By Dr Becky Parry, Evaluation Partner for Chol
As part of my role as evaluation partner for Chol Theatre I had the opportunity to observe an Imaginary Communities session at King’s Oak Primary Learning Centre in Wombwell in Barnsley. Lauren, the lead practitioner, had carefully developed her IC approach to respond to the literacy curriculum and support children’s descriptive writing. The children had previously created a dragon’s cave imaginatively, but also physically with their bodies and old sheets and strips of fabric which is a trademark of Chol’s practice.
When we entered the class, the tables were already moved aside in an obviously well established preparation for Lauren’s arrival. The children were excited and had questions about what the focus of the session would be. However, as they entered the classroom after the lunch break they were very quick to sit in a circle and fold arms and legs neatly. Chol minutes were clearly precious minutes and no time must be wasted. Chol’s Imaginary Communities work is underpinned by robust research which demonstrates the value of enabling children and teachers to become equal playmakers. Children become engaged, they develop new friendships and new ways of working with peers. A noticeable difference is seen in children who may find traditional schooling that repetitively focuses on prescribed individual written tasks frustrating. The magic of Chol (by which I mean carefully devised and responsive and reflective drama education practice) enables a very different sort of engagement which requires individuals to work as a whole group. This requires strong commitment from everyone, and it was clear in every attentive facial expression that the children at Kings Oak were immersed in their IC and cared deeply about what they were going to be creating together next. This look of excited anticipation attention is something I have witnessed multiple times in the IC process and it reflects a full, affective engagement which is not easy to achieve.
As part of my evaluation approach I have been returning to some of the foundational thinkers of drama education, finding much that chimes with our concerns today. Drama education practitioner, Dorothy Heathcote, suggested that being fully present for children requires a strong degree of self-awareness (p.15)1:
Teaching demands that we give ourselves fully to the task in hand. To do this means that we must be complete and completely self-knowing. This demand is one of the gifts of teaching that isn’t necessarily talked of by the unions. It is a repayment to a teacher that no one mentions. And being forced to concentrate on the task in hand means that we can often temporarily forget all the other things that are bothering us. There aren’t a lot of jobs like that.
Heathcote’s ideas formulated during a period of criticism of progressive education, strike action and the introduction of comprehensive education still resonate today in the very different context of academisation. Despite all the barriers and challenges it struck me that what I had witnessed at Kings Oak was a giving of oneself fully to the task in hand.’ As afternoon school commenced, all the usual business of registers and repairing relationships post playtime were handled with good humour and discretion that meant that the whole group could quickly focus on the drama session and put aside other dramas of the day. As the session began with a detective game, chosen by the children, the teacher worked with Lauren to manage turn-taking so that it was swift and fair. But it was the teacher’s approach to the IC drama activities that were key. The teacher was fully committed to being an equal playmaker, working alongside the children and this meant he was entirely present and ‘in the moment’ as my observations suggest:
Lauren’s eyes were wide with attention, sustaining the children’s attention by listening and signalling her listening in her responsive facial and bodily expressions. The teacher joined in with this process by relinquishing authority, but also by paying total attention to what was happening in the room. This was clear in every gesture, facial expression and movement. In one moment he worked in a pair with one child, totally seeming to step away from the role of a whole class teacher and this was a profound act of trust and confidence that the children implicitly understood. In another moment, in role, he tiptoed around the circle, arms outstretched, utterly committed to the character he was being. His enjoyment of this was noticeable and infectious, but it was a moment, a turn taken rather than a resumption of authority or ‘modelling’ of superior skill. [Extract from Field Notes]
As caves were crept through and creatures discovered, time had also elapsed. The teacher realised, along with the children, that it was time to stop and switch activity. Even in this small act, the teacher demonstrated his commitment and enjoyment of the activity. The shared reluctance to get on with the other business of the day, highlighted the value of drama work to the children. To understand why this is important, it helps to consider what the opposite might look like. There is an alternative choice that can be made to be the teacher who sits and marks work or puts up displays while the drama takes place. Or to be the teacher who watches the clock or spends time admonishing children for getting excited at their new found freedom. All drama educators (all artists) in schools will have seen this and many empathise with these teachers because this is often absolutely what they have to do. They are under pressure to be accountable for children’s learning in multiple bureaucratic ways. However, finding time to be utterly with children and part of a process where the outcome is unknown is critical to the development of children’s thinking. It creates a space where ideas can form, be discussed, developed and acted on and without this, learning becomes the uncritical parroting of knowledge. So, whilst some might walk past the classroom and observe a teacher (dragon/ adventurer / playmaker) stalking on tiptoes around the room and perceive informal fun (and not much more) they should be seeing a colleague working strenuously to be present for all the children in the room. The harder they work at this, the deeper and more memorable the children’s thinking and learning is.
Those of us who are parents, whose children ask for our full attention (maybe when we are trying to work from home) know how prized attention is. We all need people to be fully present for us, not all the time of course, but some of the time. But being present is as tiring as it is valuable and committing to it also means committing to some self care. Time out or self-nurturing through professional development and connections with networks of colleagues is increasingly difficult in a context of time consuming and relentless digital documentation of teaching, learning and assessment.
Heathcote suggests that ‘before we can relate to people successfully, we must first come to terms with ourselves.’ She also suggests that this takes hard work, reflection and taking part in enjoyable restorative activities. It is hard to equate this with our current education system where the focus is on prescribed learning, rather than interaction and relationships. But it is so heartening to see individual teachers find ways to give of themselves and be present as opposed to presenting. As Heathcote suggests: By being ourselves in this way we are able to affect others and be affected by them. Chol are committed to finding ways for teachers to self-care, by building wider networks of colleagues in supportive, shared spaces where they can nourish themselves in order to go back to the classroom refreshed. This is part of their 10 year plan to put care and creativity at the heart of education in Yorkshire which you can be part of.
1 O’Neill, C. (2014). Dorothy Heathcote on education and drama: Essential writings. Routledge.