Tag Archives: workshops in schools

A Story? Really? A blog about managing innocence in storytelling

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.As a storyteller I rely upon two presentation models: narrating events and being the character.  My relationship with the audience will change depending how I present the story.  If I am narrating events I inform the audience of our relationship.  I allow them to understand that the story and its events are a fiction and that they are watching a presentation.  I do this by introducing myself, talking about the story and clearly demonstrating different characters.  When I become a character my audience must do much more of the work themselves.

“So what?”, I hear you cry.  Well, when I present a session as a Victorian School Teacher the participants are briefly starring in a drama devised to expose them to the way education might have been in the 19th Century.  If the participants don’t respect the threat of caning then the session is less effective.  Equally, when I present a Detective investigating a crime the participants must be convinced that the scenario is credible.  A lack of investment in the world of the story can be a session’s undoing.

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Cynicism can bedevil creativity as we grow up and the examples above relate to characters and sessions devised for pre-teens but what about when we are very young?  What are the dangers of investing too heavily in stories?  Can there be any harm in believing that you just met the Gruffalo?  I suppose that very much depends on the experience.  For a young child, meeting a creature with terrible tusks, terrible claws and terrible teeth in terrible jaws etc. will either be the best or worst day of their life.

Clearly telling a very young participant that what is happening (or about to happen) isn’t real can impact their experience.  You could go as far as to say that intentionally breaking the illusion robs them of an innocent experience.  There is unquestionable security in the truth and I think it is the storyteller’s responsibility to offer that security through the narrative by ensuring audiences see that the wicked get there just desserts.  If the participant absolutely believes is this more memorable or just confusing?  Is Miss Trunchbull scary if you know its an act or is the Mad Hatter as wonderful if you know its in some way false?  How a situation is managed will hinge on lots of factors including the sensitivity of the participant and the circumstances and legacy of the meeting.

From my point of view it isn’t easy to maintain the reality of being a character rather than a person for an extended period of time.  It can involve a lot of planning with a school or organisation ahead of the day.  Trying to think like a character at all times and allowing everybody to believe you are a character can be exhausting (once I spent an entire day in a Headteacher’s study in role pretending to work at her desk!).  I have however found that the legacy of this approach is huge and the feedback on such sessions is generally very positive.

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.“When you came in to work with the children during world book week, they were completely gripped!  The story narrative you came up with to engage the children was phenomenal, the children completely believed the 3 Little Pigs had been eaten!  You stayed in role all day and as a result the children played along too, the quality of writing and language we got from them was fantastic.   I have no doubt in my mind that we would use you again… as we are still talking about it a year later!!” (Teacher, St Wulstans and St Edmunds Primary School, Fleetwood)

I suppose that to some extent the purpose of the story will determine whether the participants are allowed to believe in the character.  After presenting the Victorian Classroom I will appear to participants as myself and discuss their experiences.  This is partly to assure groups that the monstrous school master is imaginary but also so that the group can articulate how my lesson and their lessons compare.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.The real world can be a hard place and sometimes we grow up too fast.  Its a sad day when a child becomes inhibited by doubt.  I was recently at a school and a little girl took me to one side and asked whether I really was Willy Wonka.  I told her that in life we can choose to believe or we can choose not to believe but that decision was ultimately hers.  She skipped away satisfied with my answer, having just chatted with the world’s greatest chocolate maker!

There are times when I wish I was a little more innocent.  As an adult and a storyteller I have an important role to play in maintaining the innocence of my youngest audiences for as long as possible.

The Merits of a Narrative Poem

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.When I was younger I didn’t think that I liked poetry.  Outside Shakespeare I rarely read verse for pleasure.  Last year though, I was introduced to Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” and it changed my view of poetry completely.  Since then I have been reading other narrative poems including the “The Ballad of the Fleet” (Tennyson) and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (Carroll) and incorporating them into my work.

A narrative poem tells us a story but it is set out in stanzas with the rhythms and rhyming patterns familiar in other types of poem.  It will contain a skilfully woven story packed with wonderful imagery and metaphors which compels its audience.

In my opinion the narrative poem offers so much that I have even used them in pieces for Birthday Parties!  Here are what I see as the merits of working with narrative poetry.

The narrative poem is perhaps one of the most ancient form of storytelling (The Iliad and Beowulf are both story poems).  As a Drama Facilitator I believe they are a fantastic way of introducing complex text to young audiences which demonstrates the breadth and depth of our literary heritage beyond Shakespeare.

