Feature Articles

LARKIN COLLEGE - LEARNING THROUGH THE ARTS by Máire O'Higgins

(Poetry Ireland News, November/December 2005)

The Larkin College Learning through the Arts Programme is an innovative three-year specialist arts education programme running from September 2003 to September 2006. This series of dedicated learning-through-arts modules centres around varied experiences of working with artists in the classroom. Recent research provides impressive evidence of the impact of the arts on learning, and shows that the arts can connect with students not otherwise easily reached, can transform the learning environment, and can provide new challenges for already successful students whilst connecting these learning experiences to the world.

What exactly is it we want from the partnership between the artist and the school is becoming clearer to all those involved after five years of trying out various ways of working and interacting. Listed below are a few key questions that we should ask ourselves before we engage in a partnership with an artist or an arts organisation. We also include questions that we suggest an artist asks before working with us. This is not a comprehensive list nor does it list questions in order of importance. The Arts Council is currently drawing up guidelines for best practice for artists in schools. Larkin College has shared its experience with the Arts Council and these questions have informed the Council’s policy document in this area.

Teacher:

  1. Why do I want to work with this artist?
  2. What is the art form that we will use?
  3. Will I put the time aside to facilitate the artist?
  4. Do I believe that the project with the artist will support the work I am doing?
  5. Am I willing to be open to new ways of working based on a partnership model?

Artist:

  1. Why do I want to work with this group?
  2. Does the art form that I intend to use develop my work as an artist?
  3. Have I prepared a schedule to include planning, delivery and evaluation?
  4. Does the school body want me to be there?
  5. Do I know how schools work structurally?

We have found that when an artist works with us through an arts organisation such as Poetry Ireland, it can help both the artist and the school to maintain high standards of work practice. Artists often work alone and may not have a lot of experience of the educational environment. Because the support and liaison work is undertaken by the Education Officer of Poetry Ireland, this gives the artist the freedom to concentrate on the project and on the art form.

It is important for us in education to remember not to get too bogged down in structures and systems and to take risks with projects that may at first seem disorganised and chaotic. It is through this chaos that good work can emerge. There is a balance between the innovation that is required, the leap of faith on the part of the artist and teacher, and the determination to serve the students.

Fiachra Sheridan is a teacher in Larkin College and a playwright and author. His experience of being a writer in school was, he admits, ‘enjoyable, humbling and exhausting!’ It began with me, the arts coordinator in Larkin Community College, asking him to work on developing a script based on the Irish folk tale ‘The Children of Lir’, in a way which would allow the students to have full ownership of the creative process. They began by talking about the story and Fiachra spent the mid-term break in October writing the script from the ideas they’d developed. Fiachra had new ideas about the ending that he included in the script, and many arguments followed about Nationalism, the history of the twentieth century and the peace process, issues written into the script to represent the time the swans spend on the lake in the folk tale.  It was quite a humbling experience for Fiachra to be told by students that a line didn’t work, or that it didn’t make sense, or even to be informed that the actors refused to say a particular line!

Being a full time teacher himself, the part he found most difficult was finding the energy to write after a day’s work, as well as having to sit in on all the rehearsals of a work-in-progress. Some days went brilliantly, other days were frustrating, with the lead role changing four times. However, when actors emerged who were confident enough to carry off their lines then the process really started to take shape. The commitment which the students gave was inspiring, giving up four or five hours of their free time on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, while the performance, a 60-minute piece originally scheduled for February, finally went ahead in April.

For Fiachra, as the writer, the experience had its up and downs. Seeing the play in its finished form was moving and uplifting, but negative aspects of the experience included the heavy workload (in this case eight months) and the fact that there is little financial reward for this type of project. However, according to Fiachra, when the project was finished the money felt less important. The rewards were things like the growth in confidence in students, and being able to observe this growth on a daily basis as he worked as a teacher in the school. Shy students grew into confident young people, confident enough to perform the play to 250 of their peers. There may have been one of two giggles at the start, but the performance enthralled the audience and the performers got a standing ovation and, more importantly, a huge amount of respect.

For a writer in our school the students are the most important concern. The artist is there to facilitate them. Some of them may be inspired to write, or to act in or produce plays of their own in the future. What ever happens, it is likely that the experiences they have as part of the Learning through the Arts Programme will be life-forming and life-changing.

Máire O’Higgins is a teacher at Larkin College in Dublin 1, and coordinator of the Learning through the Arts Programme.

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