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Drama brings out wild side

Did conservationist John Muir steal eggs as a boy?Dunbar pupils think he might have

IN DUNBAR High Street, a statue of a playful boy commemorates the town's most celebrated son, John Muir. In Dunbar Primary, members of a P5 class are re-enacting episodes from the conservationist's life while the rest of the class watches.

Drama teacher Shonagh Davidson asks the children to comment on what they liked about the production before the next group takes to the centre of the room to perform another anecdote. "Who are you? How would you stand? Would you be smiling? How are you feeling?" asks Ms Davidson.

The children are miming an anecdote with a teacher, children and a maid who tells stories of two "dandy doctors" who chopped people up. The maid is sent away for telling tales and scaring the children.

Ms Davidson asks them where did the maid go? How would she have felt? What would she do?

"In drama, we explore human behaviour," she says. "There is always reflection in drama: how would he feel, what would he be thinking?"

The next group acts out a scene in which the young John and his siblings run into the neighbouring farm and steal six eggs.

"He's this legend who is usually portrayed as an old man," says Ms Davidson. "We look at the boy that he was. He was just a normal laddie.

We're looking at his formative years before he left with his father to go to America. They can identify with these stories of what he got up to as a boy.

"We also look at his later life. As an older man, he has an epiphany. He got his eye damaged working in a factory. Redemption was the moment he got his sight back. Then he decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life in nature."

The drama workshop is part of a P5 citizenship project on John Muir (1838-1914), delivered by East Lothian Council's arts service together with the Countryside Rangers Service and the John Muir Award. Twenty-five classes in 16 schools across East Lothian are participating.

"It's really raising awareness of nature and its value and also, on a personal level, enjoying your own wild places," says Ms Davidson.

The young Muirites also learn about Muir's friendship with American president Theodore Roosevelt, his campaigning to protect ancient giant redwoods in the Yosemite Valley in California, and how his influence led to the creation of the United State's first national park.

Drama is the introductory strand of the project, with two 90-minute sessions looking at aspects of Muir's life. Through a creative dance workshop and a visual art session, the children explore further what they have learnt. They then make a trip to John Muir's birthplace and do an activity and fill in worksheets identifying what they have learnt about him in relation to conservation.

The final leg of the project is a visit from the Countryside Rangers who take the class to a local area, such as rockpools, to explore habitats.

"Then, with all that learning, they decide what conservation activity they're going to undertake," explains Lesley Smith, the council's principal arts officer. "It could be a litter drive, or something that has an impact on the local community. They then share their experiences in a newsletter or school play at assembly."

The Dunbar P5 children have each created an illustrated booklet about John Muir's life, dedicated to their buddies. Completion of the project counts towards the John Muir Award, which has four elements - discover, explore, conserve, share. Run by the John Muir Trust, the award encourages children to value wild places in a spirit of fun, adventure and exploration.

"The project aims to increase understanding about preserving wild places,"

says Ms Smith.

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