you can’t express a feeling in an equation

During my visit to Three Rivers Academy in Surrey, I had numerous conversations with students about the importance of arts in their lives. At the end of one interview with four Year 10s, they expressed an argument of why arts should be included in schools. I thought I would reproduce it here (with some editing) so that others could read what young people at Three Rivers think about the importance of access to arts education in school and what it means to them. This conversation came after we had been talking about their experiences of arts education in school, their plans for the future, and their own creative practices. I always ask if anyone has anything else they would like to add to our conversation, or if there is anything I’ve missed or they think is important that we should know about their own experiences. This is the conversation that then followed…

I’ve heard that they’re going to try and get rid of all the creative subjects for all the years to come, I heard in parliament. That is so sad!

What do you think about that?

Absolutely no way!

I think Art is really important. Arts is a way for a lot of people to express themselves.

It is a massive part of school and growing up.

And school in general is so stressful. Being able to have that one lesson that you can look forward to and you know it’s not going to be as stressful. And this is the one lesson I look forward to every week because I know it’s not going to majorly stress me out.

It’s a nice subject and if we get rid of it, how are kids going to be able to express themselves? It’s going to become a rare thing. So many people are not going to find what they want to do in school. Everyone will just be doing straight writing on paper like 24/7. It just makes everything a lot more boring.

Where are you going to get architects and stuff from? It’s literally such a big part of everyday life and I think no one realises. It’d be stupid getting rid of it!

Also if you get rid of art it can affect anyone majorly because if you work or go to school, every lesson is always writing and it’s not easy in a way. Everything is so hard and it can stress you out and affect you so badly. Being able to have art or photography or textiles where it’s different, it can change a lot of things.

It is something you can enjoy. A lot of the other subjects are really hard to enjoy getting into but art is so nice to enjoy, you can work hard and get proper into it. It’s so good.

You can experiment as well. You can’t exactly experiment in literature can you?

This is the subject I put most of my time and effort into because it’s the one that I really enjoy. It’s the subject I want to spend all of my time on.

Having a good teacher, not being pressured, makes you want to do well. When I’m so pressured it makes me not want to do it.

I sit there and am like ‘no I’m not doing this’.

I don’t want to do it. But when I’m relaxed and I know that I can take my time with it, it makes me want to do it and want to do well. So being able to have that is better for you.

It feels like you’re worth it as well.

More funding should go towards the creative subjects!

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

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.

painting clay, having fun

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

At Grey Coat Hospital in London, the Art department has found an innovative way to offer more skills development for their Year 12 students, by running an informal after-school Art Club.

On Monday afternoons, once school is finished at 3.30pm, the Year 12 art students congregate in the bright upstairs art room. The room has a wall of windows looking out over the city, and as dusk fell outside one November Monday, Phillipa Prince, the Head of Art, demonstrated painting clay while still wet.

This method uses decorative slip to paint colour onto clay that has been rolled out flat, not yet formed, and not yet fired. Phillipa showed the group how you can add texture to the clay using a variety of ordinary household materials (bubble wrap, feathers, woven bamboo, engraved with pencil). The slip can be painted onto the clay, or painted first onto newspaper and then pressed onto the clay, or painted in sections. The possibilities are endless, really. Once a pattern or series of designs and colours have been added to the clay, it can be shaped into a form (a small vase perhaps), or left flat like a tile, to dry. Phillipa explained that this technique allows layers to be built up over time. Once the shapes have been fired in the kiln (something the group will be doing in the next few weeks), glazes can be added too. The results are complex, interesting forms that could be used as potential presents or gifts.

After the demonstration, the students were able to experiment with their own designs. Each had a flat piece of clay to which they could add colour or texture. Everyone worked happily, discussing their designs as they went along, asking Phillipa for advice or thoughts. Towards the end of the session, shapes began to form out of the flat clay as the students manipulated vases, jars, and spirals.

After the session I spoke with Clare Burnett, the other Art teacher who helps run the Art Club, about the purpose of such sessions. She explained:

“What we realised is that they [the students] do a lot of personal investigations in GCSE but the danger of doing project after project is that they go straight into more investigation just relying on what they’ve learnt before and they don’t actually expand their repertoire. Pottery after school has been really fun– it’s nice for them to have a bit of relaxation, allows them to expand their sculpture skills and we’ve got the kiln”.

