Edge of the Seat Learning:
How working in contexts can create healthy learning tension
We stand in the sea cave listening to the lapping of the seawater that strokes the rock, shale and bones that lie under our feet. As we walk, this coastal floor crunches and creaks with each and every step. We look down at the ground. What do we see?
And then we see it there ahead of us on the ground. The smooth, wet and leathery skin, discarded by the strangest of mythical creatures of the sea: the Selkie. Whilst we stare at the cool grey coat lying amongst the natural debris, we realise we are faced with a dilemma; the same dilemma that has faced everyone who has encountered a Selkie in the past: once a Selkie sheds its skin and becomes human in order to spend a short amount of time amongst people, the skin is left in a safe place for the creature to return to and go back to live back in the sea. The thing is, the skin is a bringer of great luck to the finder. Within it lie the secrets of the sea. And to poor people like us, this is a godsend. And if we can catch the Selkie in human form then….well, who can tell what good fortune may be showered on us?
And then it’s playtime and Year 5 reluctantly get their coats and go outside to play and think about what’s just happened. I’ve been invited into a Bradford primary school to model some strategies to hook children into learning and maintain their engagement with a context from which we can generate a flood of opportunities around enquiry, literacy and numeracy.
It may appear easier for a visitor to have an impact on a class, and perhaps there’s some truth in this. I will say however that being the visitor (or visiting practitioner if you prefer) implies that there will be a one-off ‘nice’ experience for the children and that will be that. In this case, I’m working closely with the Y5 team in order to ‘hook’ them into a more creative and experience-led mindset that will enhance their current practise and enable them to look at what they’re teaching and ask themselves if there are opportunities for great learning (and teaching) that they are missing. The morning is spent with the children; the afternoon is spent planning potential next steps with the colleagues. This is just Day One. Day Two, the following day, involves us looking at the whole Y5 offer, and identifying the elements of the curriculum that need rejuvenating, sparking up or simply ditching.
All this is in the spirit of giving the children a curriculum that is authentically engaging whilst meeting the needs of all the pressures that exist for teachers outside the classroom. The school has seen massive improvement over the last few years but attendance has been an issue, as well as learner motivation. The recent Ofsted inspection has also highlighted an over- reliance on a sage on the stage rather than guide on the side approach to teaching. As a result, the children, though biddable, are passive in their learning. A re-look at the curriculum offer is a step the Headteacher wishes to take in order to rejuvenate the school and its children whilst continuing on the path to sustained improvement.
The Year 5 class are about to embark on a project around Myths and Legends. In the past, I’ve worked with classes on this theme and I really want to try and do something different this time. I really want the children to get lost in a story and for the learning to bubble up as we move through the narrative. Looking at my 6 year old son’s bookshelf I find a book that will help me with this. The book is Selkie by Gillian McClure and the story is very much based on the Scottish myth of the Selkie which sees seals taking human form by shedding their precious skin. As an aside, the Selkie myth was cinematically interpreted a number of years ago by acclaimed film maker John Sayles as The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) and is well worth seeking out.
As a visitor (or special visitor as one child said, as I had a suit on), I needed to get into the context of learning as soon as I could. My starter (if you like starters) was a projected photograph of the interior of the cave. It’s not a photo that’s dark and dull; rather, it has a beam of sunlight coming down from a split in the ground above. This gives it a real air of magic. I ask the children to come up with some questions they would like to ask the photograph. Yes, the photograph. Rather than give them no time to prepare this, I give them a few minutes to write the questions down. I tell them that I’ll answer for the photograph. I don’t tell them I’m pretending to be a photograph, I’m just representing it. Here are some of their questions:
Where are you?
What are you made of?
Are you cold?
What do you hear?
Who talks to you?
How long have you been here?
Have you any family?
By giving the cave a voice, by personifying it, it becomes real to the children and their willingness to suspend disbelief is captured; they are hooked.
