Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There Project: By Dr Bryonie Reid

Page 1

Open Space

An action research report from

the Virtually There Project By Dr Bryonie Reid

Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project © Dr Bryonie Reid, 2020 All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without prior written authorisation. Bryonie Reid reserves the right to be recognised as the author of this work. ISBN 978-1-902432-73-1 Published by: Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership CLG. 40 Wolfe Tone Street, Sligo, F91 R231, Republic of Ireland +353 719170759 Charity number: 20639 Written by: Dr Bryonie Reid Copy-editors: Jo Holmwood, Ciara Gallagher Design: Martin Corr

Project artists: Lisa Cahill John D’Arcy Ann Donnelly Naomi Draper Julie Forrester Ann Henderson Sharon Kelly Andrew Livingstone Project teachers: Paula Courtenay Stella Cross Wendy Davey Fionnuala Hughes Leanne Kyle Chris McCambridge Julie Orr Judith White Marcella Wilson Participating schools: Aughnacloy Primary School, Co. Tyrone Ballydown Primary School, Banbridge, Co. Down Donaghey Primary School, Dungannon, Co. Tyrone Killard House School, Bangor, Co. Down St Colman’s Primary School, Lisburn, Co. Armagh St James’s Primary School, Newtownabbey, Co. Antrim St Patrick’s Primary School, Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh Strandtown Primary School, Belfast

Acknowledgements: With thanks to the following individuals and organisations who have supported the Virtually There project during its thirteen-year history: Sarah Beckett and Charlotte House at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation; Vine Haugh, formerly Creative and Expressive Advisor with the Southern Education and Library Board and Director of the AmmA Centre, Armagh; Marie O’Donoghue at the Education Authority of Northern Ireland; Vanessa Patton, former teacher at Strandtown Primary School, Belfast; Gavin O’Connor and Anne Sexton in Arts Development at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland; C2KNI; The Arts Office at Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council. This action research and subsequent publication have been generously funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Kids’ Own is proud to be supported by the Arts Council of Ireland. Cover image: Aughnacloy Primary School working with artist Lisa Cahill Back cover images: St James’s Primary School working with artist Naomi Draper (top) St Patrick’s Primary School working with artist Sharon Kelly (middle and bottom)

Contents 3 Foreword 5 Introduction 7

Literature review


The first year’s research


The case study research

Conversations 87

With teachers and artists


With Principals, Education Authority staff and the Creative Director of Kids’ Own


Children’s experiences

143 Reflections

This report is available to view in full online at with appendices.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Foreword This report is the result of two years of action research conducted by Dr Bryonie Reid, which was commissioned by Kids’ Own and made possible by funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. While the research is focused on two years (2017–2019) of the Virtually There project, devised and managed by Kids’ Own, it is worth noting that the project itself dates back to 2007 and represents an incredible body of work and process-based exploration that evolved and developed over more than twelve years. While the scope of this research could not extend to a retrospective analysis of the project prior to 2017, many of the participants involved have naturally brought their longitudinal experience to bear on their insights and reflections within this document. Also, Bryonie Reid has taken a very conscientiously holistic view of the project and employed a great amount of skill, sensitivity, empathy and intellect to her understanding of everything that it represents in service of doing it justice within this document, and I am hugely grateful to her for that. The primary objective of the research was to interrogate the impact of Virtually There on all of its participants – artists, children and teachers, and logically, the approach taken would be qualitative. Kids’ Own’s work ← St James’s Primary School working with artist Naomi Draper

is about recognising all children as individuals with their own uniqueness of experience, and as such, a homogenised statistical analysis of the project would make no sense. We were delighted, therefore, when Bryonie brought forward her experience as a cultural geographer with an interest in eliciting stories from the project. This offered space for real richness of detail and allows the reader to come – in my view – to a closer understanding of how the project was experienced by those involved. A beauty of the Virtually There project was the freedom that it afforded to artists, teachers and children to take their own direction. Longevity helped in this regard. The only subtle mandate given by Kids’ Own’s previous Creative Director, Orla Kenny, in relation to the delivery of the project was that it be authentic. From Kids’ Own’s perspective, what this means is: that it be rooted in the artists’ own practice; that it be allowed to unfold organically according to the children’s input and responses; that it be centred around collaboration, enquiry and exploration, rather than a top-down instructive model; that it not be rushed or delivered in response to any external agendas or directives. This open-ended brief has given rise to countless exhilarating processes and outcomes over the years. It was never wholly surprising to learn that the children had wrapped their playground, or dissected fruit and vegetables, or watched mould grow, or made leaf soup, or danced by a river, or dressed up as their future selves or left clay houses outdoors to dissolve over time in the elements. Not surprising, but endlessly exciting. Although this document cannot possibly capture all of these individual explorations, I do believe that it has successfully unearthed what is at the heart of the Virtually There project and what it has achieved. I would like to thank Bryonie for her commitment to this piece of work. I would also like to thank all the participants who have contributed so much both to this research process and, more importantly, to the project itself. Finally, I would like to dedicate this publication to the memory of Orla Kenny, who brought the project to life with such boundless artistic vision, relentless rigour and passion, ultimately, for the integral value of the arts and their potential to impact positively on the lives of children. Jo Holmwood, Creative Director, Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Introduction I began action research on Virtually There in September 2017, appointed by Orla Kenny, then Creative Director of Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership, and Jo Holmwood, Project Manager. Virtually There had begun in Ballydown Primary School 11 years previously, developed by artist Ann Henderson, teacher Judith White, and Orla. Funded year by year by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, it had grown, and by 2017, with a further grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, involved eight artists and nine teachers in eight schools in Northern Ireland. In each school year, artist-teacher pairs planned and delivered a series of sessions with children, known as a cycle. The number of sessions in a cycle varied according to funding, but between 10 and 14 would be carried out. A session typically took up the time between registration and lunch in a school day. During each cycle, Kids’ Own facilitated time to reflect and time to think ahead for artistteacher pairs. In 2017 these Creative Days were convened in Belfast, and I was invited to attend. The project was in the second year of a four-year More and Better grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. This grant enabled recruitment of new artists and teachers to the project, provided them with paid time for reflection, planning and relationship-building, funded the action research and allowed for significant dissemination of the project in the final year. On the Creative Days, Orla and Jo asked me to speak to the artists and teachers ← Aughnacloy Primary School working with artist Lisa Cahill

about my background and how I would approach the action research. I duly explained that I had studied fine art, cultural studies and cultural geography, and worked as writer and artist (and other things, including facilitator and curator) in the fields of art, culture and heritage. I said that what I knew of this project resonated with me as an artist and as a parent of primary-school-age children. In describing my intended methodology, I spoke about a previous research project I had worked on at Ulster University, involving 80 oral history interviews with border dwellers on the island of Ireland. This project, I told them, had opened my eyes to the power of storytelling. Over the course of two years, I had gone from place to place along the border, listening to people who had been born and grown up there, lived and worked there, tell me about how it had shaped their lives. I had been expected to turn this material into peerreviewed journal papers, and had tried several times to excerpt bits of various stories and fit them together according to theme, or theory. It never worked. I said that I had realised that the power of these stories resided in telling them whole, because only the entire narrative showed the depth, complexity and fluidity of each person’s experiences. This was the approach I would take to Virtually There, I stated. I would carry out qualitative rather than quantitative research – that being both my expertise and my inclination – and I would prioritise drawing out and recording the stories of artists, teachers and children. I felt then that would be the best way of exploring, understanding and representing what I already knew to be a diverse and rich project. Having completed my two years’ research, I feel the same now, and that storytelling approach is what has led me to introduce the report with my own story. I came to the research with the belief that art-thinking and art-talking and art-making are of value in themselves, and not only as means to another end. For some time now, arts education has been seen as a luxury with little or no relationship to intellectual development; often arguments for its value depend on how it can be made to support or enhance academic achievement or, more recently, secure the elusive but important goal of well-being. I go into this history in more depth in a literature review. I have no doubt that arts education has an impact beyond the immediate context of thinking and talking about, and making, art, but my interest here is in arts education in itself. Therefore, with no obligation to demonstrate how Virtually There raises test scores, or makes children happier, for example,


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

I am free to listen to and pass on stories instead. These stories give a much fuller, more comprehensive picture of how the project has worked and what the project has meant than could statistics. They also avoid a crude instrumentalisation of the nuanced and diverse nature of creativity as practised professionally by artists and in the classroom by artists, teachers and children. As I embarked on my research, it quickly became clear that relationships were central to how Virtually There functioned. Conversations with artists and teachers in the first year raised again and again how dependent each was on the other, in planning, in carrying out sessions and in reflecting on and responding to what happened; trust was crucial, and trust was built through spending time, not only working, but getting to know one another. Those artists who had worked longest on Virtually There talked too of their relationships with Orla, and the important part these had played in their work. Soon I discovered that Orla was ill, and had stepped away from her formerly pivotal role in Kids’ Own and in Virtually There. Jo became acting Creative Director and Alice Lyons joined Kids’ Own staff as Project Manager. The first year of conversations with artists and teachers took place when Orla was ill, but expected to make a return to Kids’ Own and Virtually There in time. Shockingly, she died in July 2018. Since I had not worked closely with Orla and had no experience of the project under her direction, it took me a while to realise just how significant she was in the project and to the artists and teachers who knew her well; not only in her person, but in her vision for the work, her tireless fundraising and her mentoring of artists. This has not been the only personal upheaval for participants in Virtually There over the 12 years the project has lasted, and personal lives are not wholly separate from work lives when the people you work with are also your friends, and the work you do together is possible because you are friends. For this reason too, because Virtually There has been built on relationships, I believe storytelling is the best way of communicating how that works and what it means. The layered relationships between Orla and Jo, Orla and Kids’ Own’s associate artists, and artists and teachers, are as much part of Virtually There as anything that happens in the classroom, and require their story to be told. I have divided the report into four further parts. First comes the literature review, in which I consider theory on arts education under the umbrella of five key themes: the value of art; ability in art; teaching art; artists in schools; and technology and art education. Next comes the first year’s research, the writing-up of my first conversations with each of the project’s eight artists and nine teachers, some of the children, and observations of Virtually There sessions in all eight schools. I framed these conversations around teachers’ perspectives; artists’ perspectives; the role of relationships in the project; the role of technology in the project; children’s experiences of the project and its effects on them as observed by artists and teachers; and mentoring and support from Kids’ Own. The third and longest section comprises case-study research carried out in the second year, a focus that enabled me to look more closely and in more depth at how the project worked in two schools. Here I have narrated observations and conversations in their entirety, in the service of telling the stories of the artists, teachers, children, parents, schools and Kids’ Own staff as fully as possible. The final section is reflective rather than conclusive, drawing out resonances between some of the literature and the project, and offering my sense of what has shaped Virtually There into the powerful experience it has been for teachers, artists and children.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Literature review Some of my source material refers to ‘the arts’, meaning visual, musical, literary and performing arts; where it is ‘art’, instead, the reference is to visual art or conceptual art more specifically.

The value of art A fundamental question about art education is whether its value is inherent or instrumental. That is, whether it is worth teaching art for its own sake or for how it can facilitate learning in other areas; or, is art taught for its own sake, or is it used merely to illuminate other subject areas. Anne Bamford, in her introduction to A Child’s Right to Quality Arts and Cultural Education, cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights made by the United Nations in 1948 in support of her argument for ‘good’ arts education. Article 27 states that ‘everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts’. Later, she references a report by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) stemming from its ‘International Appeal for the Promotion of Arts Education and Creativity within Schools’, launched in 1999. The report states, We are today clearly and strongly aware of the important influence of the creative spirit in shaping the human personality, bringing out the full potential of children and adolescents and maintaining their emotional balance. She goes on to note that in all this [T]here is a difference between what can be termed education in the arts (e.g. teaching in fine arts, music, drama, crafts, etc.) and education through the arts (e.g. the use of arts as a pedagogical tool in other subjects, such as numeracy, literacy and technology).1 Bamford does not identify one approach as more important than the other, and in fact emphasises their interdependence. She warns, ‘it should not be assumed that it is possible to adopt one or the other to achieve the totality of positive impacts on the child’s educational realization’.2 Diyya Jindal-Snape et al in a review of literature dealing with the impact on children’s ‘achievement’ of participating in the arts, explain that if arts are supposed to work at a ‘profound and intangible’ level, and have intrinsic value, then trying to “measure the impact” of a range of aesthetic and emotive experiences which themselves defy categorisation – let alone the difficulties in proving causality between participation and effect – might be seen as an overly positivist, reductive enterprise which negates the very essence of artistic expression.3 Concomitantly, when arts are valued as part of the ‘creative economy’, school art education tends to be shaped around commercial art forms and digital technologies and therefore becomes limited and narrowly economic in focus. The authors point out that research on the impact of arts participation on children is much needed, but it is difficult for any research to prove causality and most ‘indicates a positive relationship 1 Anne Bamford, A Child’s Right to Quality Arts and Cultural Education, er-2006_AnneBamford.pdf, pp1 and 6, accessed 20th November 2017. 2 Ibid., p8. 3 Divya Jindal-Snape, Dan Davies, Rosalind Scott, Anna Robb, Chris Murray and Chris Harkins, ‘Impact of Arts Participation on Children’s Achievement: A Systematic Literature Review’, pp59–70 in Thinking Skills and Creativity, vol.29 no.1, 2018, p60.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

between arts and achievement rather than a clear causal effect’.4 Because of this difficulty, research is more likely to investigate the ‘effective benefits of arts participation on wellbeing and confidence’, but this approach is not problem-free either. Findings based on ‘self-reported subjective experience’ rather than ‘“objective measurement” of outcomes’ can be called into question, and research is vulnerable to charges of ‘use of leading questions in interviews or unrepresentative data selection’.5 When studies show arts participation has no effect on academic achievement, it is possible that what is at play is the type or quality or longevity of the arts programmes rather than the arts themselves. Some studies show that arts participation positively affects academically-related attributes… such as… verbal and visual memory, listening and learning skills… problem solving and thinking skills… commitment to education… working better as a team and perseverance… improved attitudes towards learning and school and ability to engage with the world of education… concentration and ability to organise.6 The authors reference one study which reports ‘positive impact upon children’s “creative skills”’, defined as ‘being innovative and inventive, utilising divergent thinking, originality and problem-solving’; it is of interest because it, like similar others, ‘tended to depart from their positivist discourse of measurement and impact when discussing participants’ creativity’.7 Jindal-Snape et al suggest this is because ‘like the arts themselves – the complexity and multi-facetedness of this concept does not lend itself easily to reduction to a set of metrics’.8 Nonetheless, their survey concludes that, on the instrumental basis that arts participation can enhance academic achievement, funding for arts programmes is justified, with the proviso that It appears to be important that such arts programmes and activities can be provided for extended periods of time to maximise their impact… Ultimately, investment in the arts for children may be argued for on the basis of its intrinsic merit… and cultural significance… the development of aesthetics… and the deep, affective experience of participating for its own sake… but if sufficiently persuasive evidence of other related benefits can be presented, this can only strengthen its case.9 In a 2014 paper Jeff Adams takes issue with the idea that proving instrumental value for the arts will only enhance our sense of their intrinsic value. In the context of arguments for the economic value of the arts, he points out, If market economics sets the terms of the debate, the economic hoops through which we have to jump, we may find that we are diminished – and demeaned – by jumping through them.10 Considering the value of arts education for children, Adams specifies that curricular framing should be ‘grounded in a consensus about the purpose and goods of education as a whole’.11 He warns, The broad goods of education, its social, collaborative, cultural and civilising effects, if not established securely, are too easily swept aside, only to be replaced by the technical, instrumental values imposed by the powerful but myopic and short term demands of market economics. These are rarely in the interests of children’s learning or welfare, or in any belief in the common good of education.12 4 Ibid., p68. 5 Ibid., p60. 6 Ibid., p67. 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid., p69. 10 Jeff Adams, ‘Finding Time to Make Mistakes’, pp2–5 in International Journal of Art and Design Education, vol. 33 no.1, 2014, pp2–3. 11 Ibid., p3. 12 Ibid.


→ St Patrick’s Primary School working with artist Sharon Kelly

Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Judith Burton, Robert Horowitz and Hal Abeles take on the issue of ‘transfer from the arts to other subject disciplines’, indicating that it has ‘almost become a leitmotif of arts education’.13 They pinpoint the problem with this as the fact that ‘the value laden and somewhat strident claims often skewed research endeavors by coloring them with the needs of advocacy’.14 Arguments for the inherent value of art tend to pin its value on its role in human development. As Carolina Blatt-Gross indicates, Not only art educators, but also cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary-minded scholars are increasingly suggesting that the arts are invaluable to humans and their cognitive, social and emotional wellbeing… [psychology and neuroscience research has shown that] the arts contribute significantly to the development of cognition… Additionally, the social and emotional needs that the arts often fulfill are becoming more and more evident as meaningful components of cognition with adaptive value… From this perspective, meaningful engagement in the arts may facilitate the application and contextualization of otherwise insignificant knowledge.15 In an earlier paper, Blatt-Gross quotes philosopher of art Denis Dutton on the power of art to channel and evoke emotion: Nothing can substitute for a sense of emotional expression derived from the experience of a complex aesthetic structure created by another human being. To speak in metaphors, the work of art is another human mind incarnate: not in flesh and blood but in sounds, words, or colors.16 She goes on to suggest that ‘it is the inherent emotional and social richness the arts offer that might be considered essential to education’.17 This is linked to what Blatt-Gross identifies as art’s possible role in evolution; artists, or those practising what she calls ‘artful’ behaviours, would have developed their powers of observation, analysis and communication, as well as problem-solving and thereby improved their chances of surviving and thriving. She quotes Suzanne Langer on this theme: The ancient ubiquitous character of art contrasts sharply with the prevalent idea that art is a luxury product of civilization, a cultural frill, a piece of social veneer.18 Blatt-Gross uses a phenomenological methodology in her research into art education, arguing that it helps to avoid ‘objectivist thinking’; that is, looking at ‘artful’ behaviours in all their complexity and diversity and not reductively or instrumentally.19 In Olivia Gude’s 2009 Lowenfeld Lecture, she argues that at a basic level, through art a child ‘develops the capacity for nuanced attention to the world and to his/her interactions with the material world’. Further, in making art she begins to engage her interior life with her awareness of the outer world. Gude too considers art to play a major part in the development of an individual sense of identity. Because of the context of her lecture, she indicates this is an important balance to that sense of collective identity that can lead to

13 Judith M. Burton, Robert Horowitz and Hal Abeles, ‘Learning In and Through the Arts: the Question of Transfer’, pp228–257 in Studies in Art Education, vol.41 no.3, 2000 14 Ibid. 15 Carolina Blatt-Gross, ‘Toward Meaningful Education: Investigating Artful Behaviour as a Human Proclivity in the Classroom’, pp1–22 in International Journal of Education and the Arts, vol.14 no.7, 2013, p2. 16 Denis Dutton, quoted in Carolina Blatt-Gross, ‘Casting the Conceptual Net: Cognitive Possibilities for Embracing the Social and Emotional Richness of Art Education’, pp353–367 in Studies in Art Education, vol.51 no.4, 2010, p362. 17 Ibid., p363. 18 Suzanne Langer, in ibid., p3. 19 Ibid., p6.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

oppression or exclusion of other groups.20 Gude believes too that making art enables a child to reflect on her experience and communicate her thoughts, and that ‘heightened self-awareness’ can extend to ‘heightened awareness of others’. And finally for Gude, making art develops ability and will to experiment and explore and teaches that ‘complexity [can be] pleasure and possibility, [and not just] irritating uncertainty’.21 The question arising here is whether it is the arts that perform this function alone, or best; or, perhaps, whether they need to be shown to perform this function alone, or best, in order to receive the appropriate support in schools and beyond. Other researchers make efforts to rescue creativity and arts practice from marginalisation. Caroline Sharp notes, Creativity may seem like a fun, self-indulgent activity to counteract the more serious “work” of the classroom. But the creative process presents many challenges. It requires concentration, persistence and determination to succeed; it may in fact be a frustrating and difficult process. Creativity deserves to be taken seriously.22 Jo Alice Leeds views art as key to individual and collective existence, an innate way of making sense of the world: Art is the formal expression of experience… a way of thinking visually and of communicating that thought. Through art we explore natural and social worlds around us and the inner world of our psychic lives as well. We strive to understand, unify, and transform these three worlds through the power of symbolic images.23 For Ken Robinson, the arts help to ‘express, formulate and define’ the ‘dynamic interactions between… spheres of social experience’.24 Further, he points out that art is always already present in children’s lives, beyond the classroom or studio. They are engaged in ‘aesthetic and cultural activities’ of varying sorts, although the relationship between these and the art taught, practised and promoted in classrooms, studios, galleries and museums is not always clear or close.25 He goes on to cite Jennifer Williams’s contention that ‘the arts are powerful vehicles for developing a sense of identity’.26 Therefore, The arts are among the ways that human beings organise their understanding of experience and… one of the key roles of arts education is to contribute to the full development of each individual’s intellectual capacities.27 Robinson goes on to mention other benefits of prioritising the arts in schools, including the way in which arts practice can give ‘status and a positive place to personal feelings and values, [enable] a direct consideration of values and feelings, and [give] forms to feeling’. He cites a 1990 study by J. McLaughlin which suggests 20 Viktor Lowenfeld was born in Austria to Jewish parents in 1903 and fled the German invasion of 1938, settling in America. He had studied art, art history and psychology and had published work on the therapeutic value of creativity. In America he taught psychology at the Hampton Institute in Virginia and became ‘acutely aware of the racism experienced by his African-American students’. He established an art department there. After the war he was invited to chair art education at Pennsylvania State College, and in 1947 published Creative and Mental Growth, the ‘single most influential textbook in art education’ in post-Second-World-War America (http://, accessed 12th January 2018). 21 Olivia Gude, ‘Art Education for Democratic Life’, 2009 Lowenfeld Lecture, pp1 and 4. 22 Caroline Sharp, ‘Developing Young Children’s Creativity: What can we Learn from Research?’, pp5–12 in Topic, no.32, 2004, p9. 23 Jo Alice Leeds, ‘Teaching and the Reasons for Making Art’, pp17–21 in Art Education, vol.39 no.4, 1986, p19. 24 Ken Robinson, Culture, Creativity and the Young: Developing Public Policy, (Cultural Policies Research and Development Unit, Policy Note No. 2), Strasbourg, Council of Europe Publishing, 1999, p20. 25 Ibid. 26 Ibid., p32. 27 Ibid., p38.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

that arts improve creativity, problem-solving ability and communication skills; help to develop cognitive, affective and psychomotor skills, aesthetic judgement and self-esteem; enhance literacy (and broaden the concept to include cultural and visual literacy) and cross-cultural understanding; and finally, improve attendance and reduce students’ drop-out rate.28 This material suggests that what we see as the inherent value of art lies in its central role in human development, understanding and communication. There may be further benefits to the depth, quality and take-up of education more generally, which are more instrumental in nature. Roger Hill asks a question that blurs the line between the notions of inherent and instrumental value, however. He is quoted by Robinson: If the arts do not fulfil a function in our growth and self-education, or assist in the processes of change in society, what claim do they have on our support?29 If the arts make us more fully human, and are in this sense inherently valuable, this must still be demonstrated, according to Hill; and to be supported financially and practically as a key element of education, further instrumental value must be demonstrated. The arts should be shown to contribute in other, undefined ways to society, politics and perhaps even economics. It may be more helpful to think about the purpose and value of the arts as inherent and instrumental in a range of ways at different times. Each interpretation on its own risks reducing or isolating the reasons for, and effects of, engaging with art. Robinson also quotes L. Phillips, writing about contemporary art in 1997: By taking art out of the gallery and theatre and into other environments, artists were creating a new context for the reception of an artwork and questioning the purpose of art. This is an important point: the social/community-based nature of this kind of work has often meant that it gets characterised as some kind of social service with the artistic element existing as little more than a mechanism through which this service is delivered. The real picture is rather more complex, however, and certainly more interesting. What these programmes and individuals are advocating is clearly not “art for art’s sake” – yet neither is it art as therapy or as social service. The artists who work in other places are arguing for an art that truly engages with human experience – having positive implications for both the art form and for those individuals and communities involved in its making.30 The Arts and Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom published a report by Geoffrey Crossick and Patrycja Kaszynska in 2016 titled Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture: the AHRC Cultural Value Project; research and outcomes from more than 70 pieces of work funded through the Cultural Value Project were collated and analysed to give a clearer and more concrete idea of the worth of the arts. The authors point to evidence that engagement in the arts can ‘help shape reflective individuals’ and ‘may produce engaged citizens’.31 They concur with other research cited here in reference to art education, stating, ‘[a]rts in education has been shown to contribute in important ways to the factors that underpin learning, such as cognitive abilities, confidence, motivation, problem-solving and communication skills’ (authors’ emphasis). They suggest that this list is ‘more compelling’ than ‘claims to significant improvement in standard tests’, which is not well evidenced. Crossick and Kaszynska also point out here, ‘the hierarchy of subjects that means we’re interested in whether studying music improves ability in maths, but not whether 28 Ibid., p39. J. McLaughlin’s study is entitled Building a Case for Arts Education: An Annotated Bibliography of Major Research and was published by The Kentucky Alliance of Arts Education. 29 Roger Hill, quoted in ibid., p24. 30 L. Phillips, quoted in ibid., p45. 31 Geoffrey Crossick and Patrycja Kaszynska, Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture: the AHRC Cultural Value Project, Swindon, Arts and Humanities Research Council, 2016, p8, authors’ emphasis.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

studying maths improves ability in music’.32 Acknowledging the ongoing need for research into how and why people engage in the arts, and its value, they emphasise that qualitative research, allowing for depth of study, ‘need not be less rigorous’ than quantitative research, allowing for breadth; the aim should be to ‘operate with different criteria of rigour’ and to combine the two for the most ‘fruitful’ outcome.33 In 2012, a report titled The Impact of Creative Partnerships on the Wellbeing of Children and Young People was published. It had been commissioned from the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education by Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE), an organisation ‘promoting the development of children’s skills and attainment through creative learning’.34 Creative Partnerships was funded by Arts Council England between 2002 and 2011 and ran in 5,324 different schools in this period. 90,536 teachers were placed in partnership with 6,483 ‘creative individuals and organisations’, with varying aims ranging from exploring how ‘creative teaching and learning can enhance [schools’] practice’, to bringing about ‘significant changes in [schools’] ethos, ambition and achievement’, and developing creative learning to the level of best practice and then disseminating it among other schools.35 In schools running Creative Partnership programmes, creativity tended to be seen as a means of improving children’s wellbeing. For the purposes of the study, ‘wellbeing’ was defined as ‘a positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope, with a sense of connection with people, communities and the wider environment’.36 The study and the Creative Partnerships programme were based on self-determination theory as developed by Deci and Ryan in 1985, where: [T]he achievement of learning goals associated with developing expertise and metacognitive wisdom… result in a sense of psychological wellbeing through satisfaction of core needs.37 Creative Partnerships aimed, therefore, to address needs to feel competent, autonomous and in relationship with others. In its first phase, the study looked at the experiences of more than 5000 pupils in primary and secondary schools, half of which were engaged in Creative Partnerships; in its second, in-depth research was carried out in nine of these schools, both primary and secondary. Though the study discovered no significant differences in levels of wellbeing in Creative Partnership schools and non-Creative Partnership schools, their qualitative findings make clear the value of art education. Researchers explain that The Creative Partnerships programme was particularly effective where schools adopted a holistic approach, where all staff were involved in the programme and where creativity was explicitly highlighted as important to school development. In all the Creative Partnerships case study schools ongoing engagement with creative approaches took place regardless of visits from creative practitioners. Where schools without a Creative Partnerships programme employed creative approaches, these were often in isolated after school activities pockets or special occasions when the normal timetable was suspended. However, there was little evidence that such experiences influenced classroom learning.38 In Creative Partnership schools, there was awareness of the transferable skills fostered in creative activity, such as problem-solving and team-building, and teachers consciously used creative activity to re-engage 32 Ibid. 33 Ibid., p9. 34 Ros McLellan, Maurice Galton, Susan Steward and Charlotte Page, The Impact of Creative Partnerships on the Wellbeing of Children and Young People: Final Report to Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE), 2012, pi. 35 Ibid., p1. 36 Ibid. 37 Ibid. 38 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

‘students who found a more structured classroom challenging’.39 Significantly, researchers discovered that approaches to wellbeing in Creative Partnership schools were ‘radically different’ than those in non-Creative Partnership schools. This difference lay in intrinsic rather than instrumental attitudes. In non-Creative Partnership schools wellbeing was a means to an end in that various activities designed to make pupils feel better in themselves or to make them more confident were intended to overcome the low motivation levels which operated in core subjects such as literacy and mathematics.40 In Creative Partnership schools, by contrast, it was assumed that creativity and wellbeing were indistinguishable and ‘[a]s a result creative learning tended to permeate the whole curriculum’.41 Meanwhile, the study’s authors point out, the then recent Inspection Framework made clear that wellbeing was no longer valued as improving motivation for academic learning, and academic performance; it would, therefore, be given less time and space in the curriculum.42 They conclude that creative partnerships work best when creativity is valued for its own sake and not as a means to secure better examination results; and when they are working at their best, Creative Partnerships are good for pupils and should be spread to more schools.43 ← Donaghey Primary School working with artist Ann Donnelly

39 Ibid., pv. 40 Ibid., pvii. 41 Ibid., pviii. 42 Ibid. 43 Ibid., pix


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Ability in art Some discussions about the role of art in education revolve around how art can or should be taught, and whether it can be fully engaged with and enjoyed only by those with a talent for it. This leads to the consideration of talent, and where it comes from; is it innate, or can it be developed? Caroline Sharp points to the difference between ‘creativity’ and ‘intelligence’ or ‘talent’, with reference to how creativity is enshrined in the Foundation Stage curriculum for children between three and six in the United Kingdom. She indicates that to express creativity, children need some combination of: selfconfidence; tolerance of ambiguity and anxiety; curiosity; motivation; pleasure in challenge; concentration and engagement; divergent thinking; transformative thinking; sensitivity; breadth of knowledge; and judgement. Needless to say, the exercise of creativity is not confined to, but can be developed through, the arts. Creativity, Sharp suggests, is about imagination, originality, productivity (meaning the generation of varied ideas), problem-solving and producing an outcome of value and worth.44 The National Advisory Committee for Creative and Cultural Education states, ‘all people are capable of creative achievement in some area of activity, provided that the conditions are right and they have acquired the relevant knowledge and skills’. This implies that the arts, as creative subjects, should not be seen as the preserve of a minority or elite group, especially for children and young people.45 Sharp refers to studies suggesting that, unfortunately, creativity in young children declines when they start school, either through being discouraged or inadequately supported. She emphasises that when she was writing, in 2004, insufficient research had been done to show what impact arts education has on creativity specifically, but her comments on creativity significantly overlap with my consideration here of art practice and are worth including. She argues that a way of encouraging children’s creativity is to attend to process rather than the quality of their outcomes. Establishing a creative environment is key also; this should include spacious classrooms and grounds, good equipment and materials, variety of activities, plenty of time to develop projects and lots of structured and free play. Teachers, meanwhile, should ask open-ended questions, themselves tolerate ambiguity, model creative thinking and behaviour, encourage experimentation and perseverance and praise children for unexpected answers. They should help children to interpret events and speak in front of each other about their ideas and thoughts. Sharp warns that teachers can be limited by curriculum requirements for literacy and numeracy, and suggests that children should have the opportunity to work with artists. However, again there was insufficient research in 2004 to show what kind of involvement would have the greatest impact. She concludes that for some children, school is the only place where creativity will be fostered, and education that prioritises it is, therefore, desirable. Knowledge and skill underpin creativity, but must not be over-valued, otherwise the idea of creativity as elitist or exclusive will be perpetuated.46 Nicholas Addison, meanwhile, states Creativity is commonly understood as the human capacity to make something new… [I]t is my intention to argue… that this capacity is not a special gift as is sometimes supposed, but a very ordinary predisposition; indeed, it is so ordinary that many of its manifestations can be easily overlooked and 44 Sharp, Developing Young Children’s Creativity, p6. 45 Ibid. 46 Ibid., pp7–10.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

thus summarily dismissed… [C]reativity [is] not so much… a possession but more of a potential, one that signals a dynamic and dialogical way of relating to others and the environment, which can be developed by most people given suitable social and pedagogical conditions.47 What he calls ‘school art’, shaped for examination procedures, he believes ‘militates against the development of creative practice for which enquiry, discovery, and thinking and enacting difference are central’.48 He identifies dichotomous ideas about creativity inflecting art education: the idea that children cannot be creative because they do not know enough to be able to reconfigure; and the idea that creativity is at the forefront of everything children do because they are always reconfiguring (rather than reproducing) everything they receive from their environment and other people. In The Impact of Creative Partnerships study, authors note that the definition of creativity is contested. They cite theatre director Jude Kelly’s opinion that creativity is ‘flexibility of mind’ or what Karen Raney calls ‘aesthetic intelligence’, as opposed to ‘the creation of an original product which is perceived by others to be of value’.49 The authors point out that where creativity is defined in relation to its outcome, a ‘skills based [sic] approach’ is taken, and children’s ability matters. It matters less where creativity is defined as developing mental agility and flexibility. Instead, greater emphasis is laid on teaching overarching, generic strategies which enable pupils to re-construct existing knowledge… [and] accommodate… new information and ideas.50

