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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 7, May/June 2005

Literary link—Port Moody Secondary School reaches out

by Michael Gould

Port Moody Secondary School (PMSS) is dedicated to international mindedness. And at home, too, PMSS is committed to community mindedness. Recently, the students in Wendy Hawkin’s Writing 12 class reached out and collaborated with students in Moody Elementary School (MES), creating personalized fictional books for 30 Grade 4 and 5 MES leadership students.

At MES, the air was charged. Smiles beamed. Pride shone. As the PMSS students entered the elementary school, you could hear, "The secondaries are here!" The MES leadership students unwrapped beautifully illustrated and well-written books, created especially for them.

The stories represented the pride of the young writers and the joy of their little buddies—the stars of the show. The elementary students sat next to the high school students and shared the moment. For many students and parents, reading with children is a proud daily ritual. But this was something special. The smiles, laughter, and bright eyes were evidence that the PMSS students had made an important connection with kids. The project provided an opportunity for literacy beyond the classroom. It demonstrated the positive impact we have on children.

In less than three weeks, the project had gone from outline to presentation. The writers interviewed the students and created a story based on the interests and backgrounds of their elementary buddies. The writers could create their own artwork or collaborate with the Art 12 students.

The shared efforts did not stop at the writing and art departments. Of the 30 elementary students, two students with special needs could not read. The writers sought support from the special education department at PMSS. The writers wrote the text for the story and submitted the stories to the special education department, where they were translated into pictures. Thus the two students had books that they could read—not words, but symbols.

Interviews with students and staff at PMSS and MES revealed passionate insights into the project, the struggles and achievements for the writers, and the demonstration of social responsibility through partnerships between secondary, middle, and elementary-school students.

Hawkin said that she likes to do something new and creative every year for her Writing 12 class. Last year, her students wrote and directed a play, which the Drama 9 class performed. And this year, she came up with a project that involved MES. "Wendy really is a specialist in this area [cross-curricular development]," said Karen Jensen, PMSS principal.

Hawkin stated, "This project allowed the younger and the older kids to get together and share over literature. There was a sense of magic and timelessness to this project." But little did she know that this immediate deadline was going to be difficult for her and the writers. Hawkin said, "Within three weeks, we had to sell the idea to MES. MES had to send out and have all of the participation forms returned (a feat that is not as easy it seems). I had to prepare the writers for interviewing the students. The writers interviewed their students, wrote drafts, created artwork, completed the final draft ready for publishing, and published the books. And to add more pressure, with 24 writers, some students had to team up to create more than one book."

Given this tight deadline, when asked about any fears that the students had, Hawkin said, "The students really jumped in there." One of the difficulties that the writers faced was matching the writing to the audience. The PMSS students’ regular reading audience is adult. Now, they had to write for ten-year-olds. Hawkin said that some of the apprehensions stemmed from competition. One of Hawkin’s writers related, "My student is reading Harry Potter! How am I going to compete with Harry Potter?" Another student stated, "Magic? I don’t know anything about magic!" Given the intense time pressure and fear of the unknown, "the writers rose to the challenge and did an incredible job!" responded Hawkin. When asked if she thought any of the stories could become published works, Hawkin responded, "Certainly. I can think of at least two stories with which one could approach a publisher."

"Writing for an audience makes it more real. And the motivation comes not from letter grades, but from pride." stated Hawkin. Danielle MacDonald, one of the writers, echoed the sentiment: "I could be inventive and I had a chance to write for enjoyment. I didn’t think about it as ‘doing it for marks,’ even though it actually was for marks." Danielle also enjoyed writing for someone other than a teacher. Another writer, Max Greenall, liked handing the book to his buddy. "They [the MES leadership students] looked really excited. It seemed like a second recess for them. They enjoyed the extra attention," responded Greenall. Renee Bellefeuille, another writer, when asked what she enjoyed about the experience, said, "They [the MES leadership students] view literature as entertainment and do not critique and analyze it for logic." MacDonald said, "It was more than the book—it was about playing with the children. People do not realize how younger kids appreciate you just being there, and for that hour, you are their hero; you are new!"

John Andrews, the principal at MES, supports the partnerships between his elementary school and Moody Middle School (MMS) and PMSS. When asked about the importance of building partnerships among the three levels of schools, Andrews replied, "The Coquitlam School District makes the transition for the students from elementary to middle school to high school seamless." Andrews added, "We have worked much in the past with both MMS and PMSS students. For instance, Grade 9 PMSS students came and dramatized fairy tales. Also, six PMSS students regularly lead 60 elementary students in aerobics, hip-hop, and dance. PMSS students lead activities for our annual sports day. Plus, MMS students lead camp activities for our kids." Andrews feels that the interactions are especially meaningful to the elementary students. "When elementary students walk down the street and see a student from the middle school or the high school, they get excited—’I know her; she teaches us aerobics!’ " Andrews said.

Andrews saw the writing project as an opportunity for his leadership class to receive some well-deserved attention. The leadership class, Grade 4 and 5 students, performs a vital role at MES. The students act as classroom monitors, lead younger students in activities, assist primary grades in art projects, and help in the office and in the library. "Now, it is the leadership students’ turn for someone to do something for them," stated Andrews. When asked what she liked about the experience, Allyson Staddon, a Grade 4 student at MES, responded: "It was cool that we got a book dedicated to us. At our school, we have little buddies, and it is nice to have big buddies."

When asked what he was most proud of, Andrews responded, "I am most proud of the fact that the students with special needs could participate, that our students returned the parental forms so quickly, and of the passion that the PMSS students put into this effort. I am proud of the whole experience. Everyone came together—teamwork!"

This writing project reflects aspects of social responsibility in the students’ books—"teachers creating relevant activities for learning in the classroom and students focussing on community mindedness for others," said Jensen. It offered an opportunity to bring students of different levels together, share literature, and make a lasting impression. This PMSS Writing 12 activity is an extension of the course work in the classroom, reaching out to the community and making a difference in someone’s life.

Michael Gould is a teacher on call, Coquitlam.


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