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Hands up for livelier lessons

Artists are planning and teaching with school staff to bring flair and creativity to the classroom. Su Clark reports

It is not often that continuing professional development can be described as luxurious. Rewarding perhaps, or, at worst, time-consuming, but luxurious?

Yet, for the 30 primary and secondary teachers taking part in induction training for Arts Across the Curriculum, three days in an idyllic hotel, with a gala dinner, a recital by a chamber orchestra and a trip to the theatre, definitely felt like luxury. So, too, did the prospect of having another professional in the classroom, taking equal responsibility for the lesson.

Arts Across the Curriculum, a new project, is the culmination of seven years' collaboration between the Scottish Arts Council and a pioneering programme, Lakeview Arts Education Partnership in Chicago, set up by the city's Teachers Center at Northeastern Illinios University.

The venture brings together teachers and artists to develop teaching of core subjects, such as maths and English. Imagine demonstrating fractions through shadow puppetry.

"It is not the same as an artist in residence or someone just visiting the classroom," says Sylvia Dow, retired head of education at the Scottish Arts Council and a driving force behind the initiative.

"It is a sea change to the way things are done. It puts art and culture at the centre of learning."

The Chicago model was launched 10 years ago, with the aim of reducing drop-out and truancy rates of 60 per cent in some schools. Since then, more than 20 artists have worked with 70 teachers to create integrated curricular lessons, reaching more than 2,000 students. Drop-out rates have declined dramatically.

Now Scotland is to benefit from a similar scheme. In the pilot, seven local authorities will share pound;1.2 million over three years from the arts council and the Scottish Executive. Teachers have had the project written into their CPD plans.

Training began with three days at the four-star Cardrona Hotel in Peebles, where participants from Chicago ran workshops. The main focus was on how the US teachers and artists worked together, with role-playing showing how they were able to develop their relationships.

"A lot of it is about getting the teacher to relinquish control of the lesson or stopping the artist feeling discomfort within the class setting," explains Jackie Murphy, director of the Lakeview partnership. "This project needs the artist and teacher to work closely together as equals, so that the lesson is a truly collaborative venture. Everyone needs to suspend judgment."

All the workshops were videoed, and there was a video box for participants to record their feelings and fears. The Scottish Arts Council plans to mould these recordings into a training resource, to be used by later participants in the scheme or those interested in using arts and artists more collaboratively.

Part of the Peebles course was also taken up with meetings between the teachers, artists and creative links officers from each local authority to decide how to proceed after the course.

"So far, it has all been very flexible," says Yvonne Wallace, creative links officer from East Renfrewshire. "We wanted the teachers and artists to meet and do the residential before we started planning how to take it forward."

In the role-play workshops, the American participants showed how they developed their lesson plans together, by means of face-to-face meetings, email and telephone contact. They also showed how good communication helped to ease any difficulties that might arise when the two are in the classroom together.

Most of the creative links officers were also keen to build a relationship between the teachers taking part within their authorities, so that they could bounce ideas and concerns off other professionals. This would be done through a mixture of further training sessions and emailing links.

The Scottish teachers seemed more confident than some of the artists, who had concerns about going into the classroom as equals. Most of the teachers were happy at the thought of another body in the room.

"I don't think it will be a problem in primary schools," says Moira Smithers, from Loirston Primary in Aberdeen. "We have more control over our timetable and can allocate as much time to a project as we need. Perhaps that's not the case for secondaries."

Juggling learning outcomes with time spent on single projects is all part of the learning curve for teachers, but they may also gain from working alongside another professional. The luxury of this project is not just having another person in the classroom, but that the artists might inspire the teachers to innovate and develop their own skills.

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