Victory is in the air as the battle to get teachers on side is won

28th August 2009 at 01:00
As schools across the country devise new inter-disciplinary approaches to A Curriculum for Excellence, Douglas Blane visits a secondary which launched its own Festival of Scotland

As they hefted their weapons and dragged their weary bodies to the front for the last battle on British soil, the Scottish soldiers were demoralised, outnumbered and assailed by a bitter north-east wind. They suffered a defeat that day that ended not just the Jacobite cause but a Highland culture that had lasted centuries.

But at St Joseph's Academy, Kilmarnock, the re-enactment of Culloden, in a hall haunted by the sounds of horse and men, seems less certain. There are hardy-looking characters on both sides. "Highland army! Face your opposition shoulder to shoulder," cries the commanding officer, who bears a resemblance in the dim light to student drama teacher Jasmin Wallace. "You are fighting seriously for your country. There is no laughter on the battlefield. You may not add humour. Anyone who does, will be taken outside and shot."

But threats have not been needed to motivate the pupils taking part in Festival of Scotland, says acting depute head Ben Davis. "It's a Curriculum for Excellence project involving the entire first-year in cross-curricular work for eight days. They're loving it."

Getting the teachers enthused was a tougher battle. Cross-curricular is how brains work and children learn, but it's not how teachers usually teach - nor is it easy to organise in the secondary school structure. So enlisting teachers to run the pilot project took time and effort, says principal teacher of curriculum David Ritson. "Only about half of the 30 we needed volunteered at first. The others took some persuading. This is the fourth day of the project, though, and they are all on board now. They've relaxed into it."

A major factor in winning over the doubters has been the behaviour of pupils on the project, he says. "They are engaged. They're on task. They're getting a chance to talk about things and realise their say is important. There's one young man for instance, who's always in trouble, but I had him yesterday and he was a star. He was being listened to, given a chance to say what he wanted in his own way. We often have expectations of what we want to hear from kids, and don't take time to listen to those who explain things differently."

There are other appealing aspects for teachers. "They're trying something new and working with different colleagues. There is a lot of collaboration, a lot of learning for all of us."

Festival of Scotland grew out of a desire to try Curriculum for Excellence approaches before full implementation, explains Mr Davis. "The overall focus on Scotland came fast, from the emphasis in A Curriculum for Excellence on Scottish culture and identity."

The structure of the project, with its six different themes - Burns Homecoming; Loudon Hill; Scotland coast to coast; Just passing through; Icons of Scotland; and Highland Games - each with its own lead teacher, took longer to devise. "It was very consensual with lead teachers getting together and kicking ideas around."

These grew and evolved as the development teams put together by each lead teacher worked on cross-curricular themes, says Mr Davis. "Lead teachers would say which subject teachers they wanted - as the lead on Icons of Scotland, I asked for people from social subjects, science and modern languages - then we went and knocked on doors. It was creative, organic and a lot of work."

As the week of the project approached, the teams were given development time, with cover provided for their classes. "That produced the final structure and activities for each of the six themes every class participates in for a whole day."

So Tam o' Shanter is studied, re-written, acted and filmed. A local landmark is explored from every angle. Pupils in other schools are interviewed. Prominent people and events are re-enacted and the story of Scotch whisky told. There are Highland Games, Scottish cuisine, self- confidence and society.

In a room with a microphone on a table, two slightly anxious-looking pupils study a list of questions as a teacher tries to connect them to another school. "Michael nervous of talking?" comments his colleague Abbie. "I don't think so."

But chatting to chums is different from talking to strangers. So each class prepares thoroughly for its Scotland Coast to Coast talks with schools across the country, explains John Grant, principal teacher of art, design and technology.

"Two of our pupils talk to two of theirs - one immigrant to Scotland and one native. They find out how young people of their age are being educated, how they live their lives, what their interests are, what they do in their spare time. We want them to find out the differences and similarities across the country."