The Year 12 students I spoke to explained what they felt the purpose of the class was:

Right now we’re doing pottery. We just learn basic skills. The first skill we learnt was making normal thumb pots. Then learning how to use the wheel. Yesterday we learnt how to use slip and how you can paint onto clay when it is dried or when it is wet. It is just adding to your book of skills that you can use in Year 13.

It is good that we are building up skill sets.

They are helpful because I have never done any of the things that they have. It is exposing me to different things apart from what I know.

Art Club is therefore a way to both introduce students to techniques they may not have encountered before, and to let the students develop their interests in multiple art forms. The session I witnessed was relaxed and fun, the students free to experiment, make mistakes, and develop ideas. Even though the club is extra-curricular, it clearly has an important place in the wider goals of the art department.

using artworks in drama

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to West Derby School in Liverpool.

As most readers of this blog will have gathered by now, I spend most of my time visiting the different schools that are involved in this project. Generally, I know what to expect from my visit. If the school has a partnership with the RSC, I spend my time with either Drama or English departments (and sometimes both). If the school has a partnership with the Tate, I am in an Art department, talking to students doing Fine Art, Photography, Textiles and the like. But one school in this project has broken this mould. At West Derby School in Liverpool, the partnership is with the Tate but the partnership is held by the Drama teacher, Kate Forrest. As I discovered when I visited, this means that Kate uses exhibitions at the Tate as stimuli for Drama projects and performances.

During my visit I had the opportunity to talk to two Year 13 Drama students who had visited the Tate Liverpool to see Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) when it was on display. The students then used this artwork as a stimulus for a play that they wrote and then performed. Their play dealt with sexual abuse.

They explained how the artwork was about more than just a messy bed, and how this had helped them develop their play.

See, Tracey Emin’s bed in the Tate, when you come in and look at the bed, people go ‘oh that’s just a messed up bed. I could do that on a Monday morning’. But when you look at it and what is around the bed, and what it symbolises, knowing her backstory, you realise that all of her life has unfolded in that art piece. She had a picture of her ex who she was completely in love with who left her, cigarettes, alcohol bottles and a bed just torn to pieces. That, in a way, shows her mental state, and we wanted to adhere to that and show the mental state of our characters. Hopefully that will connect to whomever we perform to.

Most people look at the art in a literal sense and say this art is just a bed. It is less about the bed itself and more about the person behind.

The students then explained how this artwork created a stimulus for them to leap from, to engage in difficult and complex ideas, and how it inspired their work on mental health and the links to sexual abuse.

I think the bed as an actual stimulus was what really pushed it for me because recognising that the bed wasn’t just a bed, it was the actual mental state so connecting that up to making a play about your mental state was really interesting for me. I could create bonds between our own production and the bed. When we first wanted to do it, we thought it would be more interesting if we included the bed – at least in the background. We had a bed onstage, messed up maybe so giving that sense of bad mental state. I’m not sure if you’ve read this but they say your mental state can be represented by your bedroom and the state it is in. It reflects what you feel inside which is really interesting. So we wanted to get that across but at the same time we didn’t want to confuse the audience so by the end of it we decided not to [include the bed]. We worried they’d be focused too much on the bed rather than the actual acting that was happening on stage. So we went for a minimalistic vibe rather than focusing on props, lighting, shadow, we wanted to focus on the actors. The only prop we used was a block to emphasise character stance.

I asked the students what the value to them was of being able to visit the Tate and use an artwork as a stimulus for a piece.

It helps build on your own ideas. We’re told in the media about these kinds of people, about mental health, and to just get down on the ground and see someone’s own mental health displayed really helps build upon what you want to do, how you want to present it.

WDtheatre

One of the students highlighted how Drama, through working with complex issues that form part of our world, can change your world view.

Most things when you come to Drama are confidence, you boost your confidence. But in fact, when doing this, it not only boosts your confidence on stage but going into the big world, meeting other people, you have got that confidence for it. When we were performing and exploring into it [the play], you realise the society that we live in and the society that the news feeds, that the government says it is, it is not. It is completely different to how it is. It changes your views on the world. You realise eventually who to go with, stay away from, what type of person they’ve built you into society and that is what Drama is pretty good for. 

The opportunity for these Drama students to visit Tate Liverpool, and use one of the artworks for an in-depth exploration of complicated mental states influenced their work. It was an interesting reminder that art can be used in different ways, with many subjects.

 

 

learning through trying again, and again…and again.

