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Artist draws in the catch

Elaine Williams watches as children with learning difficulties paint and explore river life. The young people of Hackwood Park School stared suspiciously at the scrolls of paper before them. What was Gordon about to spring on them this time?

Gordon MacLellan, alias Creeping Toad, long hair, pony tail, ear-ring, gentle humour, lilting Scottish brogue, was unlike any teacher they had ever encountered before, and his "lessons" were unlike any lesson they had ever had before.

"On this scroll you will paint your river journey," Gordon said. "What lives on your river other than Loch Ness monsters?" Silence.

"Imagine yourself falling in, what will you meet?" Gordon persisted, untroubled by the reticence of an entire class. "Crabs", ventured a shy, muffled voice, "Whales", offered another, with a little more certainty. "Let's put them at the end for if we ever get to the sea", answered Gordon. "Salmon", "Eels", "Newts, "Tadpoles", suggestions began to fall thick and fast as pupils warmed to the topic.

"If you had a river anywhere in the world what would you like to see on it?" Gordon asked. "Crocodiles are my favourite, so I'm going to paint them in." "Hippos!" suggested a boy. Gordon told him to go right ahead and draw them on his river scroll.

Gordon MacLellan uses the visual and creative arts to help children explore their environment, and to encourage teachers to look at aspects of the curriculum in a different way. His work with Hackwood, a school for children with moderate learning difficulties, was part of a seven-week project funded by the Queen's Hall Arts Centre, Hexham, and the Northumberland National Park.

Along with Northumberland County Council and a number of trusts and foundations they raised Pounds 7,000, funds enough for pupils at Hackwood and Hexham Priory, a school for children with severe learning difficulties, to fully experience this kind of approach. Staff at both schools felt the children needed time to grow to trust the artist and to become familiar and confident with new ideas.

Once the scrolls had been marked with river and river beasts they were rolled up and taken to a burn above Hexham where pupils were handed trays and nets and told to go dipping for the real thing.

Once by the river, wellies straddled over stepping stones, it was hard to get pupils away as they stared in fascination at the creatures wriggling around their trays - stone fly, mayfly nymphs threatening like scorpions, blackfly larvae - creatures, said Gordon, they had never evendreamed of.

Fiona Knox, education officer for the National Park, moved around the groups giving more traditional nature lessons. The presence of stone fly, she said, meant the river was doing well. Stone fly like clean oxygenated water, so it was probable the river was not polluted. "I have offered field studies and Gordon builds up skills in art interpretation. We think that is a good mix," she said.

Lisa Lavery, aged 13, was impressed by Gordon's methods. She said: "It's a different atmosphere than with other teachers, it's strange but it's a good laugh." Back in the classroom, pupils constructed their own beasts, some based on drawings made at the river. With wire and paper and wood they created huge monsters with bulbous eyes, longer beasts with antennae, concentrating on the task to an unusual extent.

Gordon, a zoologist by training, said he deliberately chose activities which could be accomplished in a short time, independently and with cheap materials. His aim, he said, was "to leave behind a group of children who have experienced the environment more carefully than before and have been able to express their personal perception of it." As Creeping Toad he runs workshops in schools throughout the country based on explorations, making discoveries and interpreting them.

Ruth Capes, Hackwood's art teacher said: "These children have been in many situations where they have not coped, where they've been in conflict. At first they were antagonistic to Gordon, but slowly their curiosity has taken over. This work appeals to them, they don't feel threatened by it, so they take it on."

At the end of the project at the Queen's Hall Art Centre, students performed their river story in song and movement, using their sculptures and puppets, some as simple as a stocking over a hand. Young people from Hexham Priory held and moved a large piece of silk which represented the river.

Chris Rollings, Hexham Priory's acting head, said: "Gordon has no prejudices about the children's abilities, he just pitches in at his own level and keeps them going with simple but effective things. I like the idea of using field work as a starting point for projects."

Creeping Toad will visit the two schools for a week in the autumn to work with pupils again and to see whether staff are able to follow through some of his initiatives.

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