8 pieces of advice to teachers: how to get the best out of artists

There’s plenty of advice around to artists about how to engage with schools, comply with their cultures and generally cope with the myriad of policies, initiatives and behaviours which swarm through school classrooms. But where’s the advice to schools which will help them get the best out of their visiting artists? This is a start and it looks initially at the employment process. Employing artists in schools is frequently couched in terms of preparing the workforce of the 21st century (ie children).  It’s a pity then that its the employment practices of the 19th century which are used to bring about this transformation. In order to bring schools’ employment practices into the 21st century, please try and take note of the following.

1. Provide a focused project specification in advance to the interview with the artist which is realistic and doesn’t expect aforesaid artist to deal with all your school’s long term intractable cultural problems. Don’t try and attempt to raise your SATS levels in the core curriculum on the basis of 2 hours a week.

2. When artists apply for a role in your school, however short-term, do the decent thing and reply to their application and give them an idea of when they are likely to hear the results of their application. A short email is all it takes.

3.After the interview, give some constructive feedback as to why the artist was unsuccessful. Yes, this can be difficult if you can’t articulate the reason why you haven’t employed them – but there must have been some reason, however tenuous. Also, please try and do that before the end of the month. Leaving it upto 6 months is neither use nor ornament to anyone.

4. If you have a preferred supplier, don’t waste everybody else’s time in establishing long, fake procedures which you know you won’t honour.

5. Once you do employ someone, please be aware that this is likely to be part of their freelance portfolio and that their daily fee cannot be translated into the equivalent of an annual salary. They do not get paid holiday pay, do not get paid a pension and cannot claim sickness benefit. What might look like a large fee to you has, more than likely to last a few days – and the planning and evaluation time that will also be necessary to work with your school.

6. Please try and stick to the timetable you have agreed with your artist. There is nothing more frustrating than agreeing a ten weekly project only to be informed in week seven that the class has a sponsored bouncy castle event to attend that week, so putting paid to your carefully co-constructed schedule. If your school has to fit too many activities into a limited timetable, there is something wrong with your timetable, not the artist.

7. Please try and engage with the sessions the artist is running. This means not sitting back doing your marking; not using it as an excuse to leave the room; and not being passive-agressive when asked to join in.

8. If you would like the project to include a training component for your permanent staff, warn the artist, allocate extra time or specific sessions for such training, and pay accordingly! Simply allowing teachers to sporadically sit in on/“observe” and interrupt the children’s workshop time, without allowing the artist to plan for and integrate their presence, is counterproductive for all concerned.  (Thanks to rhshelley for this fab addition!)

There will no doubt be lots more advice to follow from other colleagues; they’ll be added as and when.

Poetry on the Hoof: The Reggio ‘No’ and how Early Years practice might prevent inner city meltdown

HEAD TEACHER “Head Teacher looms large!
What? Ask the kids?
But I’m in charge!”

WITNESS No school office, no school bench
No more squirming on top of the fence
No air of grief, no sense of loss,
No more staring down at the kids we’ve lost
No age creeping, no falling asleeping
No slow death watching every move they’re making

CHORUS So prego, ciao, bella e grazie
La Cita Reggio mi piace!

WITNESS No a b c, no me, me, me
No infantilising patronising health and safety
No god almighty fuss, no lack of trust
No cramming it all in till their fit to bust
No going it alone, no give a dog a bone
No fearing for the time when they’re dragged back home

CHORUS So prego, ciao, bella e grazie
La Cita Reggio mi piace!

HEAD TEACHER Head teacher quizzes rhetorical
The name of that plant?
Ask the kids, I’m not biological!

WITNESS So say yes to faith and say yes to grace
Say yes to the schools who lift up their face
From the noise and the groans and the plastic clutter
From the foundation stage and its bottled up rage
with the boxes that need ticking
And the arses that need licking
And the plans that need writing
And the staff that need biting
From the anaesthetic disconnected
Analytic tautologic lack of reciprocity
with its smack of weak authority
And howl of wolves who want to scratch down our doors….

HEAD TEACHER “Head Teacher looms large!
What? Ask the kids?
But I’m in charge!”

