Monday, 30 July 2012

Week two - building belief

When we turned up in class for our second Tuesday with room 17 we found the classroom teacher had done a great job! During the week she had worked with the children / company deciding on a name (Mystery History Toys), designing logos and voting for the favourite, drawing up a timeline of the company's past history (including, as we learned today, the dreadful fire!) and mapping the company buildings. Each student had completed the picture of their office desk, and these were taped to the desk tops. I felt there was a palpable excitement in the air and I overheard one child say "I love Tuesdays!" - which is promising, given this is only our second visit.

During our planning meeting the day before, student teachers had asked about the place of "learning intentions" in this kind of teaching - and asked also about assessment. Not surprising I guess since they have been taught over and again to make the LIs explicit for the children, whereas Mantle works from a completely different approach... So I wanted to make my intentions for this lesson clear and overt (at least to the student teachers). I hoped that for the children the learning intentions would be folded in to the tasks and framed as part of the fictional world. I invited the student teachers to watch out for three things: 

  1. The use of 'genuine' questions to promote discussion about types of value

  2. The children's responses to the teacher in role strategy (used for the first time this week)

  3.  Children's ability to collaborate in open ended creative tasks with other people

I wanted to begin the session with a company meeting. The classroom teacher has not so far used the convention of formal meetings, and I thought if we started this off today, she might like to continue with this and even encourage different children to chair the meetings in future.

An agenda was put on the board.  

[I wonder if one of the student teachers would like to comment on how this writing was carried out (did you notice that I did the whole thing without speaking?) What were children's responses to this? And what purpose was served by putting the Agenda up like this?]

Once we did start the meeting I deliberately adopted an adult register in my speech. Children / company members were asked whether there was any other business we needed to attend to. Suggestions included "we need to read the letters" "see if there are any recent messages" etc.

Children seemed very keen to update the "part timers" (student teachers) on what had happened in the company. Some individuals stood to speak to the whole group, then children moved off to meet in smaller groups with their familiar student teachers they'd met last week.

[Perhaps student teachers might like to comment below on what children reported in these small group discussions? Did you notice any change in the engagement level of children from last week? Any memorable comments made by children at this stage? Was their language collaborative - were they talking about "our company" and "us"...? And what about the register - did they sound like adult experts yet?]

Next on the agenda was a visit from the storeroom manager. The mention of 'storeroom' prompted some imaginative responses from one child - D - who reported that he had been down there and it was messy and untidy. He announced this to the company and requested that people put things away properly....

I told children that I was going to take on the role of the storeroom manager - I asked a quieter child to choose a name for this figure. She decided he was called Josh. I moved into role (signalled by a blue hat) and asked the children for advice in sorting some of the toys in the storage room. I presented 6 slips of paper handwritten with names of different toys written on them

Electric train set
David's toy
Glove puppet (v old)
Wooden puzzle
Packet of crayons

To build a little more of a picture of these toys, I questioned the children (in role as Josh) "Has anyone seen the electric train - you have B? Can you describe it to the company?" Children gave brief descriptions which made the toys seem a little more real. I numbered children off into 7 groups and gave them each a set of the labels. They were asked to use their expert opinion to order the labels with the most valuable at the top, and the least valuable at the bottom. The student teachers facilitated this discussion and listened in to the rich negotiations and conversations about "value" that emerged....  [Perhaps a student teacher would like to enlarge on this in the 'comments' section below?]

In feeding back to the whole group about their decisions, children made some thoughtful comments about different kinds of value and I, as "Josh" wrote the key words / concepts that were emerging. So for example, one of the students said that they had put David's toy at the top of the list because it was "one of a kind" and "couldn't be replaced". I put the word "unique" on the board and discussed the meaning of this kind of value. Other words that emerged included "sentimental" (A toy that is valuable "because it has been loved alot") "technological", "educational" and others. We are building a 'word bank' of terms associated with value, which we can return to again and again.

When I came out of role I was able to ask the children what they had done with Josh and what the words on the board were about. N was right on the button when he said "they are all words about different kinds of value"

At this stage I thought we were done on the sorting task - but then a comment from N caught my attention. He was visibly upset (a sensitive soul) and protested that "the packet of crayons was always left at the bottom....!" I always like to pick up on ethical / social justice issues as they arise - so thought "OK.... let's run with this!" I responded to his offer by saying, "Yes, that's true - if only we could hear what that feels like for the crayons.... who would like to be a crayon and tell us how it feels to be at the bottom of all those lists...?"

