Teen Drama

Monday, 5 March 2018

Teen Drama

A play about the Great War and 1916
Uprising. Available in the NAYD playshare
scheme and widely performed.

Working with teens either in school settings or other venues it is good to look for meaty topics that can expand awareness from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic. Drama’s potential to expand our sense of the human condition is not to be wasted!  Plus we give ourselves topics that yield lots of depth over time with hooks, hidden characters, latent themes and back stories.

Expanding awareness of human struggles, the comedic, the tragic and inspiring broadens the teenagers’ awareness of their own and others entanglements and search for clarity, meaning and recognition. At the same time, it offers opportunities to explore emotional depths, expressive potentials and story realms that are relevant and can build compassion, insight and depth.

Working as an ensemble to meet a deadline with a social end builds discipline, resilience and organisational skill.

How can we maximise this?

Out of a study of the History of Drama which included Antigone, The Frogs, Shaw and Shakespeare, the group really wanted not comedy but tragedy and were ecstatic to take on King Lear which we took on tour in Ireland, performing in Ennis, Kilkenny, and Tuamgraney.

Some people question doing Lear with teenagers but this was the third time I had directed it and just as in previous times, I found they truly loved it and met an incredible transcendence through it. What can you do after Lear? Of course the Lear has to have the strength and stamina for the enormous range and length the part asks for. Supported by strong characters all around and steeped in the spirit of play and ensemble, having worked together for so many years and ultimately ballasted by the brilliant bard, they soared.

Our set design was particularly cool with staves as a recurring image, a percussive stick routine to open arrestingly and get the players’ blood moving, and simple tall tripods of staves from which we hung banners, flags, shields and emblems. All made by the students and easily portable. Cliff and I collaborated on the flyer and were quite proud of that one.

Developing a Play with
the Tuamgraney Theatremakers

This play was developed with a mixed age group from 13 to 20years old called  The Tuamgraney Theatremakers. Through games, improvisation  and discussion we worked through various ideas for a play.
1917 Russian Play
The formative event in Irish land history, the Bodyke Eviction was a tremendous group improvisation but did not have traction for the group to want to develop  further. It is a great theme but the group cannot be forced. We played around with sieges and extreme events and recreated the 20c Leningrad Siege, reputedly the worst siege in history. Russia has magnetism for teens with its extremes of intensity which  has a natural resonance with teenagers.

I brought in two Chekov one act comedies to kick off the new year which were hugely popular. As characters grew: the mentally damaged poet in the asylum, the bullying landowner, the obsessed, the lovesick and the bored, cooks, old aristocrats and a put upon dispossessed goatboy. Soon we had our tale which synchronised  with the Bolshevik Revolution only a hundred years earlier. The turbulence sets the scene as the Rostapovitch family are catapaulted into their country home, a month earlier than usual and so set the cook, the locals and their own family into a hilariously corkscrew comedy where each person has a driving momentum that inevitably clash, create friction and eventually resolution.

Hypnosis was hugely popular in Russia after the trauma of the Great War, offering a serendipitous plot mechanism and comedic potential, as well as alluding to a serious historical conflict which is played out on a larger and a smaller scale  in this farce.

If you want to use this play contact me 
Suitable for ages 13 to 21 years and up

A Wild Goose Chase a play ALFA is producing this year. This is another farce loosely based on the life of Richard Puckridge, an Eighteenth century inventor who created the first glass harp. The first scene opens in a dance academy in Cadiz where an obsessive dance teacher, Consuela, unfolds her plan to steal the harp with the help of her seafaring brother, Alejandro and so inject new life into the great Spanish Ranfanfanfantasticofandango that may otherwise be eclipsed forever by the new French dance of ballet.

Against a background of The Great Frost of 1739, the Irish Penal Codes and the secret Hedge schools and the role of music for both men and women in the 18c, this madcap comedy is stuffed with music and dance and offers us a gallery of characters who are hurled together as the story unfolds: Irish grave diggers and  ghosts, smugglers, a pedantic dictionary compiler, identical cousins, one French one, one Spanish, a trio of singing sisters and Richard Puckridge and his sister Lettice, to name a few.

A brief excerpt from
A Wild Goose Chase
Many of the parts were inspired by what we revealed through improvisation. Other parts came unbidden to serve our story which is ultimately about fusion, blend diversity and tolerance. We are all brothers and art is not competitive but life affirming.

Next week we begin rehearsing with Stephanie Keane who is bringing her fantastic blend of Irish and Iberian dance as seen in her work with band Sporco Blanco. Dawn Zabala Dickey has been working on music with classical songs from Handel and Purcell. This week  we move into traditional Irish folk songs.

Friday, 26 September 2014

NUI Galway Conference
Here is a flyer for an exciting conference in NUI Galway on November 15th, 2014. Topics include literacy for the developing child, the arts and how rich narratives can inspire multi faceted learning.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Drama at the Heart of the Curriculum: NAPD Leader article
Here's an article published in the autumn 2014 edition of the  NAPD journal for Irish Principals and Deputy Principals. I wrote it to illuminate how we can use drama for integrating curricula. Drawing on experience in two different secondary school settings it demonstrates ways to activate a variety of learning styles and curriculum content through the revised Junior Cycle schema.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Integrating Curriculum through Drama


Co-devised with 14 year olds as part of an integrated curriculum, we developed this play out of historical themes of revolution, science, language: English and French. Renovating the old school house in Scarriff, County Clare became a community endeavour which gave us a wonderfully stark and spacious warehouse-like performing space. The students gained a certain sovereignty and empowerment in making the space theirs while a family of nesting birds was left in the rafters to sing along.

