School of Creativity in Tower Hamlets

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Making films about their school, area and themselves within ‘role’ for topics like the Second World War has given the children at Columbia Primary technical, interpretive and presentation skills, as well as a love of research. Teaching Thinking and Creativity reports on a School of Creativity in Tower Hamlets.

“Creativity must be embedded into the working practices of a school if it is to have maximum impact on children’s learning experiences.” So says Mary Igoe, head teacher at Columbia Primary School in Tower Hamlets, one of the Creative Partnerships Schools of Creativity. She believes that working relationships with creative professionals are at their most effective when based on collaboration, pre-planning and a sharing of responsibility.

“This is how everyone involved can best use their skills, knowledge and their own creative potential for the benefit of the children,” Mary says. “What you want is for creative partners and teachers spending time together during INSET time so they can get used to each other’s working practices, share ideas and strategies about how to extend and enhance learning during the pre-planning stages and then work out how to deploy themselves and their time during lessons so they can have maximum benefit on the children’s learning experience.”

Columbia Primary has been involved with Creative Partnerships since the programme launched in 2002. Yet as Mary Igoe admits, in the initial stages it was more a case of developing creative opportunities alongside rather than within, the curriculum: “At the outset we needed to explore the value of cross-curricular creative working and so got involved in a project with a local arts group whereby each class made costumes and artefacts for a big celebratory march through Bethnal Green during the local carnival.”

“The project enthused the children, gave them a boost and introduced new ways of learning, but as it was essentially an add-on to their normal curriculum, the impact was limited,” she adds.

From here Mary and her staff set about incorporating creative arts as an intrinsic curricular learning tool rather than a discrete area of activity. Over the next few years, with the support of Creative Partnerships, staff and children worked with a whole host of creative practitoners, including print-makers, storytellers, poets and film makers.

Several years ago, the school organised a visit from acclaimed poet and author Michael Rosen. The children’s Laureate was one of several visiting writers who contributed to a whole-school unit of work on poetry. During staff INSET on how to use poetry and develop children’s potential as poets Rosen explained how poetry can be used in a variety of different ways – to express feelings, to tell stories and to communicate knowledge, convey messages and create impressions. “His main tip was that writing good poetry requires you to read and immerse yourself in the work of other poets,” explains Mary Igoe. “He urged teachers to fill their classrooms with as much good quality poetry as they could find.”

Rosen and the other poets helped the children develop their own CD-Rom of poems. Edinburgh based film company di-f-foe also worked with some classes to develop animation based around their curricular themes, whilst others constructed games or took photographs.

All of this went on the CD-Rom which was a celebration of curricular creativity, a focal point for learning and provided a credible cross-curricular connection. Year 6 for instance, took the water theme that ran through the entire project into their work on Victorian Britain. First of all they looked at the parlous state of Britain’s waterways during the 19th Century, their link to the various epidemics that swept through the population during that time and the beginning of the sewage system that did so much to eventually alleviate the health problems of people who lived in Victorian cities. Their contribution to the CD-Rom itself was to showcase some of the Victorian hats they had made by taking photographs of themselves sitting within the 19th Century family room sets at a local museum.

Mary Igoe explains why she has chosen to go down this particular path: “We want children to be literate in the broadest possible sense – emotionally, creatively and intellectually,” she says. “Providing opportunities for children to develop their creativity and thinking skills not only helps them become more independent learners but it also helps them take responsibility for their learning and helps them gain a deeper understanding of that which they learn.”

This creative approach to teaching and learning is relevant right across the curriculum at Columbia. The process involving collaboration, questioning and problem solving provides children with a range of skills that they can apply to a variety of situations. “We want to get children thinking about how to apply knowledge and skills rather than just accruing them for their own sake,” says Mary Igoe.

“Everybody is good at something and a shared process across subject areas makes it easier for a child to transfer that which has led to progress and the development of confidence from one of their favoured subjects into areas where they feel less secure.”

She adds: “Taking a coherent approach to learning provides children with a structure through which if they persevere when things are tough, they will be rewarded with success.”

Rather than sitting as fragmented, isolated components, often various areas of work will feed into a central curricular focus. This gives curricular content more relevance and coherence, whilst avoiding repetition and irrelevancies, and allows time to be utilised more efficiently over the course of a term. So a year 4 topic on invasion and settling combined historical work on the Romans, Saxons and Normans with a geographical study of their own local area – part of which has been re-settled on several occasions over the years by recently arrived visitors to the country. Columbia Primary’s intake of pupils is diverse, reflecting the multi-ethnic community served by the school; many of the children have English as their second language. This gave an added dimension to these discussions, with many children able to recount stories from their own personal experience and that of friends and family members.

