understanding relationships through movement

This post is written by Lexi Earl.

During my visit to St Mary’s College in Hull, I had the opportunity to observe a Year 13 Performing Arts class. This group of Year 13s are studying BTec Performing Arts and their course is made up of drama, dance and singing classes. Many want to go on to pursue careers in the performing arts, including doing musical theater. In this particular class, the teacher was using movement to help students understand The Crucible, the new text they were studying.

The class begins with a warm-up, “to get rid of the giggles”, and then the students watch a video of a group of people moving without ever breaking contact. In the video, people come in and out of the sequence but always take hold of someone’s hand before joining. The transitions are really smooth. It looks like a dance. The actors are always in contact as they move. There are hugs, forehead touches, holding each other in a head lock. When the video finished, the teacher asks the students to guess the types of relationships that might have been in the scene. “We learnt a lot by looking at contact. Lots of elements can come from movement or choreography,” the teacher explains when they are finished discussing the various relationships they saw.

 

The class then divided into groups and started to come up with their own sequences. The only instruction the teacher gave is that the contact should be between friends or family – so closer contact than greeting a stranger say – and that each person in the group should be involved in two movements.

In one group, two girls start with a hug and then others come and transition the hug into a different form. Now there is a new hug formed. There is a building of sequences. “At the moment, this doesn’t have a story, it is just movements, choreography,” the teacher tells them. The students move around in their groups, creating transitions from one pose to another. The teacher watches and gives advice, suggests things – Are you going to… Just watch that… Maybe you could… Then she tells them to think about transitioning out as well as into the pose. What happens when you leave? The students do the sequences multiple times until they are fluid, including their entrances and exits.

“We have to bring this back and think about how we can use this in The Crucible”, the teacher prompts. She explains that one of the play’s main themes is power and manipulation. In this time period, women were subordinate to men. ‘Goody’ meant good wife. Abigail is unmarried but had an affair with a married man. She wants the students to assign a character to each person but to do this randomly. “Don’t change the choreography”, she instructs. She explains to the students that embraces can change depending on strength and posture. The characters they need to assign are: Abigail, Proctor, Elizabeth, Mary W, Parris/Danforth. “Embraces might become something else”, the teacher advises. The groups reconvene and choose characters. They now practice the transitions and movements as their characters. The teacher talks to them as they move through the transitions, asking about how their characters now affect these movements.

“How does Elizabeth feel about Parris?” the teacher asks one group. “Be a bit more on-looking so we get a sense of who you are observing and why,” she tells another. “Don’t be frightened to push these characters a bit more, slow things down”, the teacher advises the class.

After they have had an opportunity to rehearse in their new characters, we watch the two groups in turn. The teacher asks them to go through the sequence twice. Afterwards, the students guess who was which character. “How did you decide?” the teacher asks. “Facial expressions”, “movements”, “who took control at the end”, the students answer. “You did a forceful embrace and it was really quick. He was impartial. It was like you needed support,” one student observes.

The teacher explained to me that the purpose of this class was to allow students to understand complex relationships and the complexity of the play, without being overwhelmed by the text. It was very interesting to see how the movements morphed to reflect different relationships, even though they had been randomly designed in the beginning. With each performance it was easy to spot characters through their movements or facial expressions. The lesson made me think about how we use such knowledge in real life, reading people – their expressions, their movements, their body language – in order to understand them. Drama is a way to learn this knowledge.

 

working with difficult ideas

This post was written by Pat Thomson on her visit to Thomas Tallis school in Greenwich.

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student-made image

Studying photography is not just about learning how to make images. It is also learning how the photograph itself can be understood.

On a recent visit to Thomas Tallis, I saw a visiting artist working with a Year 10 class. The artist was Dafna Talmor and her practice involves the manipulation of images to produce non-naturalistic landscapes. Her workshop ran for a whole morning, and the students were to learn a new process –  cutting, marking and re-assembling “analogue” slides to make a collaged image.

Jon, the teacher, began the workshop by revisiting a threshold concept for photography – photographs are abstractions, shaped by technology. This was, he noted, as he started a short discussion, a difficult idea.

