An after school workshop

In the Arrondissment of Château-Thierry, I was offered an after-school workshop. This is part of a new system being introduced across France of Wednesday morning classes in primary schools. Before this year, primary children in France had all of Wednesday off, but now they have three hours of classes on a Wednesday morning, and it’s up to each Commune to decide where in the week to take those hours from. The Commune that I was working in has chosen to shave 45 minutes off the end of Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday’s classes. So’s not to inconvenience parents, the Communes are obliged to put in place extracurricular activities in those non-Wednesdays that’ve now been reduced. That’s where I came in: I had a 45 minute session with a class beginning 4:15 on a Tuesday afternoon.

These were the parameters:

– a rowdy class of around 22 8yr olds
– a contract to provide something related to theatre
– session begins straight after end of lessons, and in the classroom
– storage between sessions limited to a large cardboard box
– occasional use of the mayor’s meeting room

I had a plan to use Ted Hughes’ excellent story “The Iron Giant” as a base from which to construct small props out of paper. My first session was a breeze. I recounted the first few pages of the story, in French, and the children drew images from it.

drawings based on Ted Hughes' Iron Giant

My second session, after the spring holidays, wasn’t easy. Two lads in particular had their own agendas, and I just couldn’t get them to follow mine. The next two sessions went easier, as one of those lads wasn’t there, but then the following session, he was back, and I noticed that he was effectively in charge of the class, and I had no direct means, at that time, of changing that.

It was at this point that I realised how undeveloped this new extracurricular program is. These are the current problems:

– the children finish class, feeling rowdy and free, and I arrive
– my position carries no authority, yet I’m obliged to keep them productively occupied

I’d been using persuasion and charm to get the children focussed on the project that I’d proposed. Those children less interested in co-operating with me required a lot of specific attention from me, which left me little time each session to achieve a feeling of progress as a group. For a few sessions, I was shouting, and trying to stop the children from doing the same. One session, when I just couldn’t get them to focus, I lost my composure, threw my hands up in the air, and told them to get on with their drawings. This change of approach from me surprised them. The next session, I took them down into the mayor’s meeting room, and focussed only on working together, with me as the leader.

We fed back our thoughts to those that had hired us, and I determined that I had the right to briefly exclude a child (the activity assistant would take the child outside for a while) if I thought it was necessary (it wasn’t).

By the beginning of the last session this is what I’d achieved with the children:

– recounted part of Ted Hughes’ story to them, which they generally enjoyed
– got a load of nice drawings done, and a few cut-out characters
– some masks made, and the cardboard storage box converted into the Iron Giant’s head
– a few scenes from the story physically re-enacted by the children

Before the last session, I set up a simple and kitschy theatrical backdrop in the mayor’s meeting room. Then we began with 25 minutes in the classroom to finish their creative work, then descended to perform to, er, to ourselves, effectively, though Sylvie was there, and one of the elected counsellors (as the activity assistant).

So I lead the performance by narrating the story, requesting whoever wanted to come forward and continue the story, or act it out, or hold up drawings to illustrate. The first ten minutes were fun, with lots of focus and enthusiasm, but then the group’s energy began to dissipate, and children were losing interest, or getting frustrated. When we ended, at 17h00, it was abrupt, and without any sense of completion. No goodbyes, no thank-you’s. It didn’t feel good.

So what went wrong? Yes there were some unavoidable difficulties, but what did I not get right? I think this:

– my agenda wasn’t sufficiently focussed
– I established too late my authority
– I didn’t create an end goal that the children could visualise
– I didn’t allocate time for a wind-down, feedback, and good bye

A lot of this was down to what I’d selected to do with the children. Sylvie suggested, for example, that if I’d just focussed them on building one large Iron Giant puppet, everyone would have been happier. That was a good suggestion, but not possible given the storage constraints. My original idea that the children would create small props, had been limited again by storage, and the group’s erratic energy.

So how could I get this right? I think there are two essential requirements for a better series:

– I establish a pattern that brings us together as one group
– we have a visualisable goal

I hope that I’ve learned some useful lessons here, that I can put into practice in the next series.

the fox

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