'Imagination in the classroom can be unlocked – just hand over the keys'

By Hywel Roberts on 19 August 2017

In the latest in a fortnightly series, a 'travelling teacher' remembers how one Year 3 class was transformed by the power of imagination

The fog clears and here we are.

Somehow, I have ended up on the Year 3 classroom floor with the class teacher – a mild-mannered chap we’ll call Mr Hooper – hovering over me, calmly repeating the phrase:

"Hand over the keys, Old Man..."

His palm opens by my face.

“Hand over the keys, Old Man...”

The class are sitting, encircling us and talking in whispers, like ghosts. They are talking to me, the Old Man. They’re telling me not to hand over the keys. Don’t hand over the keys! They are my soul-speakers.

“Hand over the keys, Old Man…”

I shake my head at the towering presence of Mr Hooper. Lovely Mr Hooper who made me a brew when I arrived at the school this morning. Kind Mr Hooper with whom I’d chatted about that new Sandra Bullock space movie. Gentle Mr Hooper who had been really enthusiastic about some of my stuff on YouTube.

Lovely Mr Hooper.

What on Earth had changed?

The right stimulus

Well, dear reader, it is the end of term and this class is coming to the climax of its project, entitled COAST. It’s a city-centre primary school with lots of different first languages in the class. The children are young, small and some of them, according to Mr Hooper, haven’t been to the seaside yet. That’s getting addressed by a trip the following week to a great Northern seaside. Fair play.

So, the children have experienced all things COAST within the walls of Mr Hooper’s classroom. The fact that the children have loved the topic – and I suggest much of that love is down to their teacher – shows how imaginative children can be when given the right stimulus. I have found that in this moment, I am that stimulus.

I had suggested we focus on a landmark on the coast and we choose to talk about a lighthouse. There is a picture of one on the wall, so we all know what we are talking about.

I really like lighthouses. They are beautiful symbols of how we cope with the elements and have done for years. Until relatively recently, many lighthouses around our coasts were still manned. This has all changed now. I wondered how a man who had worked most of his life tending to one lighthouse would feel about being "retired" and replaced by technology. I was wondering this with Mr Hooper’s Year 3.

Shared imagination

We placed the picture of the lighthouse on a detailed outline of an imaginary coastline, previously created by the class from blue cloth, seashells, card and tissue paper. We then created a historic timeline for the lighthouse and talked about the little boy who grew up to manage and maintain it – and what such a precious place it was to him. This man, now old, was facing eviction as the structure of the lighthouse had become dangerous. As the evictor, Mr Hooper is stepping up and speaking from the point of view of the establishment.

The kids’ voices are eerie.

I’m on my knees.

Some of the kids are silent, simply watching.

(“Hand over the keys old man...”)

I hold up the keys. He can have them, I’m finished. The children all fall silent.

A little girl places a reassuring hand on my shoulder and I turn to her. She’s taken me by surprise because I was about to do something else. In the moment, I forget my next step.

In a quiet voice, she says to me: “We’ll look after it for you.”

It’s a potentially beautiful conclusion, but I’m desperate to open a can of worms for Mr Hooper to take on after the session is finished.  I turn towards the children and whisper loudly to them:

“I’ll let him take the keys. I’ll let them find me somewhere else to live. I’ll let you have the lighthouse and all her memories. If you search hard enough, you will find the secret doors and passageways.”

The little girl gasps and Mr Hooper takes the keys.

The fog descends.

Children can imagine. They just sometimes need to know which doors to push.

Hywel Roberts is a "travelling teacher and curriculum imaginer". He tweets as @hywel_roberts. Read his back catalogue

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow Tes on Twitter and like Tes on Facebook