The guided conversation covered key points:

  • the photograph is not a mirror on the world. It is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world;
  • the photograph is framed, usually by a rectangle. This is not how we see the world;
  • the photograph flattens and rescales what we see;
  • the camera sees with one eye (the lens);
  • the photographer alters the image through their artistic decisions;
  • what the photographer can do is shaped by the technology they are using.

Students were encouraged to bring these understandings to Dafna’s work; this is more obviously what might be understood as abstract.

Dafna explained that she thought about the photograph as an object that worked with loaded histories of image-making. She was working with images of landscape, but she could not avoid the ways in which landscape had been photographed in the past and was still photographed in the present. She told the students that she wanted to question the ways in which landscape images were often seen as ‘real’. She hoped to make visible some landscape features that photographs often left hidden, as well as making clear the ways in which the photographer’s decisions and actions generally remained out of a viewer’s sight.

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Dafna’s artist talk

The students were not only challenged by these ideas, but invited to play with them themselves. For a good part of the morning they experimented with second-hand slides that Jon had bought on ebay. They were surprised at what happened when their tiny slide was projected – colour was changed, composition of formal elements become more apparent.

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playing and experimenting

The workshop was an experience not just of learning technique, but also putting a difficult idea, a threshold concept about abstractions and technological manipulations, into practice.

 

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language and literacy in the art room

People often think about art subjects as purely ‘doing stuff’ with paint, pencils and maybe the odd camera. However, there’s a lot of literacy practice which is specific to the art room.

When I visited the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, art room literacies were clearly in evidence. I saw :

(1)   Reading. Students are routinely expected to research artists and their work. This requires them to find a range of sources, including artist biographies and commentaries. These sources are on line as well as in books and magazines. At RGS, students regularly integrated reading into their project work.

(2)   Learning a vocabulary. Like all disciplines, the visual arts use specific terms for particular concepts. The lexicon ranges from descriptions of formal elements to ways of critiquing arts practice and cataloguing artists’ work.  Teachers at RGS taught and regularly used arts terminology with students.

(3)   Talking. Students have regular conversations with their teacher and with each other, Talking helps students to develop the idea they are working on. At RGS they present their work to their class. They might also offer a ‘crit’ of work from one of their peers.  While art classrooms are often quiet places, they are also equally often where lively engaged discussion takes place.

(4)   Listening. Talking also means listening. When students are discussing their work or the work of others, they need to listen carefully to the very many ideas and resources that are offered.

(5)   Writing. Visual art students keep track of what they notice and read and talk about, just like professional artists. They record how they develop an idea, test out approaches, find a line of investigation and produce a work, or series of works. At RGS, all students keep visual diaries from Year 7 onwards. They can record whatever they want in their visual diaries. I was told by many students that they carry their diaries everywhere with them. The students also produce formal documentation related to projects they are working on. Their formal documentation may include on-line as well as analog materials. The writing in the formal documentation always incorporates their reading and thinking/reflecting, expressed in the appropriate art vocabulary. 

 In art classrooms, many of these visual art literacy practices are interrelated and brought together.

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At RGS I saw many students who had their visual diaries open at a jotting about an idea – and who, at the same time, were researching on their laptops, taking a screen shot on their phone and had their documentation standing by so they could see where they were up to. They were also ready to discuss their current state of decision-making with their teacher.

It is this combination  that makes the language and literacy practices of the art room unique.

Post written by Pat Thomson

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when numbers turn into meaning…

This post is written by Dr Corinna Geppert.

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As somebody who is involved into “number crunching”, doing statistics, I often wonder: What story will these numbers tell me? What sort of patterns, correlations or differences between groups of people will emerge? And then I start, do the first steps of analysis and realize that there are really exciting results.

I am delighted that the WAVE 1 survey report is now launched. It includes data on over 2300 students in TALE schools all over the country and it is meant to give a first overview on the survey findings, without too much interpretation at this stage.

