Students’ writing improves when they write for an audience. When you find them an audience that is close to home and a situation that is meaningful, there are many reasons for them to get the writing right. If you make it safe for them to write (e.g., don’t bring out the grammar hatchet), not only will they make art (reflect, express and polish), they will display it for immediate feedback.
In this activity, to honour and thank those who support them in coming back to school, students will consolidate and formalize part of their support system, and supporters will not only strengthen their commitment to supporting their student, but they will forge a connection with the literacy/ABE/GED program itself.
Make the Support Team Visible
Ask students who is in their corner as they come back to school. Who has faith in them? Who is ready with an encouraging word? Who is helping them stay in school by looking after their kids, or helping with chores, or giving them a ride? Who has offered to help with homework? What other things do their supporters do for them?
Helping students develop a support system is something many programs do, as part of helping students stay in school. Why not take a step further and provide a way to strengthen that support system by acknowledging its importance? And at the same time ask learners to do some reading and writing and numeracy tasks that are real in the real world?
Plan a Celebration
Imagine an afternoon or evening when your class celebrates the people who support them in coming back to school. Students greet their guests as they arrive; one or two students will MC the event. One by one, the students will come to the front, introduce their supporter and read the piece they have written about the supporter, the support offered and its value. Much applause. The instructor or an administrator gets to make a short speech about the importance of outside support and to appreciate the efforts of the supporters gathered for the occasion. All this is followed by refreshments and talk, and something for supporters and students to take home to remind them of the occasion.
Something to Take Away
Every supporter will receive a copy of the writing with a photo of the student and supporter together, mounted so it’s easy to display on a kitchen wall, on top of the TV, or on an office desk.
Every student gets a copy, also mounted, to display at home, to remind them of the support they have. If you have room in your program to display all of them, make a copy for a wall in a classroom or hallway.
Ask each student to pick someone who supports them in coming back to school. Might be a family member, a friend, or a professional, e.g., a pastor, counsellor, coach, or social worker.
Name the day and start planning to invite all those supporters to come to the class. Initial planning will involve setting a date and time, making invitations, deciding on refreshments.
Ask students to write about the person they have picked. What is the connection between them? (My sister, my coach, etc.) What does that person do to support the learner? (Name everything.) Is there an anecdote to show the support? How does the learner feel about having that person in their corner?
In class, have each student read aloud the draft of their story. You say what you like about each story. Point out what is good. Ask other students to say what they like best about each piece. (There is no room for criticism in such a public space.) They will learn from hearing each other read.
Over the next few days students can revise and proofread their writing, and get it into its final form, although they can make changes up until the day of the celebration.
Everyone needs a photo of the student and supporter together. Probably the easiest way to do this is to take a picture as the supporters arrive for the celebration, when everyone is a little dressed up; otherwise, photos could be brought in, or the supporters could come in on an earlier day for a photo session.
Mount the Writing and Photo Together
There are many ways to mount the writing and photo so it can be displayed by the supporter, depending on your budget and skills. Check out a scrapbooking catalogue or a photo department for ideas. Here are some possibilities:
- Both can be mounted on heavy cardstock, with a second sheet of cardstock cut and bent to form a “leg” glued to the back, or a hanger glued to the back.
- Find a collection of used frames from a thrift shop.
- Use some album pages that have clear fold-back sheets. Put the writing and photo under the clear sheet, tape the edges and glue a hanger to the back.
- Use legal size cardstock in landscape mode, fold in half with photo on one side and story on the other.
- Collect some very strong fridge magnets and make a gift of a magnet with each mounted picture and story.
It is best NOT to glue the photo on, because it will warp. Instead, cut four slits in the backing for the corners of the photo to slip into.
Plan the Day
There are jobs for many students to put event on. Here are some suggestions for dividing up the work:
Make invitations: One, two or three students can make invitations; have copies made for everyone to use.
Invite guests: Students can invite their own guests, but the class should decide on other people to invite, e.g., program administration, funders, other friends of the program. Students can go in pairs or as individuals to invite these people.
Plan the refreshments: This means a committee to plan, to set up, to clean up. Lots of math involved, and time management.
Find a photographer: A person with some skill is needed. Set up a special place with good light and a simple background for pairs to sit or stand in.