CHORUS So prego, ciao, bella e grazie (x3)
La Cita Reggio mi piace!

Performed by the Reggio Maniacs in homage to the inspirational children, parents, teachers and communities of Reggio Emilia, Italy. Accompanying video available upon request 🙂

I want to be the first whisper first heard by a deaf man: Writers in Schools revisited

Terry, a big Scouse presence appears as if by magic on the floor of an imposing, oaken school library dressed in the hybrid clothing of part teacher gown, part trainer top, part designer trousers and complete black and white brogues.

The seats and tables are shoved back to the walls, giving him the floor space which he takes to like a duck to proverbial, slurping out of his bottle of noisy water, telling me about the fecundity of the group’s work from the previous week. An awkward gaggle of angular faces, beaks and folded arms look on and I’m reminded that despite all the experience in the world, you never know what you’re going to face: all the preparation, all the theory, all the lesson plans, all the tricks and tips and turn ons is fine but… in the end…. you’ ve got a line of expectations, gazes, hopes, resentments, gaps, blank minds, active minds fidgeting just waiting for you, for someone, for something to switch them on….

He starts with an impromptu solo improvisation about his own experiences of education and the resistances he encountered: “what are you going to night school for, you poof?” before launching into the session proper by reading some of his own poetry, a love poem about a boy and girl on Wigan Pier. Straight into a flip chart exercise, the rule being to complete the phrase, ‘I want to be the first…’ “I want to be the first whisper first heard by a deaf man.’

Momentarily, we’re all stunned. How do we acknowledge, consider and value that moment produced by a young lad who looks as bemused as his contribution as those of us who have just registered it? I’m reminded of the moment in another writer’s class when a boy calls out, in response to a question about film making, how do you squeeze real time into 90 minutes film time? A huge question but not followed through: perhaps we’ve forgotten how to follow through? For all the talk about personalised learning in the classroom, can we ever have the wherewithal to respond to moments of beauty that don’t entail ticking off an outcome within the confines of a cell in an excel spreadsheet? But we move on and gloss over.

Back to the rules. Rule 1: it can’t be wrong, whatever you write. Followed by a quick exercise: complete the following phrase: In case of… X then Y. Rule 2: the last word starts the next line: but remember Rule 1: all answers are equally valuable “it doesn’t matter what you say, it can’t be wrong…” he urges. Rule 3: the first line and last line have to be the same, “like a jigsaw puzzle: ironically meaning that the final rule negates the principle of Rule 1. But we’re not worried as we frantically scribble, trying our best to fill that empty page of lined paper. In the fluidity of the writer, child, teacher relationship, the writer establishes the rules, yet breaks them rapidly, easily, without consternation or complaint. “It can’t be wrong, you’re the author”.

From the transience of the writer’s rule setting regime an essence emerges of a kind of super-author who makes and breaks the rules for his apprentices, his minor authors. Through the walls he drifts, from the floor he rises: the meta-author, the author of authors. Welcome to the world of the writer in residence.

The Blind Date Experience: Writers in Schools revisited

A  Blind Date pre-date encounter

Questioner       If you were a crisp flavour, which one would you be?

Contestant     Curry flavoured, because I like to be hot AND spicy!

Audience        Whooooooooo!
Subtext          Pick me and we’ll have sex.

Contestant 2    Beef flavour, because I like a man with some meat!
Audience         Whooooooooooooooo!
Subtext          Pick me and we’ll have sex.

Contestant 3      Obvious really, tomato sauce flavour because when you pick me I’ll be getting saucy with you!
Audience          WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Subtext            Pick me and we’ll go on holiday. And have sex.

A real world, lived experience of a writer visiting a school encounter

The protagonists: Carol, (writer), Jean(teacher), Jeff (head teacher)

What they said (1)

Carol      I think there’s much fertile ground in the class for more of the same, and hope that what we began together can be a first stage for others — including their lovely class teacher — to develop further. The time felt so short, but the nurture of the imagination wont be hurried. So, with the little time we did have I was delighted, often amused, and frequently moved by all that happened. The children clearly respect and like you Jean. I know you were modest enough to say it was because they were such a nice class — they are — but your cheerful, authoritative and sensitive approach must also set a standard for them to behave as well as they did. It was a pleasure working with you I’m still chuckling at the head stands and cartwheels and ‘sausage rolls’!

