3 September 2019

My Expressive Arts Journey and Radiator Teaching by Kay Smith, Head of Drama at Pencoed Comprehensive School

At Pencoed Comprehensive, teachers have been taking a blended, integrated approach to teaching and learning for a number of years now. In this article first published by the Central South Consortium, Kay Smith, Head of Drama, shares their experiences of pupil-led learning, ‘radiator teaching’, and how pupils and teachers have become “critical thinkers, with creative and curious minds”.

The ‘Radiator Teaching’ approach I have adopted in my Drama studio and classroom for the past twenty-two years is routine now and students are well used to choosing what they learn, when they learn it and how they approach it. After all, Drama has never been included in the National Curriculum as a discrete subject. There have been no guidelines or expectations. Drama teachers, often working in isolation across Wales are very used to ‘making it up’ but making it relevant to their learners and reacting to up to date and current topics. Reading the Donaldson report for the first time and becoming a Pioneer School for Expressive Arts was extremely exciting for Pencoed but also for me, personally. Pencoed had a strong reputation for the ‘Arts’ and it was easy to see how my Dorothy Heathcote influence and my own ideas for inspiring learners could easily fit this new curriculum approach. To add to the excitement, both my subjects, Drama and Music, were now considered a vital part of the new curriculum approach and I was thrilled to see how I could blend all the discipline and skill areas within the new Expressive Arts Area of Learning and Experience (AoLE). It was clear to me that a combination of Music, Art, Drama, Media and Dance could now be taught within one lesson with a linking theme allowing learners to transfer skills and collaborate in a more realistic way. This, after all, mirrors the creative industries and the creative world of work, although I soon learned that this integrated approach was completely different to most of the other Pioneer schools’ ideas.

In Pencoed, we have been working on a blended arts curriculum for three years now and Expressive Arts is being taught to Year 7, 8 and 9. As a new AoLE, we chose not to ‘tweak’ what we already had. What was the point in that? I was asked to start developing ideas for the new Expressive Arts AoLE by our Assistant Headteacher, Catherine Edwards, immediately after attending the Pioneer launch conference in Llandudno in the Spring Term of 2016 and by the following September our new Expressive Arts staff began teaching Year 7 lessons that included all the disciplines, not just their own subject area. We were way ahead of the game in terms of development and I think some of the staff were very nervous to begin with and understandably so. Helen Williams, our Head of Art, could see the challenges we faced but thought it would also be “interesting, creative and an opportunity to work with creative departments”.

However, Helen would be the first to say that on learning about the huge changes ahead, she had concerns. “I was worried about the overwhelming workload involved and I was concerned that the skills we have always taught in Art lessons would not be as refined in Year 7, 8 and 9 because we have changed the SoLto work differently using a blended approach”.

No other Pioneer school had started at classroom level at this point so there was no model to follow. What were we meant to do? What if it went wrong? Do we have to do it all? were some of the questions I was asked. The number of times since starting this journey I have heard from various sources “I went to University for four years to teach Music or Art, why would I want to teach something else? I’ve been teaching twenty years and it is fine as it is”. However, the answer is simple.

Times change. Education is changing. Teachers in Wales need to get ready for the change. Isn’t change itself a good thing? My experience in this process is that it has so far worked at Pencoed because the staff involved have embraced the change and for those teachers with twenty years’ experience it has actually ignited and given them a new energy in the classroom. Helen who has taught Art at Pencoed for 24 years reflects :

“We have been given some really excellent direction in school and this has had a really positive effect on the attitude to this AoLE.”

It is fantastic that Helen feels this way as I completely understand that it can be very daunting to have to alter things when there are so many other pressures in school, including the requirement to still give levels in Year 9 and the fact that GCSEs still exist as discrete subjects. Being ahead of the game in Pencoed, we have already started to address these issues by including Mastery classes in Year 9 for those pupils wanting to go on to study Music, Drama, Art or Media at GCSE. In the future, I would welcome an Expressive Arts GCSE, perhaps where the learners can opt different pathways suitable for their learning journey.

So what does a blended, integrated approach look like?