It offers a whole story.  A chapter of a book or a scene from a play wouldn’t offer the beginning middle and end in this way.  If I want to guarantee that a group have heard the material a narrative poem is a concise way of quickly offering an entire story.

The narrative poem will capture the imaginations of boys and girls as it often recalls and romanticises some kind of adventure.

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Investigating narrative poetry through drama is a lot of fun and once a group has a story they are better positioned to explore the author’s imagery and language choices.  The poems I am talking about were mostly written in the 19th and 20th Century and whilst the language is certainly complex it is not impenetrable.  Accessing it allows young  participants to make their own judgements about themes, events and characters (perhaps physically characterising or hot seating characters about their decisions in the story or making up scenes based upon their deductions).

I have also found that exploring a narrative poem can become a catalyst for exploring rhythm, rhyme and meter and getting groups to write in poetry.

_ _ _ _

“The wind was a rushing train, dodging every tree

The moon was a shiny banana ripe and ready for me.

The road was a lonely wanderer, under an ongoing spell

and Mr Highwayman came riding, riding, riding

Josh Highwayman came riding, up to the Grand Hotel.”

_ _ _ _

“The snow was a breeze of coldness coating the leafy bush,

The sun was a ball of fire, gleaming upon rushing waves

The field was a soft green carpet, over the earthy road

And the Highwayman came skating, skating, skating

The Highwayman came skating up to the big mansion’s door.”

_ _ _ _

As well as getting excited about narrative poetry I have discovered narrative songs.  My taste in story song is eclectic ranging from Benny Hill (The Fastest Milkman in the West) to Charles Daniels (The Devil Went Down to Georgia) and Chris Wood (Hollow Point).  You could easily laugh some narrative songs off as being novelties but constructing an effective narrative within a poem or a song is a great skill.  Tennyson and Noyes might not be matched for their poetry’s beautiful imagery  but Hollow Point particularly is (in my view) a powerful piece of modern verse based storytelling.

Up to now narrative poems have formed the basis of workshops or featured within other work that I have presented but this summer to coincide with The Summer Reading Challenge 2014 I am taking my new found love of the narrative poem to a whole new level as I reinterpret Homer’s “Odyssey” for a young audience.

My final reinterpretation is unlikely to be a narrative poem but one thing is certain – it’s going to be epic!

Special thanks to the children of South Malling Primary School for sharing their “modern” takes on “The Highwayman”.

Qualifying my contribution to children’s learning

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.This week I am using my blog to qualify my impact on learning by sharing some of the testimony I have received in the past 3 months.

“The day was absolutely fantastic and the feedback from children and parents was brilliant. It was lovely to see the children echoing the language you used when writing stories the next day. They all thoroughly enjoyed the day so thank you!!”  Teacher, Wychwood Primary School, Shipton Under Wychwood (Traditional Storytelling and Presentation Day, January 2014)

“I can honestly say that this was one of our most successful days!
John totally engaged the children and especially a group of boys who usually show very little interest in drama, storytelling or writing! The next day the children were still talking about John’s visit and the tips he had given them for story writing. I call that money well spent!” Headteacher, Gillibrand Primary School, Chorley (Classic Storytelling and Workshop Day, February 2014)

“Again, a fabulous day much enjoyed and talked about by the children all week… They have also been inspired to write their own poems and stories – ” Teacher, South Malling Primary School, Lewes (Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman“, February 2014)

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Each of these teachers work in very different social, economic and geographic settings and yet their feedback demonstrates that my stories and workshops manage to transcend such obstacles, appealing to young people nationwide.  They also point to a lasting impact and legacy.

Positive and constructive feedback is always appreciated but I’d like to finish this piece by sharing a lovely comment I received from a school in Liverpool.  Leaving London at 5.30am I made it to Anfield for a 10.45am start.  I led a story and workshop session and was back in the big smoke by 7.45pm.  The children were wonderful to work with but getting this comment from their teacher made an epic trip to Merseyside more than worthwhile.

“The children got a lot out of the workshop! Thank you.”  Teacher, Whitefield Primary School, Liverpool

Related blogs

Fairy Tale Stepmothers do ave’em! – my thoughts on female Fairy tale villains

See also A Tale of Two Newspapers – a piece about performing in Chorley (my home town)

See also “The Highwayman” from an Ostler’s point of view – my thoughts on rewriting Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman”

See also Why Mickey Flanagan isn’t joking – my thoughts on quality

“It was so much better than German!”

