Such a ‘cool’ day of lessons…

If you work in education you are often all too used to being in the centre of attention during your lessons. It’s fantastic when the chance comes along to take a back seat and just watch. Today was just such a day for me. It was an unusual in other ways too, in fact not a day of normal lessons at all really, instead a day of workshops for my groups of fifteen and sixteen year old pupils in the context of our broad art and culture lessons. The workshops formed a part of a series of lessons that focus on the role of new technologies in the cultural world and artists and creative people who are involved in this area. We spent time looking at the design work of Daan Roosegaarde for instance, a creative and experimental designer who leans heavily on new technologies in his work.

For examples of Roosegaarde’s work and a film about his activities follow this link.

Seeing and thinking about such work, and discovering a little about the personalities behind it, can be a real eye opener for a teenager. However in terms of engagement it is no secret that actual direct involvement and participation can be a fantastic learning experience, which brings me back to today’s workshops.

The workshops were provided by Edwin and Frans Jan from It’s not so easy to describe what they do, but let me try. With the help of a camera, a computer an area of a classroom is scanned continuously. The computer senses movement within this area and throughout this zone various sounds are located. By moving the sounds are activated and the degree and type of movement effects the volume and other qualities of the sounds.


In effect, by moving your body and being expressive with your arms, hands and legs, you ‘play’ the space like it is your musical instrument. Stand still, and slowly all sound fades away. This is about movement and making music, it shouldn’t be confused with dancing, in fact it is kind of the reverse of dancing. With dancing the music comes first and we move as a reaction to the music, with virtualemotions the movement is the trigger that creates the music.

It was fascinating to watch pupils tentatively enter the space and discover the effects of even the smallest movement. I hadn’t anticipated just how far outside the comfort zone this was going to be, particularly for the boys. It was strange, and in a way a little disorientating, but as the penny started to drop and some in the class started to see just what the possibilities were, the class slowly loosened up and started to let go.

Having initially had a go in the space individually the pupils started to use the space in groups of two or three, allowing interactions between them to start taking place, again fascinating to watch how the pupils succeeded (or not) in working with one another.


We can offer offer our pupils many creative activities at school. But today’s workshops were something genuinely different. Interestingly the pupils who play a musical instrument or have had dance lessons didn’t necessarily seem to be at an advantage. The ones who thought and listened carefully to the consequences of their actions were ultimately the ones who achieved most. Such alert self awareness is definitely a skill that we should stimulate in all areas of education!

The power of the crowd

In education a lot is written about peer group pressure. Generally when it gets mentioned it is very much in a negative context. It’s linked to pupils underperforming because of the influence of others or children being led astray because they don’t want to stand out from the crowd.

These sorts of examples are recognizable to anyone who works in education.

However peer group pressure can have a sort of flip side. Let’s leave all the negative connotations behind and call the flip side The power of the crowd. A winning football or hockey team gets something of this quality, people are swept along on its success, individuals within the team are lifted up by their achievement and share in the achievements of others in the team. We see glimpses of these sorts of qualities in education from time to time, but for me is difficult to imagine anything to match the effects of the music, song, dance and drama project that we have visiting our school this week.

A group known as the Young Americans visit our school every two years. It is a group of about forty or so performing arts students, principally from the U.S. but also from a large number from other countries around the world. They visit for three days and work for that time with all our bilingual second and third classes (ages thirteen to fifteen), normally a total of around 180-200 pupils.

During two and a half days of intensive workshops they put together with the Young Americans, a performance of music, dance and song that is presented to a packed theatre on the evening of the third day. For the Young Americans it is a well-practiced and well-oiled format that allows them to integrate all of the pupils into the performance, often with all of them on or around the stage simultaneously.  It is for all the pupils an incredible experience.

I am used to having to motivate and engage a class of thirty pupils. Sometimes that’s easy, other days you have to work a lot harder. I am also all too aware that there are odd pupils in classes that in the normal run of things are simply quite difficult to ‘reach’ or quite difficult to motivate. So how is it that they are up there on the stage dancing, singing, smiling and enjoying it with the rest of them?

Well the answer to that lies in the power of the crowd. It starts with the overwhelming enthusiasm of the Young Americans. The pupils really don’t know what’s hit them to start with. They show them just how cool having a go can actually be. They support and encourage, they applaud and put an arm over the shoulder when it’s needed. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Their high fives and shouts of encouragement edge the nervous pupils forward.  And before you know what is happening the pupils are joining in, cheering their classmates on.  There is a growing belief in the group that they can make something special.  Pupils who are normally ‘background’ inhabitants are suddenly discovered, and they find themselves making the giant step from the background, literally into the limelight.

