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Keeping arts on the agenda

During the Second World War, when asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort Winston Churchill said: “Then what are we fighting for?” The story may be apocryphal but the sentiment is clear. Without the arts, we, as a society, are all the poorer. This series of stories looks at what is happening, or could happen, in our schools to keep the arts alive since the narrowing of the curriculum has seen them slipping away.

 

The group of Year 8 students looks devastated. And maybe a little angry. Their classmates are gazing back with expressions of pity and also concern for their own fate.

It’s what you might expect in a dystopian future in which a lucky few are about to board a space ship for another planet, while the rest are left behind to attempt to survive the coming Ice Age.

It’s a Thursday morning in the performance studio at Maidstone Intermediate in Upper Hutt, and Head of Performing Arts Annette McRae is guiding her students through a process drama as they explore the school’s theme for 2017 – citizenship.

Process drama involves students taking on roles and working together in an imaginary scenario to explore and solve problems, which could be social, environmental, ethical or moral.

“It opens up the whole curriculum,” says McRae.

“The key competencies are all here. It’s not performance; it’s an experience. I don’t call it acting. They go into roles and play and pretend. The kids love it because it’s play.”

It’s fascinating to watch 12-year-olds role play and use their imaginations in a way that is more commonly seen in children half their age. McRae says children seem to aspire to the world of adults much earlier than previous generations, and she can spot the kids who have spent more time on electronic devices than in imaginative play.

Process drama is also new territory for McRae, who introduced it to the programme only this year.

In the past, her students have created their own dramas, but still with McRae providing a lot of context and direction.

“But this year I’ve decided – we’re all about student agency now, I’ve just had a relook at my programme and what I’m doing and facilitating and thought I’m going to have a go at this process drama. I did some research, and thought I can do this, so I took some risks with my own teaching and ploughed into it.”

But drama isn’t McRae’s only area of interest. As the head of Technology and Art, she also teaches music, dance, keyboard, composition, singing, percussion and drumming, while leading a creative and enthusiastic teaching team.

McRae was keen to develop outlets for children who wanted to explore creative opportunities.

The music and art rooms are always open at lunchtime for students to come and work on their own projects. Year 8 Performing Arts leaders tutor keyboard, guitar and drums and they also lead theatre sports and dance.

A group of performing arts student leaders meet with McRae once a week and provide opportunities for their peers to come at lunchtime and join music, dance or drama clubs.

“I really push the agency for the kids to lead the dance, lead the drama. The kids totally lead it; anyone can come along. I’m there off and on but they run the whole thing. Three boys run the music room and teach ukulele and guitar and keyboards. They set up a lesson – like mini teachers.

“In dance, they’ve looked up youtube and are teaching some Irish dancing. They also lead and facilitate bigger events like Dance Splash.”

McRae finds that most students arrive at Maidstone with little or no primary school experience of music.

“They may have played a recorder if they’re lucky, but on the keyboard – apart from kids who had personal tuition – you’ve got a very small minority in the class that have had some sort of music in their lives,” she says.

Whatever the child’s starting point, McRae teaches technical skills that enable them to continue their musical learning, which often leads to them taking up the student-led classes or continuing lessons outside school.

“It’s a kick start for them. They don’t know they’ve got a skill in something. Sometimes you find that hidden potential in kids that they don’t know about until they come here,” she says.

Maidstone Intermediate has a growing reputation as an arts beacon, which is obvious as soon as you enter the school foyer. Stunning artworks cover every wall, as well as the unexpected, such as a World War One military hospital scene and a battleground, with figures created out of wool-covered pegs. On another wall, photos of last year’s World of Wearable Arts Show display students walking the catwalk in elaborate costumes around the 2016 school theme of “enterprise”. From royalty to explorers, and even a ship and Vetruvian Man, the costumes are extraordinarily detailed and creative.

The costumes were made over a number of weeks, both inside and outside school, in a mammoth effort that involved all the teachers, and plenty of parental assistance. The event even featured in Stuff online (http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/arts/84443299/schools-wow-outfits-on-fire).

McRae would like her work to be better aligned with classroom programmes, to give the learning more impact.

“As a school we’re beginning to develop those systems and structures that will enable us to do that, but this is really just an experiment for me, taking a risk in my own teaching,” she says.

McRae loves her job and the passion is obvious. But has any parent ever expressed concern that there is too much time and effort being spent on the arts and not enough on the reading, writing and maths that are the only measurement of “success” through National Standards?

Not a bit of it.

“The arts encompass all our key competencies and I can embrace a wider curriculum in my area. Kids coming here know they’re going to get a strong, arts-rich focus with many opportunities – it enhances students’ learning.”