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.At the beginning of January I was in Essex to help inspire a group of young writers.  I wanted to present a workshop in which the participants didn’t feel they were really doing any work.  As absurd as this may sound – I ran a creative writing workshop without doing any writing!

As a trained actor my strength is in the spoken word and its delivery.  Through games and activities I helped the group explore short stories and the work of Edgar Allan Poe.  Here are some of the games we played:

Exploring quality of their content and how we can manipulate atmosphere.

Person A sets up a simple mime.  Person B questions it.  Person A tells a lie about their action and that lie becomes Person B’s truth.  The quality of A’s lie will effect the quality of B’s mime (I’m eating a spicy chilli is far easier to demonstrate than I’m eating).  The game then develops as Person B informs Person A what they are doing.  Whatever B says A accepts as truth.  It is in B’s power to manipulate the scene (A is sitting on a chair watching television and B begins an interrogation).

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Building short stories

A small group is challenged to tell a story.  Each person in the group is responsible for a section of that story which must have a clear beginning, middle and end.  A character, a location and object are offered as a starter to the group).  As the group build their story ideas about tense (how does “I” rather than “he” effect a story?), sentence structure and vocabulary are introduced before the story is presented to the rest of the group.

Eventually my success will be qualified by how the participants take the ideas they explored on their feet into their written work.  For now though my success is qualified by their words…

“It was better than any day at school… Changed my view of storytelling.”

“Today was really good!  It was so much better than German!  I learnt a lot about building tension and suspense and I have learnt how to use it in my own work.”

“This experience was such a great learning curve for anyone invited and I will take skills with me.”

I really enjoyed today… everyone got involved with acting and storytelling.  It was lots of fun!”

“Thank you to John Kirk for a great experience toady, we learnt a lot of new things and had a really enjoyable morning.”


John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.
A letter from a student after a secondary school workshop exploring short stories and Edgar Allan Poe.
John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.
A display of Tweets after a Secondary School Workshop exploring short stories and Edgar Allan Poe.


Tale of Two Newspapers

I am originally from Chorley in Central Lancashire but live in North London.  I had learned about an event which was to take place called Chorley Live through Twitter.  The event was all about showcasing local talent so I was keen to support it.  I got in touch with the organisers and arranged to bring my work home to Chorley.  Knowing that I would probably struggle to publicise myself at a festival 200 miles away I phoned the local paper (The Chorley Guardian) in order to get a bit of publicity for my performance of Dracula at Chorley Library.  What I got was an amazing two page spread!

Chorley Guardian Interview

As you’ll imagine the piece meant that quite a crowd of people attended my performance.  It went really well and it seemed that everybody enjoyed themselves with many people taking away business cards.

Now, whenever I give out business cards I notice spikes in activity on my Youtube and Facebook pages.  That evening I noted such spikes with  audience members from the library going online to follow, like and comment on my performance but I thought nothing more of it than that.

A few weeks passed and I was contacted via Facebook by somebody who’d seen my October performance.  She had been so impressed by my work that she had recommended me to her children’s school!  Before I knew it I was back in Chorley in front of 300 children, opening the school’s library with my Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.  I had a fabulous day at school and it was an immense privilege to be asked to cut the ribbon and officially open the school’s library.

Once again my adventures made it into the local paper.

Chorley Guardian St Gregorys

This story proves two things: that work truly does breed work and that I wouldn’t be anywhere without the support of my many friends, family and supporters across the United Kingdom.

Thank you for continuing to spread the good word!

Subtext: Stories in Silence

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Subtext is a term which is often associated with the work of Constantin Stanislavski.  Stanislavski was a director and drama theorist who developed a system of acting in Russia in the early part of the 20th Century.  Stanislavski’s work was a reaction to the shallow, melodramatic performances of his time.  He believed in a naturalistic style of performance, challenging performers to bring truth to the stage.

Stanislavski advocated techniques, including the “Magic If”, in which performers attempt to recreate their character’s truth by asking how they themselves might respond in similar circumstances to the scene (“What if I were in this position?”).

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Subtext refers to the unspoken thoughts of a character during a story and can help a performer to sustain their role.

I recently saw “Slava’s Snow Show” (Royal Festival Hall/International), a renowned clowning piece set to music with almost no vocal communication.  The absence of words did not make the piece less engaging because the clowns were telling their stories with their facial expressions and their bodies.  Every move and gesture was carefully played so that the audience could see the character’s unspoken intentions.  Okay, perhaps a clown isn’t the greatest example of naturalistic performance (they are prone to exaggerating and demonstrating their unspoken thoughts) but for 90 minutes they communicated their character’s truth quite beautifully and almost entirely non-verbally.

