The might of the pen

31st August 2007 at 01:00
Pupils at a Falkirk school are encouraged to keep personal journals, which are having an amazing effect on behaviour and achievement.

The oil refinery in Grangemouth dominates the skyline beyond the high school like a scene from a sci-fi film. It casts a gloom over the crumbling school, giving jobs to those who live beyond the town's boundaries but leaving the locals with one of the highest unemployment rates in Falkirk. Those with the opportunity and ability to get away from its smoke-belching chimneys do so and fast.

"The kids here have incredibly low self-esteem," says Iain Petrie, an English teacher at Grangemouth High. "It's not hard to see why. I have heard the rumour that during the Cold War, Grangemouth was number four or five on the list of prime bomb targets because of the oil refinery. It fuelled that 'What's the point?' attitude."

But work has started on a new site for the school to create a building students can be proud of and which teachers will enjoy working in. Work is also underway on building their self-esteem.

One of the most successful initiatives has come from Mr Petrie. Reminiscent of the "freedom writers" from Long Beach, California a group of disengaged, at risk pupils who published journals that their teacher Erin Gruwell had encouraged them to write in 1994 Mr Petrie got his S1 group to take up the pen on a regular basis. He started by buying hardback books out of his own pocket.

"It was four years ago. I handed them each a book, asking them to write down whatever they wanted," he said. "I promised that no one else but me would read them without their permission. It wasn't compulsory, but many of them did it."

Ruth Patton, 15 and in S5, was one of the first cohort. "It really helped me coming into high school," she says. "I was able to write lots of things about how I was feeling and what I was doing. It was easier to write it down than saying it. I felt Mr Petrie was listening to what I had to say."

Ruth is convinced her level 3 is thanks to her extensive writing.

Other pupils, such as Chloe Shearer and Ryan Coutts, both in S3, only did it for their first year at the school, when they were in Mr Petrie's English class. But they also benefited. Chloe is grateful for the writing skills it has given her.

For Ryan, it was a lifeline: he was being bullied. "I didn't want to tell my mum because I knew she would be right down there, to the school, to get things sorted," he says candidly. "I didn't want that. But I told Mr Petrie in my journal, and he had a talk to the class without naming me, which was OK because they were doing it to other kids too. It stopped after that."

Mr Petrie was given permission to show the diary to the depute head to ensure a whole-school approach was taken to resolve the issue.

But it wasn't just good for Ryan's social life; it lifted his achievement. According to Maralyn Brown, the headteacher, many of Mr Petrie's pupils have shown similar results, with a large number achieving well beyond their projected cognitive ability test scores. "But it has also had a profound affect on their be-haviour," she says. "Teachers are reporting back vast improvements."

The plan is to extend the project to the rest of the English department, but giving it a learning angle so that it has a combined benefit of emotional and learning development. However, there is one major drawback, Mr Petrie admits: it is time-intensive, reading and res-ponding appropriately to the journals. A "good work" scribbled in red ink can be more damaging than anything. "If they think you aren't engaged, that you don't really care, then they stop doing it," he says. "What's the point?"

Chelsea Thomson, 13 and in S2, sums it up: "You are writing all this stuff, you want to know the teacher is reading it and you are thinking about what you are telling him. Some of it can be embarrassing, but they can't just ignore it."

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