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Rebecca Mitchell: A creative approach

 If you have yet to come across Mrs Mitchell, first impressions are of someone extremely focused and energetic. And articulate. Her classroom looks fabulous – I encourage you to go and have a peek – lots of colour, and impressive displays of the children’s work on the walls. As I settle down on a very small chair to talk to her, she tells me that her move to Heywood Prep has given her the opportunity to put her enthusiasm for the Creative Curriculum into practice.

At Heywood Prep, it is best illustrated by what has been going on in Mrs Mitchell’s own Year 2 class. ‘Every term we choose a topic – this term it’s fire,’ Mrs Mitchell tells me, ‘and then the whole term’s work is structured around that topic. We can pull in literacy, science, history, geography, art all around one subject. We can devise a curriculum especially for this particular group of children, one that is exciting for them and for the teachers.’

I ask if having just the one topic isn’t a bit limiting for a whole term’s work. Mrs Mitchell runs through what that actually covers. So they will be studying burning and melting in science, the effect of the sun on the northern and southern hemispheres in geography, fire myths in English, even fire safety. The one subject exempt from the topic is maths, which remains discrete. Work in the classroom is enriched by school trips – this term to the Museum of East Asian Art – and by visitors – such as the author M P Robertson who taught the children how to draw fire-breathing dragons.

And things aren’t so rigid to exclude activities that can’t be shoe-horned into the topic – nothing fiery about the riotous Alice in Wonderland celebrations during Book Week.

In the first half of term, the main focus of Year 2’s work was the Great Fire of London. On the face of it, a clear contender for a bog standard history lesson. But this is the Creative Curriculum at work. So, in English, the children worked on ‘writing for a reason’, creating Samuel-Pepys-style diary accounts of the Fire of London, and proclamation scrolls for town criers. They also focussed on ‘wow words’ – plenty of scope for those, I imagine, in describing the drama and horror of the Great Fire – and on ‘connectives’, which (having checked) I can reliably inform you are words used to link sections of compound sentences.

In DT, it got really interesting – creating 17th century London from card, paper and straw, no less. Whether or not you have a Year 2 child, you are likely to have heard about it, as the whole school turned out to watch the class’s Great Fire reconstruction in the playground. It involved Mr Dodds igniting the row of petrol-soaked model houses, and was by all accounts very dramatic. Frankly, what’s not to like? Check out the photos - great ooh and aah facial expressions.

 

Wanting a child’s-eye view of the term’s work to date, I grill Year 2’s William Goymer. It is a mark of how engaged he is with his school work that he is happy to describe it to me in half term, while the rest of the children are having an extremely rowdy game of hide and seek within earshot.

‘It was really good. We all built Tudor houses and put them together and then set fire to them. We even made St Paul’s. Its top went BOOM.’ His face, as he explains all this, is a study in enthusiasm. Torching London town had clearly made an impression.

‘So,’ I say, wondering if the experiment had done more than engender a lifelong interest in pyromania, ‘tell me about the Great Fire of London, then.’

He didn’t need asking twice. I learn it was all the fault of one Tom Farrener, a baker who failed to pay sufficient attention to his ovens, and how the fire, once it had got hold, gobbled up street after street of the capital’s wooden houses, so closely packed ‘you could lean out of your window and shake hands with the person living on the opposite side of the road.’ William knows his stuff. His account is detailed and confident, and given that I was interrogating him a good six weeks after the reconstruction, I was impressed by his recall.

This, Mrs Mitchell would say, is the strength of the Creative Curriculum. It is not simply about making school fun in a touchy, feely way. It is about pairing facts with visual stimuli and activities to help the information stick. Indeed, when I suggest that this might strike the more traditional among the parents as a rather freeform approach to education, she is quick to assure me that lessons are still very structured. Even if the children are not simply sitting in front of a text book, or reading notes from the board.

And for the new girl, is it as good in practise as she imagined?

‘It’s going very well. The children are so enthusiastic, and I’m getting lots of feedback from parents who say their children are going home wanting to find out more on the internet. They come into school with fistfuls of stuff to show me.’ 

Next term they will be moving on to Global Gardens, tackling plants, life and growth in different parts of the world. I’m already anticipating a scaled recreation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, at the very least.

NOVEMBER 2013