I have always had a very strong belief in the positive, transformative power of literacy. As Whole School Literacy Co-ordinator here, I try to keep up-to-date with current literacy research around the world. I was particularly intrigued to find that Finland and Canada topped literacy data (such as the PISA chart - the Programme for International Student Assessment which compares literacy abilities of 15 year olds in various countries across the world), so I wanted to discover more. That led me to apply for a Churchill Fellowship to travel to those countries to discover, directly, what they were doing differently that gave them such good skills. I was delighted to be granted a travel fellowship, and I spent two weeks in Montreal, Canada, in June of this year and then three weeks travelling from Lapland to Helsinki in August. I interviewed many teachers, lecturers and researchers during my travels, and I am currently writing a research paper on my findings as well as working out how to translate and incorporate some of them into our work here at St Malachy's. In Canada, I was astonished by the vast array of Literacy Charities, which engaged in projects from "The First Thousand Days", which encouraged parents to read to their children from the time they were born, to "Literacy Reclaim", which helps older people develop functional literacy skills. Such charities work both separately and together to support main stream education. In Finland, the teachers I interviewed often use a "place based" approach to encourage literacy through visits to local areas, and they also worked closely with the local university Education Department to carry out Action Research projects to improve literacy levels.
During my time in Lapland, for example, I visited the Education Department of Rovaniemi University and also the local University School. Such schools exist throughout Finland, at every university which has a Department of Education, and they help to train all new teachers and work alongside the university to trial new educational theories in practical ways. I was struck by the smaller size of classes (between six and twenty pupils per class) and by the ways in which pupils were learning through a mixture of older techniques (weekly visits to the school and town libraries, for example) and newer ones (literacy Apps developed specially at the university for local school children). I visited one primary class where eight 7 year olds were co-writing a story, with their teacher, about their class fishing trip the day before; I visited another class of eighteen year olds preparing and delivering speeches as part of an exploration about the impact of the media upon their lives - in preparation for a visit from a local journalist. Throughout all my interviews with teachers and lecturers, I was struck by the sense of pride they have in their work and how this is even reflected in their language. Indeed, there is a word in various Scandinavian languages meaning "work gladness" or "work joy", and there is an additional word in Finnish that means "teacherhood", a sense of teaching as a vocation, as a special calling: several of the teachers used this word to me when they were describing their feelings about the job they do.
It was fascinating to see a variety of approaches to developing literacy, and I am very grateful to both the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and to St Malachy's College for this opportunity.