In Primary Schools I might introduce subtext through a thought tracking exercise in which I ask the participants what their character is thinking within a prescribed frozen picture or I might ask them to think of a line that their character might say to themselves in the bathroom mirror each morning and then challenge them to repeat the line to themselves as they walk about the room.  At the end of the exercise I am interested in how these techniques change the way the participant thinks about their character and the way they inhabit their role.

In Secondary Schools and with older groups a way of exploring subtext is for the performers to act out a scene.  At a given signal the performers must act out their subtext.  In acting out the subtext the performer should feel free to express themselves physically, vocally or verbally, exaggerating and demonstrating their character’s feelings (like Slava’s clowns!).  As the signal is repeated the performers return to their scene with a heightened awareness of their subtext.

I recently lead a play study in which we considered “An Inspector Calls” by JB Priestley.  The story is set against the back drop of a family gathering and is concerned with issues of class, sex and social responsibility.  Throughout the story characters listen to lengthy monologues relating to an incident that has happened.  The performer must respond to the information contained within each monologue as their character might if they were hearing the news for the first time.  Then, as each character is lead to reveal their own secrets do their unspoken thoughts belie their words?

During the play we must believe that Gerald and Eric are uncomfortable long before they are asked to give their accounts.  Equally, Mr Birling’s indignation and Sheila’s shame should be apparent even when they aren’t talking.

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.In building a subtext for the character, the performer becomes a more active listener and responds more truthfully to the circumstances of the story.  In our study we physicalized our character’s sin.  Taking the seven deadly sins (Pride, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Wrath, Lust and Envy) I challenged the group to demonstrate their character’s main vice and then to sustain that vice as the inner life of their character during the scene.  Rather than thinking about the lines or what they might be having for dinner, even the simplest of subtexts will help the performer to remain animated when at rest and to respond more appropriately to the story.

In its simplest application subtext can be very liberating.  The performer has free rein to imagine and consolidate a world for their character with a web of unspoken thoughts and opinions.  For some subtext can help their ability to concentrate whilst for others, sustaining a subtext helps them bring truth to the mechanics of a story (why do I move at that moment?).

The skill of the storyteller is in repetition and in my opinion this can only really be achieved through rehearsal and fully understanding the story and a character’s objectives.  It is important to treat subtext as a tool in a larger kit to avoid unspecific and generalised performance.

An INSET Epiphany!

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.In 2011 I worked on a Creative Partnerships project in Lincolnshire.  The project was massively successful and attracted plaudits from educational professionals across the region.  That Autumn I was invited to share my ideas with a conference of new Headteachers in Lincolnshire.  I was then asked to lead a training event for four of the Head’s schools relating to creativity and the Summer Olympics.  18 months I was invited to lead another training event.  The theme of the session would be Mental Maths.  I was set the challenge of offering creative ideas for engaging children (foundation to key stage two) with Mental Maths.

So it came to pass that at Epiphany in the year 2014 I followed the A1(M) and came upon an inn in Lincoln (well, a Best Western anyway).  Now, it is a well known fact that this Wise Man is diabolical at Mathematics.  The people who know me best would confirm that the idea of me teaching anybody else about maths is hilarious.  Why then did I get such positive feedback on the INSET?

“Thank you so much for the training, staff said it was the best training they have ever had!”

In the first part of the session I presented a series of games.  The participants then applied their specific need (to consolidate or introduce Mathematical concepts) using my selection of games.  The learning was not restricted to Maths as Sciences, Languages and Humanity subjects entered the discussion.  In the second part of the session we explored how we might use narrative and storytelling technique to include our groups in Maths based storytelling.  The participants created wonderful stories which considered number bonds, using money and addition as well as other aspects of learning (literacy).  It seemed to me that the participants found a lot of energy and freedom in our exercises.

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.The epiphany’s of my INSET days aren’t as shiny as The Three Kings gifts but they are things which all of us need sometimes:

A Different Perspective – I am an outsider to the group.  When I work with a group I will have little knowledge of individuals or circumstances.  I will offer constructive criticism based on my experience and will respond to what I am presented.  This is very useful when problem solving or in team work exercises.

Fresh Ideas – I have a unique base of games and ideas which I have developed over a decade of working in a range of environments.  I love sharing my knowledge with other professionals because its in this way that young people are offered a better deal.