Some of the highlights are:

  1. Encouragement from school and family has an important impact on students’ engagement in the arts.
  2. Students draw a clear distinction between the arts and other academic subjects. They report that their academic workload often prevents them from becoming more deeply involved in the arts.
  3. Many students report that the arts promote well-being by helping them to express themselves and alleviate stress.
  4. The majority of students surveyed regularly participate in film and music activities.
  5. About a quarter of the surveyed students report that they are planning to study an arts subject in the future, but only a fifth are considering an arts-related career.
  6. Arts activities are important for students with a physical disability – many were active participants in the arts, felt supported, would like to do more and were planning to participate in the arts in the future.

These findings are encouraging because they show that the arts have a meaning to students, but that they sometimes need support to get engaged.

To support these findings and to put them on stable grounds, we collected more data from schools in autumn 2017. I’m looking forward to analysing the data and see how robust our findings are. A report including the WAVE 1 and WAVE 2 findings will be available in summer 2018 and will show us once again that numbers can turn into meaning.

 

Download the Wave 1 Survey report here.

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rehearsal room practice

performing-artsSt Mary’s College in Hull has an impressive proscenium theatre and an ambitious programme of productions. Director of Performance, Neil Wood, has worked in musical theatre professionally and he draws on this background in his approach to teaching:

I always say to my students right at the beginning that when they walk through the doors of my classroom they are walking into a rehearsal studio and they are very much young actors. We will be creating theatre together and I expect them to be evaluative actors who can look back and also comment on other peoples work in a supportive environment. So I very much treat the classroom as a studio space.

The productions are led by students often as part of their courses, supported by staff, but with considerable responsibility for all the different aspects of production. In one term there might be a musical production, a play, a dance performance and a talent show alongside the school’s existing commitment to a programme of work as an RSC Associate School and in partnership with Hull Truck Theatre. Senior management support the work fully and see it as integral to the ethos of the school:

I think it sits very comfortably with our spiritual ethos because spirituality isnt something that is only linked with religion. It is about the discovery of self. I am always struck by the self-esteem that goes with acting and performing. I sometimes think I see therapy in art and design and, in acting. I see therapy in the escape of taking on a role and the ability to be someone else and to explore their nature. The curriculum should provide as many kinds of opportunities for that kind of spiritual experience and that kind of self-discovery.

Deputy Head, Damian Walmsley

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The TALE research team are currently analysing the data we have collected from the first year of visits and it’s very interesting to see what the students themselves say about what they learn when they take part in professional productions. The focus group of twenty four students we interviewed suggested they developed a wide range of skills:

  1. Communication
  2. Independence
  3. Active engagement
  4. Responsibility
  5. Confidence
  6. Self-reliance
  7. Dealing with pressure.
  8. Courage
  9. Creativity
  10. Dedication
  11. Interpretation
  12. Social skills
  13. Thinking on your feet
  14. Portraying the right image
  15. Self-expression
  16. Being proud of who you are
  17. Trial and error
  18. Persistence
  19. Being able to give and take constructive criticism
  20. Determination

img_3970Students often talk about pushing themselves to perform and the way this their increases confidence and as these year 10 students suggests, it is not always easy:

Some people used to run off if they were asked to go on stage whereas now, they might not love doing it, but they will volunteer.

In drama, even if you don’t feel confident, you get up on that stage and forget about everything and express yourself.

As the students go on to suggest:

You can’t take anything back when you are doing this kind of thing [live performance].

So much of what they do involves taking risks, but they have a clear sense of the value this has to their own development:

In drama you learn to exploit yourself and embody your ideas. You perform in real life.

I asked Neil how the RSC Associate School programme fitted with his approach to teaching:

I’ve always had this view of my classroom being a rehearsal space but to go along and work with a worldwide leading company and find that is what they were trying to do too…they were trying to bring Shakespeare into the classroom as a rehearsal room practice. And with the very first CPD we did that unlocked Shakespeare for me and I suddenly had these ways of unlocking texts.

