understanding relationships through movement

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

During my visit to St Mary’s College in Hull, I had the opportunity to observe a Year 13 Performing Arts class. This group of Year 13s are studying BTec Performing Arts and their course is made up of drama, dance and singing classes. Many want to go on to pursue careers in the performing arts, including doing musical theater. In this particular class, the teacher was using movement to help students understand The Crucible, the new text they were studying.

The class begins with a warm-up, “to get rid of the giggles”, and then the students watch a video of a group of people moving without ever breaking contact. In the video, people come in and out of the sequence but always take hold of someone’s hand before joining. The transitions are really smooth. It looks like a dance. The actors are always in contact as they move. There are hugs, forehead touches, holding each other in a head lock. When the video finished, the teacher asks the students to guess the types of relationships that might have been in the scene. “We learnt a lot by looking at contact. Lots of elements can come from movement or choreography,” the teacher explains when they are finished discussing the various relationships they saw.


The class then divided into groups and started to come up with their own sequences. The only instruction the teacher gave is that the contact should be between friends or family – so closer contact than greeting a stranger say – and that each person in the group should be involved in two movements.

In one group, two girls start with a hug and then others come and transition the hug into a different form. Now there is a new hug formed. There is a building of sequences. “At the moment, this doesn’t have a story, it is just movements, choreography,” the teacher tells them. The students move around in their groups, creating transitions from one pose to another. The teacher watches and gives advice, suggests things – Are you going to… Just watch that… Maybe you could… Then she tells them to think about transitioning out as well as into the pose. What happens when you leave? The students do the sequences multiple times until they are fluid, including their entrances and exits.

“We have to bring this back and think about how we can use this in The Crucible”, the teacher prompts. She explains that one of the play’s main themes is power and manipulation. In this time period, women were subordinate to men. ‘Goody’ meant good wife. Abigail is unmarried but had an affair with a married man. She wants the students to assign a character to each person but to do this randomly. “Don’t change the choreography”, she instructs. She explains to the students that embraces can change depending on strength and posture. The characters they need to assign are: Abigail, Proctor, Elizabeth, Mary W, Parris/Danforth. “Embraces might become something else”, the teacher advises. The groups reconvene and choose characters. They now practice the transitions and movements as their characters. The teacher talks to them as they move through the transitions, asking about how their characters now affect these movements.

“How does Elizabeth feel about Parris?” the teacher asks one group. “Be a bit more on-looking so we get a sense of who you are observing and why,” she tells another. “Don’t be frightened to push these characters a bit more, slow things down”, the teacher advises the class.

After they have had an opportunity to rehearse in their new characters, we watch the two groups in turn. The teacher asks them to go through the sequence twice. Afterwards, the students guess who was which character. “How did you decide?” the teacher asks. “Facial expressions”, “movements”, “who took control at the end”, the students answer. “You did a forceful embrace and it was really quick. He was impartial. It was like you needed support,” one student observes.

The teacher explained to me that the purpose of this class was to allow students to understand complex relationships and the complexity of the play, without being overwhelmed by the text. It was very interesting to see how the movements morphed to reflect different relationships, even though they had been randomly designed in the beginning. With each performance it was easy to spot characters through their movements or facial expressions. The lesson made me think about how we use such knowledge in real life, reading people – their expressions, their movements, their body language – in order to understand them. Drama is a way to learn this knowledge.


visiting artists, sharing life lessons

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

Many of the schools we visit invite artists, performers, touring companies, and other creative people in to talk to students, demonstrate techniques, run workshops, or perform plays. These types of experiences offer wonderful opportunities for the young people to see what it is like to ‘do’ a particular job in the world, and to get first hand stories of how people end up where they do.

During my visit to Uxbridge High School in Uxbridge, near London, I spoke to some Year 10 Drama students who articulated what these types of opportunities meant for them personally. Uxbridge High works in partnership with Intermission Theatre and the RSC. These companies often visit the school to run workshops or put on performances. Uxbridge also takes students out to see West End theatre shows, local theatre productions, or to visit London galleries and museums.

The students talked about how they benefitted from trips to museums, galleries or theatres.

I think Drama and Performing Arts at this school really opens a lot of doors for us and let’s us go on trips. And with Art as well, they went to the Natural History Museum and they studied that in their curriculum. They do do a lot of trips for us so we can see how this could be us one day.

And you work on it as well. It’s not like you just go to a trip and forget about it a week later. You could still go on about it in a year’s time and do work that would help you in the future.

