National Writing Project

NWP Teachers Visit England for CSA Summer School

By: Faye Henderson, Cheryl Canada, Connie Bunch, Kristina Berdan
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 7, No. 5
Date: November-December 2002

Summary: Four writing project teachers who traveled to England for an international summer institute hosted by the Centre for Social Action describe some of the common problems in education faced by both countries.


Faye Henderson Talks with students inside the Haywood School Library.
In Chester, England, this past summer, the Centre for Social Action (CSA) hosted a three-day international summer institute bringing together people from ten different European countries and the United States. CSA, a service agency based at De Montford University in Leicester, is built on the premise that people within the community have both the skills and the abilities to solve their own problems and make positive changes. At the core of CSA's work are activities designed to help individuals identify and act on issues and problems that are important to them, then collectively find solutions. Social action concepts work in any setting, with all age levels, and with all levels of experience. The facilitators do not provide solutions. They encourage people to use the knowledge they possess to bring about change within their own lives.

From left to right: Cheryl Canada, Faye Henderson, Kristina Berdan, and Connie Bunch at the Haywood School in Nottingham.

Sponsored by the National Writing Project and our local sites, the four of us, all teachers of writing in public schools, were invited as participants from the United States. At the institute, we found ourselves with other teachers as well as social, youth, and health workers, community politicians, and even an actor who uses drama to empower school dropouts.

The site of the summer institute was the Old Hall on De Montfort's Scraptoft Campus. The building itself was of historical interest to us with its stone exterior, luxurious lawn, and pond with white swans.We arrived some days before the opening of the institute at which we expected to learn how the social action process was being used in English schools. We were informed immediately that, as CSA principles had, in fact, not been taken into English schools, we—who had been involved with CSA in the United States—were to serve more as models than as learners. First, however, our host, Ian Boulton, trainer/researcher, gave us an on-site crash course in British education.

Walking into Dovelands Primary School in London, we found students engaged in the "new" literacy hour that is required at all schools throughout the country. Much like the American programs Achievement First and Success for All, the National Literacy Strategy requires up to three hours of uninterrupted, often scripted reading/language arts work. As with similar programs in the United States, the National Literacy Strategy has garnered mixed results.

But while there was much in this school that looked familiar, we also found much that was exhilarating and inspiring. The classrooms were warm and inviting, and the teachers' lounge was a delight. Each morning, during a mandatory twenty-minute break when children are outside playing, teachers meet in the lounge for tea, coffee, and cake. At this time, they actually chat and socialize, rather than use the break to make copies or phone parents.

At Haywood School, students took us on a tour, where we noticed most particularly the "technology" classrooms. These are not computer labs, although each houses several computers, but rather classes in textiles (sewing) and woodwork. We saw students building board games and constructing student-designed cabinets that were finer than something you would find in a Pottery Barn catalog.

We also visited the Crown Hills City Learning Centre. This is one of a number of government-funded cutting-edge technology centers located in areas of the country where student performance is low. Every room is colorfully painted and full of brand new computers. There is the textile room where students design clothes, quilts, pillows, etc. on a computer, which then "speaks" to an attached sewing machine that creates the final product. There is the music room where students create their own CDs and record music they play on keyboards. There is the language room where students conference with students in English classes in other countries. Teachers sign up to bring their entire class to the center. Prior to such a trip, the teacher may come in and prepare for the lesson with the help of a technician. The lab provides for transportation of the class. This facility was quite amazing and clearly a wonderful resource for students and teachers.

What we found to be the most intriguing part of our ten-day stay in England was the understanding we came to that the British and American schools share similar problems. Both countries seemed to be alarmed by the vast number of disengaged students, dropouts, and retention. Both school systems are being accused of failing to meet the educational needs of their students.

As a response to these problems, government officials have imposed standardized tests and a mandated curriculum. For approximately 25 to 30 years now, educators in Britain have been required to teach to a nationally mandated test following a very structured and uniform curriculum. Preparation for this test begins at the onset of primary school and continues through the final year of secondary school (year 11).

Many British educators oppose these mandates and argue that mandated testing is not the way to engage learners and promote education. They feel that this method of instruction stifles creativity and individuality of both students and teachers, causing many students to be turned off to education and disengaged with school. We met teachers who feel that, if they were given the opportunity to be flexible about what they could teach, they could reach more pupils. In other words, these educators, like teachers in the United States, want to be respected for the professionals they are and given opportunity to use this knowledge in the service of student-centered instruction.

After these opportunities to observe, it was time to present. Somewhat nervous, we planned activities to introduce our experiences in using social action principles in the classroom to build community, solve problems in the school environment, and empower students to work to make positive changes in their community. We were fortunate to have a variety of guests ranging from a school principal to a professor at the education department of the university. The give and take of discussion with them was rewarding and thought provoking.

Although terminology and professional experiences differed, the concern for students and the desire to improve their education and help them learn to make positive changes in their world created a bond. As we left, we realized what a unique experience we had taken part in and hoped that it would be the beginning of many more interchanges.


Partnership with the Centre for Social Action (CSA)
Learn more about NWP's Partnership with CSA, or visit CSA's website:

About the Authors Faye Henderson is a teacher-consultant with the Mid Ohio Writing Project.

Cheryl Canada is co-director of the Mid Ohio Writing Project.

Connie Bunch is a teacher consultant with the Alcorn Writing Project, Mississippi.

Kristina Berdan is a teacher-consultant with the Maryland Writing Project.

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