Children hop on with rabbit tale and explore the unknown

11th November 2011 at 00:00
Inspired by both pictures and words in texts, children in Glasgow have produced a range of personal work and impressed an author in the process. Jackie Cosh reports

As visitors walked around the display of children's artwork and texts, one man was particularly intrigued. Morris Gleitzman, the award- winning author of Boy Overboard, had a personal interest in the children's work, since some of it related to one of his own books.

"Journeys from Images to Words" was an exhibition at Glasgow University of a project which grew out of research into children's visual literacy. The children had come to meet Mr Gleitzman, who was visiting Scotland from Australia, and brought some of their work with them.

The title was apt, since the P6 pupils from St Martha's Primary and Holy Cross Primary in Glasgow had started work in January on a picture book (The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan), then moved to a picture and text book (Gervelie's Journey: A Refugee Diary by Anthony Robinson) and finally a text-only book (Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman).

As they progressed, they produced work based on each of them. Picture books were put into words and artwork was produced to illustrate the pictureless Boy Overboard. Speech bubbles contained questions they wanted to ask the authors and their own comments were inserted. Rivers of reading depicted their own reading habits and those of their families.

The children were asked to make a drawing illustrating a journey they had made. Some were refugees or asylum seekers and had the opportunity to draw their own personal journey. If they didn't want to focus on their own past, no pressure was put on them.

Browsing through the collage of work before he spoke to the children, Mr Gleitzman was fascinated. "I have never been part of anything like this before," he said. "It seems a very effective way of young people exploring literary texts, and a process which helps relate to their own lives, so that it is not just between the covers."

When the children were told the deeper meaning of the picture book, The Rabbits, a story about colonisation, their reactions varied, said Elizabeth Balmer, P6 and 7 teacher at St Martha's Primary.

"We asked them to visualise what it was about. Then we told them and compared. They had thought it was just about rabbits. They didn't see the analogy and were quite shocked at the images and illustrations. It was interesting to see how much could be taken from that," she said.

"With the bilingual children, we found that they were more able to visualise than the monolingual children - maybe because they have to use their imagination more, maybe because they were used to a more oral tradition."

The project provided an opportunity for the children who had been through traumas and a journey similar to Jamal's and Bibi's in Boy Overboard to talk about their experiences, should they wish.

"Some of the bilingual children were able to open up more and talk about their own experiences, and some didn't," said Ms Balmer. "Some decided to write about their own stories. It wasn't a case of `tell me' - if they wanted to share them then they could."

The project, part of an Esmee Fairbairn Foundation funded project, was led by Evelyn Arizpe at Glasgow University. She found the children engaged really well with the texts and did a lot of work independently without too much intervention from the teachers.

"Some children were clearly not used to talking about their experiences and found it hard to annotate, or they weren't confident drawers, which is why we gave them different opportunities - taking photographs as well as drawing," she said.

"Children who were quiet at first began to gain more confidence and children who were already good readers helped pull the less able children along."

This was the experience at St Martha's Primary. "One boy in particular is reluctant to write but he has a lot of general knowledge and insight," said Ms Balmer. "He was a good contributor and felt he had a lot to offer. It showed me that he is an intelligent boy."

Mr Gleitzman was struck by how effective the process had been. "Looking at the work, there was obviously deep and functional engagement," he said.

"I think I was struck more by the personal content. It reminded me why I wrote the book. It reminded me that sometimes fiction is there to open our eyes to the real world.

"Ideally there will always be an exchange of energy between the story and the aspects of the story inspired by life. This has reminded me of how wonderful it is when it happens."

IN THE FRAME: PICTURE AND TEXT BOOKS

The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan

A picture book with a little text, this is a story about colonisation, written from the point of view of those being colonised. At first the rabbits appear friendly but it soon becomes clear that these visitors are invaders.

Gervelie's Journey: A Refugee Diary by Anthony Robinson and Annemarie Young

A combination of text, watercolours and photographs, this tells the true story of Gervelie's escape from the Congo, and how he finds refuge in Britain.

Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman

This is the story of football-loving Jamal and his sister Bibi. Together with their family, they leave Afghanistan to escape the Taliban and travel to Australia where more problems arise.

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