Following include extracts from student journals which provided materials for an exhibition set up first in the public area of the school and then moved to a display at the performance space.


 Below are story-board drawings for
key elements of the industrial revolution.

 Below, a diagram of James Watt's steam engine and its realisation in our stage set

 Below, classwork supporting oracy and literacy


Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Activating our Students Creative Voices

Screeds have been written on this fascinating topic so here is some more........

In working with teenagers, I have found that transitioning from writing plays for students to writing collaboratively with them can animate their own creative process and mine in very substantial and enjoyable ways. The dialogue between ourselves and the characters we create forges trust, lots of humour and sensitises us to how we can know human beings, so attuning us to the murmurs and whispers that every creative soul has burbling away underground. Through the active rhythm of working hands on, creating and developing something for performance, or a particular practical use, we are stimulating an appreciation of the activity and outcome of crafting, potentially sparking both the inspiration and discipline that are required in what the poets call ' a shaping joy'. Quality becomes for our young students a tangible aesthetic and not a mere abstract concept or the name of a type of chocolate.

There are numerous ways to spark the creative and make our teenagers more aware of the creativity within themselves and how generative we can be. Our thoughts are shaped through metaphor, so images and stories of creative lives offer them great inspiration. For example, I use the lightning rod image, the invention of one of the most prolific creative minds ever, that great First American, Benjamin Franklin. After we had studied his life I drew an image of the lightning rod and frequently alluded to it in our writing classes, as an example of how thought and the creative can be grounded and stewarded. Clouds gather in the heavens, analogous to random ideas. Dense thunder clouds collide, producing thunder and lightning, the Sturm and Drang of potent and combustible fire. The rod, as in real life, catches the electricity and directs it to the ground where no harm is done. We too, as creative minds, can channel Promethean Fire and bring it to Earth where body based skills enable our dexterity, our inventive minds and hearts, to find means and modes for our human ingenuity.

The 18c offers a very rich period for this crossing over from a rhythm of life where a world fuelled by wood, wind and water, of cottage industry, the homespun and the homemade, was increasingly replaced by a the world of coal, steam and iron, a modern world of manufacturing. The crucible of the late 18c where James Watt and Benjamin Franklin showed their constant inventive genius helped to change the world. While in the same period, William Blake sang his songs of prophetic poetry, fulfilling the role of another true creative voice, warning us what revolutions were being unleashed upon our world at the possible expense of our humanity. We can ask where the creative ingenuity of women is in this time and where their inventiveness was channelled. In literature a woman might show her insights, private thoughts and imagination. Not long after Mary Wollstencraft was to bring her own explorations of our human machinations and our obsessions with progress in the story of Frankenstein

Benjamin Franklin remains a remarkable and heroic character for our time, an example of a human being concerned with the common good and equality for all human brethren. All his inventions served a practical need and a simple aesthetic. By contrast, across the Atlantic in England, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, patents and monopolies became a political issue and pirating and industrial espionage was rife. James Watt is instructive on what militates against the creative for him. There is nothing more foolish than inventing! he expostulated, so stressful was this stealing of ideas and the cut throat world of patenting. Franklin who was already wealthy, thanks to the success of his printing press, eschewed patents for his inventions placing them in the public domain. These gifts included bifocals, improved street lamps, the Franklin stove, flippers and the glass harmonica, to name a few. Generosity of spirit which he embodied so fully, is often a characteristic of true creativity. For we discover in the creative freely given and received, a sense of abundance in how ideas and inventions arrive and can be shared. Our own age mirrors this in open source aspects of the net and the patronage of current day inventors such as Dyson offering grants and scholarships to young, aspiring, inventive minds.

The creative can reclaim our humanity. It puts us in touch with our feeling life, our mental and spiritual life and, potentially, the moral where the laws of nature teach us about both boundary and the infinite. No more than the arts are a decoration or an ornament, so the creative is not just useful as another job skill for our CV. but rather, vital for connecting us to ourselves and each other. The field of drama shows this very clearly, in the cultivation of give and take, the listening ear for what works like music, transitions, rising and falling, contrasts, climaxes and resolutions of narrative and the empathy and eye involved in reading and sharing human foibles and strengths.

True education happens an environment where teachers can work cooperatively to foster the creative in their students. Political manipulation and prescription rather than safeguarding our students, erodes the spirit of the teachers and in turn the potential of their students' learning. Blake again has much to say about the binding with briars, the joys and desires of young people, threatened then as they are today, by the deadening manacles of a stillborn and oppressive authority. The recovery of what makes us human and the connection to our creative that in turn, connects us to the wider Creation itself is discovered and celebrated through humour, language, metaphor, ideas, fallow time, ref James Watt and Archimedes, risk taking, a sense of freedom, in failing and above all the sense of wonder.

Here is a short extract from a play collaboratively written with fourteen year olds, based on a true tale of industrial espionage and the life of James Watt, inventor of the modern steam engine.

