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.

cashing in the learning

My research visit to St Albans school in Highgate, Birmingham concluded with an observation of a poetry lesson.  A year nine class were undertaking a scaffolded approach to writing their critical responses to Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’. The aim of the lesson was to enable the students to transform their verbal responses to the poem into written sentences and then paragraphs working towards a full essay. Each element of the essay was carefully structured by Headteacher, Mark Gregory, to ensure the students were using appropriate language and specific vocabulary to articulate ideas clearly.

In order to enable the students to verbalise their responses, images of the students were projected which recalled to mind a lesson where they had created tableaux of key fragments of the poem. These images really helped the students embody the character of the ‘King of kings’ and therefore understand the themes of the poem. Indeed they seemed most engaged when trying to find ways to express the folly of vanity as depicted in one image of Ozymandias’ ‘sneer of cold command,’ represented by one of their peers. This technique of working in an ensemble format is one of the key approaches of the RSC. To collaborate with peers to embody a line of poetry or prose clearly creates a safe space for the discussion of meaning and animates the written word. The photos act as a reminder of this process and help the students sustain their engagement with the poem once they have moved on to written responses.

During the discussion of the movement of time as a theme and in the rhythm of the poem one student noticed with some excitement,

‘The last line is the slowest.’

 Mark Gregory built on this observation:

‘It’s beautiful what you said and that you noticed.’

They entered a dialogue about which word would be the best to express the idea and agree on ‘pace’. Mark added:

 ‘If you can close that out, that’s on the money. That will be amazing.’

Importantly then, the lesson draws on the RSC active approaches to challenging texts, but also makes careful links to the demands of GCSE English Literature, a course the students have commenced early, to ensure that the ideas they have developed become more concrete and controlled. It strikes me that there is a balance to be struck between guiding students to ‘cash in’ their learning, with enabling them to transfer their learning, independently, into achievement in their coursework and examinations. The use of photographs of the dramatic process and a rich dialogue with a teacher who challenges thinking throughout seem key to this process.