‘don’t be a robot…’

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

In my recent visits to schools I have heard the phrase, ‘don’t be a robot’ or ‘the arts allow you to not be a robot’ a number of times. I have wondered about this and so I asked some of the students at Ark Helenswood in Hastings about the kinds of self-development that goes on in schools, and in particular, the kinds of opportunities creative subjects offer to this end.

The students told me:

I think as well, with Dance and Drama, they help you to build your own person. Because Dance makes you unique and different. You can do your own style. Like the choreography part of the curriculum, you can become your own person and reflect that in other things.

In Drama you’ve got to be able to stand in front of people and present it nicely instead of being all hunched up, or shut up and really quiet. You’ve got to be able to stand [up for] yourself and project, get your point across as well as you can.  

Those skills go with you for the rest of your life as well. If you go for an interview, if they can see that you’re confident it is better for them because they know that they can ask questions that need to be asked.

We’ve just done our English speeches and I think that’s helped me so much, having the confidence to know that I can speak in front of people. I can talk about something I’m passionate about, I didn’t have that added on stress. It was just ‘let’s memorise this’. I know the talking bit is okay it’s just let’s get the facts together.

 I then asked the students whether they thought this self-development needed to happen in schools. They said:

You can have so many people who have A*’s and everything, if you say I’ve done Drama performances, Dance performances and things like that, you have something about you that is different.

 You’ve got to have a character.

It’s all very robotic. It’s all very, it needs to be this, this and this. You can’t do this because it is wrong. It’s all following a strict script. That’s not what we’re made to do. We’re made to be our own person, we’re made to go off and do something that someone else hasn’t done before whereas they’re [the government]trying to make everyone the same. And that is not right!

It makes you more diverse as a character as well. If you’re doing dance and you’ve picked up a new choreography or you’re thrown into a dance that you weren’t expecting, you’ve got the skill to be able to change quickly. You can have a job that is completely not to do with Dance but you know how to deal with pressure, changing environment, learning new skills quickly.

Finally, I asked the students what they would say to people who make policy about all the ‘sameness’ that they feel is going on. They elaborated:

It’s not right!

I think the only way to get that out is to have the creative subjects, and the performing subjects. You have to do Maths and English and there is a right and a wrong way but it’s those subjects where you can build your confidence and work out who you are, they’re the subjects you need and that is what helps you then in your academic subjects. So you’re able to answer questions, interpret the text in your own way. I think if you didn’t have that at all, everyone would think the same.

The subjects are a relief as well. If you do so many academic subjects, just one creative subject can take you away from everything. If you enjoy that subject so much you just get immersed in it. It’s so much easier to drop everything. Schools tell us, don’t get over stressed, but once you’ve got that added pressure that they do bash into you out of good nature, it becomes very hard to do that.

Niall Whitehead, Head of Performing Arts, explained to me about why the school was so committed to the arts (particularly in the current climate), and why he is focused on turning the school into a community space for the arts.

We are in an area which is one of the poorest parts of the south east and over a third of our students are disadvantaged so wellbeing is vital and I do see that the arts play a major role in this. In all our learning and all the work that we do we are pushing skills onto the kids but along with that we are always aware that we provide an element of social and emotional capability for these students. I know these words get bandied about an awful lot but it is important that they do learn that sense of communication and collaboration and resilience that the arts can deliver. So it is twofold: it’s the idea that wellbeing is always there as a subtext to the arts that we provide and, of course, there is the skills of the arts themselves and a lot of our students are passionate about it as are we but it’s just about making sure that it still has a high profile and is still important.

Ark Helenswood is committed to providing opportunities for their girls that allows them to develop their own personalities, confidence and communication skills.

 

you can’t express a feeling in an equation

During my visit to Three Rivers Academy in Surrey, I had numerous conversations with students about the importance of arts in their lives. At the end of one interview with four Year 10s, they expressed an argument of why arts should be included in schools. I thought I would reproduce it here (with some editing) so that others could read what young people at Three Rivers think about the importance of access to arts education in school and what it means to them. This conversation came after we had been talking about their experiences of arts education in school, their plans for the future, and their own creative practices. I always ask if anyone has anything else they would like to add to our conversation, or if there is anything I’ve missed or they think is important that we should know about their own experiences. This is the conversation that then followed…

I’ve heard that they’re going to try and get rid of all the creative subjects for all the years to come, I heard in parliament. That is so sad!

What do you think about that?

Absolutely no way!

I think Art is really important. Arts is a way for a lot of people to express themselves.

It is a massive part of school and growing up.

And school in general is so stressful. Being able to have that one lesson that you can look forward to and you know it’s not going to be as stressful. And this is the one lesson I look forward to every week because I know it’s not going to majorly stress me out.

It’s a nice subject and if we get rid of it, how are kids going to be able to express themselves? It’s going to become a rare thing. So many people are not going to find what they want to do in school. Everyone will just be doing straight writing on paper like 24/7. It just makes everything a lot more boring.

Where are you going to get architects and stuff from? It’s literally such a big part of everyday life and I think no one realises. It’d be stupid getting rid of it!

