A while ago, I wrote an article about the Arts Council's Arts Award and its relevance to G&T students (G&T Update April 2008). Since then I have been working on the Award consistently and have had opportunities to observe the development of students who pursue its challenges. I see the Bronze Award as an excellent starting point for students. It promotes the varied benefits of taking part, sharing, evaluating and reflecting upon experiences and opens up the world of the artist. The Silver Award, however, provides even greater scope, inviting participants to design, implement and evaluate a particular arts challenge. It is here where I have seen creative excellence on a broad scale and have witnessed high-quality independent learning.
Because the students discuss their ideas with the trained advisor, the emphasis is on a personalised programme of learning and experimentation. Team participation is built in and honest evaluation is essential. All this amounts to a valuable, unique and pragmatic learning experience.
The button moulder
Two girls in Year 8, having finished their Bronze Award, decided they would like to challenge themselves to write, direct and perform in a play, but they were stuck for an idea. Or rather, they were torn between too many ideas.
It is advisable to begin with the students' experience, so I suggested that they might use an idea from a performance of Peer Gynt, which they had recently seen at school. During general discussions of themes and issues, they expressed an interest in the character of the Button Moulder, so there was a starting point. The Button Moulder collects souls and turns them into buttons, which are then sewn onto his coat; not surprisingly, this opens up imaginative scope. We decided to update the story.
Two weeks later the project was planned and the script started. The girls apparently came up with many of the ideas on a weekend sleepover! The Button Moulder was to be a female financier, and the play would be set in Canary Wharf, where greedy people would be called to account for their sins of selfishness. The financial situation of the country was (and is) in an unstable condition, so they were working with half-familiar material. The cheating bankers were required to pay for their wrong deeds by being called upon to justify, after death, their decisions taken during life. And, as we concluded during discussion, this could well be the case...
The existential nature of the play resulted in considerable dialogue. The whole idea of heaven and hell is central to the piece (though it is dealt with lightly and often within a comical framework), so philosophical questions became almost routine during the planning stage of the process. It was often necessary to re-phrase questions or ask for clarification. The phrase ‘Could you explain that in another way...?' was used frequently, as was ‘How will that fit in with the general plot of the play...?' This promoted rigour and attention to detail. Indeed, this process consistently encouraged inquiry and higher-level thinking skills, as the questions were often open-ended and eminently suitable for debate. And no one could claim to be right!
The play flashes around in time as the characters selected by the Button Moulder have to try, like Peer Gynt, to escape their fate. Crafting this was in itself a learning experience, but there is a lot of material out there, easily available on YouTube and iPlayer for the students to use as examples. I encouraged them to draft out their ideas in rough notes and storyboards, using idea clusters and affinity diagrams to organise the initial flood of suggestions.
Bronze Award students were eager to play roles and so rehearsals began. The play was tweaked and perfected, design elements were included and five months later the public performance was held in the school theatre studio. It involved music, movement, projections, dramatic lighting changes and tight ensemble sequences. The most spectacular costume was a black velvet coat covered with thousands of buttons (mostly scrounged from grandmothers) and the best moment was when the rich victim was carried off to become a button.
But most important of all was the learning which took place during this most enjoyable, prolonged creative enterprise. The project leaders were faced with freedom of choice, both artistically and pragmatically, in a system of collaborative learning. They were simultaneously learners and teachers involved in a range of strategies, many of which were new and all of which were challenging. Within the context of this project many educational boxes were ticked!
The leaders faced challenges such as:
- researching their characters, with reference to Ibsen's play
- scriptwriting and revising
- auditioning and feeding back to participants
- designing costumes
- working with the department's technical crew to decide on set, sound and lighting
- performing (for a real audience)
- evaluating their own and others' performances
- processing honest feedback from the audience.
Arts Award: supporting young people to develop as artists and arts leaders
Through Arts Award at Bronze, Silver and Gold levels, participants can explore any of the art forms including performing arts, visual arts, literature, media and multimedia. The award builds confidence, helps young people to enjoy cultural activities, and prepares them for further education or employment.
When students are dealing with new knowledge - in this case the subject matter and the application of theatrical technique - it is useful to present this within the framework of a project. This means that real problems can be tackled in context and an appropriate pace can be set for progress and completion. Add to that the routine use of specialist vocabulary and the skill base becomes broad and exciting. A number of skills are essential to this sort of challenge (see table).
There are other educational advantages to this type of project. The subject matter poses abstract questions as well as concrete ones. For example, the use of symbolism and visual representation was evident in the design features, so that the array of departed souls could be shown through a pictorial projection (of various buttons) on the floor, or the moment of transformation could be shown in a series of staccato freeze frames. This in turn leads to the use of specific terminology, creative problem-solving and, ultimately, corporate decision-taking.
As a mentor I had to be aware of problems and be on hand to suggest solutions, but most of all to encourage students to meet the high expectations which we had set together. I made it clear that mistakes and U-turns were acceptable and urged them to celebrate minor, as well as major, success and to rationalise any disappointments. There were also opportunities to take risks, such as venturing into the audience to elicit response, which is not for the faint-hearted.
The advantage of the Silver Arts Award is that it has an end product. The moderator visits the school and the student discusses the project with him/her and has the opportunity to analyse and evaluate it with someone who was not initially involved and therefore can view it objectively. The moderator will help the candidate reflect on the process and will initiate further explanation, as evidence is presented in the form of notes, photographs, diagrams and, possibly, a recording. The students enjoy presenting to a new audience in this way, and can be justifiably proud of completing a very challenging task.
Other possible starting points for this type of project
- Taking a character out of a play or novel and exploring their lives from a new perspective, such as Harry Potter in a comprehensive school.
- Modern versions of recently studied plays, such as Romeo and Juliet.
- Starting with a significant stimulus object or group of objects, for example, a bunch of large and interesting keys, an old box of jewellery or a map.
- A newspaper article with subtext, such as, ‘What happened after the trial?'
Please note that I have described the major project of the Silver Award. There are other tasks which have to be completed and these can be viewed on the Arts Council web pages.
Joan Hardy is arts adviser, G&T coordinator and head of drama at Belper School in Derbyshire