Away with the fairies
If the impossible was to happen, how would you deal with it?"
The question hangs in the air. Twenty-five teachers from across the city of Edinburgh are quietly considering its meaning and implications.
We are in a rehearsal room at the Royal Lyceum Theatre and the man asking the question is the theatre's artistic director Mark Thomson, who is leading a practical drama session based around Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"With A Midsummer Night's Dream," he says, "you must be ready to engage with the impossible. You're going to meet fairies, after all, and in the world of the dream, they are as real as you or me."
These are teachers who are on a challenging journey, if not into the "impossible", then into new realms of creative learning and creative thinking as part of Project Dream, a unique collaboration between their respective schools, the Lyceum and the City of Edinburgh's arts and learning team.
The secondary teachers taking part know that for them, in particular, the journey will be nothing if not challenging in terms of both sheer logistics and the cross-curricular approach involved. For three days in November a creative learning team from the Lyceum will come to their school to help create a unique response to the play, working with school subject specialists and the whole of third year.
For Balerno High, for example, this will involve the suspension of the S3 timetable over those three days with more than 30 staff and nearly 150 pupils preparing a walk-through theatre installation, which will transform much of the school's interior into the world of the dream, where parents will then be invited to stroll and engage with the pupils' creativity.
Science, maths and business specialists will be involved alongside PE, English, technologies and expressive arts and, though nothing is yet written in stone, the installation is likely to involve visual art, dance, drama, movement, music, ICT display andor projection, set and costume design, technical builds and effects as well as lighting design and stage management, promotion and marketing.
"The project fits with the national push on creativity and the Year of Creative Scotland 2012," says Balerno's depute head, Lyndsey Fullarton.
"It also fits with our learning and teaching priority for this year, which is inter-disciplinary learning. It will benefit the whole school in terms of pupil motivation and parental involvement as well as in terms of staff development, helping to break down subject barriers; and it's also a great opportunity for both pupils and staff to work with outside experts," he says.
Involving science, maths and business specialists in Project Dream will, Mr Fullarton believes, help to develop the idea, for pupils and staff, that these subjects play a "significant" part in the creative arts. It will also give the pupils a creative, practical platform to see how the subjects contribute to the creative process, and encourage staff in those departments to be creative.
"The project covers the traditional creative areas, but also includes subject areas not normally associated with a creative production," says Mr Fullarton.
"This will allow all the S3 pupils to be involved in the challenge either through performance or in behind-the-scenes roles and will encourage them to make connections in learning across subject boundaries, especially in those areas not normally associated with a creative production.
"Creative learning for me means empowering the pupils to tap into their imaginations, to make choices - independent learning - and to express those ideas for themselves and, in this instance, in a public forum," he says.
Lucy Vaughan, head of creative learning at the Lyceum, agrees that it is the pupils' own creativity that is central to the ethos of Project Dream. "This is not about schools putting on versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's about young people's creative responses to the play and our artists will work with them to help them realise their ideas," she says.
"This is a total immersion project designed to facilitate extended learning around the play. We're not `imposing' the project but working in partnership with subject specialists and pupils and, for us all, it's probably something of a scary adventure."
For the Lyceum this is also an intensive project, as they are working with 10 schools (three secondaries and seven primaries) while mounting their own production of Shakespeare's play, which all the schools will attend.
"It will be a learning process for us too," says Ms Vaughan. "We'll learn about cross-curricular development through the project and for us it's the right time to get involved in this way, as Curriculum for Excellence is asking schools to work with professional artists in an inter-disciplinary way and to help embed these experiences in the schools' approach to creative learning."
For Balerno's principal teacher of English, Susi Davidson, the project is "a fantastic opportunity" to bring professional theatre practitioners into the school and an "exciting challenge" to work collaboratively with other subject specialists.
"What we are hoping to achieve in terms of product will be something totally different from a school musical or a talent show and, in terms of process, it will be about pupils taking charge of their own learning while making Shakespeare more accessible," she explains.
"This is a new kind of challenge where, as different subject specialists, we are already bouncing ideas off each other and already we are thinking: what will the legacy be? What will we do next year?
"There is a real buzz about this," she says, "and we all know that we are going to have to go `off script' and out of our subject comfort zones to create something different."
