A unique project has brought the rich literary tradition of south-east Asia to a West Midlands secondary school. In the process it has boosted the confidence and writing skills of pupils and proved that creative thinking around the national curriculum can go a long way in promoting cultural diversity.
The Writing Together partnership, which funds schools to work with writers, brought together key stage 3 pupils at Joseph Leckie Community Technology College in West Walsall with Shropshire poet and writer-in-education Simon Fletcher, an expert in south-east Asian literature.
The venture was targeted at Pakistani children who are under-achieving nationally, but it has reached non-Asian pupils and helped to raise awareness in an area that has had a negative press about racial tensions.
Head of English Becky Hough says the project has given children the chance to share their cultural heritages, while highlighting that, "There's more to the curriculum than Dickens and Shakespeare. We didn't want to put together just Asian pupils, adding to the segregation or isolation they often feel. It was about being open and bringing together mixed groups from diverse backgrounds."
Simon worked with four year groups of 15 to 18 pupils over three weeks in June. Each group explored a different theme - food for Year 7, birds and animals for Year 8, identity for Year 9 and racism for Year 10 - in a day's writing workshop, spread over two sessions.
He introduced pupils to his work and that of writers connected to the Indian subcontinent, such as Debjani Chatterjee, Vikram Seth, John Siddique, Moniza Alvi. He then set them writing tasks, encouraging them to stamp their identity on their work.
In the second session with Year 9, the sonnets are flowing after Simon reads his own, dedicated to his grandmother: You'll Go Mad If You Read Too Many Books.
"He makes it kind of fun and it's fascinating to learn about other cultures," says 14-year-old Dilwara Khatun.
Aaisha Sidat adds: "It's helped my self-esteem in writing poetry. I didn't think I had such a talent, but now I find a talent that was already in me."
"I was failing a bit with creative writing, but this is helping," says Thompson Charuma. "We had to imagine a poem. Now I am really feeling something inside me."
Year 8 pupils are busy on their "writing, exercises and explorations" worksheet in the afternoon session. They write about their favourite animals and try their hand at an acrostic, after Simon inspires them with Debjani Chatterjee's poem "Diwali". Homework is to explore why animals, such as the wild boar, have become extinct and to write a letter to a newspaper or Member of Parliament with ideas for a better environment.
"It's different from revising for exams because we get to express our feelings," says Stuart Ballyn, aged 13.
"I thought it would be boring," says Ruhull Rajar. "When you watch TV, you don't get the feeling that people are interested in me or my culture."
"The students are empowered, because they feel somebody cares about their culture," says Simon, a former teacher and journalist, who visited Pakistan in 1997, funded by a Yorkshire Arts writers' award. He travelled with poet Basir Sultan Kazmi (a friend and colleague from his teaching days in Halifax) to explore the Mushaira (gathering of poets) scene. Together with Indian-born poet Debjani Chatterjee, they've developed Mini Mushaira, promoting understanding between cultures through performance-related activities.
"The bottom line is that literature brings people together. If we read one another's literature then we have a much better chance to get on as friends," Simon adds.
Ahmed Arif, KS3 English and minorities achievement consultant for Walsall LEA, and a former head of English, says one of the reasons that Pakistani children are under-achieving is because of low self-esteem, as a result of "negative representation in the wider society".
Walsall encourages teachers to use the national curriculum creatively to reflect pupils' cultural heritages. "Writing Together gave us the opportunity to develop resources and to reflect and value the enormous Urdu and Hindi literary tradition that many of the children's parents would themselves have learned in schools before coming to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s," he says.
"We hope we've also produced some budding writers."
"I'll be approaching all Walsall schools in 2005-06 to fund similar projects. It's also given me ideas about devising national curriculum schemes of work based on Islamic literature."
Becky says: "It's boosted pupils' confidence and produced some fantastic work, which they can build on in preparation for their Original Writing coursework and AQA's Other Cultures poetry."
She's also incorporating some of Simon's techniques and resources into the faculty's own schemes of work. Becky sees teachers benefiting through a better understanding of how to approach cultural issues. "We often tread on eggshells and we need to take our blinkers off and learn how to be comfortable and celebrate difference," she says.
"It also means we can get parents more involved and we're holding our own Mushaira in the autumn term when the pupils will be reading their work."
* Simon Fletcher www.shrews1.fsnet.co.uk
* Writing Together www.booktrust.org.ukwritingtogether
* The paper Ethnicity and Education: The Evidence on Minority Ethnic Pupils (January 2005) can be downloaded at www.standards.dfes.gov.ukethnicminoritieslinks_and_publicationsEandE_RTP01 05