Drawbridge Literacy North Otago

Amanda Dennis is a qualified secondary school art teacher working as a part time tutor at Literacy North Otago. Drawbridge, a literacy programme designed to teach learning and thinking by drawing, is her brain child.

It was when Amanda was listening to a lecture on neuroplasticity at Dunedin University a few years ago that she had what she calls an epiphany. At the time she was working as an independent tutor with an intellectually disabled man and helping him develop his thinking skills. What she was hearing at the lecture reminded her of other educators who had influenced her: Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Right side of the Brain; Rueben Feuerstein, a clinical, developmental and cognitive psychologist, known for his view that intelligence is not fixed, but rather modifiable; and New Zealand’s Gordon Tovey who, in the mid-20th century, taught teachers how to deliver an arts-based approach using an inquiry learning process which encourages the expression of creative imagination. This approach he believed, held the key to both children and society fulfilling their potential.

“It came to me,” says Amanda, “drawing takes the focus away from literacy! Focus on thinking and learning by drawing. I could suddenly see how drawing could draw people in and create a bridge for learning and thinking. I knew how to do it!”

She took her idea to a primary school in her community and the principal, concerned about six of his young students with cognitive blocks such as dyslexia and Asperger’s welcomed Amanda’s help and they set up a pilot programme which ran for nine sessions.

There was no ‘proof’ that the sessions had helped them but the teachers said that they found that the children were much more engaged in their learning. Later on, via the grapevine, Amanda heard that one woman whose grandson had been part of the pilot told a friend – she changed his life!

In the small town of Oamaru, Helen Jansen, the manager of Literacy North Otago, knew of Amanda’s work and her vision. She persuaded Amanda to train as a literacy tutor. That done, and about a year and a half ago, Amanda began teaching three Drawbridge classes for adults:

  • Drawbridge Drawing, which teaches the skills required to draw, creating individual learning programmes with the goal of writing their own brief. This empowers the students to research and reference their own interests and teaches study skills.
  • Drawbridge Creative Writing, which encourages students to find their own voice by looking at folk tales and using Joseph Campbell’s heroes’ journey as the structure and apply it to telling stories relevant to them.
  • And Drawbridge Social Enterprise, which again helps students find their own voice by research and investigation into social or environmental issues that concern them.

So what is the process?

It starts with a long one-to-one session with Amanda where they explore the learner’s past educational experience. That way Amanda gets a sense of the cognitive and social problems that may have resulted in a negative attitude to education and learning. And she asks them about their dreams – what they would love to do – to be.

“By using multiple references and comparisons,” says Amanda, “original ideas can be generated. Creative thought is just combining things in a way that has not been done before.

“We often use cartoon step by step drawing because it involves identifying and repeating specific shapes. This is a great way to assess the cognitive function of visual transfer. Many people with dyslexia need to learn how to recognise and reproduce shapes, such as the letters of the alphabet, and cartoon drawing teaches this without going near written language where people have experienced so much failure. Over time their visual transfer gets more accurate. They have success.

“Other cognitive skills such as assessment or critiquing something is taught when people compare their copy of an image with the original. They can see how their copy differs from the original, using the language associated with spacial awareness and design. They learn that making mistakes is OK: Mistakes are part of the learning process.

“As time goes on they need less instruction and take more and more responsibility for their own work. Their concentration shifts from five minutes to hours. They make decisions for themselves. They become excited about learning – and they don’t need me anymore.

“At all the sessions there is always discussion about what people are doing and learning and this helps to develop verbal communication skills – including listening, and speaking.

“Most of them have a lot of skills and a lot of wisdom but they have been unable to communicate effectively with other people. As they become valued by the group they have the confidence to tell their own stories, and find their own voice. Often the discussions are about news items – what is going on in the world and in their community. Their sense of belonging is increased and their vocabulary is extended.”

And so are their future options.

Drawbridge, says Amanda, creates a pathway to all curriculum areas. People may find new interests or feel that they can in time realise their dreams.

In a small community like Oamaru, traditional employment options are limited and reducing all the time. The best option for some is to create their own work.

“I have been thinking like a social entrepreneur for a while now,” says Amanda. “Being a social entrepreneur is about having a business idea that works for people and the environment. Doing good for the community. Drawbridge encourages that kind of thinking.”

What the manager says

Helen Jansen says that Amanda is an absolutely vital part of her team as she has a creative approach to learning that many of the other literacy and numeracy teachers, most of whom are providing intensive numeracy and literacy support, don’t have.

“People who go into the Drawbridge training,” says Helen, “don’t need intensive literacy and numeracy education: they are second chance learners needing a place to gain confidence and acquire skills – lots of soft skills like communication, confidence and motivation.”

With Drawbridge are they breaking new ground? Well no, says Helen: “Tovey knew that creativity is vital for learning, we just have to incorporate it more. The problem for a lot of school children is that the British system of education doesn’t value creativity at all, and the result is that when they become adults these people come to us with literacy problems. Some haven’t grasped the idea of how to read and write, and now don’t like doing it, while others didn’t develop critical skills. As a result they don’t like learning, have no confidence, and avoid activities that involve these skills. Drawbridge helps them find their voice, and start to enjoy learning.”

And she’s a big supporter of the social enterprise pathway: “The project is growing and developing people so they are able to find a way of helping themselves and society. Our meat works which employs over 1000 people is being automated soon and many people will be looking for similar jobs, the old type of job, where you are told what to do. But those kinds of jobs are all going. People now need digital literacy, critical literacy and the social skills that will enable them to function independently in a changing world.We have a social enterprise hub setting up next door to us and we will be working closely with them. The hub will be supporting people already on their way – as well as people like ours, who are working up from the bottom. We expect to get a lot of peer mentoring and support going. Our Drawbridge programme is of vital importance to the economic future of our community.”

For Amanda, there’s much more to do. This year she wants to publish her work. She’s on a crusade to get more creativity back into education so that secondary school teachers see the end of “all those clever boys, doodling their way through their schooling, thinking they are stupid. We need to teach these people to succeed at school, not wait until, much later, they struggle into an adult and community education organisation.”

This article was published in the ACE Aotearoa Winter Newsletter 2018.