Last November, I visited Barcelona. During my visit I went to the Picasso Museum. One of the paintings I saw was Picasso’s Las Meninas. The painting itself was fascinating, intriguing, based on Velasquez’s work of the same title. But it was the way the painting was displayed that interested me most. In the rooms surrounding the main work, studies and sketches of Picasso’s work towards the final piece were displayed. It was evidence of the process of making an art piece, but I felt it was also evidence of experimentation, trying things out, looking at what worked, what did not, and trying again until the artist had achieved what he was after. I was reminded of this process of art making, the trying and failing and trying again, that is so necessary in making, during my visit to Childwall Sports and Science Academy in Liverpool.

As Becky Parry wrote about her own research visit here, the murals and art displayed all around the school is incredibly inspiring and impressive. There is a riot of colour, murals connected to subject themes, and student work on a variety of topics. The students I spoke with identified these public displays of art as proof that their school values the arts. It also meant that their own, older works were on display for other people to see, something they were not necessarily that comfortable with. The students explained that they didn’t necessarily enjoy seeing their work up (although it did make them proud), because they were now doing better work; work that they could see showed their progress as artists. They were therefore inadvertently able to see progress clearly because their older work is on display.

Students were also aware that the process of making progress in art allowed them to experience failure in a way that was not necessarily negative (or not necessarily failure) and contrasted strongly with other subjects where there is often a ‘right’ way of doing things.

In a conversation I had with Year 12s, the students explained:

 “It teaches you not to be afraid to fail. You have to fail to get better.”

“They [the teachers] encourage it. They want to see you do something wrong than you always get it right and never improve.”

I thought these ideas summarized what is so great about art in school, and is what we often forget when we look at art in a gallery. I found myself thinking about my conversation with the Year 12s at Childwall while I wandered through the Roy Lichtenstein rooms currently open at Tate Liverpool. Art teaches students that it is okay to fail, to not get things totally correct the first time, and to have the courage to start again. Later, when I looked properly at the flyer I had picked up from the Tate I laughed. The flyer is designed as a comic and on the front sat a frustrated Lichtenstein with the caption, “It’s not good. I need some inspiration.” This, I felt, was the crux of my discussion with the Year 12s at Childwall: art requires frustration and perceived failure on the part of the artist in order to improve, to achieve the vision that they have. Even great artists try multiple things, creating studies in different colours or techniques, before they create their final piece (the one we inevitably see in the gallery). Art teaches you that this process is okay.

Surely we should be encouraging more people to take arts subjects rather than less, so that we mould resilient young people, comfortable with failure, ready to navigate our complex world? This was certainly the approach I saw at Childwall. It is something to aspire to, I think.

approaches to teaching art

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

During my time on this project I have witnessed many different approaches to the teaching of art to young people. At Richard Cloudesley School in Islington, I was impressed by the various ways art teacher Lucy Pook has adapted her teaching in order to allow her students to experience art, and make art. Richard Cloudesley is a school for young people with physical disabilities and additional sensory needs. Many are only partially verbal, others use sign language and there are clever communication books students can use to explain their needs and wants to teachers, staff, and carers.

While I was at Richard Cloudesley, I got to experience just how this communication works during an art class. The class was focusing on the work of Robert Rauschenberg, and had already begun creating multi-media art works. That day the class was going to create clay figurines and then make tyre tracks to add to these particular works, in the style of Rauschenberg’s Monogram 1988-56. Lucy Pook, the school art teacher, put up a photograph of Rauschenberg’s work on the projector. She explained to the class that the idea is to get “lots and lots of layers” on the work.

After identifying their work, students and staff all gathered around the two tables in the centre of the room and Lucy provided each student with a piece of clay. Each student was tasked with choosing an animal to make from the clay. There was music playing and there were adults (teaching assistants and carers) helping and working with all the children. The atmosphere was relaxed and everyone talked easily. I worked with one student who uses a ‘pod book’ to communicate. These books are made up of rows and columns related to various themes, and each block contains a particular picture or word. You read down the column and then along the row, giving the student time to respond and say what they are thinking or want. The girl I worked with eventually told me she wanted to make a parrot, as these are her favourite. (One of the other teaching assistants warned me that sometimes she just likes to go through the book, saying no to everything, as a form of entertainment). Some of the children simply held the clay while the teachers created the creatures they’d chosen, while others shaped the clay into animal shapes, and some students got to poke eyes and other details into the clay. Everyone was involved to some degree, depending on their fine motor skills. Eventually there was a whole troop of clay figurines left to dry on the windowsill.