Jean      We all got on well and the children like Carol. Our aims were to develop writing skills of children and help children understand some of the different processes involved in producing a finished piece of writing. Also to have fun….We worked to a bigger scale than usual – 3 stories was a challenge…. A day of writing is hard going but we were all able to mix in different activities…. We worked together on a story…. We have finished and edited the work to produce books…. Writing in the past was an area where they lacked knowledge….We spent time discussing what they had done both with the writer and later in class….. Many increased confidence by achieving a finished book….We produced bound books.

Jeff   Our residencies to date have varied considerably, but all have added huge impact. Carol helped develop pupils extended fictional diary writing which had huge benefits of off-site research and writing – highly recommended for both adults and children. The atmosphere of writing in a local museum had considerable impact on the final piece.

What Happened Next: writers in schools conference, 6 months later

What they said (2)

Jeff      I have huge concerns about what I heard from Carol at this mornings conference. I am not sure if she was being deliberatly contentious, but felt too uncomfortable to challenge her comments or indeed present what I wanted to. I just hope that none of her bitterness filters back to my school community. If our work is all that wrong, I see no point in continuing with the project.

A Blind Date post-date encounter: on the sofa with Cilla

Questioner            I think I really love her and I hope we keep in touch.

Lucky Contestant    I thought he was a bit of a tosser really.

Artists in schools: Preparing the workforce of the 21st century with the employment practices of the 19th

Employing artists in schools is frequently couched in terms of preparing the workforce of the 21st century (ie children). It’s a pity then that it’s the employment practices of the 19th century which are used to bring about this transformation.  This includes:

  • The absence of any job description or focused person specification;
  • The need to wait patiently at the dock gates (or, in contemporary terms, at the end of phone or email correspondence chain) for the whims, airs and graces of the dockside steward (aka programme co-ordinator)
  • No career structure;
  • Favouritism, lack of transparency about employment practices and avoiding anybody who looks like they might have an opinion, are going to argue back or at the very least critique the so-called work plan.

If you get through the dock yard and onto the boat, you can be confronted with wish lists of multiple dreams which contain all the packaged up school problems, organisational stupidities and blocks which need solving by some kind of outside magic – or failing that, the artist workshop who comes to school for 6 half days a term and is still expected to tolerate the sponsored bouncy castle event intruding into the rare time that has been allocated.

Go on, they say, wow us then… 

What IS the point of school?

What’s the point of schools any more?  Kids are socialites at 7, adults at 12 and doubting everything the teacher and the school stands for. Behaviour is questionable, deference is a quaint notion of a rose tinted past when teachers were head of the classroom and everyone knew and welcomed their places.

Curriculum is irrelevant and has been superceded by the Internet where children work out of their own curriculum and syllabus, perhaps blindly, perhaps intuitively, perhaps guided by who knows what – certainly things we parents and teachers know nothing or little about.

These are desperate existential times when all our purposes reasons and rationales have been thrown up into the air and scrutinised like never before. So what place the teacher? The school? The curriculum even?

For all that despair and deep questioning…there is still the essence of the adult / child relationship at the heart of the learning process – the adult / old knowledge can’t be swept away. There is history -culture – language – the other – to contend with.Stuff which resides in the old, the unfamiliar, the awkward, the stuff the young don’t / won’t access drily through the Internet and the fashionable modes of social networking.

What we are left with -.and what can’t be swept away in a tide of acronyms and text speak – is us – you and me here and now in real time and space and our awkwardnesses and misunderstandings.
What is the point of school, teachers, curriculum? To learn of the other, from the other; to socialise the unsocial and antisocial; to expose our awkwardnesses and differences and to acknowledge, value and celebrate difference and otherness.

No amount of befriending on facebook or googling the worlds ever expanding databases will ever be able to emulate the simple purpose of education and all it’s agents: the ability for me to understand you and you to understand me, in all our differences, three dimensional truths and multi dimensional complexities.