Teaching art So far, I have looked at ideas of whether art is of inherent or instrumental value, and whether ability in art is innate or can be developed. It is an appropriate point at which to examine how art has been taught, is taught, and could be taught. Several theorists and practitioners in arts education reach back into the 19th century to explain how it is thought of and done today. Jenny Hallam, Helen Lee and Mani Das Gupta explain that art was introduced into school curricula in the 1830s and 1840s because ‘it produced a useful workforce – a generation of designers’.51 At first, technical skills and accurate copying were paramount, and individual expression frowned upon. In the later 19th century, John Ruskin established a view of art as ‘manifest[ing] a moral certitude’, in terms of its ‘literary’ content, but also ‘the necessity for assiduous and loving craftsmanship’; art, for him, had a social function, and his vision was briefly very influential.52 Darren Newbury refers to a nineteenth-century argument for art education that ‘implies a fixed body of knowledge about good art’, and ‘hence suggests a straightforward pedagogy based upon instruction in the skills and techniques of artmaking and the inculcation of good taste through the introduction of students to the heights of artistic 47 Nicholas Addison, ‘Developing Creative Potential: Learning through Embodied Practices’, pp43–66 in Nicholas Addison, Lesley Burgess, John Steers and Jane Trowell, Understanding Art Education: Engaging Reflexively with Practice, London and New York, Routledge, 2010, p43. 48 Ibid., p45. 49 McLellan, Galton, Steward and Page, The Impact of Creative Partnerships, p4. 50 Ibid., p5. 51 Jenny Hallam, Helen Lee and Mani Das Gupta, ‘An Analysis of the Presentation of Art in the National Primary School Curriculum and its Implications for Teaching’, pp73–82 in Steve Herne, Sue Cox and Robert Watts (eds.) Readings in Primary Art Education, Bristol and Chicago, Intellect, 2009, p73. 52 Nicholas Addison, ‘Art and Design in Education: Ruptures and Continuities’ pp7–23 in Addison, Burgess, Steers and Trowell, Understanding Art Education, p14.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

achievement’. This instruction would be informed by ‘the universal principles of classical painting and sculpture’. This tradition sits alongside the ‘expressive’ tradition, in which ‘the creativity of the individual’ is key, and ‘the notion of personal exploration… dominates’, even in relation to an ‘art-historical canon’.53 Nicholas Addison points to ‘hyperbolic claims extolling the relationship between art and freedom’ that echo and rehearse myths that have accrued to the practice of fine artists in the west since the Romantic period (craftspeople and designers rarely figure in this pantheon) and were initially injected into art education at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century… this mythology distorts the social and cultural practices of contemporary artists, craftspeople and designers.54 By the beginning of the 20th century, educators were starting to understand art differently. From this point, there was increasing interest in the way children made art by themselves; Kandinsky, Klee, Miró and Klimt ‘championed’ what they called ‘cahild art’, which was thought to be pure expression, untainted by culture or convention.55 In the 1920s, Roger Fry explicitly opposed Ruskin, and advocated art for its own sake, adapting Rousseau’s idea of children’s natural and innate goodness to an idea of children’s natural and innate imaginativeness, all too easily disrupted and damaged by traditional education, defined as ‘moral and didactic’.56 Fry was an advocate of Marion Richardson, a teacher of art who developed her pedagogy to encourage ‘innate’ creativity. She was responsible for ‘a creative model of learning and teaching art [being] given lasting credibility in English schools’.57 Addison gives a brief overview of these shifting philosophies of art education from the late 19th into the 20th century: from the avant-garde and activist belief that art could change the world, to ‘retreat, critique, intervention or wholesale revolution’ in relation to the capitalist nation-state; from educating to align people’s ideas and beliefs with those of an art and design elite, to viewing art as an engine of social change.58 He points out that ‘the western concept of art’ has been considered ‘a primary means for reinforcing and consolidating existing power relations’.59 For Bourdieu, it was a way of distinguishing people with ‘good’ taste and the ‘right’ knowledge, and for Baudrillard, it was a way of staging myths or providing deceptive or distracting spectacle. None of this, he contends, is reflected in the classroom. Richard Hickman identifies the idea of ‘good art’ and its potential educational effects in the post-Second World War theories of Herbert Read. Read thought that catastrophic world events were caused in part by people’s psychological make-up, and that art could mitigate the possibility of this happening by its civilising effect on the psyche. Hickman refers to ‘Read’s view of art education as an essentially civilizing activity, intrinsically linked with a tolerance of difference’.60 Many post-war art educators were wary of engaging with contemporary artists, because for them art education was a moral imperative and they wanted to avoid art that was ugly or radical or challenging of certain mores. Amelia M. Kraehe points to the transformation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) 53 Darren Newbury, ‘Changing Practices: Art Education and Popular Visual Culture’, pp69–82 in Richard Hickman (ed.) Art Education 11–18: Meaning, Purpose and Direction, London and New York, Continuum, 2000, p70. 54 Addison, Art and Design in Education, p8. 55 Hallam, Lee and Gupta, An Analysis of the Presentation of Art, p74. 56 Addison, Art and Design in Education, p15. 57 Ibid., p17. 58 Ibid., p9. 59 Ibid., p10. 60 Richard Hickman, ‘Meaning, Purpose and Direction’, pp1–13 in Richard Hickman (ed.) Art Education 11–18: Meaning, Purpose and Direction, London and New York, Continuum, 2000, p8.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) in current educational thinking. In recent years STEM subjects have been foregrounded in policy and funding, but there is increasing awareness of the possibility that art can productively integrate with them. Kraehe indicates that this thinking is not new, since before the Second World War in America, ‘art was integral to programs of study in education, archaeology, humanities, engineering, home economics, and architecture’.61 However, space for art as an integral subject was restricted as a result of the determination to develop America economically and technologically in the context of the Cold War: Universities adopted a more scientific worldview that/embraced research, specialization, and eventually departmental bureaucratization. Following suit, university art educators also began to argue there was a need to establish a centralized independent, self-contained art department.62 According to Kraehe, the ‘new discipline’ of art was, following modernism, ‘self-referential, with artistic work focusing inward on the discipline itself and its borders’ and credits this period with establishing school subjects as ‘not only a part of our descriptive educational language, but also a prescriptive organizing force unto themselves’.63 In the 1970s different ideas about art education gained traction. Hickman points to Harvard Project Zero, founded in 1967, which was an interdisciplinary project based on the idea that visual images work, like language, as systems of symbols, and that literacy can and should include visual literacy. As Hickman explains, ‘this means that art can be seen as a form of enquiry’.64 However, this approach tends not to value art for its own sake, and therefore risks suppressing the potential for enjoyment in looking at and making art. Eliot Eisner was an influential figure from this period, arguing for ‘an epistemological basis for art education, rooted in the notion that art is a way of knowing with its own characteristics, and which provides a route to latent cognitive processes’.65 He defined drawing, for example, as being about ‘observation’, ‘investigation’ and ‘communication’, ‘three… cornerstones of education’.66 In the 1980s, Jo Alice Leeds perceived art curricula to privilege skills acquisition over personal expression, and found that problematic.67 She believes that when the conscious is given priority over the intuitive, children have to work at recovering the ‘basic human and personal reasons’ for making art, as opposed to demonstrating technical skills.68 She argues for the need to value process and take a measured pace, quoting Adelaid Sproul: The current pace is fast and pressured – a long way from the deliberate pattern of life that trained the artist-craftsman to recognize with his body what Aldous Huxley called “beauty-truth.” The slow, sure development that comes from living with materials and gradually associating form and idea, as a farmer comes to know his fields and animals and weather, is a gestalt that is too often by-passed… We do not need instant Rembrandts… The trick is to have no tricks but to discover a direct language for an innocent engagement with the world.69 61 Amelia M. Kraehe, ‘Disciplinary Borderlands: Editorial’, pp4–7 in Art Education, vol. 71 no. 2, March 2018, p4. 62 Ibid. pp4–5. 63 Ibid., p5. 64 Hickman, Meaning, Purpose and Direction, p6. 65 Ibid. 66 Geoffrey Southworth, ‘Art in the Primary School: Towards First Principles’, pp21–32 in Herne, Cox and Watts, Readings in Primary Art Education, p23. 67 Jo Alice Leeds, ‘Teaching and the Reasons for Making Art’, pp17–21 in Art Education, vol.39 no.4, 1986. 68 Ibid., p18. 69 Ibid., p20.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Where children are inhibited in spontaneous art practice, Leeds suggests that they have ‘learned that only what adults know, think and feel is of any value in the world of schooling’. She goes on to propose that ‘what teachers know and children do not should always be offered in a meaningful relationship with what each student knows, thinks, feels, and is trying to express’.70 Geoffrey Southworth, also writing in the 1980s, criticises primary-school art education for its focus on expression, believing it limited. He writes: Art is regarded as an occupation which interests children, keeps them busy and is sometimes mildly therapeutic. However, compared to the main purpose of primary schooling, which is the transmission of basic skills, art is “non-serious”… indeed, art is often considered to have only one main function, namely, to provide opportunities for children to express themselves… it becomes typical of such compartmentalizing to regard art as having no intellectual function at all.71 More recently, Richard Hickman states that ‘the individual art teacher remains the essential driving force for imaginative, creative and challenging art education in schools’.72 He lists five types of art teachers, identified by Fraser Smith: high priests, invested in the mystery of art; technocrats, invested in technical skills in design and manipulating materials; social workers, invested in art’s potential to address wellbeing and social problems; pedagogues, invested in contextualising art in the study of the humanities and aesthetics; and anomics, whom he defines as a mixture of the foregoing types and generally hostile and conservative. Smith points to a sixth, emerging type, the semiologist, who is invested in visual literacy. Lesley Burgess and Nicholas Addison, in the same volume, describe different models of pedagogy, following L. Grossberg. In the hierarchical model, the teacher is an expert and a gatekeeper, in control of the discursive framework and the ultimate arbiter of meaning. In the dialogic model, the teacher invites students to express opinions and discuss views and the authority of the teacher is questioned; this only works if students are able to engage in reasoned critique and reflection. The praxical model extends the dialogic beyond discussion into practice, in which students determine their own interests and, with the teacher, their own learning plan. It emphasises collaboration for social change. The affective model is about possibility, agency and accepting the risk of failure, privileges process and is open to a range of outcomes.73 This diverse range of educational approaches perhaps makes it even more difficult to determine how to teach art, and why. Hickman notes three further philosophies, specifically of art education: expressionistic, privileging art as the expression of thoughts, feelings and ideas; reconstructivist, privileging art as a means to an end; and scientific–rationalist, privileging art as a special way of knowing, and an academic discipline with its own methodology. Hickman explains that any or all of these three approaches can come into play in any given curriculum or even in an individual teacher’s approach, and they are likely to conflict and in this case cause confusion in children about the nature and purpose of art. Burgess and Addison make the point that Traditionally, the school is a place of almost schizophrenic imperatives; it demands that students conform to rigid codes in terms of social behaviour while advocating a spirit of disinterested, independent inquiry in their work. If the students cross this border, if they inquire into the validity of the social codes, they are invariably sanctioned.74 70 Ibid. 71 Southworth, Art in the Primary School, p9. 72 Hickman, Meaning, Purpose and Direction, p4. 73 Lesley Burgess and Nicholas Addison, ‘Contemporary Art in Schools: Why Bother?’, pp14–36 in Hickman, Art Education 11–18. 74 Burgess and Addison, Contemporary Art in Schools, p32.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Darren Newbury points out that ‘the notion of the individual artist as creator which informs art education is a highly specific western construction’, and can lead to blindness to ‘the visual culture of other societies and, indeed, popular cultural forms in general’.75 Likewise, Hickman indicates that the limits of the pre-twentiethcentury Western canon have been of increasing concern in art education in the UK. Howard Holland maintains that art education in schools is intimately linked to the art-historical canon, the art market and art institutions at least partly because of resources. As he points out, ‘major high-profile exhibitions’ are likely to be accompanied by monographs, ephemera, media attention and, crucially, teachers’ resources.76 Perhaps as a natural corollary of claims that engaging in art fits children to understand themselves and others better, in recent years there has been more interest in establishing an art curriculum that is at heart multicultural.77 Amelia Kraehe, advocating a turn away from what she calls ‘“big A” Art’ as a discrete and self-interested discipline, suggests that teaching art as a ‘dialogic practice that takes residence in and between multiple realms’ would be a more stimulating and more productive pedagogy.78 She suggests that teaching ‘art’ (as opposed to ‘Art’) ‘engenders artistic languages and skills, aesthetic sensibilities, and creative problems’ in a transdisciplinary movement that even risks art ‘becoming something wholly new’.79 Anne Bamford was commissioned in 2006 to study the place of arts in education policy internationally. Ninety-four per cent of states surveyed included it as ‘key’, but on the whole, the actual provision was ‘of very low quality’.80 Likewise, Ken Robinson refers to a European Union report from 1999 into member states’ art education which found generally that positive policy statements did not translate into action.81 Bamford explains that although teachers are almost wholly responsible for the quality of their arts education, frequently with little or no institutional support, ‘the arts in practice are largely taught by people with less than 3 months of arts education training’.82 Where arts education is taken seriously, teachers have been offered significant professional development in order to do it well. She notes that ‘ways of measuring children’s learning in the arts are poorly developed and funding for arts within education tends to be shortterm and insufficient’, which probably is both symptom and cause of inadequate arts education.83 Bamford emphasises that arts education is not monitored and reported on like education in literacy, numeracy, science and information and communication technologies (ICT); and even if it were being monitored, there are no agreed standards by which arts education can be measured. She goes on to cite research into arts education authorised by UNESCO with the Australia Council for the Arts and the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies and carried out in 2004 and 2005. It aimed to show the impact (if any) of ‘arts-rich programmes’ on the education of children and young people and to look at what enables those arts-rich programmes (infrastructure, for example). The research concluded that arts education has to be high-quality to have the hoped-for impact, and indeed, where it is low-quality, can negatively affect children’s creativity and in turn be perceived negatively by school staff, 75 Newbury, Changing Practices, p72. 76 Howard Holland, ‘Ways of Seeing: Art, Education and Visual Culture’, pp55–68 in Hickman, Art Education 11–18, p61. 77 Hickman, Meaning, Purpose and Direction. 78 Kraehe, Disciplinary Boundaries, p5, author’s emphasis. 79 Ibid. 80 Bamford, A Child’s Right, p1. 81 Robinson, Culture, Creativity and the Young. 82 Bamford, A Child’s Right, p4. 83 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

children and parents. However, where arts education is of sufficient quality [It] has a positive impact on the academic performance of children, especially in areas of literacy and the learning of second languages… [and] leads to an improvement in students’ attitudes towards school, on parental and community perception of schools, as well as on student interest for culture and the arts.84 The research goes on to explain that good arts education tends to involve strong partnerships between a school and arts or community organisations and/or artists, all of whom become responsible for delivering arts education, collaboratively. Expanding on this idea of ‘good’ art education, Bamford explains that content is less relevant than ‘the interplay of structure and method’.85 Content can, therefore, be adapted to any given context or interest. She identifies the ‘structural and methodological characteristics of quality arts-rich programs’, outlined in the table below.86



– Active partnership with creative people and organizations – Accessibility to all children – Ongoing professional development – Flexible organizational structures – Shared responsibility for planning and implementation – Permeable boundaries between the school, organization and the community – Detailed assessment and evaluation strategies

– Project–based – Involves teamwork and collaboration – Initiates research – Promotes discussion, exchange of ideas and storytelling – Involves formal and informal reflection, that is both formative and summative – Meta critical reflection on learning approaches and changes – Centred around active creation – Is connected and holistic – Includes public performance and exhibition – Utilizes local resources, environment and context for both materials and content – Combines development in the specific languages of the arts with creative approaches to learning – Encourages people to go beyond their perceived scope, to take risks and to use their full potential

84 Ibid., p5. 85 Ibid., p8. 86 Ibid., pp9–10 (after Bamford’s Table 1).


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Bamford considers successful art education partnerships to be ‘sustainable, long-term and reciprocal’. Artist-in-residence programmes, she believes, are often inadequate, being short-term and insufficiently collaborative; she suggests a minimum high-level commitment of two years and states that where work is led by one partner, it becomes unsustainable.87 Further, the involvement of arts professionals can validate arts education in the minds of school staff, families and the wider community who may have doubts about its worth compared with numeracy, literacy, the sciences and ICT. Her research evidences a need for teachers to receive more and better training in teaching art, both during their studies and on an ongoing basis. She has found, however, that ‘[t]he arts re-engage teachers and increase the quality of their overall pedagogy’, and that this can be more effective than undergraduate training. Well funded and well supported artist-teacher partnerships have been found to be ‘a very effective and efficient way to provide continued professional development’.88 Moving on to discuss what has been shown to be best practice in arts education, Bamford identifies key components. These include exciting children’s curiosity with problem-solving or project-based activities; concomitantly, giving ‘tasks that [initiate] research inquiry amongst… children’; flexibility, adaptability, spontaneity and responsiveness for teacher, artist and children; prioritising experiment; lots of active making and performance; placing activities in the context of the children’s lives, environments and other subjects in the curriculum; integrating the artist wholly with the planning and delivery of arts education; ensuring ‘non-competitive’ collaboration and teamwork; valuing and making time for children’s feelings and how they express themselves as individuals through the arts; ‘acknowledg[ing every child] as an artist’; openended processes and conversations between teacher, artist and children; ‘formal and informal reflection, that is both formative and summative’, including journals and carried out by and between teacher, artist and children; encouraging risk-taking and allowing for mistakes.89 As Bamford recognises, ‘[t]his adventurous approach may initially appear spontaneous and unplanned’, but actually represents ‘an inquiry method of learning, based on flexibility of choices governed by sound evaluation practices’.90 She concludes by considering what impedes this type of quality arts education, and suggesting how progress might be made: The lack of recognition of the value of arts education within general education appears to be due to a combination of factors, including: – Lack of large scale longitudinal impact studies of arts-rich education; – Poor connection between policy makers and coal-face policy implementation; – Inadequate monitoring and reporting on arts-rich components in general education, and; – Deficient distinctions between the impacts of education in the arts and education through the arts. These factors combine with a lack [of] teacher expertise and training. One way to reduce the inhibiting impact of lack of teacher skills in arts education is to foster relationships between teachers and other agents like artists, researchers and cultural institutions.91 87 88 89 90 91


Ibid., p10. Ibid., pp11 and 12. Ibid., p17. Ibid., p16. Ibid., p20.

→ Aughnacloy Primary School working with artist Lisa Cahill

Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Other educators and theorists suggest that thinking differently about what children do, and are asked to do, in school might improve education in the arts. Darren Newbury proposes that when a classroom becomes a space for ‘reflective and collaborative learning’, the art practised there will take varied forms – ‘discussion, written commentaries, visual research sketchbooks’ – and should be included in ‘assessment and evaluation’ with finished work.92 Carolina Blatt-Gross is critical of how mainstream, formal art education is carried out. Her idea of art as behaviour – ‘artful’ behaviour – suggests that art educators might engage better with their pupils if they broadened their idea of art to include and make space for the drawing, singing, dancing, music-making and decorating that young children seem to do with little to no input from adults.93 She asks whether art educators might look at these behaviours as a way of developing skills and understanding in art practice, rather than imposing a limited and limiting pedagogy, pointing out that children ‘are likely interested in the act of art as much as they are interested in its products’.94 By contrast, the emphasis in most art education is on product rather than process. Blatt-Gross observed through her research that while teachers tended to believe that art was supported well in their schools, those arts ‘paraprofessionals’ coming into the schools to contribute to art education tended to believe that rhetoric outstripped practice and the arts were undervalued generally. Further, she saw that teachers lacking confidence in their own artistic abilities communicated to children that art was the ‘domain of a talented few’.95 Blatt-Gross finds that in early childhood, the arts are used affectively, ‘to shape the mood of the classroom and as outlets for creative expression’; this shifts as children proceed through their education to a ‘subservient’ role, ‘in which the arts [a]re used primarily to support learning in other subjects’ and opportunities for artful behaviour are increasingly restricted.96 She concludes on a warning note, indicating that ‘education… has the potential to embrace human nature or to contradict it – specifically by ignoring, thwarting or minimizing the artistic means through which children often communicate’.97 Blatt-Gross draws on the work of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio on emotions and cognition. Immordino-Yang and Damasio argue that the idea of emotions as ‘messy toddlers in a china shop’, destabilising and destroying ‘delicate cognitive glassware’, is far from the truth. They picture emotions as the shelving supporting the cognitive glassware, indicating that ‘emotion may play a vital role in helping children decide when and how to apply what they have learned in school to the rest of their lives’.98 Immordino-Yang and Damasio explain this in more detail, and link it to creativity and education: Emotions and the mechanisms that constitute them as behaviors, which humans experience as resulting in punishment or reward, pain or pleasure, are, in essence, nature’s answer to one central problem, that of surviving and flourishing in an ambivalent world. Put simply, the brain has evolved under numerous pressures and oppressions precisely to cope with the problem of reading the body’s condition and responding accordingly and begins doing so via the machinery of emotion. This coping shows up in simple ways in simple organisms and in remarkably rich ways as brains get more complex… Out of the basic need to survive and flourish derives a way of dealing with thoughts, with ideas, and eventually with making plans, using imagination, and creating. At their core, all of these complex and artful behaviors, 92 Newbury, Changing Practices, pp80–81. 93 Blatt-Gross, Toward Meaningful Education. 94 Ibid., p9. 95 Ibid., p12. 96 Ibid., p13. 97 Ibid., p15. 98 Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and Antonio Damasio, ‘We Feel, Therefore We Learn: the Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education’, pp3–10 in Mind, Brain, Education, vol.1 no.1, 2007, p6.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

the sorts of behaviors fostered in education, are carried out in the service of managing life within a culture and, as such, use emotional strategies.99 Thinking about emotion in this way, and about creativity as a means of processing and communicating emotion, suggests that arts should be placed at the heart of education and not relegated to the margins. Immordino-Yang and Damasio believe that creativity emerges from ‘the interface between cognition and emotion’.100 In fact, they present a definition of education in which its ‘chief purpose’ could be fulfilled by arts practices, and is to cultivate children’s building of repertoires of cognitive and behavioral strategies and options, helping them to recognize the complexity of situations and to respond in increasingly flexible, sophisticated, and creative ways.101 Shaunna Smith and Danah Henriksen suggest that failure should be an important concept in art education. They explain, The ability to understand this – to grapple with struggles in creative work, and build resilience and tolerance for ambiguity, is a key learning outcome. To fail in creative processes is essential, whether in iterations of failure that lead toward ultimate success; or reflections on failure where struggling with uncertainty leads to contemplation and an ability to manage ambiguity.102 Inherent in this for them is the idea of privileging process and allowing for a slow pace. They note that much education speeds through process because it is focused on product, and implicit in it is ‘a fixed mindset [which] view[s] traits as innate and tend to tie identity to success and performance’.103 To mitigate this, they propose that students be given agency in their work, that class time allows for reflection on, rethinking and revising work, and that assessment is framed broadly. Smith and Henriksen quote D. Anderson’s definition of ‘exceptional’ teachers: The most fundamental risk these teachers accept is found in their willingness to confront both success and failure in the interest of teaching better. They risk themselves in being responsible for their work. In this way, they are not so different from creative artists in other arenas.104 They also cite Michael Gelsen, an award-winning middle-school science teacher in America, who suggests that good teaching ‘needs to be about the ability to try new things, to make mistakes, to learn from them, to collaborate about what happened’, and points out that what students gain from good teaching is ‘not all content knowledge’, but also an understanding of ‘how to do things well’, what he calls ‘the bigger lessons that they’ll take into the real world’.105 A teacher interviewed in the study of Creative Partnerships concurs, in an explanation of how she has come to understand creativity: I have a different definition to most people… [I]t is… just the deep thinking and being able to try things and think about why they’ve gone wrong and try them again… to fail within the managed environment. So they [the students] can fail, but try again. Because that’s part of learning and that to me is part of their inward creativity that they can fail… Having more than one way to do something, that to me is your creativity. Especially within a subject like maths or science even.106 99 Ibid., p8. 100 Ibid., p9. 101 Ibid. 102 Shaunna Smith and Danah Henriksen, ‘Fail Again, Fail Better: Embracing Failure as a Paradigm for Creative Learning in the Arts’, pp6–11 in Art Education, vol.69 no.2, 2016, p6. 103 Ibid., p7. 104 Ibid. 105 Ibid. 106 McLellan, Galton, Steward and Page, The Impact of Creative Partnerships, p151 (authors’ emphasis).


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

The authors of the study indicate that if teachers are to allow students to work in this way, they need to practise it themselves. Drawing on Grayson Perry’s 2013 Reith Lectures, Jeff Adams argues that students of arts and other subjects ‘need plenty of time, from which they often produce mistaken ideas, some or all of which end up discarded’, an educational model whose strength derives from ‘its very obtuseness, its inherent resistance to efficiency or standardisation, which… is fundamental to cultural education’.107 Adams defines time as ‘the most expensive component in the organisation of the curriculum’ and indicates that ‘the idea of paid staff presiding over time[-]consuming errors is problematic for any economic models of efficiency’.108 He concludes by positing that time is not only necessary but needs to be flexible and extendable; the results of any inquiry are not only unpredictable but may not be fruitful, at least apparently, and even if they are, they are probably going to be difficult to quantify in any obvious way that might conform to a standardised assessment pattern.109 Sara Wilson McKay advocates the setting up of dialogical and intersubjective relationships between teachers and students in her discussion of art pedagogy. Framing attempts to find a path between the extremes of knowability and mystery in art education, she encourages engagement with ambiguity, openness to experience and experiment.110 Research published originally in 2006 gives some teachers’ insights into the role of contemporary art in art education. Teacher partners in the research suggest that students appreciate its ‘now-ness’, and note that ‘whereas with other art forms you can get by with showing and telling, with contemporary art you have to question ideas’. Further, ‘it’s art that has ideas and thinking at its centre… it’s about the thought process as well as the actual visual look of what’s produced’, and outcomes do not necessarily ‘look good’. The question arising in relation to some contemporary art – ‘why is that art?’ – challenges preconceived ideas and encourages children to be thoughtful and critical.111 The Reggio Emilia approach to education incorporates the arts simply as a matter of course. Reggio Emilia is a small city in northern Italy in which parents and educators ‘have built a public system of child care and education long recognized as a center of innovation in Europe’.112 In Reggio Emilia schools Young children are encouraged to explore their environment and express themselves through all of their available “expressive, communicative and cognitive languages,” whether they be words, movement, drawing, painting, building, sculpture, shadow play, collage, dramatic play, or music, to name a few.113

107 Adams, Finding Time to Make Mistakes, p3. 108 Ibid., p4. 109 Ibid. 110 Sara Wilson McKay, ‘The Space Between: Intersubjective Possibilities of Transparency and Vulnerability in Art Education’, pp56–74 in The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education, vol.28/29, 2009. 111 Tara Page, Steve Herne, Paul Dash, Helen Charman, Dennis Atkinson and Jeff Adams with Rebecca Benjamins, Carole Dickens, Carol Gigg, Hannah Hutchins, Andy Law, Juliet Morris, Mary Jo Ovington, Peter Sanders, Elaine Thompson, Henry Ward and Lesley Whelan, ‘Teaching Now with the Living: a Dialogue with Teachers Investigating Contemporary Art Practices’, pp219–230 in Herne, Cox and Watts, Readings in Primary Art Education, p222. 112 Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini and George Forman, ‘Introduction: Background and Starting Points’, pp5–25 in Carolyn Edwards, Lella Gandini and George Forman (eds), The Hundred Languages of Children: the Reggio Emilia Approach – Advanced Reflections, Westport, Connecticut and London, Ablex Publishing, 1998, p5. 113 Ibid., p7.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

This means that children become proficient early in a range of arts practices, and arts practices are a principal means by which they explore and process observations and information. Lilian G. Katz points out that the extensive use of drawing as a form of processing and communicating information can lead to the mistaken assumption that Reggio Emilia schools are art schools, and Reggio Emilia education is art education. Rather, she writes, Visual and graphic languages provide ways of exploring and expressing understandings of the world that are easily available to most pre-schoolers. The visual arts are integrated into the work simply as additional languages available to young children not yet very competent in conventional writing and reading; the arts are not taught as a subject, a discipline, a discrete set of skills, or treated in other ways as a focus of instruction for their own sake.114 Children may be instructed in using a specific material or technique, but they are given space to think about how and when to use it themselves. Their artwork is taken seriously, as ‘bases for discussion, argument and further work’.115 One of the originators of the Reggio Emilia approach, Loris Malaguzzi, expounds on the outworking of creativity that happens by default in these schools: As we have chosen to work with children we can say that they are the best evaluators and the most sensitive judges of the values and usefulness of creativity. This comes about because they have the privilege of not being excessively attached to their own ideas, which they construct and reinvent continuously. They are apt to explore, make discoveries, change their points of view, and fall in love with forms and meanings that transform themselves.116 He defines creativity in detail as ‘characteristic of our way of thinking, knowing, and making choices’; ‘emerg[ing] from multiple experiences’; ‘expressing itself through cognitive, affective, and imaginative processes’; arising most often from ‘interpersonal exchange, with negotiation of conflicts and comparison of ideas and actions being the decisive elements’; and becoming visible when adults attend to children’s ‘cognitive processes’ rather than ‘the results they achieve’.117 Julia Marshall suggests that what she calls ‘art integration’, ‘a rich and complex approach to teaching and learning… prioritiz[ing] conceptual and procedural skills’, could help re-shape education as a whole.118 She puts forward the idea that education is moving away from ‘rote learning of academic content’ to ‘understanding over-arching concepts and building thinking skills’, foregrounding transdisciplinarity.119 While this shift is modest in scale as yet, she sees it as an opportunity to think about education in new ways and ‘shape a new paradigm built on a more dynamic, creative, organic, and realistic vision of how the world works, how young people learn, and how the mind understands its experience and the world’.120 Art education, ‘which brings to teaching and learning the benefits of artistic thinking, process, and creativity’, should play a key role in such a paradigm.121 Marshall points to variation in theories of art integration; from the notion that pupils work with and through an art form to explore and understand concepts and processes 114 Lilian G. Katz, ‘What Can We Learn from Reggio Emilia?’, pp27–45 in Edwards, Gandini and Forman, The Hundred Languages of Children, p35. 115 Ibid., p34. 116 History, Ideas, and Basic Philosophy: an Interview with Lella Gandini’ by Loris Malaguzzi, pp49–97 in Edwards, Gandini and Forman, The Hundred Languages of Children, p75. 117 Ibid., pp75–77. 118 Julia Marshall, ‘Transdisciplinarity and Art Integration: Toward a New Understanding of Art-Based Learning Across the Curriculum’, pp104–127 in Studies in Art Education, vol.55 no.2, 2014, p104. 119 Ibid., p105. 120 Ibid. 121 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

which transcend disciplinary boundaries to the notion that working with and through an art form is done only to teach, or enhance teaching of, academic subjects. However, she indicates that more recent thinking is focused on using ‘artistic thinking habits and strategies’ to develop ‘metacognition’, which she defines as ‘the ability to understand, monitor, and guide one’s learning and problem-solving’.122 Marshall goes on to specify that art integration reaches its full range and depth when it is used in a transdisciplinary way. She cites work by other theorists that differentiates between multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity, and sets the concepts in a hierarchy: To [Klein and Leavy], multidisciplinarity is associative; it indicates collaboration or correlation without integrating disciplines. Interdisciplinarity is defined as connective, implying deeper connections and correlation with varying levels of integration of disciplinary concepts, theories, methods, and findings in which disciplines remain discrete. In other words, connections are made without fusion. Transdisciplinarity goes much further. It connotes a practice or domain that rises above disciplines and dissolves their boundaries to create a new social and cognitive space. Transdisciplinarity, therefore, is where deep integration is achieved.123 Marshall identifies women’s studies, cultural studies, literary studies, systems thinking and ‘the New Sciences’ as transdisciplinary fields. Art integration as a transdisciplinary field focuses not on knowledge but on ‘how that knowledge is acquired and how deeply it is understood’.124 Art, she contends, enables deep understanding because it encourages creative connections between topics and ideas. Indeed, when pupils engage with art in a transdisciplinary way, it ‘entails peering through multiple disciplinary lenses’ and results in knowledge that is ‘complex and multifaceted’, what Eliot Eisner called ‘multiple literacies’.125 ← St James’s Primary School working with artist Naomi Draper

122 Ibid., p106. 123 Ibid. 124 Ibid., p107. 125 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Artists in schools In Ken Robinson’s report, Culture, Creativity and the Young, he references research done within the European Union in 1999, which found among member states an increasing interest in exploring relationships between teachers, artists and children in art education. He also cites a study carried out by C. Delfos in 1997 and published by the Council of Europe, which assessed the benefits of artists working in schools for all parties involved. These benefits included: children understanding more about the professional art world and art practice; children being put in contact with a positive role model; artists’ work being seen and engaged with by more and different people; artists getting to work with people outside of their studios or galleries; artists getting an opportunity to pass on skills and insights; teachers developing artistically; teachers engaging in different and sometimes better ways with pupils; teachers seeing how another adult works with their pupils; parents and the community around the school getting involved.126 Drawing on research by Michael Wimmer and Ebrû Sonuç, Robinson points out some obstacles to establishing this kind of practice. These obstacles include: teachers needing training to work with arts professionals; artists needing training to work in schools, or to use their own work in an educational context; school scheduling and funding limiting the possibilities for engagement; teachers (even art teachers) being unused to engaging with art practice, as opposed to art history; and teachers being unused to engaging with contemporary art. Robinson notes that art institutions rarely involve themselves with schools, or do not involve themselves effectively. He quotes Wimmer and Sonuç at some length, explaining their analysis and their vision for best practice in this context: Co-operation with artists could play a rather innovative role, offering unconventional points of view, but also providing new instruments for dealing with the complexity of today’s social reality. In these circumstances the artist cannot simply replace the classroom teacher. Both have to find new roles: the teacher as moderator of the shared learning process, and the artist as an expert in aesthetics working together with the teacher and the young people. When implementing these new forms of co-operation, it has to be borne in mind that for many teachers the arts world is strange, even dangerous, and the opposite of constricting rules of the normal school system. On the other hand, many artists also nurture some prejudice against the school system… Common training programmes could help… In each school there should be at least one teacher as a “multiplier” and co-ordinator of cultural and art-specific activities… Cultural co-ordinators should establish a network… to share their experience and to develop further common activities.127 A 1996 study by the European League of Institutes of the Arts (ELIA) points out that because of the paucity of jobs and funding, more and more artists will be looking for this type of work, and Robinson refers to Jennifer Williams’s recommendation that artists and arts professionals should be involved in developing curricula for arts education in schools.128 Richard Hickman elaborates on the possibilities for artists working in schools. He suggests that It is important to create opportunities for reflection and contemplation in our classrooms. This is difficult to achieve but worthwhile. Creating the right atmosphere is perhaps key to facilitating reflection. The visiting artist, or artist-in-residence, has a part to play in this; the art classroom operating as a working 126 Robinson, Culture, Creativity and the Young. 127 Ibid., p50. 128 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

studio can facilitate students’ learning in and through art in a subtle but effective way by creating an atmosphere of purposeful enquiry, creative experimentation, risk-taking and contemplation. In such an environment, the three fundamental principles, difference, plurality and independence of thought, put forward by Swift and Steers can thrive.129 Lesley Burgess and Nicholas Addison argue that many schools find much contemporary artwork problematic, because it is more likely to engage ‘the social, political and transgressive’.130 They consider late-twentiethcentury art curricula in the UK to reflect (still) nineteenth-century art education, prioritising practices and principles that ‘cling to a comfortable and uncontentious view of art and its purposes’.131 However, since the critical appraisal of art curricula in the 1970s by Eliot Eisner and others, schools have started to open up to multicultural, gender-aware, anti-racist and anti-sexist approaches in art education, and are making more and better use of non-canonical work. Further, the National Curriculum Art Order (NC) 1992 required students to look at others’ artwork, which again led schools to work with galleries and museums and engage with contemporary practice. John Steers and John Swift’s manifesto, referred to by Hickman in the same volume, came from the National Society for Education in Art and Design. The society convened a focus group of art educators in January 1998 (looking ahead to the planned review of the English National Curriculum in 2000) with the remit to ‘produce a radical discussion paper’.132 This paper emphasised the need for empathy, playfulness, surprise, ingenuity, risk-taking, curiosity and individuality. Burgess and Addison build on R. Usher and R. Edwards’s notion of contemporary art, ‘located in the postmodern’, being able to disrupt the ‘given’; and that ‘in education there are far too many “givens in need of disruption”’.133 N. Paley is quoted on the subject of how the placing of artists in schools can achieve some of this disruption: Through partnerships, such as artists’ placements, practice in schools can be challenged, extended and developed. The contemporary artist is “the intruder that struggles to articulate what’s missing, what’s absent, what’s hidden – when everything seems so readily apparent… the unheard voice, the different gaze”.134 Lesley Burgess, considering the social practice of education, points out that ‘the isolated, studio artist’ may be ‘a model that sits uncomfortably with the realities of schooling where learning takes place in a collective, social environment’. She suggests that schools focus on art practice that is ‘collaborative, socially engaged, reflexive and dialogical’, but warns that ‘these social situations do not necessarily conform to the comfortable sites of tolerance and consensus that are sometimes promoted within education’.135 In the 2012 study of Creative Partnerships in schools, The Impact of Creative Partnerships on the Wellbeing of Children and Young People, researchers identify a key component of successful partnerships as ‘the nature of the relationships developed between teachers and creative practitioners’; these were collaborative, and effort was made to sustain ‘a joint approach’. According to the creative practitioners, feeling ‘part of the school’ enabled them to undertake, with teachers, ‘in depth [sic] sustained exploration of the kinds of 129 Hickman, Meaning, Purpose and Direction, p10. 130 Burgess and Addison, Contemporary Art in Schools, p15. 131 Arthur Hughes, quoted in ibid., p15. 132 Ibid., p20. 133 R. Usher and R. Edwards, quoted in ibid., p24. 134 N. Paley, quoted in ibid., p31. 135 Lesley Burgess, ‘Learning as a Social Practice in Art and Design’, pp67–92 in Addison, Burgess, Steers and Trowell, Understanding Art Education, p67.


