Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education

Day 9 of the 26 Day Big Shut Up: Tiny Stories, Noisy Histories

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Resistance may be futile; silence may be the inevitable conclusion of assimilation but the human appetite for constructing meaning from any source and refusing to shut up never ends.

Closing Schools for the Future: “It’s just a loss of identity, that’s all…”

Whilst the logic of school closures is argued by Local Authorities as acts of logic, efficiency and rationality, school closure invariably generates stories of incensed parents, irate communities and exhausted teachers. What is frequently lost amongst the sturm und drang of closure however are the tiny stories (Denzin, 1991) of loss: of professional expertise, of collective memory, of shared hopes and fears, of voice.

Some years ago we asked the research question: what is lost from a school community once the programme of closure has been agreed and a school moves inexorably towards its final days? In counterpoint to the Building Schools for the Future programme that was rife at the time, the study begun as an ethnographic study of the closing months of a single primary school, Centenary Primary School on the Wirral which had just celebrated its 100th birthday: with its imminent closure was just months away. A school’s 100 years’ Jubilee celebrations and its death-closure over just a matter of months? You just couldn’t make it up.

Informed by earlier work conducted by Whitefield (1980) Molinero (1988), Schmidt (2007) and Picard (of 2003, not the Picard of Borgian assimilation fame), we used a multi-method research strategy, including an arts based educational research methodology using creative writing as a means of generating ‘tiny stories’ (Denzin, 1991).

Tiny Stories, Noisy Histories: pointing to the silences of intention, action and dialogue

Tiny stories is a technique used within the practice of creative writing workshops and it has many manifestations. 

Nanofiction or microfiction are writing exercises in which the length of a story is arbitrarily determined to perhaps absurd lengths: Stern’s micro-fiction model for example states that micro-stories should be no more than 250 words. 

The World’s Shortest Stories (Moss, 1998) is more stringent: stories should contain no more than 55 words (excluding the title which must be no more than 7 words long) and each story must contain the following four elements: 1) a setting, 2) one or more characters, 3) conflict, and 4) resolution.   

Snellings Clark (2008) offers another set of limits on length (100 words) and directs the writer not to use the same word twice.  She offers a set of aesthetic criteria which describe how the tiny story might most effectively function and how why they resist the instruction to be silent:

  • Little stories that are larger on the inside than they appear on the outside.
  • Stories that leave an aftertaste, that linger.
  • Special nod to stories that include elements of the fantastic.
  • Little things with big effects: lost keys, a scrap of paper, a chink in the armour, a missing screw.
  • The inexplicable in the definable, the fantasy in the reality, the uncommon in the everyday, that something under the surface.

The secret little things: a microcosm of silence.

The Closing Schools for the Future project was written as a series of tiny stories which conformed to the Snellings Clark model: no more than 100 words in length, in commemoration of the age of the school at its closure.  78 tiny stories were written, each one representing a child who would have been on the school role had it not been shut down at the start of the next academic year.

Whilst this constitutes a small ethnographic project where n=1 and where the characters, narrative, dialogue and critical actions appeared to inhabit a microworld with microscopic movements, the ‘tiny stories’ told of cataclysmic change felt widely, resonating out across the landscape in which the school was based in ways not fully understood or predicted.

The soundscape of the territory was a microcosm of silence. Resistance to the closure had been purposeless, directionless if not completely futile. Questions remained unanswered, under investigated, under challenged: the assumption of logic, efficiency and incontestability was all pervasive.  

In this world of tiny stories, teachers identities were sometimes subtly, sometimes seismically challenged: John, a class teacher of some 15 years in the school had decided he just wanted to continue to teach in any school, despite being offered extra pay for taking on enhanced management duties.  But he just wanted to teach; and unable to play the job interview game refers in an observed class to the on-looking new head in a throwaway aside as an old witch which didn’t enamour him with her. So he failed to win the job in the new school and had to revisit his cv, his approach, his understanding of how he did what he did.  No longer a respected teacher for 15 years who had taught at the school classes across the range – he was now back in the marketplace with a label of as being a bit of a trouble-maker.

These tiny stories were not part of the building schools for the future mega-narrative of secondary schools; no bright new shining vision of educational pods for sophisticated young people who are able to opt for downloading content from their mobile phones over the attendance of a master class by an over-performing Uber-teacher who would be performing ballet steps one minute an entertaining the visiting private sector funders the next.

These stories had no shine, no brighter picture of a future but were stories of a quiet, seeping desperation which was prevented from turning into a collective madness by the efforts of teachers and children who continue from day to day as if nothing was about to happen. 

This was not an indignant narrative about the alleged lack of consultation of the authorities, an ironic parable about administrative dysfunction or a moralistic tale of performative brutalism – although each of those narrative genres emerged in the fabric of this story of school closure as it unravelled in its last few months.  It’s a collection of tiny stories of a tiny school told by tiny narrators.

The desire to silence

Behind these tiny stories, more complex narratives compete for attention and recognition as authoritative voices.  The bigger narratives pull at the microscopic texture of school and community and family relations, and the unravelling of that texture pulls on deep seated threads which pull elsewhere in our civil fabric: echoes and rumours of closure and melt down permeate the rest of the community.  

The loss of a name is mirrored close by with the demolition of a local church and the slow seepage away of local sights, knowledge and identity:  the local Centenary Vic Working Men’s Club had to announce it wasn’t closing in a letter to the press, perhaps indicative of  a microscopic flaking away of community of which the school is part of.  

These microscopic actions had macro effects which were unpredictable, chaotic, complex and still only partially understood: the desire to silence often leads to deafening and unknowable consequences.

More details of the research programme are here. If you’d like a copy of the research paper, please email me: nick@themightycreatives.com.

This blog is contributing to The Mighty (Un)Mute, a campaign aiming to raise £5,000 to support the artistic creation for one of ten Globe Sculptures in The World Reimagined art trail across Leicester. The purpose? To recognise and honour those most impacted by the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans through the centuries to the present day.

The TMC staff team are going to support the campaign by taking part in the Mighty (UN)Mute, a day-long vow of silence, on the 5th October. If you want to join us on the day and take a vow of silence, then please check out the campaign here. 

Of if the thought of donating your silence for 24 hours is really too much, then you can donate your hard-earned disposable income here.

Or if neither of these is possible (and heaven knows we’re all in tough financial times right now), then anything you can do to share and shout about the campaign would be equally welcome and appreciated.

So… come and help me to shut up, once and for all. You know you want to.

Author: drnicko

Awarded an MBE for services to arts-based businesses, I am passionate about generating inspiring, socially engaging, creative practice within educational contexts both nationally and internationally.

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