Saturday, 10 April 2010

An Awfully Big Hedgehog Adventure! Meg Harper

Way back in January, I landed a job with Creative Partnerships – now here I am, a short way into it. If you’re full-time writer with no interest in taking on one of the many para-writing jobs that exist, you may want to give this blog a miss. If, however, you wonder what on earth Creative Partners get up to, then read on!
I’m working in Blackbird Leys, the biggest council estate in Europe (apparently) on the outskirts of Oxford and my brief, together with Vergine, a storyteller and Lisa, a visual/spatial artist, is to see how we can use the outdoors to enable children in Foundation and Year 1 to express and communicate better and to make connections. What a challenge that is! We are all well outside our comfort zones – all experienced as artists in schools but none of us particularly au fait with the very youngest, all of whom are in the earliest stages of literacy or are pre-literate. I found myself reading the optimistic words of the literacy framework for the children I’m working with:
“... children in pairs or individually (possibly then working with a response partner) write their own simple patterned texts (on paper or on screen), developing their writing by adding a few further words or phrases from a given beginning, following a specific pattern or within an appropriate frame. Outcomes are then shared and discussed.”
and wondering which planet the writers are living on Nonetheless, believe it or not – we have actually hit that particular target and are very proud of our two poems about Rats and Rabbits who we all know live outdoors (and we’ve played some excellent outdoor games about them) even if we’ve never seen them in the wild. We might see some on our planned trip to the local nature reserve, though I’ve been warned we’re more likely to see (and carefully avoid!) litter, discarded condoms and worse!
Why, you might be wondering, why does the government think three artists none of whom have qualifications to teach very young children, can have any impact here? Why not just draft in some extra teaching staff? And why, you might be wondering, would any sane writer want to leave her garret to go and engage with this?
Because (hallelujah!) we are creative thinkers! For once there is some cheer! Researchers have worked out that the next generation will have to be flexible, adaptive, innovative thinkers to thrive – and which people have those transferable skills? Artists, of course! It’s true enough, isn’t it? Where do you get your ideas from? What made you think of that? How d’you come up with such interesting plots? And so the skills we have as creative writers are invaluable for pursuing creative enquiry questions because we will keep thinking outside the box, coming up with the quirky, considering any and all ideas before we progress. And believe me, we so need to!
Vergine, Lisa and I are on a steep learning curve working out what’s going to work, what’s really relevant, what will be fun at the same time as being educational, all inspired by the outdoors and, was often as we can, working with the children actually in the outdoors. We are almost literally a breath of fresh air. We started out with some pretty unrealistic thinking, all bright green grass and primroses, and are adapting fast to the inspiration of an urban outdoors and the well-equipped school areas, to using lots of stories, games and pictures based on the outdoors and to cudgelling our brains for more exciting ideas. But I’m used to that, as you all will be too – it is crucial to our success as artists. Our transferable skills have been rumbled and what fun and what a challenge it is to use them in such a very different way from writing at my desk!
The latest wacky idea on my part was to send two soft toys, Rabbit and Rhino home each night with different children so that they could take them outside and write a little and draw a picture about what they did. The children are loving this, dutifully taking the toys home (named Sharpay and Troy by the way if you’re a ‘High School Musical’ fan!) and, by their standards, doing a fair bit of writing about what happens. The only trouble is that, although they take them to bed and keep them close, few of them take them outside. We sat and chatted about it. Where could they take them outside? What would be some good places?
‘Tesco,’ said one.
‘To my friend’s house,’ said another.
It’s a limited environment and most of the children don’t have any where much to play or parents likely to take them further afield. And so another toy, Harriet Hedgehog has been staying with me all holiday and having Big Outdoor Advantures as you’ll see from the photos! She may be inspiration, the children may get vicarious pleasure out of seeing where she’s been, we may begin to write a story about her adventures. We shall see. And if The Adventures of Harriet Hedgehog go down like a lead balloon, then we’ll think of something else because that’s where our strengths lie. Don’t they? : D

PS. I've included a couple of nice literary photos!!! Anyone want to guess where they are?


Anonymous said...


Charlotte said...

How can you go wrong with a hedgehog? But good luck with your project, just in case hedgehog cuteness isn't enough.

Katherine Langrish said...

And these are kids who live in Oxfordshire, one of the most rural counties in England - and they don't get to go out in the fields and footpaths that exist only a mile or so away. Heartbreaking, isn't it? Good luck with your enterprise, good luck with bringing them the fresh air.

catdownunder said...

Oh, what fun! I am just a tad jealous. I remember we had a very British bear come to visit several years ago. He was a wonderful ambassador for his country.

Elaine AM Smith said...

This sounds like an exciting project.
Children are ripe for creativity in any form; they get overly concerned with getting things right, as they get older.

Meg Harper said...

I know, Kath. But at least we're going to get them out for a trip to Wittenham Clumps and they do get to go to the Forest School in Year 2!

Elaine, I so agree! Already there are the usual worries about putting names and dates at the top etc! And that's just the start of it!

Cat - wish you could join us!

Stroppy Author said...

To photo is the Orchard in Grantchester, haunt of Rupert Brooke, isn't i? But your hedgehog has strayed a long way to get there...

What a super idea, Meg. My daughters' primary school had a bear which went on school trips and so on, and kept its own photo diary of some of the trips - that really engaged the kids :-)

Ms. Yingling said...

What a fun idea. I have fond memories of a time when Curious George stayed in my house with my (then) first grader. One would hope there would be a park or at the very least a stoop where the poor animals could perch!