→ St Colman’s Primary School working with artist John D’Arcy

Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

practice required to support creative learning’.136 Children were seen to benefit from their relationships with the creative practitioners, which were ‘informal and friendly’. Researchers found that Creative practitioners were not overly concerned with aspects of control [and] there was very little procedural talk observed. In some case study schools this relaxed atmosphere in the class was also apparent in normal lessons, as when students were reluctant to go out to play because they were enjoying their work so much.137 When pupils are able to form relationships with creative practitioners – and other adults from outside school who could contribute to their education – these are described in the study as ‘valuable’ and ‘positive’, with the key proviso that they are ‘sustained’.138 The study also notes that Creative Partnerships have sought from the outset to promote shifts in classroom practice which are sustained and which extend beyond the areas of the curriculum where creative practitioners have been deployed in “long term relationships” with teachers and young people.139 The purpose of these relationships, therefore, is not only to sustain creative engagement with pupils in school, but to spread innovative practice in the school environment. The suggestion is that this spread may happen most effectively through relationship with a trusted practitioner. In a study of ‘creative practitioners’ working in schools done by Maurice Galton in 2010, he found that like teachers, they ‘frequently built scaffolds into the tasks they set pupils’, allowing them a framework along which to move over gaps in their knowledge. Unlike teachers, however, these practitioners ‘rarely employed modelling or guided discussion’ to help with tasks, and tended to ask pupils to reflect on their work and others’ work ‘in ways that promoted strategic thinking and self-regulation’.140 McLellan et al suggest that this fosters agency and competence and in the end enhances what they call ‘intrinsic motivation’, or the will to make effort and practise regardless of reward or consequence. The authors explain that in the context of Creative Partnerships, ‘building collaborative partnerships with people from outside the school’ had the effect of ‘building a sense of belonging and relevance for students’ and further, made it clear that teachers too were participating as learners.141 By testimony of a teacher in a case-study school, The practitioner opened our eyes to taking learning outside the four walls of the classroom… Last year opened our eyes on how much we could possibly restrict children in their [learning in] how we word things. A creative practitioner explained: When I’m in school I see myself… as a friend. I don’t teach, I don’t raise my voice, I don’t discipline, I don’t cajole in any way. I actually have nothing to teach them, perhaps just to show them how to work things out. That’s different from teaching… It replicates my studio practice. That’s all I’ve done, brought in my studio practice and offered it to children which is “here’s materials, use your brain, use your imagination and let it out”. When asked about the ‘highlights’ of the Creative Partnership, the practitioner focused on the children’s experience, specifying ‘allowing… the children time’ and giving them opportunity both ‘to reflect on their learning’ and ‘show you what they know’.142 From the teacher’s perspective, having a practitioner work in 136 McLellan, Galton, Steward and Page, The Impact of Creative Partnerships, pv. 137 Ibid. 138 Ibid., pvii. 139 Ibid., p3. 140 Ibid., p7. 141 Ibid., p71. 142 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

these different ways with pupils in school developed pupils’ confidence and self-esteem and made them more engaged in learning, in a lasting way. Further, teachers’ confidence increased, ‘particularly confidence to abandon the rigid forms of planning that dominated the Literacy and Numeracy strategies’.143 Children attest to the importance of the creative practitioner’s approach, pointing out that ‘with the artists there is actually no right or wrong’; ‘[artists] look at you like you’re one person – it feels as if they’re only talking to you’; they ask rather than tell children to do something; and they are ‘fun’.144 For Jeff Adams, ‘the merits of collaborative learning through the arts are immediately obvious’, with many artforms suited to ‘shared contributions and joint productions’.145 He believes that in collaboration lies ‘social and communal learning: how to be together, and share in an enterprise’, which contributes to ‘the coherence of a functioning civic society’.146 Adams considers the foregrounding of ‘individual and competitive learning’ to be a ‘troubling’ remnant of nineteenth-century Romanticism, applied to the arts and the sciences.147 Favouring a collaborative approach to arts education, he acknowledges that this can be hard to plan and manage, since social interaction frequently leads to unexpected outcomes, not always positive ones, and requires dynamic and diverse pedagogical methods on the part of the educator. Because of these unpredictable dynamics, the ability to collaborate can be seen as ‘a litmus test of teacher autonomy and agency’; teachers with little control over what they teach and how will be unlikely to enter into collaborative partnerships themselves, and unlikely to foster collaborative working in their pupils. Adams concludes that the emphasis on individual and competitive learning ‘produces a reduced and distorted shadow of what education might be’.148

Technology in art education danah boyd published research on a demographic she calls ‘networked teens’ in 2014 in which she suggests that children and young people in the 21st century ‘don’t try to analyze how things are different because of technology; they simply try to relate to a public world in which technology is a given’.149 Among adults, she identifies ‘a form of magical thinking scholars call technological determinism’, which can be utopian or dystopian, but in both cases assumes that ‘technologies possess intrinsic powers that affect all people in all situations in the same way’.150 Fears about and hopes for the effects of technology on young people permeate education as well as home life. In 1984, Deborah Greh pointed out the prevalence of visual communication, and argued that children and young people are visually literate to a sophisticated degree whether or not visual literacy is addressed and taught at school.151 She perceives the traditional educational emphasis on reading, writing and arithmetic to prepare children inadequately for a world of work that is increasingly dependent on and saturated by 143 Ibid., p84. The teacher interviewed points out, however, that feeling the freedom to depart from planning also depends on the culture of the school, suggesting that schools in Creative Partnerships may foster a more fluid and responsive pedagogy. 144 Ibid., p85. 145 Jeff Adams, ‘Collaboration in Arts Education’, pp280–281 in International Journal of Art and Design Education, vol.34 no.3, 2015, p280. 146 Ibid. 147 Ibid. 148 Ibid., p281. 149 danah boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2014, p13. 150 Ibid., p15. 151 Deborah Greh, Art Education in the Third Wave, pp40–41 in Art Education, vol.37 no.2, 1984.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

technology (especially visual technologies). Greh finds that art education tends to focus on aesthetic literacy – that is, the understanding of ‘high’ art images – and describes this as ‘elitist’ and ‘unfortunate’.152 She proposes that visual literacy should take precedence and be about understanding and interpreting all images. Writing in the more recent past, Richard Hickman outlines some ways in which technology affects art practice and art education: Group work and the use of computer technology generates many questions about the nature of art and the art-making process. For example, the ephemeral nature and potential for instantaneous multiple distribution of work done on computers goes against traditional notions of the longevity and uniqueness of the art object, while collaborative work does not fit into the western, Romantic view of art as an activity pursued by the lone genius.153 Howard Holland questions the uncritical use of technology in the art world, contending that ‘[computer technology and the internet are] being used like other forms of publishing media to underwrite the authority of art, not to challenge it’.154 Alison Colman too cautions against thoughtless appropriation of technology by artists, where the meaning and purpose assigned to it by the market is accepted at face value. She would prefer that art educators explore ideas and concepts in relation to technology; this would include how it relates to culture, what it means for how we think of ourselves and how it inflects ideas of representation.155 ← St Colman’s Primary School working with artist John D’Arcy

152 Ibid., p41. 153 Hickman, Meaning, Purpose and Direction, p9. 154 Holland, Ways of Seeing, p57. 155 Alison Colman, ‘Un/Becoming Digital: the Ontology of Technological Determinism and its Implications for Art Education’, pp278–305 in The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education, vol.25, 2005, p279.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Like other theorists and practitioners, Darren Newbury recognises that young people increasingly are cultural and visual producers, through their use of accessible and sophisticated technologies. He believes this has implications for education ‘well beyond the delimited area of “information technology”’.156 His advice to art educators is to enquire what young people are doing already with visual media, and work out how to engage with it. The leading role young people take in adopting new technologies clarifies, for him, that they should contribute to shaping the art curriculum, which he notes in an aside seems obvious but is almost never done. If properly facilitated, students could be providing their own visual resources, and this would enable teachers ‘to shift the focus away from the artwork as the end point and towards an understanding of visual things as only part of a process of communication, representation and expression’.157 Writing more recently still, Anne Bamford turns to the communication function of technology, suggesting that education is likely to be delivered increasingly through informal means and contexts. This is due in part to the prevalence of smartphones, which help 45% of internet users to also create internet content.158 In 2001, Marc Prensky published ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: Part I’, an essay about the effect on education of rapid changes in technology. In it he argues that children and teenagers in 2001, the first generation to grow up ‘surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones and all the other toys and tools of the digital age’, now process information in a completely different way from previous generations. He claims that it is possible the structure of the brain has changed, but at the very least, ‘thinking patterns’ have changed.159 These digital natives, he suggests, are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work.160 Because of this, Prensky states that 2001’s teachers – digital immigrants, able to use this technology much like a second language, with certain inhibitions to fluency – should ‘learn to communicate in the language and style of their students’. He is careful to indicate that this ‘doesn’t mean changing the meaning of what is important, or of good thinking skills’, but it ‘does mean going faster, less step-by-step, more in parallel, with more random access, among other things’.161 In response to digital innovation and dissemination Prensky envisions education including ‘legacy’ content and ‘future’ content; legacy content will comprise ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, logical thinking, understanding the writing and ideas of the past’; future content will be digital and technological, but ‘it also includes the ethics, politics, sociology, languages and other things that go with them’.162 In ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part II’, also published in 2001, Prensky emphasises that ‘the brain constantly reorganises itself all our child and adult lives’.163 He believes that digital natives ‘crave interactivity’, an appetite which traditional education fails to satisfy.164 156 J. Sefton-Green, quoted in Newbury, Changing Practices, p74. 157 Ibid., p80. 158 Bamford, A Child’s Right. 159 Marc Prensky, ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: Part 1’, -%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf, accessed 25th October 2018, p1, author’s emphasis. 160 Ibid., p2. 161 Ibid., p4. 162 Ibid., author’s emphasis. 163 Marc Prensky, ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part II: Do They Really Think Differently?’, http://www.marc,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part2.pdf, accessed 15th November 2018, no page numbers, author’s emphasis. 164 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

In the years since 2001 Prensky has written extensively about education. A 2015 article points out that ‘our rush to add technology’ to education – to make it relevant and up-to-date – risks neglecting the ‘serious reform’ necessary.165 In Prensky’s opinion, that reform means finding ‘new ways to connect our kids’ education much earlier to the real-world [sic]’. He would like to see ‘being told’ replaced by ‘finding out’, which he explains is made increasingly possible by the powerful technologies to which children have ready access. If reform is not prioritised, ‘our beloved technology will be only a mask, hiding our educational failure to keep up with, and provide, all that is really needed’.166 In an article from 2018, he suggests that ‘the right goal of education is becoming a better, more capable person’, but warns that ‘rarely do we expect our… kids to become anything besides good test takers’.167 He relates ‘becoming’ more closely to what he calls ‘accomplishing’ than to what he calls ‘learning’, and praises our present-day freely available and sophisticated technology for enabling children and young people ‘to accomplish real things’.168 This technology includes new general-purpose communication tools, collaboration tools, programming languages, big-data and other analysis tools, simulation engines, robotics tools, AI [Artificial Intelligence], AR [Augmented Reality], VR [Virtual Reality] and more.169 By contrast, ‘ed tech’, as Prensky puts it, is almost entirely about supporting our old, “academic” paradigm of education… dedicated almost entirely to doing things we could do before… delivering and receiving content, doing research, or keeping records – in faster, and sometimes marginally better ways.170 Prensky suggests that in the long term, these types of educational technology can hold back both teachers and pupils. Rather than encouraging a reassessment of what education is and is for, the use of developing technologies to enhance or replicate old pedagogical methods, he argues, can cement in place out-of-date thinking and systems while glossing them as new and cutting-edge because of how they are being mediated. He advocates thinking about how technology can ‘replace’ old educational systems ‘with an empowering, real-world project-based education’, and concludes, ‘we live in a new world, and preparing our kids for it involves a lot more important tasks than making new products for the education of the past’.171 Another article focusing on the specific role of technology in the classroom argues that this should be only ‘to support students teaching themselves (with, of course, their teachers’ guidance)’.172 While this would have been impossible in the past, with limited numbers of easily out-dated print textbooks, ‘today’s technology… offers students all kinds of new, highly effective tools they can use to learn on their own’.173 Prensky suggests that in this context, whether or not the teacher is familiar with and skilled in new technologies, her or his role should be ‘intellectual’, providing pupils with ‘context, quality assurance and individualized help’.174

165 Marc Prensky, ‘Technology as Mask?’, As_Mask-EdTech-May-Jun-2015-FINAL.pdf, accessed 25th October 2018, p1. 166 Ibid., pp2 and 3. 167 Ibid., author’s emphasis. 168 Marc Prensky, ‘Do We Really Need Dedicated Ed-Tech?’, uploads/2018/03/Prensky-Do_We_Really-Need-Dedicated_Ed-Tech-FINAL.pdf, accessed 25th October 2018, p1. 169 Ibid. 170 Ibid. 171 Ibid., p2. 172 Marc Prensky, ‘The Role of Technology: in Teaching and the Classroom’, Prensky-The_Role_of_Technology-ET-11-12-08.pdf, accessed 25th October 2018, p1. 173 Ibid., p2. 174 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

In another recent article he claims that there are ‘trivial’ and ‘powerful’ uses of technology, and gives the example of putting homework online, which might save paper and store assignments securely, but [is] nothing more than doing an old thing… in a new way… Even though it’s accomplishing something useful, it is a trivial use of technology. It has no more educational benefit than, say, putting papers in a folder.175 Prensky goes on to critique other common uses of technology in education as ‘unimaginative, uninteresting, unchallenging, non-powerful tasks’, citing having pupils create illustrated PowerPoint presentations, carry out simple online searches and input text on documents.176 A more productive and challenging way to use technology, he believes, would be to make sure one or more of the following elements should be added to the curricular or content-based task: 1 Determine the most powerful way(s) to use your device to do this. 2 Do the assignment using your device in a new (and powerful) way. 3 Invent a new, technology-based way to do this. 4 Include something technological you’ve never done before. 5 Use the device to connect in a new way to do the task better.177 As he concludes, ‘in short, every assignment using technology should involve using the technology to innovate’, and he includes in his notion of ‘powerful’ uses of technology ‘connecting with individuals around the world (particularly with experts in particular fields)’.178 Amelia M. Kraehe defines growing up in the second decade of the 21st century as ‘largely a digitally mediated experience’ and echoes danah boyd’s idea of digital utopianism warring with digital dystopianism, identifying two ‘schools of thought’ about developments in technology: The first characterizes the media landscape in mostly negative terms with words like chaos, distraction, loss of privacy, exploitation, and the cutting-off of direct human connection. The second is more virtuous in its characterization, pointing to the crowd-sourcing of ideas and resources, democratization of information, expanded sensory possibilities, and global connections.179 She suggests that when children and young people engage with digital technologies, motivations and consequences are rarely so clear-cut. Rather, ‘the digital is a space of encounters that, like many other kinds of encounters, involves active negotiation, a dynamic of give and take, a push and pull’.180 This means that using digital technologies ‘presents opportunities for empowered looking as well as critical and creative response’.181 In a recent paper, Tingting Windy Wang investigates the now almost ubiquitous use of iPads in education in North America and Western Europe. She cites research carried out for the National Association of Advisors for Computers in Education in the United Kingdom which claims that

175 Marc Prensky, ‘Trivia versus Power: Let’s be clear on exactly how we are using technology in education’, http://, accessed 25th October 2018, p1. 176 Ibid. 177 Ibid., p2 178 Ibid. 179 Amelia M. Kraehe, ‘Digital Encounters: Editorial’, pp4–6 in Art Education, vol.71 no.3, May 2018, p4. 180 Ibid. 181 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

iPads bolster students’ learning… have revolutionized teaching, enhanced learning across the curriculum, and evidenced significant gains in quality and standards of students’ work.182 Wang carried out her own research on the use of iPads, in the form of semi-structured interviews with teachers of art in elementary and middle schools whose pupils are mostly from the suburban middle class. Teachers have adopted iPads, they tell her, because of available funding, because they believed iPads would enable innovation and because traditional art media were becoming outdated. Further, iPads gave young children easy access to photography, for example, a technique which in traditional form would be considered too expensive, too dangerous and too difficult for their age group. Four of her interviewees used iPads themselves on a daily basis. Echoing Marc Prensky’s terminology, Wang explains that ‘they found the iPad a powerful tool for learning art’, being small, portable, rich in art-related applications and cheaper than computers.183 iPads enabled digital drawing, digital painting, photo collage, graphic design, drawn animation, stop motion animation, movie making, photography, time-lapse video, eBook, crafts, and virtual pottery making. Students also researched art context, added photo effects, uploaded to an online art gallery, wrote artist statements, curated their own art galleries, presented art projects, and composed art journals.184 Teachers also commended iPads for allowing direct access to the internet and being intuitive to use. One teacher explained, I am able to expose them to many more ideas and concepts including layering images, working with transparency, transforming layers to adjust size and placement, creating drawn animation with onion skinning, green screen effects in movie-making and digital collage. I think understanding the possibilities helps them apply their creative ideas, frees them from fear of failure, and encourages experimentation.185 These ways of working with iPads reflect Prensky’s ideas of powerful uses of technology, which he suggests will be more satisfying for children and result in better education. The observation by teachers that children using apps on iPads in school tended to engage in peer learning, enthusiastically showing each other what their machines could do and what they could do with their machines, tends to support Prensky’s theory: While teachers did not know every aspect of the device and encountered issues, rather than solely depending on the teacher’s help, students themselves would support each other with trouble shooting, thus creating collaborative teamwork. The students also taught the teachers what they had learned.186 Wang reports that children’s use of simulation apps on iPads, working with virtual wood, metal, glass and concrete, means they ‘are no longer inhibited by materials’, and teachers claimed that working virtually led to children ‘focus[ing] more on creativity, designing and thinking’ than on ‘labor and execution’.187 It is at least questionable whether materials inhibit or challenge, and whether time and energy spent on ‘labor and execution’ really means less time and energy for creativity. One teacher, self-described as an ‘artist teacher’, judges working on iPads to have ‘a sterile feel’. Other teachers stated that for the majority of children, who will not pursue a career as an artist, ‘experiencing and understanding art meaning and making was more important and valuable than developing advanced techniques and skills in the real world.188 However, Wang points out that iPads are subject to technical difficulties and limitations too, of course, such as faulty 182 Tingting Windy Wang, ‘Empowering Art Teaching and Learning with iPads’, pp51–55 in Art Education, vol.71 no.3, May 2018, p51. 183 Ibid., p52. 184 Ibid. 185 Ibid., p53. 186 Ibid. 187 Ibid., p54. 188 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

internet connections, the necessity to upgrade applications regularly, the varied quality of applications and the expense (and sometimes the impossibility) of providing one iPad per pupil. She concludes with the suggestion that [T]he iPad is just a tool to help [children and young people] expand their knowledge of art. Our job as educators is to direct students to use these tools to expand their creativity in ways that neither we nor they knew they could.189

Conclusions Art education has moved on – in some ways – from a Victorian focus on utility and technical skill. It is, still, dogged by conflicting views of its worth. For some, art is one means to key ends in education, such as motivation and academic achievement; for others, art is intrinsically valuable, an integral and instinctive human activity that helps us understand ourselves and the world around us. The question remains, whether art is seen as useful or beautiful or both, of how to grasp and measure what it does in education in order to maintain its place there in a context of pared-back funding and focus on STEM subjects. Art education may be seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. ‘Good’ art education may involve arts professionals as well as teachers, and tends to engage children in open-ended processes of exploring ideas, techniques and materials. The practice of art and creativity closely connect and overlap, though they are not the same. Creativity is increasingly perceived and valued in STEM subjects too, and art education at its best fosters those (eminently transferable) qualities identified as creative, including divergent thinking, willingness to experiment, ability to adapt from ‘failure’ and willingness to collaborate with others. Technological development and innovation, seen as progressive and future-minded, is more and more visible in educational settings. Generally, it is agreed by educational practitioners and theorists that the simple presence of technological devices or techniques is of little or no value. Rather, technology must be purposefully and intelligently used to achieve desired educational ends, and these ends should encompass the creative qualities listed above. Keeping my reading in mind, the exploration of Virtually There that unfolds from this point implicitly refers back to these ideas of the worth of art education, how it can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and the roles in it that technology can and should play. In my concluding remarks I make some explicit connections to literature, but I intend my view of the project as a whole to be back-lit by the critical thinking on the meaning of art in schools, introduced here. → Killard House School working with artist Julie Forrester

189 Ibid., p55.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

The first year’s research What follows is based on conversations with teachers and artists working on Virtually There between September 2017 and June 2018. I also talked to children in Donaghey Primary School and Aughnacloy Primary School, and recorded comments from children at Killard House School. I use information I was given, and keep my interpretation and analysis to a minimum. Certain themes came up in the conversations, and I have divided this section into sub-sections according to these themes. Within each theme the discussion is structured further by the partnerships; I talked to artists and teachers individually, but pair them to report their insights. Themes are: teachers’ perspectives; artists’ perspectives; relationships; technology; children’s experiences and effects on them; and mentoring and support. Artist Ann Henderson speaks with insight when she says, ‘although we’re 10 years into [Virtually There] it’s still hard to describe what it is’. Further, ‘you can’t describe it’, because each individual and each partnership operates differently within it, but for Ann, ‘it’s almost that that makes it what it is’.190 My conversations exceeded the themes I identify here, and this section is not exhaustive, but begins to tell those stories of artists’ and teachers’ and children’s experiences of Virtually There that I set out to uncover.

Teachers’ perspectives ← St Colman’s Primary School working with artist John D’Arcy

Teachers got involved in Virtually There for different reasons and in different ways. It seems, anecdotally, that Vine Haugh has been instrumental in spreading the word about the project and encouraging teachers to enquire further. Judith White and Julie Orr were among the first to work on Virtually There, being part of its inception with artist Ann Henderson and Kids’ Own. Marcella Wilson joined shortly afterwards, and has worked since with Ann Donnelly. Judith White trained as a teacher with art as her main subject. Chris McCambridge completed a degree in fine art before becoming a teacher. Wendy Davey is an art teacher in the only secondary school to be involved in Virtually There, Killard House in Donaghadee. Vanessa Patton was an art teacher at a very large school, Strandtown Primary in Belfast; with cuts to the school’s funding, she moved to teach a year class, but continued with Virtually There until she retired, whereupon Paula Courtenay took over. Other teachers, including Julie Orr, Stella Cross, Leanne Kyle, Fionnuala Hughes, Paula Courtenay and Marcella Wilson, have no formal training in art education or practice, though Leanne is a keen photographer and Marcella is clear that Ann’s practice resonates with her and describes herself as ‘creative’. I asked the teachers about how Virtually There fitted into the class and school environments. I was interested in whether their training prepared them for this type of work. I was told by Stella Cross and Marcella Wilson that the education system and therefore teachers’ training are focused on outcome over process. As Marcella puts it, ‘our training moulds us to this [gestures with one hand] and the creative and expressive side is this [gestures with the other hand] and they’re poles apart’.191 According to Stella, teachers are trained, and tend, to focus on the outcome of any given activity, and hurry children through the process

190 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 23rd April 2018. 191 Personal communication from Marcella Wilson, 6th March 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

leading there.192 Fionnuala Hughes recognises that tendency in herself, even during Virtually There sessions; she is aware of wanting to give each child an opportunity to talk and an opportunity to make in each session, and has to curb her desire to hurry through tasks to make this happen.193 Leanne Kyle, when she first got involved in Virtually There, worried about how she was going to fit in all the other tasks she knew she was supposed to get through on that day. She worried that she would be skipping literacy and numeracy, which are daily priorities; she worried that it would look to other staff as if she was ‘taking the day off’; and she worried that parents would disapprove of the usual lessons being set aside. She says, ‘sometimes it’s difficult just to let the reins off’, because teachers are trained to do the opposite.194 Judith White, whose main subject during her training was art and design, acknowledges that ‘art as a subject… like music and… like P.E…. does… fall off the end of the… curriculum’.195 She explains that the requirement for children to reach certain standards and produce certain outcomes in literacy and numeracy in particular leads to very busy days, where ‘you do push, you do an awful lot of pushing for children who aren’t ready’.196 Vanessa Patton, who retired recently, says that she did her most creative work in the early part of her teaching career, when she was not bound by lesson plans and evidencing what she was doing for an inspectorate. Paula explains that in Strandtown Primary School, which has nine classes per year group, lesson planning is very important and strictly adhered to, to ensure all classes are being taught in the same way with the same content. Chris McCambridge mentions the level of detail required in lesson planning and says that he is aware of curriculum requirements in the context of Virtually There. Several teachers talk about how their practice as professionals has changed through their experience of Virtually There and their partnership with the artists. Judith says: I definitely think I have taken an awful lot from [the project]… the importance of slowing down, the importance of communication. Listening to them, giving them time to talk… Taking ideas from Ann [for other lessons]… It has opened my mind, it has made me think outside the box. She explains, ‘I’m confident about doing it, I see the value in it’. For her, ‘the art day [is] freedom’, and if she and Ann do not get through what they planned to get through, ‘you don’t panic, because you know what you’ve done is quality’.197 Ann describes Judith and Julie as ‘teachers who are confident in their own practice, and dedicated teachers and vocational teachers’ who know that whatever happens in Virtually There is good education.198 Chris has found working on Virtually There has helped him to be more free, again through developing confidence in the educational value of unplanned, responsive and improvised discussion and activity. He is better able now to be flexible, and to experiment. He does not mind if a new idea or activity does not work as he had hoped.199 Paula explains that working with an artist ‘did actually put me out of my comfort zone’, but that this was wholly beneficial. Her experience in Virtually There affects her teaching outside those sessions because she has the confidence to ‘go off on a tangent’. If she feels that is working well, she is well able to explain and justify what she is doing when asked. She notes, ‘it would give me the confidence to not fear the unknown… in taking a risk’ because she knows now that ‘the unknown’ is rich territory for her and for the children, bringing ‘uncertainty but excitement’.200 Leanne, referring to her 192 Personal communication from Stella Cross, 28th February 2018. 193 Personal communication from Fionnuala Hughes, 24th April 2018. 194 Personal communication from Leanne Kyle, 20th March 2018. 195 Personal communication from Judith White, 29th November 2017. 196 Ibid. 197 Personal communication from Judith White, 29th November 2017. 198 Personal communications from Judith White, 29th November 2017, and Ann Henderson, 23rd April 2018. 199 Personal communication from Chris McCambridge, 18th December 2018. 200 Personal communication from Paula Courtenay, 9th March 2018.


→ St Patrick’s Primary School working with artist Sharon Kelly

Open Space: An action Reid research report from the Virtually There project Bryonie Action research report on Virtually There


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

initial worries about Virtually There, says, ‘those concerns are no more with me’. In her first cycle she was able to see such profound value in the work that she has no doubt of its educational quality. She too speaks of gaining confidence through Lisa to slow down and take time in her teaching outside Virtually There, and does plenty of work related to Virtually There with the children outside their contact time with Lisa.201 Fionnuala has taken on significant research into artists and art practice using materials sent by Sharon, finding the ideas and images stimulating and feeling they give her a fuller understanding of, and excitement for, what she and Sharon are doing (and could do). She values ‘the open-ended questions that [art] asks’. Though making time for Virtually There means she is ‘cramming work in’ for the rest of the week, she would have no problem in justifying the time she spends on the project to an inspector. For her and the children, ‘it’s a time-out from the pressures of the curriculum’, but it also answers curriculum requirements for shaping attitudes and dispositions; ‘we don’t have a subject to teach these through’.202 Stella finds Virtually There a corrective to the tendency to rush towards outcome. She draws on Naomi’s quietness and calm, and working with her is relaxed, by contrast to the pressures of her teaching work outside Virtually There. She also benefits from having input during class time from another adult, and a professional from outside the world of school.203 Marcella recognises that her colleagues, though supportive, feel that they could not do what she does because of what they identify as lack of creativity, or patience, or technical ability. Ann gives Marcella a push she appreciates, towards new ideas and new ways of working. As well as being able to let go of precise planning and specific targets, she values the sense of being trusted that she gets through Virtually There. This is very important for her professionally, at a time when teachers are overseen and micro-managed to an unprecedented degree.204 Wendy Davey explains that as a teacher she has been used to working towards fixed outcomes. Her artist partner on Virtually There, Julie Forrester, takes an organic, process-led approach that allows her to be more responsive to the children. Wendy has learned from that and is trying to incorporate it more into her own practice.205 ← Donaghey Primary School working with artist Ann Donnelly

201 Personal communication from Leanne Kyle, 20th March 2018. 202 Personal communication from Fionnuala Hughes, 24th April 2018. 203 Personal communication from Stella Cross, 28th February 2018. 204 Personal communication from Marcella Wilson, 6th March 2018. 205 Personal communication from Wendy Davey, 15th January 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Artists’ perspectives Ann Henderson developed the idea for a project that became Virtually There with Orla Kenny when she was thinking about how to work as an artist remotely from her home on Rathlin Island. She had worked previously with Judith White and Julie Orr at Ballydown Primary School on a Kids’ Own project called Trading Places (commonly referred to by participating artists and teachers as the Linen Project). Wanting to continue working collaboratively with Ballydown teachers, Ann proposed connecting through the classroom’s interactive whiteboard at the planning stage of a new Kids’ Own project. As funding broadened, other artists joined the project, with Ann Donnelly coming on board shortly after Ann Henderson, and Sharon Kelly, Andrew Livingstone, Julie Forrester and Naomi Draper a few years later. With a new raft of funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation from 2016, John D’Arcy and Lisa Cahill were recruited, as well as two artist–teacher partnerships which did not continue beyond their first year. John and Lisa are in their second year on the project. Most artists had worked previously with Kids’ Own, and Naomi Draper had been on a version of the project piloted in Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim. All the artists involved in Virtually There had prior experience in working with children, working collaboratively or working in educational settings. Lisa Cahill trained as a primary school teacher before becoming a dance artist. As with the teachers, I asked the artists about how Virtually There fitted into their existing practice. Ann Henderson explains that in the early stage of her career, she thought of collaborative or educational work as subordinate to her ‘real’, or ‘solo’ practice. Work with groups of adults and young people and children usually was funded, however, and therefore was an important way of subsidising her studio practice. This has changed over time. Now Ann sees both practices overlapping, intertwining and forming an integral whole, though at times and in places they remain distinct parts of that whole.206 Ann Donnelly sees work that she likes to do on her own, and work that she can share, but these exist in a continuum, and ‘aren’t different’. Where they intersect is where collaborative work will happen. While work she does with children on Virtually There will not, she imagines, appear in exhibitions of her work, ‘the process and the conversations and the… preoccupations you discover as you’re doing it’ very much feed her practice outside Virtually There.207 Julie Forrester describes her practice as process-led. Often she derives ideas from spontaneous encounters and conversations with people, and likes to collaborate, so she does not distinguish sharply between her work inside Virtually There and her work outside Virtually There.208 Andrew Livingstone trained as a ceramicist and now works at the University of Sunderland, carrying out research and supervising PhDs, as well as making his own work. He was attracted to Virtually There in part because of the opportunity to tailor the work around his practice, and finds a freedom in that context that contrasts with his university work. However, he also sees the potential for integrating what he does in Virtually There to a greater extent with his academic research and collaboration with colleagues at the University of Sunderland.209 John D’Arcy judges his practice to be evenly split between collaborative work and independent work. The collaborative work influences his practice as a whole; where he tended towards introspection he is now more outward-looking.210 Lisa Cahill explains that her own practice focuses on attending and listening to the body. Her strong interest in ‘witnessing’ – looking and listening and reflecting back what she sees and hears – is emerging in her work on Virtually There, and the relational and collaborative nature of Virtually There permeates her practice outside 206 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 23rd October 2017. 207 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 6th March 2018. 208 Personal communication from Julie Forrester, 15th May 2018. 209 Personal communication from Andrew Livingstone, 26th April 2018. 210 Personal communication from John D’Arcy, 23rd January 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

it.211 Naomi Draper describes her practices inside and outside of Virtually There as strongly connected; she has been led to link other projects more closely to her studio, and to foreground her studio in Virtually There. Work arising from Virtually There may get dropped from the project but taken up by Naomi in her studio, and work that peters out in her studio may get a new lease of life in Virtually There. She comments, ‘now I can’t imagine not being involved in classrooms and schools… it’s definitely enriched the last couple of years of work’.212 Sharon Kelly is used to working with children as an artist, and used to teaching the use of techniques and materials as well as creative thinking. She contrasts the ‘lovely energy’ of working on Virtually There with the ‘huge superficiality’ of the world of showing and selling work. In her experience, it is rare for a curator to engage in her work to any depth, and she sees an aversion to play and experiment in this context which again contrasts with Virtually There. She describes Virtually There as ‘really nurturing’ and explains, ‘that’s why it can feed your practice and your practice can feed into it’.213 I was interested too in how training and practising as an artist informs the artists’ work on Virtually There, and how that collaborative work informs their whole practice. Sharon mentions that Fionnuala’s enthusiasm for what Sharon passes on of her research into other artists’ work reminds her of how rich art education and practice is, and how few people access that richness.214 Naomi says that implicit in her work is the idea that ‘we’re all sort of part of each other’s worlds’, which meshes with a collaborative practice. She feels her practice flourishes through share and exchange, and working on Virtually There enables this.215 Ann Henderson sees her collaborative work as a way to explore and experiment, and to invite people to join her in that process, but knows from talking to other artists that ‘there are different ways to experience collaborative work’. The differences are not to do with the artists’ different practices alone, but also their approaches to the idea and outworking of collaboration. Her approach involves allowing her work to be shaped by the collaboration.216 Lisa offers her ‘somatic practices’ of attending, listening and witnessing to the children and Leanne through Virtually There. What she sees and hears is enfolded into her practice and offered back. Communication is key in her work, and she feels the need for reciprocal witnessing, of her own practice. She explains, too, that she is ‘working in a relational field’ and is ‘not coming with all the answers, all the ideas’; she says, ‘I love the fact that I’m not solely responsible for creative engagement’ in the project.217 Andrew was introduced to digital media and the use of technology through his work with Kids’ Own, and during his time in Virtually There the digital and technological has been embedded in all areas of his practice.218 Ann Donnelly speaks of how Virtually There ‘takes me outside my normal practice’; she has grown willow for years, but made charcoal from it for the first time this year in tandem with Marcella and the children. She appreciates ‘the way it broadens the landscape for you’ and explains further, It changes your own practice… it’s a useful grounding thing, it makes you question, if you’re drifting off into the realms of something very abstract, you know, what you think is adult, and then you come back into the realms of 211 Personal communication from Lisa Cahill, 19th February 2018. 212 Personal communication from Naomi Draper, 22nd March 2018. 213 Personal communication from Sharon Kelly, 13th March 2018. 214 Ibid. 215 Personal communication from Naomi Draper, 22nd March 2018. 216 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 23rd April 2018. 217 Personal communication from Lisa Cahill, 19th February 2018. 218 Personal communication from Andrew Livingstone, 26th April 2018.


↓ Donaghey Primary School working with artist Ann Donnelly

Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

something pretty simple and you go… [sighs] that’s pretty powerful… It could take 10 years before that filters into something that goes on a wall somewhere – or it might not, ever, but it still all informs your way of looking at things.219 Julie Forrester is excited by the possibility of following a tangent, a kind of productive disruption of an initial idea, which she says is much more likely to happen when working with children. Her work in schools and with children with special educational needs has brought up lots of interesting questions for her about authorship, control and the nature of collaboration. She notes, ‘as an artist, to say this is my work, it’s a little tricky’.220 With regard to artists’ learning, Ann Henderson says that she has her view opened out by observing and interacting with Judith and Julie Orr as teachers. The tendency towards introspection arising in studio work is corrected, and she is reminded about effective communication and connecting with others. When the teachers ask her to change how she is explaining a concept, because the children are not grasping it, she is led back to the fundamentals of her thinking in a very useful way. She says, ‘I’m interested in communication… [and] it really does make you think’ about how to talk about work.221 Lisa mentions that Leanne will remind her to ‘bring this back to the body’, when their discussion and planning is becoming too abstract.222 Sharon emphasises Fionnuala’s energy, ‘enthusiasm coming out of her ears’, and openness to new ideas: ‘as soon as you mention anything to her her imagination will go nuts’. She appreciates Fionnuala’s willingness to expend considerable effort in shaping the space of the classroom to suit an activity; she will rearrange furniture or even empty the room of furniture, and she does not mind the children making a mess.223 John is aware of Chris’s expertise in managing the classroom in practical and emotional terms, according to his knowledge of and instinct for the children’s needs.224 Ann Donnelly says that she sees the children change and grow during their time with Marcella, because of Marcella’s expert care as a teacher. She offers structure and she balances play and excitement with ‘sensible… calm things’.225

Relationships Relationships between teachers and artists are key to how Virtually There works, and relationships between teachers and children, and artists and children, are important too. Almost all teacher–artist pairings were made on a basis of no previous acquaintance. In Trading Places (the Linen Project) Kids’ Own had paired Ann Henderson with Judith White and Julie Orr, and Andrew with Vanessa Patton. These pairings continued into Virtually There, and Orla took responsibility for further pairings of artists and teachers as the project expanded (including connecting Andrew with Paula Courtenay when Vanessa retired). Naomi says that she was introduced to Stella for the first time at the meeting hosted by Kids’ Own to begin each new school year and Virtually There cycle. Each pair has worked hard to establish a relationship that allows them to operate effectively within the project. Everyone describes communication as crucial and many partners emphasise the need for trust.

219 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 6th March 2018. 220 Personal communication from Julie Forrester, 15th May 2018. 221 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 23rd April 2018. 222 Personal communication from Lisa Cahill, 19th February 2018. 223 Personal communication from Sharon Kelly, 13th March 2018. 224 Personal communication from John D’Arcy, 23rd January 2018. 225 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 6th March 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Ann Henderson has been working with Judith for 13 years now, and with Julie on and off during these 13 years, and consistently for the last three cycles of Virtually There. Ann says that ‘intimate communication, when we’re planning… is really, really important’. It is creative time, and as such cannot be productive under time pressure. The time they spend planning, and the trust and closeness they have built up, allow them to introduce seemingly ‘off-the-cuff’ activities, and to circumvent technological difficulties. Their mutual trust means that Ann will listen to Judith and Julie’s assessment of the children’s energy levels or understanding, and they will allow Ann to push them and the children into new territory, conceptually and practically. The relationships are strong partly because of their longevity, and the longevity of the project is partly because the relationships are strong. Those relationships and the time and effort they put into planning allows for organic development within each cycle.226 Judith too refers to the ‘long-term connection’ she has with Ann, and the trust she has in Ann, which means that ‘[S]he picks a word – and then I’ll just go with it. Because… I find it as interesting, as challenging… as enjoyable… whenever I don’t know what she’s going to come up with’.227 Ann Donnelly and Marcella Wilson have been working together for 10 years on Virtually There. Ann explains that The teacher’s part in it is absolutely crucial… as an artist you can have all the intensity in the world, but if you’re not meeting that same amount of [intensity] – she’s holding open that space in the curriculum and in the school life, and it takes energy to push… the ordinary stuff back, you know? For Ann, ‘it’s amazing that she keeps giving me the time’. Ann locates some of their rapport in their rural environments. However, their relationship is also about ‘seeing what the other person does and seeing what the differences and similarities are… similarities are what give you the common ground and the differences are the places you play’. She and Marcella value structure and clarity in the same way, and their work is ‘a mixture of careful planning and trusting that… interesting developments will happen’. While Marcella suggests that Ann is very well informed about the curriculum, Ann attributes this to listening to Marcella, rather than carrying out her own research. They listen to each other, exchange ideas and foreground commonalities: We find these things where we can do them naturally, and where there’s no conflict… if I’m always asking her to do something that’s the opposite of the direction that she’s going – it’s really tough. Because of the work they have put into their relationship through Virtually There There’s things that we no longer need to sit and worry about, that we’ve kind of solved, and you can get on to other things… and it is just that trust as well… I trust her completely that no matter what happened in the classroom, we’d find a way through it.228 Marcella too describes her relationship with Ann as ‘very strong’. When she was introduced to Ann’s art practice, she knew it resonated with her own interests, ideas and feelings. She believes this resonance contributes to the project working well. She needs Ann, she says, ‘to give me new ideas and push the boundaries’.229 Lisa says that she and Leanne spent their first Virtually There cycle learning about each other. They were able to establish a connection quickly, and were aware of the time and energy they would need to put in to build 226 Personal communications from Ann Henderson, 23rd October 2017 and 23rd April 2018. 227 Personal communication from Judith White, 29th November 2018. 228 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 6th March 2018. 229 Personal communication from Marcella Wilson, 6th March 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

on that connection. Lisa prioritised listening to Leanne’s needs, and found that the time they were spending on their relationship paid significant dividends throughout the year. Problems were not insurmountable, because they liked and trusted each other. They pursue what feels good to both of them. For Lisa, Leanne is her full partner in the project; she describes Leanne as ‘the artist in the room’. She enjoys sharing creative engagement with the children, suggesting that it gives all of them a sense of spaciousness.230 Leanne feels that she and Lisa were able to find common ground very quickly in their mutual love of the outdoors and in other aspects of their personal lives. The time they spend in building their relationship (as both friends and colleagues) is ‘invaluable’, and Leanne explains, ‘we’ll stay in constant touch’. She says, ‘we’re very fortunate because we get on so well’.231 John felt a ‘good vibe’ with Chris from the outset of their partnership. They were able to bond over their interests, particularly in music, and Chris’s third-level art education and own art practice means that, as John says, he ‘gets what I’m trying to do’. John is interested in how Chris’s art practice contributes to his in Virtually There, describing them as fitting together like pieces of a jigsaw. He relies on Chris’s knowledge of teaching and of the children in the class to guide his discussions and their activities. John explains that he is often too ambitious conceptually, and Chris is able to shape his concepts to better suit the children. The relationship helps them to communicate effectively before, during and after each session, and John needs Chris’s feedback because he is at a distance when they work together. His primary interest in Virtually There is his collaboration with Chris. He is energised by the process of planning, adapting, improvising and experimenting together, and in this second cycle they have relaxed and become more confident in their relationship and their process. They regulate each other in their working partnership.232 Stella refers to the benefits for her personally of Naomi’s tranquil demeanour, enjoying the weekly time they spend planning their Virtually There sessions as a contrast to the rest of her schedule. Naomi is aware of the difference made to the work when she and Stella communicate effectively during the sessions, and regularly and extensively outside of the sessions. She, like the others, highlights their need to trust each other when working together in this way. Mentioning feeling ‘a little lost’ this year, she spoke to Stella and ‘had a really good evaluation’. She realised that because they had been restricting the time they spent talking to each other around the sessions, she had not been hearing all the little stories about individual characters in the class that helped her connect with both Stella and the children. Both had been aware of how important those conversations were in building their own relationship too, so in order to fit them in around work, they were talking in the evenings and on weekends. Knowing that time spent talking could impinge on personal and family life, but equally that it was necessary for their work to function well, they reviewed their communication and planning and were able to make it more efficient.233 When Sharon began work on Virtually There at St Patrick’s Primary School in Crossmaglen, she was paired with a different teacher each year because the principal wanted to spread the project around the school. She worked hard to establish a relationship with each new teacher in the course of their cycle together, but found it a struggle to begin again each year. She recognises that working with so many teachers has made her part of the school community, ‘but the time to build up the relationship is so important’. She has been 230 Personal communication from Lisa Cahill, 19th February 2018. 231 Personal communication from Leanne Kyle, 20th March 2018. 232 Personal communication from John D’Arcy, 23rd January 2018. 233 Personal communications from Stella Cross, 28th February 2018, and Naomi Draper, 22nd March 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

paired with Fionnuala now for three years, and because it took a while to get to know each other, they kept their work simple and straightforward in the first cycle. In discussing relationships, Sharon defines the artist–teacher relationship as centred on patience, commitment and the long term, and suggests that the relationship between the teacher and the children in the class also matters.234 Fionnuala is very happy with their work on Virtually There, and attributes what she sees as its successes to her relationship with Sharon. She describes Sharon as ‘a lady and a dream to work with’.235 Andrew explains that his relationship with Vanessa, the teacher he worked with for the first few years of Virtually There, is very close, built up through working together for three years on Trading Places. For him, the success of the virtual interface they use is dependent in part on the artist’s connection with the teacher. When he was partnered with Paula Courtenay on Vanessa’s retirement, he was glad that they were acquainted already through Trading Places.236 For Paula too it helped that she knew and had worked a little with Andrew before.237 Julie Forrester has worked on Virtually There with Wendy Davey for two years. She emphasises that the relationship between artist and teacher contributes significantly to how the project works, and takes for granted that this relationship needs time and effort from both her and Wendy to flourish. She describes Wendy as ‘a remarkable teacher’. Part-way through their second year, Wendy began maternity leave, and Julie was partnered for three short sessions with Wendy’s replacement, Claire Hart. Julie and Claire were not able to spend time getting to know one another, especially given the demands on Claire of settling into the new job and the fact that Virtually There involves only one of her many classes. Claire opted not to take on the third cycle of Virtually There. Julie is aware, too, that as a self-employed artist, ‘I have time because I can make time’, but Wendy, as a teacher, is not so in control of her time and is under considerable pressure professionally. Julie is conscious of the potential of the collaboration between artists and teachers in Virtually There to nurture teachers. She explains, ‘the artist can support the teacher to come back to their own creativity – to trust it’. She emphasises that in Virtually There the teacher does not ‘just’ take ‘a supporting role’, and the artist does not own ‘all the creativity’. Julie says that ‘Wendy’s part’ in planning sessions is ‘a vital part in the whole equation that is so rich’. Julie is clear that her relationship with Wendy has been close and productive, and the only obstacle to maintaining that closeness is that constriction of time together resulting from a secondary school teacher’s schedule (outlined in more detail below).238

