Pupils show true colours

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Disaffected secondary pupils in Aberdeen have been inspired to display their feelings, writes Charlotte Thomson

Heids in the Cloods Marischal Museum, Marischal College, University of Aberdeen until March 27 tel 01224 274301

In the dark, solemn room of the museum sit prehistoric artefacts of settlers 8,000 years ago, an ancient Egyptian coffin and a late 18th century wooden Maori box. In among them stand bright, colourful objects in installations made by Aberdeen schoolchildren. The juxtaposition is surprising.

The Heids in the Cloods exhibition at the Marischal Museum at Aberdeen University is a prize-winning initiative devised by Harlaw Academy. A group of second year pupils looked closely at exhibits in the museum and then art teacher Tina Stockman asked them to make collections of items which best conveyed themselves and to write short poems to accompany them.

This is no ordinary art class; the six pupils have different types of problems and generally find it difficult to fit in with others at school.

Several have low self-esteem and often skip classes, yet none has ever missed one of Mrs Stockman's Friday afternoon sessions.

Her special classes began four years ago and since then pupils' attendance and behaviour have improved in all their other classes.

Pupils are chosen at the end of the first year by teachers who believe they would benefit from the group meetings.

"It is not just a case of getting rid of the naughty boys in class but of re-educating them," explains Mrs Stockman. "Many children believe they are stupid but are amazed to find they can do all sorts of things when they try.

"Different kinds of experiences give way to different ideas. I find children are much more expressive when they are given choice.

"Stepping outside the mainstream curriculum opens up an alternative for children who, given the chance, can learn new skills. Breaking rules may not be acceptable in many parts of society but in school it can be fun and, what is more, it can also be good for the children socially."

The unusual art pieces displayed at the museum in glass cabinets are the results of much brainstorming by the pupils. They talked of how many children find it hard to express themselves, as they are often told to behave in a certain way and all have to work on the same subjects.

"The class is good because it gives you freedom," says 13-year-old Jo Meloche. "In some classes you are just given instructions but you don't really know what you are meant to do."

Jo and her friend Jade-Louise Gibson gathered together everyday objects found in a teenage girl's bedroom, displaying their fascination with purple and pink. They included make-up, pencils and a cuddly toy, with a feather boa to divide the colours.

"Pink is my favourite colour," says Jo. "I think all the pieces show how fun and bubbly we both are. I think colours can tell a lot about people."

The girls' poem reads: "Pink is for girls, I am a girl, I like being a girl, So I think pink."

An exhibit by Josh Adams, 13, features a pile of discarded punishment exercises lying beside a white mask and a slip giving permission to use the library. It is, he says, based on punishment, as teachers can be very strict. His poem, "Stop", is compiled from various snippets of conversations he has heard at school, including: "Stop talking, stop screaming, stop or I'll hit you."

"I wanted to use things that would work together, so I used what I hear people say at school," Josh says.

"I wanted to crack the mask but, in the end, I used it whole because lots of people hide behind different faces at school."

There is not a single drawing or painting in sight, but the pupils are clearly captivated by what they have accomplished and say they look forward to other people thinking about the objects they have chosen.

Mrs Stockman emphasises the importance of incorporating activities the children are interested in while they learn. Many of them can be very self-absorbed and may need a little prompting, but it is important that hyperactive children are given the opportunity to channel their energies into the right activities.

"We have had DJs in to teach the children hip-hop and music teachers have taught the basics of percussion, but this is the first time we have had a language-based project," she says.

"To be successful, teaching should be adapted to children's needs. At the end of the day, we have 100 per cent attendance, which goes to show the children do enjoy the class, and that is what is important."

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