 The children also worked with print maker Jim Anderson to make wall hangings using Celtic and Roman symbols which became the back drops for dramas the children devised during literacy lessons.

Year 5 teachers used another creative hook to get children into their World War Two topic. ‘Trashing’ the classroom to make it look like a bomb site was a way of shocking the children into empathising with the sorts of feelings that must have run amok during the dark days of World War Two - particularly when the Blitz was at its height during 1940 and Britain’s cities the target of relentless Luftwaffe bombing.
During this topic, each child was required to make their own film in role. Choosing from a range of key players - maybe an evacuee, a German soldier or a British housewife – they would present their stories and their interpretation of the facts from their chosen perspective. Teachers then used this as a way of assessing the other children’s knowledge of the topic – as the others were required to identify who each child was portraying and identify the evidence on which they based their conclusions.

The use of film plays a major part in the creative work done by staff and children at Columbia. As well as producing their very own film, ‘Spotlight on Columbia’, which profiles what the staff and students feel is special about Columbia, the school has also developed a toolkit to encourage pupils and teachers to pick up video cameras in the same way they would a pencil.

“The aim of ‘Spotlight’ was to get children, staff, parents and governors thinking about what the school does and should stand for,” says Mary Igoe. “So each class took a word or phrase that they considered reflected an aspect of the school’s ethos and made a film to symbolise meaning for them. Words like generosity, fairness or as one class decided upon, freedom to express themselves. Each child made a little kite and then all were filmed letting the kites fly off into the sky out of their class window, whilst the children held on to the strings.”

Another class symbolised enjoyment of learning by making a black and white silent comedy movie using time lapse photography, whilst another made a film about the school’s Friendship Squad – a group of year 6 playground buddies whose job it is to make sure everyone was having a nice time during break and lunchtime. As part of one film, three youngsters dressed as superheroes few into a crisis situation and after arguing about which was the best way to deal with it, settled on pooling their efforts and working as a team to bring the problem to a successful conclusion. Collaboration for them is what the school is all about.

Mary Igoe explains that it takes time to embed the use of film into the everyday life of the school: “There are training needs, resource issues; but now teachers and children have got used to the fact that it is possible to give just as detailed and quality feedback on film as it is through a written response. We’ve got to the stage where a child or teacher is just as likely to pick up a camera as they are a pen or pencil, but as a school of creativity we now want to spend more time looking at how to further develop the use of film.”

More recently one group of Columbia youngsters was involved with children from six other schools in producing a film called ‘Welcoming the World’. Devised by the London Organising Committee for the Olympics and Creative Partnerships, the project encouraged young people in 19 schools across the five Olympic host boroughs to think about how they want to welcome the world to their communities in the run up to 2012.

Sebastian Coe, Chair of the London 2012 Organising Committee said:“ ‘Welcoming the World’ demonstrates the London 2012 Games are not just about a fantastic summer of sport: increasing young people’s understanding of the creative and cultural components of the London 2012 Games is an important part of our work.”

The film consisted of a series of interviews with children who talked about themselves, their families and their local community and was played during the Paralympics handover. The youngsters worked alongside creative experts including photo-journalist Gideon Mendel, film director Pratibha Parmar and music director Mike Dixon.

Whilst these and many other creative professionals work ad-hoc on a project by project base, the school also employs three part time artists to work long term across the school’s art curriculum. With a range of artistic skills between them their role is to help children develop their skills and knowledge so as they have the technical and practical tools by which they can express themselves creatively in other situations.

“You need to target how and where you think the involvement of creative professionals will have maximum impact,” says Mary Igoe. “It is useful to make parents aware that they are likely to see less written work, and to encourage teachers to annotate children’s books where a lesson has been about filming or doing something to demonstrate understanding.”

Focussing on creativity as a whole school priority is also important if approaches like these are to have maximum impact. So is appointing staff with allocated time to organise and lead the programme. So whilst teacher Philippa Jordan organises the day to day running of the creative partnerships, her colleague Emma Beattie acts as enrichment coordinator – ensuring that creativity is covered as a priority in each subject area and across every year group.

Over the coming months, Columbia is keen to build on their work with film and explore its use as a tool for creative learning and assessment. Mary Igoe says: “We are proud and delighted to be considered a ‘School of Creativity’.

“What a fantastic accolade and what a responsibility: a responsibility to promote the creativity agenda and to be an advocate for creative teaching and learning.

"We’re really excited to carry on this journey with Creative Partnerships and look forward to the next three years of work together.”

Taken From Teaching Thinking & Creativity magazine


Creative Teaching & Learning