where’s that going to get you?

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unspecifiedF62B22SWIn many of the schools we have visited, students complain about the ‘where’s that going to get you?’ question. This question refers to their choice of art, drama, music, dance or photography as a GCSE subject. If we follow the question’s rather literal logic we might expect all students who have taken History to become Historians. Putting our collective understanding of the global employment context (or lack of it) aside for the time being, the ‘where’s that going to get you?’ question seems to have had an unexpected impact on young people. The 24 young people we meet in each of the thirty schools we are visiting, seem pretty clear about the value of the arts to their lives and refer to their own developing self expression, independent working, ability to take risks, collaborate and time manage. They also talk about personal growth and learning to empathise with the views of others in order to see the world from different perspectives. Whilst there is clarity and consensus about the value of art education, the students’ do not always have a similar breadth of knowledge and experience of the types of careers available to them as a result.

At Childwall School the range of partnerships with artists, creative and cultural institutions, such as the Tate, and universities directly addresses this issue. Students show an awareness of a wide range of future career possibilities and an awareness of the need to participate in creative communities in order to make important connections with art and artists in their city.

This ethos seems to emerge from the school, whose large scale public art and extensive murals create a sense of belonging as well access to art in the school itself. As Head of Art Chris Tyrer states:

We’re trying to get our pupils to buy into the idea of creating something and yet, if we are just telling them how to do it it’s completely different to them seeing something that is going to inspire them. For me if they are not inspired and they don’t see things in a real space then we are doing our pupils a disservice.

An appreciation of the wider ‘scene’ of arts practitioners in Liverpool has clearly made an impression on one student Alex Owens who describes himself as a Designer Maker and is a current student of Design at Liverpool Hope University. Alex works as an art technician at Childwall on a voluntary basis – he loves the place and is totally committed to it. I asked him why:

We once came up with the idea that it is a sense of belonging. That we should be here.

Alex also has a shared space at Bridewell studios which he says is great for students because it is so cheap. He describes how his teachers encouraged him to seek out interesting places to develop his ideas, as well as allowing him to retake exams and supporting him with university applications. Although he isn’t from an arty family he was often in a welder’s workshop with his Dad and is now already establishing himself as an artist. Alex finds Childwall an inspiring place to work and is unafraid of trying new approaches and materials:

I see new ways of making something every day. For example, digitally making via 3D rendering software and printing some ink via computer on to a T-shirt or piece of material.

To find out more about Alex’s work contact him on: alexowens13@icloud.com

The assumption in the question ‘where’s that going to get you?’ is that young people who do arts have little chance of ‘becoming an artist.’The impact of creating school spaces where young people work as artists and alongside artists therefore reflects and refracts this question in some thought-provoking ways.

redeeming Shylock

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During my visit to King Ethelbert School in Kent The headteacher, Kate Greig, attended the annual Dimbleby Lecture, this year presented by Gregory Doran, Artistic Director at the RSC. I felt at first hand Kate’s delight at the school being mentioned during this speech because of their commitment to teaching Shakespeare actively. Kate believes the students should recognise that the work belongs to them. Away from the glamour of speeches at The Shard, I was therefore extremely interested to understand how this belief becomes a tangible programme of work in the school.

Led by a team of teachers including Stacy Golding, Carol O’Shea and Amy Humphrys the school’s involvement in the LPN for two years and prioritises training new staff, using the RSC ensemble, active learning approach to teaching Shakespeare. I was delighted to be able to observe a year 8 English class was studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ with newly qualified English teacher, Liz Channing.

The class began with a starter activity, inviting the students to reflect on their past learning about the characters in the play and their emotions. The activity also encouraged students to think of a wide range of vocabulary to describe those emotions. In the feedback session for this activity it was interesting to see the way the teacher helped the students make connections between the characters and their own experiences. The students drew on their previous learning in this section too, demonstrating rich understanding of the key themes of the play. It was particularly exciting to observe the way Liz prioritised the students’ developing understanding of the relationships in the play and had clearly built a safe space for learning in which students could express ideas even if they could not recall the character’s name or pronounce it with confidence.

The game which was used for warm up, ‘Bang,’ enabled the students to begin to physically react to their peers and also connected nicely with the conflicts being explored in the subsequent activity. Links were again made to the children’s own experiences and to the play in ways that successfully built the students’ anticipation of the next task.

The students were then asked to work in small groups on a short extract of text from the play, reading some sections and representing meaning in physical freeze frames. The groups discussed, planned and rehearsed their sequence and were later joined with another group who had been working on a linked scene so that there were two larger groups who took it in turns to perform a longer scene. In setting up the task Liz emphasised her high expectations of the performance and linked the room layout to an imaginary ‘in the round’ performance space.

The students engaged in lengthy and high stakes discussion with regard to their roles and responsibility. Some groups moved quickly to active rehearsal of movement, others spent longer planning. Some students, having been allocated a fairly small role took to practising this over again and, given that the role involved drunken arguments, they became highly immersed in their roles! This led to frustration from their peers. I was fascinated by this because it is so critical to the process of devising, for the students to have the chance to try out different approaches to group creative and collaboration and to learn from their own mistakes.

At times, this led some students to disagree and feel frustrated whilst a small number of others sat back and let peers take the lead. However, if students are micro-managed to ‘behave well’ in this context, and never experience the challenge of this sort of learning environment, they may not be able to fully engage with the play, the pedagogical approach and conflicting ideas. It was therefore compelling to see this work in a year 8 class with an NQT who had clearly been encouraged by the senior leadership team to use the active approaches to teaching Shakespeare without fearing that the buzz of activity in the room would leave her open to criticism. Indeed the role of the teacher here was to mediate in the groups and redirect their attention onto the important themes they were exploring, allowing them space and time to attempt to work together and begin to learn for themselves the skills involved in resolving differences and working to a deadline.

In one discussion  the students suggested that what they had been asked to do was ‘not easy’ and Liz agreed that it was ‘hard’ but suggested that they ‘think about how they individually could make their contribution more effectively,’ supporting them in taking personal responsibility.

The performances were executed with varying levels of success and engagement, and a useful plenary followed where the students were asked to think like film critics about what could have been better, which led to some productive comments and a clear recognition by some students of the performances which had been particularly effective.

Importantly, they were asked if the activity had made them feel any differently about Shylock. Here the discussion became very animated, despite a weather change (to thunder and lightning) and the imminence of the bell. One student found the words he was looking for to help him explain his ideas about Shylock. He had played the famous character and felt he was ‘kind of redeemed.’ There was disagreement which was a highly stimulating end to a rich lesson which demonstrated the way the school draws on the RSC approaches to enable their students to claim Shakespeare’s characters as their own.