school galleries

During my visit to Welling School in Kent, I was able to have a look around ‘the gallery’ – a dedicated art space for students to display their work. The school had recently had the 6thform show, where students from Years 12 and 13 all had their art up on display. Parents, friends and other teachers could come in and view their work, and they could view each other’s work too. I talked to the students about what the gallery space meant to them, and the experience of having work on display.

Well the gallery

I think we are really lucky to have things like the gallery though. It is nice to present your work like that. It makes you take it a bit more seriously.

All of that stress and everything we have done for a whole year; that is the end result and it makes you proud.

You show it off.

I found it quite daunting. I didn’t want to admit to it being my work. They put my name underneath it so in the end everyone kind of realised! I enjoyed looking at everyone’s artwork.

It was nice because in the lead up, when we had the 10-hour exam, everyone was really stressed. But when it came to that, everyone was happy. We all sat there in the corner talking to our teachers, talking with our parents.

It was a bit of a relief. You could relax and just enjoy our work.

It is weird seeing everyone’s parents taking pictures of other children’s work so their parents didn’t just like their own kids work, they were looking at everyone’s.

It utilises our work because obviously once you’re produced your work, people just chuck it away. Whereas here they keep it and value it to be shown.

I asked students what it was like having family and friends come to view their work. They said:

Oh nervous!

Everyone has their own interpretation of arts and not everyone is going to like your work.

It is funny when someone doesn’t get it and they’re like ‘what is that?’ And you have to explain it!

Like you know where you had your plaster of the sanitary towel and some boys walked past and went ‘what is that meant to be?’ and I went ‘sanitary towel, periods’, and they went ‘oh! Oh okay!’

I remember with my room as well  [sanitary towel prints installation] when I was at the gallery, no one wanted to walk in. I purposely put it on the floor so that people could walk on it and I had to be ‘you can go in! It is fine. Just walk on it!’ It is interesting to see how people react.

I find it funny when they just stand. Just stand there, ‘is that a piece of art work?’

I also asked the students about the experience of sharing art, of having it displayed in a gallery space. They explained:

Quite cool.

It makes you feel more professional. A lot more confident I feel. I feel like we all had a lot of doubt in our work, thinking it wasn’t good enough, that we could’ve done so much better than we had done but after receiving comments about everything from different people, some people that don’t even take an interest into art normally, they’d be like ‘oh my god, that is amazing, tell me the meaning of that’ and knowing that they had that kind of interest, it just built up our confidence.

It makes you think you are capable. And capable of so much more as well, for next time.

It is very rewarding.

A lot of them could tell how much effort was put into each piece of artwork, which is not really normally appreciated. So when they were like ‘wow, that must’ve taken you ages’ and you’re like ‘yeah, it did! And not even doing it, the thought process as well’.

Everyone is really proud of each other. It was such a nice feeling.

It was a really happy environment to be in.

Even on the school website we had a banner with a photo of all of us in it. When we saw that we were like ‘oh my god, that is so cool! ‘

It was nice for me because my work had a message. To actually get it across to more people than what it was before was a big thing for me.

It is quite nice actually. It shows that you are doing something. It is actually good enough to go up on a wall.

Yeah. I’m proud of it.

When you get the feedback like in the shows and stuff, you feel more secure about it. It makes you want to carry on, which is nice. I’m glad we’ve got that kind of support in art.

The 6thform students at Welling clearly appreciated being able to display their work, and for the opportunity to talk to different people about what they were doing. The gallery space had a professional feel about it, and the students clearly felt that their work was taken seriously by the school because they had the opportunity to have it professionally displayed and shared. It is a model I hope other schools consider!

 

gender politics, drama and the boring organisational bits of teaching

This post is written by Chris Hall.

I’d last been to Ricards Lodge decades ago, when my old grammar school was closed and incorporated into the borough’s new girls’ comprehensive. I was 17 then, in Year 13, doing my A levels. I’d enjoyed being at my old school but I don’t remember feeling particularly upset or disrupted by the move to Ricards. Our teachers obviously did a good job, and we weren’t of an age to be nostalgic. We got on with things in the new setting and were mostly concerned about what was coming next – university in my case, thanks to teachers who believed in girls’ education and a university grant system that encouraged social mobility.

