I’ve been working with Years 2, 4 and 5 at the Archbishop Rowan Williams School in Portskewitt, In South Wales this and last term on what we called The ImaginOtice Project. Inspiring the imagination from noticing things with the aim of improving literacy.
I suppose I should have been blogging about it as I went along, but there just didn’t seem to be time. The ImaginOtice Project is part of of the Lead Creative Schools Project Run by the Welsh Arts Council. The Welsh Government has bravely backed the idea of reintroducing creativity into schools – not such an easy task. The children are bursting with creativity and waiting to be let off the leash, teachers have to get used to the idea again. Some teachers have grown up in an era where creativity has been completely pushed aside in favour or testable academic subjects. They lack the experience of managing open-ended creative projects that may or may or may not work.
The Lead Creative schools links professional artists and schools with the idea of teachers seeing the artists creative process and for the artists to learn how to structure what they have to offer to suit the constraints of classroom and timetable – learning how to teach their subject. A cross-fertilisation of skills and ideas.
The projects are overseen by Creative Agents who call on Creative Practitioners to realise the idea.
I went for two days creative practitioner training in a freezing arts centre in Pontypool and after planning discussions with Andy, my Creative Agent and Anna, my Project Leader in the school finally got to work.
“Who’s Otis?” I had asked when I heard the project title of ImaginOtice. I imagined the 60’s soul singer Otis Redding. All their plans went out the window and we decided that Otice or Otys or Otis or Oteece or… would be a blank canvas of a character. The children were asked to write up who or what they thought Otice was.
And back came 90 or so totally different answers!
In each class, we went through the ideas and drew out the best strands and wove them together to make a new story.
This is where I began to learn about teaching. Year 2 – mostly 7 year olds – were happy to work together on a group story. Year 4 – mostly 9 year olds – were a bit more tricky, they had their own ideas and kept wanting to go “off piste!” Year 5 – mostly 10 year olds – loved the story we worked on but all wanted to do their own story. Behold – the development of personality in one simple lesson for me!
At the end of week three, I was wondering where it was all going. I was explaining about how a book is made and telling how in the old days books were bought uncut. I got a piece of A4 and folded it over and over to explain how a section of a book is made. then I remembered a simple trick of slitting the centre line and folding the sheet into a simple eight page book.
The atmosphere was electric! The children rushed off to get pieces of A4 and demanded to be taught how to do it. I was amazed how some children found it difficult to fold a piece of paper in half. They’ve been brought up swiping screens, I realised. They haven’t been brought up folding paper airplanes, fortune-tellers and quackers!
This was a revelation. I knew what I had to do. We needed to make books. In doing so it would make literacy relevant. Everyone wants to make a book and see their name on the cover, and it is really quite an easy thing to do. Along the way, I was gratified to hear the children saying how I’d tought them that after the moment of inspiration comes the planning and redrafting and the trial and error required to turn a simple idea into something polished and to be proud of.
Suddenly I knew what my “creative practice” was all about… I make books… I always have. I left school and worked in printing where I made books and booklets. In one way or another, I’ve never stopped.
ImaginOtice has made me stop and think about what it is I do and where I want to go from here. As far as the teaching of making books is concerned, I made loads of mistakes and did things in the wrong order, but I have learned and I’m keen to put my new ideas into practice very soon.
I’ve also learned how pressured teachers are today. A class of children are not bunch of performing monkeys to be taught how to jump through the hoops of a standardised test. They are individuals. Some get depressed, some have terrible things going on in their lives outside school, some are really bright and some are a little slower. Some are needy and some are independent. Some, I learned, have developed the art of invisibility. Every week I would notice a new child who had been invisible up until that moment. Some quietly get on with it, some make a lot of fuss and never finish. All of them are individuals with their own hopes and fears.
Just keeping that in order and improving a little everyday is quite enough without being constantly monitored for targets and achievements as well having new curriculum requirement pouring in all the time. If you ever thought teaching was easy, go and try it!
Normally I go into a school for the day and feel I need to impart everything I have to teach in one frantic hour. It took me a few weeks to slow down and work out what is important. Covering book covers in plastic takes time and care. But it also allows time for one to one discussion, getting to know each child – not just an amorphous blob called Class 5. While I’m working with an individual, It’s okay. The class is getting on with other parts of the project.
Discovering that the children lacked manual skills, we brought in Rhys Thomas as another creative practitioner and had amazing days making Otices – blue bags with movable velcro features – blank canvases for creating faces with different emotions, starting point for story ideas. They also became blank canvases to movable illustrations with velcro images. So many skills involved! Sewing, needle-threading, stuffing, cutting, glueing, sticking, making, designing, creating. The children loved it and poured their ideas into the making days.
The characters suggested another idea, making Otices from wood and attaching them to a totem pole as a lasting memory of the project. See the video above to see the fun and joy the children got making them. That afternoon of drilling and hammering will stay with them all their lives as a golden memory – as it will with me.
Many, many thanks to Archbishop Rowan Williams School for choosing me and trusting me with a lot of their precious time. I hope that there are some measurable outcomes to justify the project. I know from talking to the children that there will be innumerable unmeasurable outcomes which are probably more important. The true results of the Lead Creative Schools and the New Creative Curriculum in Wales won’t be apparent for maybe Ten or twenty years, but I’m sure we have started something good and long-lasting that other countries will be watching with great interest.
The children will always remember these weeks and I hope that the new skills they have learned will spark new interests and lead down new creative paths.
Many thanks to Andy, Anna, Sophia, Cath, Rhys and all the helpers who made me feel so welcome and have made the last few weeks a learning experience for me. I hope I’ve helped to make it a learning experience for you and the children too.