Steppes to better writing
The snow is back for our last day in Siberia although it's late April, a few weeks past the Russian Orthodox Easter. Olga Petukhova's class of eight-year-olds in Novosibirsk, the Trans-Siberian Railway's biggest stopping point almost bang in the centre of Russia, has been composing riddles about eggs: "Something alive and not alive; something white and something yellow; something soft or something hard; a house for a chicken with no windows." The pupils have drawn eggs, studied them in science and made illustrated books about Humpty Dumpty and the goose that laid the golden egg.
Ms Petukhova is a teacher at Sofia school, one of two in Novosibirsk using the Children Readers programme developed by the Siberian Centre of Innovative Teaching Technologies. (Technologies translates as methods here, while creativity translates mostly as creative writing.) The Children Readers programme is "a communicative approach not usually found in schools", says the director, Eugene Serdyuk.
"The global problem of Russian children is that they have a stereotype of behaving well. But it is often the case that the most rebellious children are the most successful later. Children of this age (Years 3 to 6) are starting to question everything. Children need to be allowed to be children, to make mistakes, touch things."
So at Sofia school, the first independent school in Novosibirsk, set up 15 years ago, Ms Petukhova breaks a raw egg on to a plate patterned with birds and passes it around, encouraging the children to pick it up. "In the past," she says afterwards, "the egg would only be introduced in biology and the teacher would never allow an egg, or anything else, to be broken."
Her lesson, part of a new wave of interactive topic-based teaching in Novosibirsk, may not be rocket science to the party of observers from primary schools in the north-east of England, but it makes an impression.
"This feels like what we're used to, seeing children actively becoming engaged. Although we'd never have 12 children in the class," says Claire Rushworth, one of three Year 6 teachers from Broadway junior school, Sunderland.
"It's good to see something individual and bright," says Carina Rodney, writer in residence at Peases West primary, County Durham. Teachers from both schools have been working together on Reading Across the Lines, a project set up by the writing development agency New Writing North so that Russian and English teachers can work together. They have met Siberian teachers and writers (the UKparty includes poets Andy Croft, Bill Herbert and Paul Summers) to exchange their experiences of using creative writing in education in England's north-east and Novosibirsk. The two areas share a strong regional literary identity, relative isolation from the capital and a transforming economy. Novosibirsk is moving on from railways and heavy industry to financial services and international conferences.
While Newcastle's state-of-the-art Centre for the Children's Book nears completion, Russia's third city has had its Museum of the Book, with its archive of Siberian writers' manuscripts and artefacts, for 15 years. The city has eight theatres and a large youth library, but its main literary resource is run on a shoestring in a shabby inner-city apartment bequeathed by a supporter. The museum's recent schools programme, "Visit to Fairy-Tale Land", was funded by parents and so far has only attracted independent schools.
Its director, Natalya Levchenko, a qualified teacher who has spent her career in museums, leads a group of six to eight-year-olds through a seemingly well-rehearsed tabletop dramatisation of The Princess and the Pea, in which the children put lovingly hand-made 6in high figures through their paces. "When I come into a quiet class, I am lost," says Ms Levchenko. "I need to generate some activity, then I can feel if it is going right."
The museum session is fairly typical in reflecting great reverence for books but less recognition of the child as a reader with tastes that might go beyond traditional folk and fairy tales. Contemporary children's literature by Russians has a low profile in libraries, although the newstands are full of children's comics and magazines.
School newspapers are thriving - we were followed around one high school by two reporters carrying the school mascot, a stuffed ermine, on their shoulders - and Novosibirsk has its own youth literary magazine, Rost, and its main newspaper publishes a "Poetry Princess". But young writers seem to be expected to learn from established authors by osmosis rather than dialogue.
At a Rost-sponsored poetry workshop in the misleadingly-named Children's House of Creativity, a circle of 11 and 12-year-olds listened with politely blank faces as a local poet, who had better remain nameless, warned them against reading Star Wars comics on pain of damaging their souls and urged them to write "only beautiful thoughts", before reading his own work, tonelessly and at great length.
"I realised in Russia how far we've come in teaching the individual child," says Anne Offler, a reception teacher back at Peases West. "But also that you can't impose the system you are working in on another culture and expect the same thing to happen, and we could do with a little of the Russians' respect for books."
Her school is due to visit Russia (in curriculum terms) next spring; the whole school has focused on a new country each term under its Creative Partnerships programme. Carina Rodney, the writer in residence, has been in school one day a week throughout, and other artists have visited.
Headteacher, Judith Stirk, is determined to keep aspects of the programme now that Peases West's five terms with Creative Partnerships are over.
"The staff don't want to go back now," she says. "Our children have got so much out of it. When they are asked to share their work their hands shoot up. Even the poorer writers want to have a go, they want to work it out."
At Broadway school, Year 6 pupils ended the school year working on their copy for the new RussianEnglish schools magazine set up by New Writing North. "Tell them about our beaches," Victoria Barnes reminds her class.
Siberia is, of course, a long way from the beach.
New Writing North: www.newwritingnorth.com