Lion King was the first official play that most of us saw. Because it was so grand it was really amazing and it showed everyone that Drama is a big thing. And it is valued in society. You see so many people who were coming and watching. It is valued and it is not something that is thrown to the corner. It was something that really inspired us because we could see how [through] doing Drama at school what you can become and the possibilities that can happen.

Then the students explained how something different occurs when an adult other than a teacher tells them about their own life experiences, and explains how they ended up in the creative industries.

When it is from someone who has actually been through it and does it now you get the push where you’re like ‘oh, so I could actually genuinely do that myself’, without having a teacher say it to you.

For me, [it is] their stories. They usually tell us about how they might’ve had a difficult life before, something like that so it gives us hope rather than from your teacher because it is your teacher’s job to give you hope. When you hear it from people who don’t really mean anything to you and they tell you about where they were before and where they are now and how Drama has helped them get through so many things, it does inspire us and it gives us hope and it encourages us to carry on.

The students at Uxbridge highlighted how vital it is for young people to be exposed to others working in the arts and creative industries, and just how much influence these encounters can have on young people in schools.



working with difficult ideas

This post was written by Pat Thomson on her visit to Thomas Tallis school in Greenwich.

Ana image

student-made image

Studying photography is not just about learning how to make images. It is also learning how the photograph itself can be understood.

On a recent visit to Thomas Tallis, I saw a visiting artist working with a Year 10 class. The artist was Dafna Talmor and her practice involves the manipulation of images to produce non-naturalistic landscapes. Her workshop ran for a whole morning, and the students were to learn a new process –  cutting, marking and re-assembling “analogue” slides to make a collaged image.

Jon, the teacher, began the workshop by revisiting a threshold concept for photography – photographs are abstractions, shaped by technology. This was, he noted, as he started a short discussion, a difficult idea.

The guided conversation covered key points:

  • the photograph is not a mirror on the world. It is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world;
  • the photograph is framed, usually by a rectangle. This is not how we see the world;
  • the photograph flattens and rescales what we see;
  • the camera sees with one eye (the lens);
  • the photographer alters the image through their artistic decisions;
  • what the photographer can do is shaped by the technology they are using.

Students were encouraged to bring these understandings to Dafna’s work; this is more obviously what might be understood as abstract.

Dafna explained that she thought about the photograph as an object that worked with loaded histories of image-making. She was working with images of landscape, but she could not avoid the ways in which landscape had been photographed in the past and was still photographed in the present. She told the students that she wanted to question the ways in which landscape images were often seen as ‘real’. She hoped to make visible some landscape features that photographs often left hidden, as well as making clear the ways in which the photographer’s decisions and actions generally remained out of a viewer’s sight.


Dafna’s artist talk

The students were not only challenged by these ideas, but invited to play with them themselves. For a good part of the morning they experimented with second-hand slides that Jon had bought on ebay. They were surprised at what happened when their tiny slide was projected – colour was changed, composition of formal elements become more apparent.


playing and experimenting

The workshop was an experience not just of learning technique, but also putting a difficult idea, a threshold concept about abstractions and technological manipulations, into practice.



language and literacy in the art room

People often think about art subjects as purely ‘doing stuff’ with paint, pencils and maybe the odd camera. However, there’s a lot of literacy practice which is specific to the art room.

When I visited the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, art room literacies were clearly in evidence. I saw :

(1)   Reading. Students are routinely expected to research artists and their work. This requires them to find a range of sources, including artist biographies and commentaries. These sources are on line as well as in books and magazines. At RGS, students regularly integrated reading into their project work.

(2)   Learning a vocabulary. Like all disciplines, the visual arts use specific terms for particular concepts. The lexicon ranges from descriptions of formal elements to ways of critiquing arts practice and cataloguing artists’ work.  Teachers at RGS taught and regularly used arts terminology with students.

(3)   Talking. Students have regular conversations with their teacher and with each other, Talking helps students to develop the idea they are working on. At RGS they present their work to their class. They might also offer a ‘crit’ of work from one of their peers.  While art classrooms are often quiet places, they are also equally often where lively engaged discussion takes place.

(4)   Listening. Talking also means listening. When students are discussing their work or the work of others, they need to listen carefully to the very many ideas and resources that are offered.

(5)   Writing. Visual art students keep track of what they notice and read and talk about, just like professional artists. They record how they develop an idea, test out approaches, find a line of investigation and produce a work, or series of works. At RGS, all students keep visual diaries from Year 7 onwards. They can record whatever they want in their visual diaries. I was told by many students that they carry their diaries everywhere with them. The students also produce formal documentation related to projects they are working on. Their formal documentation may include on-line as well as analog materials. The writing in the formal documentation always incorporates their reading and thinking/reflecting, expressed in the appropriate art vocabulary. 