            (France 1779 in the tavern Les Trois Cochons Ivres)

Monsieur Gaspar Prony: a French engineer
Jacques: a manservant to the Mayor of Chaillot

Please, tell the mayor that in order to secure his water works at Chaillot, the first and foremost of their kind, mark you, I will need to undertake a little trip to scout out, you understand, the new inventions of Watt.

Jacques: (slight pause) What Monsieur Prony?

Prony: Precisely! Watt!

Jacques: Precisely what Monsieur Prony?

Prony: James Watt! He is a Scot! He now resides in the heart of England in the town of Smeth..wick near Bir-ming-'am. where he dabbles in...... (looks around surreptitiously)...steam machines.  (puffing up) Your master, the Mayor of Chaillot, understands of course that we French with our magnificent (pompous gesture) heritage of reason, science and natural philosophy may have more than a few things to teach this Scot who lives and trades in England. 

Jacques: Yes, Monsieur Prony, I understand perfectly. It does sound very interesting. I know my master the Mayor is indeed very enthusiastic to have a waterworks powered by steam in Chaillot.

Prony: (nervous and then enthusiastic) This project is more than interesting! It is literally ground breaking my friend. It is both.....cutting edge and visionary! We would be making a mark for notre patrie, pour toute la France! Why to combine this with the French genius for both engineering and science (clasps his hands in joy and proud triumph) far could it go? But first, we need to take this little trip across La Manche.

Jacques: Yes M'sieu Prony. Undercover M'sieu Prony? We have just gone to war with England have we not Monsieur?

Prony: S'il vous plait! (sshing and spraying Jacques as looking around nervously despite his own recent volume) Not so vulgar! Under cover? No! No! My good friend this will merely be a discreet affair. A little investigation. All above board.

Jacques: Discreet quite, quite so. (ironically) My master says Monsieur would you please come to his house in Chaillot tomorrow morning at ten? He has some important contacts he wishes you to meet.

Prony: Important? Are we perchance talking patronage? L' Academe des Sciences de Paris perhaps? Or are we talking.....his Majesty... King Louis? He has patronised my work before you know and thought very highly of it.

Jacques: I am not privy to the details Monsieur Prony regarding patronage or where or how he project may be funded but there are two brothers he wishes you to meet.

Prony: What?

Jacques: No, not Watt! Perrier! Les freres Perrier. Can I tell the mayor you will be there?....

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Example of a history lesson using the fishbowl method of discussion

A group of fourteen year olds gather into groups of four, designating a leader and a note taker with easy efficiency. Within minutes they are assembling key points either to defend or prosecute the King of France. Rooted in their knowledge of the French Revolution, they are assembling evidence for each key assertion they will make in response to the catalytic statement of Maximilian Robespierre 'The King must die for the Revolution to live'.

Divided into groups of royalists and revolutionaries we will go further and further into make believe, as language, thought, and reflection connect to themes of revolution and sovereignty which we have been studying and which have archetypal resonance for this age. The more I can draw on those deep patterns of symbolic play, and exchange, the more the students will say yes to becoming present to learning.

In the run up to this cooperative group activity, we have stretched and moved, sung and recited a poem - Liberty Tree by Thomas Paine - and now, as we settle into the next phase of our lesson, a cohesion warms the group and differences find their own level. For adolescents, as much as any age, what can support their increasingly individuated styles of learning is crucial. Connecting to what has gone before and what beckons from the future, offers a living context. The more vivid our learning the more we can know ourselves and how we learn (AaL). As pubescent turmoil takes over, our burgeoning powers of cognition, powerful inner feelings, and rapidly changing bodies can colour and confuse. Self consciousness emerges as the painful enabler of growing self awareness. 

Meanwhile, the students are very productively engaged as lively royalists and revolutionaries, considering the topic of a king on trial, a beheading and the implications of their actions. They will now divide into two circles for what is called a Fishbowl Discussion. Inner circle and outer circle are facing inwards, each circle composed of equal numbers of royalists and revolutionaries. The protocols of discussion are set and then the debate begins as the inner circle conducts the debate and the outer circle observes. Passions rise, engagement deepens, moral arguments fill the space, while the teacher is able to move increasingly from facilitating into an active witnessing role. After a time, if a member of the outer circle wishes to engage directly in discussion, they tap a person in front of them on the shoulder and indicate their wish to participate directly and so seats are exchanged-often a number of times. Discussion continues and the realm of make believe takes us deeper and deeper into the truths of a challenging question that marked a turning point in modern history.

In reflecting together afterwards about what we have learnt, students are amazed at how passionate they became and how much there was to say. As a teacher I delight, as do they,  in the intensity and articulate clarity of engagement and how students who might not speak suddenly are kindled into expressing new points of view. The follow up activity next day or for homework, will be to organise the arguments into opposing columns and write our conclusions. No one will struggle with this.  Fluency characterises our next steps.

