Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Week three - visiting the aquarium

Session three was a mixed bag - with LOTS to reflect on.

Excitement in the air when we arrived. Andy's messages during the week told us about how the company had finalised their mission statement and logo and how busy the children had been gathering information about the Dumb Golper shark. Much of this had happened through independent study at home. He told me the class / company had developed a system of using a buzzer to call attention to new information as it was added to the "fact wall". It was great to see that rather than simply finding the facts, children were applying them to the particular context and were forming questions and wonderings related to the commission. For example, they wanted to know whether the tank had a sloped base (since the shark lives on the continental shelf) and started coming up with theories about how the shark's diet could be reproduced naturalistically in captivity. Andy reported that the children were aware that they all this information but now needed to think how they were going to USE it...

This is one of the strengths of Mantle of the Expert - the way the learning is applied to the context we are in "now" - rather than stored away for some future time when we might need it.

We cleared tables and chairs away because I felt we would probably be working physically for the whole session and one objective was for the children to end up taping out the dimensions of the Shark tank. The children came in from morning break, went straight off to fetch their name tags without my bidding, and all sat on the carpet ready to go. At this stage I had a very clear sense that the class members have moved into a state of deeper engagement. As teacher it felt very "easy" to begin the session.  I didn't need to 'hook' the children's attention or ask them to come with me... they were already "there".

Before moving into role I took some time to thank the class for the way they have been working so far. I acknowledged the fact that they have had lots to cope with - people coming and going in the classroom, lots of new ways of working. I complimented them on how they were being responsible and mature both in the fictional world and in the real world of the classroom. And I made a point of saying something else: "One of the things that makes this kind of drama work well is when people who are taking part can find the difference between what feels funny or cool and what feels right  or true for the world we are making together. More and more I've noticed you choosing things that feel right and that's really helping." One of the students complimented J (absent today), drawing attention to how well he'd been doing at this.

I decided to have this out of role conversation with the children partly to encourage those who are still tending to make 'offers' that are comic or over dramatic, to reflect on 'aptness'... I remember reading about ho DH used to do this - reminding children who (in improv terms) went for the 'gag' or the 'block' or the 'steal' not to move or do or act till the thing felt "right"...  It's been a challenge for some in this class who are enjoying the power to make anything happen SO much they can't resist catastrophising or exploring their love of guns, war and ammo! So, I guess this challenge to work sensitively and thoughtfully was a "learning intention" for the session. I even said "We'll go into the drama now, and at the end we'll check in on how we got on".... Ooo, assessment!

Into the dramatic world... Or rather into a shadow world midway into role in order to plan what the fictional role would do. The children knew that today was the day of the imagined trip to the aquarium in Wellington. So I asked the children to think about what kind of transport felt "right" for our company to use for this trip. This caused quite a debate and opportunities for think - pair - share and whole group discussion on the relative environmental merits of plane travel vs bus travel and the balance of efficiency of time with efficiency of spending money.

E helpfully put the mission statement on display so that we could reflect on the kind of values we stand for as we made the decision. Several commented that it would be great if there was a fast train. B reckoned we should put in a bid for a fleet of electric cars (for next time) though he could also see that lots of vehicles = lots of engines, so maybe that wasn't as sustainable as travel by company bus. Finally we had a vote (P counting the hands) and settled on travel by plane. One or two of the boys decided they wanted to go first class, but would use "their own money" to upgrade, rather than company funds.

On reflection, I can see that I cut this debate short ... it was really engaging the children and we probably could have continued and deepened. The ethical questions were important and children had more to explore. I admit it - I was guided by wanting to get on with the trip - and the drama!

And so we moved into an active mode. First children were asked to think seriously about what they would pack to take to Wellington. They were asked to create the space for an imagined briefcase in front of them (done without hesitation - they are all so able to use their drama eyes by this stage)... Then I invited them to think about what they would take - and how they would handle the objects as they loaded them into the briefcase. Because how we handle the items we work with tells us as much about the company we are as the words on our mission statement. 

