How to NOT go to School
When schools closed due to COVID-19, Primary teacher Mike Ford worried about the impact on his pupils. So he wrote a book for them.
One of the very first lessons I learned as a fresh-faced Teach First trainee was the importance of routine. Amidst any other uncertainty in their lives, children want a classroom and a teacher they can trust to stay the same. Then Coronavirus hit. Schools were shut down. And all of my class’s carefully arranged schedules and mechanisms of support were tossed in a box, shaken around and chucked on the floor.
As they packed up their bags and coats on that last Friday, I remember thinking that I needed to give the children a tool to help them make sense of what was going on around them. I wanted to help their families openly discuss mental health and wellbeing in the face of these upheavals. And most of all, I wanted to create a sense of normality that they could hold on to as the routines of their regular lives were swept away.
And out of all that, Parsley Mimblewood was born. She’s a homeschooled kid who sees herself as something of an expert on How to NOT go to School. For her, learning at home, feeling cooped up together and missing far away friends are a normal part of her life. The book follows the whimsical daily adventures of Parsley along with her family and a hotch-potch cadre of imaginary friends. My favourite is Detective Inspective Dracula but Parsley II, the imaginary guinea pig, is a close second! Each chapter addresses an issue that the children might be struggling with right now such as learning at home, dealing with anxieties or missing friends. At the end of the chapter, there are discussion prompts to help families come together and talk about how to deal with these problems and worries.
My class really liked the book. They especially enjoyed the little in-jokes like PomPom the Ninja, our class mascot, who pops up in the story. I decided to share it online and pretty soon everything started to go bonkers. In a few weeks, the story had been downloaded 85,000 times, illustrated by an incredible artist, Rebecca Sampson, and translated into Spanish and Italian (with German, Dutch, British Sign Language, Russian, Arabic, Irish Gaelic and Scots on the way!). I’ve been utterly flabbergasted by it all and the kids in my class were just delighted that PomPom the Ninja was finally getting the fame and recognition that he so richly deserves!
Over the past few weeks, I’ve received so many beautiful messages from wonderful parents and teachers who’ve read and shared the book. They seem to really value the opportunity to talk about mental health and wellbeing without the conversation being forced. The discussion is natural because it all comes out of Parsley Mimblewood’s silly whimsical adventures. In fact, I think the main reason for the book’s improbable popularity is that it’s not about Coronavirus. It’s just a funny little story about imaginary friends and badly-behaved nanny goats.
As we take the very long path to coming out of lockdown, it’s clear that the impact on people’s mental health will have been huge. In particular, children from the poorest communities will be facing the greatest challenges. In so many cases, their families will lack a sense of economic security and without a wealth of books and technology at home, their learning and literacy will have been especially affected by this period. Hopefully, How to NOT go to School will have been a helpful tool for these families but it is so important that we, as a society, do whatever is necessary to help these children catch up and meet their potential.