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

seeing and assembling

During my second research visit to Thomas Tallis school I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to observe an artist, Dafna Talmor working with year eleven and thirteen photography students. Dafna’s recent work entitled, Constructed Landscapes is described as consisting of:

staged landscapes made of collaged and montaged colour negatives shot across different locations that include Israel, Venezuela, the UK and USA. Initially taken as mere keepsakes, landscapes are merged and transformed through the act of slicing and splicing.  The resulting photographs are a conflation, ‘real’ yet virtual and imaginary. 

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 Dafna Talmor: Constructed Landscapes

Dafna explained her current practice to both groups, adapting what she foregrounded skilfully. Big questions arose about the value of the art and whether it was original or authentic. Challenging the students to question what is meant by these terms, Dafna suggested that in her work she explores the idea that ‘a photograph is supposed to represent something truthful.’

I observed Jon and Dafna working together to move the year eleven students quickly into trying out the splicing and slicing techniques. Armed with scalpels, found slides of holidaymakers and landscapes and light boxes the students embarked on a process of assembling which was clearly captivating. Resources such as pens, paint, nail-varnish remover, tape and typex were also used to make marks and add colour and texture. What I found especially fascinating was the way in which the affordances of the process pushed the students to continue to think about these questions, by challenging their creative routines. The use of found images in slide form shaped what they were able to do in very productive ways.

I watched as one student spent the entire three-hour session, creating her composite slides without ever seeing what they looked like in the slide projector.

I watched other students make tiny adaptations and then view their images before developing and refining them further. The projectors became a site of dialogue where teacher, researcher, artist and student shared responses to each image, images that could only be seen once projected on the back wall of the classroom. It was impossible not to get drawn in to responding to the students’ work as it surprised both them and us. They grew bolder in their choices and took more risks creating images that were dark, surreal, eerie and irreverent.

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One student, who was previously preoccupied with the monetary value of Dafna’s work, became adept at meshing bold colours in geometric designs with the ghostly figures of holiday makers hovering in the background.

Jon reflects on Dafna’s visit as part of a thought-provoking wider programme, including his response to the Tate summer school here.

My field notes were fast and furiously written as I observed this rich, dynamic process. As Pat has reflected in a previous post, I wanted to get ethnographic and join in more! Yet, watching the students looking, seeing and assembling in an intuitive way, creating images over which they had to relinquish some element of control, was compelling. The work was underpinned by the Threshold Concepts Jon and a colleague have developed for Photopedagogy which emphasise ideas in photography such as chance, context, abstraction, technology and time.

Interestingly, although the students had experimented in their assembling they ‘just knew’ when they had an image they liked. This led to powerful discussions – ‘Why? ‘What worked?’ ‘What didn’t?’ Jon had to push the students hard to move beyond ‘it just does’ and in doing so we could see tangible developments in their ability to make critical observations of the form and content of their own work.

the play is not always the thing

 

launceston-college-inset-at-hfc_2015_steve-tasnner_159316In September 2016, over 30 lead teachers from the RSC Lead Associate Schools and theatre practitioners from Regional Theatre Partners came to Stratford-upon-Avon for the first national CPDL event of our new Associate Schools programme.

The three days were designed to:

  • Build capacity among teachers and theatre practitioners to lead the programme in their area
  • Develop participants’ understanding and teaching practice through immersion in the artistic practice of the RSC
  • Strengthen connections with other members of the Associate School community

Opportunities included: working with RSC directors, actors and musicians; seeing two productions (Cymbeline and King Lear) in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; and working with members of the education department to share their vision and plans for the long and medium term.

I joined in as a researcher from the TALE project and, as someone whose role is predominantly to enable others to share their experiences, taking part took me outside my daily comfort zone. However, it was an immensely rich experience which helped me think afresh about the data we have been collecting from young people in each of the TALE schools.

Despite my ‘newbie’ status my peers welcomed me and inducted me into the group, showing me what to do, laughing and occasionally explaining the rules explicitly. I understood anew what the students I have been interviewing have been telling me, about being able to be brave in ways that enabled them to have confidence in their own ideas. For many of them the move from quiet and shy to having the confidence to express ideas verbally, bodily and in public is recent and fresh. As educators it was useful to remind ourselves of these feelings and reaffirm that we too have a right to speak and act with confidence and be heard.

