Articulating themselves

18th May 2007 at 01:00
A GROUP of primary teachers will take a day or two off school next week to go to the theatre in Edinburgh. It will be free and, hopefully, fun. But this is no junket; it is another stage in on-going research into ways teachers can help children articulate their responses to art, and tie in the school trip with A Curriculum for Excellence.

Leading the activity is Alice McGrath, development director of Imaginate, the Edin-burgh-based company which next week launches its annual Bank of Scotland Children's Internat-ional Theatre Festi-val. As far as primary schools are concerned, this is the week the circus comes to town, and Ms McGrath's responsibility is to add value to the pleasure.

Because director Tony Reekie can take his pick of other festivals to make up his programme for four to 14-year-olds, the theatrical effect on the youngsters is stunning. That, in its way, can be the festival's success - and its problem.

Ms McGrath explains by recalling a conversation on a staircase after a performance in an Edinburgh theatre. After a stunning and challenging drama, the school party was making its way downstairs, when she heard a teacher ask a boy what he thought of it. "I dunno," was the reply. "Oh, but you must have enjoyed the acrobatics and the singing," enthused the teacher.

It was a classic case to Ms McGrath of the "teacher-given" instruction ousting the proper teasing out of the learner's genuine response. So for the last few years, she has been picking her way towards methods in which teachers can best use the high-quality art they can show their pupils. Her first move was to work with the cultural co-ordinators, the teachers'

hotline to children's theatre. The following year, Andy Cannon from Wee Stories gave a workshop on story-telling in the classroom.

Last year, she organised a research project that explored the use of visual art as a response to theatre - a fertile idea, given that theatre is mainly "something seen". Two Edinburgh primary schools saw a performance and had follow-up workshops in their schools. Mat-thew Reason, an arts researcher at York St John University, devised the programme, carried out by two Imaginate arts workers.

There were three workshops, the first a time for free drawing, the second a well resourced opportunity to draw a memorable scene from the play, and the third a "one-to-one deep talk" about the images they had made. As an attempt to extend the experience of seeing theatre and to develop thinking patterns, it worked wonderfully well, but the teachers' symposium afterwards pointed up the practical impossibility of the crucial "one-to-one".

Ms McGrath's real moment of epiphany came last year in New York. There, the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts pioneered a programme to introduce children to works of art. It was highly structured, with four, often oblique, workshops in school before the performance, and as many afterwards. She confessed she was "blown away" when she met some of the children who had been involved and heard them talk about the arts.

Her response is to experiment this year with two free events for teachers, one last Friday and two in the coming week. Each has attracted its complement of more than 40 enthusiastic teachers, mostly from primary schools in central Scot-land. Their day begins by seeing at least one performance from the festival programme, to give a common basis to the practical discussions and workshops that follow.

T 0131 225 8050 *

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