self-expression and reflection

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her visit to Ark St Albans Academy in Birmingham.

On my visit to Ark St Albans Academy I had an inspiring talk with a group of Year 13s. I was struck by the way the students talked about how involvement in creative activities had taught them how to reflect on their own lives and places in the world.

St Albans has worked with the RSC, who guide schools on rehearsal room approaches to study Shakespeare, in Drama and/or English. The Y13s I spoke with had benefited from these approaches to teaching Shakespeare in their English classes. They had also taken advantage of work experience with the RSC that had been offered through their school. But what became clear is that these experiences were not limited to understanding Shakespeare; they affected how students were able to understand the world, and express their opinions about it.

The students said that learning to express oneself and one’s opinions is an important skill, particularly in the current political climate.

[…] but even before he [Donald Trump] came in, it was still corrupt and you know it’s just going to get worse by the end cause of the way the system’s set up and everything. So if you have these young adults not knowing how to express themselves, not knowing how to go on 

Not knowing how to deal with it, the only focus in life is get good grades, get good grades, go to uni, get good grades, go to uni. For what?

Especially growing up in the inner city as well. I think it’s really important to get self-expression otherwise you can get dragged into so much stuff which I think people like us have so narrowly escaped.

And the thing is when you look back on you’re like whoa

The students linked the ability to express oneself with the ability to evaluate your actions, and the way you react to situations. They reflected in particular on life in the inner city, and the way people from disadvantaged backgrounds are not necessarily given the opportunity to develop this reflective skill.

I feel as though it also stems from like the fact that you’re not really evaluating, not, not given the chance and not evaluating why it is you do what you do. And through art you do that. Through art you look around. […] They need that art because it allows you to stand back and look back and think why am I doing, why because to be honest they’ve probably realised the first most important thing that, not the most important thing but that why am I going to uni and they’re probably like well there’s no point.

And art is definitely a way in which they can [express themselves]

This understanding of art as a form of self-expression became even more apt when one of the students talked about her own goal to represent people that are not necessarily often featured in the arts – people who come from particular religions, or backgrounds. The student argued that promoting art and self-expression was hugely important in changing the way ordinary people can relate to art.

And also the art that is promoted is probably art that comes from middle-class society where it’s art that represents white people in really heroic roles. You know it’s not for the main stream people which is like one of the forms of art that I try to do is like representation like painting Muslim women who aren’t depicted in art at all. And like to stamp their place in history to be honest. But that’s you need more artists who can portray a lifestyle that we live so that there is representation out there as those people can relate and if the art isn’t promoted then that’s just not going to happen.

These students’ experiences with the RSC, and the way they have learnt to express their opinions, has enabled them to reflect on their places in the world. They identified the ways that creative school subjects can help people understand the world, and told me that this has ultimately, enabled and emboldened them to express their opinions.

They were a truly inspiring group of young people and I left my visit feeling a little bit better about the state of the world.

displaying and sharing art

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her time at Welling School in Kent.

When I arrived at Welling School in Kent, I was immediately fascinated by the ‘mini gallery’ space in reception – a tall glass cube, filled with objects. It displayed work by Year 8 students, responding to work by American artist Judith Scott. These were vibrant, colourful balls that used thread and textiles to create new art from found objects. The wall next to this mini gallery was filled with posters advertising the school’s ‘alTURNERtive’ prize – a yearly art competition for students.

 

Welling is an art specialist school and there is a lot of opportunity to partake in art of various kinds, but what struck me in the first few moments was the clear importance of sharing and showing students’ work. In my few months on this project, I have noticed how students talk about sharing their work, and how comfort with sharing appears to develop over time – younger students tend to be more cautious about sharing their developing art works, whereas their older peers are sharing on social media and engaged in conversation with other young artists.

Students I spoke to clearly knew that their school valued the arts, their art in particular, and showcased this in various ways.

Art has always been very big in the school. I just think that it is appreciated.

They have an awards ceremony as well. The alTURNERtive prize they do that every year cause we have a gallery downstairs. And we have a lot of stuff around the room, like everyone’s work is displayed. Like last year, everyone’s final pieces will be up on the walls.