Students from the RSC schools have made it clear that they value greatly the opportunity to develop and share their own interpretations. We know young people respond positively to intellectual challenge and they clearly don’t want to be told all the answers. It was fascinating therefore to hear at first hand how the RSC activities were introduced by Head of Professional Development, Miles Tandy. It is so much a part of the culture of education for pedagogic strategies to be shared in a recipe book, magic-bullet style. Here Miles shared his thinking about helping students grasp the main elements of the plot. He shared his doubts about the Whoosh, a tried and tested RSC technique, explaining that sometimes this can overly shape the students’ interpretation of the plays. In this simple act, Miles removed any sense of a hierarchical, prescriptive approach and the learning space became exploratory and collaborative.

LPN PG Cert Event_2012_Rob Freeman_22086.jpgMiles got us to try a different approach, to use Shakespeare’s words – ‘a dumb show’, which enabled physical and bodily representation of key actions but avoided interpretation, expressed in language, which might close down the meaning of the play for the students. The group of teachers and theatre partners jointly devised and performed the whole of King Lear without words, in mime to music. It was an enchanting experience and, as someone not that familiar with the plot, I was able to quickly get a sense of the characters and events. But, the enchantment was key. It was a ‘so much more than the sum of our parts’ feeling, a hard to articulate, in the moment, magic. In the focus groups students talk about how proud they are of themselves when it ‘goes right,’ and at that moment I felt what they meant.

 

Emboldened by this and Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman’s insistence on women volunteers I took a turn to read Cordelia. I was fresh from thinking fast and furiously about the role of women in Shakespeare’s plays. When Lear demands a speech declaring love from Cordelia I remembered my teenage self feeling angry at the value placed on public shows of affection or flowery words, rather than deeds. I connected with Cordelia then, although I have to say this didn’t help me to read or act the role better. It did help me to rethink my early impressions of a character I have previously thought of as gentle and too passive.

And then we went to see King Lear and an odd thing happened. I didn’t love it. I started the day with a reverent attitude … ‘It’s probably the work of genius’ and this view was being thoroughly shaken. In fact, I thought it was a ridiculously odd play. I thought back to our poring over the text and interpretations of characters and thought, ‘we are stretching the fabric too thin’. For me the play doesn’t work if we impose 21st century sensibilities on the characters of Goneril and Regan. It backfires. Men in the audience laugh at lines which scorn the sisters. Horrible. It’s just an odd play. I’m not sure I’d ever choose to perform it, direct it or teach it. I was left thinking, despite brilliant and subtle acting and staging, that poor old Bill must have been trying to please a lot of jealous actors when creating Lear.

So where does this leave me? Out in the cold? Well energised actually. Encouraged by the RSC approaches to think that my own interpretation counts. Confident to have that view even if it differs from others… That the play is not always the thing…

What emerged to me as of central importance was to recognize that the RSC Education approach encourages teachers and young people to think independently, to value their own experiences and interpret freely. This can be a dangerous liaison – it invites challenge to authority and rethinking of orthodoxies…. and this leads me to question whether looking at students’ exam results in English is ever going to measure the value of this work….do examiners look for this level of criticality? Can students articulate their thinking in writing (in an exam) as effectively as they do dramatically….?  I ended the weekend with my mind in a jumble of ideas, conflicts and new and important questions – always a sign of a valuable learning experience.

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close encounters

Earlier in the year I was in Halewood School, visiting Art, Photography and Graphics staff and students. I was lucky enough to visit on a day when some of the students had returned from a trip to Barcelona. It was clear that the art, the galleries, the architecture and the food had all made an impact on the students:

I just liked walking around and seeing how other people interact.

It was a completely different culture.

I tried to look under the surface of their enthusiastic responses to understand the way that these young people engaged with challenging contemporary work for the first time.