So I was tuned in to thinking about the politics of girls’ education as I waited in reception. Malala smiled down at me from a poster on the wall as I watched a stream of girls (and a few boys, from a much later, sixth form, merger) negotiate the morning routines.

Ric image in reception

The focus of my visit was Drama. Back in the day, we read plays in English lessons but Drama – if it involved moving out of your seat – was an exclusively extracurricular affair, an optional extra, a polite refinement. So it was interesting to see at first hand how much things had changed.

Drama is thoroughly embedded in the everyday life of Ricards: in the formal curriculum, through public performances of school plays and musicals, in the displays and invitations to extracurricular visits, in the schools’ collaborations with local and national theatre companies, in the conversations I overheard between teachers and students…

Ric PA display

Jack and Sarah, two of the lead drama teachers, explained to me the way they managed the GCSE and BTEC Drama options to allow students to follow their preferences for studying technical or design aspects of theatre, or to focus more on devising, acting and textual analysis. I observed classes working on costume and set design for the play that actors in another class were rehearsing, and then saw the classes excitedly bringing their work together. I heard about the way the curricular work fed the extracurricular performances; how visits to particular shows, and work experience backstage, inspired creative ideas that the girls brought into their designs and performances. I saw Year 9 girls finishing off a unit of work on women and comedy. They were taking it in turns to act out the birth scene from Gargantua,in which a surreally enormous but reluctant baby is being induced to enter the world and end his mother’s two-year pregnancy. The girls (and their heavily pregnant teacher) found it hilarious. Through comedy, they were learning to be at ease with their bodies, to understand something about the absurd, to work together to explore emotions. And they were also thoroughly enjoying an ordinary day at school.

Observing this, I was struck by the teachers’ commitment to orchestrating timings and syllabus requirements to bring together the curricular, the extracurricular and the cross- curricular. This is the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes kind of work of planning meetings and timetabling, particularly frustrating at the moment with all the changes to the syllabuses and assessment criteria. Managing it well is a high level professional skill. Done properly it energises students to bring ideas together, to explore perspectives and make meanings that are important to them and to their lives beyond school. Two quotations from a conversation with the Year 13 drama students give some insights into what a difference this makes.  It was a privilege to see how things had moved on.

We started homelessness. That was our devised [drama piece for the exam]. We were learning about it, you have to talk about it. In Sociology, you talk about issues in society, you talk about homelessness being an issue, that it’s the individual’s fault. But you come to Drama, you do the research and you form these characters. We wrote these characters ourselves. You come up with a backstory, you come up with how it is going to end, how it is going to begin and you realise these are real people. It brings it a lot closer to home, which is easy if you just need to learn it and write it for an exam, but when you’re doing it in Drama, you become a lot more – you look at it from a completely different perspective than you would’ve done if you were just learning it like a textbook.

I am involved in political activism and I have felt that using drama has made my activism and campaigning a lot easier for me. Messages that are really hard to campaign about, you can convey that message through drama to loads of different audiences. If you campaign or have a protest about homelessness, people won’t get it. But then you have four women characters who you can relate to in some type of way that makes it a lot more accessible. For me as well, I think drama has made political activism a lot more accessible. When we look at politics and sociology and social issues, we think of it as a vague issue rather than an ‘us’ issue, but through drama you have learnt so much. We talk about these things all the time. In Drama, it’s a drama lesson, but it does help us formulate our ideas.

 

gallery visits, art work

The opportunities teachers have to take their students out of school to visit art galleries, museums, and theatres are growing smaller. There are many reasons for this, and in Year 11 (when students write GCSEs) and in Year 13 (when they are finishing their A-levels) such opportunities are even more limited. It is not that schools aren’t going out, it is just they are going out less, or only at certain times in the year.

