Let your fingers do the talking

Heather Neill

For boys having trouble expressing their emotions, the alter ego of a gloved hand enables them to unburden their thoughts. Heather Neill reports on an innovative project helping youngsters cope with the transfer to secondary school

Ritual. Routine. Rules. And, within these, freedom of expression and creative challenges. Such are the ingredients of Boyz 2 Men, an innovative project at Elms school in Nottingham. Peter Rumney, a young people's playwright and director, whose daughter was a pupil at Elms, came up with the idea when he realised that some of the boys there needed emotional support to help them benefit from the school and fit in with the requirements of other children and teachers. The idea was to help them gain self-esteem while learning that disruptive, rude or challenging behaviour is unacceptable; in short, to give them the means to begin to grow up as they prepare to make the leap to secondary school.

Numerous artists have been involved over the past year, crucial among them David "Stickman" Higgins. Stickman - his performance name came to him in a dream - is a musician, storyteller and poet who can turn his hand to most of the arts. Elms' head, Jacqui Smith, realised that his qualities would benefit her school and found the funding to give him a base there from which he could help other schools.

When Peter Rumney approached her, Ms Smith was delighted with his suggestion. Elms is a multi-ethnic school in an area of high unemployment, with various social problems, including a centre for homeless people which results in a higher turnover of children than in most schools. Although the focus would be on a few boys, all those in Years 5 and 6 took part at some point; so did all key stage 2 teachers, and other staff.

The last session on the last Monday of the school year is bound to be a highly charged occasion. The boys in Year 6 are about to leave the familiar, protected environment of a well-run primary school, with its emphasis on support for children with emotional or social problems, and transfer to the rough and tumble of a secondary. Some are clearly avoiding facing the fact.

The school hall is transformed into a Boyz 2 Men environment, with swirls of corrugated cardboard softening the lines of the walls and life-size self-portraits of the boys pegged up on a washing line. The principles of the programme are displayed as notices: "In Boyz 2 Men we Listen to each other, Respect each other, Keep hands and feet to ourselves, Respect equipment, Enjoy ourselves." There are nine adults in the room and the rules state that they must all take part on an equal social footing to the boys.

A small seat with cushions in one of the cardboard bays is the chill-out zone where an individual can go to compose himself. Near the door an orange cloth is spread on the floor. This, and the bowl of stones placed on it, have ritual significance. The group of children and adults sit around the cloth, draw the shapes of their hands and think about something magical they would like to happen in 10 years' time. A stone is chosen and, as each person receives it, he names a colour and describes a hope or ambition - to be an artist, to bring about world peace.

After some breathing exercises led by Peter, the boys take their places in a circle, each with a drum, and follow African-Caribbean rhythms set by Stickman. This is enjoyable, both disciplined and free: two of the boys are congratulated on playing solos within the overall framework.

Then, a white glove turns a hand into a puppet, an alter ego, and the boys allow it to speak for them: "If I'm sad I play the drums to be happy," says one. At this point, it is difficult to see a problem with any of the participants: they seem quiet, polite and willing.

Stresses and strains begin to show in the afternoon. Peter would like them to be able to "articulate what they have done over a year's work", but there is no desire to acknowledge an ending. There are tears, hysterical giggles, noise and restlessness. One boy needs to chill out; another is warned about rudeness.

Masks made earlier in the year allowed boys to speak freely in character about feelings, even to be aggressive safely. One had said, memorably, "I'm going to punish pain".

They had discussed stereotypes - the King, the Warrior, the Wise Man - and then made puppets and invented a story based on them (now made into an excellent animated film - each boy will be given a copy to keep.) At the end of our session, each member of the group shares what they have learnt. For one, the masks and puppets are important. Another says he has learned to stay calm. One announces simply, sadly, "Today is the last day."

The project will go on next term. Peter and Stickman are discussing strategies with Elms staff for including what they have learnt in ordinary lessons. Informally, the effects are clear. There is no magic wand. Family or relationship troubles do not disappear, but many boys have experienced a sense of achievement and are regarded differently by others. They have performed in public and made a film, and one in particular has been recognised as having outstanding artistic gifts, previously obscured by his behaviour.

Far from this being seen as a means of dealing with "bad" boys, Elms girls want to know why they can't have Girlz 2 Women sessions as well.

More information: www.inclusive-solutions.comideas.asp

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Heather Neill

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