A leaf out of the big kids' book

15th October 2010 at 01:00
Art and English departments joined forces for a project to create children's books in Argyll

If bringing "learning to life" and "life to learning" lies at the heart of Curriculum for Excellence, an exciting cross-curricular and cross-sector book project at Dunoon Grammar in Argyll fits the criteria perfectly.

The brainchild of English teacher Dan Semple, the project embraced entrepreneurial, literacy, artistic and ICT skills, as the S3 pupils not only came up with their own stories, but wrote and illustrated the children's books.

The pupils also visited Dunoon Primary to consult P34 children about the stories, which are aimed at that age group. Now the books are being printed by a local publisher and the next step is to launch a hardback edition of the best ones.

Mr Semple, who worked alongside art teacher Adrienne Devlin, had always wanted a class to publish its own book: "All I needed was the `right' class and circumstances. I discussed the idea with the pupils and they were very enthusiastic."

The project also benefited from pound;2,000 from the Scottish Government's Determined to Succeed purse.

"The children had the freedom to generate their own ideas, having researched a selection of young children's books themselves. We invested a lot of time in identifying the key features of that genre. They then evaluated their ideas and, after three to four weeks, set about writing the stories."

The class decided the best way forward was to read their draft stories to primary children. "This was very useful," adds Mr Semple, "as they could use the primary feedback to enhance and improve the quality of their work."

Although the genre may look simple, he says, the children soon realised the subtleties involved. "Writing is a major problem across Scotland and this project has made the pupils more aware of the art of writing and how they can improve their own writing."

The next step was to work with the art department on illustrations. "That's when the books started to become real, with the two working concordantly," he says.

For the pupils, one of the most important aspects of this project was making the learning experience real. "They're going to have something tangible to take away from their school experience. So much of what we do, they find difficult to connect to the real world, but here we have an end product," says Mr Semple.

"It's also made them much more confident - even those who struggle with English have shown real skill."

He attributes this to the level of engagement and ownership the children were given. "I've tried to stay in the background, to facilitate and to let them lead as much as possible. It has, without doubt, made them `successful learners'."

Despite the challenges in co-ordinating the project, Mr Semple believes CfE offers great opportunities. "Teachers across Scotland have always complained about the curriculum being too restrictive and now we have this chance to generate our own ideas and be radical," he says.

"You have to be willing to try out new things and it gives us the opportunity to confidently use our ideas and bring the subject to life, especially for the disengaged. We're still achieving and attaining, but in a different way, and this is going to have a very positive effect not only for the teachers but, more importantly, for the children."

For Ms Devlin, who led the visual side of the project, many benefits have arisen: "Not seeing subjects in the confined box of the classroom was great and art definitely went up in their estimation."

She had to make time to help out on the project, because the pupils have fewer art classes, but a lot of extra hours were put in by all involved.

The pupils used technology in art, from photocopiers (for image manipulation) to digital cameras. "They learned a lot about layout and graphics," she says.

"If I was to do the project again, I would do it slightly differently. Some opted to use the computer for the colour aspect; others used model- making and photography, and some used drawing skills, which was more time- consuming. I would probably discourage drawing on account of time."

Having two teachers in two separate departments (albeit on the same floor) also made communication difficult. If Ms Devlin's daughter had not been in Mr Semple's English class, it might never have happened. She was often used as a conduit between the two teachers when other commitments made meeting impossible.

Despite this, Ms Devlin would do the project again: "I would want to be on board much earlier, so I knew about their story ideas from the outset and could avoid potential potholes on the art side and guide them accordingly."

For her, CfE presents a great ideal that is worth pursuing, but in practical terms it's "a minefield".

"It would cost a lot of money, but if you really want to push this in S1- 3, I would prefer to see pupils in a different working environment, with teachers who are trained differently, instead of introducing it as a sort of `add-on'," she says.

"Trying to build a new curriculum in this financial climate is really difficult. There are huge hurdles."

Arlene Foster teaches English at Dunoon Grammar

Not just good on paper

Sean McMahon, 15

"I learnt more about how books become published. I enjoyed the drawings and the whole class helped each other. It has helped my English too, as I learnt more about correct layout and punctuation. I would love to do it again, perhaps for a different age group."

Heather Waine, 15

"It was great for teaching us about the real world - all that work has not been forgotten or filed away somewhere. It has helped me understand young people's views on books and I have become more confident in drawing."

Kirsty McKechnie, 14

"It was fun mixing the project between English and art and it was exciting to see the young children's reaction to our books."

Victoria Cowan, 14

"I liked going to the primary school and reading out our work and I look forward to going back to read them our finished stories."

Chloe Oswald, 14

"I liked seeing everyone else's ideas in the class. It's good that we have our books actually finished and can see what we have accomplished."

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