Rapid success: River Dee provides inspiration for pupils' puppet plays

27th August 2010 at 01:00
Performances brought to life as hands-on experience at the riverside and folk tales inspire children's own stories

It's the dress rehearsal, and the children are giving each other notes on their performances. They're polite and honest with each other - "You need to speak up"; "I don't think that worked so well as the last time"; "That was really good."

There are just 48 hours before their parents will see their production: four short pieces they have created themselves, inspired by a theme they have been working on - the River Dee.

The river winds through the countryside surrounding this state-of-the-art school, Hill of Banchory Primary, which opened four years ago on the outskirts of the town.

The P4-5 pupils' stories are imaginative and funny, set against the shifting colourful scenery they've drawn themselves, capturing the vivid landscapes of Royal Deeside.

They have studied the life of this world-famous river, learning about the cycle of the salmon that the royal family fish for a few miles upstream at Balmoral. They have been out with the local ghillie and scrambled along the riverbank, squirmed at the touch of slimy eels and learnt the rudiments of fly fishing.

Pupils have read poetry and heard local folklore, stories of ghosts and floods that have inspired their own dramas. They have created two- dimensional shadow puppets and given them personalities that come to life in silhouettes on a circle of light projected on a screen.

The children hold their characters out on long sticks of willow - there are fish that swim and ghosts that howl and a wonderful fiddler whose bow moves up and down, keeping perfect time with the music. Behind the screen, they manipulate the puppets, acting out their parts, playing in sound effects and creating their own soundtrack on tambourines and xylophones.

Lois Mcgregor, 8, explains: "There are these acetate sheets - we drew on them and we made a big storyboard." Nine-year-old Nathan Miller says: "The light goes through and shows it on to the screen, with all the colours that we've drawn."

"It's about fish and it's the spawning season," says Lois. "There's this ghost under the River Dee called Blue Mary. And there's a little fish digging for her eggs under the gravel and she digs up Blue Mary's grave and Blue Mary annoys them. So all the fish have a meeting to decide what to do with Blue Mary. There's a grumpy fish and they whack Blue Mary with a stick."

To celebrate their triumph, the fish then go clubbing together in the River Dee. One of the children, Erin Glass, says the idea to include Blue Mary came from the poem Mary Call The Cattle Home, about a girl who drowned: "Some people say they can see her when they look inside the Dee."

Overseeing the rehearsal is professional puppeteer Alison Monaghan, from the Yugen Puppet Company, who ran workshops with the children and gave teachers continuing professional development sessions. She says puppetry works well for children who lack confidence because no one is looking at them when they are behind the screen, which encourages them to take part.

"It's also a really good way of getting them to write their own stories," she adds. "It gives them those basic skills without them even thinking about it while they're doing it."

Joanne Metelski, the P4-5 class teacher, says: "I hadn't seen anything like it before, except when we had the CPD session, which opened my eyes and made me realise what a great project it can be for the children, because it is so cross-curricular. Teamwork and collaboration is the key."

A group of cluster schools, including Banchory, Drumoak and Hill of Banchory, have been working with professional puppeteers, using different types of puppets.

"It all came about from Curriculum for Excellence and looking at all the different areas and having a real cross-curricular topic children could be engaged in," she says. "The focus of the whole thing was on creativity and trying to encourage the children to be dynamic, working together to produce a piece of work that could be presented to their peers.

"We have done activities linked to literacy, we have done writing about the life of a salmon on the River Dee, and we have looked at The Muckle Spate, which is a famous poem from the area about the big floods. We have been able to do water sounds in music, creating our own river music. There's been lots of art work - fish pictures, papier mache fish - and lots of science, looking at the water cycle and the river course."

The venture was organised by Aberdeenshire Council's arts education department with the Puppetry Animation Festival of Scotland. It has been running workshops and programmes with them over the last few years.

Previously, puppeteers did one-day workshops in schools, which were well received, but this time it was decided to extend the timescale and do it in more depth.

"We've been looking at the curriculum and what schools require and we have placed the Puppetry Animation Festival with three puppetry companies inschools in the Banchory area," says David Atherton, arts education officer.

"The intention is, firstly, to train up teachers in making use of puppetry in their teaching. Secondly, it's to look at how young people can develop a variety of skills through learning about puppetry."

At the end of the project, the children from all four schools perform their work to each other before a final performance to all their parents.

One of the objectives, says Mr Atherton, is to encourage children who are less naturally outgoing to become more confident about performing. It seems to be working - there is no sign of stage fright today.

Jean McLeish scoted@tes.co.uk.

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