The students reflected on the way they had been prepared for the visit by staff from school and in the galleries:

There were paintings I didn’t understand. But there were art students who explained, so it broadened my thoughts

The preparation was clearly key to the visit and it was refreshing to see the students being given space to honestly discuss their responses. They were encouraged to say what they thought.  Some of the year ten students expressed some uncertainty about some the work they’d encountered:

It [the art] didn’t really have any relevance.

We all had our preferences – some we found a bit strange.

But 6th form students articulated their responses in more depth and made strong arguments for the need to engage with art face to face.

It’s one thing seeing a piece on a computer screen but seeing it in person you see more.

Seeing it online the pieces can be diminished. You don’t appreciate the size.

 The students also made it very clear that, for them, seeing art isn’t all about admiration and appreciation:

 We went to see Banksy’s work and I’d seen all the pictures but when I saw the actual work it was different. It shocks you.

Having many and varied opportunities to access art through school and in their own city clearly has value, enabling students to explore their own responses and draw inspiration for their own self-expression. I’m not sure they would be able to do this in the same way if the premise for every visit was to invite them to simply admire and appreciate the exhibitions. Indeed as Head of Art Liz Shelbourne describes, the school invites the students to question and challenge what art is, making links to the Turner Prize in doing so.

At the schools’ preview of the Tate Modern’s new building and collections I caught up with the Halewood students again, as they encountered the new spaces. In observing their responses I saw everything from curiosity, surprise, boredom and enjoyment expressed as they encountered new work and new ideas. Trying to get a sense of the whole experience from the point of view of the students reminded me of their descriptions of the reasons they loved their visual arts lessons – it was the freedom of expression of ideas and the independent thinking that was expected of them.

Both at school and in gallery spaces the students’ own ideas about what they were experiencing were respected and listened to, and as a result they expressed genuinely diverse opinions,. They also demonstrated their understanding of subjectivity:

Two different people could be looking at the same painting and one could say ‘oh I get this from that’ and the other might not even know what it is.

The students described their own creative processes in art at school as being where they can try and make anything they want to, as long as they can justify or explain their decisions and ideas. When I asked them what they learnt from doing art, one of the students suggested:

It helped me in other lessons especially in GCSE. In art you have to link it back [to an idea] and in English you always have to link things back to the question – to show meaning and interpretation.

Liz Shelbourne and her team at Halewood, clearly also have high expectations of their students, ensuring they critically examine their own responses and develop these ideas in their own work.

My encounters with Halewood students having their own encounters with art, creativity and culture has lead me to reflect on the importance of having opportunities to see the art and culture of European cities at close quarters, to access contemporary art in prestigious cultural spaces and to be given the space to respond freely.

 

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.

an emphasis on performance

Chris Hall reports on her visit to Launceston College in Cornwall.

Bryan Maywood, the head at Launceston College, keeps his old year 10 English folder in his desk drawer. The folder reminds him about his own learning in English, a subject he’s passionately interested in now. He remembers the support and advice he got from a slightly older friend. He remembers a teacher who accurately identified precisely what he needed to know to do well in his literature exam, and then made sure he learned it. He is amused now by the examples in his folder of rather less detailed and constructive feedback from other teachers.

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The themes of this first-thing-on-a-Monday morning conversation with the head – the value of peer support, how you learn to perform well, the importance of attention to detail – cropped up throughout my visit. For example, Kate Prouse, second in the English department, told me how when she’d first started work at Launceston, she’d been immediately struck by the cohesiveness of the college community and how the students genuinely support and are interested in one another. Kate put this down in part to the emphasis in the college on performance.   She explained how performance is factored in to the annual cycle of the school year: through house and whole school assemblies, an ambitious school production, exhibitions, competitions, a summer term activities week, lively art, drama and music programmes…

Jack Jackson, the college’s executive head, told me about the current adventure learning programme and plans for a new award system that recognises achievement and supports progress across five areas (adventure, performance, curriculum learning, understanding others, skills). Dan Wendon, assistant principal with responsibility for teaching and learning, explained the college’s staff development programme, which challenges teachers to devise and conduct action research projects that they judge will have a positive impact on their own professional learning.

