If Oceans Could Talk

June 24, 2021
By
Michael Abercromby
Rachel Cusack

IF OCEANS COULD TALK 

Case Study: Term 3

School: Wembley Primary School

Teachers: Rachel Cusack & Hannah Cox

Year Group: 5/6

Creative Practitioner: Michael Abercromby

Creative Practice: Theatre 

Main Curriculum Focus: English – Literature and Literacy. Features of literary texts, creating literary texts, oral presentation, listening and speaking interactions. 

Cross-curricular Links: Science – Biological sciences, use and influences of science. 
HASS – Hass skills, geography, history.

CONTEXT

Wembley is a well equipped and progressive primary school. Situated in an affluent suburb, it is obvious when you enter the school that there is a concerted effort to promote play, autonomy and time outside. The students are articulate, engaged and it seems that many of them have outside interests and various extensions of their learning, including sport, creative practice and hobbies. That is not to say that some students aren’t having difficulty with their time at school, and as with all kids this age, they are largely still finessing their ability to collaborate and negotiate. 

“The students have improved their flexibility and are being disciplined. They are gaining agency, they have control and they are learning self-management. They are becoming open to try something without the fear of being right or wrong. That process is really important” - Rachel Cusack (Teacher


The classroom, or classrooms, are a combination of a year 5 and a year 6 class. These classes are mixed whenever possible, sharing a lot of time and resources with each other. As a result, we opted to embrace this collaboration already in place and include both classes in the creative session. Rachel and Hannah have very free flowing classrooms with flexible arrangements, which include a great resource of white board desks, allowing simple collaboration. They already have a great deal of creativity embedded in the classroom. 

We embarked on a journey of a self-directed media project inspired by the schools inquiry statement; “If Oceans could talk …” After spending time dissecting how they learn and how they could tackle a project like this, we allowed the students to have a say over their preferred media, topic and groups, and they started producing examples of media inspired by this inquiry statement. 

“When asked two questions about the project, 1. What they were excited about, and 2. What they were worried about, a huge majority wrote the same thing for both questions: Freedom, working with friends and making decisions. Turns out students are just as scared of having freedom and responsibility as some teachers are of giving it. But, we wouldn’t have known this without asking them about it.” - Creative Practitioner



WHAT WE DID 

During the first meeting with Rachel, I was introduced to Hannah from the class next door. They talked through their class and we shared what we were hoping to get out of it. I shared some positives and negatives from previous years, and we got to brainstorming. Originally we leaned towards a movie festival, but we wanted to leave room for the students’ voices, so expanded to a media festival. This allowed them to pursue whatever they wanted within the field of media, from podcasts to cinema and everything in between. The only thing we wanted was for them to have something recorder by the end, so it could be watched and repeated. The school has an inquiry sentence: “If oceans could talk …” which the students were keen to incorporate into this project. I was more than happy, as it provided a starting point away from the curriculum, and allowed a focus for all the abstract exercises. We decided to play the long game and spend some time building towards a project to be completed in term 4.

“It is fun and memorable and unique because we have never done something like this. It is something to look forward to. We are learning very important life skills. We are also learning theatre skills. We are learning skills of creativity, boosting our minds and our intellectual strength.” - Student


Most important to me was engaging the student voices. In reflection on my practice, that was the area that I wanted to improve the most, as this seemed the most common thread among successful projects from other practitioners. We spent the first few weeks investigating the idea of learning. This was aimed to demystify the process they were involved in. Using constant collaboration, we had the students contemplate the purpose of learning, and how they like to learn. This was a great way for us to collect ideas as well as get them to really think about why they were at school, and the role the teachers played. We talked about how learning is documented and collected, and got them to think about how they like to prove their learning. This sounds dry, but they all jumped at the opportunity to share how they like to learn and show their learning. 

“Once the learning process is explained, and students are included in the conversation about the purpose of school, assessment and subjects, and given a voice about how they like to learn, and provide proof of their own learning, all of a sudden there is a contract, rather than a power hierarchy. With that contract comes ownership and accountability, meaning that when they mess up, it’s not about whether they have gone against a set of rules that they were forced to comply with, it’s about whether they are sabotaging themselves and their own opportunities.” - Creative Practitioner


We also spent a long time, most of the term in fact, talking about how we should do a project. We mined the students for ideas and slowly introduced elements of a potential project. We finally landed at the media project, allowing complete choice of topic and media style within a few guidelines: 

  1. Groups between 2 and 6 people.
  2. Must be inspired by the inquiry phrase “If Oceans could talk.” 
  3. Must be able to be recorded.
  4. Must teach the audience something (even if it's a moral lesson, in the case of a fictional story).


