Jump into Wednesdays
On March 9 this year, Illinois became the 16th US state to abolish capital punishment, to the great delight of the Amnesty International Group at Drummond High in Edinburgh.
"We were part of the campaign that helped to achieve this," says S2 pupil Esther Simon.
"I think it was already on the cards, but we had written to the Democratic governor, Pat Quinn, a few weeks before the announcement to show our support for abolition and we all felt we had helped to make it happen," says Esther, who hails from California and whose mother is a lawyer representing convicts on death row in the US.
"My mum came in to talk to the group about capital punishment and this led us to write to the governor," she says.
The Amnesty Group is one of some 20 activity groups that make up the WAO (Wider achievement opportunities) alternative curriculum at Drummond High. Like the other groups, it meets for the last two periods of every Wednesday afternoon when the school is entirely given over to its alternative curriculum.
"The wider achievement opportunities is a way of fully embracing the four capacities of Curriculum for Excellence," says Norma Prentice, Drummond High head.
"It allows pupils to work in mixed-ability and mixed-age groups, pursuing an activity of their choice, and is a way of recognising their wider abilities and achievements beyond the classroom," she says.
Pupils make their choices from a range of pursuits that include sporting, artistic, environmental, craft, enterprise, social engagement and technical activities, offered by teaching and non-teaching staff. All the WAO ideas come from staff and all are involved in planning.
"It's not just teacher-led, as the pupils bring their own skills and ideas," says Mrs Prentice. "After two years, it is now central to the school ethos. It boosts the pupils' confidence and widens their educational experience. It improves social skills, aids peer education and develops the mentoring skills of older pupils."
S3 pupil Corrie McKenzie has been an enthusiastic dance leader since last August, putting both her peers and younger pupils through their paces while bringing her own ideas to the dance floor.
"I like teaching younger pupils and watching them taking on my ideas. Until this year, I was just a member of the dance group but I prefer teaching now because I like to make up dances and to choreograph. It is maybe not as important as maths or English, but to me it is important as dance will always be a part of my life."
As she speaks, Corrie has to raise her voice above the hip-hop music reverberating round the gym hall where the atmosphere is "lively, loud and really fun", as she describes it.
Fun is a word on every pupil's lips when asked about Wednesday afternoons and there is a real buzz of activity around the school. As you cross the playground to enter the main building just before the first afternoon bell, pupils are rushing about.
Some are making their way to the bus waiting to take them to Hillend Ski Centre for an afternoon of snowboarding and ski instruction. Some are heading for nearby Warriston playing fields to play American football or baseball, while others are setting out to explore the history and wildlife of "Edinburgh's Amazon" (aka the Water of Leith).
Things are quieter, relatively speaking, with the presenting presents group, where S1 pupil Danielle Hush is finishing making her first soft toy, a delightful guinea pig.
Amid the sounds of quiet laughter, scissors cutting and needles clicking, Danielle explains how the pupils make presents and presentation boxes and how they learn to sew, knit, crochet and cross-stitch.
"You just know you are going to enjoy this time, have fun and a laugh. But you take it seriously because you are really learning skills you can use," says Danielle.
"I love making things and my mum has now bought me a sewing kit. I made her a bracelet out of paper clips and beads, and she wears it out to dinner. The more I make, the more ideas I get. Everybody loves WAOs. Learning is fun and this is now a serious hobby for me."
Equally serious is Lachlan Glen, an S2 pupil intent on making an animated film as part of the Think, Create, Animate group.
"I have always liked animated films and wondered how they do it. We have been studying hand-drawn to computer-generated films. I like the more traditional approach because it's friendlier.
"I loved The Illusionist and the way it created Old Edinburgh - the Edinburgh my dad would have known - and I like watching my stories come to life through my drawings and figures," he says.
Like the other pupils, Lachlan enjoys engaging with teachers outside their taught subjects. "It is new to see teachers teach us something different. We see what their own interests are and they can see ours, too. That's good," he says.
Principal teacher of maths Rosemary Cameron is the hands-on co-ordinator of the WAO afternoons, along with Susan Towers, principal teacher of modern languages.
"Pupils and teachers see each other in a different light and this has a positive effect on the school ethos," says Mrs Cameron.
"All the teachers have embraced the WAOs and have been willing to go outside subject boundaries and their professional comfort zones to engage with pupils in a different way. It's good, for example, for pupils to experience a maths teacher's enthusiasm for American sports or to work alongside the head in a childcare class.
"It also means that staff work with colleagues from other departments and that everyone - pupils and staff - can share their interests and enthusiasms. That can only be good for the school community," she says.
The alternative curriculum also brings pupils into contact with outside agencies and other professionals. The childcare class receives visits from midwives and health workers. Dancers work with FE tutors from Telford College to attain their Dance Leader Awards. And Edinburgh's Amazon adventurers work with the Water of Leith Conservation Trust.
Similarly, the WAO activities can also bring pupils to engage directly with the local community. Activities co-ordinator students work in older persons' care homes, organising Hallowe'en and Christmas parties, keep fit and bingo sessions, and have raised funds for one home by organising, among other things, a "senior boys' leg wax" salon.
"It's all about supporting and valuing wider achievement," says Mrs Cameron. "At the end of every term, we have a WAO celebration event when we welcome all our parents, visitors and helpers to a showcase of all that we do with displays, performances, exhibitions, discussions, videos, films and our own Fair Trade cafe. It brings the school community together in rather a special way."
`It would be crazy not to consider WAOs'
Susan Towers, WAO co-ordinator and principal teacher of modern languages: "Wednesday afternoon is buzz time for Rosemary (Cameron) and me. We have to check all the activities are covered, visit the different groups, plan ahead for the next term's WAOs, liaise with staff and plan the upcoming celebration day.
I think what we do here is quite unique because every WAO is inter- disciplinary and cross-curricular with set outcomes and experiences, and it is all planned and logged.
It is now firmly part of our school life and I would say to any school to go for it. In fact, I would say you would be crazy not to consider WAOs or their equivalent.
It brings a great ethos to the school because staff do different things that interest them personally. It is great for their morale and it gets pupils out of the class.
Pupils like to be hands-on and it is a good way for them to discuss and learn. It is really refreshing and great fun.
It has developed my professional skills and brought out leadership skills I didn't know I possessed. It has led me to take the project leadership course run by the City of Edinburgh and that, in turn, has helped me to run the WAOs better.
You can see pupils engaging who were previously more negative and you see them blossom working with their peers and with new people. You can also see pupils bringing on others who are less confident.
It is rewarding to be working with different members of staff.
WAOs are totally inclusive and a completely eclectic mix of experiences for everyone to enjoy. If I were to sum them up in one word, that word would be colour."
Other WAOs at a glance
- Make it in Music: a skills-based course on creating, performing, staging and promoting music (40 weeks)
- Drummond Online: web design, how to update and add photos and internet safety (20 weeks)
- Dynamic Edinburgh: follow the evolution of Edinburgh through visits and outdoor quizzes - then create your own resources (20 weeks)
- Habitat Heroes: have fun saving the planet. Activities and trips decided by pupils (40 weeks)
- Ministry of Fun: health and happiness through cooking and eating healthy meals, with activities such as aerobics and swimming (20 weeks)
- Top Gear: driving skills, road safety and basic car maintenance (20 weeks)
- The Apprentice: set up and run your own real company with Young Enterprise Scotland (40 weeks).
Photography by Colin Hattersley