Changing the impact format: new groups, new engagement

Ida Persson

Using alternative methods to create social science research impact was a key aim of the project “Exploring Migration: Research and Drama in Schools”. Working with schools in Thame, London and Birmingham the project involved using theatre exercises, workshops and performances to discuss issues relevant to undocumented migrant children and their families.

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Collage by Year 6 students, Water Mill Primary School

In previous blogs we reflected on different aspects of this project. After Thame, at Lord Williams’s, we considered what role a project like this, using theatre as an experience, might have as “impact”. Then after London, at Capital City Academy, we looked more closely at the education and learning element of the project. Now, having recently completed work at a primary school in Birmingham, we can consider how the same results were achieved at this final school, but in a very different way.

In Thame and London groups of 10-13 students, between 14 and 18 years old, worked together on the script as a whole, devising, planning and creating a piece of theatre unique to them. We met for an hour and a half once a week for 10 weeks before doing an open, public performance followed by a Q&A where the students articulately explained their thoughts and reactions to the project. Due to their pre-existing knowledge of some of the issues and vocabulary and to their maturity we spent only one session, with exercises and discussion, on the background issues and questions. We then, throughout the weeks maintained an open space for questions and discussion and allowed time to consider current news stories. Most of the time, however, was spent on the individually scripted stories and working on how to present them. This proved hugely effective and a deep learning experience for the students involved. The previous blogs mentioned above explore the impact and these aspects of this work in more detail.

Changing the routine

In Birmingham we had to entirely change our approach in order to make the most of the material and the students’ understanding of it. The reasons for the changes to our work at Water Mill Primary School in Birmingham was determined on the one hand by the students’ much younger age of 11 years, having a full class of 25 and covering full-day workshops over a shorter period due to SATS exams earlier during the term. We worked with the students for four full-day workshops spread over a fortnight. Our days and materials therefore needed to be organised and designed completely differently to suit.

Poem by Year 6 students, Water Mill Primary School

This meant interspersing our introduction to migration issues with interactive learning activities. One activity, for example, involved students moving between “countries”, while increasing the obstacles and barriers with each round. The class was also divided into four groups and they worked on a monologue each, while focusing on a particular theme (character, movement, sound/voice, and emotions). This gave the groups a focus on which to hang the development of each story. We also encouraged them to think about the migration and their own stories and connections to migration throughout the process by asking them to bring in related items. The wide-ranging engagement and creative thinking demonstrated by students through this exercise was impressive. They brought money from a large number of countries, suitcases, passports, rocks, books, and even an oxygen mask! These items were used as inspiration to create collages and writing short poems in groups, which were then used in the performance. In addition we dedicated more time to theatre exercises designed to create feelings of collaboration and teamwork, as well as basic performance skills.

The children were hugely receptive to all the activities, and were very willing to share personal stories and thoughts as well as more general reflections. They rose to the challenge of this difficult topic in an excellent and impressive way, to an extent that even surprised their teachers. Using theatre as the medium for learning also meant that students who often struggled in day-to-day school life were able to engage and participate at whatever level they were comfortable with.

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Collage by Year 6 students, Water Mill Primary School

They performed their piece to a school Assembly and parents, which moved many members of the audience. It was very clear that the impact and education elements discussed in the previous blogs were also fulfilled in Birmingham. This was demonstrated by positive feedback from the students themselves, as well as their teachers and parents. The difference this time however was that the key element and learning experience for the students was felt in the process rather than the final product – allowing them not only to empathise and sympathise with other stories but also to place their own experiences in a broader context.

Questions and comments that particularly hit home and created interesting discussions were, “Why do people hate immigrant?” and “I don’t have a passport, and my parents are from different countries, so where am I from?” While the first question left us momentarily speechless, it also shows how difficult it is to find a rational, logical and coherent explanation for certain accepted societal norms. This probably is nowhere more true than in relation to the migration debate, where emotional and symbolic language around fear dominate. When real stories are placed in the foreground, however, this allows for a tangible discussion and often leads to unanswerable questions. More importantly, they prompt a non-judgmental curiosity and interest to understand another’s situation, asking “why”, “how” and  “what happened to him after this?

The future of engagement and impact

Poem by Year 6 students, Water Mill Primary School

With new expectations on researchers to make their findings available and accessible to a wider audience beyond the academy, it is important to consider what these new audiences are and how they can be engaged. As researchers we need to engage in a certain methodological translation exercise in terms of the tools and language we use. In a similar way to sociologists using visual methods to answer research questions, we have here used theatre to communicate questions and findings. These need to be adapted to fit different audiences, in terms of their age, their socio-economic backgrounds, but also practically to fit in with the demands of daily life or in our case school life – an already pressurized environment. If these can be achieved a space for critical engagement in contemporary societal questions is created for all. The learning experience is deep and it keeps the research alive, as is the subject of inquiry.

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Collage by Year 6 students, Water Mill Primary School

This work has proven incredibly fruitful over the past twelve months in creating an open, honest and humane space to discuss migration. The feedback we have received from students, teachers, parents and audience members has overwhelmingly been positive as a way to engage on a difficult, current issues and as learning experience. For us, the last year has meant piloting different approaches, activities and formats to work with young people of different age groups, backgrounds and to fit in with school demands. The next aims will be to develop and expand this project to work with more schools, other community groups and on a broader range of issues, all using the medium of theatre. To do so we have set up ActREAL. If you are a researcher interested in bringing your research findings to a broader audience or a school that would like us to come and work with your students please get in touch on!

Co-authored by Vanessa Hughes, DPhil candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London