Practical Pedagogies 2016

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I had a great time at the Practical Pedagogies conference and was delighted to share an hour long immersive drama in education experience with some of my peers. The session was called: Storytelling the Curriculum: finding the humanity in the curriculum. After I returned I entered a challenging yet stimulating debate about ’emotion’ within learning. Its taken me some time to consider the challenges offered by the great twitter world but here it is.

The workshop I planned is one of my favourites to run because each time I learn more about the people in it; both real and imagined. Each time the session is run the participants reveal things to me that I had never considered and this tiny street, these people’s lives become ever more real to me. I’ll explain.

The workshop focuses on a street in Manchester called Chapel Street. During WW1 161 men left to participate in the war. Not all returned. Using some very simple DiE techniques this street and the people who were ‘left behind’ are discovered. There is very little ‘action’ in the session. It is of course active, there is productive tension but it is a series of freeze frames, thought tracking and some very short role play. In fact the participants say very little but imagine a lot. They are taken through a day in the life pre war, considering their reactions to a family member leaving for war (standing on the door steps/looking out the windows or turning their backs as there loved ones leave for war) and finally imagining that they receive news of their loved one through a letter. Afterwards someone tweeted that the content and indeed the session was highly emotional and that it was this that made it powerful and a rich learning experience. A concern was raised that to make something ’emotional’ is manipulative. The session however doesn’t aim for emotion, it aims for understanding. In order to have empathy and to begin to understand what drama offers is a ‘lived-through’ experience where you are invited to place yourselves as human beings in that moment, imagining that situation and those decisions.

Someone cried. To be honest I usually cry after this workshop. Not a self indulgent cry (I hope not anyway!) but an utter sadness about how it could have been, how I imagine it to be, the loss of those family members, the loss of all of those men, that war, that damned war, the war they thought would be over by Christmas. My personal aim for this workshop is that it brings to life the names etched on memorials. We see a memorial, see a list of names and then we imagine those lives. I am emotional but its not ‘oh dearism’. I imagine every time I see a memorial. I can fill a two minute silence with my meaning.

In this session the site was further revealed to me. The workshop is based on the terrace street and we build the homes along the street. But in this session we were in a small classroom and not a hall. Because of this each ‘house’ created was right next door to anothers. And what we learnt, what we realised, what we came to question was how thin were the terrace walls between each house? In a street where 60 households sent men could that mean that when a family heard the worst news possible that I, next door, would be able to hear? What does that mean for me when/if I receive good news? Do I stifle my joy? Do I still shout aloud that he is safe/he is injured but he’s on his way home? If I can hear next door what does that mean for me? And so we were left wondering and pondering questions about community and responsibility. And I left thinking about the impact of what is overheard.

But this was accidental. It was emotional but not planned for. The workshop however is constructed to leave space for these questions to arise, for these moments to happen. But other moments are carefully constructed to bring the participants into the moment, so that ‘they’ are present as themselves in the fictional world they have created. It may/may not be emotional but what it does intend is that they reflect on what they would do. One of the nodal points or not/but moments in the workshop focuses on when the men leave for war. The choice is given to the participants (who are in role as the family members of these men) to consider what they would do ‘if’ it were them. I ask them “If it were your son, brother, father would you go and wave goodbye on the steps of your house or would you say your goodbyes in private?”. Before I elaborate on the decision, build the space, clarify the nodal point I need them to bring themselves into the moment. It isn’t about bringing them ‘out’ of role’ its about bring ‘them’ in to the world. The aim is that they answer as themselves not in the role that they have spent time creating in the session. It’s done simply. “Do you have a brother?” I ask one participant. She answers by pointing at another participant in her fictional family group. “No” I gently say, lowering my tone so it is a more intimate, safe exchange “Do you have a brother”. She is confused for a moment but answers “yes”. I ask her what he is called. “John” she says. “John.” I repeat. The repetition and stillness after saying his name is essential. For by repeating his name we not only bring her into the space but him too. He is now one of the men she imagines is leaving. He is there on this street in Manchester about to leave for WW1 and he is also with us in this small classroom in a school in Toulouse. I ask one or two more and then to all “Bother? cousin? father?” Again stillness while they silently answer bringing each of them into the space with us. And then I ask the question again”If it were your son, brother, father would you go and wave goodbye on the steps of your house or would you say your goodbyes in private?”

After this moment had been played out in our story and we were reflecting one woman spoke that this was an ’emotional’ moment for her. She has two sons. It was emotional  she said because it was at that moment that she realised that her sons were old enough now to go to war, that their sons went to war, that her sons would have been going. As she talks she flips in and out of the fictional world, the real world and the historical context we are exploring.  Of course she factually knew that sons went to war, but now she knows what that means. Her sons are now old enough to go to war, to enlist and say goodbye, to walk down the terrace streets and leave in uniform just like those boys did from Chapel Street 100 years ago. Those boys became her boys and because of that we all understood more about war, about the people and about the human cost. Now this could be seen as manipulative. But this isn’t a John Lewis advert. Its not played FOR the emotion but does ask you to be there as you, in that moment reflecting on what your actions might be in those given circumstances.

When we find the humanity in the curriculum that’s when we really ‘learn’. We learnt. we learnt that boys went to war, that mothers said goodbye and that thin walls stifled our joy and allowed us to share in others grief. What humaness means and what it means to be human in this world is what this work is about.

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