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Our children were happy to become authors of their own stories

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Our children were happy to become authors of their own stories


Anna Genova

Holding a contest in the midst of the pandemic is rather challenging, but it is the kind of thing you do for children who have bilingual schooling and live in bilingual environment. Tatiana Henderson-Stewart, the principal ofCherry Orchard Russian School in London, told us about Once I Dreamt contest. They even had to make additional categories of prizes because children wrote very interesting works about their dreams and imaginings, and all the writings were so unique.

Graduation celebration in Vishenka (Little Cherry) Nursery

Tatiana, in the midst of the lockdown you organized an excellent contest under symbolic name of Once I Dreamt... Was your decision caused by the situation with coronavirus?

Not quite. The first contest under the same name was held in spring of 2019 followed by the award ceremony in June. During the same period of this year England announced the lock down. The contest was well regarded last year children submitted 116 stories and 42 illustrations. That was the reason we planned to make it traditional and annual one. And here comes such an amazing coincidence now is the time when children actually experience something new and incomprehensible for them. Presenting this on paper would be a wonderful idea not only for the contest, but also for a memoir of any family.

Were you surprised with the result? And if so, what did surprise you?

First of all, I was frankly surprised by the vivid response of our Russian-speaking population in Great Britain. It turns out that there is a need in such a contest! The participants did their very best. They were so overwhelmed by ideas and emotions that most of works were written on several sheets, although we imposed a limit of 500 words suggesting to be brief.

Probably children wanted to speak out...

That could well be the case, because the whole universe of children and their fantasies were discovered by us through the contest. In their stories, children emerged as animals and soaring birds, characters of computer games and fairy tales, professional football players and adults.

It turned out that the world of sweet treats is more important for children than we imagine. There were many fantasies in that respect - for example, “chocolate lakes with marshmallow lilies”, chocolate bars as the floor of the royal palace and so on. We have noticed that children mostly fantasize about things forbidden to them, such as computer games, waking up at will, not by alarm clock, eating the whole cake, throwing soup into the sink, etc.

Children aged 10 and above wrote about other worlds and other civilizations, which sometimes evolved into saving our world and environment.

Many children surprised with grammatical correctness and beautiful handwriting. The illustrations we received perfectly complemented the works they created an atmosphere and gave emotional coloring to the stories.

Tatiana, could you please give examples of the most unexpected topics?

In addition to the aforesaid, I clearly remember a story about a scooter that used to transform into an airplane. One of the stories ended with an emotional plea: "Please, buy me a dog!" Many other stories also revealed a high level of comprehensive knowledge. For example, in their dreams children turned into ants or fish, met bears, penguins and described everything with encyclopedic accuracy. One of the schoolgirls participating in the contest wrote a story on behalf of a boy, and I had to double-check it several times to make sure it was not a mistake. One story, unlike the most of them, was very dramatic and had a sad end. Some of children reinterpreted famous fairy tales and suggested their own way to unfold the story. Some of the children showed a very mature sense of humour and even sarcasm.

Tatiana Henderson-Stewart with students at the Autumn and Harvest Festival

What goals did you set while organizing the contest? And what was the outcome?

My teaching staff noticed that children had no interest in reading in Russian, either in the classroom or at home. Therefore, with the aim to encourage them, we shifted from the traditional list of classical literature in the school curriculum. However, the improvement was quite insignificant. Unwillingness to write in Russian and inability to focus while writing also triggered development of the project aimed to provoke interest in children. I felt like giving them the opportunity to become authors of their own stories and have a better understanding of writers’ work. Londons hectic atmosphere, a lot of additional classes after school and the digital world around them prevent childrens imagination from unwinding.

The intent to unite the Russian children's community in London was not the least of the factors. These children are the ones who will build our Russian world here, in the UK, so their meetings are important for all intents and purposes, as well as for their motivation. Thus, I engaged schools, clubs, and all the parents of the Russian world in the UK, which are interested to support the language.

Who were the jury members?

To ensure the fair assessment, I invited one teacher from each participating school, representatives of the prize fund, and, most importantly, eminent persons of the Russian diaspora who use creative writing in everyday life - writers, journalists, promoters, sales managers, bloggers, etc.

What age groups participated in the contest? Did you somehow divide them by level or age?

