Learning on many levels: Oakhill Preparatory School’s paired writing project

| March 26, 2013 | 0 Comments

Mistakes make a difference: the Grade 8 experience

By Sheila Pasio

There is something frightening about teaching English in a small coastal town like Knysna in the Western Cape, but also something refreshing.

We are sometimes intimidated by the well-staffed, competitive ‘big city’ schools, and sometimes afraid of the dark, when we proceed by ‘feel’ and not by sight to comprehend new curriculum concepts. Conversely, it is exhilarating to have to initiate, formulate and ‘energise’ our own materials and to enjoy a type of lightness of being, unburdened by competition. We like to believe that this energy and freshness is reflected in the creative thinking of our students.

Shared storybook idea emanates from conference

Needless to say, we are always inspired through our interactions at annual IEB English conferences.1 This article serves to reinforce the importance of this interaction and to give credit to those who are willing to share their wisdom and their success stories. In this case, I give the credit to Minky Antrobus and her English department colleagues at Elkanah House School in Cape Town, who motivated us with their Shared Storybook Project. I loved the concept and I knew that it we could use it to bridge the divide between our prep school and college, as they had done at Elkanah. Although we share the same campus – a small enough one, at that – the two phases spend too little time getting to know one another; particularly the students.

From interview to bound creation

This beautiful project involves the creation of stories: a Grade 8 student writes a book for a Grade 3 student. A simple notion. But it is not the project itself but the process that becomes a joy. One blue-skied spring morning with a spring in our step, my colleagues and I made our way with our senior students up to the prep school. Soon, coupled together, the ‘senior’ was in deep conversation with the ‘junior’. Such meetings had never happened before in this context. He or she was asking questions and finding out the interesting details of the little person’s life.

This information became the lifeblood of the story, and the child the heart of it, and depending on the depth of the interview, rendered meaningful processes of writing, peer editing and final editing for our college pupils. Then handdrawn and whimsically painted goblins and other illustrations appeared. The finished products were infinitely wonderful: collated, bound and covered. On the appointed day, armed with brightly decorated cupcakes, we proceeded again to the prep school to present the stories. A loud cheer rang out in the Grade 3 classroom and, once again, small huddles formed as the books were opened and the magic of seeing one’s person in print and picture initiated a transformative collective experience.

Lessons even more valuable than literature

Towards the rear of the classroom, two boys hung back. There was a problem. They were agitated, one close to tears. “I can’t give this to my partner,” muttered the first. “It’s ugly, I haven’t finished it properly!” For this boy, writing is not an easy process, but he had had a bright idea, incorporating his young subject’s love of nature parks, but fear of spiders. I knew that he had worked against his difficulties, had created a story and that we had edited it together.

He had just run out of energy and felt as though now, when it really counted, he had let someone down. The second tall 14-year-old was devastated. He had not even completed the story and had nothing to give to his young partner. So, one child sat with nothing in front of him, with a brave, but embarrassed expression on his face. The tall boy had never felt so small! He, too, had let someone down. In an instant, we had to restore the situation. Boy number one had to present his book. We told him it was a brave effort, and he offered it and disappeared to absorb the many lessons he had just learned!

With an arm round his shoulder, we escorted the second boy out of the room, whereupon a flood of tears gushed forth. I took a walk with him and talked about accountability and making mistakes. He agreed that when we are accountable to someone else we just cannot let them down. He agreed that it would have been much better to have faced his teacher and to tell her that he could not, or was not getting to his story. He also learned that when we make a mistake, it is not the end of the world – we simply learn a really valuable life lesson.

It is in the honest owning-up to our mistakes that we can make right, not in trying to bury them. As we talked, he gained perspective on the situation and began to feel better: he lifted his head and wiped his tears. The storybooks were packed away in a pre-camp flurry and we left the prep school. Most felt proud of a job well done and left with hearts full of the act of giving. And the two boys walked with heads up once again, but with something learned that will last a lot longer in their own life stories. Real growth will have happened if we observe changed behaviour in a second project – different, but with the same accountability factor. I am currently seeking ideas!

Category: Autumn 2013

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