Technology Ann Henderson begins her conversation with me when I visit her studio by observing, ‘that really is the beauty of the virtual – I can bring… 30 five-year-olds into all of this, and some of this [work and objects] has been here nearly 20 years’. Having initiated what would become the Virtually There project because of her need to work from home, Ann is clear on what the virtual connection brings: You’ve heard some artists talk about how the virtual is a really difficult thing, and it doesn’t sit very easily within what they’re doing, whereas for me… I hate technology but I love what you can do with it. For her, it can shape the concepts and the process she and the teachers undertake; it refines communication 234 Personal communication from Sharon Kelly, 13th March 2018. 235 Personal communication from Fionnuala Hughes, 24th April 2018. 236 Personal communication from Andrew Livingstone, 26th April 2018. 237 Personal communication from Paula Courtenay, 12th March 2018. 238 Personal communication from Julie Forrester, 23rd August 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

between her and the teachers and her and the children; it foregrounds the trust and closeness she shares with the teachers; it allows her to share her studio and her work in a very full way; and it enriches each cycle by bringing two or more places into relationship. Below I use my conversation with Ann to further unfold these ideas. Ann sees the shaping power of the virtual technology as related to how it frames communication. Because the artist and the teacher are in different places, communication is key, and the work relies on it. Communication, in turn, depends on the relationship to be effective. For example, sometimes she and Judith and Julie have to speak more slowly, and perhaps they hear only fragments of each other’s speech for a time. Ann says, It’s interesting, because you can’t talk as quickly as this, and you can’t use your hands, and you can’t show all of this [gesturing around the studio] at once, so it’s like a more concentrated version of everything, and that’s interesting, to have to do that. She goes on, ‘I’m really interested in how that affects what you do, then’. If communication fails, Ann knows that Judith and Julie will carry on while trying to restore it, and ‘that’s part of the experiment… so I’m really excited by how the virtual aspect influences processes as well’. In terms of communicating with the children virtually, Ann emphasises, ‘if the kids choose not to come to me, I can’t actually [work with them]’. While this may frustrate her occasionally, it gives the children some autonomy, too. She notes, as an adult working with children in the same room, ‘without even realising it you’re very much in control’. Ann is tall and is aware that her physical presence might be quite imposing for small children. But when she is confined virtually ‘to that wee box there in the corner… if they don’t want to listen to me, well… not a thing I can do about it’. Ann likes ‘the fact that it changes the dynamic’, though she knows that virtual work requires classroom management by a physically present teacher to structure her interactions with the children. One difficulty she identifies in communicating with the children is that when they speak off-screen, or with only parts of them visible, it can be a struggle to learn and remember their names. Because communication with individuals at the webcam is so focused and in the moment, perhaps only a sentence or two with any given child, Ann does not want to spend that time asking a child their name; she also is concerned that the child will feel hurt that she does not know it. As the artist, she has no control over where the camera goes, but Judith and Julie will try to call out a child’s name when asking them to talk or approach the camera. → Ballydown Primary School working with artist Ann Henderson


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

The technology gives Ann a lot of freedom in sharing her studio, however. She is in control of her webcam, of course, and frequently detaches it from her computer to focus closely on one object or another, or to move across the studio, or even to go outside. Not only do the children get a much richer idea of Ann’s practice and environment (which are intimately linked), but ‘I learn about… what’s sitting here [in the studio] through communicating to them… and see things and understand things differently’. Her current cycle in Ballydown Primary School is based on the concept of ‘skin’, and over Ann’s 17 years of work in her Rathlin studio, she has collected and produced many things that illuminate that concept. She can share with the children through the webcam what she would not be able to bring into the classroom, and the video camera can capture clarity in detail that seems to be absent from the still images the software produces. The whole studio context is important, too, including its layout and how books, materials, objects, drawings and photographs are arranged, and – as Ann says – the dust, which is interesting to her and can be discussed with the children. Because she is excited about what she has in the studio, she can communicate that excitement to the children. She explains, too, that ‘when you’re here, this is your headspace’, and not the classroom. She finds that it enables communication about her work and ideas that is both more intense and quieter. The children can sense and value her immersion in her space and her practice, and it gives them a real sense of what it is an artist does and what an artist’s space might look like. For Ann, being in her studio means that ‘it’ – the concept, the work, the process – ‘starts around me’, in her studio and in her place. That place is part of her practice, and through the webcam she can connect the children with that place too. She values ‘this idea of… connecting with your physical place – not just interior spaces but very much… the natural environment… [even] if you’re in a cityscape’, because ‘there’s all sorts of things you can tune into’. She explains further, ‘I think it’s really exciting that the virtual affords you that experience, whereas face-to-face you’re in the one physical place’. She and the children can go outside, experiment in tandem, return to the classroom and compare experiences and observations. For Ann, ‘that is my practice… connecting with… the place around you in very physical ways, and exploring and looking at those connections’. Therefore, the virtual connections between multiple spaces – the studio and its surroundings, the classroom and its surroundings – enable all participants to explore ideas and activities that would not arise if Ann and the teacher and the children were all in the same space week after week.239 Judith mentions the problems they have had with the technology they use, including audio delays, feedback and the microphone not working, but says that they are not worried by these and always find a way to overcome them. At the start of each cycle she works hard to make the children aware of where Ann is and how to interact with her, and has to reiterate this throughout the year. The classroom is a busy environment, with staff members and children coming and going throughout each day, and there is lots of competition for the children’s attention. Ann’s image on the interactive whiteboard is kept marginal and small-scale because they use it as a ‘third space’ on which to record and show pictures of Ann’s activity and the children’s activity, and thoughts and words Ann hears from the children. They also use it for shared drawing from time to time. Judith considers the children to be very focused on the virtual connection when she calls and recalls their attention to it, and she and Ann make sure to intercut time spent talking with time spent doing.240 For Ann Donnelly too the virtual connection brings a dynamic to the project that would be absent were the artists physically present in the classroom week by week. In the first six weeks of their work on Virtually There, 239 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 23rd April 2018. 240 Personal communication from Judith White, 29th November 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

she and Marcella struggled with what she describes as ‘flaky’ technology, but the process bonded them. They discovered commonality in their will to persevere and worked on finding simple ways to communicate, though experiencing difficulties with the technology was very stressful initially.241 Ann and Marcella have become more philosophical about it, particularly as they have observed the children accepting and working around the glitches without problems.242 Ann points out that the technology used in Virtually There shapes the project as a whole, because it demands meticulous planning at least at the start of a partnership. As time goes on and the artist-teacher pair develop knowledge of each other, there is room for improvisation and adaptation and each can trust that the other will fill in or respond as necessary. The technology, therefore, makes demands on the relationships between the partners. The work will be adversely affected if, within the framework of the software and when it does not function as it should, the artist and teacher do not know or trust each other sufficiently to communicate well or to improvise.243 In Ann’s opinion, if the artist was in the classroom with the teacher week by week through the project, there would be a shift in responsibility as well as relationship. The teacher may choose to step back, allowing the artist to take over her or his role, and giving entire responsibility for the outworking of the project to the artist. With a virtual connection, the teacher is as important as the artist. The artist arrives online not with ‘stuff’ but with ‘ideas’; ‘these ideas have to be communicated, and the teacher is the partner in communication’. This leads to a much deeper level of engagement between artist and teacher, and between teacher and project.244 Ann suggests too that the virtual connection allows both artist and teacher autonomy in how they behave and what they do around each session. They can connect with each other’s practices but be sensitive to the differences in how they work. Referring to the session she and Marcella did on the day I spoke to her, she says, If I was under her feet… if I was actually there, and if I was over her shoulder all the time and sitting in the same room, and if she finished her work and I went off and [observed ice melting] in the corner – I don’t think that would work… Whereas [with the virtual contact] she will be absolutely delighted to see whatever it is that happens… She is interested. But she just can’t spend her time in the same way.245 Marcella finds the school software she has to use for processing photographs taken during each session clumsy and time-consuming, and describes herself as becoming ‘impatient and frustrated’ while she does it. She finds the practical aspects of the project most stimulating, but is aware that Kids’ Own values the online journals, and she contributes to these despite the limits of school software. These journals are blogs intended to help represent and disseminate something of the work the artists, teachers and children carry out session by session, cycle by cycle, to a wider audience. Kids’ Own hosts the journals on its Virtually There website. Marcella is conscious too that this virtual archive constitutes evidence of what she and Ann are doing. 246 Over the years Ann and Marcella have made adaptive use of other technologies. Because they do not want to override security features on the school’s iPads which prevent them from being taken outside, they use FaceTime on Marcella’s smartphone now (with permission) to ‘bring’ Ann outside with the children when necessary or appropriate.247 241 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 19th January 2018. 242 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 6th March 2018. 243 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 19th January 2018. 244 Ibid. 245 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 6th March 2018. 246 Personal communication from Marcella Wilson, 6th March 2018. 247 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 6th March 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Like Ann Henderson, Ann Donnelly is aware of the possible effects on the children of their view into her workspace. Ann Donnelly prefers to keep one wall of her studio blank, and this is the view children have through her webcam. She finds that blank wall necessary for clarity in her thinking and imagining, and chooses to have it in the background in the hope that it provides a quiet headspace for the children too, though they may not be aware of it.248 As an artist, John is very technologically able, and technology is integral to his practice. He sees digital media and technology as enabling methodologies or tools for the outworking of his concepts. Therefore, he and Chris have used technology not only to connect to John in his studio, but as the basis of activities with the children. Because he is not in the classroom, John is able to stand apart from disciplinary issues and relates to the children as more of a peer than Chris does. Some he describes as ‘messers’, and because he can ‘slabber back’ (engage in teasing) from the screen, his dynamic with them remains relaxed and lively. He is conscious of his freedom from responsibility for classroom management.249 Chris explains that each child in his class – a special unit for children with moderate learning difficulties in a mainstream school – has an iPad for their own use, with relevant apps installed. Chris says, ‘I feel we can maybe rely too much on them’. He thinks that they come to be used thoughtlessly or lazily when used too much, and at his request, he and John foregrounded hands-on, materials-based activities in their second cycle. John connects to Chris and the children in the classroom through Skype on an iPad, which sits on a tripod and can be moved around. As Chris points out, ‘he’s limited by what he sees’, so it makes sense to make his viewpoint mobile. They use the interactive whiteboard for sharing and viewing images, and Chris describes Blackboard Collaborate as functioning like ‘an interactive Powerpoint’ for them. For Chris, losing the connection with John through problems with the technology places an extra burden on him as the teacher, and the adult present in the room with the children; he has to troubleshoot and regain the connection at the same time as managing the classroom. The likelihood of technical glitches enforces good planning, so that both artist and teacher know where the day’s session is directed, and know their strategies for getting back in touch. He thinks the children enjoy the novelty of seeing John on a screen, rather than in person, and feels John can reach them virtually in a way he could not physically. Chris notes that when John visits the classroom in person, he tends to defer to him on the matter of the concepts and activities, and concentrate on managing discipline and the children’s focus and energy levels, whereas when John is there virtually, Chris takes a much more active role in unfolding concepts and developing activities.250 Lisa mentions the particular difficulty she had at first in not being physically present with Leanne and the children when they embarked on Virtually There. This is not least because she is a dance artist and her practice is, of course, deeply physical as well as conceptual. For her, communication is very much about the body, too. Being virtually present with collaborative partners was new, and she has had to work hard to find ways of sharing her practice through that medium. Having worked with Leanne and children at Aughnacloy Primary School across two cycles now, she does not see being virtually present as a hindrance any more. It is clearer to her as time goes on how she as an artist can be part of a shared creative space virtually, and she explains, ‘Leanne is the artist in the room, the children are, and I am too’. For Lisa, ‘when we’re on it’s always good’. She notes that the children love coming to the webcam to talk to her in ones or twos and 248 Ibid. 249 Personal communication from John D’Arcy, 23rd January 2018. 250 Personal communication from Chris McCambridge, 18th December 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

she has enjoyed seeing them grow into that in both years. She feels that some of their best work is done at this time, when she can listen and give feedback to the children as individuals. She finds that sending parcels of materials enriches the experience of connecting with the children virtually.251 Leanne documents their Virtually There sessions very fully, taking up to 180 photographs per session, and would like an easy and secure way to share these with Lisa. She has advocated for Virtually There artists to be given access to the C2K schools network to expedite their sharing of material, but this proved to be impractical and impossible. Leanne considers Lisa’s physical presence during her visits to the school to be very important to the children, and would like more of these in each cycle.252 Julie reports some significant challenges to her virtual connection with students at Killard House, arising from Virtually There’s move from the primary-school context in which it evolved. Killard House School provides for children ‘with additional special educational needs’, and Julie works with Wendy in its postprimary (secondary) department.253 Virtually There, Julie thinks, has been most successful in primary schools, where the participating teacher has the opportunity to develop ideas with students across the curriculum and can make use of class time outside the Virtually There sessions to work on the online journal. In Killard House, the students participating in Virtually There have a weekly lesson with Wendy, their art teacher, lasting one-and-a-half hours. Wendy has no contact time with them outside of this lesson. Julie is aware that this restricts the potential for teacher and students to reflect upon and develop together what they have been exploring during sessions with the artist. During a session Julie gets plenty of face-to-face time with individual students, or small groups of students, at the screen, and very much values this direct interaction. Julie explains that there is mutual interest in connecting virtually from geographically distant places. The ‘faraway nearby’ allows for a special kind of intimacy and the students enjoy connecting remotely with her in the studio and thinking about her living and working in Cork. She says, ‘I really enjoy the one-to-one moments’, elaborating that ‘the spontaneity is challenging and fun’. She is attracted by the potential of the interactive whiteboard to allow for sequenced collaborative drawing, and enjoys the dynamism of posting images and text according to instinct as the session unfolds. She sees the whiteboard as a space functioning beyond its two dimensions, through which she can engage in ‘very live’ drawing and image-making, and facilitate intimate sessions with one or two students at a time.254 However, Julie says that the time she gets with students at the webcam can take place as if ‘through veils and veils and veils’, when the quality of the image and audio are poor. During work with the whole group, it is difficult for Julie to view students from the webcam since they are silhouetted against the room’s large windows. She cannot easily identify them as individuals and see what they are doing. Julie has been frustrated by the technological limitations she experiences in Virtually There, and suggests that for the project to ‘shine’ and to be ‘as big as it could be’, both Kids’ Own and the school need to make ‘real investment’ in a teacher’s learning and confidence. She and Wendy have struggled to solve technological problems during a session, especially when Julie knows that full access to functions in Blackboard Collaborate and a hand in setting up the audio-visual equipment in the classroom would allow her to provide a fix. Julie mentions that 251 Personal communication from Lisa Cahill, 19th February 2018. 252 Personal communication from Leanne Kyle, 20th March 2018. 253, accessed 6th September 2018. 254 Personal communication from Julie Forrester, 15th January, 15th May, 23rd August and 6th September 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

she and Wendy are not fully exploiting the interactive possibilities of the whiteboard and the potential of being ‘virtually there’. Julie would like to be able to use audio-visual equipment in the classroom (in real space) to add to the dialogue already taking place on the screen (in virtual space). At times, she says, ‘I’d love to have been in the classroom’. Julie has thought about how to get more time for the children on Virtually There outside of their weekly session, and wondered whether a relationship could be established with an Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) teacher to enable Virtually There-linked activities to take place during other lessons (such as working on the online journal). For her, the technological aspect of the project ‘needs an organisational overview’, so that different levels of confidence with or access to technology among artists, teachers and students can be addressed and brought to adequate functionality for the virtual engagement in each school.255 This links to further comments Julie makes on the potential for the website, and sharing Virtually There on the internet, to foreground ‘the quiet online voice’ of the child participants. As an artist, she says, she draws ‘support and inspiration’ from sharing her processes and her work and being able to access those of the other artists on the Virtually There website. She suggests that if the online journals that populate the Virtually There website were explored and exploited more effectively as a resource, they might offer the same support and inspiration to the children and young people involved. Julie sees the website as ‘an extraordinarily powerful medium for the direct authorship of individual students’. At present she believes the children’s voices can be ‘submerged’ in the journals beneath what the artist and teacher present. For Julie, online the children are seen in terms of their group identity, and the artist and teacher as individuals with creative agency in planning and developing the work. This reflects a ‘traditional management hierarchy’ she would ‘somehow love to subvert’. Recognising the challenges of encouraging individual voices to emerge, and knowing that most of the children most of the time probably do not think much about their online contributions to Virtually There, Julie nonetheless poses the question of whether the website could be used to better reflect and communicate independent ideas from individual child and student participants. Naomi began her experience of Virtually There on a pilot programme in County Leitrim in the Republic of Ireland. Because the school and her studio were five minutes’ walk from each other, it was very tempting to go there in person when technological difficulties were breaking down communication. It forced her to think carefully about why she was connecting virtually rather than physically. This led her to realise that she was establishing a different kind of connection with her teacher partner, and sometimes that connection was of a higher quality than might have been achieved face-to-face. As Naomi explains, ‘you have to listen so much better… you have to think [more clearly] about what you want to say’. She too values sharing her studio with the children, and feels they get to know her work-space very closely. Stella told her last year that on occasion she felt almost as if the children were going to climb through the screen to get into that space. This sharing of her studio space through Virtually There has influenced her in other projects to connect her audience more explicitly and more closely to her studio. Like Ann Henderson, she talks about ‘this place’ as a specific site from which she is communicating, and which shapes her communication with Stella and the children. Having said this, Naomi has criticisms of the technology and how it functions too. She is frustrated by the limited view she gets of the classroom and the children, though Stella works to mitigate this by rotating them 255 Personal communication from Julie Forrester, 15th January, 15th May and 23rd August 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

in front of the camera. She finds the audio quality poor, and frequently misses what the children are saying to her through the webcam. She suggests that a headset for the children here might help, allowing them to be heard first time and to pitch their voices naturally. Naomi too struggles to be heard through the webcam in the noisy classroom, and cannot – from the screen – easily command the children’s attention when they are distracted. Her distance from the classroom means that ‘sometimes I think I find it hard to read the energy… of what’s happening’. Over the course of her work with Stella their communication during sessions has improved, and Stella will guide Naomi on the children’s energy in the classroom. Again, this will work only when there is mutual trust between artist and teacher.256 Andrew and Paula have found the virtual connection frustrating when software does not work as it should. They have got permission to use FaceTime, so that Andrew appears in the classroom on an iPad, though Andrew would like the iPad to be mobile and to be passed around from child to child in the classroom. He would value that intimate communication with each child and view of their work. Because of the technology, he says, ‘you certainly have to plan’, whereas in-person activities and discussions could be more fluid or spontaneous. Andrew reflects, ‘sometimes I don’t like to be so prescriptive’.257 Paula notes the reaction of the children when they see Andrew in person for the first time; on one occasion, the children were not prewarned he would be visiting the class, and they were ‘gobsmacked’ when he appeared.258 ↑ Aughnacloy Primary School working with artist Lisa Cahill

Sharon reports an ‘extraordinary’ experience of having been brought on a handheld device into a den which Fionnuala and the children had constructed in their emptied classroom. She and the children talked about what they could see from there.259

Children’s experiences and effects on them All artists and teachers speak of the positive experiences the children have had and the ongoing positive effects of these experiences. Ann Henderson’s view is that ‘our particular education system has gone [towards] seeing that academic success is to be celebrated… [and] there’s multiple intelligences… just squashed… into not being’. Through Virtually There, she and Judith and Julie are supporting children as individuals to be and think and speak and do in ways that tend not to be facilitated in curricular learning. Ann, Judith and Julie make space during each cycle to hear from the children about their experience. They are aware that even a year or more after the children have finished participating in Virtually There, it remains a living experience and continues to take effect.260 Speaking in more detail of how she sees the children benefiting through their work together, Ann explains that they privilege process over outcome. Though, ‘in the last decade… there’s a wider understanding that product isn’t everything’, the drive for outcome significantly shapes the education system and curricula still, and academic achievement remains paramount. Ann, Judith and Julie plan each session, but as it unfolds it is changed and refined and expanded by each of them, the children and the classroom assistants in the 256 Personal communication from Naomi Draper, 22nd March 2018. 257 Personal communication from Andrew Livingstone, 26th April 2018. 258 Personal communication from Paula Courtenay, 12th March 2018. 259 Personal communication from Sharon Kelly, 13th March 2018. 260 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 23rd October 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

room that day. They allow the plan to flex to accommodate the energy or interest in that particular room on that particular day. Ann calls this ‘a different kind of space’, in which children can speak whatever comes into their minds on a given idea or theme, and need not fear being incorrect. For Ann, Whatever comes into your head… it’s relevant because you’ve thought it – and that’s good enough. It doesn’t even have to make sense to anyone else… [and] as Judith keeps saying, that just doesn’t happen anywhere else in the curriculum… and [there] everything has an answer… a right and a wrong. She goes on, Conversation… is a big, big part of what we do… [and] it does help everybody to value themselves and what they’ve got [to offer], because… there genuinely is no right and wrong… and sometimes there are particular processes [they need to do correctly] but… within the conversation and people’s opinions… a five-year-old’s interpretation of it is as valid as mine. Ann has observed that it usually takes a few weeks for the children to ‘step into that space’, but for her and Judith and Julie, ‘talking is part of our process… it’s not a case of, this is the art, and that’s not the art’. Part of it is simply that ‘we get to explore these curious things’ for which no other time or space is allowed.261 Explaining further what this process of exploration can look like, Ann talks about a ‘tandem activity’ she carried out with Judith’s Year 2 children. Doing activities in tandem with the children is part of Ann’s communication. On one occasion, Judith told Ann that the children needed a few minutes’ break from doing and talking, and would just sit quietly in the classroom. Ann said she would do the same, and as she sat in the studio a strong shaft of sunlight came through the window and she used a dustpan and brush she had in the corner to slowly brush up some of the sunlit dust. Ann describes it as ‘meditative’, and as the children watched ‘it became a performance’.262 ← St Colman’s Primary School working with artist John D’Arcy

261 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 23rd April 2018. 262 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Occasionally, Ann and Judith and Julie bring the children in the two year groups together to work, and ‘that is interesting, the communication between each other’. The children have found great enjoyment and stimulus in talking to each other about their work, and the adults see an energy between the two age-groups in communicating with each other on the theme they share and the work they have produced. Ann thinks the children like the fact that ‘there’s some kind of partnership going on’, which does not happen anywhere else in the curriculum in Ballydown Primary School.263 Ann does not tend to know anything about the children outside of their engagement with Virtually There, unless it is necessary, as in the case of special educational needs. She does not speak with Judith or Julie about any behavioural or academic or social problems the children may have, and these are not issues in the context of Virtually There. As Ann sees it, the different approach possible in the project ‘provides opportunities for other kinds of intelligences [to come to the fore]’, and she reports that Judith and Julie note year by year the active participation in Virtually There of children who struggle in literacy or numeracy or to communicate or engage with others. As Ann points out, however, there are also children who find the freedom of Virtually There a challenge, namely those who are used to working within the rigid framework of academic education and can operate well in it; ‘they know where it should go, and that it has an answer, and they can work that out’.264 Judith discusses the experience of her Year 2s within Virtually There in terms of development, freedom and nurture. There are plenty of opportunities for group work, in which children share ideas and solve problems together. As a class with Ann, they take lots of time to think together and talk through the concepts Ann introduces, and Judith and Ann always emphasise that the children cannot be wrong in what they say. They get lots of children – if not all children – engaged in each conversation, which is integral to their process, though time-consuming. Judith says, Children from a very early age, they’ll know – who can draw and who can’t draw… they decide probably earlier than P1… and with the art project, there’s none of that… It’s those children that struggle, in lots of other areas, find a wee niche with what we’re doing… They excel – they find an interest there and a confidence that they wouldn’t normally have. Though Judith as a teacher allows for some fluidity in the day outside of Virtually There, she acknowledges the tendency to push children to move on in other areas of the curriculum. She sees Virtually There as ‘all about taking it slow’: It’s slowing it down for them to be heard… that time to experiment, that time to… discuss… and explore… if there’s something that comes up, you know, we can go off the beaten track. Judith references two boys from last year’s cycle who presented in class with significant speech and language problems; Ann knew nothing about this, and at the end of the cycle commended them to Judith for their level of engagement. Judith explains this as follows: I don’t think they link it with school work. And they’re experiencing a freedom… there was freedom to talk. Whereas he was panicking and worrying whenever he was maybe doing reading or answering other questions. When asked to what extent the children are collaborative partners, Judith says that while they do not have 263 Ibid. 264 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

input to her planning process with Ann, she and Ann listen to the children’s ideas and work to make them feel valued and heard. They prioritise being responsive and discuss with the children where they would like the ideas and activities to go. She sums up: I would like to think that they feel that by all the talking that they’re doing that they are an important factor and that they are leading and helping us, and yet at the same time they are so young, it’s hard to know if they would be able to understand that… The mindfulness of it is so, so important… really delving very, very deeply – you know it’s a big thing for very young children, and yet I do feel we are achieving it.265 Julie adds that all the talking done through Virtually There helps children who struggle with writing to articulate themselves verbally; they both hone their communication skills and get to feel heard and understood.266 Ann Donnelly’s priority is to give the children she works with opportunity to try new activities and talk about the concepts underpinning them. When she is working with very young children, she is aware of how much they have not experienced and how open they are – ‘that’s really special… that kind of openness’ – and tries to contribute to their learning by giving them experiences they may not get otherwise. She says, ‘there’s so many directions that art can take, and I want them to understand that’. Ann approaches her planning with Marcella by thinking about what she did at that age, and what she would have liked to do, including developing manual skills, playing outdoors and connecting with the environment. She is aware of how large their outdoors activities loom in their minds, because ‘we’ve done so little of going outside, compared to what they remember’. With the children, Ann and Marcella like to ‘give them time and see’ what they are capable of carrying out, so they will push a little to develop in them a willingness to try. Ann tends to use photography with children in each cycle, and was thrilled while working with Year 1s for the first time last year when one child ‘spontaneously documented their work, without being told’. For Ann, That just made me think, yes. That they had the instinct to do it… the visual language thing is really important – and that that becomes second nature to them. She references another moment of deep satisfaction with the work when during that day’s session a group of children came into the classroom from outside before Marcella did, and from her studio, Ann could hear ‘there was a wee moment where there was a hum… where they got to that concentration level… they just got into themselves’.267 Like Ann Henderson, Ann Donnelly’s work is very much about process. She says, ‘I think that process is an artform’, and it is part of what she is able to offer the children with whom she works. She tends to work from the curriculum, but emphasises that this is not in order to justify what she and Marcella do in Virtually There. Rather, if they build on themes or ideas the class are engaged with already, they can take more time for process and less for explanation and training. When Marcella is able to follow up on their work outside of the sessions, ‘I think the children’s understanding is deeper, and we get further’. In Ann’s experience, For a child, something simpler can be sometimes interesting, and you have to appreciate that and give them the time to do some of the simpler stuff… Even 265 Personal communication from Judith White, 29th November 2018. 266 Personal communication from Julie Orr, 18th April 2018. 267 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 6th March 2018.


↓ St James’s Primary School working with artist Naomi Draper

Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

though it might seem as though we’re doing quite ambitious things, we’re actually cutting way back on what we’re asking for – but then they keep exceeding our expectations… You think they might get to here [gestures] and then they leapfrog over, and other times you have to go back and unpick it all again, and go really slowly. In either case, ‘we don’t have anywhere in particular that we have to get to’, and the children benefit from that open-endedness. Younger children especially do not need outcomes, Ann believes, benefiting much more from fluidity and flexibility and also from Ann and Marcella being present with them in each moment.268 To Ann’s views, Marcella adds her firm belief that communication is key to the whole project. She explains that it is hard to show just how valuable all the talking and listening is to the children, though she knows it. What they do in Virtually There is the opposite of conventional education, in that ‘we don’t have the answers because we don’t know what they’re going to do’. The exploratory nature of the work is very important, and moving children away from the idea that art is copying a picture or colouring in a template. Marcella, with Ann, always thinks about how to get the children to be more active and take more responsibility for their activities, even in terms of tidying up. Because of the active element of their work, Marcella notes that ‘it’s memories that you’re creating as well as skill-sets, isn’t it?’. The children are praised and encouraged consistently throughout Virtually There cycles. Whereas in some schools, ‘creativity is curbed’, through Virtually There all children are made to feel valued and confident in their thinking and their doing.269 Sharon sees what she can give children through Virtually There as the ability to engage in expansive or profound thought processes, to be able to examine closely and see the worth of things that might seem insignificant to others. She emphasises that ‘children teach us a lot’, and that she is learning from them and alongside them.270 Fionnuala is certain of what her pupils get from participating in Virtually There. They are engaging in – and valuing – process and sidestepping the pressure to produce outcomes. Further, they are developing an aesthetic appreciation of the world around them. Fionnuala says, ‘art does serve a purpose… it elevates… it has actually turned our ideas upside down’, and shows the children how art is linked to the real world and real lives, and what it might mean for them as individuals. Like Marcella, she thinks the hands-on work benefits the children, explaining, ‘there’s memories there because they’re doing the stuff… it’s not an art appreciation class’. Further, though the children in her class are diverse in terms of their backgrounds and the support they might have at home, they operate on a level playing field in Virtually There and Sharon adds ‘such positive reinforcement’ through her awareness of individuals by name and her praise. Fionnuala sees Virtually There as ‘a time-out from the pressures of the curriculum’, and particularly appreciates ‘the open-ended questions that it asks’.271 Leanne is a strong advocate for Virtually There in terms of what it does for the children. In the first year, when she had worried initially about the children missing out on literacy and numeracy, her worries disappeared as she observed them becoming ‘competent’ in all sorts of ways. She states, ‘I think that’s all due to the project’. Through it, they were engaging in leadership, collaboration, design and communication. An autistic class member who had not yet been able to make eye contact or speak in class interviewed Lisa for a video the class made to show at a special assembly detailing their work on Virtually There. The child’s mother, 268 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 6th March 2018. 269 Personal communication from Marcella Wilson, 6th March 2018. 270 Personal communication from Sharon Kelly, 13th March 2018. 271 Personal communication from Fionnuala Hughes, 24th April 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

watching, broke down in tears, and Leanne observes, ‘sometimes you underestimate what you’re doing’. She describes as ‘incredible’ what the children learn from the project in terms of vocabulary and communication. Leanne was convinced that the boys in her class would refuse to engage when they began working with Lisa, but has discovered that they love it. Leanne remembers, ‘you could just see the concentration in their faces’, especially during the sensory warm-ups. Leanne explains that this ‘just contributes so much to their fine motor skills and their gross motor skills’, especially for Year 2s in terms of awareness of left and right. Further positive effects include ‘children coming out of their shells’, talking much more confidently and spontaneously and developing and honing their listening and thinking skills. Leanne reflects, ‘That class that I had last year – they turned into wee leaders. Their confidence just spiked’. The children flourish in an environment in which ‘they know they don’t have to play it safe’, which Leanne illustrates with an example from this year’s cycle. Lisa sent paper pre-folded into a triangle as the starting point for an origami exercise. Handing out the paper, Leanne emphasised (backed up by Lisa) that the children could unfold the paper and proceed in their own way if they wanted. Leanne tells me that each child unfolded Lisa’s triangle and tried their own method. This is evidence that they are becoming both ‘confident and curious’.272 Lisa adds to Leanne’s assessment that the children benefit considerably from listening to and engaging with the body, especially through sensory work, and ‘slowing down’. Her role as witness allows the children to feel ‘seen and heard’. Like other artists, she is interested in privileging process, and reflecting on the act of recording the children’s voiced thoughts, she muses, ‘even that is process… maybe that is the art this year’. She considers the children to have become skilled in ‘holding the unknown’.273 Stella identifies the sensory work she and Naomi do as of special benefit for one of the last cycle’s participants with special educational needs. One parent told her that Naomi is spoken about at home all the time, and her son is very excited to see Naomi onscreen each week. She feels it is very important for the children to learn to experiment, to try something and let go of it and try again if needs be. There is much learning inherent in following the process, regardless of outcome, including the ability to collaborate. As a cycle progresses, Stella sees the children’s literacy and language skills advance (especially for the children speaking English as a second or third language) by talking about their work in front of the whole class and to Naomi. Naomi favours working with very young children, finding that they are less self-conscious and more open to experimentation. In her opinion, ‘the experience and the engagement – they really like that’, and they have no problem spending their day using materials but producing no tangible or lasting outcome.274 Chris assesses the effects of Virtually There on the children in his class wholly positively. Although they are aware of and use various digital technologies, through the project they are using these more thoughtfully and creatively. Chris also appreciates ‘the fact that they’re engaging with another practitioner, who isn’t me – and they’re developing a relationship with him and… they can ask questions’. The children always look forward to their sessions with John, because they are fun, and for Chris, they also entail learning in literacy, numeracy and verbal skills that the children absorb without seeming to realise it. To Chris, the opportunity for children to talk about their work in front of the class is very important, and he has been surprised and delighted by how willing they are to do this in the context of Virtually There; ‘[usually] they would be very 272 Personal communication from Leanne Kyle, 20th March 2018. 273 Personal communication from Lisa Cahill, 19th February 2018. 274 Personal communication from Naomi Draper, 22nd March 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

much reluctant to do that’. Last year Chris made little films of them explaining their process through the project, ‘discussing the abstract nature of their work’, and explains ‘that, to me, was a big thing’. The children regularly come up with ideas Chris had not thought of, and he concludes, ‘they’re learning a lot – maybe things I didn’t think they would learn’.275 John comments, ‘we laugh a lot now, especially this year’. He is taken aback regularly by the children’s novel responses to his open-ended questions, and says, ‘there’s such a spectrum of the output they give back’. If they ‘get the brief totally wrong’, then that is interesting, and if they ‘hit the nail on the head’, he is impressed. For John, though, the greatest successes are instances when the children do unexpected things. These show they are not just listening, following instructions and mimicking what they see, but absorbing and innovating.276 Paula too speaks very highly of the experiences her pupils have had in Virtually There. She and Vanessa define the key benefits as engaging with experimentation, the freedom to articulate their thoughts without being judged right or wrong and the freedom from pressure to produce an outcome. Paula considers the level of discourse around concepts in the project very sophisticated, and is proud of the children’s ability to talk about complex ideas and even feelings. Their language skills and empathy levels improve through this process. Some of them – especially those whose behaviour can be hard to manage – find the manual work soothing, and Paula describes it as ‘therapeutic’. In the current cycle, ‘the children are absolutely loving it’, and parents have commented on positive developments they have observed in their children, too. One mother whose son and daughter had gone through Virtually There with Vanessa and Paula respectively told Paula she could not ask for a better experience for her children. In the last cycle a child who had lost her father and had been unable to talk about her grief to anyone (including her mother) for eight or nine months started talking to Paula about it through an activity in one of the sessions with Andrew. For Paula, Virtually There provides a safe, relaxed environment in which children can be different from how they are in mainstream school.277 Like Paula, Andrew hears praise from parents of their children’s experiences in Virtually There. He knows how rich the conceptual discussions can be, and how much of the curriculum they encompass and exceed. For him, the online journals are a profound method of recording and sharing process, and an excellent reflective learning tool. He references the engagement with empathy catalysed by the experience of making something with clay and leaving it outside to be affected by the weather. With Vanessa, the children made houses, in the context of discussing climate change and natural disaster, and discussed the disintegration of the models and how that would feel if they were real houses. Once again, with the deliberate destruction of an outcome, the power of process and experience is foregrounded. As Andrew says, ‘you can create, make, but then to surrender that to something’ is significant.278 Julie Forrester points out that her distance from the students’ everyday reality offers them something new, an escape from the classroom and an alternative way of relating to an adult professional. She approaches them with no preconceptions.279 Julie experiences working with young people as ‘much more visceral’ than with adults ‘because they’re really finding things out for the first time’. The process is ‘fertile’ because they are keen to discover. She praises the ‘creative environment’ of special schools, and their appreciation of all students in all their diversity.280 Wendy considers that Julie’s input to the art education the students receive 275 Personal communication from Chris McCambridge, 18th December 2017. 276 Personal communication from John D’Arcy, 23rd January 2018. 277 Personal communications from Paula Courtenay, 9th and 12th March 2018. 278 Personal communication from Andrew Livingstone, 26th April 2018. 279 Personal communication from Julie Forrester, 23rd August 2018. 280 Personal communication from Julie Forrester, 15th May 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

at Killard House engages them more closely than would be possible otherwise. Because she pushes them to think a little further at every opportunity, they gain deeper understanding of the concepts and practices introduced in Virtually There.281 In Julie’s first cycle at Killard House, she observed significant effects on the students of their work on the theme of transformation. One student described it as ‘blending in and standing out’, and as Julie notes, ‘he was really talking from his heart when he said that… [thinking about] what it meant to be himself’. Another boy, usually reserved and quiet, was given permission to indulge his passion for Batman and spent the last session (a field trip) in costume, which for Julie ‘transformed’ him. In exploring appearance and identity, the students were ‘very vulnerable but also very strong’. Julie says, ‘it was quite a deep and moving learning curve we went on’, in which playful activities like dressing up, ‘psychologically… emerged as something much more profound’.282 I was able to spend a little time talking to pupils at Aughnacloy Primary School and Donaghey Primary School. Years 2 and 3 in Aughnacloy Primary School thought of Lisa both like and unlike a teacher. She was like a teacher because ‘she helps you know… how to make stuff’, but ‘she doesn’t do… maths and… English’. They knew she was a dance artist, though they went on to define an artist as ‘a painter’ or someone ‘making lots of stuff’. They had plenty to say about what they had liked during their sessions with Lisa, including dancing, origami and pair exercises in which a blindfolded partner was talked through work with paper by a non-blindfolded partner. Much of this was described as ‘fun’.283 Years 1 and 2 in Donaghey told me that they did ‘experiments’ with Ann. Further, they did painting and she showed them pictures. One child said, ‘we are exploring with Ann’ and another said, ‘we look at things what are very… interesting’. They defined Ann as ‘a artist’ and told me, ‘artists use things and they check out them’. They cited painting with watercolours and making and using charcoal as among their favourite activities, as well as ‘making leaf soup with Ann’, ‘leaf sandwiches’, ‘the fire and the smoke off the fire’. Taking up each other’s ideas, two children said that the purpose of making leaf soup and leaf sandwiches was ‘to see… what happened’. When asked if any of them imagined becoming an artist, several said yes, and one elaborated on what s/he would do, explaining, ‘you can do everything you want but you are allowed to do some exploring today’.284 Anecdotally, while observing a session with Julie at Killard House, I heard pupils enthusing about their experience to each other. Comments included, ‘I enjoyed that’, and ‘yeah, I loved it’. When they were brought back to their desks and told to thank Julie, they asked ‘can we do it more often?’ and ‘can we do it again tomorrow?’.285 ← Ballydown Primary School working with artist Ann Henderson

281 Personal communication from Wendy Davey, 15th January 2018. 282 Personal communication from Julie Forrester, 23rd August 2018. 283 Personal communications from Years 2 and 3, Aughnacloy Primary School, 14th May 2018. 284 Personal communications from Years 1 and 2, Donaghey Primary School, 6th March 2018. 285 Personal communications from Year 9, Killard House, Donaghadee, 15th January 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Mentoring and support The role of Kids’ Own in nurturing and developing Virtually There and the artist–teacher partnerships is acknowledged widely, particularly by the artists. Ann Henderson developed the idea with Orla Kenny from an embryonic stage, and says, I’m under no illusion – without Orla… it certainly wouldn’t be this big thing, involving other schools and teachers… and it certainly wouldn’t have been funded so consistently for sure, for sure… it wouldn’t have had this time to evolve. She knows the project to be much richer because of its longevity and Kids’ Own has secured funding year after year to create that longevity. When Kids’ Own got money to expand the project, Ann says that, because she trusts Orla’s decision-making ‘so thoroughly’, it was exciting. The project continues to change and develop, and ‘we’re feeling our way’. One recent change has been Orla ‘having to sidestep… for the time being’, which Ann considers to have had an impact. Ann says that when she applies for funding herself, and gets to shape a project, she uses Kids’ Own’s shaping of Virtually There as a template: It works well – when you’ve relationships with people and you want to work with them, you need to leave the time to plan and think with them… you need to leave the time to experience things with them. If it’s going to be a meaningful process, you need to leave time to think. → Aughnacloy Primary School working with artist Lisa Cahill

This time is present in Virtually There because Orla has fought year after year to fund paid reflection time for artists and teachers. Ann sees this as fundamental, asking, How can an artist come to a project if there’s not time to… further their thinking?... How can I bring my practice if I haven’t time to… work on my practice, as part of the project[?] Ann deeply appreciates Kids’ Own’s understanding of artists’ practices, which enables them to support artists appropriately and sensitively. She says, ‘I find I get to work as an artist with Kids’ Own’, in contrast to other contexts in which she has had to fight for the space to think about, plan and reflect on her work. She credits Kids’ Own too with avoiding complacency, continuing to ask participants about their experiences and needs, and adapting accordingly: Kids’ Own, and Orla and Jo… are never afraid to change the shape of the project around the needs of the participants.286 Kids’ Own, Ann Donnelly observes, believes in working with the same artists again and again, and in long-term projects. This long-term work is important, and for Ann, the idea of ‘long-term’ in this project relates to her relationship with Marcella and her relationship with Kids’ Own: It’s understanding what is the long-term [impact] of me being in the school, or of me being around Donaghey… it’s figuring out if that makes a difference in the long term… and I think it does… Beyond [the relationship with Marcella] does it change anything else in the children, or does it change anything else in the possibilities [for other teachers]?