Fun – Most people who teach or who have ever been taught will agree that fun is important.  I believe in the valuing the contribution of individuals and collaborating to achieve goals together.  It always important that the atmosphere is friendly and that the participants feel comfortable.

So why was my INSET successful?  It was a success because I am not a teacher, I am a facilitator.  Often the results are within the room before I arrive.  I help the participants to find them.

Why Micky Flanagan isn’t joking

008A few weeks ago I was thumbing through a copy of “The Metro” Newspaper when I came across an interview with comedian Micky Flanagan.  Flanagan’s comedy may not be to everybody’s taste but one of his answers resonated with me that morning.

(Interviewer) What lessons has your career in showbiz taught you?

(Flanagan) Just the same lessons I’ve learned in every other job I’ve done – try to surround yourself with decent, honest people, work as hard as you can and keep asking yourself: ‘Do you really want to do this and can you do it well?’ It’s a serious business and you have to take it seriously. What’s presented is a lot of fun but behind the scenes it’s a difficult job, which takes a lot of hard work to get right.

How right you are Micky.

What’s presented is a lot of fun but behind the scenes it’s a difficult job, which takes a lot of hard work to get right.

Okay, I’m not a top comedian, promoting a book or an arena tour but I, like Mr Flanagan and many other people out there, care about what I do.

Picture 001If a school were to book me what they’d see is the storytelling session.  It would be polished, entertaining, it might even enhance their curriculum.  What they wouldn’t see is the time put into writing the material and refining its delivery, time spent sourcing the props and costume and ensuring the session was of a high standard.  What they wouldn’t see is 3 years of training, 12 years of working with young people and a life devoted to ensuring the session was of a high standard.  They wouldn’t see it but I hope they would expect it.

Imagine my disappointment therefore when I found the following job advert…

“We are looking for performers who can entertain children aged 3 upwards…  No previous experience required …”

…it went on…

“Also wanted members to join our Theatre In Education team, various performances in primary and secondary schools.”

Did I misread a lazily written advert?  No experience required to work in Primary and Secondary Schools?!

John Kirk is a storyteller and drama facilitator specialising in drama workshops and theatre for young people.Perhaps I’m being unfair but I believe in the value, power and legacy of high quality storytelling.  It should be an immense privilege to share any kind of story with a young person particularly, as is so often the case, if your presentation is that young person’s first experience of live performance.  Too often young people are under estimated and “fobbed off” by unscrupulous organisations trying to make a quick buck.  Of course in this instance I have no evidence that this is the case but the idea of sending somebody with no training or experience to take up a position is scandalous.   What is the impact of a poor experience on the children, the school and other creative practitioners?  If a school is burned by poor delivery they may not be prepared to take a similar risk again.

The other disturbing aspect of my discovery was how little the group who’d posted the ad charged bookers for their work.  I’d like to think schools are wary of low prices.  In the past I have been prepared to negotiate with groups over my charges but have found little success in offering heavy discounts.  Unfortunately though in austere times, a flashy leaflet and a tantalising price tag mean that some will substitute Gucci for Primani.

You might say I’m talking about two separate issues: quality of delivery and value of delivery but there is a probable correlation: if you pay peanuts you get monkeys.

Like Micky says, entertainment is a serious business; if a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing well and you should expect to pay a fair price.

Storytelling and Code Breaking

Can you crack the code to continue the story?John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.

1911 1955 1912 1916     1937 1972    1920 1981 1951!

Where A is 1908, Z is 2000 CODE IS FUN!

You might be thinking, what has code breaking to do with storytelling? Well, my work is nothing if not varied and I was recently invited to launch a Homework Club at a Library.

The challenges of storytelling for informal settings are numerous: who will attend, how old will the participants be, how can we best use the time to deliver something which will be engaging and not patronising?

On this occasion I came up with the idea of creating a story around a fictional counter terrorism agency to meet the client’s brief.  The agents were told at an initial briefing that the unit had been infiltrated by an enemy agent.  It would be the task of the group to crack the clues and root out the villain before the unit was destroyed.  Jack Bower meets Cluedo – the game was afoot!

As well as the date cipher above, I used the Dewey system and the characteristics of books to disguise information (page numbers, line numbers, even the number of characters into a line!)

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.