T was first - she stood up and responded to my question "What colour crayon are you" with the wonderful reply "I'm a green crayon, but right now I feel blue".... Classic! I asked the green crayon what she felt her true value was and she replied "I'm very good for drawing grass and leaves". Another child, L went into role as a crayon and added another value "We are portable - you can heft us around. With a playstation you have to stay plugged in, but crayons you can carry us out into the fields". Another student A(?), took things to a whole new emotional level with his monologue in role as the silver crayon:

" They just take me out and rub me on the concrete - they wear my tip right off. My friend the golden crayon died some time and I don't feel like colouring in the money any more".

When I asked silver crayon what his dream was - what life he wished for himself - he beamed and replied "To drive a car"....

Beautiful stuff.... how DO you assess this guys?

It's all going to play beautifully into the main commission, coming up, in which we invite the company to put together an exhibition of toys that have stories to tell. Clearly, already, the stories are starting to flow. I have a feeling we will hear more from these crayons!

There was one more key activity - involving student teachers in role as robots, and children carrying out a writing task. However, rather than keep on, I will leave the student teachers to describe this part of the lesson from their perspective.....

Sorry to go on at such length - but this was a wonderful session in so many ways... I really enjoyed telling the staff about it in the staffroom over lunch - you have got to love this way of teaching!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Opening the mantle 

Tuesday 24th July

The first 'real' mantle session with room 17 began at 11am after morning tea.

We gathered on the mat and I asked children to recap what we had done yesterday - the ideas of imagination, a 'yes let's' attitude, safety and signals for attention were mentioned as well as a bit of chat about yesterday's adventure 'down the hole'... I also added one more bit of information: "One more important thing about Mantle of the Expert is that instead of having you be children and we be adults, we organise things as if everyone is a grown up - OK?" I noticed some responses from children to this idea - several made noises of approval, and sat more upright. I have noticed in the past that signalling this intention to shift the power is something that children really respond well to - and 'being a grown up' is often the main thing mentioned by children in their reflections on a mantle experience.

I decided to start with a quick 'getting to know you' activity to bring the student teachers into the group. We formed a circle and played the simple game where one person says something about themselves and steps forward, and others in the group step in too if what was said is true for them. For example, I started with "I have two eyes".... this got everyone stepping in to join me... The game went on for a while, with some children trying to pick things that made them unique "I'm half chilean" and some picking things that would get lots of people to step in "I have brown hair"... Not everyone had a turn but by the end, children were inviting student teachers to have a go - so I felt that some connection had been made.

When one of the children made the statement "I have a toy" - this was too good to miss. So after we had stepped in, I invited the group to stop the game and have a think about toys. We organised into groups (mixing student teachers and children together) and sat down. I invited everyone to think about a special toy that they own.... to close their eyes and picture that toy in their imagination.... to think about what made that toy so special.... (I made a quick check that everyone was with me by asking them to fold their arms if they had a picture in their heads - everyone did)..... Next, I invited them to imagine that the special toy was in their hands.... Hold it, feel the weight of it, open your eyes and see it in your imagination...  Then, in the small groups of 3 or 4, children and student teachers described and demonstrated their toys, talking about what made them so special. Some children shared their toys around and had a 'go' with each others'.....

I felt there was a nice energy in the room at this stage - although I noticed one of the children (I'll call him D) who is identified as having special needs was saying "this is boring - I want to do something else".  I made a point of thanking him for his patience and for bearing with us given how he was feeling.

The group was still sitting together on the mat. One of the things that can be tricky about the opening of a mantle is how much is conducted as a whole group. It's important to build the identity of the company - or team - collectively, but the danger is that the process can feel rather static and slow at times. Given this, and given D's comment, I hoped that the next part would be OK....