286 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 23rd April 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Apart from this, Ann explains that Kids’ Own gives artists licence to follow their own path, which is an important part of its support: To be allowed to proceed, and let it go the direction it’s going – I don’t think it would work if we were steered.287 Marcella agrees with this assessment, appreciating the trust afforded her as a professional and an expert in her field by Kids’ Own.288 Speaking of funding, Ann judges Virtually There to pay artists decently now, though in the past funding has fluctuated. At one point, paid time for all planning, reflection and contact time was reduced to one day, and at another point contact time was funded for a whole day. Ann is philosophical about the vagaries of funding, and points out that this is only the second year since the project began that Kids’ Own and artists and teachers have known that funding will stretch beyond one year. She feels that this uncertainty has prevented Kids’ Own and the participants from becoming complacent, though she is keenly aware of the benefits that longevity brings.289 Sharon echoes Ann’s and Marcella’s sense of the trust reposed in them by Kids’ Own. The organisation’s willingness in Virtually There to allow teachers and artists autonomy in their work is very important to Sharon. She notes, however, that this light-handed approach is balanced by the support and advice offered when it is needed. Sharon goes on to speak of funding, prefacing her remarks with the comment, I feel a lot of goodwill… for Kids’ Own and in particular for Orla… a lot of her dogged belief in valuing artists… is responsible for what this has become. Despite this value, Sharon says that if she were to add up all the hours she spends on Virtually There, they would far exceed the hours for which she is paid. This extra time she gives has never been talked about, though if she (and others) did not give it, ‘it would be a different project’. Generally, artists are paid poorly in consideration of their experience and expertise, so she feels it is very positive that Kids’ Own actively sought payment for planning and reflection time as well as contact time. That gesture of paying artists more appropriately for their input is appreciated and important, and though that input could be valued more highly, Sharon is glad it is being given a value at all.290 Julie Forrester has been inspired and motivated for years by the aspirations of Kids’ Own. She describes the organisation as having ‘a big heart’, and Julie loves Kids’ Own’s sense of the potential beyond the explicit aims and objectives of any given project. Julie considers that Virtually There is rich in planning time and knows that this type of long-term, serious project for artists is very rare. In her experience, other projects tend to limit paid time to contact and expect outcomes. Nonetheless, she thinks all artists give more than they are paid for, and explains, Artists are on the periphery of things with institutions… and as long as we’re on the periphery we’re going to be squeezed. Julie herself finds it hard to keep her spending of time within the boundaries of the funding, but the work is rewarding, so she does not count the cost too closely. Regarding mentoring and support in Virtually There, Julie feels it is still at an early stage of development. She appreciates that Kids’ Own is trying to work out what is needed by listening to the artists and teachers and responding. She particularly valued some peer support she and Lisa Cahill had together, mainly through conversations on three days of walks, 287 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 6th March 2018. 288 Personal communication from Marcella Wilson, 6th March 2018. 289 Personal communication from Ann Donnelly, 6th March 2018. 290 Personal communication from Sharon Kelly, 13th March 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

and Maree Hensey’s facilitated reflection sessions for artists have been helpful. Because of the particular constraints on her work with Wendy (and briefly with Claire) at Killard House as a secondary school, she sees an advocacy role for Kids’ Own in Virtually There. Julie has direct access only to the teacher with whom she works, whereas Kids’ Own would be well placed to lobby the principal of Killard House for proper technical support and to extend work in Virtually There across subjects. Julie concludes with the comment that collaborative work is a specific practice, and collaborative work in schools with teachers and children is even more specific, and needs specific support.291 Naomi always has felt very well supported by Kids’ Own in Virtually There. However, to do the project well a lot of time is needed, and she was disappointed when the artists from the Republic of Ireland suffered a drop in their fees on the project this year because of a change in the exchange rate between sterling and euro. She found the peer mentoring days organised this year very helpful. She and Lisa Cahill and Julie Forrester met with Jo from Kids’ Own and Maree Hensey and were facilitated to discuss and reflect on their experiences, and Naomi says, ‘that day was just so brilliant’. For her, the big meetings ‘just skate on the surface’ and tend to focus on logistics, whereas mentoring and peer support is in-depth. Naomi would like to have mentoring with Stella as a pair, taking time to be away from their own practices and explore ideas, though she feels it is also useful and nourishing for artist–teacher pairs to have separate mentoring time.292 Andrew’s experience of Kids’ Own and Virtually There is very positive. He particularly appreciates recent funding for the project allowing more time for planning and reflection. In his opinion, Kids’ Own is always self-reflexive and staff act on what they hear from the participants about their needs; because of this, the project adapts, changes and grows. In terms of practical support, Andrew benefits from getting together with the other artists to look at their practices together.293 Paula, having arranged her own mentoring experience with Vanessa, who, in addition to time paid by Kids’ Own, volunteered on an informal basis, questions whether the type of mentoring offered by Kids’ Own is the type of mentoring all or any teachers need or want.294 → St Colman’s Primary School working artist John D’Arcy

291 Personal communication from Julie Forrester, 15th May 2018. 292 Personal communication from Naomi Draper, 22nd March 2018. 293 Personal communication from Andrew Livingstone, 26th April 2018. 294 Personal communication from Paula Courtenay, 9th March 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

The case-study research ← Killard House School working with artist Julie Forrester

Introduction It will be clear from the previous section detailing research findings from the first year of engagement with artists, teachers and children that Virtually There is a complex project, working itself out in varied ways according to individuals’ practices, their relationships, the contexts in which they work, successive groups of child participants, Kids’ Own’s support and the parameters of funding. For this reason, I focused the second year of Action Research on two schools and three partnerships as case studies. It meant sacrificing a second year of breadth for a year of depth. I knew that I would miss seeing something of what was developing and unfolding in six of the eight participant schools, but in the two case-study schools, I would be able to probe in much more detail how exactly Virtually There operated and was experienced. Any of the partnerships would have rewarded further study, and it was difficult to choose two. After consultation with Kids’ Own and the participants themselves, I arranged to further my research with artist Ann Henderson and her two partner teachers in Ballydown Primary School, Judith White and Julie Orr; and with artist Lisa Cahill and her partner teacher in Aughnacloy Primary School, Leanne Kyle. I asked these partnerships to be my case studies for a number of reasons. Ann Henderson was the first artist to work with Kids’ Own in this virtual way. She initiated the idea and arranged to partner with Judith White, with whom she had worked previously on a Kids’ Own project. They have been collaborating for 13 years on Virtually There and form the longest-running team. Julie Orr too has worked with Ann on Virtually There for a long time, and the three have built close and trusting relationships. They have had the time to develop complete confidence in their work together, and therefore to allow for open-ended exploration of ideas with subtlety and complexity. Ann thinks of her practice as indivisible from her work in Virtually There. She works with ideas, drawings, photographs and objects. Lisa Cahill’s partnership with Leanne Kyle is more recent. This is their third year working together. Leanne was asked to join Virtually There by her principal, and was paired with Lisa by Orla. They were two of a raft of new participants recruited with the support of Paul Hamlyn Foundation funding. Lisa is a dance artist, and the only Virtually There artist to use her body in this way. She and Leanne rapidly developed a committed friendship and partnership, discovering shared interests and shared energy for their work with children at Aughnacloy Primary School. Lisa trained and worked as a teacher before becoming an artist, too.

Methodology In order to understand these participants as individuals and as teams, I observed further sessions in the classrooms; I observed one session from Ann’s studio; I convened a conversation with Julie, Judith and Leanne together, during which they explored their individual and collective experiences in and of Virtually There as teachers; I spent time with Lisa and Leanne on one of their reflection days; and I spoke again to both artists individually about their practices and their experiences in and of Virtually There. I wanted to hear more from the children in my case-study schools, too. There is a certain amount to be gleaned during observation of sessions, but I felt that a more purposeful and structured interaction with the


Open Space: action research report the Virtually Bryonie ReidAn Action research report onfrom Virtually There There project


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

← Ballydown Primary School working with artist Ann Henderson

children would be beneficial. I aimed to ask specific questions, but to avoid being directive, and allow the children their own responses, whatever those might be. The questions needed to be simple, so that Year 2s as well as Year 5s could understand them, and open-ended. I decided to ask the same questions to (broadly) the same groups of children at the beginning, middle and end of the 2018-2019 cycles in Ballydown and Aughnacloy Primary Schools; this does not provide data in the social science sense, but might suggest how the children’s understanding of what they were doing developed. The questions I asked were:

• What is art?

• What is an artist?

• Could you be an artist?

These questions framed the conversations I had with the children, but the conversations exceeded them at some times, and shrunk from them at others. I tried to feel my way into communicating effectively with the children, and allowing space for them to communicate with me, and did not restrict myself in our conversations to those questions only. After discussing my questions, Leanne designed a questionnaire for her Year 2s in Aughnacloy Primary School, which posed two questions:

• Art – What is it?

• Art – What is it not?

Children worked on these in class and at home using words, phrases and full sentences, drawing and colouring, and gluing in cut-out pictures. They presented a prolific range of ideas, plenty of these incisive and insightful. Restricting my research to two case-study schools gave me the scope to engage with the broader context of Virtually There in each of them. To this end, I designed an evaluation questionnaire for the parents of the children participating in Virtually There in 2018-2019. These were distributed at Aughnacloy Primary School and 23 out of 24 parents returned them. I spoke to Ballydown Primary School principal Wilson McMullan, and Aughnacloy Primary School principal Jane Clarke, to hear about how the project is seen and overseen at the schools’ senior management level. I wanted to know more about how the Education Authority views Virtually There too, and spoke to Vine Haugh, a former teacher and curriculum support officer, and Marie O’Donoghue, who works on the Creative Schools project.295 I spoke to Jo Holmwood, formerly project manager for Virtually There, and now Creative Director of Kids’ Own, to find out about how the project was developed and how it has been managed. I have divided this section of the report as follows: • Observations • Conversations • With teachers and artists • With principals, Education Authority staff and the Creative Director of Kids’ Own

• Children’s experiences • Parents’ questionnaires • Children’s questionnaires • What children said to me

295 With the Education Authority and Urban Villages, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland contributed £120,000 from April 2018 to pilot a creative programme with 10 post-primary schools ‘[in] communities where there has previously been a history of deprivation and community tension’ ( fund-announced-to-support-creative-learning-in-the-classroom, accessed 3rd December 2018).


Open Space: action research report the Virtually Bryonie ReidAn Action research report onfrom Virtually There There project


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Observations ← Ballydown Primary School working with artist Ann Henderson

In the first year, I observed one session per participating school. In the second year, with only two case-study schools, I was able to observe three sessions in each, roughly at the beginning, middle and end of the 2018– 2019 cycle. Ann Henderson very kindly agreed to let me observe one session from her studio at home on Rathlin Island. Below I give my observations of one session at Ballydown Primary School, one at Aughnacloy Primary School, and the session I spent in Ann’s studio. Sessions all differ, and though artist-teacher pairs may develop methodologies and plan their sessions, their responsiveness to the children means that each session to some extent evolves moment by moment. What comes out in one may change the plans for the next. What I describe below, therefore, is neither representative of all Virtually There sessions, nor of those carried out by Ann and Judith, or Ann and Julie, or Lisa and Leanne. However, in this detailed account of how three particular sessions unfolded, certain patterns emerge: the time spent by artists and teachers on talking with and hearing from the children; the stimulus the children get from showing their work and speaking to the artists; the need for artist and teacher to communicate closely before, during and after sessions; the possibilities technology opens up, and the obstacles put in the way of the work by malfunctioning or outof-date technology, or inadequate equipment; and the energy and enjoyment generated for the children in Virtually There. Observing from Ann’s studio made clear the intensity of the artist’s experience; sessions demand high and sustained levels of concentration. It also drew out something that had been almost intangible to me in observing from the classroom – the nuanced supporting role of the artist’s studio.

Observing at Ballydown Primary School On 10th October 2018, I visit Ballydown to observe Ann Henderson’s first session of that year. Year 2s (five and six years old) and Year 5s (eight and nine years old) have assembled in Judith’s Year 2 classroom with teachers Judith White and Julie Orr to ask Ann some prepared questions. These include ‘Where do you live?’ and ‘How would you get to Banbridge?’, which leads to discussion of Rathlin’s geographical position and island nature, the limits of public transport and the virtual journey Ann can make to appear in the school via a webcam today. When Ann is asked ‘Do you have a TV?” she answers, ‘The sea controls everything here... the one thing that rules it all is the weather and the sea.’ Year 5s have fun when one of them asks Ann ‘Why do you not lock your doors?’, and Judith and Ann wonder how they know that she doesn’t; they answer in chorus, ‘Miss Orr!’, and laugh as Ann and Judith realise Julie has been telling stories of her visit to Rathlin. Alanna, a Year 5 child, asks, ‘What style of art do you like?’ and Ann muses that it is difficult to put on a word on it, but she will go with ‘environmental art’, which she explains as art exploring how we as people can connect with our landscape or places and connect with each other through places. Freya, also Year 5, asks ‘How long have you been doing art?’, and Ann replies, ‘As long as I can remember… since I was your age’, and notes that she had very supportive teachers in primary and secondary school. Ann then asks Freya what she is interested in, and she says gymnastics, and they have a brief chat about that during which Ann speaks of ‘pursuing your interests with energy’. Ann agrees with the teachers to bring the questions to a close there, and asks, ‘Who would like to get started into doing something together?’. She explains that they will pick up on last year’s theme of skin, and push


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

that outward to thinking about surface. The children are asked to touch surfaces nearby and Julie and Judith ask them what ‘surface’ means. Michael, a Year 2, says, ‘it’s the top’, and Jamie, a Year 5, says, ‘flat’. Ryan (Year 2) and Maggie (Year 5) both say ‘outside’, and Ann and the teachers settle on ‘outside’ as a good working definition. Ann asks the children whether they have done rubbings before. Some Year 5s are familiar with the idea, and make suggestions including ‘you could use charcoal and smudge it’, ‘oil pastels – rub it… on the page’, ‘your finger’ and ‘use crayons and roll them on their side’. Judith asks what they would be taking rubbings of, and is met with silence. Ann suggests she will show examples from outside and inside her studio on Rathlin. She asks, ‘What would happen if I let the paper move?’ and Alanna answers, ‘You would make a mistake?’. Ann accepts her answer, but re-phrases it, saying that the pattern would not be as clear, and today she would like the rubbings the children do to be as clear as possible. She explains how to choose a good surface and emphasises keeping the paper still, and tells the children they will work in pairs. One Year 2 and one Year 5 will work together, taking turns with the rubbings. They discuss how to make a rubbing of a pattern without revealing what the object below is, and Ann says the easiest way is not to rub to the object’s edges. Ann and Judith agree that half the children will begin making rubbings in the classroom and half will go outside, and Year 5s are asked to remember what they make their rubbings from. Julie and Judith have decided on how to split the group beforehand, and it takes several minutes to sort the pairs. Half of the pairs stay inside with Judith and half go outside with Julie. From what I can see, the children are chatty but focused. They are energised by the activity and when outside, run about, eager to find new surfaces to use. Broadly, they co-operate well, make efforts to stick together and consult each other about what they are doing. When inside, the children are busy and bustling, periodically showing their work to Ann on the webcam and chatting to her. She offers support and encouragement, which seems to stimulate the children further. Judith and Julie are pleased with how the activity is going and generate plenty of excitement and energy for the children too. I watch one Year 2 boy, flushed and excited, standing on a bench to get a rubbing from the classroom noticeboard. He holds the paper while his Year 5 partner makes the rubbing. He laughs delightedly when they get it and tells his partner to touch the rubbing to feel its texture. ← Ballydown Primary School working with artist Ann Henderson → Ballydown Primary School working with artist Ann Henderson


Open Space: An action Reid research report from the Virtually There project Bryonie Action research report on Virtually There


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Eventually all the children are assembled again in the Year 2 classroom and settled. Judith asks, ‘Did you enjoy that?’ and the children chorus, ‘Yes!’. Ann tells them she has been dying to hear how they found it, and is delighted they liked it, saying, ‘rubbings are such good fun’. Judith says that the Year 2s will do it again in class time and she will join in. Then she asks for everyone’s attention so that Ann can tell them something else. Ann asks, ‘Who can say what an experiment is?’. Mollie (Year 5) answers, ‘You’re just testing it, it might not work!’. Ollie (Year 5) says, ‘It means… if you like mixing the colours to see what it makes… If you’re… doing science you’re testing something’. Ann goes on, ‘If you do an experiment, do you think you know what the answer’s going to be?’ and then checks with Judith and Julie if that wording is clear for the children. They re-word the question and ask the children to raise their hands in support of different answers. When asked if the result of an experiment is known in advance, no one raises their hand. When asked if the result of an experiment could be unknown, uncertain or come as a surprise or even a shock, all hands are raised. Ann tells them they are right, and says this is one of the most important things to remember about experimenting. The next task for the children is to spread watery paint over their rubbings, and Ann gives instructions for doing this. Judith demonstrates how to cut out different rubbings from the page they were all done on, and Ann tells the children they can choose where to cut their rubbings and what colour of paint to use. She asks what a ‘wash’ means. Ellie (Year 5) answers, ‘You put something over the top of them that looks like water’. Judith asks, ‘What would you mix it with?’ and is answered, ‘Paint’. She pursues the question, asking, ‘What type of paint?’, and gets the reply, ‘Watercolour’. She asks, finally, ‘What way will you use the paints?’ and the children reply, ‘Wet’, and ‘Just a brush over the top’. Judith shows them the cakes of watercolour paint they will be using, explaining that they will need to use water and the brush to wet the paint and transfer it to the pages. Ann posts an image of a rubbing she has done and washed in paint on the whiteboard, and they spend some time discussing her experiment. Thick paint has covered the crayon at the bottom, and children shout out answers in turn to the question of what has happened to the image. None of the answers quite explain what has actually happened, and Ann and the teachers keep probing their understanding. Judith demonstrates painting a wash over a rubbing and she and Julie emphasise that results will vary according to colours, the thickness of the paint and the density of the crayon, and that in itself will be interesting. The pairs will work together again, and Judith specifies that Year 2s and Year 5s should discuss how to cut their pages up; Year 5s can advise, but not dictate. The children break for lunch between 12pm and 1.15pm, allowing for their different lunch times. When they return, the pairs are split between Judith’s and Julie’s classrooms, and get to work. I stay in Judith’s classroom. The two classrooms and Ann are visible on the interactive whiteboard, but with only one microphone, only one teacher can be heard by everyone. Julie has it, and in Judith’s class Julie and Ann can be heard. In Julie’s class only Ann can be heard, and not Judith. Ann and Judith communicate by mobile phone, on Ann’s suggestion. Before now they have not had to consider the logistics of audio communication when splitting the two year groups between classrooms for a tandem activity. There is a buzz of conversation among the children as the activity gets underway. Julie detaches the webcam from her classroom computer and brings it around the room to show Ann the pairs working. Ann is posting more images of rubbings and washes on the whiteboard. In her classroom Judith corrects some aspects of what the children are doing, pointing out where paint is being used too thickly, where paint does not reach the


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

edges of the paper or where different-coloured paints are being used on one piece of paper. She asks the children what allowed the crayon to be most visible and gets the answer of more water and less paint; she uses this to direct them to use thinner washes. Judith and Julie, during each activity, are busy supervising, consulting, chatting, encouraging, praising and documenting on iPads. Ann, meanwhile, provides a very nurturing voice. Though the child or children speaking to her on the microphone cannot be heard above the background noise in the classroom, her replies to them can be heard by everyone. She consistently praises and encourages, finding different things to say about each piece of work she is brought. For example, ‘That yellow colour is so intense… Did you find when you put the yellow paint on, it made the purple lines stand out more?’. When the pairs in Judith’s classroom are finished with their washes, she collects the microphone from Julie to allow them to speak directly to Ann. Eventually the two groups are brought together again in Judith’s classroom, and with only five minutes before the Year 2s’ school day finishes, they are addressed by Ann. She asks, ‘What new things did you find out today?’. Ollie answers, ‘To mix colours and do the… things to make these’ (holding up a rubbing). Sophia says, ‘That we were dipping our paintbrushes into water to make watercolours’. Ann opens the question out further, asking, ‘Is there anything you want to say about today?’. Jack, from Year 2, says that he was ‘happy’ and that ‘the important part was the rubbings’. Ann asks for a show of hands from those who liked doing rubbings, and most hands go up. Freya, from Year 5, says, ‘I liked learning what the term “wash” means and what the term “rubbing” means’. Corey (Year 5) liked ‘working together with your partner’ (he had been paired with Beth, who is visually impaired, and had struggled to engage, but their collaboration improved with the help of Beth’s classroom assistant and the two teachers). Beth (Year 2) agreed, saying ‘It was really good’. James (Year 2) liked ‘putting the paint on the drawings’ and Louisa (Year 5) liked ‘working with Ann’. The Year 5s get up to return to their classroom and as they leave I hear one girl exclaiming with admiration over another’s rubbing. When the Year 2s are alone, in the minute or two before the bell rings, Judith asks further questions about how they feel and what they did today. She gets replies like ‘great’ and ‘painting’ and ‘drawing’. Judith persists, evidently aiming at drawing out a specific observation, and eventually, through talking about going outside, ‘putting shapes on the page’, ‘talking’ and ‘listening’, she arrives at ‘We were doing environmental art like what Ann does!’.

Observing at Aughnacloy Primary School On 18th October 2018 I visit Aughnacloy Primary School to observe Leanne and Lisa’s second session together with this year’s Year 2s. When I arrive in the classroom, the children are grouped on the carpet in front of the interactive whiteboard and the tables and chairs have been pushed to the sides of the room. They are wearing comfortable clothes and plimsolls. Leanne is reiterating to the children that all they have in their timetable today is ‘Lisa and art’. While they wait for Lisa to come online they talk about the first session, and where Lisa was speaking from – her garden and her house – and Leanne reminds the children she will be in her dance studio today. She has sent a message to let them know it will take her a little time to set up communications there. Rachel reminds Leanne, ‘and she gave us a little red box – it’s behind you’. Leanne acknowledges this, but steers the children into recalling their first session, which happened two weeks previously. They discuss how they chose objects from outdoors to dance with, and most of them


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

chose leaves. On pages printed with the frame of a mirror, inside the frame they drew around their object and then drew a body making the shape of their object (leaf or stone or stick). They wrote words on the frame of the mirror that they talked about together – dancing, leaves, sounds, body, outside and so on. Lisa comes online at this point. She appears via her phone in Cork city, outside the building housing her dance studio. Both image and sound stutter from time to time, but Lisa and Leanne and the children ignore it and carry on. Lisa asks if anyone in the class has visited a dance studio, and three girls raise their hands. Rachel and Cora stand up to tell everyone about their experiences, saying, ‘I liked going to it’, and ‘it was for ballet’. They hear a bell through Lisa’s phone and she orients it so they can see more of the cityscape and asks them if they can guess where the bell sound is coming from. They identify a church among the buildings around the Firkin Crane Centre, where Lisa’s studio is. Lisa tells them a little about the history of the building, which used to be part of Cork’s Butter Market. The conversation is a little compromised by fluent audio paired with faltering video. Turning her camera on to the building’s name, Lisa asks the children to read it. They try, but find it difficult, and Leanne takes the lead and helps them to sound it out together. Lisa says, ‘It means something but I’m not going to tell you just yet – what shape is it?’. Joshua replies, ‘a circle’ and some others call out ‘a dome’. Lisa tells them it is shaped like a container used to store butter, and asks them what could that be? Rachel says, ‘an arch’, and Lisa replies that it is a barrel named a firkin. This building was converted for use by dancers in 1990. Lisa moves inside the building and as she walks, Leanne encourages the children get up and walk on the spot on their carpet. Leanne and the children are excited and express a sense of discovery as they travel with Lisa via her phone into and through the Firkin Crane Centre. Lisa shows them the theatre, the seating, the toilet doors, the lift and the kitchen. Seeing the sign for the stage door reminds Leanne of a story they are reading in class, Dogs Don’t Do Ballet, and she and the children explain why to Lisa (it includes the word ‘stage’). Lisa speeds up a bit as she moves upstairs, bringing Leanne and the children through the door of her studio and showing them the arched windows. Leanne calls the children’s attention to the big mirror, and Lisa explains that the studio is known as the ‘Mirror Room’, and the mirror is there so that dancers can see what each part of their bodies is doing – ‘you can see the shape of your body’. Lisa has put down her laptop and rucksack and asks Leanne if this is a good time to begin their warm-up. Leanne says it is. ← Aughnacloy Primary School working with artist Lisa Cahill


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Lisa tells the children, ‘We’re going to do some listening, some stretching, and we’re going to do it together’. She asks them to find themselves a space in the room to lie down. The children take some time to do this and settle, helped by Leanne and classroom assistant Darren. Meanwhile, there is a problem with the visual connection, and the onscreen images of both Lisa and the class have frozen. Lisa has transferred from her phone to her laptop, and it seems her laptop is causing some difficulty. Leanne works on fixing these technical hitches and holds the children’s attention with some questions. It becomes clear that Lisa has sent Leanne an audio file, but because it will not play Lisa and Leanne agree that the children will take their break early and Lisa will think of another way to access the file. Once this is decided the file begins to play, but they save it for later and break goes ahead. When the children have eaten and cleared their plates and cups to the classroom’s sink, they go outside to play. Leanne explains that the classroom computer is very old and has a minimum of software on it. She relies on the internet to run programmes, and when internet use is heavy the connection in the classroom can be patchy and cause problems. Working on re-establishing the audio and video connections, Lisa and Leanne agree to do the warm-up first and Lisa will try re-starting her computer to fix the problems. Leanne asks the children to find their lie-down spaces again. She exits the Blackboard Collaborate ‘room’ and then signs in again, talking to Lisa meanwhile on her phone. She calms the restless children with a brief breathing exercise, connects to Lisa via FaceTime on their phones and brings Lisa around the room in this way, showing the children that Lisa is lying down in her studio with her eyes closed. When the children are quiet, Leanne plays the audio file, which is a recording of Lisa’s voice taking herself and the children through a process of paying attention to their bodies and readying themselves for the session. Her voice asks everyone to lie quietly, to get comfortable, to listen to the sounds from inside and outside and in their own bodies, and then instructs on a breathing exercise. While this is happening, Leanne documents it with an iPad. Then Lisa brings the children into stretches and making letter shapes with their bodies. They do ‘I’, ‘O’ and ‘L’ – ‘for Lisa and Lily’, Lisa says, and Lily is pleased to be mentioned by name. They end this exercise sitting on the floor with their legs crossed and Lisa asks them to do a few more movements with hands and arms. Throughout, Lisa is visible on the interactive whiteboard doing all the same actions the children are doing. Leanne ends the phone connection and stops the recording and transfers to Lisa live in her studio through Blackboard Collaborate. The audio and video connection is now well synchronised. Lisa demonstrates another exercise with a partner, which includes saying ‘Good morning’ and using the person’s name. The children are tickled by the thought of addressing each other like this, and chat animatedly as they find themselves a partner. There are a few problems, such as one girl falling and hurting herself and another trying to partner with a reluctant boy, and Leanne and Darren soothe and comfort and negotiate. The children perform their exercise and then come back to the carpet at the front of the room. Leanne asks them what they liked about the warm-up activities and what they would change, and chooses three children to give their responses into the microphone so Lisa and everyone can hear. Jude says he liked moving about and Sophia liked ‘getting a partner’. The third child offers ‘art’ and Lisa muses, ‘How could we use art in the warm-up?’. Leanne opens that question out to all the children, and gets ‘with our bodies’, and ‘stretching’, and ‘putting your hands together’ in response. Lisa says, ‘I love hearing your ideas’, and sums up what she heard. There is some reference to the class having shown Lisa their Highland dancing, and Lisa suggests using Highland dance music for some of their own work. She goes on to ask, ‘Did you get my package last week? Shall we have a look? And then we’ll get creative!’.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Leanne shows Lisa that the box (the red one mentioned by Rachel at the beginning of the session) is covered with Post-It notes on which are written guesses as to its contents – these include pictures, instructions, mirrors and paper. Leanne takes a note Lisa wrote out of the box and hands it to Lee (who is ‘sitting nicely’). He observes, ‘It’s like a message in a bottle’, seeing that it is rolled and secured with an elastic band. Others call out ‘it’s very long’ and ‘it’s like a map’. The note reads, ‘Hello! Lisa here! Am I here? Yes/no/maybe. I am an artist. What is an artist? What is art?’. Leanne explains to me that these were questions brought up last week and discussed. Lisa has sent the box in response. Amelia is asked to look in the box for something that shows what Lisa does as an artist. She brings out two photographs of Lisa dancing. Leanne asks, ‘So, do all artists just draw?’ and is answered, ‘No!’. She goes on, ‘What’s Lisa’s special thing?’ and the children reply, ‘Dance!’. Leanne asks for further explanation, and Grace says, ‘She makes things with her body’, and another child says, ‘She uses a special roll to do her dancing’. The two photographs are stuck up on the whiteboard. Lisa tells the children that Leanne sent her some pictures of them dancing and asks them to look at the interactive whiteboard to see what they can see. After a short delay, the pictures appear, and Lisa says, ‘I said to myself, wow, there are boys and girls in that class and they can really use their bodies to make interesting shapes!’. She suggests a movement exercise based on the pictures. Leanne and Darren help the children to form a circle and Darren picks a shape from one of the pictures. Harry is asked if he can recreate it on the carpet, and replies that he is not sure, but with encouragement performs it perfectly. He is applauded. Cora exclaims, ‘I can remember my one!’, though it is not on the screen, and Leanne asks Lisa if she minds Cora performing hers. Lisa does not mind and Cora demonstrates her shape and gets a clap. Darren chooses another shape and Leanne another, and Leanne and Lisa say how interesting they find Amelia’s way of crossing her legs (lying on her back with her legs in the air, perpendicular to her torso). Lisa asks the class, ‘What were we thinking about when we made those shapes with our bodies?’. Grace answers that when she saw Amelia she thought of ‘something growing out of the ground and popping up’. Leanne says that when she saw Katy lying flat with her legs folded under her, she thought of grass being cut. Lisa posts some pictures of the children’s mirror-frame drawings and they discuss these together. Then Lisa suggests it would be a good idea to try the drawing exercise again. She asks, ‘Did we draw the person first or the leaf first?’ and the answer comes, ‘the leaf’, and then she asks, ‘What next?’. Lily says, ‘We had to draw a person nearly the shape it should be’. Leanne asks, ‘What should we draw next? We’re excited!’. Lisa recommends staying with the same idea. While Lisa is posting more of the drawings on the whiteboard, Leanne takes some of Lisa’s leaf drawings from the box and has children hold them up at the front of the class. She asks the children to describe them. Ben says, ‘one is spiky’, and Leanne replies, ‘If one is spiky, what is the other one like?’. She gets the answer, ‘straight’, and suggests ‘smooth’ as an alternative. Then Lisa holds the leaves themselves up on the screen, and asks for more describing words. One child says, ‘it’s the shape of a flower’. Lisa goes on to explain to the children what they will do next: they will choose a leaf from those collected earlier, practise drawing its outline only, then try making its outline shape with their bodies, in pairs. Leanne explains that they will use special graphite pencils and squares of brown paper. The children disperse around the tables at the edges of the room, and Leanne holds up a leaf she has picked from the class’s collection and asks the children to describe it. The children respond, ‘bumpy’, ‘wonky’, ‘bits out of it’. Leanne probes a little further, asking, ‘What are the edges like? Smooth or rough?’, and gets the


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

answer, ‘rough’. She reiterates Lisa’s instructions and demonstrates drawing the leaf’s outline, emphasising that the drawing should be of the outline only. Olivia and Lily give out squares of paper and the children write their names on the back. Joshua gives out the graphite pencils and the children pick leaves. Leanne and Darren move around the classroom during the drawing exercise, encouraging the children. As children finish, they go up to the webcam to show Lisa their work. They form an animated line as they wait, showing each other the drawings and commenting on them. Lisa says to each child, ‘Tell me about the shape of your leaf’, and the children reply, ↑ Aughnacloy Primary School working with artist Lisa Cahill

variously, ‘spiky’, ‘hard’, ‘crumbly’ and so on. After speaking with Lisa, the children return to the carpet and sit down. When all the children are sitting, Lisa tells them to choose a partner. Then they will make the shape of their partner’s leaf with their body. She asks them how they might show spikes with their bodies, and lots of hands with spread fingers appear in the air. She asks them how they would show ‘crumbly’, and they twist their arms and legs and bend their heads. She asks them how they would show ‘smooth’ and arms arch, and ‘rough’, and they make rippling movements. Lisa says that she and Leanne want them to explore lots of different ways of making their leaf shapes. Leanne asks Lisa if the children can use both the leaves themselves and their pictures of them, and Lisa says yes. The children busy themselves finding partners and space, and there is lots of enthusiastic chat as they move. Joshua and Jacob (cousins, who are very familiar with each other) immediately find ways of using their bodies to make shapes, unselfconsciously and inventively, including embraces. Leanne praises and photographs them, and summons Darren to see what they are doing. Some pairs are sedate and focused and deliberate, others move more energetically, trying out different poses in quick succession. Darren helps one pair to think through what their leaves look like and how to replicate them. Leanne connects to Lisa via her phone and gives it to Joshua and Jacob so that they can show her what is happening around the room. They are pleased with this responsible role and direct the other children as they focus on them through the phone’s screen, working on the best view for Lisa. As Leanne documents the children’s movements with an iPad, she asks questions to help them think about what they are doing and how to represent their leaves effectively. I can see lots of little faces keen to be noticed; their eyes follow Leanne, Darren and Lisa (on the phone) around the room as they hold their chosen shapes. Eventually Leanne calls the children back together. It takes some effort to halt the chat and bustle and quieten the children and bring their attention to what they are being asked to do. She asks them to circle around the carpet and leave it clear as a kind of stage, and asks Lisa how she found being brought around the classroom on the phone. Lisa asks for the names of the children carrying ‘her’ and thanks Joshua and Jacob, saying that they pointed the camera in the right places and asked ‘so nicely’ for moves to be repeated. She praises all the children for the interesting shapes they made, and says she would like to see some of them done again on the ‘stage’. Leanne picks out Lee and Isaac, habitually quiet boys of whom she was particularly proud, and Lisa says, ‘Oh, I remember these two boys. What shape were you thinking about? What were your leaves like?’. Leanne draws them out in explaining what they were representing. Then Darren picks Jude and Ben to show their shapes, and Lisa says, ‘I love to hear all about your ideas’. Leanne asks Lisa if she thinks Ben and Jude are showing a short leaf or a long leaf and Lisa guesses short, then long. The boys confirm it by showing their leaves and their drawings. The audio connection with Lisa is broken and as Leanne goes to her phone to try an alternative connection, the children begin to chant Lisa’s name


