By Melinda Szymanik
I’d heard about the Ōtāhuhu Project; a small group of writers and illustrators doing an intensive series of visits with students at several South Auckland schools, teaching writing skills and encouraging a love of reading; a kind of collection of mini residencies I guess. The idea sounded wonderful. I’d been an author-in-residence at an Auckland school before, through an initiative I’d organised and offered myself. The experience had been a very positive one for both myself and the school. I’ve often wondered how different my life might have been if we’d had a writer visit during my school years. Not only in learning some writing skills much earlier and avoiding a few bad habits, but also seeing a real writer in the flesh and undergoing the revelation much sooner that New Zealanders could be writers too.
Words are powerful things, and our ability to control and understand them has a huge impact on how we navigate our lives.
I grew up in South Auckland. Mum and Dad both worked at the airport and I went to the local primary school at Māngere Central. My intermediate years were spent at St Joseph's in Ōtāhuhu, and then I crossed the road to McAuley Girls High for my secondary schooling. I know the area pretty well; its charms and its challenges. I secretly hoped I might get the chance to be one of the visiting authors for this very special project, and I didn’t hesitate to say yes when I received a phone call from the New Zealand Book Council inviting me to take part.
I confess I fretted a lot about what I would share with and teach the students at Panama Road School. Each age group has its own demands and requirements when you take creative writing in schools. Even the same age groups can vary widely from school to school. Still, I’ve done many school visits over the years and become very adaptable. And in the end an extreme love of books and writing can be pretty infectious. I met with the Principal and Vice Principal to discuss how the visits would go, what shape they would take, and we agreed on a plan. I would spend most of the day with the year 3 and 4 students, focusing on sharing writing skills and a love of reading with these year groups, and split the rest of the time with the remaining classes consecutively over the course of the six visits.
I was quickly made to feel like part of the family from the moment I stepped into the first classroom on the first day. Wherever I walked during my visits I was greeted by name, children calling out to me and waving, or rushing up for a hug.
The children were enthusiastic and excited. They kindly laughed at my jokes, and begged me to re-read favourite stories. I read lots of books out loud: some to illustrate the points I wanted to make about story, language and the craft of writing, others just for fun. We talked about story structure and using cool words in our writing. We talked about sharing our own experiences and feelings. They took on all the writing tasks I threw at them and they worked hard. They worked creatively and they shared their own stories. And it wasn’t just the students who let me in. The teachers allowed me to interrupt their schedules and commandeer their classrooms. They jumped in to help with every task I set and I know they worked on with some of those tasks after I’d left. They supported everything I did at every visit.
I was in danger of being upstaged part way through my visits by a special breakfast event at the school which included the attendance of four All Blacks past and present: Keven Mealamu, Buck Shelford, Dane Coles and Julian Savea. The event was a big surprise for the students, and it became a great opportunity, forming the basis for a writing task in class.
From the enthusiasts to the reluctant, all the year 3 and 4 students listened to stories and wrote their own. The stories that reflect their own lives are inside them. I encouraged them to use their own experience, whatever they were writing, and to give voice to their own lives in the years to come would be the best outcome for this amazing project. I hope the students feel proud of their writing achievements. They have done a fantastic job. We will be gathering with all the schools involved in this year’s project to share some of the students’ writing with each other and with family in November and I can’t wait.