Great adventures in a community of writers

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Nestling in the picturesque Campsie and Fintry hills, 66-pupil Fintry primary looks like any other small village school. The only clue that something unusual is afoot is the mural on the otherwise nondescript wall of a temporary classroom.

But although the activities of this modest establishment outside Glasgow may have gone largely unnoticed in this country, Fintry is attracting the attention of educationists as far afield as Bangladesh and the United States.

The school encourages learning through what is known as the storyline approach. It also runs a philosophy group for pupils aged 10 and 11, to cultivate confidence, communication skills and reasoning.

Gill Friel, the headteacher, says: "Fintry is a community of writers. The children quite unconsciously refer to themselves as authors."

Entering the school is like walking into a child's imagination. The hall has been transformed into a scene from Charlotte's Web, a story pupils have been studying. Paper mache trees, poems and giant spiders crafted by the children adorn the walls. It is a fitting entrance to the school library, which has hundreds of illustrated and beautifully bound short stories and non-fiction reference books made by the children.

Pupils turn just about everything they do in class into a book, whether they are studying birds of prey, dinosaurs, ancient Greece or the Jacobites. Mrs Friel says: "It is not an original idea for children to write and publish books, but the way it has exploded here is probably different. It is an exciting way for children to learn."

She continues: "As soon as children start on a project they know they will be creating an end product which will be shared with other people, and not just the teacher."

During a history project on the Jacobites, Shona Jenkins, aged 11, wrote a moving tale set in 1746 after Culloden, about the wife of a man who fought in the last battle. "Caught in a Nightmare", which includes a biography on the back cover listing 10 other books she has written, was presented to Drambuie for its Jacobite exhibition.

Shona is already working on her 11th book, a school project that involves interviewing her parents about a real-life childhood adventure. "I like writing stories. I imagine that I'm wherever the story is set, then it is easier to describe things," she said. As well as individual projects, the "Choice Adventure Stories" series usually involves four pupils and at the end of each page the reader is given a choice of pages to turn to, each with a different plot.

The children compile reference books from their own researches. They have also reviewed "real" books, such as The Magic School Bus series. Mrs Friel is a consultant for Scholastic, the publisher, and has published a book for teachers on the craft of writing. She is now working on the follow-up with co-author Sue Ellis. "The ethos of the school is to create a community of people who respect each other's ideas," she says. "We are all learners and writers together. "

This ethos overlaps into the philosophical inquiry group at Fintry, comprising 19 pupils from primary 6 and 7 and chaired by Mrs Friel's husband John, a trained facilitator. The group meets once a week after school. Pupils read a text, possibly an extract from a novel, which they then discuss. The only rule is that whenever children speak they must say whether or not they agree with the person who spoke before them.

The method was pioneered by Catherine McCall of Glasgow University. Mrs Friel says: "This is about thoughts growing from one person to another. The pupils have to listen to what the others are saying and articulate their own in response."

Fintry primary is holding a "Rhyme Time" open day on June 20. Each class will present a choral poem and the special guest is actor Michael Burns, who plays Colin in BBC1's The Brittas Empire.

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