‘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.

 

it’s a different kind of hard work

hwIn this post Anton Franks reflects on his visit to one of the RSC partnership schools:

Arriving at Ark Helenswood Academy lower school site on a sunny June morning in Hastings, I am met by Niall Whitehead, a drama teacher and the Director of Performing Arts in the school. He’s a very busy man – overseeing drama, dance, music and PE and teaching, spending his days whizzing between Helenswood’s two sites and the Sixth Form Centre, located at a neighbouring boys’ school. Walking with him down the corridor to his office, I’m struck by wall displays of performing arts projects. Niall is involved as a lead teacher in RSC’s LPN, but has in the past participated in Shakespeare Schools Festival. He’s impressed by the high quality of the RSC’s education work and believes it has real benefits for the students. It emerges that Niall is also a founder and key member of Hastings and Rother Arts Education Network (HRAEN). During the summer vacation, Niall also runs a youth theatre group, devising and performing theatre at a local centre, The Stables.

Before rushing off to another site, Niall introduces me to two Year 9 students, Ellie and Sirsha, who’ve arrived to escort me on a tour of the school, before I meet again with Niall at lunchtime. The girls are articulate and animated as they guide me swiftly around corridors, peering into classrooms and skating past wall displays, many of dance performances presented in and out of school.

The girls tell me that the school offers A-levels in both Dance and Drama – not many schools do that. In Year 7, they had Dance, Drama and Music lessons every week. Since Year 8, though, the performing arts are on a half-termly rotation, with one lesson of each every two weeks. Ellie and Sirsha are clear that ‘behaviour in drama and dance is much better’ than in other lessons. ‘It’s much more about group work and you really have to concentrate on what you’re making, with no room to switch off and dream that you have in other lessons,’ they tell me. Later, in a group discussion, a Year 11 student echoes this point, ‘It’s a different kind of hard work… It’s equally hard work but because you’re having fun you don’t feel it’.

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The discipline of working creatively with others comes up in discussions with students, because ‘you have to rely on each other much more.’ Lessons in the performing arts, they think, ‘are very different from academic lessons. They [teachers] really encourage you to be creative.’ And the opportunities to exchange and trade ideas and to work towards an artistic product in performing arts lessons is valued by the students – ‘You bounce ideas off each other… everyone brings something. It’s more that you’re working together towards a common goal, rather than relying on one another.’ How working in the performing arts is different from other lessons arises pretty quickly in discussion with Sixth Formers, too. Performing arts lessons are ‘Somewhere you can let go, in normal lessons you’re very restricted in what you do. You can express yourself in an arts lesson.’

Returning to the conversation with Ellie, she is enthusiastic about doing Shakespeare in drama. In English it’s ‘hard to understand, but easier to understand and work with in drama.’ (Niall tells me later that Ellie was involved with the Shakespeare Schools Festival that he was leading on in Hastings when she was at primary school in Year 6. He thinks it’s a main reason why she so wanted to come to Helenswood.) Talking with a group of Year 10 girls the following day, one tells me, ‘It was nice to do it for ourselves, because in English you’re given the exact interpretation and analysis, and you have to get the right answer. But in drama we brought our own ideas and our physicality, and characters’. Another chips in, ‘If you’ve performed it and become that character, then you understand them more.’ Getting inside the mind and skin of a character is also something that arises in discussion with Sixth Formers – ‘There’s an element of almost psychology… finding out and understanding why people should act in certain ways…’

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All in all, it becomes clear over the course of my visit that performing arts teachers and students at Helenswood make vibrant contributions to the cultural life of the area. In the past year alone, for example, they’ve been involved in 1066 anniversary and in the opening of the newly refurbished Hastings pier. Elaine Vanner later shows me a YouTube video of her A-level Dance group dancing on the pier with a group of construction workers in a piece they choreographed, performed and filmed in a single day.

Through work in dance and drama with the teachers in the Performing Arts faculty, Helenswood appears to have become quite a ‘hub’ institution for the performing arts in Hastings