At Upton Hall School near Liverpool, the art teachers have designed summer projects which require the girls to visit a gallery over the school holidays, take photographs, and begin making art pages to then connect with in the new term.

Mrs Pell, one of the art teachers explained the purpose of these projects:

It’s to start them off basically with their coursework and it is to make them take their own photographs to start working from. If we set that in September, we just wouldn’t have the time to do it so giving it to them over the summer, they always enjoy it because they have the time to make the pages and to think about their photographs and to go and visit the exhibition as well.

The students explained how this type of project made them go and see the artwork.

Like for example the one between Year 11 and 12, was we had to research Ella Kruglyanskaya. We had to go and look at all her work, take pictures, take notes. Then come back and do a page on her and a painting. It is useful to go and actually see the work. 

It was part of our summer project to go to some of the exhibitions, we looked around. So it was interesting to get a perspective.  

But the influence of exhibitions went further than simply a summer project. Mrs Pell explained:

The work that we start off with in September is always kind of influenced by a gallery visit. So Years 10, 11, 12 and 13 have all been to Tate Liverpool to see the Tracey Emin exhibition and they all had a theme of domestic environment. If there is anything really good going on we always encourage the girls to go to it and that might even change our schemes of work. Grayson Perry came to The Walker and we made Year 10 and 12 go and see that exhibition and from that we’ve come up with some really good pieces of work that we want them to do. Obviously we hadn’t planned that in September but once we saw that exhibition we kind of reacted to it and changed what we were doing.

The Grayson Perry exhibition had led to different projects completed by the Year 12s, including some beautiful pots that they were busy finishing when I visited.

Tell me about the pots? How did they come about? Where did the inspiration come from?

Grayson Perry. We got a homework to do Grayson Perry and then we suddenly got an idea, he does pots, why don’t we do pots and that is where it came from.

It just happens. Mrs Pell is very ‘oh I like that idea, let’s go with it’. She will research it and decide.

So we used inspiration from that and artist research. We did a dress project so we had to design a few dresses for him and then we’ve been doing pots alongside that as well.

We went on our own. They set us a project in school so we didn’t know about it and the school said that it was on.

Some students explained how the process of going to an exhibition and then creating art work developed:

Normally is what we do is we go to the exhibition, take photos. Do power drawings. Make a page and put our ideas down. Then we will go from there, construct things from what we’ve seen.

 And link it up to sketchbook work you’ve done before. Link it to colographic plates and the printing so it’s got a flow to it.

We started with a project, which was domestic environment. So everything linked back to that. All the Grayson Perry stuff we tried to link back to the domestic environment as well which was the first project we did.

Everything we do has a link to it.

And the teachers will go and make their own ones and then come back and say this has worked, this hasn’t worked, this is what we’re going to do.

It is trial and error.

By encouraging students to visit galleries, and basing their coursework on such gallery trips, the teachers were able to ensure students went out and saw artwork in real life, even if they did not have time, opportunity or resources to escort them there in person. It was an interesting example of how teachers are able to adapt their work in changing times.

art classrooms

Throughout the TALE project, I have been enthralled by art teachers’ classrooms. They are busy spaces, filled with pictures of student work, posters of art-related events and activities. There are piles of sketchbooks, jars with pencils, paintbrushes, sinks splattered with paint. There are large art books for students to reference. Often there is a kiln, sometimes a dark room too. There are trays for drying work on, or work is pegged up over the sink, like clothing on a washing line.

At Archbishop Tenison School in south London, Hannah King’s art class is similarly fascinating. The space is bright and airy. The art rooms are located right at the top of the school and so they make use of skylights, as well as a wall full of windows. The space is welcoming and busy, with posters on walls, a shelf full of reference books, and student artwork stacked deep against the walls.

The sense that the art spaces are somehow ‘different’ from the rest of the school though is not just something I have noticed. In my conversations with boys at ATS, they spoke of how being in the art space was different to being in other spaces in the school.

Is being in art similar or different to other lessons?