It’s one of the main things that attracted me to the school [the way it values art]. I used to go to [another school] and they’re into art as well but I thought that this was even more into art cause its what I want to go into so it felt like this was the right decision to come here.

When I asked how the school’s value of the arts made them feel they said:

It makes us want to do more big stuff and show it off, cause we know we can.

I feel less restricted cause you can make big stuff in this school.

One student explained about her experience in The alTURNERtive Prize:

So they choose a couple of people from Year 11, 12 and 13, art that they’ve done and they put it in the gallery and it’s like a show. Everyone comes in to watch it. And they choose an overall winner. […] It’s fun. It’s a good experience. You feel quite involved in everything and it feels a bit more real. And you feel like you get rewarded for the stuff you do, so it’s quite nice.

And what did everyone say when they came in and saw all the artwork?

It’s like not a community but like everyone’s joined together and everyone is like ‘oh, your work’s nice’, ‘and your work’s nice’ and you all give each other ideas. It’s a nice thing to do. It’s a good idea. It works.

Sharing art work at Welling was not only confined to formal gallery spaces or competitions. The teacher’s classrooms displayed student work, and the corridors of the art block were full of posters, art, photographs and notice boards showcasing recent plays or information on exhibitions students could visit.


At Welling I began to think about the role the school and teachers can play in creating spaces where students can share work in a gradual fashion – anonymously in the glass cube, with friends, family and other artists in the school gallery space, and eventually, on social media and in other public spaces. And through doing so, empower students to share their work with the world.

empathising and understanding the character

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her experiences at Minsthorpe Community College.

On my visit to Minsthorpe Community College in west Yorkshire, I was able to observe a Year Seven English lesson on Much Ado about Nothing. The lesson made use of the rehearsal room approaches encouraged by the RSC. The lesson took place in the centre of the class, with students moving around, forming and reforming groups, and sitting on the floor.

ST classroom2

Sal Thompson, the teacher, began the lesson by drawing the students’ attention to the board. This had the phrase ‘dramatic irony’ displayed on it. She asked the class if they knew the phrase. Sal explained that dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the actors on stage do not, and this can lead to conflict or to humour. It is done deliberately by the playwright to achieve a particular effect.

The students then began a warm-up activity called ‘Zip, Zap, Boing!’ They had to pass an invisible ball of energy around a circle, calling either zip, zap or boing depending on where they were sending it. (Zip sends it right or left, zap is across the circle, and boing is a header or tummy throw). The students were soon laughing, looks of panic crossing their faces when they unexpectedly received the energy ball before they had decided what to do with it, and making eye contact with the receiver. They performed the activity in two separate groups. When they were all done, Sal brought them back together and asked them to reflect on the point of the exercise. They realized that by performing the activity in two separate groups, they had to concentrate harder and focus their attention on the game, because they were more likely to receive the ball.

They then participated in an activity called ‘Bomb and Shield’. The students walked around the room and had to find an ally by giving them a wink or a clear stare. They were not allowed to talk or touch each other, simply walk at a normal pace but had to make eye contact with their ally. Then, they had to decide on an enemy but not reveal whom they had chosen. Finally, the students had to continue walking but move so that their ally was between themselves and their enemy. They did this enthusiastically with much jollying and an increased pace in their walking. Soon laughter was breaking out. Sal then asked them to freeze, and resume a neutral position. She asked them to reflect on their activity.

“The end bit was hard trying to keep the enemy and ally cause the enemy didn’t know”, one said. “Is that dramatic irony Miss? Cause they didn’t know”, another asked. “Fantasic X-, that’s a slip for you because you’ve used what you’ve done and applied it to the vocab. Now, how can we apply this to how Beatrice is feeling?”

The class then focused on two extracts from the play. The first was from Act 3, Scene 1, where Beatrice overhears her friends talking about her, and the second from Act 2, Scene 3 where Benedick overhears his friends talking about him. The students were divided into groups. One student had to be Beatrice and stay silent whilst the rest preformed the lines. The students who were Beatrice were asked how they felt about the experience.

“It’s quite hurtful because you thought they were your friends”.

“You really want to speak out for yourself but can’t”.

“It got on my nerves cause if it were me I’d want to shout.”

