Case Study 7: Jim, Storymaker in Residence
Jim works on a permanent part-time basis in Bluebell Lane Nursery in the West Midlands. At the time of the observations he was working two days a week and had been at Bluebell Lane for three years, so was well known to the staff, parents and children. He typically worked with one group of between ten and fourteen 4 year olds for a morning a week for a term. He arrived early in the day to prepare what he was doing, and would then work with the children from mid-morning to lunch time. He recorded each story-making session and another creative practitioner took pictures. Jim then used the afternoon to produce a record of the story which was available as a laminated text by hometime. Parents were able to look at it and it could be used from the next day as part of the school library resources.
Bluebell Lane Nursery is situated on one corner of an area which houses some of the wealthiest people in the Midlands. During the observation period Jim decided to take the children to places in their local communities where they would not normally be able to go. He used the unfamiliar environment to provoke ideas about who used the places and what went on. The places he chose included an exclusive gated Art Deco estate, a fifteen storey student accommodation block and the Edgbaston Cricket Grounds.
Jim negotiated access to the gated estate with the caretaker. The estate consists of three storey apartment blocks situated in park like gardens; each apartment block is decorated with an Easter Island like head with different expressions – laughing, crying, being angry, anxious, surprised. One head is poking its tongue out.
Jim asks the children to observe each head and to mimic the expressions. He and the children and accompanying staff run from block to block, stopping only to pull the appropriate face. Then we all sit down in a circle on the grass and Jim asks the children what they can see in the garden. One of the children says he has seen a monkey. He then asks why the house might be feeling this way – sad, angry, cheeky. He then suggests that maybe the monkey might have something to do with this feeling…. And the story begins. As the children offer ideas, Jim decides to laugh and laugh as if he is unable to stop. The children begin to laugh as well and soon everyone is giggling without really knowing why.
I have seen Jim do this on other occasions. In a subsequent session in student apartments, the highest building in Edgbaston, crammed into the top of the stair well, he pretended to be bitten by a bat –one of the children claimed they had seen it flying past. As he continued to mime being bitten, then children giggled and then all piled on top of him, in an affectionate display of collective mimed biting.
As a story-maker, Jim did not arrive with a predetermined text, but made the story through his interactions with the group. He mobilised drama tools – improvisation and performance – in combination with writing composition competencies – developing character, plot and context – in order to lead the group through a creative process, creating a context in which the children learned how to put their individual imaginings, understandings, experiences and interests into a collaborative authoring process. There was an important in-the-moment-ness of much of what Jim did which contrasted with the orientation towards the future that characterises so many aspects of school life (doing something now because it will lead to something later on... eating in this way/ taking exercise so that you don’t become...) thereby rendering the immediate pleasures and satisfactions less important than longer term purposes. This is what Raymond Williams’ talked of as the ‘structure of feeling’ (see Pedagogic Platform), a presentism offered through art forms: "...meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations... characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and inter-relating continuity" (Williams, 1977: 132). It is this newness, Williams suggested, which makes activities meaningful on an affective as well as an intellectual level.
This in-the-moment-ness was often about with the sheer pleasure of being silly, as in the uncontrolled giggling or running around pulling faces at the buildings. It incorporated other, more informal kinds of physical play, as in the biting bats game. But this was not anarchy, nor was it all that happened. Jim had created an environment in which it was not only acceptable but good to do these things, as long as no one got hurt, physically or emotionally. This is safe silliness which creates affection, emotional bonds between children and between children and adults.