Children worked with lots of care and attention to detail at this point. Briefcases were packed and then a few individuals were 'spotlighted' - invited to stand, show their mime of one item they packed - along with a few words to say what they were thinking when they packed it.


Children's spoken thoughts included: "I'm taking my ipad because I might need to take notes", "I'm taking this modelling clay (it was obviously heavy), so I can sculpt possible designs", "I'm packing my scarf because we all know how windy it can be in Wellington". I was impressed with P who came over quietly and asked me whether, if our company was a high stakes operation with a big budget, he MIGHT be allowed to carry a hand gun? I replied "decide what feels right or true for the kind of company we are" - and later we saw him carefully packing his computer keyboard instead.

So, we were ready to set off. Now, how to experience the journey to Wellington? Doing 'journeys' in drama is always interesting. I try to avoid a "lived through" mode - I confess I don't really like lining up chairs and pretending to be on the plane.... this can feel a bit like the drama equivalent of the "wheels on the bus" song - a bit shallow in terms of exploring what it means to make a journey... This can be great for little ones but something more is needed with older ones. Instead I find it useful to focus on key moments from the journey - moments of tension..

I asked the children to consider some of the small 'hitches' that might arise between leaving the office and arriving at the aquarium. Again, we had to check the temptation to go for the over-dramatic. A's first suggestion was a plane crash, but when we talked about that he could see it would result in a different kind of outcome - one where the commission was no longer the prime focus. So he changed his mind and said "maybe we leave the blueprints behind, and have to rush back for them..." Everyone thought of a 'hitch' and how it was overcome, and portrayed this moment as a freeze frame. These moments in time were shared between small groups.

I'm not sure what this child ( I ) is depicting here (pictured left) but it was clearly upsetting! Perhaps one of the student teachers can fill in the details?

While the groups were sharing, I worked 1:1 with R - one of the taiwanese boys. His confidence is growing really well in drama and he was able to imagine some really nice tensions. His first suggestion - "lightning hits the plane" felt like rather a big problem but when asked to think of a "small problem" he quickly suggested "tea spills on me" and mimed staring down at an imagined tea stain in his lap... We decided this problem would be solved by grabbing some spare trousers from the briefcase and quickly, all was well again.

So far, so good. I told children that we had now arrived at the aquarium and I would be taking on a role. I remember hearing a child say "choice..." I clearly signalled the role using a black cap (the cap would be used again later in the session, so I wanted to make it clear that it was a sign). I told the children that when I wore the cap, I would be in role as Wiremu Hastings. Who did they think he might be? S guessed that he sounded a bit French, but P correctly guessed that he was Maori, given his first name. I decided on a Maori character because I want to make space for indigenous understandings about sharks within our inquiry - and so far, children haven't gone there in their research.

Hat on, in role as Wiremu, I welcomed the company to the aquarium, told them it was amazing to meet another group of people with an interest in the Dumb Golper shark, as this was an animal I had been fascinated in for a long time. I invited them to come and visit the birthing tank, where the pregnant female dumb golper was being held...

Children's responses to the arrival of the teacher in role are pictured below. I love the way children 'lean in' and give a special kind of attention when the teacher is in role. Look at the facial expressions in the photo on the left...

It was a strong moment, and I don't think I made enough of it. I had planned only for Wiremu to meet and greet the company. I could perhaps have encouraged more conversation by inviting them to tell me about their trip... But in the event I came out of role quite quickly because I felt we needed to create a shared sense of what this tank looked like.

An experiment: I backed right off and left it to the children. I simply asked "how are we going to make this tank seem real?" "How are we going to show it here in the space?" then I nominated a couple of children who seemed to have ideas - they stood up and I sat down in a corner. I could almost feel the shift in the atmosphere she's not going to tell us what to do.... and the uncertainty of that. But quite soon they started having ideas: "we've got one of those metre rulers." and offers from other children: "measure it out in the middle" and even "we could use masking tape"....