All of the Launceston students I met were hugely appreciative of this focus on performance. They really valued the encouragement their teachers gave them to share their work with their peers, whether this was in assemblies, in lessons or in wider public events. They said they trusted one another. They learned to be more confident, to speak up, to express themselves. They made new friends through working together to get the performance right and many of them said they learned more about themselves. They loved the applause they got at the end because they knew they had earned it. They said they learned a lot from seeing other students perform.

And then there were The Fairies – students from years 7 and 8 who, just before my visit, had performed in the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hall for Cornwall in Truro.

images-1.jpegBursting with pride and plans for a career on the stage, the fairies had a torrent of stories about what they’d learnt from being in the RSC cast and working alongside professionals. But they had even more to say about the impact of the show on their families. They loved the fact that many of their relatives had been so engaged with the details of rehearsals and the planning that led up to the final performances. They said their families were still talking and texting about what they’d been doing. And now they’d heard that some of the fairies were to be invited to an official reception at 10 Downing Street, and timages.jpeghey had a lot to say about why they thought this had happened and how they thought students should be selected to attend.

I’d already heard about the fairies – from Dan, of course, who fixed up the meetings for me, but also from the older students I’d been interviewing, some of whom had helped out with mentoring and organising. The performances had created ripples in and out of the school.

I could see what Kate meant about the way the emphasis on performance helped build community cohesion.

 

 

 

where’s that going to get you?

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unspecifiedF62B22SWIn many of the schools we have visited, students complain about the ‘where’s that going to get you?’ question. This question refers to their choice of art, drama, music, dance or photography as a GCSE subject. If we follow the question’s rather literal logic we might expect all students who have taken History to become Historians. Putting our collective understanding of the global employment context (or lack of it) aside for the time being, the ‘where’s that going to get you?’ question seems to have had an unexpected impact on young people. The 24 young people we meet in each of the thirty schools we are visiting, seem pretty clear about the value of the arts to their lives and refer to their own developing self expression, independent working, ability to take risks, collaborate and time manage. They also talk about personal growth and learning to empathise with the views of others in order to see the world from different perspectives. Whilst there is clarity and consensus about the value of art education, the students’ do not always have a similar breadth of knowledge and experience of the types of careers available to them as a result.

At Childwall School the range of partnerships with artists, creative and cultural institutions, such as the Tate, and universities directly addresses this issue. Students show an awareness of a wide range of future career possibilities and an awareness of the need to participate in creative communities in order to make important connections with art and artists in their city.

This ethos seems to emerge from the school, whose large scale public art and extensive murals create a sense of belonging as well access to art in the school itself. As Head of Art Chris Tyrer states:

We’re trying to get our pupils to buy into the idea of creating something and yet, if we are just telling them how to do it it’s completely different to them seeing something that is going to inspire them. For me if they are not inspired and they don’t see things in a real space then we are doing our pupils a disservice.

An appreciation of the wider ‘scene’ of arts practitioners in Liverpool has clearly made an impression on one student Alex Owens who describes himself as a Designer Maker and is a current student of Design at Liverpool Hope University. Alex works as an art technician at Childwall on a voluntary basis – he loves the place and is totally committed to it. I asked him why:

We once came up with the idea that it is a sense of belonging. That we should be here.

Alex also has a shared space at Bridewell studios which he says is great for students because it is so cheap. He describes how his teachers encouraged him to seek out interesting places to develop his ideas, as well as allowing him to retake exams and supporting him with university applications. Although he isn’t from an arty family he was often in a welder’s workshop with his Dad and is now already establishing himself as an artist. Alex finds Childwall an inspiring place to work and is unafraid of trying new approaches and materials:

I see new ways of making something every day. For example, digitally making via 3D rendering software and printing some ink via computer on to a T-shirt or piece of material.

To find out more about Alex’s work contact him on: alexowens13@icloud.com

The assumption in the question ‘where’s that going to get you?’ is that young people who do arts have little chance of ‘becoming an artist.’The impact of creating school spaces where young people work as artists and alongside artists therefore reflects and refracts this question in some thought-provoking ways.