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Life in a box

Lyn Harrison finds art can help smooth the transition from primary to secondary school

I think I am ready to leave primary school but I am also quite scared about going to secondary." Year 6 teachers will have often heard these words from pupils anxious about the changes facing them.

Many local authorities help the move between phases - most secondaries invite new pupils to introductory lessons, and literacy and numeracy transition lessons provide a uniform curriculum - but as well as the academic demands, the transition also makes emotional ones.

I believe children need to be educated to help them cope with the changes, so last year I decided to help Year 6 pupils by using the work of artist Joseph Cornell. Children need time and space to develop their own personalities and this project was about doing that.

The artist

The work of Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) has a naive, child-like quality that I felt appropriate for this project. Cornell lived all his life in New York. He collected the debris of life from his home, junk shops, the water's edge or parks around Manhattan.

He categorised the objects then later he would use them to create boxed pieces of sculptural art. He has been recognised as an important conceptual and minimalist artist.

The project occupied little more than one half-day a week over the second half of the summer term. The theme was memories, a subject that also featured strongly in the end-of-year leavers' concert.

First session

I began with a questionnaire that would separate facts from pupils' feelings. Questions such as "How are you going to travel to your new school?" demanded factual answers. Others explored feelings - for example, "What subjects are you looking forward to studying?" "What are your main worries about your new school building?"

Second session

Using the answers, the pupils discussed their expectations about secondary school. We talked about what was going to happen and found that many concerns and expectations were shared. Top of the list were anxieties about new routines and friendships.

Soon the children began talk about leaving their primary and it was here that most children showed most concern. They would miss friends, teachers and other staff. Before long, the discussion became a recall of their primary school memories.

The children began to record these feelings in images and words. I then asked them to start collecting small objects that reminded them of their time at the school: photographs; small toys; football or other collectable cards; certificates; and so on. Finally I asked them to bring a shoebox for the next stage of the project.

The idea was that all those memories could be condensed into a box that would show what their primary years had meant to them. They were going to make a visual memory box.

Third session

Initially we wrote poems about our first memories of school. Following the literacy hour format, we shared poems of first days at school.

I was amazed how many children remembered their first day in the nursery, especially those who had remained at the same school throughout the primary years.

Fourth session

We moved into the visual arts and I introduced Joseph Cornell to the pupils. I began with his biography, then his work as an artist, using photographs to show the children. We looked at a video about his work, paying attention to the collection, arrangement and aesthetic qualities of some of the boxes. The pupils discussed the qualities of each box, identifying the simple composition and delicate qualities of its contents.

Some pupils in this class had been said to "lack expression" but all responded well to the stimulus of Cornell's artistic creations. "Did he make that out of rubbish?" "Why did he use a parrot?" "What does this mean?" "Did he just give that box away?" "How clever he was to use the place were he lived to get all those ideas." They were particularly impressed by the combination of ideas that had come from the New York environment and by the spatial arrangements inside the boxes.

The children then designed some ideas for their own boxes.

Fifth session

I demonstrated methods of covering the boxes, using paint, drawings, word images or collage. The children began to work on their boxes using some of the images they had begun in sketch-form in session two.

Following sessions

During the next four sessions we constantly reviewed Cornell's work and I suggested methods of putting the boxes together. For example, drawing techniques, photomontage to create pictures, types of lettering and different ways of assembling objects so that they would hang or be suspended from the sides of the box. Items were hung in the boxes using a variety of methods, such as paper scaffolding, ribbons, paperclips twisted out of shape to use as hooks, and paper fasteners. The mechanics of this "suspension" were always carefully hidden. We referred often to Cornell's work and the unique quality of each box.

Children worked independently on their own designs and they also often worked collaboratively. The initial sessions were difficult to manage but once the children had found a direction and consolidated their designs, the lessons became more purposeful. The pupils were fully engaged and focused on the task.

Final sessions

To conclude the project, we evaluated the whole activity using a simple writing frame. Here are some examples with the pupils' replies: Q Why have you selected these items for your box?

A Because they are part of my time in primary school, they were just things that are very close to me - David

A Because they were fads during my school years - Johnjo

A I used to collect marbles and football coins. I have had the Simpson figures since Year 2 - Charlie

Q How have you arranged the items inside your box?

A In a perfect memory order - Shannon

Q Has making the box allowed you to think about your primary school memories?

A Yes, definitely. It made me feel proud about what I'd done in primary school - EH

A Yes, it has because I had to think back to when I was young several times - Tarik

All the children thought their box was a success and they enjoyed making it. They were engrossed by the task and many spoke to me about their boxes outside lessons. They all completed their boxes and were keen to display them to other classes and in a final whole-school exhibition.

The sessions enabled pupils to look positively at the change confronting them. They were better able to reflect on the past and select the most valuable parts of their primary school time to create the boxes. They had also started to separate their feelings about leaving their school from their concerns about starting at a new one.

Lyn Harrison teaches at Greenacres Primary School and speech impairment unit, Eltham, south-east London.Email:

Web links

For details about Cornell's life and art:www.ibiblio.orgwmpaintauthcornellwww.acquavellagalleries.commainar tist_bio.cfm?artist_id=208



www.artandculture.comartsartist?artistId=90For images of Cornell's art in galleries around the world: www.artcyclopedia.comartistscornell_joseph.html

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