Reflective practice: what have I learnt as teacher?
  • That language, thought and action are most alive when kindled in a context that has directly met the needs of the body and feeling life. The affective and cognitive work together.
  • That meaning is made by the students themselves through making something both collaboratively and in resistance to each other.
  • That direct exchange with each other engages students when they are held in a structure that allows scaffolding - a gentle coaching towards autonomy and ease.
  • That the theme, when developmentally relevant, is a mother lode for both teacher and student in terms of connection and further material and activity.
  • That changing roles from facilitator to witness enables me to observe afresh how students are active. Distance changes perspective and allows me to see what they might need next and what speaks.
  • That their own assessment and my own of the learning taking place happens organically and efficiently with knowledge of the subject living at the heart of the lesson.
Literacy is not just about reading and writing but about navigating the world. Making meaning leads to literacy. Skill grows out of a desire and need. My job as teacher is to attend with patient vigilance to the ripening I see before me, find models of good language and subvert where I can monosyllabic, cliche reductions. In mainstream educational reform much is now made of the need in the 21c to stress speaking and making, as much as, writing and reading. If we remind ourselves the oral was the cradle for the written word, that tool use and language evolved together, that song and melody preceded language, and that whole brain learning requires working with movement, gesture, and song to awaken to activate our right hemisphere, as much as the left we can support more modes and styles of learning.

Student's write-up of French Revolution debate

Narrative is now widely acknowledged as the leitmotif of how we make meaning our own and so find our place in the world.  Freedom comes through knowing myself and moving between, the ground of skills, activated through and by the body and the limbs, and the mountain top where altitude allows us to see, sift, select, and determine choices and next steps.

Literacy is not just a skill but part of our social glue, a way of knowing ourselves, of naming and charting the world through the poetry of metaphor and the rhythm of the familiar, as well as the strange and surprising. When joy accompanies our growing literacy we have fuel in our engine for life. If in the early years, children have been nourished in playful language, in rich storytelling, and in symbolic play, then in the teen years they are much more likely to embrace and connect with the empowering and sustaining vibrancy and deep listening that a rich feeling for language can offer.

Extract from an article published in Kindling magazine

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Landscape of Assessment

Getting things going and pinning things down

Schema and definitions are supposed to help us clarify a dynamic process. With the use of charts I try to represent the dynamic interplay that goes on when we are learning and teaching. Maps and images, once grasped, may be more easily remembered. Getting active education to feel active on the page is not necessarily so easy!  Research confirms just how much is going on in a classroom at any one time, as if we teachers didn't know that. How then do we get a handle on it all? Setting up assessment so that both our students and we as teachers know where they stand, and how well they are learning, requires a framework. The framework needs to be based on relevant skills and how we actually learn.

Overview of  the dynamic between the metacognitive, the formative, and the implementation of skills 

An overview of metacognition, formative learning, and assessment and the activation of skills

Since the late 20c two other types of assessment besides Assessment of Learning (AoL) have been identified in learning. These are typically known as  (AfL) Assessment for Learning and (AaL) Assessment as Learning. Each assessment mode is formally distinctive but also needs to be seen as fluid and interpenetrating between realms. These diagrams  attempt to show the dynamic of how we assess learning in ways that are different according to the function and context, but also how the movement between the realms of metacognition, learning formatively over time, and the activating of skills, all weave together. Each realm mutually influences the others in an evolving process. This might make it easier to see how active formative assessment is really bonded with process based education and why comment and reflection are the engines of both student and teacher development.

The Six Major Skill Areas 

Mastering the skills

This may be the dominant preoccupation for many of us as teachers. Are we supporting our students sufficiently in achieving the skills they need for the challenges they face and the 21c world they must navigate? All the major skills can be identified under the key six categories identified by the NCCA and an enormous number are developed through interaction with others. Self awareness grows in relation to the other. Students come alive when they feel growing competency that is tangible, experienced through their own bodies and reflected back to them. I deliberately represent skills at the earth or soil level since this idea of evolving tool use, activation through our bodies, movement and operation is fundamental to how we know ourselves in the world. I can tie my shoe laces, I can carve, I can write, I can code. Seamus Heaney's poem Digging evokes the contrasts of digging with a spade and writing poetry with a fat squat pen. Both are tools and both require skill. Being Heaney, neither one is elevated over the other.

The metacognitive and formative realms of learning and evaluating are treated in greater depth below. The chart represents the metacognitive (AaL) by contrast with the skills at the sky level,the aerial perspective which offers altitude and overview to learning and is guided by key questions. The formative learning and assessment (AfL) is seen as the middle realm influenced by and influencing the other two realms. The physical is helpful as a metaphor but is also essential for a kinaesthetic knowing and too often abstracted out of classroom learning. Many skills are activated through the limbs, known through the body, and so grow in muscularity and tone. The metacognitive can be seen as how the mind frames strategic questions, adapts, and directs while growing in self awareness. The formative middle realms work in time and represent the duration of the course we are studying. This path we tread together is  book-ended by the projected goal at the end and the criteria at the beginning which is rooted in how we have assessed and diagnosed learning needs.

Assessment as Learning: metacognitive
How do I know what I know?

Functions of the Metacognitive

When our students reflect on what they have learnt and how they learn, questions are activated. These kinds of questions open the door into a much larger awareness of our personal and individual ways of learning and how we can evaluate our strengths and challenges. As we discover the strategies that work for us, the subjects that kindle our interest, and how we can recall and synthesise information, autonomy and self direction become increasingly possible.

