The idea began to shape up when Sandeep (a TFI fellow teaching Grade 2) and I were discussing the need for making writing workshops more engaging. He suggested that we do an inter-class letter writing project and hence Project Oghma was born. Oghma as per Welsh mythology is the God of communication and writing. <The project was for the kids, fancy title for the teachers :)>. Both our schools are low-income private schools with kids from the same socio-economic backgrounds and more importantly at the same reading levels. The idea appealed to me immensely, the selling points were quite obvious.
- The idea of having a pen friend is fascinating for kids. They loved the idea of being able to communicate with someone far away. <well :), not very far away in this case Sunrise EMS is in Kharadi and my school is in Vishrantwadi, Pune>
- Writing a letter to someone their age actually got them excited about the project. Ideating was the easiest part of this process, they had tons of things to say about themselves and even more stuff to ask about their prospective pen friends. They were totally psyched about writing the letters.
- This was a real process, sending a letter via post and receiving them back. This gave us a chance to discuss many things like post-office, post-box, the role of a post man, new age communication via email etc. They liked that stuff, I mean, they love fantasy too….Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks, Aladdin but when they see something real, it really holds their attention, stuff like videos on how windmills work, manufacturing of pencils, how wafer bags are filled etc.
How we did it?
We talked about the concept of pen friends and how great it would be to have a pen friend etc. Then, in our respective classes we built up the whole idea by showing them a class photograph of the other class. Being a teacher involves a heavy dose of manipulation, so I went ahead and told my kids that Sunrise English Medium kids are very smart and they speak in English ALL the time, even during toilet breaks. (Yeah, I know went a little overboard :)). So my kids went into the ideation stage, working in groups of four with the instructions that their handwriting has to be very neat and they need to follow the letter structure format. They’d been handed out sheets to write in sentences as per the below mentioned step-wise structure. The letter writing format for grade 2 kids was something like this;
- You: 4-5 or more lines about you.
- Your class and school: 4-5 or more about your class and school.
- Who are you? : 4-5 or more lines asking questions about your prospective pen friend, their family and their class.
- Thank you: Thank your pen friend for reading your letter.
So finally the letters were ready. Sandeep and I exchanged our respective packets at the next debrief. We decided to sort the kids by the reading comprehension scores of the previous unit assessment and map kids accordingly. Luckily, we both have a class strength of 36 kids. So no.1 of my list got mapped to his no. 1 kid, this was just to ensure each kid gets a letter at the same reading level.
The kids went ballistic as I called out each kid in my class to come and receive their letter. I was also calling out their pen friends’ name alongside. There were a lot of common names between both our classes, like there was a Kunal, Sahil, Nikita and Ramesh in their class too. For some reason, it was unbelievably amusing to them, the concept that someone with the same name can exist in some other part of the world. They just couldn’t stop laughing; some of them were infact looking at me in a very suspicious manner as if I was making it all up. Also the minute they realized a boy was mapped to a girl or vice versa, there was hooting, blushing and in some cases desk banging as a sign of protest ……all sorts of amusing reactions. :). So we had to do the whole we-are-all-friends, we love each other speech and the more famous…..didi-is-a-girl, mummy-is-a-girl…..we-should-all-love-and respect –each-other-speech. Anyway, when everyone had got their letters , they were really very excited and couldn’t wait to open them up.
They took time to read their letters. The lower level kids had to be assisted; I had to read their letters out to them. But that joy of getting a letter was still there, I wish they would care a little more about the actual reading part though :). I loved the letters Sandeep’s kids had written. I ran a very regimental letter writing workshop ….there was a structure, there were steps, writing prompts etc etc. I think, on some levels this may have put constraints on their creativity. He, on the other hand, let reigns loose completely. He just explained the same above mentioned format and asked to write as they please :). Some of his kids actually wrote three page letters with a bunch of interesting stuff. What I really liked about the way he conducted his workshop was that he wasn’t hesitant to let them make mistakes, be it spelling errors or grammatical blunders. Even in his classes while teaching, he gives his kids a lot of opportunities to work independently and that is something I’m hoping to learn from him.
As a kid, I’d always wanted a pen friend <preferably from an exotic foreign land :) > but well, that never happened. I enjoyed this whole process and loved taking kids through every stage through it. But I must admit, writer’s workshops do span out of control most of the times…Kids are running to you for spellings every second minute, or to show you what they’ve written plus they are working in groups so there is a lot of chatter and noise. It’s a little difficult for me as a teacher to accept this freedom of movement, but this kind of a free-wheeling, unsupervised interaction does foster team work and a productive collaboration. [I think my concentration levels and general IQ might have actually shot up, working in this kind of a high noise-high distraction environment. :)]
The next steps from here are,
- Continue this exchange of letters once a month.
- Enable video conferencing between our classrooms for selected kids so that they can communicate with each other in English. <This can be used as an investment system, like you have to earn a video chat with your pen friend>
- Hopefully mid-way through the next year, make the kids meet in person at some field trip or possibly some competition.
- Possibly set up the same model with a classroom outside India for the highest level kids.
So Project Oghma has kick-started and this was the first update. Hopefully more will follow. :)