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

and are hushed. When her voice can be heard again through the phone, Lisa repeats what was lost: ‘I was just saying, Jude, I could really see the long shape of your body and thank you to you and Ben for working so hard and being so creative’. Robert and James demonstrate next and tell Lisa their leaf was short and it snapped. Aware that lunch-time is approaching and the session is coming to an end, Lisa asks Leanne if they can consult the children on what they enjoyed and what they would like to explore further. First the children tidy the leaves and drawings away, and then gather on the mat to discuss the session. Leanne explains that they did the same thing last week. Lisa is still on Leanne’s phone, and Leanne brings the phone to each child as they speak. Ella says, ‘I liked it when we had to shape into the letters’, and Riley says, ‘drawing our leaves’, but his favourite thing was ‘whenever we were doing, like…’ – he breaks off and shows his hands sliding up his arms, and Lisa confirms that he means the warm-up. Several children say they would like more drawing of leaves. Leanne asks Lisa to tell them her favourite part of the session, and Lisa answers, ‘I get so excited, my heart is jumping when I see the boys and girls moving, making shapes, working together, touching each other… I kind of want to say, let’s make a dance! Maybe we will make a dance, if the children would like to’. It is time to say goodbye, and the children thank Lisa. She tells them there is another package on its way to them and it will have a photograph of Lisa herself for the classroom. She shows them some of the drawings she made of the shapes made by the children the previous week, and tells them, ‘Keep looking at the leaves!’. ← Aughnacloy Primary School working with artist Lisa Cahill


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Observing from Ann’s studio I arranged to visit Ann’s studio on 6th March 2019, during a session with Judith and the Year 2s at Ballydown Primary School.296 Because the session is a very practical one, they are able to delay starting when my ferry is cancelled and I am late. The children can engage more easily in doing than in discussing when it gets to the end of their school day. When I arrive, the session has been underway for some 20 minutes. Children are coming up to the webcam to tell Ann what they see in an image on the wall of the classroom, coming from what I eventually realise is an overhead projector. Ideas include wheels, buttons, stars, planets, footballs, balloons, flowers and big and small circles. As they talk and Ann responds, she takes notes of what she hears in her sketchbook. She prefers not to be distracted by typing directly on to the whiteboard, where she would have to work at siting the lettering, spelling correctly and attaching comments to names. Ann’s studio is quiet. She is wearing a headset so that she can hear Judith and the children clearly and they can hear her, which is crucial to their interactions. I cannot hear them. The onscreen image of the classroom is somewhat fuzzy, and the movements of children and teacher and classroom assistant seem to stutter. Then the children arrange themselves in a line, preparing to file past the shrouded projector one by one so that they can see what is on it. They are asked not to shout out what they see, so as not to spoil the surprise for the rest. Ann enlarges the image of the classroom on her computer so that she can see better (usually she keeps it small so that she can make good use of the whiteboard). The procession seems to be carried out in reverent silence, and the images are revealed to have been slices of fruit and vegetables. Ann wants to record this session via C2K software Blackboard Collaborate, and asks the class’s permission. I am surprised by how difficult I find it to identify individual children with their names, though I have visited the class twice and was able to learn plenty of names while in the classroom. Ann keeps a set of pictures of the children with their names attached, but even with this aid, it is not easy to correctly name individuals. When everyone is re-seated, those children near the webcam keep themselves turned towards it and watch Ann on the computer screen rather than on the whiteboard. Ann addresses the class, asking them to put up their hands if it was a real surprise to see the projector and what was on it (plenty do). She asks if they remember what they did during the previous session (which I had observed from the classroom on 13th February 2019), and whether they notice any similarities between what they did then and what they have just done. Ann briefly loses sound and then the picture on the screen freezes, so she quickly saves everything she still has on her screen, not knowing whether it is a crash or she has ‘lost the room’ (that is, the online Blackboard Collaborate space), and reaches for her mobile to phone Judith, but sound and picture come back without intervention and contact resumes. Raphael tells Ann the image ‘reminded me of the planets’, while after further encouragement from Judith, Beth comes up to say it was like their pancakes from yesterday (which was Pancake Tuesday). Ann asks Judith whether it is time to move on, and introduces the idea of an ‘exciting individual activity’. As she talks she continually checks with Judith the exact way the children will carry out the activity. They agree that the children will work in pairs with cross-section slices of fruit and vegetables, magnifying glasses and torches (brought in by the children and covered with clingfilm). They will hold card around their torches to 296 All personal communications from Ann in this section date from 6th March 2019.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

help exclude daylight and get a brighter image. Ann demonstrates how to rest the fruit and vegetable slices on the torch, and how to get the best image, asking the children to copy her and then look thoroughly and at length at what they see. She explains that eventually they will hold the torch steady and make a drawing of the lit-up cross-section on tracing paper with oil pastels. With some help from me, Ann sets up her own fruit and vegetable slices, magnifying glass, torch and card in her studio while Judith reiterates the instructions to the children. She adjusts the webcam to take in what she is doing with her hands, rather than her face and prepares to photograph her fruit and vegetable slices rather than draw them. As Judith is talking, Ann is also working on getting photographs she took earlier in the session with her iPad on to iCloud to share with Judith and the class. By this time, because it is only five minutes until the children stop for lunch, Judith and Ann agree that the children will spend it looking only, and not begin their drawings until after lunch. Ann and I stop for our lunch when the children do. We return to the studio before Judith and the children return to the classroom, and Ann tries various pathways to upload images from her iPad to her computer while the children are still offline so that she will be able to share them at some point during the session. She is frustrated in every attempt, and sets the job aside to tackle later. Although she takes lots of images – stills from the webcam or photographs with her iPad – during a session, she avoids posting these on the whiteboard while engaged with the children because her time with them is precious and she does not want to be distracted. The potential for posting to distract is greatly magnified if the technology does not work as it should. Judith comes back to the classroom and she and Ann discuss letting the children decide how they will do the drawings – whether to do one or more, whether to look while drawing or to draw from memory, whether to draw one cross-section between two or to make individual drawings, whether to keep the torch on while drawing and so on. I cannot hear what Judith says, but Ann concedes there is a difficulty with allowing the children completely free decisions and they set some parameters. Ann explains to me that most of the torches won’t be able to stand upright unsupported and if one child has to hold the torch they may miss out on drawing time. The children are given five minutes to continue their looking, and Ann and I look at a slice of lime on her torch in the studio. Ann is careful to set it aside after five minutes and resume her seat in front of the webcam. Judith and Ann check in with each other and Ann asks the children whether the torch light changed the colour of the fruit and vegetables in any way. The children tell her that dark yellow turned to light yellow, that the fruit became blurry, that some fruit looked wetter and that bumpy bits became visible. Ann responds with variations on ‘I can see why you say that’ and ‘Can you tell me any more about that?’, to make the children feel heard and to push them a little further in their analysis of what they observed. Then Ann asks who thought they could see more without the torch, and who with the torch, and expands the view of the classroom to better see the shows of hands. When she asks if the children would like to move on to drawing, she gets an enthusiastic response. She tells them that they can choose what size of tracing paper to use (but need to make the drawing fill it) and how many drawings to make, and confirms with Judith that they can use the torch if it helps and not if not. Ann prepares for her tandem activity, which in this case is to photograph her fruit slice on her torch with the webcam and post these on the whiteboard. I help to position fruit and torch and to shade the torch from


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

daylight with piece of cartridge paper. Meanwhile, Judith is reiterating instructions to the children, and Ann explains that she prefers to leave that element of the sessions to Judith, so she does not confuse the children or miss out something important. It takes time and effort to get the children to understand and carry out what Judith and Ann are asking for. Ann tells me, ‘we’ve spent all day manoeuvring to this point’. She wonders whether to interject to ask them to don a headset to talk to her about their drawings later, but chooses not to for fear of distracting them further from settling into their drawing, which is what she really wants them to do now. At times, depending on the volume of a child’s voice and the background noise in the classroom, Ann struggles to hear what individual children are saying to her through the webcam, even when they use the microphone. Neither do they always hear her. While the children work, Ann takes photographs – stills from her webcam – of an orange slice on white paper, not happy with the quality of the still image when the torch is underlighting the fruit. She favours this technique of making images because those images from the webcam are uploaded directly to the whiteboard, and shared with Judith and the children. She can layer the images and choose which come to the fore and which to the back. In this way she builds up a composite image of the orange slice. Judith is walking around the classroom looking at the children’s drawings, and decides to set up the headset for the children to talk to Ann. When she checks with Ann about this idea, Ann suggests not doing it. She emphasises that they do not want to distract the children from drawing and is anxious to provide them with the most time possible for it. Ann speaks briefly to the children, asking them not to rush, to take the time to include every shade and every detail they want to, to look and look again, and only when they are sure they are finished to come and speak to her. As children approach the webcam to show Ann their drawings, she takes snapshots of the pictures and posts them on the whiteboard. I watch Ann working steadily with the various Blackboard Collaborate tools as she talks, posting and adjusting and shifting images, saving pages and recording what is happening. The children’s drawings are beautiful. At cleaning-up time, Ann returns the webcam to its customary place and her face reappears on the screen. She brings up her composite picture of the orange slice on the whiteboard. She and Judith joke about what time is left for Ann to speak to the children as a class. Judith puts on a timer, so that the children are not late out of school, with Ann confessing to me she would not be able to keep to time otherwise. Ann asks P2 are they tired, and there is a resounding ‘No!’. She goes on to ask them did they discover or see or experience anything new. Bryce mentions ‘wee black circles’ on the side of the lemon. Ann refers to her photographic composite of the orange slice on the whiteboard and directs children’s attention to what Bryce has noticed on the lemon, and what she has seen and been interested in too on the orange. Beth talks about colours and copying colours and Louis noticed that the kiwi had brown stuff on the outside that was actually hair. Eden’s discovery was the overhead projector, while Jack saw ‘wee seeds’ in the middle of the fruit and hadn’t known they were going to be there. Annie saw little lines on the inside of the fruit. This conversation brings the session to a close and Ann and I say goodbye to Judith and the class.


Open Space: action research report the Virtually Bryonie ReidAn Action research report onfrom Virtually There There project


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Conversations Teachers and artists ← Killard House School working with artist Julie Forrester

Talking to Julie Orr at Ballydown Primary School on 10th October 2018 I spend some time talking to Julie when I come to observe the Virtually There session at Ballydown on 10th October, because I had only a brief conversation with her in the previous year’s research. We begin with the question of what her work with Ann in Virtually There means to her. Julie explains, Since I started teaching, and even since I started training… I think there’s been more and more demands placed upon teachers, and upon pupils… [for] outcomes… you must do this, and you must do that… For me I think that Virtually There is very important because it gives space to do learning in a different way… [I]t’s empowering because you do just say no, we’re not doing our usual structure, and we are doing something different, and we are going to investigate and… see where we end up with it. And I think that’s something that’s been lost in teaching… [Y]ou’re really leading the children in so much, whereas in the Virtually There project you’ve a little bit more opportunity to allow the kids to lead you – especially as the project develops, and they get a little bit more comfortable as to the routines and what you’re doing… they do start being more inquisitive, and free in what they’re trying and experimenting with.297 Julie enjoys being able to loosen her hold on what the children are doing, feeling it frees her, to an extent, from ‘the constraints that are put upon you sometimes in your day-to-day teaching’. Working with Ann imposes a ‘different pace’ on the day, and Julie finds ‘it’s even a chance to interact more with the kids’, since she has the time to look at each child’s work and talk to them about what they are doing. She finds Virtually There days more ‘social’ than others. With all the space made for talking and listening, ‘you start seeing those wee personalities coming out’. Because there are no right or wrong answers when the children are talking about their responses to what Ann and Julie bring, and presenting their own ideas, they can gain confidence ‘in sharing their ideas and opinions’, something Julie says can be quite difficult. She elaborates further on the benefits of Virtually There for the children: I think it gives them the confidence to try things, and to – to really see things in a different way… Ann did a topic one time about seeing, and just talking about… how do you look at things, and what do you think about it, and I think for some of the wee children that don’t have an awful lot of confidence, you can nearly see their confidence coming out when you’re doing something like an art project, because it gives them that chance to look at things differently, or give their viewpoint in a very supportive space. And I think that’s one of the most important things – it just gives them that chance to try out things… it’s okay sometimes if things don’t work out the way you think they’re going to work out, because you can do it again, or you can learn from it. And [it’s] about asking – asking questions, and just thinking, “I wonder…”.

297 All personal communications from Julie Orr in this section date to 10th October 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

I say to Julie it seems to me that a project like Virtually There assumes children are full of ideas which adults merely have to draw out, rather than positing children as empty vessels waiting to be filled with ideas by adults. Julie explains, It is very important, it’s about them thinking… my opinion is important, and my ideas are important… It’s not just being told, you know, draw a line on a page, or you must mix your colours this way … [That] really shows up the most… with some of our lower-ability children [for whom] a lot of the work [is] such a struggle, because it’s so based on being able to write or read something… You can really see that sense of achievement with children [for whom] other things are so difficult, and this is a space where they can… say things and they’re not worried about somebody going, “oooh, not quite!”, “no!”, “how do you spell this?”, “you were so close but no, that’s not it”. Because quite often in what we do, it’s either right or wrong… so it’s lovely to have an opportunity for them to give ideas [that can’t be right or wrong]… I just look at the ones even today… and one wee girl just would be very middle-of-the-road and middleof-the-class, and she just really shone today, in how she looked at things and got textures, and how she instructed her P2 to do things, and helped them hold the page… She was brilliant, and she would be very quiet in class, but you could see her wanting to share her experiences and ideas and that was lovely, for me to see her just having that wee opportunity to come out of herself and shine a wee bit… and… have a chance to talk… I think sometimes in class she’s scared to put her hand up because… you’ve the top ability ones who are straight up… It’s nice for her to have… had a wee chat with Ann, before lunch… she was one of the ones who wanted to come up and just talk to Ann about how she felt about it. Julie says, ‘I was always very happy that [Virtually There] was a good experience for the children’, but admits to some anxiety at the start about what observers might think. She worried that a colleague or a parent could see a Virtually There day only as a day on which the requisite work in literacy and numeracy was not done: For me it wasn’t anxiety about doing the project, it was about the response that maybe I would get as a teacher from it, would people look and go, oh, that’s brilliant, or would people look and go, that’s a waste of time… look, you’re letting them down because they should be doing their spellings and tables that day. Parental expectations of the teachers and the school have been a concern, but Julie has never received critical or disapproving responses from parents to Virtually There, though ‘part of me is a little bit surprised’. She thinks that the project is given weight and status because it was established by Kids’ Own, a reputable organisation with a strong record of high-quality work with children and a website that parents can consult, and because it has been running for a long time at Ballydown Primary School. Also, Julie says, ‘they recognise Ann… as being a professional artist in her own right… and maybe it’s [also] because the kids do go home enthused about it, and they talk about all the different things that they’ve done’. Her colleagues, she says, realise ‘this isn’t a project that they would necessarily cope with… but they recognise that there’s value in it’, and they support Julie and Judith’s involvement. Julie acknowledges that much of the planning and reflecting with Ann happens in her own time, outside of school hours. However, this has not become burdensome, so far: I think it’s like a lot of things in teaching, we always put the effort into things that we think are valuable, and so we don’t mind – it’s a very different kind of work, the art project, because there’s a lot of preparation for it, a lot of planning for it, but then, when it comes to the day, your energy’s very much focused on… doing, but then afterwards, the… good thing is… you’re not sitting with 31, 62, 93 sets of


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

books to mark… it’s just very different… You have to do all that preparation beforehand, checking that your mics are working, that you’ve done your planning with Ann, that you’ve got your resources all set out, and it’s difficult, I think… in terms of the journal and that documentation and it’s trying to make it work, and there’s been times where it hasn’t worked some years for us, and we’ve just had to say… we can’t get everything done, what do we let go… But we invest in it, and we think it’s worthwhile, and we don’t mind that extra work. While, at the start of her work with Ann, Julie might have planned for 20 activities in a day, now she is more realistic, she says, and plans five, knowing they might complete one or two only. Neither she nor Ann worry if this is the case, confident that the children are being given time to explore and enjoy to the full what they do. The remaining activities might be saved for the next session, or abandoned, depending on how the children are responding and where their interests lie. When I ask whether her work with Ann has changed her teaching practice, Julie says it has: I think it makes you a little bit more willing to take risks and do something different… because you see the value in it, so you think, hang on, how am I going to teach this? Is there a different way I could approach this? Are there open-ended questions that I can ask? Is there somewhere I can allow them to experiment a bit… more? And I think it does encourage me to do that, and… give me the confidence to do that… I would be more of a risk-taker, maybe, in… different activities, whether it’s ICT [Information and Computer Technology] or World Around Us… Just [to] try something new and see how it works. And let the kids input their ideas into our topics as well.

→ Donaghey Primary School working with artist Ann Donnelly


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Kids’ Own’s oversight and input has been important to Julie as a teacher as well. She notes that the support given by Kids’ Own to artists and teachers is ‘validation’. On the days when Kids’ Own convenes artists and teachers at the beginning of and during the cycles, ‘you really do feel empowered and encouraged’. In Julie’s

→ St Patrick’s Primary School working with artist Sharon Kelly

experience, this is rare, and she appreciates it. Further: [T]he fact that they’ve done… publications [and showed Virtually There work] in art galleries… was just a real celebration, and I think that’s amazing, because we don’t get a chance to do that. For Julie, generous funding is key to the success of the project, and she recognises the hard work it takes to secure that funding. Having time set aside for planning and reflection – beyond contact time – allows Virtually There to flourish. Although, as Julie says, ‘we always go… above and beyond what we’re meant to be paid for’, it is important that schools are offered money for substitute teachers to free teachers for planning and reflection, and that artists are paid as professionals for their time. As Julie puts it, ‘it really was so beneficial to us to be valued’. She recalls the surprise she felt when she realised she was not being asked simply to do more in an already crowded day, but being given clear days to do more. She cannot envisage the project continuing with cuts to funding or without funding: I don’t see how you can work with an artist if there’s no funding there to pay the artist to work with you! It’s different for us in school… I’m getting paid to be here whether I teach literacy, or whether I teach art… [but] everything’s just been so cut back that we can’t have days out of school unless there’s funding there for it [so reflection and planning days would be impossible]… And I think what would happen [in place of a fully funded Virtually There] is you would try to continue with it, but you’d just be too stretched in too many different directions [and] it would start falling to pieces… I think if something’s worth doing, it’s worth investing in and doing well. In the context of cuts to funding, Julie sees the priority as paying for the artist’s time: Because that’s something we can’t do here in school… We can’t just generate an artist to work with, and [Virtually There] is very much that partnership between us and the artist, and the ideas that artist is generating and that expertise, and that… different way of focusing on it, especially for me, I’m not… from an art background, and so I love that Ann… has a different way of looking at things, and different ideas, and although then we develop together what way the kids are going it’s very much her practice, and the kids can see her in the studio, and that to me is the most crucial point of it. ← Killard House School working with artist Julie Forrester


Open Space: An action Reid research report from the Virtually There project Bryonie Action research report on Virtually There


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

I ask Julie whether working in Virtually There has made her think of herself differently in terms of creativity. She answers yes, reflecting that her experience of art at school was limited to figurative drawing and painting and success was measured by whether ‘something… look[ed] like… it was meant to look’. For Julie, working with Ann ‘very much opened that up, that art is much bigger than just being able to paint a pretty picture of something’. She recalls a turning point: One year we were doing “dismantle”, and they brought in objects and it was all about dismantling, and one child had brought in a tile, a big slate thing. And Ann said, now think about how you’re going to dismantle it, so some of them you just took apart, or you just broke or you ripped it up or whatever, but this child had this big tile. I said… what are we going to do? He was like, “We’re going to have to smash it,” and I was like, “Yeah, we’re going to have to smash it!”… I said, “Right, let’s think about how we’re going to smash it,” – “We are going to smash it?” [with incredulous delight]… “Yeah, we’re going to do it sensibly, we’re not going to get hurt, we’re not going to smash it over someone’s head”… I remember the child just going, “This is AMAZING!”… I think that was like a pivotal moment for me as a teacher… yeah, we’re going to think outside the box here… let’s take this risk… And the kids just thought this was amazing, and Ann thought this was amazing.

Talking to Lisa Cahill and Leanne Kyle at their Away Day on 23rd November 2018 Lisa and Leanne agreed to meet me to talk about Virtually There after they attended a workshop at An Creagán, a visitor centre in County Tyrone. The most recent funder of Virtually There, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, provides for artists and teachers to take time together for an activity of their choice, known on the project as an ‘Away Day’. Lisa had been at the Virtually There session in Aughnacloy Primary School in person the previous day, and she and Leanne had spent the morning at An Creagán creating dyes from natural materials and colouring fabrics. Over lunch we talk about their experiences of Virtually There. They begin by explaining that their plan the previous day had been to begin thinking about curation of their contribution to the Virtually There exhibition in March 2020, but in the end, ‘we just went with the kids’ flow, because they just wanted to move’.298 The children themselves initiated working in groups of four: I just looked over and there was a group of four boys working together… without any prompting… just working merrily away in a corner, quietly… Not a lot of chat out of them, between them, but they were moving together.299 To build on the work done with outlines of leaves (as described in the observations previously), Lisa and Leanne wanted to move outside and bring the children on a sensory trail during which they would make rubbings of bark using oil pastels and natural materials. This plan to spend time outside raised the issue of how to maintain the connection with Lisa. Leanne explains, I found that I was going through a lot of data on my phone, because Lisa and I were having to communicate by WhatsApp… it’s an issue… I couldn’t contact Lisa… easily, without the data. So in the summertime I purchased 30 gigabytes of data, which has kind of opened up a whole new experience for us. Because now I ring Lisa… in the classroom that day the two boys brought round my phone, and Lisa was there, and then we brought Lisa outside with us. 298 Personal communication from Leanne Kyle, 23rd November 2018. All personal communications from Leanne Kyle and Lisa Cahill in this section date to 23rd November 2018. 299 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Lisa adds, I can chat to them as they’re going and they’re talking to me and it’s great, and then we’re back in to collaborate again… I feel I can get that much closer to them… But Leanne [has]… increased her bill every month, and I increased my data as well… We feel it’s kind of important to say that, because… we’re investing, actually. Leanne points out that although each class at Aughnacloy Primary School has access to iPads, these do not work outdoors. She wonders whether projects like Virtually There could include in their budget smartphones and data for teachers and artists to use to stay connected. Returning to the subject of this year’s class, Leanne explains, ‘[T]he children love the whole mark-making thing… Now… children are [having] screen-time and [are] on technology… they don’t mark-make any more. And whenever those children came into my class, all they wanted to do was mark-make – and that was on the table, and that was on chairs… They didn’t know that that was inappropriate, they just wanted to mark-make… I could get cross, or I could say, these children need to mark-make. And I think that’s why, when you’re outside, and you have these natural things on your doorstep… [the children can make] just beautiful, natural pieces, and it’s not about – they’re not drawing pictures… it’s just mark-making. And I think that’s so important now for children, because they don’t get the chance to mark-make at home… A lot of the boys, especially, just [have] that sensory need for mark-making. When Lisa reminds her that they have chosen, so far this year, to avoid having the children document their work with iPads, she goes on, It would have been an interesting experiment to do… but… we thought it would become all about the iPad, all about… let’s stage this… it wouldn’t be [those] authentic, initial movements. Lisa and Leanne move on to discuss the children’s seeming preference for fragments of things rather than the whole. Leanne says, ‘I don’t know what it is about them, they just love small things’, and elaborates, I found with this class, whenever they came to me, they didn’t know how to use scissors and things like that, and their fine motor skills were quite poor. So when we went outside they were starting to use the pincer grasp and all of that… so… I suggested to Lisa that we have these pages, with these markings and dirt and stuff on them, you could rip these… So that’s what we did. For a long time. There was a lot of ripping, wasn’t there? And I thought they were just going to rip… one big bit and then they’d be done, finished, but no… they sat [and ripped the paper] into little tiny [scraps, representing leaves]… And then they used those in their dance. Lisa points out, I noticed some of them were… placing that leaf on their bodies, and then they were in pairs, looking at each other’s and seeing how they could come together… [T]hey kind of crave quite a bit of touch and contact, don’t they? So very comfortable with each other… Very tactile. I mention that I had been impressed when observing the second session by how willingly and unselfconsciously the children entered into physical movement, both individually and in pairs, and Lisa concurs, saying, ‘I couldn’t get over how… seamless that transition was, into movement’. Leanne recalls her assumption in the first year that the boys in her class would not engage with a dance artist, explaining, ‘I just remember being so shocked at how the boys just wanted to move, because I thought, this isn’t going to work with boys’. This year, ‘the non-verbal communication between those quiet boys – it works!’. Leanne also notes that ‘there are no groups copying each other… they’re not looking across, there’s none of that,


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

which you can sometimes get in class, “so-and-so is copying me”’; rather, the children are absorbed in their own work. One group contains ‘four massive personalities’, two boys and two girls, all of whom ‘strive for attention’, but all are working co-operatively and no one is trying to dominate. Again, Lisa and Leanne indicate that the children sorted themselves into groups of four, with no direction from them. Speaking of the children’s need to get to know Lisa a little and settle into working with her, Leanne points out that this process has been made easier and quicker year by year as Lisa becomes a familiar figure in the school as a whole. In the first and second years of Virtually There, Leanne’s classes performed their work at special assemblies, so other year groups and even parents were introduced to Lisa and to the project. Leanne thinks that the ‘bonding process’ for this year’s class, the third to work with Lisa, has been helped by this, ‘because they think… she is part of the school’. Parents are communicating with Leanne about her work with Lisa through software called Class Dojo, sending best wishes for sessions and telling her how excited their children are the night before. Lisa herself feels a sense of belonging, now, explaining that she is greeted warmly by all staff members when she visits: It’s wonderful for me to come up, because I feel like a part of a community that… I feel a little distant to, but when I’m there… in real time… I’m actually really… a valuable member of this community. When Lisa moves through the school, meeting staff and pupils in the staff-room, classrooms, hall and corridors, she says, ‘the excitement is tangible’, including from children who have worked with her in previous years. This is another aspect of the project’s longevity, it occurs to me. The idea that not only do the artist and teacher develop a deeper, richer relationship over time, but also the artist might develop something of a relationship with other staff, with children moving up through the school and even with parents over time, suggests the project will reach further than it might appear to at first, even if that further reach is modest. They reflect on how their work diverges from their plans. Leanne believes the work has become qualitatively better year by year: The first year… we were really just doing it as we went along… The dance… comes from the children, like, we’re not really saying we’re going to do this, this and this… [L]ast year, we started off where Lisa and I had actually planned on our day away in Belfast what we were going to do… In the first year, Lisa had done a warm-up and it was putting on clothes, if you were to go somewhere special, what clothes would you put on? So… we really liked that, and the kids responded really well to that, so we thought, right, for the second year we’re going to do clothes, and it’s going to be based around clothes and getting ready to go somewhere special, a special celebration, and I put out a note and asked parents for old material and things that we could use for our costumes for dance. And those are still sitting in my store because the children just took it in a completely different direction… it was nothing to do with the clothes in the end – they took it [to] origami. They loved doing origami and it was completely origami dancers. She notes that this year, for the first time ‘quiet’ children are taking initiative in their activities and movements, and again for the first time, children are actively expanding on what Lisa and Leanne suggest they do. She gives the example of recent work with leaf tattoos, in which the children were shown how to put colour on a leaf and ‘print’


↓ St Patrick’s Primary School working with artist Sharon Kelly

Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

their bodies with it; they asked if they could use multiple colours on one leaf. In the first and second years, Leanne had a composite class of Year 2s and Year 3s, so in the second year, she and Lisa were ‘pushing ourselves to be different’ in order not to replicate the experience for those Year 2s from the first cycle who became the Year 3s in the second cycle. Lisa concurs: Actually, what we have done this year a bit more, Leanne, is we have said to ourselves, and we do say to ourselves, let’s go with what the children are enjoying… so, whereas before, you know I was kind of, we’ve both been kind of, got to come up with new ideas! But actually, you know, we really allowed ourselves yesterday [at the school] – because when we have come together previously, Leanne and I have worked very hard to capture it in film, so there’s a bit of a film then, they can look back on it – whereas we really went with the flow yesterday, and they were delighted, and we were delighted as well, and they were just – the joy of movement. Leanne explains that in her anxiety to provide evidence of what she and Lisa were doing, she arranged for a film-maker from the AmmA Centre in Armagh (a multimedia creative learning centre) to document the first year’s work. However, they found that bringing someone in from outside to document the work was not as helpful as they had thought, and decided that they themselves were better placed to document, being steeped in the process and in relationship with the children. The next year, Lisa and Leanne filmed and edited the final session only. This leads me to ask whether these shifts in how Lisa and Leanne have approached each cycle are due to increasing confidence in what the children are getting from the process itself, regardless of outcome. Leanne replies, Definitely. I think that was a massive shift for me, because the first year I was just worried about, right, we need these final dances, and their costumes, and a fabulous backdrop! Which we did have! And then, in the second year it became more about… the children moving… and I just took some footage on the last day, and Lisa took some footage, and like, there was no big panic about it… Yesterday I took footage, but it wasn’t… the children doing their dance from start to finish, it was just wee snapshots here and there. Lisa emphasises that she and Leanne work to keep the idea of the exhibition to come in 2020 from making them directive with the children this year, saying, ‘We’re trying to just pay attention to… what choices the children are making… we’re trying to stay with that… We just need to keep experiencing and exploring’. This leads Lisa to describe in more detail the way she and Leanne have come to work together: I feel like you know me, you know my practice very well, so you often remind me, oh, let’s just go back to the body, we’ll bring it back to the body… We know that we’re… obviously… holding a wider sense of what – we want this maybe sensory engagement, they’re developing these dances and then we talked last night about, and maybe we’ll encourage them to add layers to it… sound that they collect, you know, maybe costumes might emerge from a printing process… I think there’s something very much shared between us… We’re with the children… we do remind each other… what we’ve an interest in, but… it’s very much… we are the co-…creators, we’re very… equal in it… Reminding each other around how it is, maybe, our practice… We understand our practice as different, maybe, because of the orientation of the body and movement… I think we’re feeling… strong around that. And I really appreciate… Leanne’s… clarity around that. And then… very much… trying to support where the energy is moving with the children. I am struck again by how important trust is in this context, both the artist and teacher trusting each other in their instincts and their work, but also artist and teacher trusting that the process they and the children initiate and stay within will be of value no matter what the outcome, if any.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

I pick out the phrase ‘our practice’ from what Lisa has just said, and ask if she and Leanne consider that they have a shared practice, distinct from their individual practices as artist and teacher. Leanne replies, ‘I would think so, yeah’, and Lisa pauses to think about her answer before saying, ‘I think we’re both feeling very clear about where it is we’re going this year’. Leanne expounds, I think what’s similar – because we both love the outdoors, we love being in the outdoors, and that’s a big part of that practice, which brings in our personal lives into it as well, and how much time we spend outdoors. Lisa goes on, We’re both really trying to hold, and… share… as the impetus in relation to the – with the children – and then, what are they… responding [to] and excited by… I would say it’s very collaborative… As part of my practice I probably would bring a… strong intention to… listen, and to… you know, how do you feel we should move forward, Leanne… or sometimes Leanne would say, what do you think, Lisa? Leanne concurs, saying, ‘We don’t tell each other what to do, we just suggest’, and Lisa says, ‘It’s very much back-and-forth between us… There was thought put into how we were brought together, Leanne and I’. Leanne has been unaware of this, but Lisa knew that connecting certain artists with certain teachers was ‘a strong sensibility of Orla’s’. Concluding the conversation, we discuss the value of the Away Day for Lisa and Leanne. Lisa says, ‘I enjoy the opportunity to… be relaxed… together… We’d a shared experience today’. Leanne’s final thought is: It’s just time for a chat. Because if you’re not doing it [in this way], it’s in your own time, and sometimes that can be very difficult… Just to have the space to chat, even, is nice… Because we have to foster a relationship – if we’re going to foster it with the kids we need to foster it with each other as well, so it’s nice to have the space to do that today… The freedom.

