Slam, rap, bebop! These teachers can do the lot

5th December 2003 at 00:00
TRAINING DAYS: Performance is the name of the game as staff learn poetry skills

The children of New City primary school in Newham, east London, are in for a surprise when they settle down to watch the staff Christmas production.

Without giving too much away, it's all down to an in-service training day with a difference.

"We have a host of new skills which, as a headteacher of a certain age, I would never have believed I would possess - slamming, rapping and bebopping," says head Jackie Withnall.

In-service training has come a long way since the days of "how to use a whiteboard" and "the numeracy strategy made simple". These days, creativity is creeping back into the curriculum.

Even so, few schools go the whole hog and get a performance poet in for the staff's benefit. Literacy is one focus of New City's improvement plan, and the recent training day included a poetry slam - a session in which participants write and perform their poems on a given subject - in this case, "In the box beneath his or her bed."

Ms Withnall says that rapping and slamming are nothing like as nerve-racking as they sound.

"It was the last day of half-term and the day after parents' evening - a bit of a graveyard slot - but we had a very memorable and creative day.

It's still the talk of the staff room," she says.

"Our street cred is at a new high, and we've seen a whole alternative world of poetry and music. We now also have the core of the staff Christmas production. The children will be very surprised."

The day was led by performance poet Joelle Taylor. She is a firm believer in learning by doing, as befits someone who also runs what she has described as a "physical theatre company".

"Part of the process is about getting the teachers to come out of themselves," she says. "It's essential they experience what it's like to write a poem and perform it before expecting the children to do it. You're asking them to acknowledge the feelings a pupil might have.

"Just sitting down to be taught can be very flat compared with getting up and doing something. I can see the teachers becoming more outgoing and confident. On the New City day I noticed a very strong bond between the teachers - lots of humour, which always helps shy people come out of themselves. It's also a safety net."

The day was run by the London-based East-Side Educational Trust, an arts and education charity that was set up to raise standards of achievement in language and literacy and to promote independent learning through drama and the creative arts. According to Merryl Simpson, the event organiser and one of its training co-ordinators, teachers can often be wary of creativity.

"Many have a tendency to feel anxious when they hear the word creativity - because they believe that this might mean encouraging unruly, disobedient, careless, imprecise, or just plain naughty behaviour," she says. "But fostering creativity among young people is about encouraging the development of positive aspects of the personality of all children, through acknowledging and accepting an ever-increasing diversity of abilities and talents.

"Learning activities that emphasise branching out, finding out or inventing - such as discovery learning, learning under play-like conditions and learning with the help of fantasy - can be more effective than traditional methods such as face-to-face lecturing or rote learning.

"Teaching and learning methods that emphasise creativity have strong beneficial effects on pupils' intrinsic motivation to learn, as well as on their attitudes to school and their self-image."

Ms Taylor believes that teachers who use forms such as rap - which she interprets as an acronym for "rhythm and poetry" - can pull in children who don't usually think of themselves as being creative.

"Most children will readily admit to liking rap as an art form, and rap artists in particular. But these are often the same children who declare that they dislike poetry - this can be particularly true of the boys, who sometimes hold the belief that poetry is somehow feminine," she says.

"There has to be a reason for each rap. It must be about something, and they are often rooted in social and political commentary."

East-Side Educational Trust charges from pound;500 for a training day. The cost includes artist, teacher's resource pack and evaluation. Schools can pay for the training with money from the Department for Education and Skills' standards fund

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