Completely different. Obviously the work is a lot different. But I think communication with the rest of my peers, it is also really nice to have because in this room it’s sort of like, I wouldn’t say family but it’s sort of that, the bond between all of us because we all have the same things we want to do. We all chose art for a reason. That just works perfectly in the workspace. Because of that bond that we have, I think that the space that we have is just… it’s just nice to be in the room with these people as well because they have the same interests as I do. It is friendly.

 You feel free because it’s just you sitting down, doing your work. No one is there to tell you what to do. It is just you, sitting there and expressing yourself, and sometimes we listen to music, which is helpful because you get new ideas.

The boys talked of how Hannah was different from other teachers too.

Miss is more free. She lets us do more creative stuff, like she lets us be in our zone. If you want to listen to music and get on and work, she’ll let us do that.

You have to be more creative. She lets you express yourself.

Moreover, approaches to work were different in art than they were in other lessons:

Art gives you a sense of freedom in this school. In our GCSE work in Year 11, we had 8 topics to choose from and I chose detail and with that you can just study three different artists and then create a final piece to do with your chosen theme and I think that is really good because the school doesn’t give us a fixed thing that we have to do. You can study different things, explore with arts, if it is sculpturing or if it is painting or if it is just tonal drawings. Ms King gives us the option to explore and try something new. You can mix two pieces of work together and it becomes your something good so I think it gives that sense of freedom so it also allows our creativity to just flow with the work.

The boys I spoke to at ATS put into words what I had only noticed – that being in an art classroom feels differently to other spaces at school. It was a space where they had freedom to express their ideas and thoughts, and spend time working creatively.

interpretation and creativity

During my visit to Ark St Albans Academy in Birmingham, I spoke to a number of student studying English Literature. English is sometimes a ‘hidden’ creative subject because of its status amongst the ‘core’ subjects at GCSE. People take English seriously, that is, it is viewed as more academic than creative. During my time traveling around the country visiting schools, I have found this attitude fascinating, because for me, English has always been fairly creative. It is about writing and reading, both creative pursuits in my book. At St Albans, I encountered a number of students who clearly felt the same way, and who felt that English was different to other more ‘academic’ subjects they were taking because it asked for interpretation and personal opinions.

It is a lot like a seminar style and I guess that allows it to be more laid back because with English, of course you have to learn things, but it is also your interpretation so it is nice to get everyone’s point of view.

It is a lot more independent. It is your interpretations. You have to work on them yourself to make your work look more outstanding.

I think, especially for people who like to be creative and independent, it is fun but you have to make sure you can justify it. 

It is very different to Maths in a sense because with Maths you have a right and wrong answer but in literature there is no right or wrong answer. It is interpretation and how you see things. So once you can justify that it is quite good.

[It is] something creative for me. Creativity is so important. The freedom… Especially in this world where they are so rigid and you have to be in a box, whether it is your gender, your race, your height, you have to be in a box. Creativity allows you to go above and beyond.

The students also spoke with affection for their English teachers, and told me how you can always tell when a teacher is passionate about their subject.

I think you can totally tell the different dynamics with teachers. One teacher is so enthusiastic. The energy! She is teaching English. She is just so enthusiastic and you can tell that she loves her subject. I think people who really enjoy their subject, you can feel it whereas I think with other subjects you have some enthusiasm but it is really set, so it is like you learn this, this, and this. I feel like because there is so much freedom in English, like with your interpretations, teachers can provide more of their own mind and it helps us be more creative with it as well.

The teachers there [in English] are so dedicated to helping us.

The 6thfrom students at St Albans explained how teacher-student relationships were one of the reasons they had chosen to stay on at the school.

That is one of the reasons why I chose to come here. We already know the teachers, they know how we operate.

They know your strengths and weaknesses. They brought you up through the academic years. They understand where your flaws are. They try and build you up with confidence, and remove those flaws and make you the best version of you as possible.

The English students at St Albans clearly appreciated the enthusiasm and dedication of their teachers, and the way this allowed them to work creatively, and express their own interpretations of different texts and ideas.

 

‘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.

 

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.