At the very heart of the change for me are the Four Purposes. I am no longer a teacher of Drama. I teach Expressive Arts but I prepare lessons that develop ambitious, capable learners, enterprising creative contributors, ethical, informed citizens and most importantly for me healthy, confident individuals who are ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

In my lessons, learners look at Art work and discuss the use of colour, perspective, shading and expression. I may add a piece of Music and the learners connect the mood and atmosphere of the music to the picture whilst identifying the instruments and tonality. Follow this with a teacher request of “What can we do with these starters to explore our work on Freeze Frames and Marking a moment?” and the learners are off! I listen to their ideas. The lesson progresses from their input. Sometimes, they need a little guidance, but this approach is now well developed at Year 8 and 9 and they need less and less teacher talk. Yesterday, from a picture that showed a lonely girl sat at a train station, one group of Year 7 pupils created a movement sequence showing a real understanding of emotion and use of levels. They used the music played for their physical theatre with an accurate attention to timing and rhythm, but their performance showed they understood facial expression and gesture. Two of the girls did not want to dance. I asked them what they wanted to do. One said they preferred to draw, the other liked English and reading. The end performance included a poem that spoke the thoughts of the girl in the train station and a pencil drawing that was almost identical to the original but with letters strewn on the floor of the train station. I quickly scanned the picture and projected it on a large screen behind the girls who were dancing. The result was moving and thought provoking. The learners came up with so many questions after the performance. “Why were the moves synchronised when she was alone and feeling lonely?” “Who were the letters from?” These big important questions went on to inform and inspire the next lesson. This was just one group. In another corner, a very quiet, shy boy was playing a simple chord progression on a guitar. He told me it was the only song he knew. I encouraged his friend to ask him a big question about the tempo, seeing as that musical term was something we were trying to explore in terms of our theme ‘Emotions’. “What happens if you slow it down and play it quieter?” The guitarist did as he asked. “It makes me think that someone is waiting for something, like the girl in the picture when you play it like that” was his friend’s response. I was moved. These two boys had not been at all forthcoming so far this year and only starting to progress on our new Expressive Arts progression steps. I encouraged the boys to discuss what they could do next but asked them to think about a way of including words. Returning to them ten minutes later, they informed me they didn’t want to sing which as an obvious answer, so they had written a monologue which would be recited over the top of the new slowed down version of the song. It went on to form part of a new film idea they had about the girl at the train station and in the next lesson they made an iMovie film trailer of the new movie called “Her Next Step”. In two lessons, there had been drama, music, art, dance and media production. I am not an expert in it all but I am willing to learn with and from my pupils.

Radiator teaching

So what is ‘Radiator Teaching?’ The title in itself has caused many a smile from colleagues as I attempt to explain that in the 80s drama teachers were notorious for ‘sitting on the hall radiator, drinking coffee and watching a class play wink murder or some other like-minded warm-up game’.

However, ‘Radiator Teaching’ is now a vital part of the pedagogy for me and the drama staff. We do watch. We do observe. However, this is only after the knowledge and facts have been ‘radiated’ out and the students have then taken ownership of their tasks and their learning. They do have to be guided through the skills and techniques, but this can also be done through their own research and flipped learning tasks.

It is then that the magic happens. This special time involves important skills such critical thinking and problem solving, planning and organising, creativity and innovation, self-reflection and refining; all integral parts of the new Four Purposes within the new Successful Futures inspired curriculum.

Essentially, in promoting independent learning, we are encouraging and enabling our students to become self-directed in their learning experiences and to have more autonomy and control over their learning. This to me is ‘what matters’. ‘What matters’ being the over-arching statements and headlines that are guiding the new curriculum approach.

Most important is that this broader learning approach is much more inclusive of all children’s needs and strengths, with the emphasis on celebrating achievement for all children at all stages rather than inadvertently promoting competition between children on uneven playing fields. Believing that everyone can achieve is at the heart of how we assess progress in Expressive Arts at Pencoed. Embracing that everyone is different and has different skills and strengths has completely changed my classroom atmosphere. I am not the greatest artist but allowing a child who is to draw has helped build my relationship with that child, encouraged them to promote their strengths to their peers and eventually the picture sparks a drama or music piece anyway, so we are all winners!

