Excited learners after finding their pieces in the “Good Days, Bad Days” compilation.

As all writers know, there is nothing quite like holding a book with your work in it. And this is how young learners at three reading clubs in Gauteng are feeling this month.

Last year FunDza designed and implemented a pilot writing course, run by three groups in the Gauteng area, and funded by Gauteng Province Library and Archival Services Directorate. The final product was a print compilation of the learners’ work. “I feel over the moon,” said one learner, when Dorothy from FunDza arrived at their club to hand over the books. “The biggest gift ever,” said another. “Speechless!”

The programme ran over twelve sessions at three different centres: Olico in Diepsloot, Thaba Jabula in Soweto, and Siyaphila in Mamelodi. Each session was carefully designed by Sandra Hill, creative writing teacher, to guide learners along a writing journey. The focus of the programme was writing for expression and for meaning, as in so many classrooms, there is very little writing done, and most of it is evaluated as being ‘right’ or ‘full of mistakes’. We wanted learners to realise that writing – just as reading – can be a meaningful and enriching activity, not just a chore demanded by school.

Facilitators filled in google forms to give feedback on how the programme was going. Through the feedback we could see that the learners were engaged and interested in the workshops, and that generally facilitators felt the activities were helping the learners develop confidence and enjoyment in writing. We could also adjust future session plans to needs expressed, such as the need for warm-up games, and for time suggestions for each activity.

There were some challenges. When it came to the final anthology there was the common tension between process and product – we were going to collect writing for a final anthology, but many of the exercises were freewriting warm-ups, not actually designed for readers. Another problem was that the programme started in the second half of the year, which meant that it was rushed towards the end by the demands of exams and exam preparation, so there was not enough time spent on the final piece. These factors meant that there were not enough poems and stories that could be collected into a print anthology.

Therefore we ran a follow-up workshop to get more work from participating learners this year, using scaffolding poem structures and other shorter techniques to elicit a range of responses. Then a piece of writing was selected from each participant and published in a beautifully designed and produced booklet, and finally delivered to the learners themselves. The books will also be distributed to Gauteng libraries, and to some FunDza beneficiaries.

The learners reported that they enjoyed the process, particularly the games, reading out their work and listening to others. Baeletsi Tsatsi, who facilitated the club at two venues, writes: ‘When WriteSmart came to an end, I felt that it had been such a necessary programme. Learners need to be given a chance to say what they want to say, to refine it, and to share it with someone. Hopefully, through that process, they will learn that Lupita Nyong’o spoke the ultimate truth when she said, “Your dreams are valid.” Because so are your thoughts and ideas.’

Besides having this beautiful booklet, we have also drawn on these workshops and already used some of the activities elsewhere. We are working on redesigning a programme that takes on board some of the lessons from this first pilot. Thanks to Gauteng Province Library and Archival Services Directorate for allowing us this opportunity to experiment with our first WriteSmart programme!