During my time at Richard Cloudesley, I spoke to Lucy about this collaboration-as-art I had participated in. She explained that she thinks it is important but that:

“I’m also aware that I don’t want to take the projects away from them and it is a constant challenge. Even after three years if you are working with a student who takes a long time to respond you have to rein yourself in and not do too much for them. I’m not sure how successful we are at that but we are supporting each other’s projects. My favourite bit of those projects is including the students from the other school because the work that we’ve done with them has been for big events and I think, with our students, and especially doing kinesthetic stuff where you are all moving around together, they get very enthusiastic about it”.

Lucy was clearly aware of the need for patience as part of the collaborative work the students and staff did. There was also a need for flexibility, which is how Lucy approached her planning.

“Whatever I plan to do I leave it so open so that I can see how they are responding and I’ve just realised that that is the only way that you can do it really. So within a lesson structure we have a window of time when everyone is supported and I will try and do most of the activities then. I’ve been teaching literacy a lot but I’ve also wanted to look at design and performance art and the process of performance. I’ve been trying to create projects because our groups are so mixed and we have profound and multiple learning difficulties in with some quite able students. So it is quite disparate and I try to create something that everyone can access on some level and then we’ll see what happens. I leave things to chance to some extent and that is often where the nicer things happen actually”.

Art lessons at Richard Cloudesley were therefore approached in a particular way, clearly focused on student need and interest. Lucy is able to adapt her programme of learning to meet student requirements.

 

understanding theatre as collaboration

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her visit to The Bridge School in London.

When I visited The Bridge School (a special school for children with severe, profound and complex learning difficulties), I had an unexpected opportunity to accompany the 6th form to the theatre. On the day that I visited, they had been invited to attend a matinee performance of Ghost at the Lilian Baylis Studio. The production was put on in collaboration with people from the Daylight Daycentre and the Samuel Rhodes School – these were performers with various disabilities, acting on stage with others.

The performance was wonderful to watch. There were fantastic costumes. People came on holding colourful lights that then designated the space they danced in. The scene where Sam, the main male character, is shot and dying in the hospital (and realises he has become a ghost), was made much lighter by a fabulous dance routine of surgeons and nurses in scrubs. There was a live band on stage, who sometimes helped fill the silence if someone was late on or forgot their lines briefly.

During the performance I noticed the audience’s reactions to the different scenes, and different actors. Some of the performers were old students from The Bridge, and the young people I was with recognised them – telling me excitingly that so-and-so was on stage. They especially seemed to enjoy the music – clapping and singing along at various points. This theatre trip formed part of the students’ Arts Award activities.

The following week I returned to The Bridge to complete my 2-day visit. I spoke to Steven Mills, the music and drama facilitator, about the importance of such theatre experiences for their students, and the purpose of completing a qualification like Arts Award.

I think what is really nice about the Arts Award is that they get something at the end of it and it is something outside of the school and it is country wide so they are getting the same award as every other student who achieves it in the country. I think that is really good.

As part of the Arts Award, the students were interviewed about their trip to the theatre. They came up with the questions as a group and then individually answered them, giving their honest opinions about the experience. One of the girls summed it up perfectly when she commented: “the show was good because it was about life”.

Arts Award forms part of a much wider approach to a creative curriculum that teachers at The Bridge follow. I spoke to Ryan McClelland, the art teacher, who explained:

[We follow a] more creative curriculum which meets the very diverse needs of our kids. So it is very student led and we do have accreditation but it isn’t as stringent as GCSE or A Level and we decided to go with the Arts Award from the Arts Council because it is a little bit more flexible and interesting. […] We are finding a lot more sensory needs coming in [to school] and I suppose my practice, as an art teacher, has evolved to meet those needs. Over the last few years I’ve dispensed with the idea of an autonomous art work and I’ve been encouraging much more group work because I think that can encourage relationship building and it shifts the emphasis onto the staff as well and I expect the staff to treat the work as their work as well and whether that is supporting a child to make the work or them modelling something. I also think that the way the world is going I think this cult of the individual is going to be superseded and there will be much more of an emphasis on group work. Especially for kids with SEN because they are always going to need some sort of support in their lives and so we need to equip them with the skills to be flexible and to work with different people. We try to promote that through art, music and drama because they are the subjects that they access best.

The theatre production illustrated how this collaborative and group art might work between people of differing abilities. It gave the young people a chance to see similar people to themselves performing on a stage, and also provided me with the perfect opportunity to understand how Ryan’s ideas of collaborative and group work might work in practice.