We cleared a small space in the centre of the room and invited everyone to turn around and look at the space. I said we were going to imagine another toy now. I shifted to a 'storytelling' type of tone of voice, and told the story of my friend David - grown up now - whose Dad had been very rich and had bought David the most wonderful toy - perhaps the most amazing toy ever made....  This toy, I said, was quite large and it stood here in the space before us... I can't remember the words I used but I asked the children to tell us what it was that made this toy so amazing. [I had thought about this story a bit in advance of the lesson - I deliberately wanted to steer the children away from computer games to more old fashioned toys - which was why I mentioned it being a toy that used to belong to a friend. I thought the figure of David would add human interest and of course David is, in time, going to be our client - not that the children know that yet!]

Children put up their hands with ideas for what the toy might be like. The first boy mentioned lasers - so I asked him to stand up, move around the toy, and point out where the lasers were produced. (I was deliberately pressing for detail - where was the switch? What colour were the cones where the lasers shone from?) And then I folded these details into the story... "And just before he went to sleep at night, David loved to lie in his bed and watch as the lasers played on the wall and made amazing patterns".... The second child mentioned legs - 6 of them - and a key that allowed the toy to scuttle like a spider - or rather a crab - across the floor.... There were more lasers, that projected images of animals and dinosaurs onto the ceiling (this suggestion came from D - the young man who had previously said he was bored...) .... As descriptions were layered on, the children walked around the imagined toy and quite reverently pointed out its features. They listened to each other and were very enthralled. Finally we learned that the toy had another feature - when you rubbed one of the legs, it folds down to a tiny size, such that can fit into a little boy's pocket.

I felt that by now the central concern of the dramatic world had been conjured up and now it was time to ease the children from the "I" (individual play-based activity) towards the "we" - a collective concern, taking responsibility for the toy.... Often this shift can be a bit tricky but it felt effortless on this occasion...

I continued the story, telling the children that David had always kept his amazing toy a secret - an only child, the toy was his greatest treasure and he never told anyone about it. But now, as a grown man, he felt it was time for his toy to be shared with others... and he was looking for a place that might look after his toy, care for it, and make it available for others to see.

I had questions in my head such as "what places are there in the world that would care for treasures such as this?" But they weren't required. One of the children (it was D again) said - "Museum!" straight away - so we were away.... Very quickly, children were using the "we" register and talking about "our" museum. It seemed to happen by itself!

To slow things down and encourage thoughtfulness, I asked if anyone had concerns about David's toy being put in a museum. One of the children responded "What about when he wants to pass it on to his child? Will he be able to get it back?" Another said "We wouldn't want people to break or take it - we'll need good security". These questions were pondered over and recorded on the whiteboard - it is possible we can pick up on them later as directions for our inquiry ....

Just to make 100% sure that every child was aware of the shifts into the expert frame, I did make the invitation into the fiction explicit: "So, I am wondering whether we might be able to imagine ourselves as the people who run the museum where David's toy is kept... " I was conscious of learners such as T, who seemed to take a little longer to catch on to 'offers'. At one point T came up to me quietly and said "Are we going on another adventure?" So I replied "We are on it - this adventure is about running the toy museum". As teachers we need to remember that we are taking a whole class along with us - and to think about the quieter ones, as well as those who clearly "get it"... My hunch is that quieter ones such as T are helped into belief by more tangible steps such as mapping the office and making a name tag...

Some children were keen for particular roles - One boy said "I'll be in charge of security" and others started talking about particular jobs they wanted in the company... I think it's a tricky one for teachers here... the instinct might be to embrace children's individual interests and allow them to take on a specialism within the team. The danger, though, is that you end up with little cliquey groups. In terms of the learning, too, it can be limiting as essentially you get a whole range of mantles running at once and the breadth and depth of curriculum engagement is not as great. It's important, I feel, to say things like "It's great to know we have specialists within the team - when we need security advice, we will come to you... and of course we are the sort of team who mixes things around so I know we can depend on you when it comes to toy maintenance as well"...

We spent quite a bit of time starting to think about a name for our Toy Museum. Back in their small groups, children and student teachers discussed options and each group proposed their favourite. I deliberately lingered over this process, inviting people to mull over and discuss the meaning and implications of particular words and think about what the choice of language would tell the world about our museum. For example, what does the world "ancient" mean to you? And why was there a little 'buzz' around the room when we heard the suggestion "Mystery history toys"? Rather than rush the process of choosing a name, I left the class teacher Ms P with the task of helping the group select one over the next few days.