They performed the reading again but this time Beatrice could respond to the audience. Once they’d all had time to say the lines, the group reformed to talk about the scene.

They then focused on the scene with Benedick and his friends. Once again, one of the students played Benedick and the rest were his friends, with their backs turned towards him. Benedick was allowed to respond whenever he would like and they read the scene through.

They discussed the scene. Sal asked what they thought Benedick thought of his friends. She tells them to think of what is being said – Benedick’s friends are not criticizing him the way Beatrice’s do. Rather, they highlight how Beatrice is secretly in love with Benedick. They make Beatrice sound lovely but also desperate.

“Why does Benedick speak but not Beatrice?” Sal asked the students. “Men are more confident and like the leaders”, a student answers. They go on to talk about the patriarchal nature of the Elizabethan era, how women had to respect men and couldn’t use their voices in the same way.

Molly Morgan, an NQT at the school, also used this approach to teach these scenes. When I spoke to Molly the following day she explained why such an approach is useful when dealing with complex texts.

If we’re doing any reading, I usually do it actively. I just find they engage better with it. Only one pupil can read at a time. So if only one pupil’s reading, everybody else is not listening usually. And in a lower set, most of the time if they can’t blatantly understand the language, if it’s not obvious what somebody is saying then they’re just not going to try and focus on it. Which is understandable. If somebody were reading Shakespeare to me, out loud with no tone or expression it’d be hard to understand, definitely. You need that expression and I think that’s something that the Year Seven’s are getting better at.

She went on to explain: If we were reading that as a whole class, they would probably be saying ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what does this mean?’ ‘what does that word mean?’ continuously throughout the reading. Whereas if you say, because they can’t all shout at you at once, cause you’re not even present within the room as far as they’re concerned, they’re in their own little bubble. So any vocabulary they don’t 100% understand, they just put into context and work out.

MM classroom3

In both classes the students seemed to have grasped the idea of dramatic irony, and the ways in which Beatrice and Benedick were being tricked by their friends. What is more, the students clearly enjoyed being able to perform the lines and participate in the class, making the whole process of learning fun and accessible.

opportunity and art

This post is written by Lexi Earl about her recent visit to Archbishop Tenison School in London.

On our recent visit to Archbishop Tenison, Becky and I had a conversation with the Y13 art students. It was clear that they were taking advantage of the various opportunities they had been offered that connected them to art organisations and experiences outside of school – some were involved in Tate Collective, others in the October Gallery Youth Collective, and some had done work experience at Universal Studios. They supported each other’s efforts by attending events and going to exhibitions together, forming and creating their own art community.

october-gallery

By contrast, the Y10s were not yet involved in the arts community around them. In conversation I asked them whether they visited museums or galleries, either by themselves or with their families. They said no. They went on to say that it was likely that the only way they would visit such places would be on a school trip. This was interesting because ATS is a school in central London. The Tate is within walking distance. But these young people do not necessarily feel that they can access such places on their own.

Opportunities to become part of the art community, to participate in it, and to take up work experience do not happen by osmosis. The engagement of the Y13s in comparison to the Y10s is part of the work of Hannah King, their art teacher, and is an example of the role teachers play in connecting their students to wider opportunities and experiences within the arts and cultural organisations, either on their doorstep or more broadly in their communities.

Hannah explained the process through which she connects the students to opportunities they might not otherwise be able to access. She runs through her own personal contacts – friends and acquaintances working in a variety of industries that might be of interest to her students. She checks what opportunities might be possible with the organisations and businesses where she has contacts, looking at what is doable and realistic. She takes these opportunities to the Head of Sixth Form, to check whether the school can support the students to take advantage of an opportunity. Finally, she offers the various opportunities to the sixth form students – not only the art students, but anyone who might be interested. For example, students who are interested in the business side of arts organisations can also take advantage of these opportunities.

tate-collective

Hannah knows her students interests and future ideas, and is therefore able to tailor opportunities for them that will help them in the long run. As Hannah told us, it is not just the opportunity to gain work experience somewhere like Universal Studios, Apple, or Ministry of Sound. Having to put together a CV, and write a cover letter gives students practical life skills. This then supports their potential UCAS letters, and ultimately helps students once they start “thinking about how you apply for jobs”.