 In art classrooms, many of these visual art literacy practices are interrelated and brought together.


At RGS I saw many students who had their visual diaries open at a jotting about an idea – and who, at the same time, were researching on their laptops, taking a screen shot on their phone and had their documentation standing by so they could see where they were up to. They were also ready to discuss their current state of decision-making with their teacher.

It is this combination  that makes the language and literacy practices of the art room unique.

Post written by Pat Thomson


creative arts and wellbeing

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

During my visit to Lampton School in Hounslow, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of A-level students. Some were taking Drama, others Music, and many were also studying English Literature. What was most interesting about the combination of students I spoke to was the way the students spoke about the health and wellbeing aspects of creative subjects.

The students were aware of the way creativity can help relieve stress, and might help you cope with difficult situations. The idea of arts subjects being stress-relieving (often in comparison to other subjects) comes up a lot in conversations I have with young people (and is one of the findings of our Wave 1 Survey Report which you can find here).

The students at Lampton, however, linked creativity and creative subjects to health and wellbeing in a way that other students I’ve spoken to have not yet done.

So I think what is quite good is the school, within the creative subjects, let’s it be the creative outlet compared to other subjects. They allow it to be individual. They allow it to be an expression for you to express what is going on or to get emotions out or to portray what you want to portray, with guidance of how you do it.

If you go to university and things get too much, it shows you there are healthy ways out there to deal with the stress, to deal with the anxiety which can help. Like music therapy or art therapy or drama therapy. It is a way for you to have an outlet and can help for the rest of your life.

Doing something, escaping your troubles.

The students spoke about how creative subjects are both a potential escape from the stress of life, but also a method to finding one’s way back. One student explained:

It does take you away from problems. But you can use it to your advantage. Put a different spin on it. It’s your escape but it is your route back as well. It’s more like guidance because it’s always there. Even if you have a lot of stuff and you’re really stressed and you can’t think clearly, you can go back to making your own piece of music, go through it, maybe implement what is going on in your life and it helps you to come out of things. I suppose also with Drama, although I don’t do it, it lets you see different perspectives and people. You get to look at how people deal with things. It creates a way to look at something. Instead of looking at one side, you can take a step back, ‘okay that is how I see it but this person will see it like that’ and then put them together and think the best route forward would be to do this.

Another student explained about work they had done in their Drama class and how that helped them see different perspectives on issues of mental health:

In Drama we did a mental health unit and obviously all of us experience mental health in our own ways so in the final performance, we could see the way it affects others.

One student explained what he thought the benefit of taking a creative subject (in his case, Music) at A-level did for him personally.

I’m doing Economics, English Literature and Maths, and to have Music, I wouldn’t say it’s easy; it is something that is challenging. It is something I enjoy doing. Especially if we are rehearsing, it’s great because you don’t have to touch a pen or a book. Do what you like and enjoy doing. It is something that is completely different. I think it keeps you healthy because your mind is doing one thing there and then something completely different. It keeps you on your feet.

The Lampton students brought up an important idea regarding mental health, young people, and the way creativity can help address mental health issues. This is hugely relevant at a time when newspapers are reporting rising mental health issues amongst young people.

painting clay, having fun

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

At Grey Coat Hospital in London, the Art department has found an innovative way to offer more skills development for their Year 12 students, by running an informal after-school Art Club.

On Monday afternoons, once school is finished at 3.30pm, the Year 12 art students congregate in the bright upstairs art room. The room has a wall of windows looking out over the city, and as dusk fell outside one November Monday, Phillipa Prince, the Head of Art, demonstrated painting clay while still wet.

This method uses decorative slip to paint colour onto clay that has been rolled out flat, not yet formed, and not yet fired. Phillipa showed the group how you can add texture to the clay using a variety of ordinary household materials (bubble wrap, feathers, woven bamboo, engraved with pencil). The slip can be painted onto the clay, or painted first onto newspaper and then pressed onto the clay, or painted in sections. The possibilities are endless, really. Once a pattern or series of designs and colours have been added to the clay, it can be shaped into a form (a small vase perhaps), or left flat like a tile, to dry. Phillipa explained that this technique allows layers to be built up over time. Once the shapes have been fired in the kiln (something the group will be doing in the next few weeks), glazes can be added too. The results are complex, interesting forms that could be used as potential presents or gifts.

