in November.
During November and December 2017 OUR STORIES returned to Malorees Primary School. Over four days the children of year 5 were very busy sharing stories with each other which they had gleaned from or about their grand and great-grandparents over half term or soon after. Yara’s grandmother very kindly took the time to visit the school for an extensive interview by the children in 5G, as well as a few other parents. We heard the most fantastic variety of stories, ranging from a baby lion who got to stay in a posh Dublin hotel room to a body under a bridge in Kenya, a snake in a toilet, to a chicken farm in Argentina. We also heard many stories about the humble beginnings of many families only a few generations ago, living on farms, far away from schools and the amenities most children take for granted these days. We spent quite a long time discussing differences between then and now and comparing the contrasting life styles of the older generation and the children.
Most stories though, as so often with this project, were about being a refugee, sometimes in their own country, but sometimes this also meant having to flee London or the UK during the war for safety, or coming to England from another war-torn country to start a new life. As always, these stories have been a reminder of how many of these, ie. of ‘our’ North West London childrens’ lives have been shaped by economic and political migration, persecution, hardship and having to depend on the kindness of strangers.
And once again, the stories have painted an incredibly diverse and interesting picture of our community and I thank you all for sharing your stories.
Here is a little taster of what I recorded. More coming soon, watch this space!
Thank you for all your stories! The book has been printed, the playlist forwarded and everyone involved should be very, very proud of the result.
These visits at Maple Walk Primary School saw the premiere of two new developments. As it was the first time for OUR STORIES to be working with Year 6 children, it was decided to put them in charge of their own project entirely-from the way they would manage their time, find a story and collate any facts and material that could go into book, to typing up and editing their material and finally, presenting their piece to the class.
From the moment I started the conversation with the children, I got a sense that they had a lively and engaged relationship with their family elders and required little prompting in order to re-tell their stories, which was an excellent starting point. Nevertheless, on completion, many of them said, that through engaging with the project they had found out new things or that it had helped to re-kindle their interest in particular aspects of their family history.
On the last day at the school we traced the stories on a map of the world and discovered, as with most schools that OUR STORIES has visited here in London, the rich and varied heritage of the classroom, with stories weaving back and forth between England, Ireland, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, as well as Poland, Burma, Canada, Kurdistan,Georgia, Italy and Australia.
We were also very fortunate to have had a special visit from Rudy’s grandfather, who, as I am sure everyone would agree, could have entertained us all day with his stories if it hadn’t been for the small matter of the school curriculum. But Mrs Partridge was more than generous with the time she allowed us to run the project in and kudos to her for organising everything so expertly with the parents. Many thanks also to Mrs Romand for co-ordinating and welcoming us at the school. And special thanks to Finn’s mother Hannah for inviting me into their home in order to interview her mother Pamela, who provided us with a wealth of memories and stories.
Lastly, I am very excited to announce that we made our first foray into recording the children reading out their grandparent’s stories as well as some of their own reactions to the project. This would have not been possible without the enormous help of Rachel Shelley, local mother and radio producer (and actress!), who spent many hours editing all the clips and getting them to sound good. I, on the other hand discovered that I have a lot to learn still, especially when it comes to placing the zoom (also known as a microphone!) properly and get to grips with what to say and, most importantly, not to say ‘on’ and ‘off mic’.
I hope all parents received the link for the Soundcloud playlist on Soundcloud with all the children’s voices, reading their grandparent’s stories as well as some of their reactions to the project. In addition there is all the fantastic footage of Rudy’s Nono and Finn’s grandmother Pamela being interviewed about their lives.
The small profit that was raised by the margin from printing costs has been donated to the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund on behalf of OUR STORIES.
Keep up the storytelling!
I am proud to report that OUR STORIES has been invited back to Maple Walk this week, where I got to meet the children in Year 6 as well as their teacher, Mrs Partridge. These kids barely needed my introduction to get them started and luckily, it turned out that most of them are in close contact with their elderly relatives. Some were also keen to announce that it would be hard to choose between stories, or great- and grandparents for that matter.
Needless to say, I cannot wait to hear your stories, Year 6!
Why children need to know their family history
I’ve been inspired by research that suggests knowing the intimate facts of our family histories makes us more healthy emotionally
One day, my youngest daughter announced she was a Chelsea fan. It was a difficult day for her father, a life-long Man United supporter. “You can’t do that,” he whispered, his face ashen. “She was born in London,” I said, cheerily. “She can support what football team she likes.”
As someone with a modicum of intelligence – who can tell the difference between a football match, and, say, a mass global catastrophe (I make the distinction as there seems to be some confusion in our house) – I wasn’t concerned, but it did get me thinking about my children’s roots.
Like many people, we are raising our kids away from “home turf”. Their father and I hail from the north. Most of our family are dotted around Manchester, but as we have been living in London for more than 20 years, our kids are southerners, which, from a northern perspective, is a little like admitting you eat babies for breakfast.
