Secondary English - Imagine that

7th November 2008 at 00:00
Move away from conventional essay writing and dare to try something new, says Jo Klaces

My Year 8 class was bored. The children had done myths, dabbled in poetry and toyed with Shakespeare. They were bright and sparky, but undoubtedly keener on MSN and Facebook than writing essays. We wanted to tap into this enthusiasm for talking about themselves in cyberspace and channel it into a new sort of public document - an ebook about being a lost 12-year-old in a city.

And so, with generous funding from Booktrust (www.booktrust.co.uk), we came up with a scenario that mixed modern modes of communication with threads of old stories and urban legend.

To kick off the class, we received a letter from an organisation called the Hauser Institute (researching forgetfulness, recollection and identity loss). Both the letter and the institute were products of the fertile imaginations of our cyber partners, the Institute for the Future of the Book (if:book) and Toby Jones, the actor.

The letter offered pupils the opportunity to help directly on an extraordinary project - the education and development of a feral child who was in the care of the institute.

The boy had been discovered in the basement of a crumbling mansion, where he had been abandoned to fend for himself. Improbably enough, the boy, though mute, was able to write words but his text lacked form and sense.

Our class turned out to be the ideal forum to provoke and understand the child because their age, ethnic diversity and proficiencies seemed close to the boy's own profile.

They received texts written by the boy to analyse. There was a blog to look at and add to, plus podcasts from the institute. Once we used Skype texting to communicate on-the-spot with the institute too. The pupils threw themselves into communicating with "Beny", as he became known, and puzzled over what helpful information they could give him.

They emailed pictures of their hairstyles, plus jokes and stories about their lives and tried to pinpoint what was distinctive about being 12.

Beny (via our cyber mates in London) replied over the internet in the language that the pupils had given him.

When it was over we were left with an extraordinary online, Wikipedia-type document (still in progress) of our pupils' lives now. They don't believe Beny is real anymore - but they know that they created him and, as with all the best fictional characters, he is in the classroom with them still. They take a parental pride in him and the group's achievements.

Jo Klaces is a Creative Agent at Queensbridge School in Birmingham, and is on the board of the National Literacy Association.

YOU CAN DO IT TOO

- Be inspired by our story and blog at: www.hauserfound.blogspot.com.

- Find willing partners to personally respond to the pupils' emails.

- Look at a selection of film clips from L'Enfant Sauvage, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and Superman to provide context for the idea of a "found" child.

- See a full report of the project and organise your own at www.futureofthebook.org.

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