Talking to Leanne Kyle, Julie Orr and Judith White in Banbridge on 25th February 2019 I arrange to bring together the teachers from my case-study schools, so that they can talk with each other and with me about their experiences in Virtually There. We touch on familiar subjects, but because we talk over dinner and they are beyond the demands of their school day, we are able to dwell on these at more length. We begin with the question of whether Virtually There has changed their teaching practice. Judith replies that in the early years of her work on the project with Ann – they have been partners in Virtually There for 15 years – she tried to make sure everything they did reflected the curriculum and fitted with other class activities. As time has passed, she has found herself more and more confident in departing from the explicit curriculum and the standard activities she does with the children outside of Virtually There. She explains: I suppose [it is] us accepting that… the time that we have to do this is really, really precious, and there’s something really valuable when you just think outside the box, and someone leads you in a different way, and it doesn’t have to connect with what you’re doing every day because really, the skills that the kids [need] are there, no matter [what]… It’s the communication, and… all the working together, the problem-solving… there’s so much more than just… the art… and the content, and it doesn’t have to link, and there’s something… quite refreshing about a day when you don’t have to link with [the planner]…


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

There’s always a pressure – a day-to-day pressure – of doing what’s on the planner… It is refreshing in that freedom, and that time where… you just go off on a tangent with what the kids say.300 Julie agrees, and also thinks she and Judith have learned to work like this over time with Ann. Leanne too identifies with what Judith says, viewing the time with Lisa as a welcome relief from the rigidity and demands of a normal teaching day. Judith remembers feeling anxious in the past not only about what others would think of Virtually There, but how she would bring her pupils up to date with learning targets and so on. Now, she – and Julie and Leanne – trust that any and all work with their artist-partners contributes significantly to the children’s education, providing opportunities for problem-solving and teamwork and numerous other aspects of the Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities element of the curriculum. As Leanne says, And those things just come naturally… Without it being so intended. Without it being, you know, so contrived… It’s just done naturally through Virtually There… I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve found with Virtually There… because we’re dance, so it is… different, and the children are thinking on their feet, literally… they’re not sitting at their desks any more… they’re up and about and it is as they’re talking and listening, and problem-solving and working together – it’s great. Julie adds, And I think a lot of the time in the subjects you’re still very focused on that outcome. Because… we’re doing our planners, what is your learning intention [emphatically] for this lesson, what do I want them to achieve out of it, what do I need to tick off my list of things that need to done… And that gives you that wee bit of space, that it’s not about, oh, they must do this, they must do that, you know, it’s how do I take them where they want to go? Leanne points out that even in Year 2, children are institutionalised to the extent that her pupils write their names and the full date on drawings they do with Lisa, and all but ask what their learning intention should be. She relishes telling them none of that is needed. The teachers move on to talk of how these freedoms affect the children in their classes. Judith says, It’s the wee ones that are really reluctant when you’re doing your literacy and your numeracy, that… are reluctant to answer questions because they know themselves that it doesn’t come easy to them, even at the age of five and six… When… we’re working on the project, those wee ones, they’re always coming up with suggestions and ideas and their hands are always up in the air. She says that often Ann will be startled if she mentions that one or other of these children, who participate enthusiastically in Virtually There, struggle in day-to-day education. Julie mentions the importance of not being able to be wrong. Knowing there is a wrong answer in literacy and numeracy can inhibit children from contributing, but in Virtually There their idea will always be received with interest and encouragement. Judith agrees, saying that in this context, ‘the creativity just seems to blossom with some of them’. Julie points out, further, that children who do very well in literacy and numeracy benefit from working with Ann in a different way. Some of them are very confident in a framework of right and wrong, and in Virtually There are ‘forced out of their comfort zone’: They cope very well with a structured [lesson] – I’m going to write my date… I’m going to set out my page nicely… And so actually it’s really good for those ones… because they’re not good risk-takers. So whenever you come to do something like art… it gets them to look at things in a different way, because 300 All personal communications from Judith White, Julie Orr and Leanne Kyle in this section date to 25th February 2019. While teachers tend to refer to P2 and P5, for example (meaning Primary 2 children and Primary 5 children), this commonly used terminology officially has been replaced by Year 2, Year 5 and so on.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

they’ve been so used to going, what do I need to do… [but] it’s actually making them think, oh, what could I do? Leanne and Judith have noticed this pattern too. Leanne suggests that some academically able children ‘can’t think outside the box’, and Judith identifies one child she is aware of who is ‘extremely bright’ but finds it almost impossible to work with others, or tackle open-ended questions. Leanne concludes, ‘that’s what the education system is producing, whether we like it or not’. This leads to discussion of the limitations of the education system within which the teachers work. Julie agrees with Leanne that this system aims to educate children to function within a rigid framework of right and wrong. Inspections of schools focus ruthlessly on outcomes, and even creativity is pressed into a measurable form: You have to answer to inspectors… [And] even though they’re saying about Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities, they’re not actually promoting it, because they’re still looking for those outcomes… They come in and they’re still looking up the data… They’re saying, you must do [creativity], but actually when it comes down to it, they’re not showing that they value it by giving you the space to do it, or actually to trust teachers to do it… They’re saying… we need to improve, ah, coding skills, which is their way of trying to structure how kids’ creativity works. So they’re even in that not giving you the freedom as a teacher to go, oh, I know what direction… Judith points out that in Year 2, education is ‘not as enriched as [it] should be’ because teachers are aware that children need to reach a certain standard to cope with literacy and numeracy in Year 3. In Year 3 they begin standardised and externally marked tests called Progress in English and Progress in Numeracy (PIEs and PINs). If it was not for those tests, Judith says that ‘we wouldn’t be giving them pencils to write – but we have to!’. She is dismayed by how much of the day the children (five and six years old) spend sitting at a desk, despite her attempts to balance this with practical and active learning. In order to prepare the children for PIEs and PINs, at Ballydown Primary School Year 2 teachers give their children a similar, less formal test which is marked internally. Judith says, ‘they’re horrible tests, and you always get three or four who just look at the paper and cry’, but indicates that the scores can be used as evidence to secure referrals for diagnosis of learning difficulties. Leanne, also a teacher of Year 2, says she is shocked by how much is expected of that age-group. Considering how teachers might resist this system, Julie concludes, ‘And I think that’s what we love as teachers [-] we’ve got our artist, and they’re an expert’. This lends their Virtually There work credibility that it would not be accorded by the inspectorate if teachers were doing it alone. Leanne and Judith concur, saying that the artist is key in leading and supporting work that goes against the grain of the system, though for Judith, this is ‘more for other people’, whereas for Julie, ‘it gives you confidence’. Julie believes that this is especially important where a teacher has not been trained in art education, and herself does not incline towards making art: For me… it’s twofold… I can trust the ideas that are coming through, and Ann’s bringing ideas that I would never think of in a million years, and also then it gives me the confidence to take that time out because then I’m saying, look, we’re having a “proper” artist, not just me! Leanne emphasises that she could not have done alone what she does with Lisa with her pupils. Although Judith trained in teaching with art and design and is art co-ordinator for Ballydown Primary School, she acknowledges, ‘I could see how wonderful [dance art] would be and how I would really enjoy it, but I


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

wouldn’t know where to start on my own’. Kids’ Own, too, plays a significant role in professionalising their work with artists in Virtually There. Julie explains that the fact that Kids’ Own can be looked up online is important, that colleagues, principals and children’s parents can see it is a charitable publishing company in receipt of substantial funding and that the project sits within a continuum of projects which Kids’ Own runs with children and artists. We discuss the possibility that teacher training could benefit from projects like Virtually There. Leanne notes that when she studied at Stranmillis University College in Belfast, ‘it was all about the finished product’ and when students were trained to put together visual displays the emphasis was on the display looking right. Julie trained in Cambridge and describes her lecturers as ‘forward-thinking’ and ‘good at pushing the boundaries’ with expectations of innovation and pride in students who showed it. While the artist explores – as Ann has been doing with decaying organic matter, for example, and Lisa with bodies’ interactions with the natural environment – and exploration is integral to the curriculum, all teachers agree that their colleagues tend to avoid exploration and it is not appreciated in practice. Leanne points out that even play is always structured play: The children just want to play, but you feel from an educational perspective that it has to be structured… if you let a child explore and play themselves, to me they will get more out of it than you saying, right, you pick from this choice board what you want to do… I’ve thought of this for you, you just pick. In the pressure to complete literacy and numeracy tasks and achieve the desired outcomes, time to play and explore (outside the boundaries set for a project like Virtually There) is quickly sacrificed. They move on to talk about how their ideas of art have changed since beginning work with their artistpartners. Leanne explains that she had not known Lisa was a dance artist until Lisa visited the classroom on the first day of their work together and had an exchange with a pupil, Zach. When Lisa was introduced as an artist, Zach put up his hand to say, ‘I don’t paint. I don’t like painting’, and Lisa replied, ‘That’s fine, because I’m a dancer’. Judith points out that non-artists tend to think of painting and drawing when they think of artists, and she and Julie talk about how Ann’s artwork has been received by their colleagues. Julie says, That’s what people ask about our artist. They’d say, well what does Ann make? And I’m like – not sure! I said… it’s about the process, not the final product!… They want to go, does she paint pictures of Rathlin?’ Judith adds, I can remember Ann putting on display something – it was like a banana, that had decayed, and she’d taken photographs of it and one thing and another, and I remember her putting this picture up, way back in the day… and I can remember a couple of my colleagues looking at it [in sceptical silence]… Leanne suggests they were thinking, ‘Is that art?’, and Judith amends it to a more scornful, ‘How is that art?’. Judith herself is open to the varied ways artists make art, and Julie, with a background in science, says that she loves ‘all the… process’. Judith describes an activity (outside of Virtually There) in which her pupils were making pastel drawings of birds from photographs she had downloaded and printed. She muses, You’re looking at the wee one there that’s really, really struggling with drawing… But in Ann’s art, it’s different… It’s just a different approach, and it’s not about making it look like what [it is]… It’s exploring, it’s colours, it’s lines, it’s textures, it’s experimenting, it’s having fun, it’s… looking at what’s in your memory. It’s about looking, and recreating what’s in your memory, and when you look at every single [image], there’s something that you can say, you know, something positive that you can say about every single one. Julie remembers her own discouragement in art education when she was at school, always producing what she considered a sub-standard outcome no matter how well she prepared and how hard she tried. They


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

agree that the relationship with the artist is crucial to the work. The relationship takes work, but it also requires a certain disposition from the teacher. As Judith puts it, You build up a friendship, and that is so important… but you have to be the type of… teacher that’s [able for that]… When you go in… you know what, I’m open for everything, let’s bring this on, I really want to do this, I can’t wait for this to happen – then that’s when your relationship starts to build up, I think? Because it wouldn’t work with every member of staff in our school. Judith recalls the beginning of Virtually There in Ballydown, when Ann was set up to carry out eight sessions per class with four classes throughout the year. One colleague planned that Ann would help children to make costumes and paint backdrops for the school play; when he understood that Ann did not work like that and the project had very different aims, he stepped back and another colleague took his place. Ann’s work with this class focused on ice cubes and dyes, and Judith explains, See, it’s the… random ideas – where would you ever come up with them?... It’s even just taking that risk to do something that is totally out of the norm, and another colleague walks in and looks and there’s ice cubes all over the table and melting and you’re drawing… lines and marks round where the water is, and they’re thinking, how’s that related to anything? The idea of a form of art that gives children the message that they are right or wrong reminds me of how many times I have heard Julie, Judith and Leanne tell their pupils during Virtually There sessions that there are no right or wrong answers. I ask them whether they had to work to let go of the idea of right and wrong in Virtually There. Judith replies, I would say probably it’s scary, as a teacher, because… you’re letting go of control. And I think that was… the hardest thing to begin, was letting go… Having built up that relationship with Ann… you were able to let things go, or change [direction]… and that sort of came with a wee bit of time. She thinks that children have to work at letting go of the idea of right and wrong too: I think sometimes even the kids need development in that, because… even now, sometimes she might have asked a question, and they haven’t quite got what direction she wants them to go in. Judith usually steps in in this instance and takes the children through step-by-step to think about what an open-ended question might mean and to think about how to answer it. She concludes, ‘I would say we probably have developed in how we’ve allowed those conversations to take place’. Julie and Leanne agree, and Julie adds, ‘but it’s happened so slowly over time that I don’t think we’ve really [realised]’. In Aughnacloy Primary School children are empowered to a significant extent with decisions about their topic work, and from a young age form class councils, so Leanne is used to operating on the basis of their agency and not just within the parameters of Virtually There. Judith notes, ‘and they enjoy it, and they are so enthusiastic’, and points out that children are powerfully motivated by being given a sense of ownership of their work. The teachers reflect on the way in which Virtually There encourages children who are shy, or anxious, or have speech, learning, behavioural or physical difficulties, to put themselves forward and actively participate. None of them tell their artist-partner about how the children are in class outside of Virtually There (unless it is absolutely necessary) and the artist tends not to be able to tell which children have those difficulties from how they are with her. Leanne believes that the opportunity to speak to the artist is ‘a big thing’ for young children, who ‘want to speak’ and are ‘queuing up to talk to Lisa’. All three teachers are in emphatic agreement that speech and language difficulties have increased exponentially over the course of their careers, and attribute this to more time interacting with screens and less time talking with adults and other children


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

and being read books. Virtually There offers opportunities for children to talk with adults that ‘on a daily basis you just don’t get time [for]’, Judith explains. In the small windows of non-teaching time at school, children want to talk to their teachers and classroom assistants about their thoughts and what is happening in their lives, but staff are usually too harried with other tasks to take time to listen. Judith goes on, ‘there’s something refreshing about the art project where you don’t feel guilty about taking the time to talk, and let them talk, and listen to them’. Just as the teacher tends to hurry from task to task, Julie says, so the children are hurried from task to task. On a Virtually There day, there is nothing else on the timetable. Julie and Judith are in a position to facilitate older and younger children working together, too. Judith explains, We keep battling with… P2s and P5s working together, because it happens really rarely that the kids can share, and work together across… the classes… It’s not an easy thing to do… but it’s so valuable when you see them working together. Because Judith has taught many of the Year 5 children in Julie’s class, she knows them and she and Julie think about whom to pair together. Julie enjoys getting to know the younger children on these days. The two teachers emphasise how much the children love working with each other, and encourage and praise each other. They reference an activity from this cycle in which Year 2s and Year 5s looked at the rubbings they had done around the school together and then separately made memory drawings of one they had picked out as the most interesting; discussing the results, one ‘bright’ Year 5 exclaimed about her Year 2 partner (who struggles with literacy and numeracy), ‘I got it wrong and she got it right!’. Leanne reflects on how supported she would feel if another teacher in her school was participating in Virtually There. She says, ‘Because as much as you try to relay what it is –’, and Judith interjects, ‘Nobody gets it’. Judith continues, ‘I just really enjoy that collaboration between the two. It’s not easy, like – it’s not easy for Ann… we can’t do it every week, it’s impossible’. Year by year, Judith, Julie and Ann have formatted their work together and with the children differently, trying to find what works best for everyone in varying circumstances. Leanne, Judith and Julie speak about recent changes to how Virtually There is funded. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation grant supported artists and teachers to take time together to build their relationship and reflect on their work, for the first time. Artists were paid and teachers provided with substitutes to cover their classes. Julie says, ‘that was wonderful – you felt so valued’, and they agree that the gift of time is a significant one. Planning with their artist-partners is usually crammed around other commitments at school and at home, and the days they have been able to spend with the whole project team and with their artist-partners in each year of this three-year period have been deeply appreciated. Judith explains, It’s so refreshing, and you get so much out of it… because school is busy… and you don’t get that chance to sit back and think about what you’re doing, how valuable it is, and what the kids’ve got out of it, and… what you’ve got out of it, and even at times what went wrong. Funding cuts to education have resulted in a dearth of professional development; ‘there’s just no money, and no courses’, Judith says. She continues, Then you’re not feeling valued, because… left to your own devices are you going to research new things on your own? No, you’re not, because you’re really busy! When the Virtually There partners and whole team meet – teachers with artists and then teachers, artists, Kids’ Own staff and, latterly, me as action researcher – this helps to fill that gap for the teachers. It is a tacit acknowledgement of teachers’ hard work and expertise, and the idea that what they have to share with


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

their artist-partner and the whole group is important. The wider meetings provide an unusual opportunity to meet and talk informally but in depth with other teachers, and for Julie, ‘it’s nice to have time to talk’; teachers can go for days with no more than brief social conversations with other staff members and rarely meet with colleagues from other schools. I comment that the Sharing Days, as they are known, and the reflection and relationship-building days, seem to reflect something of the sessions with children. Kids’ Own and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation require no (or few) set outcomes for these; rather, their value seems to stem from something less tangible that I identify as process, the process of being together and talking and listening and doing. Judith expounds on this, saying, ‘they know that when you slow things down, when you take your time, when you have that freedom to talk, they know that there’s value in that’. Referring to the last (activity-filled) Sharing Day, she goes on, You were being a child… and that’s really refreshing, because it doesn’t happen, and it was lovely for Kids’ Own to think to give us the time to do that, and for us to actually have a day – it was like going to a spa, where it refreshed you. It was exhausting, it was tiring, but [stimulating]. Julie feels that ‘it was nice to be in that learner – well, not learner, explorer – situation’: That we were the ones… trying things out. And that was actually quite hard, at the start… But after five or ten minutes you’re just so absorbed in the whole enjoyment of that process. Leanne points out that teachers were intent on getting their tasks done on time and producing the right outcome, and ‘meanwhile, the artists are just lying in the moment’. She feels teachers envy the ability to be present-minded and dwell in process. However, working with the artists over long periods of time helps them to develop that ability in themselves. Judith agrees that ‘teachers need to be as creative, they’re involved in… creative process’. For Julie: ‘[It makes you] enthused again, about what you’re doing… Because the project is hard work, it’s a big time commitment… There is a lot of time that we make, ourselves, outside school hours, in order to make the project work. But we’re happy to do that because [Judith interjects – ‘we see the value of it’]… The fact that there are those days and there is that time, it just helps keep everything continuing on.

Talking to Ann Henderson at her studio on Rathlin Island on 6th March 2019 During lunch and after the session, Ann and I discuss her experiences of Virtually There. Ann explains that she enjoys posting images from the webcam of her own process in tandem with what is happening in the classroom, feeling there is an intimacy in showing what she is looking at and the images she is making. Working in real time together with the children ‘genuinely excites me’. When there are pauses in the session (for the children’s break and lunch) Ann is always thinking about how to channel back to the children something of the work they have done, through her eyes and understanding. This might be in the form of pictures, or her own thoughts, or parts of the conversation around the work that have stood out for her. She and Julie and Judith know that lengthy breaks between sessions risk the children slipping in their grasp of what they have been doing and the ideas underpinning it, but their care to document the children’s work and reflect it back to them helps mitigate that risk. If Year 5s are continuing work with Ann while Year 2s have a break, or vice versa, the teachers and Ann try to schedule visits between the two groups. In Ann’s experience, the children ‘love’ glimpsing each other’s work. It is quite an undertaking to plan how to interweave the work with two year groups, ‘to think in that double layer’.301 Though there is less time for each group, Ann thinks that the experience is not diminished. Regarding developing different work 301 All personal communications from Ann Henderson in this section date to 6th March 2019.


→ Ballydown Primary School working with artist Ann Henderson

Open Space: An action Reid research report from the Virtually There project Bryonie Action research report on Virtually There


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

with each teacher, Ann says of Judith, ‘I’m in tune with what excites her aesthetically’, while with Julie it is more about experimenting. Ann finds both these approaches stimulating. Working with Judith and the children from within her studio, Ann feels, gives her more thinking room; she can reach out from a quiet space. The virtual adds a further dimension to the process, in that Ann and Judith and the children have to describe to each other what can’t easily be seen through the online connection and in this way deepen their focus. When the sound quality is poor, they limit what they say and choose carefully. For Ann, this makes the communication concentrated, an aspect of virtual work which continues to interest her. Ann says, ‘I think it’s slower but I also think that’s a good thing’. She, Judith and Julie tend to prioritise collective conversations rather than making frequent use of headsets to facilitate one-to-one conversations; they find this keeps the whole group active in their thinking. Her collaborative partnership with Judith is more settled and more confident than it was at the beginning, so they are happy to work slowly, taking their time and pushing for deeper observation and discussion of small or easily overlooked things. Though Ann and Judith plan beforehand what the children will do in any given session, and Ann likes to do work similar to or the same as what the children do, she never does it ahead of time but always when the children are doing it in their classrooms. She notes, ‘it has to be genuine exploration for me too’, ensuring the element of risk and uncertainty is there for her as well as for the children. She suggests this provides palpable excitement and offers opportunities for genuine, even-handed sharing. She emphasises that ‘“doing the same” is always an important part of this shared process’. We go on to talk about what it means to work virtually from studio space. Ann speaks of how important it is to her to communicate from there, explaining that the studio in itself is doing some communicating in this context. She is steeped in all that she has thought and felt and done in that place – all the activity she has been involved in in and around the studio – and being there connects her more immediately to it. She says, ‘I can take on more of the challenge’ of Virtually There from her studio. She can be more open and more sensitive to the children. It is more than just being comfortable in a familiar place; she can communicate effectively and in an exploratory way from there because she is used to thinking like that there. She notes, ‘For me I think that the evidence of processes that you see here in the studio – they are the thinking’. The studio is like an extension of her self. It, Ann and her activity in it overlap, intersect and interweave in various ways. Working from there means she can come to Virtually There from a place (not necessarily or only physical) of deeper understanding and can reach out to her collaborative partners and the children with both sensitivity and daring. Thinking about the session just completed, Ann says, ‘The talking is part of the drawing… the talking and the thinking… is all the drawing process… [and it is] as important as any marks we make’. For Ann, in some weeks it can be harder to connect than in others. She feels varying levels of energy within herself or within the room, but less energy does not mean the session is less successful. As Ann explains, ‘[it’s] all part of this investigatory process’. Technology is a significant factor in how a session feels. Exchanges tend not to flow when Ann and the children don’t hear each other well, and Ann has found better results when children use the microphone and then she can open out their comments to Judith and the rest of the class. The children used to take photographs themselves through Blackboard Collaborate software, which was possible through one button


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

in the toolbox on the screen. Now the mouse is needed to go through several layers of functions and the children cannot do it ‘instinctively as part of a fluid process’. Ann misses this contribution to what she calls the ‘lively visual exchange’, with she and the children sharing what they were looking at, thinking about and interested in moment by moment. Blackboard Collaborate software cannot cope well with Ann typing up comments and posting images on the screen, which Ann feels is a loss. It used to be easier and done as a matter of course, and became a valued, tangible reflection of the conversation she was having with Judith, Julie and the children. Ann says, ‘one aspect of being virtual that I find really difficult’, is the struggle to recognise individual children on the webcam, which provides a small and low-resolution image. She keeps the image of the classroom small because they are using the whiteboard to further and deepen the communication. She does not like not knowing names because she worries Year 2s will feel something about their encounter with her is not genuine, but she can be more open with Year 5s about her problems with identifying individuals and is not so concerned they will feel unseen somehow. Ann’s visit to the classroom is important in this regard because it enables her to fix names to faces and helps her to know who she is talking to during virtual sessions. Ann’s choice of working in tandem with the children is determined by what she can’t afford to miss, ‘what the collaborative process offers in the moment’. This is why she makes a composite image with photographs, or essays the beginning of a drawing, while they work, so that she can set it aside and engage with the children coming to the camera. It is also a matter of reading the energy in the room. Today, she chose to make photographs while the children were drawing because ‘photography excites me more than oil pastels’. Sometimes the Year 2s take photographs too, but today it would have been too much for them on top of the other activities and the discussion. Ann aims for ‘setting about an investigation together’, but can choose how she does this. She would not have noticed that she was making images of the fruit in a different way to the children if I had not asked. What matters to her is exploring the same concept.

Talking to Ann Henderson on 28th May 2019 Ann opens the conversation by reflecting on the diversity of the work taking place under the umbrella of Virtually There: it ‘support[s] that variety’ and ‘enable[s] each artist and teacher and that partnership to evolve… in all those different ways’.302 She is conscious that what she has developed with Judith and Julie – which itself changes year by year – is particular to them, based on their personalities and practices. I ask Ann about a comment she made on 15th May, a Celebration Day on which she was working in person with Year 2s and Year 5s at Ballydown Primary School, while I observed. She referenced drawings made by Year 2s on 6th March, the day I joined Ann at her studio, of slices of fruit and vegetables lit up by torches. Ann made some photographic images while they made their drawings, and on 15th May told the children that she had made more in her own time. She shared these with them, and said that if the Year 2s had not made their drawings, she would not have made those photographs. She explains, ‘something was really exciting me as an artist [that day]’, when the Year 2s were drawing with oil pastels. She knew that what excited her was the possibilities of lens-based work with the slices of fruit and vegetables, but her excitement was sparked by the oil pastel drawings. She says, ‘it’s really crucial to pay attention to where it’s exciting for you as the artist – as well as where it’s exciting for the teacher, or exciting for the kids’. If no excitement is generated by any given topic or activity, it should be re-thought, and if excitement is generated for artist but not teacher, 302 All personal communications from Ann Henderson in this section date to 28th May 2019.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

or teacher but not artist, or artist and teacher but not children, it should be re-thought. Ann remembers times when she was pursuing an idea she was absorbed in and Judith or Julie let her know it was not working in the classroom. She explains, ‘without realising it, you get so closely involved with the work yourself in the studio, as if you have begun to work with your head down’. In this instance, her teacher-partner’s reminder of ‘the wider perspective’ came as a ‘revelation’, and Ann goes on, Not that I would drop it but… maybe I would explore it within the response time… So it still feeds into [the work] but you are paying attention to all the needs. When her excitement is sparked, she needs to explore what can come of it in her own time because her time with the children is so limited. Ann emphasises how Orla Kenny’s passion and vision for connecting artists, teachers and children in school settings forged Virtually There. An artist herself, she always asked ‘why?’; for Ann, while this can be a difficult or challenging or inconvenient question, it is very valuable in helping the artists to be thoughtful and purposeful about what they are doing as individuals and what they are doing with their teacher-partners and the children. Orla was able to use this question and others to lift Virtually There artists out of ruts, or guide them out of blind alleys. Ann says, Orla’s part in this has just been monumental… it’s hard to even articulate what she ongoingly did so well… [She] made it her business to understand what each artist was about within their practice and within that shared space… [Her insight] never left a stone unturned. In Ann’s case, Orla was aware that Virtually There was not structured to allow for five-way collaboration, and was concerned that in Ann partnering with Judith and Julie, and splitting her time between Year 2s and Year 5s, each class would be robbed of a depth of experience it could have had if it was working alone with Ann and having all of her contact time. Ann has been aware of this risk from the start (as have Julie and Judith), but said to Orla and says now that this might be the only opportunity Year 2s and Year 5s have in their school lives to ‘explore together’. It might be a unique opportunity for the teachers too. In order to make the fiveway collaboration work, Ann and Judith and Julie have made concentrated use of their time together and their energy, and each has put in substantial amounts of time additional to that budgeted for in the funding for Virtually There. Ann suggests that if there was another year of contact time in this raft of funding they would have to re-think their strategy because they couldn’t replicate the level of input they have managed in the last three years, as Orla had warned. Ann dwells on the way longevity has shaped her collaboration with Julie and Judith, saying ‘it’s been 15 years in the making, this’. One of Orla’s phrases was ‘trust the process’, and Ann notes that being able to trust both process and collaborative partners is a function of ‘[the] long path we’ve come down together’. Trusting process means, for Ann, ‘learning to come to things in that open way… [and] where you know things are valuable to stick with them’. Her shared practice with Judith and Julie has matured over time in the same way an individual practice would, ‘and so much of it can be unsaid, now, between us’. The trust that has been built over time is key to Virtually There activity, and Ann gives a specific example. While observing at Ballydown Primary School on 15th May, the Celebration Day when Ann visited in person to share the year’s work with both Year 2s and Year 5s, I was struck by the rapt attention the 60-odd children gave a film Ann showed them. Using time-lapse photography, she had compressed probably a couple of hours of footage into 10 or 15 minutes, showing her hands being worked on by children’s hands (covered


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

in paint, or oil, or charcoal dust, for example) and her hands working on the children’s recipes for handcoverings. When I mention this, Ann brings up a film she made with Year 2 children at Ballydown Primary School six or seven years ago. It lasted 22 minutes and showed them dismantling a red cabbage. Having made the film on instinct as an artist, she was nervous about sharing it with the children, and had prepared herself to facilitate a conversation about why this had excited her but did not work for them, thinking it was likely they would be uninterested. The red cabbage film was prefaced by a conversation with the children about what they watched on screens and what they expected films to be like. She was surprised and delighted when they appeared spell-bound by it, and says, So many times I’m just reminded that the… limitations we set as adults are so often proved wrong when we bring it back to the kids… It was such a strong experience… I try not to let myself be limited by my preconceptions about what will or will not work. When Ann developed the idea of making a film with her hands and the children’s that would necessitate her doing extra work with the children in the course of a normal school day, she felt it was important enough to her in her practice as an artist to press for it to happen. In the light of her earlier experience with the red cabbage film, she trusted in her instincts and asked Judith to facilitate an un-scheduled visit during which she would take children away from their usual routine group-by-group to work on the film. She knew that she could not guarantee Judith and the children would find the idea as important as she did, and that the results of the work may seem unimportant to all of them. Nonetheless, Judith trusted Ann’s instincts, and Ann trusted her instincts, and the film was made. As Ann says, when these relationships are given time to evolve and strengthen, ‘when something is important [to one partner] it becomes collectively important’. Ann explains that she, Judith and Julie responded to Orla’s concerns about their five-way collaboration in part by ‘slowing down and looking carefully… bringing our attention further and further, deeper and deeper into something… [and] trying not to run away with it all’. This is the outworking of the trust in process advocated by Orla, and has borne fruit over the years. In the last year, Ann says, working with mould and decay and the fragility of rotting objects, ‘we’ve just become totally obsessed with the changes in these evolving processes’ and what happens if she and the children intervene in them. The luxury of staying in process and developing trust in it is concomitant with the longevity of the project, which holds ‘unsaid value’. Ann, Judith and Julie ‘keep pushing it further and further’, and are ‘still in such an exciting place’. Speaking of the children’s perceptions of her, Ann explains that she is known as ‘Ann, the artist’ among children and their parents and staff at Ballydown Primary School. Her intention is not to persuade the children to become artists, but to show them that being an artist is possible and how being an artist might work, what being an artist might look like. She notes that children ‘know when you’re being honest’, when she is bringing ideas and work that are real and come from her own practice. When this happens, ‘as an artist you’re bringing something which is really valuable to you, to the kids’, and they ‘innately know this’. Her aim is to reflect to them the esteem in which she holds their collaborative work. She hopes she is ‘helping them to explore art and see it beyond the box’, and mentioning an occasion on which she received from a parent a card and present addressed to ‘Ann, the artist’ in thanks for their child’s experience in Virtually There, is especially touched when it seems her practice spreads beyond the children but through their understanding of it. For Ann, ‘it really validates the whole thing’. Finally, reflecting on the last year’s work, Ann mentions that there have been more in-person visits to the


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

school than usual. This has changed the shape of the cycle. Appearing in school in person rather than through the interactive whiteboard is a very different experience for Ann. She describes the physical visit as demanding immediate, all-encompassing interaction with children and teachers through all her senses. When she is physically in the classroom, she finds herself less able to pull back from the intensity of interaction to facilitate conversations about more abstract ideas than she is when appearing virtually. As Ann explains it, ‘there’s something in the virtual process around that really intense communication that really lights a fire in my belly’. Because she was in the school more often than in other cycles, she knows there were conceptual conversations that did not happen. However, visiting the school more frequently has allowed her to engage more physically with the children’s work; when it came to the end of the cycle, she was able to bring back work they had made that she had taken away on previous visits, and re-present it to them as evidence of the process they had been undertaking together. Further, her care of their work, and juxtaposition of it with her own work, emphasises to them the value of what they think and make.

Talking to Lisa Cahill in Aughnacloy Primary School on 10th June 2019 After I observe a session which took place in Parkanaur Forest Park during a visit by Lisa to Aughnacloy Primary School, Lisa and I talk together in the empty classroom after the children have gone home. I begin by asking Lisa for her perspective on Virtually There at the end of her three-year engagement. After three years of developing her relationship with Leanne, she says, It’s a very satisfying place to be at… there is a very easy flow… We’re very much [at] that place, however we’ve developed it, consciously and unconsciously I suppose, that kind of co-holding between us, which is really nice.303 I question whether this ‘co-holding’ means holding different things, or holding the same things in different ways, and Lisa explains that ‘it’s less her in the role as teacher and me as the artist… I would say that it’s very much… that we’re actually together holding, I suppose that creative space’. Because she can share this responsibility with Leanne, it frees her to ‘just be the artist in the space’; that is, focus on exploring what is happening for her as an artist in a collaborative process. Again, Lisa points to the importance of trust in this process, and explains that at the end of three years’ work together, there is a level of trust between her and Leanne that allows them to work separately as well as together in any given session. Each trusts the other to work in a such a way that ‘the children are honoured in their creative space’. Often Leanne will lead in reminding herself and Lisa and the children of their focus on the body, a focus that stems from Lisa’s own practice. While Lisa and Leanne have been on a journey over the three years, each year-long cycle has been a journey in itself. At this point in their three-year journey, ‘it does feel that, you know, we’re both very present to just, kind of, opening our arms and… really seeing what they’re interested in’; and Lisa has found that ‘towards the end of each year we can move into this [creative] space more and more’. Lisa thinks she and Leanne are naturally inclined to be sensitive and present-minded in their work, but have built on that inclination by developing skills around it. She muses, ‘we can kind of stay present – “oh, that didn’t work” – we can feel into it kind of quickly, probably?’. In making this ‘creative space’, where the children can develop their own movements individually and together, I have noticed how Lisa and Leanne avoid being directive, which is all the more notable given how young the children are (five and six years old). Lisa acknowledges that and goes on, 303 All personal communications from Lisa Cahill in this section date to 10th June 2019.


→ St Patrick’s Primary School working with artist Sharon Kelly

Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

There’s no denying the work and preparation that goes in outside of that… that really supports that space, then, to be held… We’re really clear around what this space and time can offer. Both Lisa and Leanne put in substantial effort outside of their contact time with the children and their planning time together to fully realise the potential of each session. As Lisa points out, ‘there’s a huge body of work that’s happening to support it… in the classroom, in the general practice of the classroom’, as Leanne weaves Virtually There into ‘the integrated learning approach that she has with this particular age group’. This entails ‘cross-curricular… experiential learning and engagement’, enriching and being enriched by Virtually There. Though the extra time and labour contributed by each partner is key to what makes Virtually There work, it is neither formally recorded nor paid for. We talk some more about what it takes to hold open creative space. Lisa describes it as Giving time to… reflect, to move with the ideas and the suggestions… the images, the movements that emerge from our time together, and to notice just what in it myself I’m feeling drawn to… and giving myself a chance to explore that, connected to the broader context of what I’m really exploring at the moment in my practice. She thinks that for Leanne it involves ‘clearly feel[ing] the connectivity of the exploration we’re involved in, how that’s integrated as part of… the general practice… of the classroom’, how to support that practically and finding ‘connectivity in terms of the learning objectives across the day and the curriculum’. It is about remaining open to each other’s and the children’s reflections on the work: We would say to each other, let’s see what emerges from this… we’ll ask them what… they enjoyed, what they’d like to do again… that kind of… openness. I ask if unpacking together their observations and feelings about each session also requires trust. Lisa agrees, and explains that the trust they have built means that ‘we… can communicate less, we don’t need to talk it out loads’. They have developed confidence in understanding each other, even on the basis of a brief comment. Lisa concludes: I think it’s that the space is very much connected to our own practices… and that’s really key… So we have our own kind of reflective stuff going on, and we have kind of a shared chat about what happened… what might we feel… might come next… She really invites me to offer back my own artistic practice through the different mediums. ← Ballydown Primary School working with artist Ann Henderson


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

In terms of her own practice, Lisa speaks of witnessing, encouraging and supporting rather than facilitating, and when I ask her why she avoids the term ‘facilitating’. She explains that in Virtually There and with Leanne, she has found that ‘trying to facilitate a “body” experience, in person, through the… lens of the screen’ is unsatisfying for everyone involved. As an alternative, Lisa and Leanne have developed ‘third-party’ facilitation – for example, the pre-recorded warm-up narrative used in the session described previously – that enables her to step back and become ‘just another equal member of the party’, with Leanne, Darren and the children. She notes, Of course… Leanne and I have put the structures in place, we are facilitating, but it doesn’t feel like we’re facilitating in the moment, I think… because then I go away from the camera, I’m back and I lie on the floor of the studio. The idea of ‘witnessing’, in Lisa’s work, is drawn from ‘the practice of authentic movement… originally… developed by Janet Adler in America’. To her it means ‘to really attend and just stay present to, just what’s arising, what’s arising in the room of my own body, or in the room [itself]’. In the context of Virtually There it describes her practice because: I’m clearly a partner… who is putting a lot of thought and consideration into this work, outside of the contact time, and is inviting and encouraging and listening for the… creative ideas and juices of the other partners then, in the moment… And reflect[ing] that back, then. As Lisa has observed, ‘that really excites [the children]… because that gives them an experience of really being seen’. So she feels she can ‘facilitate’ indirectly, through audio recordings, certainly, but also through video and the packages she posts to the school. Even working with small groups of children through the screen feels like indirect facilitation to her: ‘they’re really in charge, because I can’t… be in charge’. I am interested in whether Lisa works collaboratively with other artists, and if so, whether that feels different from working collaboratively with Leanne, as a teacher. Lisa does collaborate with other artists, and feels that her work with Leanne on Virtually There has developed her thinking on how to collaborate productively: Key to any collaboration for me is… building relationship… I do recognise that more and more, that I need time… And actually I am more clear now around articulating my own need for time in building a relationship as a really key component of the collaboration, and to… see what emerges in the next step, and consider that before we go on. In the context of Virtually There, it has become clear that the paid planning and reflection time, which enables the artist and teacher to spend time together (either virtually or physically) is crucial. For Lisa, ‘it’s that shared connection, and that time together to really… get to know each other’. As a result of this experience with Leanne, when Lisa is offered the opportunity to collaborate professionally with anyone else, she is sure of what she needs to make it work: Maybe I’m able to say more clearly, I’m quite interested in the space between us… that that can be nurtured through relationship… We’re coming with the understanding that each partner… has a creative practice… I am actually deeply reflective, so I… need that… I’m probably slow to – I like to dip the toe in collaboration, see how the relationship unfolds, because I’m probably really looking to be met with that as well. I pick on the phrase ‘the space between us’, because it resonates with my experience of interdisciplinary work, in which I aim to find connections without negating disciplinary differences. I ask Lisa what she means by this phrase, and she explains, It’s different in different contexts and I need to be very clear as to what I’m… expecting or looking for


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

in terms of collaboration… I think… in collaboration I’m looking for that investment of time from each of us, and perhaps I’m coming with a question, about what’ll emerge if we… attend to some exploration together… but then also going away, and I’m reflecting on and I’m going further in what’s arisen for me. I understand from this that in a collaboration Lisa feels she should retain her separate identity and sense of her own practice. She elaborates, This is a collaboration, but I suppose… what we’re interested in is what’s emerging in the exploratory process between us, and the children as a partner and a collaborat[or] in that, but the weight and the… holding is held between Leanne and I, and what supports that is the weight and the depth of practice and reflection that goes on… within each of us as individuals, and how we are communicating and connecting and sharing, and exploring the needs and expectations and possibilities, and chatting about the unknown and how we’re maybe framing that, touching off that in the process. Having described the witnessing element of her practice in relation to the children, Lisa tells me it operates also in relation to her collaborative partner. In collaboration, she is ‘attending to… just what’s happening… for me, and feeling into what’s arising, in terms of imagination, or needs, or sensations, and giving lots of time to walk with, or move with that’. Collaborating, she emphasises, is very different from listening to and learning from other practitioners in any discipline. ← Ballydown Primary School working with artist Ann Henderson


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

I ask Lisa whether the practice of witnessing, which evidently orients the witness towards giving, is also about receiving. Lisa says that she tries ‘to stay more close to receiving than giving’. In her wider practice she is developing ideas for A performance… experience that cultivates… a wider field of attention in school settings, with my own body, with a tree that might be in your playground, or the possibility of a tree that might be planted in your playground, and a woodland, that might be nearby, or not nearby, or a tree that’s nearby, or in your garden at home. Lisa is not yet clear as to how these ideas will work themselves out, but explains, I have very much engaged with this… research and this work with Leanne… I am very up for exploring how she is maybe meeting what I’m working with… You know by her that she… has a very [clear sense of my practice]… she actually helps remind me… we’re staying very close to the body, it’s about the senses, Lisa, and… the layered approach to giving voice to the body [alongside looking at the tree/s]. In this way, her work in Virtually There is feeding her creativity in the project and beyond. Lisa is able to use her time with Leanne, and their communications, to have ideas she is exploring reflected back to her and thereby test and refine her thinking. She lays this out: I’m also interested in… the sensory field, and… the wider field of just attention in the context of a classroom… I am interested in coming in and maybe eking out a bit more space and time for us all to slow down and tune into the body and developing body awareness… I am interested in these things, so… I even think… when I’m having conversations with Leanne… I’m really, you know, paying attention to, oh, how is it I’m describing these… quieter, more nuanced, kind of somatic body… possibilities… how does she hear me say them… and [when I ask] how might we set up an exploration for that, Leanne, how does she respond… I’m receiving a lot from those conversations… I enjoy and relish the… relationship. Through Virtually There Lisa is cultivating broader practices to do with time and the body and listening, which will have a life beyond the project itself. In this sense it is another context – like studio work, or collaboration with another artist, or conducting group criticism with other artists – in which the artist can explore for herself her understanding of what she does. The children and Leanne are illuminating for Lisa aspects of her practice through how they engage with it and with how she talks about it. Lisa concludes, [I’m] wondering myself what would I like to offer… how is it… I can offer in this context… how is it I am seen… Does it feel of value… to me, to Leanne, to the children… Why are we even doing this? → Killard House School working with artist Julie Forrester


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

We move to talk of the children Lisa and Leanne have worked with this year. Lisa explains, [L]anguage was very slow to come initially with this particular group, particularly the boys, and they had a huge need, we could see it very clearly, they want to be touched… they want weight, they want each other to crawl on each other, and it’s not even that they use language, [it seems] in movement they’re able to get what they need? It’s very… interesting, it’s the first time I’ve really experienced that. I suggest it is significant that Lisa has been able to interpret these movements as language and communication, and not just romping. Lisa says that Leanne helped her to see it too. She explains that in Parkanaur that day, it was evident that the children understood why they were there, without Lisa and Leanne having to be explicit about it moment by moment. My observation was that even if the children had had no overt guidance as to why they were there, they would have made productive use of the time and the space and the resources of the space. Plenty of them demonstrated awareness of a wider context and were keen to engage through their senses with the environment around them. Lisa concurs. This is her third visit to the school during the summer term, each time with a different year group, and by this stage she and Leanne are confident enough in their work that they do not significantly alter their virtual methodologies: I like that Leanne and I have not put ourselves under pressure to deliver anything new, or pack it all in just because I’m here. There’s a sense that… the work has taken place, and in coming to be here I’m… witnessing them and being with them in an ordinary way… Of course it’s a shift, to go to a different place, but… we didn’t take on a massive onus… Again it’s just attending to and staying with the work of our creative practice. However, because of the performative nature of their work they have to think about how to make it visual, so they pay particular attention to filming the children when Lisa is there in person. We turn to the framework of Virtually There. We discuss its imminent end, and while Lisa has been operating within the framework of three years’ funding for contact with children, she thinks ‘the long-term approach that Virtually There offers… [is] very exciting’ and hopes she and project colleagues might be able to consider, with Kids’ Own, a way forward. Lisa indicates that she feels somewhat disconnected from the other artistteacher partnerships and Kids’ Own, which she considers a shame, and suggests may stem from Orla Kenny’s death and changes in management, as well as funding cuts reducing the amount of time participants can spend together. As it is, her focus has been on Leanne and the children and her own practice. She is satisfied with the three years’ work on her own account, but would not want to continue working under the umbrella of the wider project and Kids’ Own’s management without feeling more integrated. Referring to ‘a slacking in those connective tissues’, Lisa says, I’d like to feel that elasticity again… because I think that there’s more there… The wider connectivity and kind of support system, and the wider system of Virtually There as… that bigger body – that actually is… of value also… This relationship [with Leanne] is really important, but within this system, because actually… the other elements of the project… such as the blog, such as the professional development… the opportunities that we have had to connect, I think they’re all important and they could… really be looked at… they could be… tweaked, or… shifted altogether… [to become] just more active… For me they have been quite passive. She explains that she chose to step back from the online journal when she became aware that she ‘ended up… doing it and putting time into it, and… didn’t feel met in it’. Further, she and Leanne ‘didn’t manage to find a way of bringing the blog in… as an active partner in the work’. Reflecting again on her desire to work relationally, she wonders aloud where more conscious fostering of the group relationships would lead, and


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

the power of a collective affirmation that the project ‘is of enormous value’. She muses, ‘I need things to unfold out of that… exploratory space where we’re engaged in [it] together’, but points out, The skills that are needed and the experience needed to hold these kind of open conversations, you know… they can be challenging for people, and demanding, but I know I really need it, and want it. Lisa is aware that she began to feel isolated in her second year in Virtually There – Orla Kenny had reduced her involvement in the project because of illness, and died in the summer of 2018, after Lisa and Leanne’s second cycle – while Leanne has begun to feel more connected recently, and has ‘reached out more’. Finally, Lisa comments that the support promised by Kids’ Own has not always materialised, citing in particular the ongoing difficulties with technology. This culminated in Blackboard Collaborate suddenly (as far as Lisa and Leanne were concerned) becoming unavailable to schools in Northern Ireland this year. Lisa sums up, I think it’s a pity… I like to see things being given the time and opportunity to… move towards… a sense of fulness… It’s just paying attention to small things… If you’re working with… children… [and] you promise something, you’ve got to be available.