For teachers and students the key metacognitive question is 'What do I understand about how I learn?'  Moving easily into this realm gives us altitude and perspective on how we learn. Insight, Eureka experiences, and an enhanced self knowing increase the joy and motivation to learn. We find our way into new experience and we gain leverage to operate, influence, and actively participate in the world.

The awareness that comes at this level redounds to other levels of learning as the chart overview attempts to show. Process is not linear but interactive and cross-fertilising. So reflective practice, the activity at the heart of awareness, shows us how through all the modes and means of learning available to us, we move between the activity of thinking and doing in the implementation of skills. Reflective practice is fundamental.

Formative assessment is anchored
by Criteria Setting and the Goal

Assessment for Learning: formative

How am I doing? Where are my strengths?
Where are my challenges?
Where do I need to develop?

Involving our students directly in choosing the project, in assessing methods that can be practiced and developed, and in understanding why we do the things we do, immediately increases engagement and meaning. Formative learning or Assessment for Learning happens over time and helps the student to see how they are doing through cumulative and qualitative feedback that comes out of shared learning criteria. This requires clear planning so that the goals, students' needs, the learning criteria and the skills are shared and made explicit. The teacher offers leadership without being overtly directive.

Here is an example of launching a play project using this method
Poster for a production
with Fifteen year olds

1. Meeting, mobilising, and framing the context
The project is introduced by framing the context. The teacher meets and mobilises the students, engaging their enthusiasm for how much their participation will shape the venture. Warming  up, stretching and short games prepare the ground here and get them active from the start.

2. Envisioning the goal/theme
Together we survey the task at hand and the imagined learning outcomes. In this case putting on a play and what we are going to be doing to get it underway. We aim to engage our students as much as possible in sensing how their participation will shape the venture. So envisioning the goal and how we get there, conjuring with them imagined challenges and why we are taking this on, can all serve to map the territory and provide opportunities for humour and a sense of security which will enhance confidence in participating. Our voices, our expression, artistic envisioning, timelines, schedules, a script, and individual journals will be used throughout the process, the latter serving as a regular record and as part of the final evaluation.

3. Focus and criteria
The teacher introduces the focus for this lesson and asks for suggestions. Criteria and learning outcomes are very closely related. We use criteria to guide the learning process towards the desired outcomes and to evaluate those outcomes subsequently. Ensuring active skills are well presented, we might also include a quality we are looking for. The focus might include: taking risks and experimenting with the parts we are reading, finding a sense of flow in the first few scenes, full class participation and sensitivity to others. The focus is where we set criteria according to what we diagnose are the needs. This can be done to great effect with the students.

4. Getting underway
Students take over before one third of our class time has gone.

5. Evaluation and Reflective practice
At the end of the lesson the teacher allows ten minutes or so to guide the evaluation of what has occurred and whether the criteria have been met. This can be noted in the journals as reflective practice and also in discussion. Training our students in this might require the teacher to structure the questions initially, based on the criteria. Three questions can go far and can encourage depth. Lots of questions can trigger glibness. The art of questioning is ensuring that we have enough variety and repetition in the right amounts to get our students familiar with the process, and evolving as thoughtful, keen observers and supportive of each other. The growing quality of the work sharpens the relevance for them of this process and is not merely an exercise.


Sample Reflective Practice Questions

What was our goal today?
What is our long term goal?
Did we see any interesting risks being taken?
What can taking a risk offer us ?
Did we meet our criteria?
Did the rehearsal flow easily or did we need to stop and start  a lot and if so why?
Did everyone offer focus as actor or as audience?
Why do actors need a good audience?
What is working well?
What needs strengthening?

Out of this a brief discussion can take place and the territory charted for next time. This process easily moves us towards the metacognitive. What is easy for me? What can I learn from him/her? What strategies will help me focus?  What do I appreciate about my fellow students? At the same time, we are building a cooperative body where step by  step we invest together in the project. Evaluation can develop from lesson to lesson as :

Peers evaluate each other 
The whole group evaluates the project 
Director/teacher evaluates the journals and takes in every week
    or every other week to comment on what has been noted down.

Process and Product

A play works towards an end product, as does most significant learning. The challenge in a play is to keep everyone actively engaged all the time. Enrolling the students in diagnosing, defining other supportive roles such as  as designing, set making, handling PR and understanding the role of an appreciative audience, builds a microcosm of a healthy society and can activate a large number of social and communicative skills, The gradual schooling of each person helps in finding a voice and activates an array of skills as the reflective practice slowly builds an awareness of how much is going on here, where the student is in control and responsible for his/her own learning. Playing a part beyond the one in which the students has been cast, learning to observe and critique skilfully, to understand and develop mastery of the  skills as the reflective practice grows, learning from mistakes and taking risks, can all add to the appreciation of hard work. Activated learning takes places at very deep levels as a sophisticated knowing and supportive appreciation of each other comes into play.  This is formative and takes time.

Active learning:  developing fencing skills  for a play project

The Eight Phases of a Lesson

The play lesson described above also activates the remaining four phases of the eight phase lesson.

More student talking less teacher talking
Student talking and participation increases as the teacher's decreases. Students may well need help to come into this gradually so that every voice is heard, each student takes a turn at facilitation, group work is high functioning and and universally productive.