Does it matter? Would our children benefit from being more in touch with their roots? In truth, the notion of family has never had much truck with me. Whenever I hear people say, “It’s family,” I get a flash image of Phil Mitchell, usually wielding a baseball bat.
I was pondering this when I came across research showing that children who have a strong “family narrative” enjoy better emotional health. Much of this work is from the late 90s, when psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, asked 48 families 20 questions about their family history. They found that the more the children knew, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.
“Hearing these stories gave the children a sense of their history and a strong ‘intergenerational self’. Even if they were only nine, their identity stretched back 100 years, giving them connection, strength and resilience,” he said.
I’m all for those qualities, so I decide to give the questions a whirl. To my surprise, they sail through the first (“do you know where your parents grew up?”) but are less clear about their grandparents. They all immediately jump on my mother’s bucket-and-spade childhood in Devon, which I strongly suspect is because ice-cream is involved, and then we’re on to: “Do you know how your parents met?”
This turns out to be another easy win. “University,” they all trump, although one of them – I’m not saying who – has a highly romanticised version. “You glimpsed Dad across a crowded bar and it was love at first sight. Then someone introduced you and you fell madly in love.”
“Does it matter if some of the answers are slightly, well, exaggerated?” I ask Duke, later. “No,” he says. “The exact questions and answers don’t matter. They’re more to show a process has taken place, that of sharing the stories, and that the children feel they have a story to tell.”
So I press on. “Do you know the source of your name?” But they are stumped by their grandparents’ first meeting. My in-laws, I say, met at a dance in Bolton, though my mother-in-law says she wishes she had gone for “the man with the car” instead. Meanwhile, my parents met on a CND rally. My mum was asking her friend what she had for breakfast and my dad interrupted: “Don’t talk to me about breakfast!” and my mum thought: “No. Nobody was.”
Then comes: “Do you know what went on when you (and your siblings) were born?” The twins quibble about who came first and then my eldest, who was a toddler at the time, chips in: “I wanted to name the twins Koko and Brewster after the trains in Chuggington, but I called them ‘the pink baby’ and ‘the blue baby’ instead.”
I am just beginning to congratulate myself on a job well done (those long hours boring them must have finally paid off), when things turn embarrassing. “Do you know some of the jobs your parents had when they were young?” My son quickly recalls Daddy’s newspaper round on his bike, which I think he imagines like the last scene in ET, but my eldest pipes up: “You were a waitress and not very good at it. You kept spilling the tea.” (True.) “You served garlic butter instead of mayonnaise.” (True.) “And you sneakily ate the cream teas in the kitchen.” (No comment.) “And when you worked in a pub, you had a blazing row with the sous chef because they had none of the dishes on the menu, which everyone in the bar could overhear.”
I’m reeling from the fact that I have told her this (seriously? I told her the teen stuff? Hadn’t I resolved never to do this?) but then I think, do they really need to know this kind of thing?
According to Duke, they do. Even though my teen stories are ridiculous, they feed into the idea that it’s important to let children hear about relatives overcoming difficulty.
“Families often shield children from the truth but negative stories can be even more important than positive ones for fostering emotional resilience,” he says.
He is right. Apparently, there are three types of family stories: the ascending one (“We built ourselves up out of nothing”); the descending one (“We lost it all”), or – the most successful – the oscillatory one (“We have had our share of ups and downs”). I grew up hearing stories like the latter: how my grandparents’ house was bombed in the war; how my grandma saw her husband die of a heart attack in the pulpit, while she sat in the congregation with her 15-year-old son; how my great-grandfather-in-law was killed in the first world war, leaving his wife and two young children behind.
I am pleased to learn that the children remember these stories; that my son knows his great-grandad was a coal miner and sent down the pit at 14, that my daughters know their great-great-auntie went into service when she was a teen; and I realise we’re in a whole new unlikely scenario where Downton Abbey is suddenly social realism.
“We all feel stronger if we are part of a tapestry,” says Stefan Walters, a family therapist. “One thread alone is weak, but, woven into something larger, surrounded by other threads, it is more difficult to unravel.”
Duke makes the point that discussing family dramas can fuel parent and adolescent interaction when the age of the bedtime story has passed. “And these stories do good even when the person is dead, we continue to learn from them.” That’s a sobering thought; that the stories stay with our kids, long after we are gone. Even if they do grow up to be Chelsea fans.
After months of organising, story sharing and mounting of material and images, two beautiful books have been created with the combined efforts of the grandparents, children, parents, teachers of Years 3 and 4 and myself. We all deserved a holiday after that. Thank you, everyone and well done!
The Year 3 books will be available at the beginning of term. (Apologies they were not printed sooner, but there were some technical issues). If anyone is interested in additional copies, please get in touch.