The task got rather loose as some children moved uncertainly through the space and others looked on. I noticed some of the boys had picked up their ipads - when I checked with them, they said they were searching for the aquarium on google maps. They had heard me use the words "map out the tank" and interpreted this as being about finding it on a map. Oh the importance of our words!

I decided it was important to find everyone a job - so I asked children to choose whether to be part of the measuring team or to come to the other end of the room to talk to Wiremu. On reflection, it might have been better to involve everyone in the measuring activity. I could have set up small group tasks -  in groups, children might have been invited to make a scale drawing of the tank with paper and pencil or even with popsicle sticks (each stick representing 1 m).  At the time, I was only thinking of how to make one collective sign of "the tank"... and I was keen to see what happened if children were left to solve the problem without guidance - which they did very well (the student teachers stepped in a bit too) .... I guess Andy can pick up on those other maths possibilities later.

Meanwhile, down the other end of the room, we were setting up for an interview with Wiremu. I could see a possibility for using the 'expert quiz' convention (one I learned from Trevor Sharp - kia ora Trevor) in which children speak in role as someone with a lot of factual knowledge. The idea behind the convention is to provide a CONTEXT for factual information, historical facts, statistics etc and to see whether students can demonstrate understanding of the information they have gathered, by recognising when their piece of information correctly answers a question.

For this, I had prepared a whole lot of slips of paper with facts about the Dumb Golper on them. Most of the facts came from the children's "fact board" and showed the results of their inquiry. Some additional shark facts were also included - I'd researched myself and looked for new information, including information on Maori attitudes to sharks. These shark facts were handed out and we took time to ensure that everyone understood and could explain their fact to a peer. The ESOL students were supported by their teaching assistant to translate the facts they'd been given. Other children checked in with student teachers to check the meanings of any vocabulary that was unfamiliar. I was thoughtful about which facts I handed to which child, depending on their reading ability.

Meantime, of course, the taping process was still going on - and we had to make allowances for our colleagues who needed to move through our space with the rulers and sticky tape. Everyone coped well, considering!

Taping concluded, the measurers joined the team ready for the interview with Wiremu. I explained that this time I would not be taking the role, but we would imagine I was sitting next to Wiremu (signified by the black hat on a chair) in the staff canteen, asking him a series of questions. They - the children - would be speaking for Wiremu - responding to the questions based on the shark fact they had in front of them. I reminded them that people don't generally just speak facts, but put the information in a conversational way. I also told them that I would be asking SOME questions that were not facts, but personal conversation... I demonstrated by asking Wiremu how long he had been working with the Dumb Golper shark. One of the children responded straight away with "five years"... They had the idea.

The 'expert quiz' proceeded with children listening out for a question that 'matched' their piece of information. Only one or two children did not volunteer a response. Several spoke over each other - requiring them to practise skills of listening for a space (no 'hands up' here....!) After the conversation with Wiremu, we talked about the new or surprising information we had found out. A strong theme emerging from the conversation was the idea that human beings are the biggest threat to the Dumb Golper sharks. B told us about their livers - which are enlarged and heavy - helping them to stay on the sea bed (the word for this - Demersal - was written on the board). We heard that human beings sometimes enjoy shark liver for its supposed health benefits. We also heard new information about Maori attitudes to sharks - they are traditionally seen as guardians, rather than feared and we heard that in Maori mythology, the Milky Way was created by sending a shark to swim through the sky.

And then we stood up around the edges of the taped out area - imagining it as the shark tank.
I remember thinking "we only have 10 minutes to go" and "I'm not sure this next idea is going to work"... I should probably have gone with that instinct because it did get a bit ragged! Children were invited to imagine themselves as the female golper swimming in the tank. I tried to be clear that we were not looking at how the shark moved, so much as how she feels.... but naturally enough, given the opportunity to "play" an animal, children made imaginary fins and even added jaws type "da-du-da-du" sounds as they moved into the tank. I responded by asking everyone to lie on their backs - to take themselves back in time to before they were in captivity, when they were still out in the sea. I asked them to imagine what they could see and hear around them.