Allowing the participants to approach the narrative in a free form way is a risky venture but attempting to crack my ciphers was an important part of the session.  Like homework, the ciphers required the young people to work for their reward using problem solving and research skills.  The pay off for the young people was revealing their role in the narrative which they were then able to use to complete the story, taking part in a further game of conspiracy and intrigue at the end of the session.

It was encouraging that the group saw the session through to its conclusion.  It would be quite easy to struggle with the puzzles and drift away from the exercise but the group persevered and the final game was a hail of accusations, bluff and enthusiastic double bluff based on what they knew about themselves from the previous games.

In the end the enemy agent was brought to justice and everybody seemed happy with my deviously vexing games.

As I basked in a job well done one thing was clear – I wouldn’t have got away with it without those pesky kids!

The Victorian Classroom Experience

John Kirk specialises in drama workshops and theatre for young people.I had just marched out of the hall, my cane tucked under my arm, the children quivering with fear.  In the quiet of the staffroom I reviewed my morning as a Victorian School Master.

The session had come about after I was contacted to provide an authentic Victorian Classroom experience.

About three years ago I was commissioned to write a School Room session for The Bruce Castle in Haringey.  This would be a fabulous opportunity to revisit the piece.

The Bruce Castle School in Tottenham was run by the Hill family during the 19th Century (Rowland Hill gave us the Penny Black).  The school was renowned for its progressive approach to discipline.  Rather than using corporal punishment, The Bruce Castle School introduced a system of points and rewards which was administered by the pupils themselves.  It had many supporters including Charles Dickens who is known to have visited the school.

Unfortunately The Bruce Castle is something of an exception to the rule in the period.  It was only late in the reign of Queen Victoria that education became compulsory and then only for the very young.  Many children found school either voluntarily or via the workhouses.  With sometimes eye watering class sizes order was maintained through fear.

Having reworked the piece to incorporate references to potential punishments I have tried to communicate the importance of the credibility of the session to the school.  If the children don’t buy into the experience then the experience is liable to collapse (he’s not really a teacher/he isn’t really going to cane us etc) 150 years ago it was acceptable to hurl board rubbers at pupil’s heads – 150 years is clearly a very long time!  When I arrive, the school has excelled.  They have a free standing white board and arranged rows of benches in their hall.  There is even a lectern for the register.  With my bell and my cane we have created a pop up Victorian Classroom!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust before 9.05 I go to get the class.  They are ready.  We head to the hall where the boys and the girls stand in front of separate benches.  The atmosphere is nervous.

“No speaking, Eyes front”.

I register the class, addressing them by surname.  As I stumble through the register I am reminded of how far removed the Victorian world is from the present day.

“Sit down”.

The lesson today is divided into reading, writing and mental arithmetic.  It begins however with physical drill.

Whilst researching for the original piece I discovered that quite often PE would take place in the classroom because the school didn’t have outdoor facilities.  The children would take part in physical drills at their desks!  We often take public parks for granted but at this time open spaces in urban areas must have been truly oases.

Drill over its into learning by repetition.

“Sit up straight!  Eyes front!  No slouching!”

Victims are selected.

“What is 4×5?”

Pressure can make the most intelligent child look very silly.

“What is the superlative in the passage?”

The point of this isn’t simply to intimidate or make a child feel silly.  The point is to demonstrate a method of learning.  This isn’t the learning of compromise this is the learning of fear – my way or the highway.  if a girl hesitates on an answer its also an opportunity to reinforce attitudes towards educating young ladies with a jibe about needlework.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe lesson moves onto a writing exercise.  Today as substitutes for slates we have portable whiteboards.

“Why are you writing with your left hand?  You will write with your right hand”.

As School Master I maintain an unsympathetic air to the teachers and pupils and the lesson continues in silence.  What rapport there is between class and instructor is cold and dangerously sharp.

“Sit up straight!  Eyes front!  No slouching!”

The lesson concludes with three cheers for Queen Victoria.

Afterwards there is time to discuss the experience with the class.  The feedback on the session is interesting.  Words like “unfair”, “shocking”, “mean” and even “rude” are used.  Comparisons are made (everybody prefers their class teacher to my incarnation!).  There is general relief that I am not the monster of the Victorian classroom.

Sitting in the staffroom I can’t help but smile.  As the children return to their classroom and life gets back to normal there is legacy in their participation.  Undoubtedly this morning’s interaction will provide context to their learning, stimulus for their writing and renewed enthusiasm for their study but you only need to listen to hear them recalling moments from the session to know that this has affected them.

It has been an unforgettable experience.