The look of love... anger, sadness

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Mervyn Benford sees primary children learn to convey emotion through art and discovers a model lesson. Below, Kate Lee suggests how a visit to the DIY shop can help pupils develop creative language

Jenny Dixon, headteacher of Armathwaite First School in Cumbria, believes in a broad and balanced curriculum for her 34 pupils. She has made surplus school space available to local artists, including a long central corridor, and in return artists offer their time to work with the children.

Jenny is the only full-time member of the teaching staff; the rest are part-time appointments to cover curriculum needs. Last year she asked local painter Arlene Nichol to work with pupils in a project to emphasise the power of line and colour through portrait. Reception and Years 1, 2 and 3 were involved and the work was linked to a science study of the human skeleton. It was skills-based and progressive, starting with observational drawing and moving on to experiments with pastel and other media to create accurate skin colours.

The success of the project owes a lot to the fact that, at first, she and Arlene led very strongly. They often taught from the front; going into technical aspects such as brush and paint control, proportion and texture, with set practice. The children also worked in pairs, closely observing individual facial features such as noses (studied from the front and in profile), eyes and ears. Eyes were portrayed expressing various moods: for example wide-open, to convey surprise; or somewhat drooping to register sadness.

Paintings, collages and printing - on tiles and on other ceramic products - resulted from this work. The older pupils (in lessons that linked strongly to PSHE) first practised portraying either calm or sadness. They decided that blue best communicated these emotions. Jenny and Arlene led an exploration of how emotion disturbed facial expression - with sadness, for example, eyes not only drooped, but faces became long.

The next emotion was anger. It was no surprise that red and its shades were chosen to express it. Over several lessons children experimented with brush and paint and found that curvy, flowing lines conveyed some feelings, whereas anger was better expressed through sharp, angled and rather spiky lines. They also studied the hand movements involved in anger, for example, clenched fists or a pointing finger. Their pictures were now more individual; more skilled, and had more insight.

Finally, in a session that used drama, story and video, Jenny and Arlene asked each child to compose a double portrait, two people in a situation where they express contrasting emotions. They worked in groups of three or four, deciding who would be the actors and who the director and the observer. When the director froze the action, digital cameras recorded the images. A tense situation might have one actor recoiling in fear, the other aggressively pushing forward. Some chose love, with one being coy and the other more demonstrative. Throughout, the children observed their faces closely and these observations, along with the video images, acted as aid for the final artwork, in which their insight resulted in art well beyond the standard one might expect in Years 2 and 3.

Both teachers had created precisely the conditions prescribed for effective learning. At the start there was input, with processes such as instruction and repetition, rote and practice. Gradually, responsibility for the work shifted to the learners, who now knew enough to take more responsibility for their own learning. The school's effective long-term planning ensures the work continues in similar vein and they are now exploring how line and colour are used in maps.

In this way education is an opening process, rather than the opposite that modern education represents, with ever more intensive input and ever less time for thought and reflection. (It is no surprise that fresh research shows that despite higher leaving grades we are producing people who nevertheless cannot think for themselves.) In an age when primary teachers increasingly deplore the impact of straitjacket testing of basic skills on the rich areas of curriculum, here is a model that can be applied to any subject. It lies at the heart of effective curriculum planning.

Mervyn Benford is a consultant on educational quality, former headteacher, LEA adviser and Ofsted inspector

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