Home wanted for Irn Bru-coloured cat

An animal shelter in the United States provides an incentive for sensitive and meaningful writing by some P2 pupils

Elizabeth Buie

Their pictures would melt your heart; their stories bring tears to the eye; and at the same time, they are releasing the creativity and improving the writing skills of a class of P2 pupils in Edinburgh.

They are the cats and dogs looked after by an animal shelter halfway across the world - PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society), based in Lynnwood, Seattle, on the west coast of America. Every week, the pupils write a profile of a cat and a dog looking for a new home, which the shelter posts on its website.

The connection between the abandoned cats and dogs of Seattle and Roseburn Primary is Jennie Warmouth, who has been teaching P2 for the past year on a Fulbright exchange programme.

At Spruce Elementary, a suburban, multicultural establishment in the Edmonds School District, she began the project five years ago with her class of six and seven-year-olds.

It originated in work with her Microsoft school mentor, Anna Walter. Together, they wanted to find a technology project that embedded computer skills in a meaningful way. Miss Warmouth, who has been teaching for nine years, has always been interested in animal welfare, so she asked her local PAWS shelter if they could create a partnership.

Every week, her PAWS partner sends her details of a cat and a dog. These are the "difficult to place" pets, usually because of illness or they have "less attractive qualities".

She prints out the information for the children and they read it for critical information. "They have to generate creative sentences. Then they come together as a whole class and we work with the ideas they have generated. Sometimes we change the order as a whole group. When we've finished, we email it to my partner in the shelter and PAWS publishes the profile," she explains.

In the five years of the Seattle project, every pet has been adopted with the exception of one, which died, she says. "I think the children's descriptions help the pets receive more attention."

And the children have benefited. "They have a heightened awareness of their own thinking and they feel passionate and empowered," says Miss Warmouth. "Their writing is better structured and they are showing more creativity. They know their audience is real and they feel committed to helping these pets."

She also sees improvements in the pupils' spelling. "When they read through the notes from the shelter, the handwriting is not always neat. It bothers the children, so that has been a vehicle for stressing the importance of neat handwriting."

The project also has given them an international perspective. "It's exciting for them that they are receiving information in Scotland which is helping someone halfway across the world. The file takes one second to travel and it is published on the animal shelter's website on the same day."

The project is voluntary and held every Thursday lunchtime. Her own class of 27 and four interested pupils from other classes attend. One pupil, who was a reluctant writer, now reads the website every evening at home and then writes her own stories about the pets that inspire her, says Miss Warmouth.

Over the months, Miss Warmouth and her pupils have ironed out many of the subtle transatlantic differences between her American English and the English they speak. A few weeks ago, she had to include her own translation for the PAWS website when the children described a ginger cat as the colour of Irn Bru.

With Microsoft headquartered in Redmond, near Seattle, many teachers there can apply for grants and equipment from the computer multinational. In her classroom in America, she has three desktops, six student-use laptops, several digital cameras and an interactive whiteboard. At Roseburn, Miss Warmouth has a laptop, a desktop and an interactive whiteboard - but that is all she needs for a collaborative project like PAWS, she says.

When she returns to Seattle, Miss Warmouth will be looking for a new dog as hers "passed on shortly before I left", she says. "I'm a farm-dog person, so I hope to get a Border Collie to remind me of Scotland."


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Elizabeth Buie

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