As well as having a well thought out name, and identity, it is always important with a mantle enterprise, that it is has an implied past. We do not 'build' the company 'from the bottom up' - but enter it as fully formed, experienced experts. To encourage this, I invited the students to think about the kinds of things museum workers do and the kinds of equipment they use to do these things. Students created individual 'statues' showing an important task they carried out in the museum the day before - and showing the equipment they used for the job. A simple version of 'spoken thoughts' was used, where students reported back this information. We saw people mending toys "I am holding the teddy in one hand and with the other picking off the bits of fluff", cleaning "I am using a mop to clean the entrance", conducting tours "I am taking a tour around the museum and this is my map". We also had quite a lot of security-based images "I am handcuffing the thief - and talking on my walkie talkie to tell the other security guard I've caught him".

A small number of the children (mostly boys) had taken on roles as security guards and were interested in enacting images of violence. I think their enjoyment of these images was quite understandable and I'm not against this kind of thing per se - but here I thought it showed these children were not yet in the "we" zone of responsible guardianship of the toys... I drew attention to this (I hope respectfully) by taking the image of the hitting very seriously and saying "What on earth could have happened here to make an employee of this museum take this kind of serious action?". I was even more directive when it came to guns and shooting. I said something like "We will not, of course, be seeing any guns or shooting here because if those kinds of things happened in our museum they would close us down". Not very subtle - and not a case of inviting children to work this out for themselves.... I may have to think about this and perhaps use some DFL (drama for learning) to encourage the children to explore this ethical territory for themselves.

We also including the opening stages of a mapping exercise. I have found that it is an important element of Mantle planning to establish a shared sense of the physical space of the company very early on.... I guess this is where Mantle planning aligns with socio dramatic play and the elements of drama.... The first two elements are ROLE and TIME AND SPACE and when children play imaginary games, they seem to need to establish these two elements first. Our planning in Mantle echoes this by allowing plenty of time to be spent on establishing WHO we are and WHERE we are before getting into action. To this end, I invited students to describe the office spaces at the toy museum and we started a bird's eye plan on the whiteboard. Children added some details (a tea corner, an oval shaped meeting room - oval because we have so many people to fit in, offices, a storage room etc etc). Children will continue to work on this map over the next few days.

The final activity was an individual one. Important, I think for every child to 'make a mark' symbolising their step into the imagined world. Children were invited to return to their offices (desks) and on a piece of paper draw the equipment that was on their desk at the moment. There was a high level of engagement in this (I noticed that several children, unprompted, started shifting their desks away from other people to create their own office space. Several others asked whether they could enlarge the picture to draw their whole office). I saw lots of images of computers (One child N urgently whispered to me "I have got the latest model - Toshiba"), piles of maps, cleaning equipment, security screens and also more personal features added, such as photos of the family and bars of chocolate. It was quite difficult for children to come away from the drawing task and gather in the 'meeting room' (on the mat) to conclude the session.

All in all a fantastic start I thought. It is golden times like this that make teaching in Mantle so worthwhile!

Monday, 23 July 2012

Week one - introductory session

On Monday, I went to visit room 17 to introduce myself and play some introductory games. Rather than bring the student teachers along to this preliminary visit, I went alone. I find it is best to visit the class solo the first time, and then act as a 'bridge' to the larger group. 15 of us arriving en masse might be rather intimidating!

I started the session by asking children to induct me into the rules of their classroom. What would I need to know? Children told me about not running, not playing on computers over lunchtime, putting up your hand to speak and about signals their teacher uses to get the attention of the class. I made a point of complimenting the group on how well they obviously understood these rules. As we played together, children volunteered other rules to do with safety and fairness (e.g. not only choosing your friends to work with). It was clear how much work the classroom teacher has already done with this group on building the social health of the group.

As we moved into introductory drama games, it was pleasing to note that children were already familiar with most of the activities I wanted to do... The classroom teacher is an ex student of mine and I'd like to think she remembers some of the activities from her time in my class?