As well as the radiator approach, we regularly collapse the day to day timetable and run Immersion Days. These are vital for planning as the learners come up with big questions that the staff then plan the following term. Immersion Days usually have a theme or focus. Alice in Wonderland sparked questions like “Why did she follow the rabbit when he was stranger?” and “Do we use all parts of our brain?” Industry Day involved learners working in five workshops with experts from the industry including a professional choreographer, stage lighting designer, graffiti artist, songwriter and artist. Two of the visiting lecturers were from other local schools and colleges. One was an ex pupil. Schools need to be brave and creative with their ideas for learning and access support and expertise from the local area as well as within the school. In a forth-coming Year 6 Transition Immersion Day entitled “When I grow up”, all our local primary schools will participate in workshops run by Expressive Arts staff but also a DT, Geography, History and English teachers. All staff involved have a skill they can offer Expressive Arts. The DT teacher is working on set designs and props for Matilda and the Geography teacher is leading a workshop on film casting and storyboarding.

While I talk about “radiator teaching” our Headteacher, Mr Edward Jones, often refers to “radiator pupils”, those learners who blend into the background and often go unnoticed from lesson to lesson. Expressive Arts is making many of these radiator learners visible again. It is building their self-confidence, resilience and ability to collaborate. Edward recently shared with me on Twitter “The Expressive Arts AoLE may not necessarily create more professional actors, dancers or musicians but what it will do is to create critical thinkers, with creative and curious minds, who will really appreciate art throughout their lives.”

‘Pupils teaching pupils’ is really important in my department. Peer to peer mentoring is not new but 6th formers being timetabled in their frees to lead lower school lessons, run after school Year 11 devised rehearsals as part of their Skills Challenge and direct lower school productions which in turn raise funds for the main school show is an extension of this. In lower school lessons, learners take turns to create and lead starters, set homework tasks and suggest development of prior learning. To be honest, if you visit my studio – and you are all very welcome – you would be forgiven for thinking what does she actually do? That’s fine by me. The less I do the better. Pupil led not teacher fed is my mantra.

Rhian Jenkins, our Head of Music and MAT co-coordinator at Pencoed, can see the benefits of this openended approach but knows that it also has to be managed and structured carefully. “Since teaching Expressive Arts we have seen a massive improvement in the oracy levels of the learners and they can talk for hours and hours about the most profound and deepest of meanings to a stimulus – it really had been inspiring to listen to them”. Managing that can be a challenge but it is ok to go off plan sometimes and allow the learning to develop from a pupil-led discussion rather than a teacher devised plan.

So, what’s the next step for schools in Wales developing Expressive Arts? I strongly urge that you at least start doing something! Since 2016, we have been visited by a number of schools and most have been very enthusiastic and ready to make small steps to change. However, there are still a small number who believe that the new curriculum is not going to happen or that they can possibly do what they have always done and relabel it. I don’t understand that. This is an opportunity. A gift. Grab it and make it relevant to your learners and to you. If the blended approach is too scary then try a thematic approach with another department and ask the learners what they want to do with the theme. Give them projects and assign them different roles. It is possible that that really quiet pupil is a dab hand at ticket production or costume design. Perhaps you could link with a local Primary school and create performances or Theatre in Education projects that assist the transition process or Wellbeing AoLE. My colleague, Alex Hewitt, who is a drama and dance specialist, but now Acting Head of GCSE and A Level Media and leading the school’s development in the Health and Wellbeing AoLE, is a great example of someone embracing change. “Media being taught at KS3 is brilliant for me. The learners are so much more prepared for the GCSE course and the cross over between Expressive Arts and Health and Wellbeing is clear. All Hwb workshop ideas have come from my drama teaching experience. There shouldn’t be a divide between the different areas, they complement each other and work together”.

Whatever you do in your school, please make it exciting, for you and most importantly the young people you are nurturing.

Creativity exists within everyone. How creative and brave will you be with the delivery of the new curriculum?

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