changing cultures were recently asked to organise ‘entertainment’ for TeachFirst’s Primary Celebration event at Warwick University.
Our brief was to provide activities that would engage the trainees and teachers, and also celebrate best Primary School practice. We engaged the services of two of our associates; Pyn Stockman who uses props to create narrative with children, in Primary and SEN settings; and Gemma Cumming, a visual artist and primary school teacher who made puppets how of everyday utensils and easy to access materials. Nicola Richardson of changing cultures led a dress-up activity, helping the guests make outlandish costumes out of paper and simple stationery resources and I brought my puppetry and storytelling skills to bear.
It was fascinating for us to see how, after initial encouragement, we were able to take a back seat and let the attendees get absorbed in their own activities without interference. There was a really high level of engagement, and I don’t think the modelling of facilitation above instruction went unnoticed.
Amongst the 200 or so grown-ups, were two children, who were thrilled to meet my favorite puppet, Sam, reacting to him/her in the way I have seen on many occasions. Stroking and shaking hands at first, followed by fingers in mouth, then gradually becoming rougher – poking in eyes and pulling on limbs as they grow in confidence that Sam is the underdog in the relationship. At this point Sam becomes upset, and sometimes cries, so that the boundaries have to be re-set. The girl then progressed the relationship into a little ‘friends really’ dance.
She held both of Sam’s legs (I had control of Sam via mouth and one arm, which has a stick attached a la Muppet), and started to bounce along to the background music, Sam (via me of course) joined in. She then added a criss-cross motion which I echoed with Sam’s arms. After a while as she grew into her choreography via repetition, she warmed to the task and started to clearly mark out 4 bars of movement one, and 4 bars of movement two. Occasionally she’d make a little error, but then get back into the phrase, and these errors became less frequent as she practiced. This process then continued through the addition of a third twisting movement. We continued to dance for around 5 minutes, with her taking the lead and Sam and myself following – the whole process having been conducted non-verbally. When she decided she had had enough, we stopped, and I asked her if she had been counting in her head as she danced, “Yes”, she replied in a manner that said, “Of course”, and went off to play something else.
So – in this small interlude, which at looked like nothing more than a little dance at a party – she had employed numeracy, creative invention, physical prowess, patience, perseverance, leadership, concentration, collaboration and more. In addition her efforts had had the desired effect, so all in all a successful endeavor she could leave with a sense of real achievement.
It was a privilege really, and I thought about how different the situation might have been if I, as a totally unknown adult had gone up and offered my hands to her to dance – I think I’d have danced alone.
As with the other activities, this was a clear example of how learning can take place, even in the most un-classroomly situation, if we can learn to take a step back and allow the individual free exploration of their skills.
A little aside – several of the teachers who were working, or about to work with years five and six, expressed their reservations about the use of puppets being too ‘babyish’ and more appropriate for younger age groups. I think it’s all about context – we could all use a conduit to operate through on occasion, and it is possible to supply that in an age appropriate way. Asking the children to design and make their own puppets ( which can be contextualised as robots / gods / characters / monsters etc) might give an insight as to where children need some personal development in addition to the absorption of information and skills learned in the process.
I wonder if any of the grown-ups present who voiced this doubt, noticed how readily they engaged with Sam the Puppet . . . perhaps at first knowingly joining in the game, but after a very short time, conversing with him/her alone, pretty much forgetting – or at least ignoring – my part in the relationship. All of us long out of primary school, perhaps this tells us something about the essence of experimentation with a safe communicator that never leaves us.