Come the performance in front of 600 parents, family and friends the tension and excitement rise. Suddenly that thirteen year old who has hardly said a word all year in class is on the stage singing a solo, maybe only two lines before someone else takes it over, but she has done it and in doing so performed to a theatre full of onlookers, an achievement she wouldn’t have dreamed of just two days earlier.

What has brought her to this point?  Well that is part the sheer enthusiasm of the Young American group, but it is also partly the subtle shift that has occurred in the peer group. They have been swept up in the enthusiasm, the excitement and plain thrill of performing.

As a teacher involved in the arts and cultural education it is fantastic to see. Often I feel there is just a handful of us at school to defend and promote the importance and value that the arts in the curriculum have.  Watch one of these shows and a door is opened on the possibilities and crucial role culture, drama, music, art, dance, etc. can have for our young people.

The Young Americans will undoubtedly be returning to our school.

Teenage stage fright

I’m not a natural performer, I’m not particularly extrovert, in fact I would describe myself as an introvert in most situations. Teaching, as many teachers would say is something of an eight hour a day forced performance where you play the role that is needed at that particular moment.  That might be angry one moment and calm and considerate the next.  After years of teaching I’m comfortable with this role and can carry it off pretty well. Put me in an unfamiliar situation and the more introvert side of my character soon surfaces. With this in mind I do have a little sympathy with the nervously shy behaviour my fourth year (15-16 year old) pupils displayed this afternoon.


A colleague had been able to organize the visit to school from a group of dancers and rappers from Rotterdam. The afternoon was divided into two halves, first a workshop in relatively small groups followed by a show given by our guests. Due to my lesson timetable I was unable to take a look at the workshop part, but I do know that the pupils were divided into small groups and were able to get some professional instruction in an area that they had chosen such as flamenco, hip hop, rap, theatre or sung performance. However I was able to watch the performance the visiting dancers themselves gave.

My own preparation for both workshops and show in my lessons had been limited, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t know too much about what to expect.  I had had the chance to show some fragments from the excellent Wim Wenders film Piña about the German choreographer Pina Bausch. I can’t pretend to be particularly knowledgeable in the area of contemporary dance, but do enjoy watching shows when I can, and on this occasion the choice of Piña as a warm up was certainly not inappropriate.

The show that was performed mixed music, voice and an assortment of dance styles. It was performed in extremely close proximity to the pupils, with the dancers on a number of occasions almost landing on the laps of the pupils sitting in the front row.

As a teacher in such circumstances I always find myself split in my attention, I what to watch the show, but I always find myself drawn to watching my pupils to observe their reactions to what they are seeing. This dance show was no different, how engaged are the teenage public? What are they going to take away from this experience?

Dance for a teenage audience is an interesting confrontation. Often it doesn’t have a particularly easy narrative line to follow and in its way it is quite abstract. But to balance that it does have physicality and great control, both factors that most young people are able to engage with and value. The performance my pupils saw today fitted these criteria well and I found myself watching across the lines of faces to see their response.

On the whole the response was good. Two flamenco dancers were an important part of the show and many sat transfixed by the control of the flicking wrist movements and sweeps of the skirts following the dancer. For many in the audience a completely new experience I suspect, sitting watching a dance being performed for them for perhaps the very first time. For some in the audience though, they seemed to find it a little difficult, they seemed a little unsettled by it, particularly one group of boys. I shall ask them when I see them next what their thoughts were. I do have my own ideas…for teenage boys, the ones who like generally to try an assert their place in the class with their ‘street wise’ masculinity, maybe watching young women dance in close proximity was all just a little too much. It was subsequently very interesting to watch the swing in their attention when two of the young male dancers took to the stage. Male role models making the difference perhaps? Maybe, a more familiar hip hop style of dance? There are perhaps a number of factors, certainly worth a classroom discussion.

At the end of the performance the pupils were invited a group at a time to join their workshop leader on the stage to show the rest of their peer group what they and been doing during the first hour. It was at this point that the often quiet mouthy fifteen year olds that I teach seemed to become shy little rabbits diving for cover. Why the timidity, when normally in the classroom there is so little timidity?  Another reason certainly for more classroom discussion, but also something to work on in the future. We all like our comfort zones, I can relate to that. I too would certainly be nervous about making such a public step in an area of unfamiliarity. But the thrill of pushing yourself over that line is also worth experiencing and something I’ll be looking for strategies to do just that in the coming months.