Reasons to be pedagogical part 2: We’re going to make a slave ship out of pipe cleaners and mudroc

I’m watching a visiting artist, Lisa,  in a Year 6 class  with the teacher, Sally.  Lisa has started a project on Wilberforce, making a model slave ship, an African village and percussion project. She kicks off asking who Wilberforce is and what slavery is. She introduces the task of making a slave ship which she’s going to show – at the end of the week they will have an impressive piece of work which ‘we can display’.

“We’re going to make a slave ship out of pipe cleaners and mudroc” she announces.  Is there something a little inappropriate here?  Would we hear a session in which we would hear about making concentration camps and gas chambers out of ‘pipe cleaners and mudroc’?  Here’s  a Blue Peter version I made earlier….

Lisa demos  how to make a figure out of mudroc and pipe cleaners and takes questions as she goes.   Little slave figures made out of pipe cleaners.  “we don’t want arms sticking out, they should be down at the side”.  She sets up a little production line by asking them to make 2 or 3 figures each.  The class is set on a task of making about 50 – 75 different slave figures between them. “Mould the pipe cleaner, cut up mudroc, soak it, wrap it, repeat”.  I wonder whether someone will point out that they could develop the production line and have one child specialising in moulding, another in cutting, another in soaking.

As pipe cleaner figures start emerging, a few laughs are generated by children – feet are either too bog or heads too small. “He’s hop-along… what’s happened to his arms… mine’s called Gordon, mine’s Edmund… this one’s paraplegic”.  Groups work semi-independently, teacher is engaged in co-delivery of the session, moving from one table to another as Lisa does. “wrap the mudroc tightly around the skeleton otherwise it will fall off”.  Perhaps it would have been better to make people figures who had homes first and who were then enforced into slavery – using the kids enthusiasm for the figures to its advantage rather than opt for making slaves from the beginning.  The production line aspect of this approach ironically endorse the values which make the slave trade possible.  We’re not making  a character which has a personal connection to its sculptor.  There’s one black lad in the class who is joining in with all the activities; a small crowd of white mud roc figures starts being assembled;  some of which are splendid creations, others of which are not so splendid….

The project continues through the afternoon, with no time for play time which means for some kids that making slaves out of pipe cleaners is  becoming a bit of drudgery. The figures are now to be painted black, to represent the figures seen in the picture at the start of the session.  Blackened mudroc figures start to appear on table tops and are taken to the window ledge to dry; of course, they’re various in shape, size and coverage of black paint – but they are still faceless and the products of several cheerful production lines.  No shades of black, brown or tone… End of class, and Lisa moves the furniture back to where it started before I entered the classroom.  The figures are to be placed in the slave boat which is to be built tomorrow.  So what do we know about slavery after all this?

Reasons To Be Pedagogical part 1

Bristol Nursery School, midmorning. The visual artist, Maria, has been offered two days work in the school and has persuaded the management of the school to ‘go off timetable’ and to let teachers ‘follow the children’s’ desires’ during her residency there – although the regular ‘tidy times’ and lunch time remain in the timetable. Within an hour, one teachers temper frays about being left on her own in her own area. There are usually six areas each with a designated member of staff and those boundaries are melted down today – apart from the timetable, structure, the space is a lot more fluid / chaotic. Adults are ‘following what the children want to do’ – the adults have been excused from their responsibility here, and have been denied an identity almost. The walls are as noisy as ever but less imposing – all the focus is being drawn to the kids activities.

Some young wag threw a bean bag at me in the playground which reminded me of a visit to Hindley Prison some years ago and temporarily I felt a bit unsafe, a bit dodgy. A bit iffy. The staff room is chockablock with loads of stuff packed on to chairs, tables, feels vaguely disturbing, a bit like a bad dream. Even Maria is spotting the limits with one of the children who is insisting on taking more clay from the bag with a spoon:
Femi ‘More more more!’
Maria ‘ Use what you’ve got Femi! You’ll have someone’s eye out. Be careful.’

A couple of girls are wandering in and out of the bathroom, scissors in hand – this feels a tad dangerous and I’m thinking about the consequences of one of them coming out with scissors sticking out of their head. A few teachers wander around the classroom aimlessly with cameras in hand, tourists in their own land. Following the children’s desires never felt less desireable.

What could schools do for artists? 5 Easy Pieces…

Many years ago the Labout Party had the bright idea of engaging artists, celebrities and other media types to support the campaign efforts of the party. Entitled, Arts for Labour, the programme involved wheeling out celebrities and artists at key moments during the 1987 campaign. In hindsight (always a best friend, Mr. Hindsight), this may not have been a particularly effective use of many peoples time and energy – but one thing it did do was getting artists asking of the Labour Party, how about a Labour for the Arts parallel campaign? Or, What did the Labour Party ever do for the Arts?

This fell on deaf ears at the time but these days, what with schools engaging artists for their purposes in a kind of Artists for Schools campaign, one might be tempted to ask, what about Schools for Artists? Or, what did schools ever do for artists apart from pay them modest remuneration for a role which is frequently confused, disconnected and unstrategic?

Here are 5 things schools could do for artists if they had the health of the arts sector at heart:

1. Commission new plays from new, local playwrights rather than repeating yet another version of Willy Russell’s Our Day Out.
2. Install an artist in residence for a term with a brief to capture the ‘essence’ of the school which is not just flattering and designed for best possible impact in PR terms, but is critical and capable of shaking up a few well held preconceptions
3. Develop choral sinigng which doesn’t rely on the output of Howard Goodall. Engage different composers, lyricists, Musical Directors who can push the boundaries of what is acceptable choral singing in schools.
4. Engage visual artists with the science teachers and challenge their visual representations of the world with new, unorthodox visions of how, for example, the workings of the human body might be represented.
5. Appreciate that the arts gives you new knowledge of the world – not just different perceptions of existing knowledge – and build that knowledge into the curriculum.