For the NZ Book Council, working with schools is familiar territory. Through our Writers in Schools programme, we hold events with over 400 schools each year, reaching 40,000 children from all over New Zealand. Around half of these schools are rural, remote or low decile. Writers in Schools also promotes more than 130 kiwi authors annually, a fifth of which are either Māori or Pasifika.
The programme has been running for more than 40 years and part of its success is down to our commitment to keeping things fresh and finding new and innovative ways to engage students in reading and writing. And that was the starting point for our schools community project in Ōtāhuhu.
The Ōtāhuhu journey started almost three years ago when we began an informal conversation with the National Library and the Reading Together programme (which is a project based in low decile schools that encourages family and whanau to read to their children) about collaborative projects that would make a real difference in the community.
Reading Together already had a relationship with a cluster of Ōtāhuhu schools, so we chatted to the principals to explore what might work for them. We were all passionate about supporting young readers and writers. We wanted to give children the chance to get up close and personal with some fantastic writers, provide some alternative role models for children and uncover some budding writers and publish them.
We were particularly keen to see what might happen when writers and students had the opportunity to work together closely over the longer term, and had the opportunity to really get to know each other, building meaningful relationships.
We pulled in more resources from wherever we could: Rotary provided some vital additional funding, Ōtāhuhu Pātaka Kōrero Ōtāhuhu Library hosted the event and printers came to the party to help create the books.
So – what did we do exactly?
We found five writers who were willing to take on the challenge of spending an extended period of time in five schools. It was six or seven days per writer in total. We asked them to lead writing workshops with students of all abilities, from the target students to the gifted and talented groups. They talked about the books that they loved, shared their passion for the written word, worked with teachers to help them to develop some new skills, and talked to family and whanau about what they can do at home to help their children develop a love of the written word.
The children created wonderful things. Sometimes they drew, sometimes they wrote and sometimes they did both at the same time. I was particularly charmed by a picture of a fantail which on closer inspection turned out to be a poem.
The writers encouraged them to develop a love of words and have fun at the same time: the kids wrote poems, they wrote stories – they went on field trips and found inspiration in their local community; in the sari shops, in the food shops, in the $2 dollar shops. They charmed shop assistants and laughed with security guards. For some of the kids, the workshops were also a way to talk about some of the difficult things that were going on in their lives.
Around 50 families participated in workshops too and explored the kinds of ideas that their children would be writing about. Some offered the writers suggestions of what might draw their children out. And some, much to their own surprise, did some writing themselves.
And let’s not forget the teachers – 100 of them enjoyed writing workshops and professional development sessions with our five writers that sparked ideas to get their students enjoying all that a good book has to offer. “Classroom teachers who are giving out every day crave nourishment, and you provided it in spades,” said Liz Horgan, St Joseph’s Principal.
The writers became stars at the school and part of the whanau. Paula Green put it this way:
I stepped into a school of warm welcome, not just from the receptionist and the principal, but the teachers, and especially the children. Every time I stepped into the playground there was a ripple of ‘hello Paula Green’, ‘hey there’s Paula Green!’
During the 16 weeks of the project, the writers had already realised that the relationship between artist and audience gets much more complicated when you’re there, face to face – day after day. “I wept in public at the final event, trying to communicate how rewarding and inspiring an experience it had been for me,” said Paula Morris. “’My’ school – that’s how I came to think of them. ‘My kids,’ I told other people.”
Seven books were published as a result of the project (it was meant to be one book per school but Ōtāhuhu Primary were so enthusiastic they published three!) It’s a great thing for a writer to see their work in print – especially at the grand old age of nine. The books were illustrated by the students too, allowing budding artists to see their creations in a published.
On 17 November 2015, over 200 local friends, whānau and fono gathered at the Ōtāhuhu Pātaka Kōrero Ōtāhuhu Library to hear their children read poems and tell stories from the seven publications they’d produced.
The kids told stories about ceremonial haircuts, about food, about fitting in, about family. They read poems about the loss of a mother, about their cousins, the weather, the sea, and the markets. They all sounded like they’d been reading their poems out loud since their kindergarten days; they were confident and charming, and I’d go and hear any of them read again at the drop of a hat.
It was an extraordinary evening – I’ve been going to book events of one kind or another since I was 18, when I moved to London and discovered such things existed. I’ve been to full houses at the Aotea Centre for a visiting international literary superstar, I’ve seen hotshots of the performance poetry world inspire standing ovations at the Edinburgh Book Festival, but strange as it might seem, this event in a library in Ōtāhuhu, South Auckland gave me goose bumps like nothing has before.
It’s hard to convey how I felt after the event. Until that evening, my role in the project had been in the background; arranging contracts, juggling timetables, and hiring writers. But on leaving the library, I had been given my first ever lei; I’d been part of my first large scale author event in Ōtāhuhu; I had heard some first-time writers read from their work; and I had been part of the first Book Council community initiative in South Auckland. I felt that I was coming away from this project with more than we had put in.
And the very cool thing is that we’re doing it again. The Ministry of Education is supporting a follow-on initiative in Ōtāhuhu, and we’re hoping to roll the project out in Northland and Christchurch too. We’re very excited that writers and readers are going to have the opportunity to connect in other parts of New Zealand. We’re looking at building some additional elements to the project, including creating more reading materials for families, and videoing the experience so that we can share more of the project far and wide.
The Ōtāhuhu schools community project was about reading and writing, but it was also about family, identity and culture. It was about the relationship between writers and readers, and what happens when feelings and thoughts are explored through words. Through this project, we had made a real difference in the lives of thousands of people. It felt amazing.