In English pupils are free to develop their imagination and creativity whilst simultaneously becoming more proficient in their language. Increasingly as they move up through the secondary school the past histories of the world are incorporated into that study, often to develop the skill of empathy...as Atticus Finch said in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mocking Bird" , we never really understand a person until we have walked around in their shoes.
The FEPOW project has given girls the opportunity to walk around in the shoes of a little known or understood story, men women and children trapped in The Far East during the Second World War.
The opportunity to meet veterans and hear their stories first hand led to an outpouring of responses from children as young as 11 both in written forms and in the associated subjects of Drama and Media. Nothing could be more powerful in terms of firing their imagination. The combination of true stories of grit and determination coupled with the fact that the storytellers were the real men and women who had actually experienced them, was for some pupils quite overwhelming. Take for example the moment when Fergus Anckorn described the massacre of patients in a hospital in which he was a patient. Silence pervaded the library as half the year group contemplated the enormity of it. Then followed the questions and then the emotional response in poetry, stories, letters , diaries. As ever, writing acted as the catalyst for unpacking the heart. And in the process, almost by osmosis, the work on language skills, finding the right word, framing the right sentence took place.
Two examples of the work undertaken are given below. Further examples of work with female FEPOW and their daughters will follow. In all situations the universal messages of hope, stoicism, courage and generosity were evident and had a lasting impression.
The challenge of bringing the FEPOW experience to young pupils is to elicit responses which increase their understanding of the history whilst simultaneously developing their English skills. It is important to remember what they can achieve if the task is challenging and focused teaching support available.
Metaphor is a perfect vehicle for developing ideas for writing…it’s a staple part of the year 7 English curriculum taught best in real contexts such as this one. The key element for the preparation of the writing was note-making…building and building on notes. Very few children can access their imagination without this process at age 11. Later it becomes more subconscious.
The girls had a half hour powerpoint presentation setting out the historial context of Far East captivity. Then two teachers spent time in the afternoon working first on empathy skills. They team taught. In a context such as this, away from the constraints of the timetable, team teaching is an excellent motivational technique.
Task: Imagine you are an animal domestic or wild in and around the FEPOW camps.
Email from a member of the public...
"I was very moved by the sensitivity of the comments by Pensby Girls at the Tatton Show Bamboo Garden. Is it possible to have a copy of these comments?
My cousin died in such a setting after having his hands smashed (he was a pianist). I would very much like to re read the Pensby girls comments in prayer and solitude and pass them to my relatives who were affected by such atrocities. I hope you can help."
Having considered this choose an animal or insect and make notes on your habitat…do you live during the day or are you nocturnal?…describe your habits, your environment, the aspects of your species which make you unique. Jot notes.
Then develop these notes with attention to your five senses, sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell. Consider synaesthesia…ie: mixing the senses for example tasting fear….
Now relate this information to the condition of the soldiers in the camps. Attempt to make some link between yourself as the insect or animal that you are and the soldiers concentrating on feelings.
Then make metaphorical connections… for example Sarah Clark described the men as “thin yellow sticks” or Jodi Beauchamp described the sweat dripping off a man’s chest as he worked as “rain”.
Next consider what use you could now make of personification, alliteration, repetition, sibilance and other techniques studied in class.
Write for five minutes as a stream of consciousness. Then swap with a partner who scores out all the unnecessary words and parts, paring the work down to the best phrases and ideas. Hand the work back to the original pupil. Hone it further. Do vocabulary substitution taking out ordinary words and replacing with more interesting choices.
Wow! Really focused work, hugely enjoyed and of a very high standard as evidenced by the poetry leaves (below). Importantly, such work clearly lodges the connected history in the mind for perpetuity. And lends it a special significance too.
Fergus Anckorn visited the school in February and watched the girls at work on different FEPOW activities before talking to them about his experiences. Here are some excerpts from the letters they wrote to him afterwards…
“Having a person explain their time as a prisoner of war affected me more than a history book ever could.” Catriona
“You inspired me to take History as an option for GCSE.” Samantha
“Looking into your wise eyes I could see you reliving it.” Lucy
“I went home and told my grandparents and my Grandad cried.” Melissa
“After hearing the stories I felt sad.. I never knew a human could treat another human so terribly.” Carys
“I get upset when there’s no chocolate in the house..we don’t know what it means to be hungry.” Emily
“You said you listen to the birds singing each morning... I do that now.” Holly
The art of writing letters is still vital even in these days of the informal email and text. In school if the teaching of this can be incorporated into real contexts so much the better.
All Year 9 pupils were instructed to write letters of thanks to FEPOW Fergus Anckorn after his visit and some also wrote to FEPOW Jack Chalker after engaging with his work. What amazing opportunities these were to communicate with real people whose stories had so touched them! In future years it may be that such letters are aptly sent to the Children of FEPOW who may be willing to come in to schools.
The crucial skills for linguistic development here are...
- to write something both analytical and personal at the same time
- to prioritise and extract from the experience the most significant outcomes
- to construct effective sentences which succinctly communicate in formal ways
- to develop ideas in sufficient depth
to draft and redraft for accuracy
- to paragraph, punctuate and spell effectively
Pupils were given no guidance to content just time to reflect and make notes before writing… there was emphasis on the relative meaninglessness of platitudes and if thanking someone for something, the need to be specific about what was of value.
Responses in poetry to a FEPOW visit
Year 9 wrote a class poem directed by one pupil working at the whiteboard with a pen. Here it is.
We met a man
We met a man today
He told us of his time
Locked in a jungle far away
We had no words to say
For what we felt
For what he had to pay.
He and all his comrades went out there
To fight for peace and keep us free
And we are safe and sound
Because they did that
Here and now in the 21st Century.
Magic Monday by Hannah Houghton
Rushing for the bell
Scrambling on to coaches
Chatting never stops
Not a peep
Staring in amazement
Playing his ukulele
Things were amazing in the East
Why can’t I have an adventure like him.
Meeting Tom by Mia Radcliffe 7MM
Music is in my ears
History in my hands
To think how lucky I am
Being where I am
A life connects in and out of my ears
A hero figure stands in front of me
Tom calls out to everybody’s ears
Ukelele sounds still strumming in our heads
Sadness in my friends faces as we stand to leave
Braveness cost nothing and this man knew it
Tom Boardman congratulations
What a man you are.
The moving image show by Frankie Irwin 7MM
All the blood on the floor
Turns into a flood of war
Over years I saw
They died at a certain pace
Here to remind me
Is the ukulele
Safe packed away in its case.
The ukulele man by Sophie Laidlaw and Ruby Johnston
Tom had a spring in his step
Told his story
Played his ukulele
It tingled with hope and glory