Get photos printed: whether you print on site or someone goes to the printers, it’s an important job.
MC the event: One or two students can do the job. If you think they need help giving the opening remarks, you may decide to have the MC introduce you or someone else from the program to welcome guests.
Microphone adjuster: If you have a microphone, it is a good idea to have a student stationed near it to adjust the height for each speaker.
Rehearse the Day
Many rehearsals are needed. Students need to practice reading what they have written many times until it is as smooth as it can be, and until they can read it without choking up.
The MC needs to practice introducing everyone, including figuring out how to pronounce all the names.
Students need to know the order of presentations so they can be ready when it is their turn. What can be done so that there is not a long wait between speakers? Will the student and the supporter come up together? Will they all sit at the front in order to minimize the wait time? or come from the back, and be already standing and ready when they are “on deck”?
If you are using a microphone, many people will have to get used to that.
Do an imaginary walk through of everything, from greeting at the door, taking pictures, seating, reading, refreshments, conclusion and clean-up. What problems can people anticipate? What can be done to solve them?
On the Day
The biggest logistical problem with this activity is the photos. If photos are to be taken of the supporter and student as they come in, then how fast you can get them printed is the question. If they can’t be printed until the next day, then students will finish the mounting/display work when the photos come back, and take them privately to their supporters.
If you can print the photos on site, or if there is a quick photo finishing service nearby, someone can take on the job of getting the printing done while the ceremony is on, and they can be mounted during refreshments and taken home the same day. This assembly should be pretty easy if the only thing left to do is to slip the photo into its pre-arranged place.
Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the show. I notice how things are going; if someone is not doing their appointed job, I do a little troubleshooting. In the evaluation the next day, I want everyone to get some positive reinforcement for what they did.
You will want to congratulate people as they leave, but since many students and guests will leave together, the evaluation will likely have to be left until the next day. (A good reason NOT to have it on a Friday. You wouldn’t want the evaluation to be left until Monday.)
Evaluation is a very important part of the event. As a whole group, get some first impressions. What did their supporters say? What did they hear from people who were there?
Then go through each part, each job, from the invitations to the clean-up. Who was responsible? How did it go? What really worked? Lots of applause here. Encourage appreciation. Model appreciation.
Here someone will want to blame another student who didn’t come through; it’s best not to go there. I try to be pretty matter of fact about someone dropping the ball—it always happens that someone forgets or has an emergency come up or gets something wrong. The crucial question is how the team copes. The conversation goes like this:
Student: I had to make more coffee and refill the sugar bowl, because Miranda forgot to do it. She never does her share. Just last week…
Me (interrupting): So you saw that the sugar and coffee needed to be refilled, and you stepped in and did it. Thanks for that. Whenever there’s a team effort, something always goes a little wrong. Thinking on your feet and doing what needs to be done often saves the day.
Student: Well, I just noticed that the sugar bowl was empty…”
Often the person who wants to blame someone is the person who stepped in. I focus on the stepping in, not the blaming, and that usually shifts things. The person who wants to blame usually wants attention on their own work, and I give it to them.
Evaluate the planning process. What situations did they anticipate? What things went as expected? What caught them by surprise? How did they cope when the surprise problems came up?
Focus on the team effort. The group put on a major event for a crowd. How did they work together? What skills were needed for this team effort?
Finally, what did they learn for the next time they put on an event for friends and supporters? What worked so well they want to remember to do it the same way next time? What would they do differently to improve their performance?
Benefits of This Activity
What comes of devoting 10 or 15 hours of class time over a three-week period to honouring the supporters?
- Students write, polish, proofread and publish a short piece of writing, and get positive feedback on it.
- Students practice skills such as planning, predicting, time management, evaluation, problem solving, public speaking, as well as writing, reading, and using a computer, camera and other devices.
- Students make a firmer connection with someone who will be a support to them to stay in school.
- The supporters hear that the program values the support they give their students.
- The writing will be displayed for the weeks and months to come, and many people will see and comment on it, usually positively.
- Putting on the event builds teamwork in the class, and helps people get to know and trust each other.
- Students get a chance to make a connection with program administration and support staff.
- Support staff get a better idea of who the students are, and what their needs are.
- Administration pays attention to the instructor who brings so much positive attention to the program.