9 October 2018

Julia’s expressive arts room: a ‘test lab’ for cross-curricular, creative and collaborative learning

As schools across Wales are gradually gearing up for the new curriculum for Wales, Julia Walker, a teacher at Jenner Park Primary School in Barry, Vale of Glamorgan, is getting a head start. She’s using a new expressive arts room as a ‘laboratory’ to test ideas and approaches to help embed creativity throughout the school.

Julia is the PPA (Planning, Preparation and Assessment) teacher at the school, as well as having responsibility for ICT and expressive arts. She’s also one of A2:Connect’s Arts Champions.

She explains: “When I first came to the school three years ago, my remit was to help develop the school’s ICT and creativity. By my second year, I realised that there were so many fantastic creative things that we could do through ICT so I was able to focus on the artistic and expressive arts use of ICT.”

So how did the room come about?

“The idea of an expressive arts room came to me last term, when I knew that a spare room was becoming available in the school. My head had given me the brief to help develop creativity across the curriculum, and the idea of the art room is to provide a focus point for this work.”

Julia only knew she had the room just before the summer holidays, and when she found there was no money to pay to have the room redecorated, she did it herself after school, with the help of some colleagues!

How does it work?

“I don’t have tables for every child to sit down at but that’s intentional. Pupils learn through a rolling programme – so in any one lesson, there may be a small group of pupils doing a collage together, some working on stop-motion films – making inanimate objects come to life, another group will be doing creative ICT perhaps on computers. And then the next week, they’ll swap, and take advice from the other groups as each gets expertise in a particular area.

“The fantastic thing with this more creative, project-based approach to learning, is that once you’ve set up what they’re doing, you can step back a bit and let them take the lead.

“Sometimes I find that, once I set them all off, I’m redundant! That rarely happened before. But as long as they’re aware of what they need to achieve, they’re all stay engaged, and on task.

“I’ve invited other teachers from our school to pop in, and they can see that what we’re doing involves peer learning, team building, and that the children are so engaged.”

What are the benefits of having a separate room?

“I’m the music specialist – a cellist – and all our instruments were kept upstairs in the hall. When I wanted to teach the Foundation Phase, I had to take all the instruments and arts equipment into a totally different building.

“Now, I have all the instruments and arts equipment in this room with me. I have an art part with lots of arts materials, paints, collage materials, then a music part with all the instruments.

“At the moment, it’s the room that makes the difference to the students, it sets up that expectation. They know that this is a place for collaborative learning.

“Plus, having my own room has given me the chance to experience the problems and iron out all the hiccups before it’s rolled-out to the other staff members in school.”

Do you have to have a separate room?

“In an ideal world yes, but it is possible to introduce this kind of teaching in your own classroom, so if teachers reading this don’t have the luxury of a separate room, that’s OK. It’s more about realising that you can have a number of different things going on at same time and still have quality work from it. If anything you get better quality work this way.”

What do you do in the class?

“With this approach, you’re the facilitator rather than the teacher. You have to teach the skills first before they can apply it to the topic. I then tell pupils they’re going to become experts in that area, and they each really respond to that well. It gives your class a richer experience of the same topic or theme, whether it’s science or geography.

“The other week Class One was doing superheroes, and in the first week they were building a high-rise tower with tiny Lego which was creative and good for fine motor skills, and in the second week I introduced a maths element by starting to explore patterns, using different colours.

“This week they’ll be carrying on, but one group will be using bigger Lego pieces, another will be creating a story, another will be doing printing with paints, and I’m going to get them to think about pattern sequences. I then link up with the class teacher, to let them know what we’ve covered.”

Why is this approach better?

“What inspires me, and confirms to me that this works, is the reaction of the children. They come up to me in the playground and say, ‘Have we got you today?’. They just love it. It’s not like a whole class art lesson, which some young people find tricky, it’s more like being explorers, they get a chance to dip into a lot of different skills before they go off and explore and start working on a final product.

“It’s great to see how engaged they are. They can’t wait to get into this class. They feel positive about learning, believing everyone can achieve.”


How does being an A2:Connect Arts Champion help?

“As an Arts Champion, it’s been a fantastic opportunity to meet with lots of other arts champions from all over Wales and to listen to what they’re doing. Everyone has done something inspirational in their own area, and they’re not just artists – for example, there’s one that’s a science specialist. It’s only by people throwing out ideas and saying try it this way, that we can learn from each other. And we’ll be going in to schools to act as mentors too, so we’ll be sharing more ideas and experiences.”

The new curriculum – start sooner rather than later

“With the new curriculum due in 2022, we’ll all have to change the way we teach because there is so much cross-curricular work, and the arts are so central to this.

“Next year is a good year to become an arts champion in your school, especially as Estyn is recommending the temporary suspension of the inspection cycle for a year. Teachers could arrange themed afternoons or days, or themed projects with lots of different activities, creative IT, arts, craft, music, where they explore history, geography, and science through the arts.

“It’s an ideal time, as you’ll have permission to try and test things out. My advice would be, give it a go! After 25-years, I’m teaching in a different way and I love it!”

Would you like to find a creative practitioner to work with you in your school? Find your ideal match in the A2:Connect opportunities section (which we call ‘the App’!).

Would you like to arrange for someone like Julia – or even Julia herself – to come into your school and work alongside you to help with more creative approaches to the curriculum? Read more about Arts Champion mentors or contact bryony@arts-active-trust.flywheelstaging.com

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