Largely, we avoided direct curriculum teaching, and instead allowed an exploration of the students’ ideas. The media literacy of the students is very high, so we were able to get them to explore these ideas within the framework of a media project. Now that the project is in flight, there are certain elements which will become assessable, and it will be used to collect evidence of presenting information, creation of literary texts and research skills. The biggest focus of the Creative Habits was persistence, collaboration and inquisitiveness. The teachers had acknowledged that it was the long game that students struggled with the most. They were only viewing tasks as completable, with an emphasis on demonstrating the completeness of the task. We disrupted this entirely by keeping initial tasks simply theoretic thought exercises, and then moving onto possible projects. The possible projects week was infuriating for the completionists who wanted to know what and when, and how much work was needed by what time, with the only response being, “whatever you want, you can decide later.” Then moving into a multi week-long project that required more than one weeks work meant that the persistence is going to be required and they will not get the constant affirmation of a completed step or task. Currently we are in perfect limbo, not knowing really how these projects will progress, knowing only that we have 7 weeks to allow them to play out. 


“I like Creative Schools lessons because we are being independent, and we get to do lots of different things. We get to choose what we want to do, rather than having too many limits to what we do.” - Student

WHAT WAS THE IMPACT?

Student Impact 

The students’ ability to reflect has really improved, and their ability to self manage on a task continues to improve each week. The reflection aspect was another focus of mine, as it's something I always struggle to squeeze in. What was particularly interesting was the ability of the students to address their strengths and weaknesses in an honest way. The sense of freedom and autonomy was seen largely as a positive and negative by the students, the excitement of choice, but the acknowledgement that it was difficult. After the initial excitement of freedom, students have realised that the more work they put in the better the outcome. Some were able to apply their reflections, but some still continue to reflect astutely, but still struggle to translate that reflection into practice. That is a personal challenge for next term. 

“Creative Schools lessons are different, because they are more fun and engaging. It's a bit like inquiry. You have to work well. We probably have more of a say in Creative Schools lessons. It is really, really fun.” - Student

“Creative Schools is an exquisite experience. We are making memories, to live on.” - Student


Teacher Impact

The teachers have a very creative process already and have continued to be patient with the process. Immediately they have noticed a greater understanding of the point of learning, a learning literacy perhaps, where they understand what this schooling process is for, what the outcomes are and what the teachers do to prepare for it. It has been difficult at times to watch the choices play out opposite to the reflection, (like an almost perfect gender split with group choice and a preference for friends to stick together, even if they had reflected they worked better with others) but it has been encouraging that the teachers have continued to stick to the goal of allowing choices where we said there would be choices. Ultimately the cure to this is more reflection.

“Rachel is an aspiring leader. She is in the office one day a week. We are mapping critical and creative thinking to inquiry. We are taking it to the year level hubs now. Rachel will lead these hubs. We have got momentum now.” - Deputy Principal


Creative Practitioner Impact 

I have had a greater emphasis in two areas this year that I identified as areas I could improve on from last year and the benefits have been extraordinary. It has really re-emphasised the importance of reflection and learner agency, and applying these in a way which work off each other. 


“I came from teaching in country areas where there was less focus on academic discipline and rigour. I felt constrained when I came to the city, but now, with Creative Schools, I feel more free. This is definitely a benefit for me. I have felt a bit stifled into pigeonholes. This has given me more flexibility. Working with a creative – I have never had that opportunity. I could let go a little bit. It is nice to just have him talk and bring new ideas to encourage the children's creativity. I felt stifled a lot by the curriculum. He has shown me how to make the habits, really real, especially being imaginative. It gives us new angles to look on how to design and deliver lessons to encourage creativity across the board. Teachers are very content driven here. We don't want to lose that. But we have to be smarter in how we can use the curriculum to drive these skills.” - Rachel Cusack (Teacher)