Some of the children hadn't opted to join in ... Interesting - was it a lack of space on the floor? A feeling that the task didn't feel "right"? Were they tired? Did they just want to watch? I didn't push them to participate but instead asked them to think of questions they might ask the free sharks.... N had a question "What is it like to be out there in the big sea?" - and she approached one shark to ask them. Good instinct N! I should have gone with that more structured ritualised way of encouraging responses. Instead, I invited any shark who wanted to answer, to speak into the silence. We got a muddled chorus of responses - and some jokey ones... "I'm dead" - "I'm hungry" - "I feel free"

At this point, if I'd followed my earlier stipulation of only going with what feels 'real' and 'true' - I'd probably have cleared the floor and wrapped up with a reflection. But I pushed on because I felt I should listen to the captive sharks' point of view as well.... and, honestly, I hoped that if I stuck at it the children would find a deeper response to the role. Probably Not the right call - I've learned before that pushing on with the drama is rarely the right call....! I asked them to flip onto their stomachs and respond as shark in captivity. They did OK, but it was getting noisy, and silly. My favourite comments in this section were when one of the questioners (D?) asked the sharks "what do you think of those walking around creatures who captured you?" and one of the girls (T) answered "they have very small eyes".

After a few attempts to focus the children, I pulled out! Asked them to stand and shake off the role and we gathered on the mat. We talked about how tricky that last activity was - how it was one of those times when it was hard to take the drama seriously. And we checked in on how we felt we had managed today at making choices that felt "right" for the drama. I asked children to raise a hand and give themselves a 'score' out of 5. I noticed A giving himself two and a half, based on how he'd 'lost it' a bit during the last activity.

Reflecting on the final activity later I thought about what could have been done differently. One option - not do it... We'd been very active throughout the session. Perhaps a quieter, more static activity to finish? Writing in role, or more simply a reflective discussion? Another option might have been to invite individual students to portray the shark, with others looking on. The children are much less concerned now about being the centre of attention - and we could have maintained a sense of tension if we were peeping in to the tank and imagining what that shark was thinking. Another way to build tension might have been to take them back to the moment of the shark's capture in the trawling nets... Rather than lying down, they could have presented that moment and explored the shift in the shark's life from that perspective. Could have allowed us to hear the perspectives of the fisher who caught them, too.... 

Overall though a very rich session with much to reflect on. Initially I felt quite unhappy with it but later I realised there had been golden moments, and I can see that the session certainly moved us on so that the commission feels tangible.

I love how everyone is learning here. Me as much (or more than) anyone else! What a privilege....

Roll on next week, when we will explore the creation of a soundscape for the shark tank. Student teachers are planning madly.... Can't wait to see what they come up with.


  1. Hi I am one of the student teacher or ‘trainee’s’ involved in this Mantle, I am just going to share a few thoughts I had about this week.
    In the picture above with the student (I) she was making her freeze frame of the ‘small’ problem that happened before she got on the plane, the problem was that her pen ran out of ink, she could easily solve this problem by just buying another one at the airport.
    This week I thought it was really helpful to learn how to get students to make the right choices in the drama. It is helpful to know this because sometimes students can just make a silly choice and suggest an outrageous idea if they can’t think of anything else. Talking to the students out of role about making decisions which feel ‘right’ for the company really impacted on how sensible the students were for most of the session, but the students also knew when they gave ideas that didn’t feel right. The students were also able to reflect on their decisions at the end of the session so this will help them to think about their decision making for next time.

  2. I am another student teacher working on this project. When looking at the final picture, you may be thinking that the students are not participating in the drama. But if the student chose to leave the tank (mat) they had to think of questions for the sharks left in the tank. This was not just giving the students something to do, but was giving them another opportunity for deeper thinking. They were asking emotional questions like “How does it feel being alone in the dark? Or what are the creatures with slits for eyes looking at?” These questions showed me that the students cared about what was happening in to the shark and that they could generate questions that could relate to their own thinking about what was going on in the life of this animal and how it relate to them. It created an atmosphere where you can hear them thinking, even though it is an imagined place.