Creative Practitioner: Michael Abercromby
Creative Practice: Music, Theatre
School: Yule Brook College
Teacher: Anne Veenstra
Year Group: Year 7
Main Curriculum Focus – HASS – Cultural Studies
Cross-curricular Links – Literacy, Media
Yule Brook College is an independent public school that uses the Big Picture Education (BPE) model, catering for students between year 7 and 10. The school motto, “One student at a time” really rings true in this place, as the focus of the big picture style is to help students unlock their interests and passions so they can gain employment, apprenticeships, or access to further education in VET or ATAR by the end of their time at Yule Brook College.
The year 7 students that I have been working with have just begun their time at this new place, and the cohort represents the large amounts of cultural diversity present in their community. This diversity is definitely celebrated in the school and there is a particular focus on Indigenous culture and support which is evident in the staff uniforms, local language used, Clontarf transition programs and the teaching staff.
The school is working to improve elements of the students’ lives, and is working with students who aren’t as advantaged as others in the public school system, or perhaps haven’t had as much exposure to what is possible. The staff are excellent in working within this unique environment and take on multiple unofficial roles as mentors, facilitators and counsellors, continuously working with the students in a flexible way to keep them engaged and developing.
WHAT WE DID
For this first term of the Creative Schools program, we worked towards a showing for the end of term NAIDOC celebrations. The year 7s had a slot in the celebration week, and accordingly Anne and I wanted to develop some sort of performance or public showing to allow the students to come out of their shells a little, and introduce different ways of communicating. We didn’t quite get there for a number of reasons, not least of all because the lockdown happened in the final week of term when the showing was meant to be, but we had some great breakthroughs along the way.
Unlike other curriculum-driven schools, the Big Picture initiative is more about encouraging the students to take control of their own destiny and decide what they are interested in, and work in a long-term capacity. Because of this, Anne’s big objective for Creative Schools was to introduce and develop the students’ ability to work on longer term projects and demonstrate to them the type of working that is required. Using the NAIDOC showing as an end goal, we introduced this way of working with the students and tried to facilitate this long-term, project-based way of thinking to the entire cohort.
We started the project by introducing the students to different elements of performance through a ‘tasting platter’ of different styles of performance, including dance, theatre, video art, music and storytelling. The aim of this was to show the students what was possible, and then ask them what interested them and where they would like to become involved. From this initial introduction, the students overwhelmingly voiced a desire to pursue the more technical elements of performance, developing vision and sound rather than performing in a more traditional, theatrical sense. Some of the Aboriginal boys were keen to learn some traditional dance and music, which was facilitated by the Aboriginal Education Officer at the school, Auntie Tammie, and the other year 7 teacher, Mr Colbung. So with this initial introduction we had a framework of what we were trying to achieve.
The students were placed in groups based on their interests and we divided the work into 5 categories, CULTURE (the boys working on dance) BEFORE, DESTRUCTION, HEALING and HEALED as a way of focusing the work into a through line and providing a narrative to the work, whatever form it would take. These groups then found information, images and sounds to create a multimedia slideshow along these themes.
After much exploration around images, including physical bodies in space in tableau, we were struggling to find ways of tying everything together whilst also demonstrating the students' knowledge about Aboriginal cultural issues around the NAIDOC theme in a way that the students were comfortable with. So we explored Haikus as a simple way of conveying knowledge, emotion and message in a creative and minimalistic way. This proved to be a really beautiful tool, and the poems that came out matched perfectly with the images the students had been collecting, and demonstrated their knowledge of the issues surrounding the themes we were exploring. I edited together the images and haikus so the students' work could be presented live.
Although we didn’t get to complete this project, and we had difficulties along the way, the aim of providing an opportunity to demonstrate to the students long-term project planning and processes through involving them in a long-term project worked well. Anne was adamant in her approach, which meant that the students, as well as Anne and I, had to be persistent and disciplined in our approach throughout.
Those students that struggled with this were able to see how persistence had paid off for other students who had stuck with difficulty by the end of the project. The group work forced a need to collaborate, and again, the ones that had difficulties with this in their group were able to learn the importance of it. The Haikus offered a really minimalist way to interpret and display information which required a great deal of imagination and inquisitiveness. Although there was some lovely creativity displayed amongst the students, I think the real benefit of this project will be in our reflection and discussion of it, something that we weren’t able to complete because of the lockdown.