Within her own subject discipline, different approaches are already emerging beyond the traditional English essay andor "lit crit" response to the play.
"The pupils will return from seeing the Lyceum production in mixed tutor groups to focus on different scenes from the play and come up with their own creative responses to those scenes which will feed into the whole-year project," she says.
What those responses will be in terms of specifics is yet to emerge, but if the kind of approach the Lyceum's artistic director is taking with the teachers at his drama session rubs off even a little, they could be quite startling.
Here, we have the teachers going through scenes at speed, speaking only the last word of each verse line. Perhaps surprisingly, the sense or meaning is far from lost.
"Shakespeare wrote in verse partly to tell the actors when to breathe, at the end of each line. So, the last words are emphasised and, clever Shakespeare, they are the words which carry the storyline," says Mr Thomson, noting how often end-words like "go", "stay", "me", "love" and "sword" are repeated.
He encourages the teachers to do exercises like this and to get their pupils to take scenes over the top, even to do them panto-style for the fun of it, and to shout the lines.
"These lines are written for outdoor audiences of a thousand or so to hear. Quiet voices are not true to how Shakespeare wrote," he says.
The teachers now read scenes, speaking only the vowel sounds - to hilarious effect.
"With Shakespeare the truth is in the sound as much as the sense. He provides his own soundtrack. That's how you and your pupils will find out how a line works. Enjoy, and encourage them to enjoy the sounds. We need to magic into the pupils the love for language," says Mr Thomson.
What about punctuation? Isn't that boring? Not if (like these teachers) your pupils are clapping and stamping each punctuation mark with, say, a light slap to the thigh for a comma, a clap for a full stop and a heavy stamp for an exclamation mark as they are shouting the lines.
"Should we approach the play using `easy' or `modernised' versions?" asks one primary teacher.
"Why go to McDonald's when someone is offering you a banquet?" replies Mr Thomson. "Even if you make pupils 20 per cent less afraid of the real Shakespeare, you have achieved a lot for them. Come at it like friends. Don't be afraid."
"Well, he certainly didn't soft-soap us, did he?" says Balerno High art teacher Scott Sinclair after the session. "He put us right on the spot. He's made me look at the play differently and his treatment of the language actually enhanced the visual potential for me. Out of our comfort zone? Well and truly, and I don't think we've even started yet."
"I'll use some of those techniques and exercises," says his colleague, drama teacher Jonathan Coulson. "He really brought it home. Challenge the pupils in a positive way. Make it fun. Make it something for everyone. But don't make it `easy'."
Edinburgh's arts and learning manager, Linda Lees, comments: "If Project Dream maybe takes teachers out of their comfort zone at certain points, that also means they will take something back into the comfort zone at the end of the day.
"It's about looking broadly across the curriculum and looking deeply at Shakespeare. It's about teachers acquiring skills they can share to make the inter-disciplinary approach sustainable and it's about pupils acquiring creative skills which allow them to think differently."
Project Dream has been made possible with the financial support of the Miller Group and the Robertson Trust, and a grant from the City of Edinburgh Council.
Ruth Douglas, PT science, Balerno High
"As a science teacher, Project Dream to me is about getting pupils to see there is more to science than Bunsen burners and log books, that you have to use creative intelligence in science and that it involves imagination.
"With the dream installation, we might focus on how to create atmosphere using lights, sound and effects such as dry ice.
"Everyone is excited about the project and I think we might create something together which pupils and staff will remember for a very long time and which hopefully will have a long-term effect on learning and teaching.
"I'd like to see projects like this become part of the school year, because it's not about forcing cross-curricular links but about allowing pupils to see these links develop naturally in front of them.
"To develop as a classroom practitioner, you have to be up to new challenges and forget fear of failure. I think that's central to any definition of creative learning or creative thinking. Just have a go!"
SCOTTISH LEARNING FESTIVAL
City of Edinburgh Arts and Learning Seminar and Education Showcase Creative Learners, Creative Thinkers, Creative Careers, with Linda Lees, Thursday 20 September, 12.00.
Creativity across Learning, Wednesday 19 September, 10.15am.
Challenging Creativity Creatively Thursday 20 September, 10.15am.