I answer the questions in much the same way as a very matter-of-fact teacher-in-role. We then grab the sticky notes and SIGN up the classroom as the cave. All this means is that we create the environment of the coastal cave by putting up labels that direct our imaginations and stick them around the room. Here are some of the labels the children created:
A smashed photo frame
Old fishing nets
A lobster pot
SIGNING the space gives children the visual clues to building their imaginative view of the context. It also enables us to step in and out of the context as appropriate; it’s a lurking resource that can be referred to and used during other learning. As you can see from the list above, there are many opportunities for exploring the children’s ideas. A couple of the ideas themselves offer us potential stories and narratives that would be well worth pursuing, the smashed photo frame for example, but time was pressurising so I needed to move on.
Following the starter and the signing, I protected the children into a story by essentially saying the following to them:
I’m going to tell you a story. It’s not a real story. But it is
real in my head and it’s going to be real until lunchtime.
But it’s just a story. Is that okay? A real made-up story. It’s the story of Selkie Cave.
Most children understand the conventions of a story and these children were no different. The story I told was about the cave by the sea I had discovered whilst on a ramble around a small island off the Scottish coast. I asked them to imagine we were all in the cave. We walked through it (them in their heads, me moving around the room) and I asked them to provide a soundscape for me to walk through. Now I thought I’d need to explain this but they did it straight away: the crunches and creaks of my footsteps were offered without trepidation, so a
s I walked I decided to conduct the volume of the soundscape being provided to avoid the danger of it turning into cacophonic chaos. I did this by holding out my hand palm down as I walked. When I raised my hand higher, the children increased the volume of the soundscape; when I lowered it, they quietened. It was during a quiet moment later in the morning that we found the source of the dead crabs and fishbones: a Selkie. It shed its skin and left it on the ground to be returned to later. We watched the Selkie leave.
Prior to this turning point we had spoken to the man who lived near the cave, who had seen the Selkie before. We’d hotseated him after I’d given the children plenty of time to write down appropriate questions to ask, and after we’d signed up what we thought the man would look like. They said he:
Had a big white bushy beard
Had a wooden leg
Wore an eye patch
Laughed a lot
Didn’t like the mainland
Loved the sea
Again, the children offer offshoots to the central Selkie narrative that may well be worth pursuing, how did he lose his leg, for example.
So the Selkie leaves. Its skin lies on the ground in front of us. We learned much from the man who lived by the cave (and whom I represented, surrounded by an archway of sticky note signs), the main thing being that he who holds the Selkie skin will have good fortune and it will also be worth a lot of money. He told us that the Selkie is a precious thing and must be protected at all costs. He also said that there were people who would destroy the Selkie to get their hands on its skin. He added that the Selkie knew all the secrets of the sea.
(I wonder what the secrets of the sea actually are? Another session maybe…)
The Selkie skin is represented by my jacket which I’ve thrown on the floor in the space between the back table and the fire exit. We understand the beauty of the Selkie but we also know the potential value of the skin.
This is the dilemma which takes children to edge of their seat and creates an authentic tension within the learning. This sort of learning cannot be summed up in a text book (or perhaps an article for a magazine), but exists in the moment. The children become characters in the shared narrative and as a result they find it easier to articulate their thoughts and opinions; the story, with its healthy learning tension, turning points and air of the fantastical, becomes a distancing tool that works to support engagement. The curriculum needs to rehearse children for real life and this is why stories that resonate with children can really help. Stories also offer many opportunities for the exploration of the area of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, for example, cause and consequence, right and wrong, responsibility and rights, difference and understanding. For this class, and this school, looking at how we can marry the established curriculum to creative classroom practice, is the start of the journey.
So, have a look at what you need to deliver next half term and ask yourself ‘Where are the stories?’ You could keep your class on the edge of their seats.
Selkie by Gillian McClure, Plaister Press 2010
Hywel Roberts is an associate of Independent Thinking. See his website at www.createlearninspire.co.uk.
Hywel’s book ‘Oops! Helping Children Learn Accidentally’ (ed. Ian Gilbert) is published in April 2012 and can be pre-ordered online.