Making a Statement

Thursday, 19.01.2017

At English enrichment learning centre The Write Connection, no student gets written off or left behind—and that’s a fact.

Using English as the loom to weave our thread of thought into more effective, productive and expressive writing seems like a unique spin indeed. But it was a challenge that educator Katherine Barg found herself gravitating towards when she first started teaching. Since the late 1990s, she has researched the learning of writing. She conscientiously applies and experiments with the things she learned in her teaching practice to find a way to make learning more meaningful and effective for students. The veteran NIE-trained English teacher spent more than a decade away teaching in Australia. Upon her return home, she longed once more to transform students, and forge in them the right skills by placing the right tools in their hands. This, she determined, would revolve around writing, and be realised by establishing The Write Connection (TWC).

The story begins
In 2007, Barg—by then married and with children in tow—decided to return to Singapore after spending 10 years in Sydney, New South Wales. Her family’s relocation back home started on a high note: Barg had excelled in her teaching career in Australia. She founded Einstein’s Planet, an English and writing school that had earned its stripes as an urban legend in helping children make great leaps in their English grades. 

Although she could have stayed to enjoy the fruits of her labour, Barg never did subscribe to resting on her laurels. Time and again, she has proven her mettle: first in Australia as an Asian expatriate teaching English despite initial reservations; then settling back in Singapore to launch TWC in May 2012. TWC was founded after Barg taught writing at the Singapore Management University (SMU) for a few years. She found it a pity that many bright young people who, despite doing very well academically, lack the confidence and skills to think independently and express themselves fluently. Frequently, they faltered at forming and presenting a coherent argument. More disconcertingly, she noticed that many young people whom she worked with did not embrace a growth mindset towards life, thus stunting their own progression and growth.

Believing that strong academic achievements must begin with building strong thinking skills and character, Barg decided that the opportunity to better the lives of people would be through TWC’s unique pedagogy. She wants to contribute to society by producing people who are thinkers and strong communicators. At TWC, teachers normalise challenge and encourage a solution-orientated mindset towards learning. Children are introduced to the beauty of reading and writing, learn the foundations of creative writing, as well as develop critical reading and writing skills. In opting for the road less travelled, TWC goes far beyond teaching the technicalities of the English language. Initially, it took parents time to imagine what this could possibly serve beyond traditional curriculum constraints. However TWC’s holistic and effective learning system gained traction and respect very quickly, with parents marvelling at how their children’s confidence grew in tandem with their improved proficiency in English.

Indeed, while the English language remains at the core of TWC’s specialty as an enrichment provider, it is not the means to an end of simply achieving better academic grades. Rather, it is TWC’s educational philosophy that cultivates all-rounded problem-solvers and critical thinkers who also develop other positive attributes that will serve them well in life and higher learning. 

“Here, praise and encouragement is given for the time spent pondering over the language and literary techniques used during the creation process. The emphasis here is quality writing, not quantity. This means the teachers here spend a lot of time analysing students’ work and their learning needs before recommending the best course of action for their students’ improvement,” Barg told Channel NewsAsia’s Bright Start, Bright Sparks.

Setting the scene
From the start, it is important to Barg that the right talents are invited to join the ranks of TWC and be part of a pioneering group. Beyond academic credentials and professional experience, it is vital for them to possess an infectious passion for teaching, genuine empathy, and a willingness to go the extra mile for their students.

The teacher is also a key participant in TWC’s three-way trust network that involves teacher, parent and child. These engagement sessions are underpinned by every TWC educator’s earnest commitment in guiding each of their students’ progress according to their respective abilities and aptitudes.

TWC’s non-threatening environment makes children feel safe to learn, question and debate in the presence of their teachers and peers. “Our teachers embrace the vision of love through detailed and individualised feedback weekly,” notes Barg. “Our feedback focuses on how to improve and not just to pick up problems. This ‘how-to’ approach allows students to acquire a problem-solving attitude and habits that will serve them for life.”

TWC’s scaffolding methodology means students’ writing are not marked traditionally. Instead of simply assigning a grade and giving general comments, each piece of the original draft is given detailed attention. Coupled with the teacher’s understanding of the child, the work is marked with full understanding of the learner’s needs. The comments are specifically tailored to help the child in question learn skills, strategies or techniques that will be useful in the long run. TWC’s feedback system is one that has won them admirers internationally.

Plot sweetener
In a TWC first, the centre undertook an independently-published book project featuring a compilation of compositions penned by their students. A personal copy deserves pride of place on any of the contributors’ bookshelves, and seeing their work in print gives credence to the children that they are capable of such accomplishments.

The book is also a testament to the immense support and confidence that TWC showers upon its students. It gives founder Katherine Barg and her teachers purpose and a sense of fulfilment when they experience the personal transformations of students who have benefited from their time learning in TWC. Some of these children previously had lax attention spans; griped about writing exercises being boring or pointless; or were simply indifferent to whatever was happening around them.

“We do our utmost to give the children the gift of introspection and reflection. Beyond academic achievement, we challenge their critical thinking skills and teach them to use language for life,” Barg says. In imparting lifelong skills and skills for life, this is where TWC truly shines.

Write on—right on!

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