Friday, 5 December 2014

Christmas Light Night: Working in Partnership - Skills for the Future trainees Aisling, Corie, Hannah, Jenny, Mary & Rachel


The Christmas Light Festival is a weekend event which takes place in Oxford each year welcoming in the festive season with a jam packed programme of events and activities. This year was no exception and we were glad to get the chance to be involved. We worked in partnership with Ian Nolan Events, an independent artist Nikki Gunson, eight local primary schools and one secondary school to create 6 lanterns based on objects chosen by the children from the museums and collections. Here me and the other trainees reflect on the process of being involved in the project and what we learnt along the way.

Trainees (l-r) Hannah, Aisling, Corie, Jenny, Mary & Rachel

 Selecting the objects

For the first stage of the project each trainee welcomed a group of 6 children from one of the participating schools into their museum. I was working at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History at this point and the schoolchildren who came in to visit me were from Bayards Hill. I really enjoyed planning for this session as we were given a lot of flexibility about what we were able to do. I selected 6 objects from the museum which I thought could be transformed into good lanterns (no easy task when you’re surrounded by so many weird and wonderful creatures!) Then I thought about a way I could help the children explore these in an hour and a half session. I designed a True or False game for each object and provided a simple sheet for the children to make notes and do drawings as they liked. I think the freedom of a blank page to choose where and what to write and draw was a bit startling for some of the children at first, but it encouraged them to think about composition and choosing meaningful information. The highlight of their visit was probably a behind the scenes trip to go and see the real remains of the dodo. Nevertheless, however exciting they found this, The T.Rex won the vote in the end.

Students work based on their visit to Oxford University Museum of Natural History

 Meet the artist – Corie
After the school children visited their museum for object inspiration they all congregated at the Museum of Oxford to meet the artist and contemplate which object would make the best lantern. The beginning of their decision making process was to discuss each object they saw at the museum they visited and start to sketch them. This allowed them to better understand each object to make a more informed decision.

 As they were sketching the artist would go around and help bring out inspiration on what they could make and how they could do it. By the end of their time at the Museum of Oxford almost all of the schools knew what object they wanted to turn into a lantern, but they had to still go back to their school and convince their classmates. 

For the most part what was chosen at the museum was what the school voted yes on. The final decisions were given to the artist for her to design the drawing plans. It was with her plans, lots of willow and tape, plus our highly planned lessons that we were ready to go into the schools and start building the lanterns with all the children involved.

Workshops in the schools – Hannah

Before we visited the schools we met in our pairs to plan the making sessions. The artist’s drawings for each lantern needed to be stripped down so we could work out bit by bit which element would be made with each group. The group sizes in the schools varied from groups of 10-20 and we divided up the work further so we each had a group of around 7 children. 

We explained to the children what the project was all about and who we were and then we went in to detail about how to work with the willow and what tools we would be using on the day. We had to be sure that they would be very careful when using the tools and also to be aware that the willow was flimsy and could easily flick around. We showed them that the willow had been soaked overnight to help make it easier to bend and not snap. To start them off we all made a simple ‘twist’ by connecting two willow pieces and explained how this would help make a stronger structure. I was amazed at how quickly the children picked it up and they really enjoyed seeing the shapes come together. They all worked well as a team to help each other measure, cut and tape the lantern. 

At the end of each session we made sure that they understood which part of the lantern they had completed from the plans so they gained a good sense of achievement. We would then assess how far we had got to with the plans to make sure we still had enough to do with the next group of children. 

Lantern making workshop

 Hands on craft – Rachel

Bringing a large, hands on craft activity into a school was clearly outside the normal school routine for a lot of the children we visited, it provided creative work for many children who would not normally get an opportunity to work with their hands and build something large – larger than they were. Afterwards, the sense of achievement about what they and their group had done without the need to write anything down or take any tests was very apparent.

We found that the children also really enjoyed learning about the objects, despite not being in the museum or looking at them directly. The session introductions also gave us as trainees a great opportunity to practice running sessions by ourselves. By the end of the project, we’ve practiced the introduction many times over and we are significantly more confident with both the subjects and this style of workshop.