Also if you get rid of art it can affect anyone majorly because if you work or go to school, every lesson is always writing and it’s not easy in a way. Everything is so hard and it can stress you out and affect you so badly. Being able to have art or photography or textiles where it’s different, it can change a lot of things.

It is something you can enjoy. A lot of the other subjects are really hard to enjoy getting into but art is so nice to enjoy, you can work hard and get proper into it. It’s so good.

You can experiment as well. You can’t exactly experiment in literature can you?

This is the subject I put most of my time and effort into because it’s the one that I really enjoy. It’s the subject I want to spend all of my time on.

Having a good teacher, not being pressured, makes you want to do well. When I’m so pressured it makes me not want to do it.

I sit there and am like ‘no I’m not doing this’.

I don’t want to do it. But when I’m relaxed and I know that I can take my time with it, it makes me want to do it and want to do well. So being able to have that is better for you.

It feels like you’re worth it as well.

More funding should go towards the creative subjects!

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

practising photography in a garden

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

Most of our school visits take a fairly general form. We observe lessons of various kinds, interview teachers, and talk to students. These are always interesting and exciting days – one never knows what one will encounter in an art class or a drama class – but I have gotten used to their form and substance. Occasionally however, I have a totally unusual experience during a school research visit. This happened on my trip to Digitech Studio School last year.

My visit happened to coincide with a planned Year 10 photography trip to the Bristol Botanic Garden and I was able to accompany the class on their trip. This 23-acre garden is part of the University of Bristol, and is a scientific and teaching garden. The Year 10 students had just begun a macro photography project and their teacher, Kelly Bogan, thought it would make for an interesting class if they went to photograph different plants. The focus of the trip was on taking close-ups of various plants and natural forms. The students could use the 6 school SLR cameras, a digital point-and-shoot camera, or take photographs with their smartphones. They were encouraged to practice with the SLRs so took turns sharing them around while we were in the garden.

When we arrived at the garden we were split into three groups and were each assigned a guide to give us a tour around the garden. My group started in the evolutionary dell, ‘jurrasic park’ the guide commented as we walked through. The guide explained that we would experience the history of plants, walking a path showing plant evolution. He pointed out the different mosses, the ferns and explained how plants evolved. The guide told us about the ‘fancy’ scientific names – that it is an international language that botanists all over the world can use and understand. The guide, knowing that this was a photography trip, pointed out the monkey puzzle tree and told the students it is very interesting architecturally so would be good to photograph.

We walked past birch trees – one pure silver, another gold and orange and copper. We were shown into the Chinese garden and the guide drew our attention to the gingko tree and it’s foul-smelling fruit. The guide let everyone (brave enough) sniff it, explaining that it smells like rotting flesh. He said that the tree is dying out in the wild because no animals will eat the fruit. Scientists think that dinosaurs ate the fruits but since then, the tree has been slowly moving towards extinction. The gingko is found in fossils it is so ancient.

From there we walked into the Mediterranean garden – this space was filled with lavender and rosemary as well as vines and lemons. Signs around the garden explained the plants, and their history. There is a South African garden, and also a herb garden organized according to the medicinal uses that I personally found totally fascinating. From these gardens we walked into the American garden where the three sisters are grown. The guide explained to the students how ‘the three sisters’ – beans, sweetcorn and pumpkins – are grown by people in North America because they grow best together. This garden also featured nasturtiums, quinoa, and physalis as well as varieties of tomatoes. At every plant, students stopped to take photographs, turning their cameras this way and that, capturing the middle of a flower, or the veins of a nasturtium leaf. There were plenty of beautiful seedpods to capture too.

The botanic garden has a wonderful ballast border garden, where plants found in the ballast in Bristol harbor grow. These are the plants that arrived accidently on ships. The boys loved the squirting cucumber, laughing hysterically while the guide showed students how it reacts when you squeeze it.

We were then taken into the greenhouses. There are three, all with varying temperatures moving from cooler plants to sub-tropical to tropical. There was a citron plant in the first greenhouse with amazing sized fruits, various cacti and lots of carnivorous plants. In the second greenhouse are orchids, and in the third we found a pond with water lilies. There was a lot of oohing and aahing over the beautiful orchids, and many photographs of their flowers.

Later I asked Kelly about the purpose of such a trip. She explained:

Initially it was about where could we go to take some good photographs and I thought that natural form was a great thing for photography and there are loads of photographs to look at and lots of photographers who have done that. I didn’t really think about the sort of cultural element of the gardens and the historical element as well which I think is really useful and if we go there again we will develop that a bit more. The idea of wellbeing as well with the medicinal garden and the herbs and I feel that can uplift the students in a way. When we started they were a little bit despondent because they thought it would be boring but when we got there they did engage with it quite well. And looking at their photos and the outcomes that they got from that trip, they were really impressive. They got some nice work that they can print out and use and manipulate further. So that is all going towards their final piece. I think it was quite a successful trip actually and probably a place that many of them hadn’t been to before so it was a new experience and I think that it is important that we do that.

A trip to a botanic garden thus provided a multitude of possibilities for the students at Digitech. It is yet another example of the extraordinary experiences that teachers organise for their students.

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.

IMG_1071.JPG

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.

IMG_1087

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.

IMG_1104

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

SaveSave