Re-connect, re-engage and re-ignite: Making space for creativity
As the new school year kicks off, Hannah Baker, Primary Literacy Lead for Astrea Academy Trust, highlights the vital role the arts can play in developing creativity in teaching and learning, igniting the imaginations of teachers and pupils and re-connecting school communities in the face of the challenges posed by the pandemic. Through our Teacher Development Fund, Astrea Academy Trust has partnered with literacy charity Grimm & Co to deliver ‘Chapter & Verse’ to support teachers to develop and embed multi-disciplinary arts approaches to teaching and learning in the primary curriculum.
“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
(The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis)
In a pandemic, everyone wants to be safe. But when we as teachers and leaders opt solely for ‘safety’ in our pedagogy, we miss the opportunity to inspire the children in our schools. At Astrea Academy Trust, in response to the events, challenges and outcomes of the past 18 months, taking risks and embracing creative arts-based learning is playing an important role in rebuilding within Primary English.
The past 18 months have seen immense capacity for resilience and innovation within the teaching profession. Not only did teachers and school leaders find new methods for teaching, for gaining feedback from pupils and for supporting next academic steps, but they also found new ways of pastoral care—of providing stability for their communities and of providing physical support for those in need—and this isn’t even the half of it! It has been a really inspiring, if exhausting, time to be working alongside those in the teaching profession.
The pandemic has left the education sector with many questions about its impact on our children, and over time some light has been shed on this. Since the initial Lockdown, Renaissance Learning highlighted that pupils across all ages have experienced a two-month average reading learning loss and the Education Endowment Foundation signalled the potential of a ‘large and concerning gap’ for Key Stage 1 pupils who are experiencing disadvantage. In writing, No More Marking shared that Year 7 pupils in the Autumn Term 2020 were over a year behind, as compared to their predicted attainment, and newspaper headlines claimed that 30,000 more pupils than in previous years were set to move to secondary schools not being able to read or write properly. These figures make for depressing reading but also ignite a roaring fire in the bellies of those in the sector to help our pupils catch up academically at lightning pace.
A confession: typing all the above statements did not wholly sit well with me. Whilst these are findings that should be taken very seriously, I am in agreement with Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel De Souza who, in her keynote speech at the Confederation of School Trusts’ conference, issued a plea against panicking children about how far they’ve fallen behind and reminded us all of how teachers can turn things around. There is indeed such resilience and dedication within this profession.
At a time like this, where academic gaps are prominent in everyone’s minds, it would be easy to want to pessimistically close the door on creativity and play in favour of intense catch up: to play it ‘safe’ or predictable, as Susan might like to in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Please don’t get me wrong: targeted, well-planned and delivered intervention activity undertaken in a focused and supportive way is an important jigsaw puzzle piece here. That said, Barry and Matthew Carpenter’s 5 key ‘Recovery Curriculum’ levers are paramount here too: Relationships, Community, A Transparent Curriculum, Metacognition and Space. The fifth of these, Space, strikes a particular chord with me. Carpenter says it is important we give children the space “to be, to rediscover self, and to find their voice… providing opportunity and exploration alongside the intensity of our expectations.” To move forwards after the past 18 months, I believe creating space for exploration is an incredibly vital jigsaw piece, not just for our pupils but for our teachers too. Not only can arts-based approaches increase children’s re-engagement with learning, but they also develop creativity, problem solving, collaboration and communication as well as supporting key educational outcomes—all vital in moving forwards after all that has happened in the past year and a half.
At Astrea Academy Trust, the wider reopening was a positive opportunity to re-connect with our school communities, to re-engage with our core purpose and to re-ignite motivation and ‘the sky is the limit’ thinking. For me, that has included making space for creativity, which always feels a little risky. In Primary English, we have launched the innovative ‘Chapter & Verse’ teacher continuing professional development (CPD) programme. This is a unique partnership between ourselves and the ground-breaking literacy charity Grimm & Co, made possible through Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Teacher Development Fund. This teacher CPD programme brings the magic of Grimm and Co’s Apothecary – where visitors are transported to fantastical places of imagination and dreams – into the heart of each school, enabling Astrea teachers to truly bring to life the creative writing process. Grimm & Co’s artist practitioners work in close partnership with Year 4 teachers in resident schools, modelling an innovative, pupil-led approach to facilitate the creative writing process through a blend of drama, music, poetry and storytelling. Following a year blighted by school closures and a lack of cultural experience, Chapter & Verse is providing pupils with a mesmerising school experience, as well as representing a shift away from the often outcome-driven writing process that dominates education today. A gorgeous, travelling, immersive theatre space, styled in the theme of the Year 4 pupils’ class novel (either The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or The Iron Man) arrives in the school as a core part of the project, providing the stage for unforgettable creative writing lessons designed to develop the children’s imagination, confidence and writing skills.
Chapter & Verse seeks to combat pedagogical gaps in innovative, engaging practice around writing. The majority of our schools utilise The Literary Curriculum planning materials for English, from The Literacy Tree Primary English consultancy, which place high-quality literature at the heart of literacy lessons as a springboard for purposeful writing. The Chapter & Verse Project, when injected into these existing Literacy units, is creating opportunities that give teachers and pupils more space to play, explore, imagine and create. It has been magical to see the impact it has had in schools already, particularly in terms of teacher confidence to include drama and creativity in the writing process, the enjoyment of writing, pupil vocabulary choices and sense of audience. Pupil confidence has risen, with pupil feedback including comments that it “has helped me to be brave.” We can’t wait to see the impact it will have in more schools next year and beyond!
At a time like this, it might seem counterintuitive to lean into these creative spaces. After all, ‘risk’ isn’t necessarily a word all are comfortable with in the current global climate. But just as Mr Beaver hints at to Susan in our opening quotation, sometimes to re-ignite potential, possibility and creativity, one must first take a step away from the safety of their comfort zones. We at Astrea are so grateful to be working with Grimm & Co and Paul Hamlyn Foundation in doing just that. Is it safe? Of course not. But it’s good.