The majority of the lanterns were built in primary schools. However, one of the lanterns was built in a secondary school. We worked with a group of year 9 students over the course of a day, to build the main structure for the T-Rex. The opportunity to work on a big art project benefited these students as much as the primary school children. Especially for this age group (just beginning to choose subjects they’ll study in future), the project was valuable as an example of how the arts are used in events and businesses after education – so demonstrating potential art career opportunities.

Finishing Touches – Aisling

Although most of the hard work had been done in class with the children, the lanterns still had some way to go when we left the schools. Most of them didn’t yet have the paper covering which would transform them from willow frames into wonderful lanterns and they all needed colour washes. We rejoined Nikki the artist for the final countdown week running up to the grand unveiling. A lot of hard work was put in by everyone and by the end of the week the lanterns were ready.

Finishing off the lanterns

Celebratory event – Jenny

To our dismay, rain was forecast for the grand unveiling of our lanterns. We feared the worse; that during the switching on event, they would turn to paper mache on the Museum’s Lawn. Straight after work we dashed down to the Museum to see the finished lanterns installed on the lawn. They looked fantastic. Through the clear protective covers, we could see that the artist had done a terrific job in completing the additional parts and introducing colour, providing the lanterns with added character and vibrancy. Fortunately, the rain did not deter the school children involved and their families arriving to see their lanterns switched on. 

Lanterns after the official launch

The plastic covers came off and the Oxford Town crier welcomed us to the event with booming calls of ‘ooooay ooooay’. After a speech celebrating the project and those involved, we counted down from ten. On one, our lanterns were injected with life as they became illuminated with glorious gold light. They really did look spectacular against the glowing gothic architecture of the Museum of Natural History. Thankfully the rain was fairly light and the lanterns didn’t end up getting too soggy. After many photographs were taken of the children beaming with pride in front of the lanterns they had made, we drank hot chocolate and nibbled on mince pies and biscuits. To close the switching on event, we were treated to a festive dance carried out by a local dance group who elegantly glided across the Museum lawn bearing diamond shaped miniature lanterns.

Lanterns on the lawn

 The Lightbulb moment:  How Museum Learning brightens the classroom experience - Mary

What you really want to know as a teacher, parent or museum educator is:  what are the positive outcomes for students involved in a project like this?  Is there any real value to it?  In our recent lantern building lessons, I believe we saw some great answers to this.
One of the staff we met expressed the value of the project really well, she said “We see children who perhaps don’t do so well academically really shine in activities like this.”  That’s a lovely response which gives you a warm fuzzy moment,   but for some museums it raises questions such as “But isn’t it better if they come into the museum? Wouldn’t the experience be richer?”  And for some teachers it presents the challenge that time gained for making, art and craft and “museums –type” activities may feel like they are losing time from the curriculum.  The “who don’t do so well academically” may imply that this activity has only informal learning value, with no link to the mainstream curriculum, which must go “on hold” for the day. 

We saw the students experience a new expression of different areas of the curriculum and doing so made real gains beyond the time we spent with them.  Immediately I think of their application of maths in working on real world problems where accuracy was important. It was clear that many students had not previously needed to do this outside of the kinds of small scale measuring that occurs in the classroom.   The physics of light, and the properties of opacity and transparency took on new relevance and secured earlier learning, while the physical use of materials in shaping and building with willow ensured a stable structure.  Some students showed real leadership who had not had that opportunity before and inspired others to achieve, others showed an ability to complete a task they found initially perplexing.  Taking inspiration from real objects they were able to commission an artist and work with visiting trainees to make a contribution of their own and developed more understanding of  pattern, colour and , contrast as well as techniques for creating texture using different materials with different properties.  As importantly we saw the value for the children of learning from other cultures and from the natural world as they shared resources not only to build amazing light sculptures but also a sense of community.

Some reflections – Aisling

I think I can speak for all of the trainees when I say we found this project a test of how much we have learnt so far on the traineeship. We ran our first unsupervised outreach sessions, had to learn a new skill with enough confidence to lead school sessions in it, and worked in partnership with a large number of organisations. It was a project full of first times, and I can say on behalf of all of us that it wasn’t easy. There were times throughout it when we all struggled – whether working the materials, managing behaviour or trying to get to grips with the designs of the artist. Yet the amount we have learnt from this project has been enormous. We have all gained confidence in session planning and delivery especially in an outreach setting. And, if we do say so ourselves, the end results look pretty good!

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