Multi-faculty learning
Multi-faculty ways of learning increase as kinaesthetic, visual, and auditory modes are all drawn upon in the course of this lesson. The cognitive, the affective, and activity are also drawn upon.

Students' creativity is engaged as they are asked to express, appreciate, observe and comment. The teacher having established the territory can recede, vocally at least.

Memorisation and recall  can be engaged at the beginning of the lesson. This can include reviewing what was achieved in the previous lesson and might include consulting the journals. Sleep, time and distance are great aids in digestion and reflective practice. 

Foreshadowing and looking ahead builds context, strengthens group resolve and the sense that both the goal and working in time are held. The message to the students is Your input counts but I  can provide goal and framework.

In an earlier post we looked at: Meeting; Moving and Mobilising; Motivating;  and Multi sensory learning

The Role of the Teacher in Assessment for Learning

The framework the teacher offers is the plan. Over time this can come with the invitation for modifications and questions, as can generating the calendar together and looking at how to pace towards the final goal. Diagnosing needs and setting criteria bookends with reflective practice and evaluation every time. The teacher, in conjunction with the students, offers a search light to make explicit and give a sense of value and opportunity to what might be missed or undervalued. The importance attached to things that might be thrown away, such as the journal commentary, attention to changes, development, and hard work, are all fruits of allowing a reflective space for shared digestion and commentary. 

The fundamental task for the teacher in formative learning is to

  • Articulate the goals, set the criteria and framework, and make explicit the activity and skill development that has deepened over time.
  • Develop in role from initiator to facilitator to witness and back again where appropriate.
  • Ensure the environment is safe so that risk taking and making mistakes are seen as a vital and creative part of learning.
  • Develop modes of discussion and decision making that activate all the voices and skills of the group.
  • Encourage each student to discover his/her own goals and the highest standard of his/her learning potential.
  • Create modes of regular qualitative feedback through a variety of sources: individual and peer group as well as teachers.
  • Keep records and summarise your observations.
  • Keep your own reflective journal and cultivate practices that support fallow time and insight: the rewind, walking etc.

Questions for the teacher

  • How can I apply this model to my own lessons?
  • What are the challenges?
  • What benefits do I see?

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Staying Present. Finding Joy in Presence

What do we know but that we face
One another in this place.
                                                 -W.B. Yeats   'Man and the Echo'

Pressed for time and often hungry for nourishment, teachers are, in the best sense of the phrase, 'giving out' all day long. Like health workers, our profession is intensely human with myriad daily interactions. How do we prepare for that moment when we step into the room and launch our lesson onto the waves, with the wind in our sails and all hands on deck? How do we sustain through the day, the week, and the year? How do we keep freshness and positivity as we share the space of four walls and lighting that, all too often, is of a flickering flourescent sort devised by the US navy to grow plants many leagues under the sea.

Preparation, as all good teachers know is more than half the job. Students will pick up quickly our mood, our intention, and the level of clarity and enthusiasm we bring. Hopefully, each time we meet we begin anew. How do we do this? How do we practice presence so that we are awake to the possibilities in the dialogue with our students and have the courage to let the surprise elements of a lesson delight and expand the learning for all of us?

Touchstones and Talismans

A single Touchstone, or a pocket full of them, can serve to remind us what personally nourishes us, gives us strength and enjoyment, reminds us why we chose this profession and what we love about it. These can be as mundane as the mid morning latte or as profound as meditation, a quiet moment before and after the class, becoming aware of my breath in the midst of it all, reciting Saint Patrick's Breast Plate every morning on arising, or listening to music on the way to work.

Core things to hold close to our hearts begin with the teacher being nourished in order to pass on the cycle of nourishment to our growing young. By being in touch with our own being we can be present to who is in front of us and appreciate what is needed to light the fire. Observation and reflection are key faculties in helping us become more present, more intuitive and accurate in gaining the measure and moment of what makes for excellent lessons.

If we can find also a forum for sharing our touchstones with our colleagues we can humanise the community of teachers, and avoid a climate that can all too easily mechanise and deaden. We all already know we can set the tone for deeper work that sustains our core themes and the ethos of our schools if we allow for humour, individual voices, and a recognition of each other. But sustaining it is the key.

Deepening our Craft as Teachers: Big Picture Thinking

Over the next month we will examine more deeply how the conceptual tool of the EIGHT PHASES for an ACTIVE LESSON can work in practice. Either a spiral or a mandala diagram can help us envisage how to implement a lesson.

The spiral offers an overview and sense of dynamic movement for an active lesson. At a glance you can check if you have included the essential elements and how thy fit together.

The mandala offers an eight division of the same lesson that is more detailed. As a tool it gives us room for annotations and additions that personalise and enliven our lesson content and its sequencing. The phases that overlap and lay foundations for each other can be seen in terms of a dynamic unfolding where what is implicit gradually becomes more explicit. Our task is to recognise when and how we are helping each phase become more explicit so that part of a lesson folds into one another in complementary relation like the swell and fall of chords of music.

If we doodle and diagram these in our own journal they can become very efficient tools for the busy teacher. At a glance, we not only conceptualise the significant aspects of a creative, active lesson that strives to meet all kinds of learners but later we can use the same tool to evaluate and reflect on what we might have missed, what we can improve on, and what miracles may have occurred! These are planning tools that can be easily shared with colleagues and sometimes, students. Over time as we practice with this tool we will discover its value for working with many related functions: envisioning and evaluating, planning and co-ordinating, crafting and assessing, observing and reflecting.

