The Classroom Stage has been a two-year programme we have run supported by the Paul Hamlyn Teacher Development Fund. One of the fund’s priorities is that “all those involved are positioned as learners”. This includes Stan’s Cafe Associate Artists who were partnered one to each of our ten schools.
Here Carys Jones reflects on her own journey working as an Artist on The Classroom Stage with Years 3, 5 and 6 at St Gerard’s Catholic Primary School.
I’m not sure what I was expecting at the very beginning of The Classroom Stage programme. I knew I had good classroom management skills and that I could plan for formal teaching, but this was new to me. I’d never tried team teaching before and I’d never explored devising with another adult who didn’t come from an acting background. I had a real feeling of “I don’t know what I’m doing and everyone is going to find out” which was largely terrifying.
I dealt with this by spending hours constructing meticulous lesson plans. I scoured the internet for the perfect 5 minute warm up sessions that centred on The Rainforest, only to find that there were none; I had to come up with new activities myself. In time I learned that I could use the planning foundation I already had and adapt it to suit whatever session we were running. Eventually I developed the confidence to relax my grip on my prized plans and went with the flow of the session; what the children were responding well to and, as if by magic, came up with ideas on the spot.
I came to trust what would work, recognise what wouldn’t and ultimately ride with how the teacher and children responded. The journey was uncomfortable though. It scared me! I felt that I couldn’t possibly make that much of a difference. I knew I had all of the support from the Company but I didn’t want to let them down either, I wanted to do a great job.
In the beginning I really had no idea how the project would play out. I knew I wanted to work well with my teachers. I wanted to create a relationship with them that wasn’t bound by their timetables, their workload, their lesson objectives. It may sound like a luxury or unnecessary complication but getting to know my teaching partners on a personal level really helped the balance. We built genuine trust; we could talk about our lives, our likes and our dislikes. Soon I found that when I went into the school my sessions with their classes didn’t feel like something they felt obliged to slot in; I was wanted and needed in the classroom.
This meant that we could get to have fast and informal chats about the work and challenges that they had. We’d improvise and turn ideas around quickly, coming up with something whispered together for two minutes in a corner whilst the students were busy making work.
There were challenges, of course there were, but I am struggling to think of many; the creative process is full of detours, dead-ends and bumps in the road. We all used them as learning opportunities.
At the very beginning I was met with real resistance from a boy in Year 5. He was a “King of The Lads” and at the centre of a lot of disruptive behaviour. I remember him asking “What are we even doing this for?” Given the choice of participating and going elsewhere to work on maths he reluctantly agreed to stay.
By the end of the project, he had blossomed into one of the most natural performers I have seen at St Gerards. He actively encouraged others to be involved. In the silliest of games he participated with confidence. His attitude had completely changed. Every time I walked into his classroom at the start of the day he’d say “Yesssss Carys!”
On one occasion I led a breath-work exercise and followed it with a game designed to develop silent listening and communication skills. The game following that exercise was more successful than any of us imagined it could be. My teaching partner and I were elated and our originally combative young student shouted “THAT BREATHING STUFF REALLY WORKS!”
I know how lucky I am that my school has been so open. I’ve taken over the hall and the playground and raised the overall volume level at times. They’ve shown incredible flexibility with the practicalities which has really helped. More important though have been the relationships I’ve formed with my teachers and the Head. They had trust in me and I in them.
The Classroom Stage was designed to support the development of the teachers’ own skills and confidence, so as we got further into the project I deliberately took a step back from the planning. I was relieved and reassured those teachers came to me with their self-initiated creative ideas:
“Carys, I’m going to transform the classroom into a Mead Hall”.
This was an amazing lesson; the classroom was enhanced with an on-screen fire and music. The chairs and tables were laid out in a horseshoe shape, with tables in the middle for the children to multi-role as Beowulf, King Hrothgar and other warriors. I had to top up the children’s fake mead while my teaching partner led the entire session. It was great, the students loved it and my teacher was in her element.
The Classroom Stage has been a real career highlight for me. Most importantly I have fully immersed myself into a “trust the process” attitude, which is so important. In the beginning I would go in each week, clinging to my planning and relying on the paperwork. Now, I can honestly say I am able to deliver sessions without worrying about the small stuff. I feel supported by the teachers I have built a working relationship with and I know that the students respond well because I have created a rapport with them too – which is equally as important.
A parent took me aside and said “Carys, I want to thank you for all of the work you have been doing in the school. My son used to be a very anxious child who didn’t want to go to school and you have filled him with confidence, I never thought he would get up on stage to do anything and I’ve just watched him shine. He loves it when you’re in and comes home buzzing to tell me everything he has done that day”.
This obviously brought me to tears. It really epitomised everything I strive to do when working in education. Through working with the teachers so closely, helping the students to be excited about their learning, giving students control and agency, and supporting teachers to develop their creative thinking has been a real joy.
I’ll attach a photo of a card I was given to by one of the children I worked with. Her teachers were shocked that under her own initiative she had made this for me; they said “she has not shown any emotion since she arrived here at nursery”. I hope this serves as testament to everything the project has successfully achieved in the school and beyond.
The Paul Hamlyn Foundation say: “There is an expectation that the practices developed in TDF projects will continue in the schools after the two years and that school leadership will play an essential and active role in ensuring this.”
St. Gerard’s school came to the end of The Classroom Stage programme and immediately took part in our ambitious Commonwealth Games project; Precious Emily. Carys is currently Stan’s Cafe Artist In Residence at the school.