Dreamachine Schools

How my Art Room Helped to Transform the Life of a 12-year-old

A rad wolf

Article written by Andria Zafirakou (Winner of the 2018 Global Teacher Prize).

With schools now back into the thick of a new academic year, there is always something inspiring about this time of year. I’ve been teaching for 17 years and still get that feeling of excitement and anticipation that all teachers get when thinking of what lies ahead of each upcoming term.

As I sit here at my desk staring around this space, this Art Room which has been my second home for the past 17 years, I can not help but reflect on the extraordinary teaching year that has just passed. What a year that was, and I know that I am not alone in suggesting that this was the most surreal year of teaching that I have ever experienced, where “returning to normal” for young people after the pandemic was much tougher than was expected.

The effects on the wellbeing of our young people could easily be demonstrated firstly by the change in behaviour and attitude of young people where many have struggled to integrate back into their school community and routines. We could also see this through the impact of the “mask barrier syndrome,” where we have noticed that the quality of communication and oracy has declined possibly due to forced mouth covering resulting in the loss of confidence in speech for many. It also could be attributed to the lockdown online learning experiences where the opportunity to talk with their peers was very much reduced. However, the toughest aspect that we are having to come to terms with is the knowledge that this is just the beginning or the “tip of the iceberg,” as the worst is yet to come.

Thousands of schools across the UK have already started to feel and see the devastating damage and effect that the cost of living crisis in the UK is having on young people in our communities which inevitably affect their wellbeing.

As families are struggling to budget and survive, we can see the rippling effects entering our school gates already. Dirty worn out uniforms and emptier than usual lunch boxes are now becoming a common and noticeable feature but so are the more challenging and not so obvious signs such as frustration, hunger, anger, neglect, anxiety, stress, withdrawal and depression. All of which are a direct response to the chaos and challenges that our young people are experiencing at home and which is leading to significant learning and wellbeing challenges especially for our most vulnerable children.

This is why the case for creative and practical subjects being practised in our schools must now be stronger than ever so that we help to build the confidence, resilience, communication and self regulation abilities for our young people in order to cope with the challenges ahead in their worlds.

As I sit here typing this, I smile as I recall a story about how my Art Room helped to transform the life of one particular student, Nitin (not his real name) who was twelve years old.

Nitin had been diagnosed with various forms of special educational needs including ADHD, Dyslexia and Autism and came from a challenging home. He did not enjoy being at school and would often find getting through a day a colossal challenge. He would very rarely produce any written work as he was frequently embarrassed and frustrated with his outcome. However, in his artwork, you would hardly notice his special educational needs as he would willingly undertake all activities, focus continuously, participate and engage with everyone in the room.

Nitin would also control a pencil or a brush well, mix and apply all media and stay focused on the lesson task whilst carrying out a sustained piece of work. More importantly for me, he would contribute to class discussions, produce exciting work and clearly enjoyed the experience of being in an environment where there is no wrong or right answer. If you asked him why he enjoyed his Art lessons, he would simply say “Because I am the same as everyone and my work is just as good.”

For many students like Nitin, creative and practical subjects help students to feel valued, respected, proud of their achievements and “normal.” They make them feel safe and happy as their identity is accepted and valued and where labels and other challenges do not exist.

As it stands, what we do know is that as we enter this new academic year, we (schools) will be expected to do whatever we can to solve all the exceptional challenges in our local communities caused by this current climate with little resource, support and training.

To support these needs the Dreamachine project, which is part of UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK, has developed resources including lessons in Science, Citizenship and Health and Wellbeing to explore how brains and minds work to support young people’s development. Produced by Collective Act, the development of the resources has been led by A New Direction with UNICEF UK and the British Science Association and supported by insights from Professor Fiona Macpherson FRSE, MAE, Director of the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience, and Professor Anil Seth, a world-leading neuroscientist and Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex.

In a recent interview with the British Science Association, Anil and Fiona explain how a deeper understanding of our perception is linked to greater wellbeing by building on the concept that how things ‘seem’ is not necessarily how things ‘are’. This helps with the self-regulation we try to develop with our young people – ‘opening’ up “a little space between our experience in the moment, and the conclusions we may draw from this” as Anil and Fiona put it. Creative and practical subjects are ideal for exploring and understanding that ‘space’, by practising a variety of ways to tune into what we are feeling and thinking and ways of expressing ourselves. We can begin to create wellbeing environments in our classrooms by using calming breathing exercises to steady and clear the mind in preparation for learning. We can also use simple drawing exercises to start freeing the mind and exploring creative moments. Please visit Dreamachine’s Creative Wellbeing Classroom activities workshop where there are many more ideas available to get you inspired and started.

Understanding our perception also helps us to build an understanding in our classrooms that we are all different and unique and that difference of experiences should be appreciated. Should you wish to pursue this further with your students, an exciting place to start is by exploring some of the themes and our different senses on Life’s Big Questions website, which begins with the challenge, “Can I believe everything that I can see?”

Alongside this, we must still pressurise our government to start being strategic in their support for schools by providing new funding and expert resources that will limit the catastrophic damage that is threatening the wellbeing of our young people, our entire society and the future of our economy. All we want is for our school graduates to be confident, skilled, creative thinkers who can problem solve, communicate and are also kind, healthy and happy. If this doesn’t align with their strategy, then our education system is failing to understand the needs of our young people.

In the meantime, what can we do? As an Art teacher, I will continue to make my Art room their place and a space which continues to support students like Nitin to find their true potential, strength and happiness to prepare them for a tough future ahead.

As William Shakespeare wrote in his play Henry V, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” Never have these words resonated more.

Article written by Andria Zafirakou (Winner of the 2018 Global Teacher Prize), photographed below.

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