Working step by step with the Eight Phase Lesson:

The spiral image is limited to five phases to make it accessible all at once, for envisioning the dynamic of a lesson. The mandala covers the same elements expanded to eight, with a layout that enables planning and evaluation. Here I will describe the first three stages. They lay the foundation for the heart of the lesson, and engage the spatial sense and other... registered most strongly by our right hemisphere. Our goal is to call forth whole brain learning as richly as possible through the course of a lesson.

1. Meeting

How do we enter the room in which we are to teach? What kind of gaze or encounter do we have with the whole group and each individual? Is everyone met? How is our breathing rhythm? Can we feel our feet on the ground and the air all around us? Are we aware of our backs as well as our fronts? What does our body language and expression signal? What will be the first thing that we read in each other?

2. Moving and Motivating

How do we activate our group and get underway? Beginnings and transitions often require a clearing: litter moved from the floor, desks cleared, and any residues of inner torpor dissolved. The first step is based on the principle of warming us up like a musical instrument. How do we enable that? Singing, stretching, playing a game, a drama game, poetry recitation, introducing lateralisation exercises, brain gym, simple moves; there are a lot of resources out there and a few are sampled below.

To clue into the whole context is a function of our right hemisphere which gains a great deal of subliminal information before anything else takes place. A teacher who jumps right into lists, demands, and interrogations before making real contact will already have made everyone's working and especially their own, much harder. A whole brain approach allows for us to read the space, offer gestures and movement, and then more effectively move with greater vitality towards the sequence and swirl, questions and answers, of our actual lesson content. Simple movement not only warms everyone up, reminding us we share a space and work together, but also engages a deeper flowing of our breath which naturally connects us to ourselves as the diaphragm expands. As well, movements and games can evoke both playfulness and clarity of intention. Active transitions signal that we are shifting gear, clearing the way for the next step, inwardly and outwardly. Recognition and reading our students well naturally leads to gratitude and good will and therefore an increased readiness to learn.

3. Multi-sensory

Our movement will activate the kinaesthetic for all our learners whether or not they are predominantly a kinaesthetic, visual, or aural learner. The latter two get plenty of air time in a typical classroom but movement is too often relegated, like Cinderella, to a cold hearth, seen as the domain of early childhood, PE, or drama. Bring these subjects into the heart of our learning and help them stoke the fire instead. We need to recover the joyful spirit of early play, the repertoire of movement that P.E can offer, and the games, expression, and social skill that drama cultivates. Even a few minutes at the beginning will engage more of our learners for more of the time and make them smarter. They will be with us because they know we are with them.

Tapping and stretching are invaluable because these open up the body, stimulate the nervous system and get things moving and therefore more connected, inwardly and outwardly. Sensory motor activities can be found along with other revitalising activities in the Resource Section below. But here are a few ideas. Some would take 3 minutes and others would be close to 15 minutes and might be a practice of skills coming out of a fuller lesson where they had learned fencing, juggling or capoeira.

  • simple standing and stretching: yoga moves, tai chi moves
  • stretching and bending
  • rotating and circling
  • weight shifting from foot to foot with the breath
  • shaking and rotating joint areas such as ankles, wrists and shoulders
  • tapping and stroking
  • tapping each others backs (this requires very clear protocols for safety and trust to grow)
  • balancing exercises
  • back to back exercises
  • ball and beanbag throwing games (throwing underarm inside)
  • spinal roll
  • juggling
  • fencing
  • capoiera
  • folk/set dancing
  • obstacle courses


Chrissie Poulter Playing the Game
Caral Hannaford Smart Moves: why learning is not all in your head
Nell Smyth The Breathing Circle: learning through the movement of the breath
www.edutopia .org

Journals: thinking spatially, thinking in pictures

Here are some pictures from journals kept by captains, naturalists, artists and scientists. We can find lots of these kinds of images on the net and they can inspire our students and prove Real Men Do Keep Journals. Some great individuals have kept a very cohesive thread of doodling, designing, and note taking going on in their notebooks as they sketched, annotated, wrote lists, and made sure they left a trace of significant thoughts. They valued their thoughts. Their records can inspire students to see their own work in a different way. How a journal is developed and made our own can bring satisfaction, and help with the habit of throwing things away too soon.

Extracts from the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Klee, a scout, and two naturalists. The remaining pages are from students' journals showing: costume design for a play, story boarding for a film and a map devised through group work relating to a project on designing an ideal society. 

Planning Integrated Courses

In an integrated curriculum, tools for planning, to enable the creation, envisioning and subsequent evaluation of courses, are crucial. Below I show a template for developing and integrating your goal, your theme(s), the key skills, and an overview of your activities over the duration of the course. The template lets you work as a group as well as individually, and it is also a tool for evaluation.

Here are some suggestions for securing a coordinated and well thought through course that can also help colleagues work together. If we can integrate our pedagogy and our overall course themes, the students will find that the integration facilitates their learning. They will meet a woven whole and not disjointed segments that they must either integrate or compartmentalise, often creating stress and limiting how they can use what they learn outside the classroom. If we can find themes that have a developmental drumbeat and heartbeat for the age we are teaching, our courses will open doors and kindle the students' engagement with clarion relevance.