The choice of schools with which to collaborate was made in typically creative fashion. "We had a brainstorming event and my team came up with so many ideas I had to say `Stop the bus - we don't need more.'

"We laid a St Andrew's Cross on the map of Scotland. It shot out to Benbecula and up to Peterhead. We caught Shetland in the north and Kelso in the Borders. We have a rural school in Dumfries and a multicultural one in Glasgow."

Locations chosen, all that remained was to make contact. "We just picked up the phone. When we explained what we wanted to do, they were keen. Benbecula said it was great to talk to schools on the mainland. There's a link forever."

Back in the communications room, contact has been made with St Joseph's College, Dumfries, and Abby and Michael are taking turns with the questions. But how does the rest of the class get involved?

"That's our job," explains one of the other two pupils present, Niall McDaid. "We are the runners."

"Except we're no supposed to run," adds Jamie McGhee. "We're supposed to walk, very fast."

Taking notes of answers from the other end of the phone, the runners deliver these to the class, seated at computers downstairs, who then research the new information. When Jamie bursts in breathless and delivers the news that Robert Burns lived most of his life in Dumfries there are some raised eyebrows, since his farms Lochlea and Mossgiel are just a few miles from Kilmarnock. But no one is going to fall out with new friends over who Burns belongs to.

"In this particular rich task, we have pupils researching Dumfries and Poland, which is where their two pupils come from," says art and design teacher Barbara Pyott. "They home in on more specific information as it arrives. Jamie! We need to know which town in Poland."

Like other schools trying out A Curriculum for Excellence, St Joseph's has been influenced by the "rich tasks" pioneered by Queensland's education system - in which students demonstrate their skills and understanding "through performance on transdisciplinary activities that have an obvious connection to the wide world".

It's like assembling a jigsaw, says Ms Pyott. "They've each got jobs to do and they put the information they gather on a PowerPoint to share with other classes. By asking the same questions daily, they're building a picture of life for young people like them in modern Scotland."

It's not a description which applies to the original Tam o' Shanter, says Claire McInally, principal teacher of English and lead teacher on Burns Homecoming. "Just for this, Tam is a ned on a skateboard called Meg."

For this rich task pupils produce a short film, a newsletter and two research presentations, one on Burns, the other on the Enlightenment. "We decided on the different roles - actors, directors, cameramen, editors - and they chose which they fancied.

The complete project will be evaluated, but some lessons are evident already, says Ben Davis. "We didn't say much about Curriculum for Excellence to the pupils. But now when we talk about interdisciplinary learning, experiences, outcomes and the four capacities, it won't be abstract - they'll know exactly what we're on about. The same is true of parents, and indeed of staff.

"The difference this year is that we won't run it as a project but as a timetabled two or three periods a week. We've all learned a huge amount, and as teachers have gained a new appreciation of each other, as people and professionals. So have the pupils. `I've never seen her like that,' was one comment I overheard. `She was amazing.'" tml


Michael Grant: "At school you're usually working yourself. But with this you're working in a group just about non-stop every day. You get a lot of choice about what you do and it's physical as well as mental. I like it."

Abbie Robb: "Working this way is easier and harder at the same time. It's harder because you're having to think more. It's easier because you get to do things in your own way. I'd like to work this way all the time."


Burns Homecoming Write, film and edit a documentary about Tam o' Shanter and research the influence of Burns.

Loudon Hill Explore and examine the local hill and learn the geography, biology, features and history.

Scotland coast to coast Link with one of six schools across Scotland to learn about culture and way of life.

Just passing through Investigate present and future role in society to build self-confidence and self-belief.

Icons of Scotland Learn about historical figures, the science of whisky and the inventions which made Scotland famous.

Highland Games Experience the events and examine links to clans, tartans, locations and diet.

Pupils work in groups during the final two days, using new knowledge to complete a challenge and deliver a presentation.

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