Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Week one - the adventures begin!

And so to an account of the first session...

Small confession: I had a few butterflies.... OK legions of butterflies...!
I knew (hoped) that the planning was solid and I believed that the children would 'come with me' - because I trust the process by now. But I was still nervous because I wanted it to go well -  and because lots of people would be watching! As always though, I was completely fine once I got to the school and we got underway.

We began at 11.00, right after morning tea. This was the second day of a new term and there was a new child in the class, a recently arrived immigrant from Taiwan with no English. It was going to be important not to let this experience be overwhelming for him. I spoke with Andy about how this boy was getting on and he told me that the other Taiwanese student had really taken the new boy under his wing - was translating and providing support. We spoke to these two boys before the class and stressed that it was OK for them to talk in their own language and to keep asking questions of the teacher. We also knew that the learning assistant would be in for part of the session. I certainly noticed lots of whispered chat between these two as the class went on.

The student teachers had helped me hand write name tags for everyone - including the student teachers, teacher, research student and myself (I quickly asked Andy to make one for the new boy). I decided to begin with an activity involving the name tags. Andy and I (with the help of some of the children) cleared desks from the centre of the room and spread the name tags around the space. There was quite a bit of discussion about the new names "We don't have this person in our class - wait - is that one of the student teachers?".... "Oh, only one of them is a guy"..... "This one's got the same surname as you...."

As the children came in to the classroom I asked them to stand around the edges of the space, then move quickly and quietly to find their name tags, put them on and sit down (this meant the students were nicely "mixed up" and not necessarily sitting right beside friends. The student teachers had not yet arrived but their name tags were there as a sort of symbol of their soon-to-be-presence. This gave me the chance to ask the children to take care of the student teachers, allow them to join the class and include them in the spaces.

It was about 10 minutes before the student teachers could join us, because they were coming from a uni class. So in the meantime we talked about what the children recalled from our previous session I asked them, "What did we say last time about what this adventure was going to be like?" Responses included "Lots of drama,"  "Pretending to see things that aren't there,"  and "Using our imagination".  Someone recalled the "Yes Let's" game, so we had another play of that. One of the girls could remember all the rules in detail - great memory!

We incorporated 'freezing' into the "Yes Let's" game, so that each person made a frozen shape at the end of each turn. Compliments were given to those who could freeze well, and really show through techniques etc what was happening. Slowly building the PK in drama.

The student teachers arrived, so I asked the children to return to the spot where they had been sitting before, leaving room for the student teachers to join them. Next, I said "sitting somewhere near you is someone you have never met before... find out at least ONE thing you have in common". Small group discussions ensued. I was thinking about possibly turning this into a game - the one where everyone stands in a circle, someone steps forward and says something about themselves and if it's true for you too, you step in as well - but we'd already done our "yes let's" game so I thought it was best to get stuck in to the MOTE work.


The Mantle began with the effigy, as  prepared by the student teachers. But rather than go straight into the effigy, I led into it slowly. First I asked the children to create a space. Then, I asked them to imagine, within that space, a metal bed. I walked around the bed and described its height and the crisp white pillow and sheet. I mimed spreading and tucking in the sheet. I described a board on the end of the bed. At this point I paused and asked the children for their impressions or questions. I felt there was a lot of focus and attention at this point. Some children were already on to the idea that this might be a hospital - one asked about the mattress.

Then Alysse stepped forward in role and took the imaginary board from the bottom of the bed and began writing on it. More questioning... more inference.... This was where the lovely comment about the "asylum" was made. B wondered if this might be an ayslym - where people go who are mentally unwell. Finally Gavin was introduced into the picture and the children were asked to "read" his body language to work out how sick this person seemed to be....

N didn't think he was particularly sick, because he was lounging back watching TV. J wondered if he was holding a tray of food. Someone else thought that the woman might not be a nurse after all, but might be a figure on the TV screen. 

This process of gradually building and interrogating the effigy took quite some time, and was fairly static. But it was important work, as it encouraged the children into deep questioning and inference. I was trying to support them to interpret and read their own meanings into the picture - even while gently leading them to 'discover' what the 'real' story was.

I was certainly aware at this stage that some children were dominating and others were more inclined to stay quiet. Not knowing the class, I was not going to put anyone on the spot. As much as possible, I encouraged a think - pair - share approach with opportunities for everyone to talk to a neighbour, as well as to me as teacher. But it had to be a whole class activity because we were building a shared picture of our fictional context.

The idea of questioning the boy in the bed was introduced and various children asked questions to expand their understanding. I think this was a peak point in the lesson, as children seemed very interested and concerned - empathy! Several asked about what he had been  doing just before the ambulance came (the answer was skateboarding). J asked whether he had cancer. In role as ten-year old Eli, Gavin told us he had a lung disorder and that he had been in hospital for 8 months and was very bored - missing the adventurous life he had once enjoyed. After establishing that no, he did NOT wish to pull the plug on the machines that kept him alive, we heard that Eli loved watching Top Gear on the TV (when the Nurse didn't stand in the way) and was in no pain - just feeling rather trapped and frustrated.