WHAT WAS THE IMPACT?
The students were split among those that really engaged with the activities and those that didn’t, which was frustrating at times, but it became clear that largely this was to do with a low tolerance for risk and failure. If you try, you might fail, but if you don’t try you can’t fail. One student with the Haikus was stumped, adamant that she could not do it: “I don’t know how” she said. I told her to prove that she didn’t know how, and if she could prove that I would let her be. “So I just put words down and see if they work?” “Yep” I replied. Within 10 minutes she had written two that she was very proud of. This was a small victory, but showed me late in the term the type of blocks creating some of the reluctance to take part in creative work. The ones that engaged immediately were able to clearly see the importance of the creative habits of learning, particularly persistence and collaboration. This was clear in their reflections, but also in how they started to self-police their own cohort. I look forward to exploring this further with them in Term 3.
Anne expressed her joy at being able to explore creatively again. Additionally, while I could not help but see the disengagement of some students, Anne was seeing the engagement and was really pleased with how deeply students were engaging, and the ideas they were coming up with.
It was interesting for me in this process how many of the creative habits I had to employ to engage and excite the student cohort, particularly persistence. I found that I needed to remind myself that this way of learning, this school and these ideas were all new to these students. It has really reinforced to me the need for reflection for the students as well as openness and vulnerability from the creative and teacher. As a result, I am really looking forward to discussing and dissecting this project next term with the students and demonstrating my own comfort with discomfort and sticking with difficulty to help them become comfortable with it in turn.
The project expanded to involve another class, and a few other staff members. This expansive need to include more people really helped disseminate the program and what it was trying to achieve. I hope we can engage these people more next term.
“Creative, because you get to make up things. It has to be in the curriculum but it’s more imaginative.”
“Usually lessons are set and you do lots of writing but in Creative Schools there is some writing but there’s more hands on stuff.”
“Everyone is being more cooperative and imaginative. People are more into it than normal class.”
“We are learning how to be more creative and imaginative. How to think outside of the box. Being more collaborative.”
“Creative Schools is cool and fun. It’s different. Michael is not a teacher. He doesn’t teach us like a teacher. He adjusts to what we want to do and what we are enjoying learning.”
“Our Creative Michael is great! Because he listens to our ideas. He gives us a chance to say what we think.”
“Everyone is enjoying it, the teachers and kids are happy.”
“Being persistent is.....hard, because when you don’t do something right you feel like you want to give up. Creative Schools has given me a chance to try again if I get something wrong.”
Interview with a student about the NAIDOC week Reconciliation Video that students created for Creative Schools:
“We had to be creative and use our brain. Making the video was about healing. We had to think of the future while we were making the video. There was destruction across land. The healing came next when the world is healed. We need to stop destruction and stop chopping trees down. The video is about reconciliation and everyone coming together and living in peace.”
"We then decided to get them to write haiku poems and we made a video with them for Naidoc week. It was hard to get the kids to come up with ideas initially. When we did the haikus, that's when we saw the magic. That's when they started really developing their own ideas. At exhibitions last term, the students talked about Creative Schools. We use the creative habits wheel a lot. They were able to identify, particularly that perseverance and discipline was lacking. Working with Michael, my latent creativity has come out again, and it has been latent for a long time. It has been really nice to rediscover my creativity. It has reinforced for me how important things like warm ups are for the kids. The kids really love Michael. There has been real impact on individual student. In some of the quietest students I've seen real commitment and drive from them. The less lively kids have stepped up to take the lead in the group. The collaboration and having a say have made a real difference. They have found their voice. It was really good. They might not have found it in normal lessons. With the Haiku recordings some of the Aboriginal boys came to record some of the words in Noongar language. Initially they were reluctant, but they did get involved and went with Michael to record it. It was unbelievable when I heard it. I nearly cried. Having the confidence and the courage to do that was brilliant. They wrote the words, chose the images and recorded their Haiku poems This is their work. They are proud of what they have done and what they have made."