I occasionally work for an excellent project called 'South West Gifted and Talented'. It exists to offer extra-curricular experiences in a number of subjects, to young gifted and talented students. Teachers are chosen from those who are engaged with their art, science, or practical skill in the working world and who also have active involvement with education.
Last week I worked with two such groups, years 5 and 6, (ages 9 -11) at the wonderful venue of Killerton House in Exeter. The children came from all parts of Devon,Somerset and Cornwall, to do some creative writing.
Killerton is a National Trust property, given by former owner Richard Acland in 1942. Acland's generous gift of the Killerton Estate comprised a sumptuous house, hundreds of acres, cottage properties including tenancies of working farms, and land in other parts of the county, all of which hold a wide and sumptuous green belt between sprawling Exeter and other town developments.
The long history of the Acland family refelects generations of strong Liberal, and eventually Socialist views and actions, that have been part of shaping our most precious heritage: rights for women, rights in the workplace, the abolition of slavery, education for girls, and finally - wide public access to the former estate and grounds, and the environmental benefits of this being placed in the nation's trust.
The venue provides an excellent learning environment: a grand structure with furniture and musical intruments, pillars and stucco work, large paintings of the great and the good, and artefacts from those most privileged lives; a small museum of costume and jewellery; and this juxtaposed to the laundry room with the dreaded box-mangle that was known to crush fingers and cauldrons and weighty irons; and in the costume museum - vicious corsets, used to train the soft bones and internal organs of young girls into contortions for the rest of their lives. However, the ideals of this family and the way they lived sometimes reflects and sometimes challenges stereoptypical perceptions of 'how they lived'.
photo: (c) Paul Leitch
This stimulated some fascinating discussions about equality and privilege. To be part of that with young minds and fresh ideas is itself a privilege. National Trust guides and I provided some essential details and perspectives.
I used the theme of 'status' in the workshop which was titled as 'Upstairs, Downstairs'.We looked at status as a device in writing: shifting this in relation to each character as a way to shape the plot and to create and hold interest in dialogue. We also considered status in relation to working on characterisation prior to writing narrative.
The children all seemed to enjoy their day immensely, responded with great skill to the theme and the exercises, and those pieces of work that were read out were skilful and moving.
Any learning environment contributes to the learning experience. With thanks to the Acland heritage and the National Trust, and to Christine Mitchell and Phil Creek of South-West Gifted and Talented, last week's workshops were a huge success and enjoyable, influential experience for many.