Mapping our Journey: Cynefin – Week One

I have been paired with a primary school in the Caerphilly County Borough to work with Year 4 and 5 children and their teacher on the Arts Council of Wales Cynefin project.

After an exciting online planning session, the teacher and I formulated a question to encompass the school’s priorities and the requirements of the project aims:

How can working with creative practitioners help to develop awareness of the contribution of BAME peoples past and present for year 4 and 5 pupils, both in their own community and beyond? Can exploring this through creative mediums improve communication and collaboration skills?

Depending on the age of the children, I usually take along my ‘Magic Suitcase’ at the beginning of projects. It helps me to demonstrate some of the ‘Creative Habits of Mind’ we will be calling upon during our investigations, such as looking more closely and noticing details. “In the particular is contained the universal”, as James Joyce famously said. Mostly, the suitcase contains props for games and role play, because play is the most important ingredient in being creative.

The Creative Habits of Mind – Children naturally exhibit these attributes if left to play in a natural environment.

It was inspiring to see how the children took one exercise and developed their own work without prompting. I gave them a selection of art postcards to choose from, and in pairs they told each other why they had picked a particular one and decided to make their own visual interpretations of the work.

I asked the children to tell me what their inspirations were. This developed into a conversation about out of school hobbies: dancing, singing, acting, football, motorcross, kickboxing etc. One boy drew himself on his mountain bike. (See below). This was a good way to explore what makes them individual, but also to find out about interests/characteristics they share with others.

After a break, we began to look at the life of John Ystumllyn, one of the first black people (in records) to have lived in Wales. After listening to the story, the children used role play and a few simple props to act out the story. It is sometimes hard to evoke the past and bring emotional resonance to historical lives for a generation growing up in very different circumstances. When the Jamaican/Welsh author Catherine Johnson talked to the children about her novel Freedom, she was asked several times if the story was true. She explained that although the protagonist was made up, his life was based on real stories from her research. She generously told the children about her own experiences of growing up as a mixed race person in North Wales (positive, even though there was no one that looked like her), but different to her own parents. She showed the children a picture of her grandmother, and mentioned how her great, great grandmother (five generations ago), would have been affected by slavery.

Because our plan is to create a story that the dancer June Campbell can help the children to choreograph, we began to develop characters. In groups, the children drew around each other and gave the characters names, ages, and nationalities. It was an opportunity to open up a conversation about skin colour, and how we are likely to draw what we see in the mirror, or reflected by fellow pupils (all pupils in this class have white skin). The teacher emphasised that this wasn’t wrong, only that as we are looking at the history and achievements of BAME peoples for the project, they might think about developing characters from different ethnic groups who may have different skin tones.

Beginning to develop characters.

At end the day, I read the story of Harriet Tubman (Minty), one of the most courageous activists, who
voluntarily travelled back down to the southern states where slavery existed to rescue her friends and family members who were still enslaved. She was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a series of safe houses where fugitive slaves were transported to the northern states or Canada, and she famously declared that she “never lost a passenger.” Ultimately, Tubman believed that “there are two things I’ve got a right to, and these are Death or Liberty – one or the other I mean to have.” She worked as a nurse and a spy, was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, and worked tirelessly for women’s suffrage and equality.

After her death she became an icon of courage and freedom. We have placed her on our map and timeline along with John Ystumllyn, and pupils in the class who have links to other cultures.

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