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Art - A brush with the unusual

Sometimes the best lessons don't take place in a classroom

Sometimes the best lessons don't take place in a classroom

Over the years I have experienced some extraordinary classroom settings: performing the pre-Bosworth speeches from Richard III with pupils at Nottingham Castle; conducting a Greek myths workshop in an atmospheric Gothic hall; and holding a "ghosts and suspense" session in a haunting decommissioned primary school building.

I recently taught an experimental "active approaches" workshop at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London, designed to give Year 3 pupils from a Croydon primary an interactive experience of the spectacular paintings on show.

The theme of the workshop was "children" - ideal when numerous images of the young are on show throughout the gallery. In the hour-long class I focused on five images and used a variety of drama-based techniques to develop pupils' understanding.

First stop: Carracci's 1580s painting St Francis in Meditation. Having discussed the image of St Francis praying in a cave beneath winged infants, or cherubim, we shifted the focus to the historical details of his life. The most excited discussion was prompted by his love of preaching to the birds and by how easily he had discarded a life of comfort.

The children's favourite was the tale of St Francis' taming the wolf that had terrorised the people of Gubbio in Italy. The whole class became involved in playing St Francis and the wolf.

Asking the children about their favourite food was a good introduction to Nicolas Poussin's 1637 The Nurture of Jupiter, which shows the young god suckling the teats of the goat Amalthea (the source of much appalled delight). The challenge was to work out how the Cretan nymphs protected Jupiter from his murderous father Cronus. The solution was not in the painting so the children had to create their own.

We then moved on to Charles Le Brun's vast and shocking canvas, The Massacre of the Innocents (1647-65). The children were asked to choose a figure and reproduce the stance and expression.

Nothing I did that day was unique. Such techniques are used frequently at the National Gallery and the Tate galleries. At the British Museum's Shakespeare exhibition last summer, tutors recruited from the Shakespeare Schools Festival used simple and effective drama-based activities to help children understand the items on show.

But I still experienced a thrill standing before those wonderful old masters - the perfect backdrop and prompt to some of the liveliest and most demanding in situ history, English and drama teaching I have done with primary children anywhere.

Jerome Monahan is a freelance teacher and journalist who provides primary and secondary Inset and pupil enrichment workshops nationally and internationally. For further details, email

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