Georgina Bednar on Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights Adventure in Learning was a collaboration between Library of Birmingham, Birmingham REP Theatre and Coney. This cross art-form project offered 11 classes in 11 local primary schools the chance to explore the new Birmingham library building, engage in a digital adventure with a Genie and, finally, see the Arabian Nights stories they created come to life on stage at the REP Theatre. Using our award-winning Adventures in Learning format, pupils were cast as heroes in a quest featuring ‘missions’ in classrooms and in both venues. The project developed participants artistic sensibilities, confidence and provided teachers and library staff with valuable CPD in creating immersive learning models, as well as exposure to two significant Birmingham public venues. I came to the project prior to kick off in October 2014 to manage the overview with project writer and director, Tom Bowtell (representing Coney), project partners Steve Ball (Birmingham Rep) and Jen Bakewell (Birmingham Library), and of course, the odd Genie. I had worked with Tom producing various Adventures in Learning projects, Coney’s flagship engagement strand, but this was a new, up-scaled concept; 13 artists, a Birmingham based production company and 330 school children aged 8-11 engaged with a project spreading across three venues.

Arabian Nights started with a digital interruption in a normal lesson. This is one of the strengths of Adventures in Learning – using digital technology and playful tactics to subvert the ‘normal’ and take audiences on an unexpected journey (Tom wrote more about this element of the Adventures in his article for the Guardian here: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2015/feb/06/teaching-pupils-that-genies-are-real-magic-classroom). Every eventuality is thought through and story development is live; if an audience takes the narrative in a different direction, the writer ‘playing’ a character responds to it. And that responsivity is key – there is no audience more precise, more able to spot inconsistency, than a class of 8yr olds. Creative classroom interruptions led our young explorers to Birmingham’s award winning, brand spanking new Library where TV screens, actual falcons, ‘staff’ and a standard tour of the beautiful new building were hijacked to lead groups into a secret room, hidden deep in the bowels of the building.

After entering our secret room any cynics within the classes were stumped – the improbable story has spilled out of the classroom and been confirmed as true by discoveries in the outside world. Creative writing tasks back in the classroom were devoured eagerly by our young writers – now aware that what they wrote was key to saving the Genie. The project culminated in a final visit to the Rep, to see the young authors work performed live by a cast of improvisers – actors received the children’s work the night before, props sourced and characters across the three months reincorporated into performance. It honestly felt like magic – even for those of us who knew the mechanisms of the project.

The schools involved were new to immersive engagement in the classroom; only one had engaged with Coney before and a couple with the Rep. The children also came from a range of educational, cultural and economic backgrounds and the project had to work for them all. Key to this was the role of the teacher in managing the classroom interceptions, planning two trips, working with multiple characters on email in front of the class, allowing for workshops in their classroom time and keeping the mystery and mayhem going across a three month delivery phase. It genuinely felt like a two way process with teachers and without this relationship, projects like Adventures in Learning don’t work.

At the heart of this collaboration, and every Adventure in Learning is participant as creator and in this instance, child as author. Through a magical, immersive journey, children wrote, they wrote a lot. Of the 7 schools evaluated, 91% of teachers felt children’s creative confidence had increased and 88% felt the children’s passion for writing and ability to problem solve had expanded. Children made decisions, solved practical problems in groups and widened their vocabulary. I spent a day shadowing one of our early classroom workshop as a ‘teaching assistant’ and tried to maintain surprise, as events unfolded. A quiet boy leaned over half way through the day and said ‘Miss, aren’t you pleased you got to see this, instead of some boring English lesson?’ Little did he know that he had spent his day careening through his Key Stage 2 Literacy Targets. Whilst it would be impossible for every class and lesson to be this performative, largely due to cost, it felt like each class, teacher and organisation experienced a process that reinvigorated their practice when working with young people and the curriculum, and that effort was noticed by the most important people – the kids.

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