Professional artists help pupil premium students to shine

Working with a vertical group of year 7-9 students recently, I embarked on a project that extended the boundaries of their creativity. Often, we limit what we try with students for fear of failure or taking risks. I am very interested in ways of working that question traditional methods of working and pedagogy with hard-to-reach students. Through an innovative project during extracurricular time, I am developing a set of ‘toolkits’ that can engage and strengthen relationships with professional artists, musicians, dramatists and dancers.

Initially, the group focused on creating written pieces that were performed both by students at Eltham Hill School and by professional actors from the Royal Court Theatre. My driving force is trying to get the top professionals to work with our most vulnerable students. Students ended up writing plays that were performed on the Royal Court Theatre stage and they also had a pop-up theatre on the King’s Road, London.

Artists, photographers and musicians agreed to work with PP students

This project has led me to believe that anything can happen when you are tireless in your drive for aspirational projects for young people. How about if I got other professionals to come in and work with our group? I contacted various artists, photographers and musicians – and they all agreed to work with our students. Jose Macabra, a performance artist and musician, and Martin Delaney, a professional photographer and musician, led the project with me.

The first part of the project involved getting students to write cut-up sentences based on the work of William Burroughs. This was a very simple process – students were liberated by the fact that this poetry did not have to make sense. They used simple words and bits of words from newspapers, creating wonderful fragmented pieces of texts that they then read aloud.

The next stage of the project involved students recording their words and making sounds from them. We relied on the musician/performance artists’ expertise to help record their work using found objects and field recordings. We also did a blindfold soundscape walk. Each week, a different artist provided the basis for the workshop, so students were learning about avant-garde artists as well as applying their skills in the classroom. Students become more motivated and independent, having the freedom to explore creative curriculum within a safe space.

Create art – then enjoy smashing it

Subsequently, we allowed students to decorate small plates with their words and sentences, using indelible markers. In a moment of sheer awe and wonder, students were taken to an open space within school and allowed to smash their plates (based on the Greek tradition). New words and phrases were created through this explosion of art.

After creating and recording sounds, students turned these into Garageband projects with the help of Martin and Jose. Using the texts from their cut-ups, students also decorated disposable boiler suits, much to their delight. Martin managed to source some Bluetooth speakers, onto which we recorded the tracks. These were attached to the boiler suits with lanyards, along with some bright mini light sources.

Tania Soubry, an international dancer, did a session with students where she choreographed them in their outfits and explored movement and dance techniques to draw all the components of the project together. This ended in a final performance of all of their work, drawing together art, drama, music and text.

What was most interesting was watching when this dialogic process with professionals enabled the educational space to be democratised; we all learn together. Student comments included “we are exploring creativity together – there is no right or wrong answer”.

In a climate of rigidity, it has been wonderful to have the time and space to work on creative curriculum. The benefits have also been tangible, with a direct and positive impact on student attendance, behaviour and attainment. I am currently planning the next creative project, working in a similar way. It is something that fills me with joy and motivation and I am sure will have a lasting impact on the students’ lives.

This documentary by Eltham Hill School outlines the project and its outcomes, including reflections by staff and students. It will also give you a true flavour of the activities described.

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