On the evening of 21st July 2015, everything at School 21 in Stratford, London was not as it seemed. As myself and my colleagues Tom and Mark walked through the doors, we were set upon by witch doctors offering us potions to cure the plague. There were students gushing with pride over maths inspired art installations, there were Blues Brothers serenading us with their dulcet tones as we examined handmade fossils and ancient artefacts, and there were primary-age children beating us at natural disaster inspired board games. Combined with other projects, products for sale, theatre productions and ventures into the great outdoors, we had well and truly arrived at School 21’s whole school end of term exhibition of REAL Projects and beautiful work.
Taking our seats for a Brechtian style play from Year 9 students about the Nuclear Arms Race of the 1960s, I had a few minutes to study the programme of events the school had put on. From reception to Year 2, and Years 7, 8 and 9, the programme was jam packed with different exhibition pieces as a culmination of each year groups’ work. Each project had been carefully considered and thoroughly researched to include all the relevant and historic significant content. Through the REAL Projects programme, teachers act as facilitators and it’s students who take all the lead roles – design, curation and creation. Immediately you could tell the students were engaged and excited to show us what they had created. We started to explore.
We used the maps with routes we were given to guide our way through the school, from which every surface, floor and table had been transformed into something relevant to each project. For the Year 7 Black Death project, a hallway had been turned into a 14th Century barn, complete with straw flooring, hay bales, copies of the ‘Black Death Diaries’ for sale and it’s own segmented cardboard house under a set of stairs – a great use of space – showing a film the pupils had created themselves about the horrors of living through that period of history.
Another classroom housed an outstanding example of the draft and critique process; Cold War chess pieces created from scratch by Year 9 students. At the start of term they had been tasked with the question, ‘how is chess a metaphor for the Cold War?’ We were presented with their initial draft work, and examined how through supporting each other with kind, helpful and specific peer critique, they eventually each took responsibility for a significant figure from the era to create a huge chess board with characters made from clay. How did they decided who was going to be the King, Queen and pawns? They conducted whole class debates of course!
Despite the students being only Year 9, this project specifically covered GCSE history curriculum content in a creative, innovative way. Words cannot do it justice, it was exquisite. Take a look at it’s space in the REAL Projects Centre Extraordinary Work for a much deeper insight into what the project entailed.
What struck me most about the way the students spoke with ease and confidence about what they had learned, let alone with pride. The REAL Projects programme is designed in such a way that students gain skills that are relevant for real world application. One of those skills that School 21 particularly places emphasis on is oracy.
Each student explained exactly who the Cold War figures were, and why they were such an important part of history (even the more obscure ones). It was far too easy to forget that these students were in fact only 13 and 14 years old. On another occasion, a Year 8 student who was walking past, taking her place in a musical performances, saw us looking at a book she had taken part in writing, about dystopia, and promptly stopped to tell us all about it. No-one guiding her, no-one encouraging her. We were so impressed with the work, we promptly bought the book!
You could sense achievement from every corner of the school – parents and teachers talking to each other about students’ work. It was the most engaging parents evening you could ever imagine.
As an hour and a half flew by, we ended our visit by contributing to the ‘comments and feedback’ wall by suggesting that next time, students and teachers might consider inviting along more members of the local community and local businesses, in line with REAL Projects principles. A small suggestion however amongst what was a great indicator about what’s yet to come. Next year the eldest pupils in School 21 will be undertaking GCSEs for the first time, and the excellence they’ve achieved this year will certainly take them into Year 10 with the confidence and ability they need to do well.
Through striving for beautiful work that fills them with a sense of purpose and pride, all students at School 21 can be confident going into the summer holidays that the work they’ve created won’t just be lost, condemned to dusty old school books never to be seen or used again. They will return in September and build on this year’s achievements with bigger and better ideas. But don’t just take my word for it, next time you spot an exhibition coming up, you pop along too.