Archive for October, 2012

My afternoon with Year 3 and 4 of Knavesmire Primary School last week proved to me that it is not.  Not only the children’s willingness to share both their poems and stories, and their listening ears, with each other – but also their ability to slot right into the age-old etiquette of ‘pastime with good company’.

I owe this wonderful afternoon to the council’s triannual Live Arts Week, where community artists spend time in local schools with council funding.  This term’s theme is ‘Tell Me A Story’ – linked to the York Stories project.  I allowed myself to go to town on this one and came up with a workshop called ‘Invitation to a Ceilidh’, one that I thought some schools might find a bit challenging.  Indeed they did – I only got ONE booking!  But it was worth it.

I began with Alexander Carmichael’s 1860s account of a Highland ceilidh – not a celtic-style barn dance, but a communal evening of storytelling, poetry and singing.  This very evocative account goes into rich detail of the handwork listeners carry on with during the evening, the seating arrangements, the way audience members discuss the actions of the protagonists after each story, what happens to rowdies… I thought this might go over the children’s heads, but not a bit of it. 

They were emphatic when I asked them if we could stage our own ceilidh now in the empty Year 6 classroom, and ecstatic when I suggested they might like to carry on with some handwork themselves throughout.  Yarn was plaited, clay was engraved, stars were decorated, beans were shelled, and all with the quiet murmur that reassured me they were in the right ‘zone’. 

We next agreed our rules – how to decide who would go next (names in a hat), what to do with people who disturb others (in the end, nobody did).

So I began – with a quite demanding bit of myth – Diarmuid and Grainne, a real hum-dinger.  I set the template for the children by beginning and ending with a short strain of music from the tin whistle. At the story’s end they were full of comments and raring to go.  The hat was full of twisted bits of paper.  And in ones and twos, the children made their contributions to the afternoon.  Girls gave sad and haunting fairytales of heroines in adversity, boys gave stonking football poems, one boy got up and gave his account of how dragonflies came into being.  No matter how timid the offering, every single performer was listened to respectfully and given feedback on their story.  Each child was given music of their choice to start and finish – they asked for ‘sad’, ‘happy’ or even ‘Scottish’!

Our only problem was, in the end, there was not enough time to fit in all the would-be performers…but a few of them said they planned to hold ceilidhs for their birthday parties, so perhaps that can be resolved…. We finished with a ballad, ‘The Town of Ballybay’ – a slightly naughty one requiring them all to join in with Ring-A-Ding-A-Dongs and suchlike.

A bit of a postscript aimed at Michael Gove and all in the current government who want to go ‘back to basics’ and strip away schools’ focus on the ‘fluffy’ social and emotional aspects of learning: YOU ARE VERY MISGUIDED.  You need to compare these classes of emotionally literate, resourceful children, who are able to function as a mutually beneficial community, with the teasing, sometimes predatory atmosphere that prevailed in my primary school in the 1980s.  I myself, as an 8-year-old, would not have felt safe enough among my classmates to be able to make the brave leaps these children could.  Schools have started to learn to work as microcosms of the society we all want to see.  Forget the cramming and teach them how to go on learning journeys together.


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