Teachers like Hannah King play an incredibly important role in connecting young people to the arts, widening the opportunities they may have, and exposing them to new ideas and people that they might otherwise miss.

ats-notice-board-outside-art-y2

finding inspiration

This post is written by Chris Hall, about her recent trip to Upton Hall.

I saw this banner on the lamppost in the driveway as I was leaving Upton Hall on the first day of my visit.

stal-int-ra-and-je

I hadn’t noticed it when I came in that morning, partly, no doubt, because I was anxious about arriving on time – I hadn’t visited Upton Hall before or negotiated the morning traffic through the Mersey tunnel – and partly because it’s the kind of strap line you see on school advertising nowadays and don’t think twice about. But after a day at the school talking to students and to the art teachers, the banner definitely gave me pause for thought.

Becky made the research visit to Upton Hall last year. She’d already told me that the school building was very beautiful, and I’d seen for myself from the prospectus and website that the current school is centred on a ‘small mansion’ which it moved to in 1860, eleven years after being founded by the FCJ Sisters, a religious society originating in France. The reception area is immediately welcoming, even with all the normal security measures. The walls are painted a warm pink and covered with artwork produced by students alongside a large specially commissioned piece by a professional artist opposite the front desk, an elaborated version of the mandala the girls wear as lapel badges.

Two year 7 students took me on a quick tour of the school. They – and I – agreed with Becky’s opinion about the original features of the buildings, the chapel and the tiling in some of the older corridors. But what struck me most on the tour was the sheer volume of students’ artwork that is displayed on the school walls, on mannequins and in cabinets. In a long career of visiting schools, I’ve never been in a secondary school with so much student work on permanent display.

I’ve been in lots of primary schools, of course, where you have to fight your way through the thicket of dangling artwork and where there are layers of paintings on the walls, but the aesthetic at Upton Hall is very different to that. The work in the public spaces is mostly framed and always carefully hung. It’s obvious that a lot of thought has gone in to making the environment stimulating and, yes, inspiring, as the banner claims.

It was the students I interviewed who made the link between the artwork on the walls and being inspired. Here’s a snippet from a recording I made of a group of Year 12s talking about their school:

On nearly every corridor here there’s work by students and that really inspired me to do art.

Our school’s got colours everywhere.

In my other school they only picked certain people’s art to put on the walls, only the finest ones, and it’s not like that here.

You take ideas from them.

It gives the school a different aspect. It’s showing off students’ work, it gives us inspiration from the years above us and it gives us ideas for our own work as well.

A year 13 student said:

It’s nice that in this school they don’t use paintings that outsiders have done. Because all the stuff on the walls is what the girls have done. It’s advertised in the school and on the websites, it’s something that they’re proud of. You can take loads of inspiration from it. If you’re stuck you can go round and see what other people have done and get ideas.

The students talk a lot about being inspired because it’s part of their everyday work in art lessons. Ginny and Jennie, the art teachers, explained to me how they set tasks that involve students in visiting galleries and doing individual research to find and document their own sources of inspiration. One girl explained the process to me like this:

They [the teachers] always tell us to research artists and they tell us toshow your inspiration’ and, even if inspiration didn’t come from the artist, you can always show how the ideas link.

Others, from year 11 and 12 said:

We take a lot of inspiration from one another.

If you see someone’s work and it’s really good, you do think ‘oh mine’s not so good,’ but you can sort of look at the way they’ve done stuff and take ideas from it and kind of bring it into your own work. We learn from one another quite a bit.

I like looking at my first sketchbook and looking at the one I’m on now, and I’m like ‘this is so much better’. Because it’s not just that you get better at using techniques, but you get a lot more creative I think. Because you obviously look at other people’s work and you see how other people are using materials and it’s like – you won’t copy what they do, but you’ll use it, and make it into something of your own.

Being inspired, in this sense, isn’t about passively waiting for the Muse to strike – it’s about actively exploring, analysing, appreciating, and synthesising to generate new links and associations and ideas. The students I talked to at Upton Hall really understood that. Their inspiration was stimulated by the way their art teachers taught them, but also by the school environment that the staff have created.