We played Saxton and Miller's 'warm up the imagination' game, which encouraged some conversation about where the imagination is located - between us we decided we needed to warm up the brain, the whole body and the heart. The next activity involved pretending to hold a delicious icecream - and describing to a partner what the icecream looks like and tastes like. As children did this simple mime, I was able to check out whether any of them seemed to be struggling to buy in to the pretence. We played the 'props' game, where students transformed a scarf into a range of other things. All the time, I commented and complimented the students on their controlled use of movement and the clarity of their showing.

The final activity was "into the hole" - a diagnostic game I learned from Allana Taylor at the Mantle of the Expert conference in 2009. This activity is deliberately rather 'open ended' and loose, being based on child-led, socio-dramatic play. Unlike most drama within Mantle of the Expert, this game involves "lived through" drama in which children engage and interact in a real time adventure. A sign is used to suggest a 'hole' in the floor (in this case we used the scarf again) and negotiations begin about what we might do with it. I think my only prompt was to say "hmmm, looks deep"....

The children's play involved all members of the class entering the hole (via a long rope). After feeling the texture of the walls, and feeding this back, students explored and improvised an adventure. Ultimately this culminated in the discovery of number of things: there was a treasure chest full of dynamite, a shiny red ruby hidden around one of the tunnels, a map showing the whole network of caves and perhaps most scary of all, there was a whole bunch of skeletons who seemed to want to chase us. Some of the boys were able to talk to one of the skeletons (I took on the role) and ask a few questions about life down in the caves - this helped divert them from their initial compulsion to attack the skeletons with swords! We found out some information but unfortunately had to leave the cave with more questions than answers. Back in the classroom, children were asking "why were the skeletons down there?" "Was it something to do with a war?" "Was there anything engraved on the treasure chest lid to give a clue?" "Why would someone put old dynamite in a treasure chest?" "What happens with old dynamite - does it go off?"

I felt that I got quite a lot of information about the children by doing this task. I was able to see who were the natural 'leaders' of the group, who took a supporting role, and who was most comfortable following. A few children stood out as very readily accepting the fiction and going along with others' ideas, whilst others struggled a bit. I could also see how for some boys in particular, guns and shooting were a recurring theme. From my observations, every child was involved and engaged in the game.

Pre-planning process

The preplanning process for this Mantle adventure took several months. I held two meetings with the class teacher and the school DP and we brainstormed possible directions that our Mantle might take.

As always, we started planning by thinking about two things: what curriculum areas the teacher wished to 'uncover' during the term and what interests the children have. In terms of curriculum, the teacher mentioned only creative writing as a focus. Apart from this, she was open to any curriculum learning that might emerge from the mantle. In terms of childrens' interests, various things arose but we quickly settled on "toys" as the most productive.

A brainstorm of possible companies followed (using Heathcote's 'list of possible enterprises' tool). Past experience has taught me that it can be very productive to make oneself think of possibilities for every category, rather than settle on the more immediately obvious ones. We got very excited about the idea of being toy designers, working on a new prototype transformer, or being specialists in a certain kind of toy (perhaps creating educational puppets?). In the end, since we wanted to stress creative writing, we felt that a toy museum might be the best way to go. At some stage in the brainstorming process, someone mentioned the idea that toys in the museum might have stories to tell of adventures they have been on - and this fitted nicely with the creative writing focus.

We decided on the following as core aspects:

Company - toy museum
Client - rich business man with amazing toy collection
Commission - a special exhibit celebrating toys with 'stories to tell'

Then it was time to think about tensions - the "what ifs" that could arise for a company embarking on this kind of work.

I went back to the student teachers and we spent a session brainstorming possibilities. As always in the brainstorming process, some ideas felt more productive than others.... Ideas included:

What if..... There is a mystery toy of some sort (no one knows the story)
.................The exhibition venue has to change at the last minute
.................The star item in the exhibition gets withdrawn by its owner
.................Some of the exhibits get damaged
.................One of the exhibits gets over - restored and loses originality
.................All the advertising gets destroyed and we have to produce cheap, last minute fliers
.................The toys come alive at night and get up to mischief
At this stage, I produced an overview, mapping out how the mantle might pan out over the 6 weeks we have in the classroom. I'm aware that in its purest form, Mantle of the Expert is planned in an emergent, responsive way, rather than by creating a plan in advance. However, I find it really helps me, the teachers and the students, to have a loose picture of where things might go.

So, ready as we ever would be, it was time to begin!