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Giving boys a break

A school in West Lothian is tackling `Primary-7-itis' by rewarding good behaviour with classes in breakdancing and graffiti tagging

A school in West Lothian is tackling `Primary-7-itis' by rewarding good behaviour with classes in breakdancing and graffiti tagging

"Primary-7-itis" is a common complaint. The symptoms are nasty and the affliction can easily spread to a whole class. But the cure devised by Mid Calder Primary in West Lothian is far from ordinary: "We've been teaching the boys how to dance," says depute headteacher Catriona Macrae.

"Primary 7 can be a testing time for pupils. They are developing physically and emotionally and are anxiously anticipating the transition to high school. A group of our boys were showing signs of Primary-7-itis. They were losing interest in school, with a lack of commitment to activities and a loss of tolerance for others.

"So, in January, we began a project to support them. We wanted to channel the boys' energies into a project that was both motivating and productive."

The school found the answer in breakdance, an unlikely candidate at first because, although "stimulating, exciting and fun", it can also be culturally dubious.

"A lot of breakdance is about attitude and battling," says dance instructor and martial arts expert John Edmiston. "But I didn't put that into it. If I had, the kids who were confident would have done it, and the ones that weren't would have been intimidated.

"I wanted to make sure every one of the kids would learn. Some were low in self-esteem, so I started with the easier streetdance. Then I showed them breakdance moves and went around the boys individually, until they could do those. I told them everyone can breakdance. As long as they gave me 100 per cent, they would be able to do everything I asked."

He invites young Lewis McCann to come forward and demonstrate a tough move, with his face in the carpet, his legs in the air and his muscles hard, holding a freeze. "That takes strength," John says. "I told them it might take them a day, a week, a month, three months. I've done it thousands of times, which is why I could do it and they couldn't."

This is precisely the message the school was trying to convey, says Ms Macrae. It is, in fact, the same message that was so well received at last year's Scottish Learning Festival - that mastery of any skill is not primarily about talent, but practice and dedication. The Mid Calder dance session went down well at this year's festival.

"It's a great message to give young people," said Suzanne Hargreaves, health and well-being development officer at Learning and Teaching Scotland. "Determination to keep going is a key life skill."

At Mid Calder more than half the boys from the two Primary 7 classes volunteered for the twice-weekly, half-hour, extra-curricular sessions. Dance and music, it turned out, were not the only attractions.

"I wanted to keep fit," says Brad Findlay. "I still do."

"John is a great role model and a cool guy," says Jack McKenzie. "I'd like to do what he does - teach people breakdancing and martial arts."

Jack and his breakdancing classmates did get a chance to share their newly-acquired skills with younger pupils, which gave them a small taste of being a teacher. "I found it . challenging," Jack admits.

Valuable for changing attitudes, the breakdance sessions, which have been offered again this year, gained added impact through the stimulus they gave to the curriculum, says P7 teacher Charlene Struthers.

"With up-to-date projects, you have to bash your heads together at first to work out how to channel the enthusiasm and motivation into other areas of the curriculum. The boys would always come back positive, happy and excited, particularly when they had mastered a skill they had thought was unachievable. We used that as a stepping stone to setting goals and getting involved in new activities."

Graffiti art, a key component of hip-hop culture, was explored in class. "We created tagging activities - spray-painting your name and a design that captures your style. We discussed whether graffiti was a form of art and studied the work of Banksy, the graffiti artist. We created a class graffiti wall and displayed it at the end-of-year assembly."

A cross-curricular Guitar Hero project built on and extended the pupils' musical and performance abilities - as well as their growing social skills, confidence and motivation. "At Golden Time, they would get the mats out and showcase their moves. We had gymnasts among the girls and it was lovely to see them all encouraging each other."

The girls have their own streetdance club.

At the leavers' assembly the boys put on a performance to parents and peers, Ms Macrae says. "They appeared on Sky television, on Newsround and in the local papers. They demonstrated and explained what they had achieved. All this made them much more motivated in their work across the curriculum and helped them form better relationships with peers and adults."

The highlight of the programme for John Edmiston was an incident with a boy who had struggled from the start. "We had got to one-handed handstands, and I noticed this boy did one amazingly well. I got him out to the front and asked him to do it again. He did the best one-handed handstand you've seen, and everybody was like `How did you do that?'

"For maybe the first time in this boy's life, everybody was looking up to him. They were wanting what he had achieved."

Douglas Blane

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