Children aged from 7 to 18 years were invited to participate, however the oldest writers happened to be sixteen-year-old children. So finally we divided the participants into four age categories (7 to 9, 10 to 12, 13 to14, and 15 to16) and into three groups depending on whether there was a native speaker in the household and how much they spoke Russian every day.

The stand of Once I Dreamt... contest

Please tell us about your winners.

There were so many various essays of a really high level, so the jury, which included 30 members, was of mixed opinions. We even had to introduce additional nominations. Well, finally, having reached an agreement, we selected Grand Prix winners for Discovery of the Year in each category. Furthermore, additional prizes were awarded. They included the Master of the Word for those that were just shy of the Grand Prix, the Golden Pen for the best spelling, handwriting and diligence, and the Inspirational Brushfor the best illustrations in all categories. By the way, illustrations for the works were assessed separately by the Artistic jury.

Here are our Grand Prix winners for Discovery of the Year:

Tatiana Voyanos (8 y.o., the age category 1) wrote a fantasy in verse, which won hearts of all the jury members:

Once I had a dream at night,

The dream was realistic quite,

I was an elephant, huge like a balloon,

And had a friend - a big-eared kangaroo!!!

It was the Moon we walked around

In dream of mine that was profound,

And smiley stars, and dome of sky

Invited us to have a fly...

Matvey Parakhonko (10 y.o., the age category 2) described other worlds:

The planet is inhabited by kind aliens. They pick green cereal from trees, warm it up in a pot and then eat. They go fishing, but instead of fish they catch apples that grow in water, just like seaweed...

Vera Malkova (13 y.o., the age category 3) discussed environmental topic by emerging as a penguin:

The water sees that my clumsy eyes often find fish and request my beak to pick it. But then, it is just to understand that a piece of litter was picked instead of fish. I feel concern that that there are fewer and fewer fish. How will I feed my babies?

Tatiana, your complementary school in London welcomes toddlers, preschoolers and children of primary and middle school ages. Tell us please about your schools statement.
Our school can be joined from the age of two. Our philosophy is to provide a new generation of young Russian British with a comprehensive education in Russian language, so the students become productive members of Russian community in the UK and are smoothly integrated into any Russian-speaking environment. In the past, when I worked in an Anglo-French school, Russian-speaking parents of children from mixed marriages approached me with the initiative to establish a Russian language class. In 2011, I got my first five students for a Russian club. Today I have about 100 students who attend two Saturday branches, evening classes and Vishenka Nursery. During all school holidays throughout the year, my team and I also have vacation camps for our bilingual students and everyone wishing to attend.

What are the teaching and learning activities? Are there any general school requirements in England that are difficult to be observed by such bilingual school as yours?
Currently we have 4 modes of study that are subject to different requirements. Weekday evening classes include only Russian ones. On Saturdays, we also offer dancing, theater classes, maths and a debating club. As to the nursery, we maintain a pile of documentation in accordance with state requirements for pre-school education. And our camp was established only for speech development and increase of vocabulary in free and easy manner. So we aim to regularly introduce topics that are new and lesser-used in everyday speech.

Many parents of bilinguals face the problem of preserving their native language, what do you usually advise them?
Work on it from an early age. Stay the course. Insist. Motivate. And even "bribe".

Current situation is rather unpredictable, but still, are there any plans your school has that you could share now?
We plan to expand further and become a single Russian-speaking center for grown-ups and adults. While the children study, parents will be able to relax right here, use a computer room, listen to a lecture, or join a yoga class, as an example.

The Russian community is about 0.5% of the population of the UK. How much do you think Londons life is affected by this relatively small content?
It is more logical to speak here about Russian-speaking community, rather than the Russian one. Because it embraces Russian-speaking people of various ethnic backgrounds, including Ukrainians, Belarusians, Kirghiz, Kazakhs, and those born in the Baltic countries. Frankly speaking, I think that the Russian-speaking population of London is a way greater than 0.5 %!
As to affecting Londons life in general, I can say that Russian speakers are present in all sectors and industries. This refers to doctors, accountants, lawyers, managers, salespersons, and cooks, which work for nearly each and every English institution or company. Speaking of cultural life, there is some kind of event for children and adults almost every day. At weekends, there are a few of such events, so you have to choose. They are to fit every taste: museum visits with a Russian guide, children's festivals, book presentations, a week of Russian cinema, quests, drawing lessons in a park, stage performances of Russian-speaking theater groups, etc. You do not need to speak English to have quite an eventful life in London.

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