The children had been sitting for ages by this time and though the engagement was high, I wanted to let them move - also wanted to cement the information we had gained from the questioning. So I asked them to quickly create a frozen picture showing Eli just a few moments before the fall that had precipitated the ambulance call out. These statues were shared half a class at a time, and the "spoken thoughts" convention was used to find out whether the different Elis had sensed there was a bigger problem, or been unaware. For many students this was the first moment of sharing drama before the class - so it was kept low key and non-exposing. It was all bout ELI - not them!

Having hooked the children's interest and concern, it was time to shift gear and start edging in to the notion of becoming a "responsible team" with the expertise to be able to help in this situation.

Back into a whole class discussion - I asked the children to think about what Eli misses the most - what would be his dream. The conversation turned to adventure, and "life threatening experiences" - but not the same kind of life threatening that is already happening with his disease - the other kind - the fun kind....

We wracked our brains about how adventure could be experienced by a child in this situation. I admitted (feigned?) a complete lack of ideas. And in that beautiful way that MOTE can work, the children began to tell me how it could be done. "3D goggles," "A computer game" "A simulation" "Some kind of augmented reality" "green screen" - there could be fans, to provide the sense of air going by, there could be high grade speakers with sound effects. Excitement was building now.

Now it was time to shift gear again - to start building the children's sense of themselves as the people providing this service. Heathcote talks about the shift of voice from "I" to "they" to "we". At this stage we were in the "they" zone. Then one of the children said something like "They'd need to be professionals to do all this.... They'd need good people" and I introduced the idea that we could be those good people. We could be the team that does this kind of thing - creates simulated environments.... We started discussing the kinds of skills people would need to be part of a company like that... "I'll be the camera person" - "I'll be the lighting expert" - "We'd need to decide if we were doing movies or digital...." "We need to think about the money - we can't waste the hospital's funding.... We'll need good accountants" and "We'd have to have lawyers"

I remember two important interactions that this point steered me in a new direction. Neither were planned for but both seemed significant "offers" from the children therefore I took them and ran with them.

The first was when a girl (initial I) raised the issue of fairness.... Is it fair that we just make this for ONE patient when there is a hospital full of sick people....? Quite a conversation ensued on this one. It's a wonderful point. We settled on the idea that our company would leave the room in situ and it could be available for future patients to enjoy.

The second important offer came from M who worried about whether the nurse (from the effigy) would allow the simulated environment to be built.  I thought this was a lovely extension on the fact that Gavin had established the nurse as a grumpy unfriendly character - (though she was good at her job). M said "I think we should talk to the nurse as soon as possible". So we did. Paired conversations - one child in role as the nurse, the other as the lawyer from the company. Thirty seconds or so to have the 'difficult conversation' in which one tried to persuade the other, and the other raised objections and concerns.

The impromptu episode between the nurse and the lawyer provided an opportunity for taking another perspective from that of the company - something that's so important in MOTE. After the paired discussion I spoke with the 'nurses' and 'lawyers' in turn, reflecting on the conversation - what had convinced them - or not - what were some successful strategies for communicating in difficult situations (e.g. asking questions rather than pushing your point of view) and -  crucially - what still needed to be sorted out with the hospital if this commission was going to be accepted.

Later on, after the session, Andy and I reflected that this 'unfinished business' provides an excellent opportunity for persuasive writing. Andy will ask them to write a formal letter to the hospital persuading them to allow the environment to be built - and taking into account all the objections, questions etc that were raised.

Phew - this is a long post!  Perhaps I should edit but it was such a packed session and I'm remembering so much as I write - so I'll keep going! Almost finished! Thanks for staying with me....
The session concluded with a general discussion about what our company will need. The children's ideas were written on the board: they included - office space, stationery, business cards, a website. This was the second peak point of the lesson for me. Excitement was high. Students were full of ideas and small groups were talking in animated ways about this company of ours. Some children continued to make lists after the bell had gone.

One last point. It's important to note that our MOTE company is not being built from the ground up - we have done this stuff before - lots of times. We are experts at this already (within the fiction). So I made sure I touched on the idea that there have been past projects "Who was part of that simulated environment at the airport?" Andy will reinforce this in the next few days with activities such as a TIMELINE (showing the past history of the company), letters from grateful clients and flashbacks to times we won awards etc.
I  was very very happy with our first session. It's always somewhat static at the start - and it can seem rather teacher-led and talk-laden. As a result I'm always aware of the "fringe dwellers" - those who are not vocal and might appear uninvolved. I made note of the children who were not contributing and made sure to chat with them after class - "I don't think we talked today - how's it going so far? Making sense?" ... I also made sure I caught up with the Taiwanese students and checked how they were going. I shook the hand of L (the new boy) and asked what they'd understood. They were able to tell me, in slow broken English, that this was about making a simulation in a hospital.... Wow. Well done lads. I guess all the visual clues helped a bit.
For the rest of this week, Andy will work on building belief in the company - establishing the "minute particulars" of the space and the shared past of the enterprise. When we return on Tuesday, we will work on the mission statement and most important of all, we will introduce the main commission.....


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