After the demonstration, the students were able to experiment with their own designs. Each had a flat piece of clay to which they could add colour or texture. Everyone worked happily, discussing their designs as they went along, asking Phillipa for advice or thoughts. Towards the end of the session, shapes began to form out of the flat clay as the students manipulated vases, jars, and spirals.

After the session I spoke with Clare Burnett, the other Art teacher who helps run the Art Club, about the purpose of such sessions. She explained:

“What we realised is that they [the students] do a lot of personal investigations in GCSE but the danger of doing project after project is that they go straight into more investigation just relying on what they’ve learnt before and they don’t actually expand their repertoire. Pottery after school has been really fun– it’s nice for them to have a bit of relaxation, allows them to expand their sculpture skills and we’ve got the kiln”.

The Year 12 students I spoke to explained what they felt the purpose of the class was:

Right now we’re doing pottery. We just learn basic skills. The first skill we learnt was making normal thumb pots. Then learning how to use the wheel. Yesterday we learnt how to use slip and how you can paint onto clay when it is dried or when it is wet. It is just adding to your book of skills that you can use in Year 13.

It is good that we are building up skill sets.

They are helpful because I have never done any of the things that they have. It is exposing me to different things apart from what I know.

Art Club is therefore a way to both introduce students to techniques they may not have encountered before, and to let the students develop their interests in multiple art forms. The session I witnessed was relaxed and fun, the students free to experiment, make mistakes, and develop ideas. Even though the club is extra-curricular, it clearly has an important place in the wider goals of the art department.

what kind of pirate are you?

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

Late last year, I had the opportunity to see Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It was a spectacular performance, and I was completely immersed in the story and the characters. I found myself paying particular attention to the fight scenes. I watched as the actors moved together in the fight, as a dance. One actor moved, the other responded. This obviously happened very quickly and with much violence, but it was mesmerizing. I noticed how the sounds of smacking and slapping happened, and the way the actors’ feet moved in sequence with the other.

I can only pin my sudden awareness of the fight choreography to my visit in the same week to Welcombe Hills School. Welcombe Hills is a special school, and while I was visiting, the Key Stage 3 pupils were learning about Peter Pan. The school is putting on a production of Peter later this year (in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital) and the pupils I observed were learning about fight scenes. Rather than Roman generals fighting with their fists, these would be pirates and lost boys clashing with swords. Jo Bradley, the Drama teacher, and Cassie Gibb, the Drama teaching assistant, were schooling the pupils on the details of fight choreography.

Cassie explained to the pupils, “as actors, you need to think of a fight like a dance. No one is going to be surprised; it is choreographed. A sword fight is action, reaction.”

To begin, Jo and Cassie illustrated the physical movements they wanted the pupils to learn – moving backwards and forwards in response to the person facing you, and swooshing your arms around to chop off someone’s head. “It’s got to come as if it is slicing his head off,” Cassie explained to some pupils.

The students got to practice in pairs during class. First they concentrated on getting their feet to move easily forwards and backwards in reaction to their partner. One foot stayed cemented and unmoving while the other moved in response, some pupils naturally leaning back as their opponent tried to stab them in the stomach. Some students giggled as they got their bodies to react, others made swooshing, swishing noises of a sword cutting through the air.

The class then shared their work with each other, each pair taking a turn to demonstrate their movements. “That’s tiptoeing,” Cassie said to one pair who hadn’t quite gotten the foot movement down yet. “What kind of pirate are you?” she asked amusedly.

Next they practiced thrusting the sword forward to stab their opponent in the stomach, still trying to get their foot movement correct. Once they had both their feet and the two different arm movements sorted, they were asked to choreograph their own fight scene in pairs. They could choose whatever sequence they wished to do. “For example, you can go head head middle head,” Cassie explained. The pupils had to do five different actions from the two different sword movements. “This is a fight sequence,” Cassie explained, “swing to the head and duck, step forwards and thrust the sword forward, the other steps backwards. Work out how the fight is going to end.”

The children were given time to work out their fights, moving around the room and discussing their strategies in pairs. Then they were all invited to show their fights to the group. Each fight was different, and there was much enjoyment and laughter as they worked. Many fights ended in a death scene, the injured party falling dramatically (and often heavily) to the floor.

When everyone had demonstrated their work, Jo asked how fighting relates to the story of Peter Pan. “The pirates and lost boys fight,” a student explained. When I later saw the actors on the stage fighting, I saw how the basics that were being taught to the students applied to the professional stage.