A (hopefully) more than simply vocal student voice.

Last night I met my focus group for the first time. This has been something I have not done particularly well in the past, though hopefully that will change. We plan to some quite ambitious things this year in Create, our trans-disciplinary, enquiry-based curriculum (Music, Media & Drama) for years 7 and 8. Perhaps it is better to give you a brief history of time, or at least the last three years.

Create has been running now since the inception of our Junior Learning Village, when years 7 and 8 joined us for the first time in 2008. We were lucky to be given time out of school to plan these modules at what has now become known as “Muffin Mansion” aka Longhirst Hall in Northumberland just north of our school. Faced with a carte blanche, we as a team were incredibly excited about the potential of breaking down disciplinary boundaries, moving to a new building and having the chance to work with and develop youngsters from an earlier age. Ultimately though there were a number of factors that led to the first year in Create being somewhat of a headache. Many of our staff had not worked with years 7 and 8 and so a lot of our planning was naive in respect of our expectations of such children’s capabilities. In the excitement of moving to an enquiry based curriculum, we possibly spent too much time planning content and not enough time planning pedagogy, i.e. how to teach students to enquire, what are the key stages, what web 2.0 tools would be useful. Finally another major factor was that due to staff departures, in effect the curriculum was planned by one team and delivered by another.

As a result the first year in Create, whilst peppered with vignettes of pockets of success, was on the whole a disappointment. Students were given too much freedom, too early, in enquiries that were too abstract and lacked real world authenticity. Our first unit, “What would music look like?” was a prime example. Using the work of Oskar Fischinger as inspiration, we imagined students making animations set to student composed music with contemporary dance moved choreographed in our state of the art ‘hub’ performance space. Faced with the same blank piece of paper we had experienced a year earlier in planning, many of our students emotionally opted out at the scale and complexity of that with which they were faced.

Fast forward one year and the vista of Create was a markedly different place. Our Year 8 students last year went on an incredible and at times frustrating journey in remaking the movie Twilight. The process was quite remarkable with students quickly overtaking teachers in their skilled editing of video, using chroma key to manipulate backgrounds using our green screen studio and applying after affects. Logistically there were many problems which required navigation and many mistakes from which to learn, but when you walk into a room to find a student inserting a television screen onto the background of a scene, and on the screen is playing the original Twilight movie, you know something special is afoot. The one thing that kept coming back to bite us (sorry, terrible pun) though was the quality of the final product. Logistically, it was a massive achievement to film an entire movie, with jobs and roles for 200+ students, but when you sit students down in the hub for a premiere to watch their film, and they find it hard to follow the movie as their as six different actors playing Edward Cullen, scenes missing as they have been lost in the system and every time the camera wobbles it becomes impossible to suspend disbelief as the moon jumps around the sky in the background, you can’t help but sense the collective disappointment. Of course we continually heaped praise on our students for actually accomplishing such a feat, but in a target driven society, even in our school where process is held in such regard, or kids can’t help but focus on the final product and allow that the dominate their judgement of success.

We are about to run the same unit again this year in Create after Christmas, this time with a twist. To negate the unavoidable issue that we are simply not, nor have the facilities of Pinewood studios we have taken inspiration from the movie Be Kind Rewind. If you are not familiar with the movie, the basic premise is that whilst looking after the local video store, the two protagonists inadvertently erase of the all the cassettes in the store, requiring them to remake all of the movies on a shoe string budget.

Our students will do the same, and thus the aesthetic quality (or lack of) in the final product should not take the shine off their evaluation of the experience, in fact the hammier the better in terms of spoofing the movies. We are still faced with the same logistical headaches as last year though, made more difficult by students making a number of films across the 200 students rather than one combined effort.

So we come back to last night, and my meeting with the focus group. The idea seems quite simple and I don’t know why we haven’t done it before. I have taken a group of 22 keen, but genuinely mixed ability students, (I have graphs, graphs can prove anything, I have a graph to prove that last statement as well), and they are to do the enquiry a half-term in advance of the rest of the year. Between now and Christmas we are going to spend one night a week making these movies, doing the enquiry, working out which tools work best, whether students should sign up to become specialists or have a chance to do everything i.e. cameraperson, actor and composer. Of course there was much bribery in the form of sweets and juice, but I get the sense that these students are genuinely excited by the unit and are proud to be involved not just as guinea pigs but as authentic cogs in the decision making process on how the enquiry will run. An added benefit besides being able to try things out and garner feedback is that when the unit rolls out to the whole year group, I have two students in every classroom who have experienced the process and become extra teachers, coaches and mentors in the classroom. As we draw closer to the end of the process I hope to start training the students in how to coach others, but I am very hopeful that this approach to student voice will be successful. I intend to something similar with a Year 7 focus group cohort in advance of their storytelling enquiry which begins after Easter.

Enthusiasm is contagious, and long may it continue.

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