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Classic pages transcend the ages

Pupils and local citizens aged eight to 80 are meeting up at a Moray primary to get the most from some top children's tales

Pupils and local citizens aged eight to 80 are meeting up at a Moray primary to get the most from some top children's tales

If your book group is anything like mine, then the wine and gossip can often eclipse the literary discussion. But in the tiny village of Dallas in Moray, they're making sure reading remains the priority.

The Book Group meets at Dallas Primary and members can be aged eight to 80. The local taxi driver is a stalwart, along with one of the school's retired heads, a parent and a few interested senior citizens.

Every Thursday morning, a couple of them head for the staffroom to chat about children's classics like The Jungle Book or contemporary favourites like The Worst Witch.

For grown-ups, it's a good excuse to revisit their childhood or enjoy children's classics they missed first time around. It also encourages the children. "It's fun and it's different," says eight-year-old Marran Nicol.

"We do `reciprocal reading' with them and it's actually quite easy for the adults to do, because the children all have a job," says the school's enthusiastic head, Arlene Wilson.

"So they maybe read a chapter of the book for the next week, and one of the jobs is that someone has to find, say, half a dozen really interesting words or maybe someone will illustrate part of the story."

Adults help children struggling with new words or concepts, and no doubt the children occasionally return the favour.

Mrs Wilson provides the refreshments and then leaves them to it. "Anyone I've mentioned it to says, `What a good idea,'" she smiles.

Dallas is a small village surrounded by tree-covered hills in the countryside near Forres. With just 36 pupils, it was difficult getting a group at the appropriate level for discussion. So Mrs Wilson decided to supplement children with interested locals.

The readers even took to the hills to learn more about their heritage. "They read The Desperate Journey (Kathleen Fiddler's book about the Highland clearances) as part of their Year of Homecoming activities and discovered there were clearances from Dallas as well," says Mrs Wilson. "Then one of the group members took them to a site where there had been a croft and talked to them about the clearances.

Marran says: "I liked doing the book group and reading different books about the clearances and how people used to chuck people out of their houses."

Her friend Molly Keen, 10, says: "You learn lots of new words because in books sometimes you think, `What does that mean?' - and the adults can help you."

Last year's Homecoming was an inspirational opportunity for learning at this vibrant school. It began with a musical play at the end of 2008, "Where Did Christmas Go?" - prompted by debate about children cutting back on cards to each other.

"We said, `Let's pretend Christmas is cancelled and we come back to Dallas in 70 years for a reunion.' It was so funny because it was so relevant - all about the credit crunch," says Mrs Wilson.

"But it was also relevant because it was about this Homecoming in 2078. The older children played octogenarians and had a wonderful life and came back and told us about their time at Dallas School."

But the younger children in the cast were bewildered when Christmas was mentioned. "The true meaning of Christmas had got lost because they didn't celebrate it any more," says Mrs Wilson.

She extended Homecoming work with the children - researching old school registers and contacting former pupils. "We set up a blog on our website and got in touch with as many people who had been to Dallas School as possible, and got them to blog. So there's a blog on our website where you can read what people said about their memories."

One register was from 1876 and with the help of Moray's heritage officer, children delved further back into records, newspapers and books for information about Dallas villagers. They decided to focus on a small group they felt had made a difference to the world.

"That is what we did for our learning for the year," says their teacher. "The reading and writing all came out of this. Children were reading old newspaper articles, which are really difficult to read. So we weren't using a reading book - it was really Curriculum for Excellence, because it was all relevant and it was just part of what they were doing."

Molly, Marran and 10-year-old Felicia Fyvie, describe their Homecoming highlights. "I liked the Christmas concert best. I played a teacher and we got to sing and dance," says Felicia.

"It was interesting learning about people who had lived in Moray, like Scotty Philip who saved the buffalo," says Molly.

Fifteen-year-old James "Scotty" Philip emigrated to America in 1874 from Dallas. He farmed buffalo in Dakota and is credited with saving the herd from extinction. The school worked with the Out of Darkness Theatre Group on a dramatisation of Scotty's life, which they performed at Elgin town hall.

The children created an exhibition on these distinguished Dallas villagers - like William Anderson, who won the Victoria Cross for gallantry in 1918, and Dr Robert Douglas, who was born in 1871 and became medical health officer for Moray.

The school was runner-up in the Scottish Education Awards' Homecoming category and two pupils had poems published in an anthology on Homecoming by Learning and Teaching Scotland. It was also invited to showcase its work at the national Homecoming event for schools in Edinburgh.

- www.dallasprimary.co.uk

Jean McLeish, scoted@tes.co.uk.

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