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Dragons in Barking

Gill Brown hears how work-related learning gave students a chance to take risks

It was a trip to the Pound shop that clinched it. With pound;50 between them, a group of Year 12 students from Barking and Dagenham were searching for the perfect accessories for a dragon. "We needed cheap stuff - lots of it," says Heather Walsh, from All Saints School. "Ears, teeth, hair, nostrils, tongues - anything that could look dragon-like." They came away with Christmas decorations, fake fur and plastic fruit I and they had two weeks to design and create two enormous Chinese dragons.

The 15 students from three schools had been commissioned by Broadway Theatre to come up with a marketing stunt for its Spectacular Show to celebrate Chinese New Year. "The show was the first in our new 'family friendly' programme and we wanted something unusual that would appeal to all ages," says Sherrell Perkins, Broadway's education and community manager. "We had collaborated with schools before, but this was much bigger - and a new venture for us all."

Working with Barking's education regeneration manager, Becky Smith, the two came up with a project combining work-related learning with the needs of a commercial client. "We were looking for a work experience commission and this was the ideal partnership," says Becky. A marketing brief was drawn up for a Chinese New Year event in the town centre during the day of the performance, encouraging shoppers to book tickets for that evening.

Two weeks in January were set aside and street arts company Emergency Exit Arts was engaged to provide artistic direction. "They gave an advice day that was really helpful," says Kwaku Agyeman, from Warren School. "It gave us a proper idea that we were working for a company and how it could help our own portfolios."

Week one was spent researching Chinese New Year and getting familiar with the variety of material. Bamboo reeds, fence canes and rattan were coaxed into shape and woven together to form the dragons' heads. "The materials guided the final designs," says artist Chris Wolverson. "It was a huge project and I don't think students quite knew what they were stepping into."

Josephine Kibuka, from All Saints, agrees: "It was quite a shock, and not really my kind of thing," she says. "I had been doing graphics and I couldn't see how this could help me. But I really got into it and learnt another side of art. At the end I could see how graphics can relate to a load of elements in design."

A flair for graphics came into play when some primary school pupils joined the group for two days as part of the work experience programme. "We researched Chinese calligraphy on the internet and supervised the children making banners displaying Year of the Dog symbols," says Alex White, from All Saints. "It was hard work, but fun too."

Year 5 pupil Daniel Duggan, from Norbury School, also found it a challenge.

"I've never done anything like that before," he says. "We learnt some good things - like if you try to bend twigs that are too big they will snap."

The children also made windsocks and measured each other for headbands. "It was really good being with the bigger group, because it wasn't like being at school," says Mara Kurtha, also from Norbury.

The whole project took place at the education department's professional development centre, bringing a buzz to the office atmosphere. "The centre had never seen anything like it," says Nigel Sagar, LEA inspector for art and design, who oversaw the project. "The staff's initial reservations were quickly replaced by curiosity, and everyone missed the dragon's lair when it went."

There was little time for rehearsal, unlike in China, where weeks of preparation can go into such a display. At the last minute, the water dragon's tongue came off and was fixed with cable ties, while students realised that carrying the dragons was something of a challenge, particularly those at the head. "I had to look through the nostrils to see how to steer," says Kwaku. "I realised I had all these people following me so I had to really concentrate."

The day surpassed everyone's expectations, with the town centre coming to a standstill. Alongside the dragons, the younger children chanted in Chinese, playing cymbals and tambourines while waving banners and handing out leaflets about the show.

"We couldn't have wished for better publicity," says Sherrell. "It brought the theatre to the community - and it certainly succeeded in bringing the public into the theatre."

Nigel Sagar believes the students benefited in more ways than one. "It gave A-level art students the opportunity to take risks and collaborate, in a way which their other coursework could not. I think it will have a lasting impact on their confidence to take on difficult ideas with huge rewards."


* Emergency Exit Arts is based at Greenwich

* For everything about Chinese culture and arts, including dragons, lesson plans and "How to do it" features: www.princetonol.comgroupsiadFilesdragon.htmThe US website China: Dim Sum gives cross-curriculum advice on Chinese culture, including making dragons: www.newton.mec.eduangierDimSumchinadimsumaconnection.html



* Look for local partners and funding. Many regional theatres have education officers who would be pleased to listen to teachers' ideas. Your LEA may be able to help.

* Education Business Partnerships can further their own objectives through collaboration with schools and can also advise on work placements and enterprise schemes Tel: 01635 279914


* If you can find a public space locally to work in, it can turn the arts project into something much bigger for the community.


* Divide students into groups and ask them to find out all they can about the culture, history and modern day use of Chinese paper dragons.

* To avoid aimless Internet browsing, assign each group practical examples - Chinese kites and banners, dragons and models constructed from paper in the Chinese tradition.

Design and materials

* The class or teams need to design the model(s). Make a large 2D banner using paint on paper, which could be shown to clients and adapted as appropriate.

* With shape and design agreed, start the body frame using Hula Hoops and bamboo for basic structure, covered with newspaper and glue. Visit resources websites (see box, left) for step-to-step guides on making dragons.

Painting and decoration

* With the basic shape made, start painting - first the underneath and then the top. Once the paint has dried, cover with water-based varnish.

* Now start on the decorative detail, with tin foil, fabric, sequins, beads, buttons, feathers, glitter, stickers, ribbons... Students will need to sew, stick and weave these carefully onto the body.

* If you are making peripherals such as masks and banners for a parade, co-opt a primary school. Working with the teachers, set up an assembly line for the smaller items.

* Make sure every student has a role in the parade - and they have at least one rehearsal.

* Consider involving the whole school in a Chinese New Year project with activities across the curriculum.

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