Clearly this student, who said he previously did not like Shakespeare, has also found new ways to think about the plays:

I loved reading it. He has so many different ways like there’s a battle and they’ll be a comedy section in it. That’s why I love it because I want to think about why he did that.

Despite the challenges schools currently face in relation to the government position on arts education, the leadership team at St Mary’s are confident that they know what will best support the learning and success of their students:

2017 is a huge opportunity for us in terms of the cultural agenda and I hope that we take it to heart as a school and I really hope the city does as well.

Deputy Head, Damian Walmsley

We look forward to catching up with staff and students at St Mary’s and to hearing more about their experiences of being part of the UK City of Culture later in the year.

 

mistakes are often the basis of creativity

Esther Tyler-Ward, from Digitech school in Bristol, is a teacher of art and photography who is participating in the Tale research project. Here she shares her reflections about her engagement with the Tate’s Common Projects project:

community-session

Tate’s Common Projects 2015/16 was a year long project that brought together artists, educators and curators to explore art education. At our initial meeting a group of teachers, including myself, shared how we saw ourselves as artists as well as educators, through visual snapshots of our practise as artist-teachers. This immediately set the tone for the professional development I was hoping to achieve through participation.

This wasn’t a course to help get the grades now that photography grade boundaries are extraordinarily high, or how to support low ability boys with poor behaviour in the classroom; this was bigger, (and dare I say, more exciting) than that: an open-ended conversation about how and why art education is important and how and why we teach and engage with it.  

The sessions were organised by Sarah Jarvis and Anna-Marie Gray from the Tate. I met up with other art teachers at Tate Modern or Tate Britain alternately, where Sarah and Anna-Marie facilitated workshops in response to the key question, ‘What could happen if for one year the classroom, gallery and studio talked to each other?’

The focus soon became how we see art as empowering and also the importance of play to help develop confidence and creativity. However, seeing art in this way and teaching in this way can often be two separate entities!

We responded to our initial thoughts and discussions by creating a mess, I mean playing!  Scissors, glue, paper, string and a pair of nude coloured tights worked to create a long line of playful experimentation growing out from our key words. Straight away the theme of ‘play’ struck a guilty chord. I worked my last GCSE group so hard last year in order to hit exceedingly high target grades, that I felt the fun, (the play) had been wrung out.  Also, the  ‘expert teaching matrix’ delivered at my last school inset had no area for ‘play’. And this is why the course was liberating – discussing art education outside of the boundaries of UK art curriculum and assessment criteria meant I was able to approach teaching art from a new set of creative parameters, (or possibly no parameters!)

Other inspiring sessions included:

One of the most memorable sessions I attended on the course involved working with the artist Judith Brocklehurst, who facilitated the creation of our own after-hours mini cinema in the Tate Modern. Working in teams with basic materials, we designed a structure in response to the artworks in our room. The whole process was recorded and then projected onto our cinema structure at the end of the session. Team-work, recording, experimenting, responding to other contexts – this hit so many of the assessment criteria required for GCSE or A-level. But would I dare attempt this at school for fear of the whole thing falling into chaos? In our short-for-time curriculum there is no room for error…and yet mistakes are often the basis of creativity.

On reflection, one specific idea that I have subsequently introduced to my students is ‘failure sketchbooks’. These are little folded mini accordion sketchbooks of one length of paper. Students work in these alongside their main coursework in order to try out ideas, complete experimental homework, or just doodle without the pressure of constantly creating successful, beautiful coursework, where all work clearly links together and is in context, ready for assessment. This encourages students to play, create, keep and collate their experiments, and is a physical reminder that failure is just one step towards success.

The Tate Common Projects course has reminded me of my younger, enthusiastic NQT aspirations of creating an art studio, (rather than classroom) where all students can access opportunities to create their own ideas at their own pace. Such ambitions have been gradually eroded during my decade working in schools due to the increasingly hard system-flogging towards target grades. However, I am now inspired to reconsider the bigger picture of art education and literally play around with my schemes of work for next year at Digitech school!

Tate’s Common Projects’ thoughts and experiences are loosely collated at https://tatecommonprojects.wordpress.com.

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