For example, courses could adopt an overarching metaphorical theme for the year. Alternatively, six week courses with titles such as The Turning Point, Discovery, Adventure, or Challenge, could serve well for each of the first three years of secondary education. If we attune our teaching with key archetypal questions, and themes that are developmentally appropriate for each year, all our other subjects can easily cluster around these. I would suggest that the topics offer a scope so as to neither box yourself in nor drift away on a wide, wide sea with no wind in the offing.


Interactive Chart Showing the Pathway for Gaining Perspective: Envisioning and Evaluating Courses 

This shows your aim, theme(s), the six comprehensive skill areas identified by the NCCA for the new Junior Cycle, and how to integrate them into a plan that includes your content and activities. First of all, it lets you plan and set these up visually as a whole. Later it can work as a reflective tool, letting you evaluate and make changes as you assess the strengths and challenges of your unfolding lessons. I train teachers to use this tool in a context of turning points, vanishing points, the Renaissance, and the modern age so we appreciate that perspectives change and that this is an age in which education and its metaphors must reflect nets, holography, quantum perspectives, and global connection.

To activate using this tool I have teachers first doodle the schema in their journals in order to feel comfortable with making quick rapid sketches. This gets synapses firing for mapping conceptual frameworks. Then we work it more carefully on a large scale. Images are core to how we think and help us to learn more deeply. Colour delights the senses, warms the soul and heightens learning. If we plan not just with lists and linear schema but also with doodles and images, mandalas and maps, we may find that greater creativity and connection of ideas and themes will come to us.

The process is best taught over two days and then used in teachers' meetings subsequently for small or large group reflection.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Working with Themes and Images that Touch the interest of the Teenager

When we find an archetypal theme, such as the Journey, we know we have hit the motherlode when ideas and inspirations keep on coming and our students are enthused as well. The boat journey offers a metaphor for all kinds of projects we might do together but also opens up the cross curricular scope of what we can offer. This means an economy  for the teacher, always desirable, and a core integration of subjects for the students whereby learning happens in a unified field. Creation works like this so why not align ourselves?

The six stages of our boat journey called, Getting Underway were explored very creatively  in group work as if we were students.

We then applied this experience of Netting, Mapping, Building our Boat, Resources, Captain and Crew, and Evaluation, in the Clouds of Knowing and Unknowing process as teachers planning a seven week course. The theme of the Renaissance was the universal Choix du Jour and produced a cascade of creativity as we bathed in  images, impulses, turning points and good ideas for a short course..

The next step is the assignment to build a bridge into the future by creating the first day of our Renaissance course using the 8 fold mandala structure.

Mandalas as a Tool In Active Learning

Mandalas are an ancient spiritual tool used traditionally to focus the mind and spirit in both stillness and dynamism. What teacher might not need that? They can also offer a simple and economic way to both plan and review your lessons in the same form.
Starting with the Phases of an Active Lesson spiral we can then translate this into an 8 form mandala to make sure those elements are all covered and to create a more dynamic interactive form. The categories are Meeting, Moving and Mobilising, Multi-sensory, Multi-faculty, More student talking, Making, Memorisation and Mapping

You can also use the mandala to organise a myriad of themes and different kinds of content. For example, a calendar, perhaps using a larger division, such as a 12 fold, the structure of a play or text, or a plan for a project. If six teachers were working on a course together you could create a six fold mandala and have each teacher fill in his/her segment to see how different subject areas might harmonise around the central topic as resonances and connections can be built.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Two students' cartoon storyboards for a play

A 14 year old student's character study -first page of 3 page draft

A student's overview of the play

Student's version of calender indicating key focus with the blue arrow

A teacher's mandalas to illustrate an overview calendar for rehearsing, and organising sets and props for each scene of a play

Why do we need to learn about writing and evaluating journals?

Journals can offer leitmotifs for our learning where we can muse, reflect, plan, organise, quote, diagram, cartoon, storyboard, headline, problem solve and jot down the kaleidoscope.

Good tools strengthen any craft. Two strong covers, front and back, and an excellent spine are ideal for sterling service. If we expect quality we offer quality. As well, generous space invites abundance of content. So less than A4 size and you will find the throw away: cramping, scribbling, and wasteful use of paper may rear. When a glue stick is your friend you will glue in those precious handouts. Paper aeroplanes, scuffed, dog-eared, and torn worksheets can become past tense.

How we introduce and steer the journal will give our students clues about how we work. Are we methodical, do we rate our worksheets highly enough to give time in class for training them in glueing in,dating their work, taking time initially to write guided reflections, until it is internalised and becomes an automatic habit, sans training wheels?

Borders boundary and define the work. Colour adds warmth and a personal touch, making the work more my own. Images and great quotes add a clarifying or sign-posting function, focussing the topic, stimulating memorisation and subsequent reflection. Dating the work each time grounds and anchors us in time. Encouraging some pages of white space can free up our thinking. Doodling can focus some minds and stimulate thinking.

Journals are places where we can plan, brainstorm, generate, find our own whimsy and get more in tune with our own deepening learning.