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Sea life through other eyes

Let children reveal their literacy and social skills in waves, suggests Iona Towler-Evans.

There can be a tendency when working with young pupils whose second language is English to focus on the new things they need to learn, rather than what they already know.

This is not the case for Cromwell Primary School in Birmingham, where more than 70 per cent of pupils come from black African backgrounds and face late language acquisition, 36 per cent have special needs and most are refugees.

Rubina Darr, the headteacher, prioritises nurturing and citizenship throughout the school and invited me to work with reception and Year 1 to explore creative approaches to literacy and citizenship based on their existing knowledge.

The work topic I adopted was "sea life" and the focus was on citizenship. Using a range of materials we began to set up a corner beach in the classroom using different coloured cloths, strings, pebbles and stones. We used the name for each item in different home languages.

As well as creating the beach and water, the pupils invented a song to represent their special place. Their collective role was that of deep-sea divers and one of their early tasks was to make brightly-coloured diving watches that they could see underwater.

Pupils then discovered a hidden crate that had been washed up by the sea and tried to make sense of what they found inside.

Items included a tape recording of a baby's lullaby, which they learned, a children's story sequenced in pictures and a baby's rattle. There was also a baby in the crate made earlier by the pupils from a white sheet.

Pupils took it in turns to care for the baby and told him stories from their own lives, sung him the lullaby, fed him and cared for him. The next stage was to meet the mother (a teacher in role) who was looking for the baby she had to leave behind, and to decide whether or not this stranger could be trusted.

This encounter in some ways paralleled their own lives as they learned about a new language and culture. They know about having to adapt to new situations and were able to bring this knowledge to help someone more vulnerable.

The baby did not represent a certain culture, but obviously symbolised someone lost. The mother would never say why she had left - they would ponder on the reasons for themselves. The work is strongly influenced by the Mantle of the Expert theory, a drama for learning system that allows pupils to take responsibility for their own work.

The teachers and learning assistants continued to develop the work in between our weekly sessions (which ran for half a term), experimenting with role conventions and developing the story.

We noted improvements in the pupils' learning, thinking skills, play and language development. They were also much more confident in making suggestions about how to care for the baby.

There was also a marked difference in their ability to play in groups, share ideas and work creatively together. Prior to the work, teachers noted that pupils did not use role-play, but now they imaginatively transform materials into things that symbolise something meaningful to them. The adults, too, have found ways of intervening appropriately in children's role-play, as well as in whole-group and small-group contexts.

Iona Towler-Evans is a practitioner and trainer for The Mantle of the Expert drama system.


- Ensure pupils know the experience is fictional (but authentic).

- Develop inclusive language, for example, use "we" instead of "you" to encourage collaboration.

- Plan a beginning that will lure the pupils in.

- Involve pupils in the planning process.

- The Mantle of the Expert conference takes place at Aston Business Centre in Birmingham on January 21. It will be led by Dorothy Heathcote, who created the technique.


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