A French 'Rolf' in Richmond

9th March 2001 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh on an unusual artistschool collaboration.

We are familiar with the idea of bringing writers and artists into school to work on collaborative projects. At Trafalgar junior school in Richmond, however, where there is a strong tradition of French teaching, they have taken this a step further and, through the local authority and the French Embassy, made links with first an artist and then a writer, both from France.

Alexis Ferrier, an illustrator of children's books, visited the school to work on an English story that the Year 6 children had written for him. Deputy head and French teacher Richard Smith says: "We started by doing the 'hot seat' for him. The children asked him questions in French. He was very funny and entertaining. He's quite young and he went down very well."

Then the children and Alexis Ferrier embarked on their story - a magical tale with wizards - the artist working quickly on big sheets of a paper. M Ferrier, explains Richard Smith, speaks a little English but he needed help - which in turn helped the children's learning.

"We read our story out a paragraph at a time," says Mr Smith. "An interpreter from the Embassy translated any bits he didn't understand. This was wonderful, because the children were reading in English, then hearing it translated. They started to recognise words, such as magique."

He says: "Alexis did this Rolf Harris thing, with big felt-tip illustrations. As we went along he would ask questions and laugh at his inability with English. It made lots of points."

At the end there was a collection of big bold pictures that for a time could be seen on the French Embassy website together with the children's story. Inspired by this - and by the good working link between the LEA and the Embassy - the school then embarked on a longer project, which is still running its course. This involves a French children's writer, Genevi ve Brame, who works with French schools producing, in collaboration with the children, illustrated books on their own neighbourhoods.

The plan is to work with two schools - cole Louis Pasteur and cole George Sand - in Longuenesse, not far from Calais, an area that has close links with Richmond education, fostered by officers and advisers on both sides.

"She works in a set way," explains Mr Smith. "She came to visit the children and showed them other work she'd done andexplained her plan, which is for a joint book between us and the French schools that you could open from either end and would meet in the middle. She had a meeting with the Year 6 teachers and worked out with them what she called a chemin de fer - a railroad, a route through the project. Then she left us to work on it."

The children did a huge amount of research, walking the area, looking up historical figures, doing illustrations that were vetted by Genevi ve Brame, who then wrote the text page by page.

"It's really made them look at their local environment and it was a good thing to do after the SATs last summer term."

Now the challenge is to find funding to print the book. The home of Rugby Union at Twickenham, for example, is nearby, and features in the book. "We've asked the Rugby Union for help and various local businesses," says Mr Smith. "But with very little success. There have been similar problems in France."

Trafalgar is a beacon school, which raises the possibility of using some of the beacon funding to help bring the project to fruition. Richard Smith points out that projects of this kind are cross-curricular, as well as cross-cultural. Raising awareness of language, becoming aware of words and meanings is central to language acquisition and the National Literacy Strategy.

He acknowledges that it is increasingly difficult to find blocks of time in primary schools for projects of this kind, but he is committed to their value, and grateful for the support of his headteacher.

The work at Trafalgar was made possible by the Service Culturel of the French Embassy, which largely funded both projects. They, and other embassies, approach local authority advisers from time to time with suggestions for visits by artists, teachers and student teachers. The contact is often made through CILT (Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research). Ann Farren, adviser in Richmond authority, says:

"For example when Alexis Ferrier came over he did work with other schools, in Hounslow and Manchester. It was funded by the Embassy. They generally come to me and I negotiate with the schools."

CILT website: www.cilt.org.ukYou can see a picture of Alexis at work, and details of other projects on the website of Nacell (National Advisory Centre on Early Language Learning). Web: www.nacell.org.ukschoolshappeninghappening.htm

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