↓ St Patrick’s Primary School working with artist Sharon Kelly


Open Space: action research report the Virtually Bryonie ReidAn Action research report onfrom Virtually There There project


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project


Principals, Education Authority staff and the Creative Director of Kids’ Own ← St Colman’s Primary School working with artist John D’Arcy

Talking with Wilson McMullan, principal of Ballydown Primary School, on 10th October 2018 Wilson oversaw the involvement of Ballydown Primary School staff with what he calls the Linen Project, which immediately pre-dated Virtually There and brought Ann Henderson to the school for the first time. He explains that this project began to expand teachers’ and children’s understanding of art at Ballydown, and introduced new dimensions and depths to the art curriculum. He considers projects like these to provide ‘a little bit more adventure’ for children, so he was keen to engage with Virtually There from its infancy.304 He says, ‘as a principal you’ve got to be visionary… and you’ve got to take on innovation’. Generally: I probably had no idea that it would broaden out as much as it has done… It has expanded out beyond what I would have even thought about… for Judith and the children… The success of it I think is clear to see. This success is in part due to the project’s longevity, which Wilson did not foresee. Because Virtually There did not come to the school through the Education Authority, there is not much in-service sharing of its participants’ experiences. Skills-building and other benefits have been identified at Ballydown Primary School, but Wilson is unsure whether learning about these will be disseminated. However, being brought to the school by an independent organisation, the project’s funding is not the school’s responsibility, which is very important. The cost to the school of Virtually There is minute, and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation grant in particular ‘[has] been extremely beneficial for schools’. Wilson is aware of how much time it takes to plan and reflect on and refine the sessions cycle by cycle, and knows that Judith and Julie do a lot of this in their own time. In welcoming Virtually There, Wilson was certain of its benefits for Judith White at Ballydown Primary School. As a subject coordinator in art, Judith is responsible for teaching her own subject to more senior classes, and for ensuring other teachers are teaching it to their full scope, fulfilling the art curriculum across all classes. Wilson knew that in Virtually There her relationship with Ann, the ‘artist-expert’, would be key, and he knew this had been working well already on the Linen Project, aware that they were enthusiastic collaborators and good at exchanging information and working together. Judith is middle management in the school, and Education Training Inspectorate policy suggests that she should be acting as a role model, and leading by example; further, it recommends ‘collegial and pastoral collaboration with other staff’. Wilson saw that Virtually There would provide a context for Judith to pursue both these objectives. For him, Judith and Julie’s involvement in Virtually There constitutes recognition of their expertise and experience, and functions as career development. He recognises that in-service courses in professional development are rare to nonexistent and ‘to have [teachers] in school working shoulder-to-shoulder with an expert is so advantageous’. They are engaging in and leading innovation, and their work with Ann has attracted international interest; Wilson explains that a Norwegian cohort of educators and artists are to make a research visit to the school in November 2018. He suggests that Virtually There has built up confidence in Judith and Julie, and Wilson 304 All personal communications from Wilson McMullan in this section date to 10th October 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

is pleased to see their work and talent being appreciated inside and outside the school. Indeed, when the Education Training Inspectorate visited Ballydown Primary School in 2016 the project was recognised and noted as good practice. Virtually There also involves team teaching, with Judith and Julie coordinating shared sessions in each cycle. Team teaching usually is difficult to organise, and constitutes significant innovation; it requires teachers to want to collaborate and make time for collaborating on a common project. Wilson appreciates that Judith and Julie are ‘not embarrassed by sharing with each other’. For the children, Virtually There has provided improved learning experiences. Wilson considers children participating in the project to be practising high-level verbal skills in communicating and listening, and is pleased that they have ample opportunity for collaborative work. There are not many opportunities for older and younger children to partner with each other on project work. Virtually There represents effective practice in school, what Wilson thinks of as ‘good education’. Ballydown Primary School has high standards in literacy and numeracy and, Wilson says, has maintained these despite time given to art and music. To fit these subjects into the curriculum and give them the time they deserve takes careful planning; most effective is cross-curricular integration, using time spent on art to bring in topic knowledge or literacy skills, for example, though stand-alone art lessons can be needed to teach a technique or skill. The art curriculum’s statutory requirements are easily fulfilled by Virtually There, though the project goes beyond those requirements, and connects to the Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities element of the curriculum. Emphasising the relationship between teachers’ stimulation and fulfilment and children’s education, Wilson concludes, I really think it has been very good for Judith at all levels… keeping up her own skills and expertise and keeping to the forefront of innovation… and that can only benefit the children she teaches.

Talking with Jane Clarke, principal of Aughnacloy Primary School, on 18th October 2018 Jane brought the opportunity to get involved in Virtually There to Leanne Kyle. She heard about the project through Marcella Wilson, a friend and former colleague, who thought Jane might be interested in having staff at Aughnacloy Primary School involved. Teachers and pupils at Aughnacloy have participated in art projects before, and Jane mentions Packed, done with Aughnacloy Primary School’s Shared Education partner school, St Mary’s. In this project, Milly Patton, an artist and former post-primary school teacher, worked with both schools, part-funded by an external body (covering the shared element) and part-funded by Aughnacloy Primary School, which Jane explains is an especially well-resourced school. Jane has worked through the Shared Education programme with Vine Haugh (a long-time supporter of Virtually There), and mentions that she and Vine agree that process is much more important than outcome in education. For this reason, in Aughnacloy Primary School all children’s artwork is displayed, there is no selection and all outcomes are valued. Jane and her staff wanted their pupils to know they were proud of all work done, and have stopped entering children’s work in Clogher Valley Show, for example, because children were learning through this that some of their work is valued by adults and some is not. For Jane, providing opportunities for children to participate in art projects is good educational practice. Jane teaches a Year 3 class as well as being principal in the school, and does art with them one afternoon a week. This involves learning about colours and how to mix them, and learning how to draw faces, for example. Jane says, ‘whatever a child draws it is their perception’, and cannot be labelled


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

right or wrong. While art was not Jane’s main subject in her teacher training, she says, ‘I just enjoy it’. She points out, ‘there’s a lot of children that can shine through art… it’s just another medium for them to learn through’.305 Jane was not expecting Leanne to be partnered with a dance artist in Virtually There, and says that before Lisa started working with Leanne and the children, she was wondering how it would work out. She concludes, ‘it’s been brilliant’. She recognises the importance for the children of engaging with their bodies and learning about and practising movement: ‘dance is something different’. When asked about the specific benefits she sees for the children, Jane says they gain in confidence and develop their communication skills. When asked about the benefits of the project for Leanne, Janes cites ‘personal development’, explaining, ‘it was all about slowing the whole thing down’, which is the opposite of how curricular teaching works. Further, it constituted professional development for Leanne, and not as an add-on, but as activity that flowed naturally with the curriculum and her working day. For Jane, difficulty would arise if Leanne was reluctant to fully enter into partnership with Lisa, or reluctant to pursue ideas arising from her practice, or thought the work was a distraction from curricular requirements, or if doing any of it felt like a burden to her; for the project to work, Leanne had to commit willingly. Jane tries to support Leanne in Virtually There through allowing her time to plan and reflect, regardless of funding; time outside of ordinary teaching duties is essential to plan and to evaluate. She explains, ‘because I see the benefits of it I’m quite prepared to give her that time’. Jane thinks that any of her staff would step up to involvement in Virtually There if asked, and their attitudes are already disposed to openness and acceptance of different ways of working and the space given to Leanne to do it, because of the culture of the school. Jane believes that the support of the principal is key to enabling a teacher to participate in Virtually There to the fullness of their ability She would be the first to defend Leanne and the project if she or it came under any criticism, and suggests it is helpful that she herself still teaches a class, and knows the demands, challenges and constraints of class teaching; she is all the more ready to allow Leanne time away from it when possible to strengthen her work on Virtually There. While Jane would find it easy to justify the school’s participation in Virtually There there has, in fact, been no need to justify it because parents have responded overwhelmingly positively. Children love it and tell their parents so, and the good effects on them are obvious.

Talking with Marie O’Donoghue on 8th November 2018 Marie’s interest in Virtually There comes from her experience as an artist and an educator, and her comments on art education in general provide further context for understanding the project.306 She works at the Education Authority and will spend the next three years involved in the Creative Schools project, part-funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI). ACNI, together with the Education Authority and Urban Villages, contributed £120, 000 from April 2018 to pilot a creative programme with 10 postprimary schools ‘[in] communities where there has previously been a history of deprivation and community tension’.307 Evaluation of the pilot, in which students worked with creative practitioners in a range of media, suggested that it should become a three-year programme.

305 All personal communications with Jane Clarke in this section date to 18th October 2018. 306 All personal communication from Marie O’Donoghue in this section dates to 8th November 2018. 307, accessed 3rd December 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Marie defines creativity as thinking in lots of different ways and being open to making your own connections between thoughts, ideas, concepts. She believes that schools must generate the conditions for creativity to flourish; this includes making time for open-ended exploration, but also making space in possibly crowded classrooms for activities that encourage children away from their desks. Perceiving a dismissive attitude to creativity among educators, Marie sees the Creative Schools programme as a way of proving that in fact it ought to be at the heart of school improvement. School improvement, she suggests, came to the fore at the Education Authority after the economic crash of 2008, in the context of recession and austerity, and has brought with it a strong emphasis on self-evaluation. Children’s experiences of education tend to be skewed away from creativity, in Marie’s opinion, and she points out that teachers and schools have to be open to innovation for high-quality arts programmes to work. A sustained period of engagement with children is key, but unfortunately rare. She sees arts participation as a way of tackling poor mental health and low levels of wellbeing through developing self-awareness and understanding, and asks, ‘why do we have to justify being creative?’. Reflecting on her early years at the Education Authority, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Marie suggests that a widespread optimism and energy spread from the establishment of ceasefires, the Good Friday Agreement and a peace process to social and cultural contexts. Northern Ireland was characterised by rejuvenation and rethinking, including in education, with the revision of the curriculum, and at this point the Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities document was developed. Necessary skills were being identified outside of the traditional requirements in literacy and numeracy, and all parts of the new curriculum were supposed to be designed around – or built on – this foundation of Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities. Its elements are: managing information; thinking, problem-solving and decision-making; being creative; working with others; and self-management.308 The question, Marie repeats, is of how to create the conditions in school for children to effectively engage in these. She points out one obstacle: examining milestones at Year 7, Year 12 and Year 14 put a stop to process-focused, flexible and creative education, because examinations cannot and do not measure that type of education, and therefore sidestep it. Implicit in its absence from examinations is its lack of value, and a corollary of examination-focused learning is children becoming afraid of being ‘wrong’ and avoiding taking risks with their thinking, discussion and work. Further, ‘working with others’ is one of the most difficult elements of the Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities framework to implement, again because of examination culture. Examination promotes competition and teaches children that academic success is an individual and not collaborative pursuit. When children work together, they learn flexibility, compromise, respect, listening and empathy, but when it comes to examination, they are isolated and pitted against each other. Because this culture dominates teaching training and practice, Marie thinks that teachers are more likely to carry out box-ticking exercises in relation to creativity, than to have their practice steeped in it. However, a highly skilled and engaged teacher will be the exception to this pattern. Through her involvement with the Association of Art and Design Education, Marie is aware of a thirst among teachers for ongoing professional development, a will to build on existing skills and acquire new ones that, unfortunately, is not being met. Marie’s assessment of education as it exists, and education as it could be, resonates with what teachers and artists say about their experiences of Virtually There. All participants testify to the power of sustained 308, accessed 20th August 2019.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

engagement, and teachers in particular reference the way in which Virtually There answers to the Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities framework, in an unforced way. Marie’s question about whether the practice of examining children in Year 7 blocks process-focused education is an important one: Leanne and Judith demonstrate the strain that children as young as five and six are under, and the only Year 7 class to participate in Virtually There comprises a group of children with special educational needs. It is a question I have asked myself, whether the Northern Irish education system could allow for a project like Virtually There to take place in Years 6 and 7 in mainstream education, where a sizeable proportion of children will be expected to take transfer examinations to determine whether they will go to grammar school or secondary school. The possibility that examination will disrupt cultures of collaboration, where those have been established, is another issue worth considering, especially in light of Virtually There teachers’ awareness of the benefits for their pupils of working with each other.

Talking with Vine Haugh, 20th November 2018 Vine has been closely associated with Kids’ Own and Virtually There for several years, and has been responsible for introducing some participant teachers to the project. As with Marie, her understanding of art education generally provides context for this exploration of Virtually There, though Vine also reflects specifically on the project.309 Vine practised as a primary school teacher specialising in art and design for 10 years, before being seconded into the Curriculum Advisory and Support Service (CASS). This was a Department of Education initiative to help teachers in subject teaching; initially science and art and design, and over time spreading to all subject areas. At that time, Vine remembers, there was scant support material and very little literature on art and design in primary teaching, and she spent much of her time in face-to-face support of teachers and children. She built a staff team of five teachers with specialist interest and skills in art and design seconded from schools to help her in her work and in time was given responsibility for supporting art and design in post-primary schools, too. During this time her line manager brought into CASS the first Macintosh computers and Vine became interested in their capabilities. She was tasked with exploring art and design education through computers, and helped to pioneer the crossover of art and ICT with Photoshop and other industry-level software. It was then – in the mid-1990s – that she met Simon Spain, founder and then creative director of Kids’ Own. He was producing books with children in schools, engaging them from start to finish, and Vine saw an opportunity to design and publish their work digitally and thereby disseminate it more widely. Orla Kenny joined Kids’ Own on a subsequent project called Multimedia Maps. Vine moved to the Southern Education and Library Board in 2001 and developed the Armagh Multimedia Access Centre or AmmA Centre, which is ‘still going strong’. Vine explains that it aims at ‘utilising technology to support creativity’, using industry experts and seconded teachers. Staff were excited by the potential of technology in education, ‘the impact it could have in the classroom’, including making classwork more interactive and practice-based and motivating children to carry out research and present it in innovative ways. When asked about the changes in art education during her career, Vine describes them as ‘huge’. Art education used to be well supported, practically and financially, with good training for teachers, but a decline in support has been evident over the last 15 years. Now, Vine questions whether any of the teacher training colleges or universities at which students can get a Post-graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) 309 All personal communications with Vine in this section date to 20th November 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

offer training in art and design, even in basic skills. She identifies a dilemma in art education, and in training educators in art, which is whether to concentrate on learning skills or on using skills, or whether both can be done simultaneously to the desired degree. Vine has been teaching modules in art for primary teachers through Shared Education for the past couple of years, and finds teachers have almost no basic skills with materials. Therefore, she has to help her student teachers develop some skills and then explore how to apply these in the classroom. She notes, ‘being creative isn’t about… do whatever you want – you have to have direction’. Teachers have to provide the stimulus for children to use materials creatively, as well as showing them how to use materials with some skill, and then giving them the space to express themselves freely with materials. In Vine’s experience, when a brief is too open children become overwhelmed and an art project can collapse. Reflecting on the positive intervention an artist can make in art education in schools, she says, Where [an art project] works well is when the teachers and the artists are on the same wavelength… It takes time to develop that partnership... and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. When Sligo-based Kids’ Own was developing the Linen Project, Orla asked Vine’s advice about which schools and which artists to work with in Northern Ireland. The Linen Project established a group of connections, and a network of conversations, which were drawn on to develop Virtually There; further, Orla connected through this project with C2k, the provider of technological infrastructure and services for schools in Northern Ireland and key to the possibility of virtual work in schools. Having been exploring the use of technology in education, Vine was aware that C2k technology was, as she calls it, ‘clunky and awkward’. She emphasises that It’s not about the technology at all… [technology] was another tool. I don’t believe in technology for technology’s sake… You only use it when it adds to or enriches the creative experience.’ The technology in use from the beginning of Virtually There was not sophisticated and did not always work smoothly, ‘but as a vehicle it was excellent’. Like Vine, Orla was interested primarily in ‘facilitating… creative activities in the classroom’, and Vine identifies ‘the strength of the project’ in Orla (and participants) tying every plan and activity to ‘the quality of the children’s experience’ and privileging process over outcome. Since communicating on screens is not unusual for children and adults now, in moving past the novelty stage comes the opportunity to refine it as a tool. Vine recognises that educational technology is not exciting, streamlined and intuitive in the same way as industry-standard technology, and while schools should be using this industry-standard technology, ‘the focus has to be on the purpose and why you need it’. Its use in education should be purposeful and thoughtful, but technology and the internet have transformed learning, and education must come to reflect this shift. Vine dwells on the qualities she thinks teachers should have to engage with and that thrive in Virtually There. She explains, I’m looking for a teacher who… thinks a little divergently about how they teach children… they’re willing to move from the path. Vine believes the insistence in the education system on teachers’ planning is actually an insistence on documenting what teachers do and thereby proving that they are doing all the right things at the right time and to the right level. Vine especially values teachers ‘who are willing to take different journeys… and to be very tuned into what learning is, as opposed to getting through a certain lesson’. For that teacher Virtually There ‘will add to what is already good in their classroom’ and help them to think even more differently


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

about their practice. As for the children who participate, Vine says, ‘I’m never in any doubt as to what it will do for the children… [with] the right artist and the right teacher’: it gives them space to think for themselves; it teaches them to look closely and carefully at the world around them; it is an opportunity for alternative ways of doing things; it celebrates diverse ideas and methodologies; ‘it’s all about thinking’ and teaches children to respect their own and each other’s ways of thinking; it teaches collaboration, listening to and respecting a visitor in the classroom; and it teaches plenty of social skills. In fact, Vine suggests, Virtually There fulfils all of the requirements of the Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities framework. She moves on to explain the art and design curriculum as it stands in Northern Ireland. It requires: learning to observe and record; developing a toolkit for looking at anything (for example, noting colour, shape and texture); developing ideas from looking; learning uses of media and processes to work out ideas; in this process looking at other artists’ work as an end in itself but also as a stimulus to the children’s own work; and finally, evaluating work, a process of reflection that aids language development. Vine points out that not all children will be artists, but ALL can look carefully and think about what they see. She thinks that artists, when working in schools long-term, should be aware of the art and design curriculum and the Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities framework. When Virtually There is working at its best, it is holistic and rich and will easily fulfil all of those curriculum objectives, but it helps if the artist as well as the teacher is conscious of what children should be receiving. ↓ St Patrick’s Primary School working with artist Sharon Kelly

Virtually There has great interdisciplinary potential, Vine believes, bringing opportunities to develop learning across many subjects in the curriculum. Giving children space to talk about their own and others’ work, and to challenge and question adults, is invaluable for their verbal language development and independent thinking. In order for the project to be all it can be, artists and teachers should keep the children at the centre of their planning, allowing that ‘they might take you in a different direction’, of which ‘you should not be afraid’. When the project work remains open-ended, ‘it opens those doors for the children to enquire and ask questions… beyond maybe where the teacher planned to go’. For Vine, Virtually There is what it is largely because of Orla Kenny. Vine explains that Orla merged education and art in unusual ways. As an artist, she had the respect of the artists and could challenge them on their thinking and practice. Although in education there was and is no money for helping artists working with schools to make their own work as well – for example, artists might be paid to do workshops in schools, but not paid to develop work with children that also developed their own practice – Orla brought in this funding strand. She ensured that Kids’ Own strongly supported artists’ practices. Further, she had an instinctive understanding of education and learning.

Talking with Jo Holmwood, 12th March 2019 Jo became acting creative director of Kids’ Own in 2016, and assumed the position on a permanent basis in early 2019. Jo began working at Kids’ Own as project manager in 2009 and has been closely involved with Virtually There since then. Kids’ Own has been responsible over the years for securing and administering funding for the project, but I am particularly interested in the proactive role taken by the organisation in putting together artists and teachers, and begin the conversation by asking about this.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Jo agrees that Kids’ Own’s role in choosing which teacher would partner with which artist has been important. Teachers tended to be put forward for consideration by a principal, whereas artists would apply to participate. In the early stages of the project, some artists and teachers were put together simply because they were the only new recruits. Jo acknowledges the role of luck here, noting that ‘there’s a synergy there [in most cases] and that grows over time’.310 In 2016, with a substantial raft of new participants, Orla took the lead on pairing them, and gave a lot of thought to it; she followed no particular criteria in making the selection, rather went by instinct and intuition according to what she understood of personalities, energies and perhaps specific interests or skill-sets. For example, Orla knew Leanne Kyle to have special responsibility for technology within her school. Therefore, she assumed Leanne to be comfortable and confident with it, and thought that this would help her surmount the challenges in working with dance artist Lisa Cahill. Jo points out that in the current four-year phase funded by Paul Hamlyn Foundation, an initial 10 pairings have been reduced to eight pairings, because of one incompatible partnership and one partnership which was not supported by the senior management of the school. For her, ‘the buy-in from the teachers is always really, really crucial as well’: because artists apply, they come to the project with an excitement, an eagerness to stretch their practice and to both bring and receive something new. Teachers might be asked to involve themselves by their principals, and can be daunted by the prospect of moving outside of mainstream educational practice and by realising how much work is involved. Teachers that make the project work are utterly committed and have the energy for the workload. In the end, Jo thinks that ‘energy has a lot to do with [how partnerships and the project work] – but it’s very hard to put your finger on it’. For example, Orla paired Chris McCambridge with sound artist John D’Arcy on the basis that Chris, who has a degree in visual art, would be able to meet John in his playful, conceptual, experimental practice. Since I have heard from artists about Orla’s sensitivity to their needs, and from teachers about their sense of being valued by Kids’ Own as professionals, I ask Jo about Kids’ Own’s ethos of looking after project participants. Jo replies, ‘the difficulty is you always still want to give more’. Kids’ Own’s raison d’être is to facilitate professional arts practice with children, and recognising the professional status of artists has always been central to the organisation. Jo indicates that many arts projects are about deliverables and take an instrumental attitude to artists, focusing on what can be got out of them on a given day. The aim of Virtually There is to bring professional arts practice into the classroom, but Orla knew, and Jo knows, that this is only possible if the organisation and its partners can recognise and value the ephemeral, organic nature of what artists do, their range of methodologies and their interest in process. Bringing the studio into the classroom has been very important, being the place in which artists’ process takes place. I raise Kids’ Own’s support of planning and reflection time for teachers and artists, which they have identified as crucial to the work and to their sense of satisfaction in it. Jo points out that for a long time, funding did not pay for time beyond minimal preparation and contact with the children. Cuts to funding before Kids’ Own succeeded in getting the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) grant meant that making space for thorough planning and any kind of reflection was doubly difficult. In fact, Kids’ Own made a loss on Virtually There each year until getting PHF funding, and Jo says, ‘I can’t pretend it wasn’t a labour of love for Orla… so it was personality-driven in that sense’. According to Jo, Orla was spurred on by her ‘sheer belief’ in the value of the project and her excitement about the work coming from Ann Henderson and Ann Donnelly in its early stages. With the PHF grant, Jo says, Virtually There became a different project. Up to 310 All personal communications from Jo Holmwood in this section date to 12th March 2019.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

that point it had been funded solely by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), and in the 2018–19 cycle, ACNI funding was discontinued. The project was bigger than it had ever been, and further challenges arose because of Orla’s illness and consequent changes in management. Jo recalls, ‘it was always… striving to make space for planning, for reflection… you always need more time’, particularly because she and Orla had always been aware of the good effect of planning and reflection time on teachers as well as artists. It was a coup, Jo considers, to secure payment for substitute teachers to cover for Virtually There teachers, so that they could take time for planning and reflection. Because ACNI withdrew from funding Virtually There in this cycle, Kids’ Own was forced to re-think the project’s structure. Having seen the difference it made to participants, Jo and new project manager Alice Lyons were reluctant to sacrifice planning and reflection time. ACNI have no remit to fund sub-cover for teachers, and the Department of Education has not been forthcoming with reciprocal funding. To make up the shortfall, Kids’ Own specified that a proportion of funded contact time (four sessions) should be used instead for planning and reflection by teacher and artist. Jo explains that there will be no extension of the PHF funding, and after the year of dissemination in 2019 to 2020, all participants will take a pause, in which it will be timely to reflect on what the project is and what it should be. For Jo, there is also a philosophical question about the value in continuing indefinitely; in one way there is always value, because new groups of children are being benefited, but in another way, there may be more value for the relationships in changing direction. From a management perspective the value of the project to Kids’ Own also needs to be considered, and Jo will be thinking about how to build on the project meaningfully rather than just continually. Aware from my conversations with teachers of the effects of Virtually There in the dearth of opportunity for continuing professional development, Jo says that the project’s legacy on teaching practice is of strong interest to Kids’ Own. This has yet to be developed beyond those teachers working on the project, but there have been some training days with Vine Haugh, who has always advocated the project as a model to support new and creative approaches in classrooms. Teachers are aware of the artist being crucial to this process, and Kids’ Own too knows that the relationship between artist and teacher is crucial and unique. Nonetheless, the question persists of what Virtually There can offer to teaching practice generally and further, whether it can impact on the curriculum itself and, as Jo puts it, ‘elicit a sea-change in attitudes towards creative thinking in the classroom’. In conclusion, Jo says that Kids’ Own is always ‘trying to come from a genuine place’. There is some tension between allowing for and being informed by emotion and instinct, and managing the project as an organisation, with an organisational view. Orla was always very excited about contemporary art practice, and that still informs Kids’ Own’s work. While Orla provided a very solid structure for the artists and closely monitored what was emerging from their work on Virtually There, ‘almost as a mentor’, Jo admits, ‘we would demand a lot of the artists, as well’, but it is important for artists working with Kids’ Own not to feel subsumed in a corporate ethos. However, Jo believes that the strong and trusting relationships built between teachers and artists, and between artists and Kids’ Own tend to be able to resolve misunderstandings and mitigate the potential for tension to cause serious problems.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Children’s experiences ← Strandtown Primary School working with artist Andrew Livingstone

Questionnaires I designed questionnaires for parents of children participating in Virtually There in Aughnacloy Primary School and Ballydown Primary School in the 2018–19 cycle. Twenty-four questionnaires were distributed to parents of children in Aughnacloy Primary School, and 23 were returned filled in. In the first part of the questionnaire, parents were asked to respond to five statements, indicating with numbers strong disagreement, disagreement, uncertainty, agreement and strong agreement. The statements were:

1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

You have an idea of what art is and what an artist does. Art is important in education. Children receive a good art education through the mainstream curriculum. Professional artists can contribute to good art education in schools. Children can benefit in a range of ways from Virtually There.

In the second part of the questionnaire, parents were given space to complete the following four statements, each referring to their child’s experience in Virtually There:

1. 2. 3. 4.

I want my child to learn… I want my child to be able to… I want my child to think about… I want my child to feel…

All responding parents agreed and strongly agreed that they had an idea of what art is and what an artist does. Two were uncertain that art is important in education, whereas nine agreed and 11 strongly agreed that it was important. Assessing the statement that children receive a good art education through the mainstream curriculum, one parent disagreed, nine were uncertain, eight agreed and five strongly agreed. Thinking about whether professional artists can contribute to good art education in schools, one parent was uncertain of this, six agreed and 16 strongly agreed that they can. While two parents were uncertain that their children would benefit in a range of ways from participation in Virtually There, five agreed and 16 strongly agreed that they would. Through Virtually There, parents wanted their children to learn: to create and be creative; to draw; that they can have fun being an artist; how to represent their thoughts and feelings through art; that it is okay to express themselves differently from others; to be confident and not so shy when trying new things; to enjoy learning through different means; to be imaginative; that all ‘art work creations’ are ‘great’; to speak freely about their work; how important creativity is in learning new things; about themselves and the world around them; about art; about different forms of artistic expression; to respect and appreciate how others express


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

themselves; to appreciate different forms of art; to enjoy the process of learning; different skills; to broaden their imaginations; that artwork does not have to be perfect, but is always unique to the maker; how the internet helps people work with each other; that anything they do is creative. Through Virtually There, parents wanted their children to be able: to communicate and project their thoughts and ideas visually; to have the confidence to try everything; to participate in art and dance; to recognise shape and movement; to enjoy themselves whatever they do; to express themselves in many forms; to be confident in participating; to be confident in expressing themselves through art; to explore various materials and techniques; to draw detailed pictures; to participate fully; to move in a range of ways to express themselves; to express themselves in different art forms confidently; to work together positively; to learn from dance artist Lisa; to share ideas confidently; to interact with others; to be confident in completing art projects; to use different tools; to try new things. Through Virtually There, parents wanted their children to think about: creativity; the process and not the product; learning through doing; how art and dance are connected; emotions and how these can be expressed through art; how they can interact with their peers; many different possibilities for learning, expressing themselves and being sociable; colours, textures, materials; the fact that there are no limits with art; what interests them in visual art; what subjects they enjoy researching or exploring; their surroundings; art and about the art around them; how fine details and small movements can have a great effect; how valuable artists are; developing ideas and skills; the world around them; the different things they can do through art, from performance to making objects; what the project means to them and what they want to gain from it; making new shapes and patterns; enjoying themselves; the meaning of the art they make. Through Virtually There, parents wanted their children to feel: confident; happy; proud of their effort and their work; that they are having fun; that they can express their feelings; excited to take part; content; high self-esteem; expressive; enthusiastic; comfortable; a sense of achievement; relaxed; enjoyment; motivated; free; good about themselves. Leanne Kyle distributed self-designed questionnaires among her Year 2s early in the 2018–2019 cycle. She used the questions, ‘Art – What Is It?’ and ‘Art – What Is It Not?’, and children worked on answering these in class and then at home. They were allowed to answer with words or pictures, both drawn and cut out from magazine


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

In response to the question of what art is, pictures included hands, paint, glue, brushes, easels, drawings or paintings, human figures, pencils, dancers, creatures, handmade jewellery, landscape and sky and geometric shapes. Words included:

shapes drawing lines sculpture dancing painting craft fun imagination creative work personal writing drawing gymnastics leaf tattoo colouring making poems scribbles music acting playing an instrument sings building things photographs patterns Answering more fully, children wrote:

‘it helps other people think of things – like doing it too’ ‘helps people to recycle’ ‘in Art you paint pictures of people’ ‘you can also use your body to make art – different shapes’ ‘Art is for everyone’ ‘Art is a way of communication. It is used to show our feelings’ ‘I think art is painting and drawing pictures’ ‘drawing a picture’ ‘making things of junk’ ‘making shapes with different objects’ ‘making piters your body’ ‘mixing colours to make new ones’ ‘making new things from old things’ ‘making shapes with your body’ ‘when you create something’ ‘Art is painting, drawing, working with paper to create my own work.’ 129

Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

In response to the question of what art is not, pictures included a blank page, a bed, numbers, a child playing a computer game, a television, a list of rules with an X through it, a child and an adult together, an alphabet, a page of homework, a face with a down-turned mouth, a sum written on a blackboard, cutlery on a plate, a tool-box full of tools and a child playing. Words included:

tablet reading playing listening washing sleeping watching TV nature numeracy science tidying lunch numbers games boring ideas getting dressed fighting planting potatoes roads mountain sky moon rivers people running eating cooking working sitting writing literacy Answering more fully, children wrote:

‘Art is not literacy’ ‘Art is not work’ ‘Art is not hard’ ‘Art is not boring’ ‘Art is not just for people who are old or adults’ ‘I think art is not eating, playing, sitting, watching TV’ ‘sitting doing nothing’ ‘being rude to others’ ‘not taking part’ ‘not trying something at least once’ ‘playing football’ ‘standing still’ ‘being perfect’ ‘following rules’ ‘just for big people’ ‘being the same’ ‘just painting’ ‘when you copy someone else’s ideas’ ‘Art is not spellings, maths or reading’.


→ Aughnacloy Primary School working with artist Lisa Cahill

Open Space: An action Reid research report from the Virtually There project Bryonie Action research report on Virtually There


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Talking with children from Aughnacloy Primary School I speak with six of Leanne’s Year 2s on 18th October 2018, during their second session with Lisa. I speak to three girls together, and then to three boys, and we talk apart from the others in the school hall. First, I ask Grace, Lily and Tara, ‘What is art?’. Grace tells me, ‘I think it means that you paint pictures’, and Lily agrees, adding that ‘you can put them up on the wall’. Tara says, ‘you make stuff… you can make things on the ground… you can stick stuff on pages’. We move on to think about what an artist is, and Lily considers that someone becomes an artist ‘cause they did so much art’. Grace is thinking along the same lines, saying ‘they do so much… nice pictures, that they want to become an artist’. Tara thinks an artist develops ‘when they get good at art’. When asked what an artist does, Grace and Lily say that they ‘can make things out of lots of other things, and decorate them’, and Tara says, ’you can make something into something new’. I ask a further question here, ‘Is Lisa an artist?’, and am told, ‘yes, but she’s a dance artist’. When I probe further, asking what Lisa does as an artist, they answer, ‘she makes shapes with her body’. My final question to the girls is, ‘Could you be an artist?’, and they all think they could be ‘a drawing artist’ or ‘a painting artist’.311 I ask the boys, Jacob, Joshua and Riley, the same questions. In answer to ‘What is art?’ Jacob promptly replies, ‘painting’ and then ‘dancing’. Riley thinks it is ‘drawing pictures and that’. When asked, ‘What does an artist do?’, Jacob answers, ‘our artist dances’. I follow up by asking what an artist usually does, and am told, ‘paint’, ‘draw’, ‘colour in’ and ‘write’. Riley adds, ‘do letters and stuff’. I ask the boys if they could be artists, and Joshua and Jacob clamour, ‘me! me, me, me!’, while Riley says, ‘no…’. My final question is, ‘What makes you feel you could be artists?’ and Joshua and Jacob reply, ‘I feel happy with the painting’, ‘I like colouring-in too’, ‘writing’ and ‘dance’.312 On 27th February 2019, around half-way through Lisa and Leanne’s third cycle, I visit the school again and ask the same questions to the same children, again apart from the rest of the class but this time together in a group of six. The first question, ‘What is art?’, is answered by Jacob with, ‘art is when you… dance or [it’s] something like painting’. Grace says, ‘it’s your imagination’, and Lily says, ‘it’s something where you can draw… you can do sticking, you can dance and make different sounds’. Jacob interjects at this point, saying, ‘I have another one!... We think on our farm that farming is a kind of art’. He adds, then, ‘my daddy paints on the farm which is like a sort of art’, and Joshua (Jacob’s cousin) explains, ‘cause he’s got his own workshop’. I want to know more about how Jacob is thinking, and ask, ‘What about the farming itself, does that feel like art to you?’. Jacob agrees, and elaborates, ‘and because farming feels like to me of art… I like to help with the milking’. I am unsure, still, of what Jacob means, and ask whether farming feels like art because it too is thinking about the world. Grace suggested, ‘art is anything you want… some artists make music’, and then Jacob replies (to me), ‘yeah’ and goes on, ‘I’ve got another one. Artists can be… soundmakers’. Lily notes, ‘that was the one that Miss Kyle said’. I move on to the next question, recognising that the children have already made a few suggestions of what an artist does, but asking if they have more to say. Grace says, ‘an artist can do lots of different things, sound artist, dancing artist and real artist, with paint’. When there is a pause after this, I ask, ‘What do you think Lisa does every day?’. Riley asks, ‘dancing?’, and Jacob states, ‘I know what Lisa likes to do every day… paint and draw 311 Personal communications from Grace, Lily and Tara, 18th October 2018. 312 Personal communications from Joshua, Jacob and Riley, 18th October 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

and… make leaf tattoos’. Tara says, ‘art is when you paint, or do dancing, or make sounds’. I ask the children whether they could be artists, and Joshua answers, ‘yes… because I watch Lisa every Wednesday carefully’. Grace reminds me that she wants to be ‘a drawing artist’ because she is ‘really good at drawing’. Tara feels the same, saying she could be an artist because ‘I like drawing pictures’. Jacob returns to his earlier theme, replying, I like to farm because I like to drive the shovels in case, like, Alistair’s not free. So I do it. So that’s why I’d like to be an artist… There’s lots of different things like looking after the animals. That’s what I think makes farming art. I take the opportunity to ask for further clarification from Jacob and ask whether it is looking at things, or perhaps looking after things, that connect art and farming for him. He agrees with both these ideas.313 On 10th June 2019 I join the class at Parkanaur Forest, during a busy outdoors session at the end of their cycle with Lisa. I speak with Grace, Amelia, Maia and Harry, asking them first, ‘What is art?’. Harry answers, ‘sometimes there’s dance and art – dance art!’. Amelia suggests ‘drawing pictures’ and Grace mentions ‘a sound dance’, while Maia remarks, ‘sometimes you can do art… by sticking stuff on to a page’. My next question is, ‘What is an artist?’. Harry posits, ‘dancer artist?’ and when no further answers are forthcoming I ask them how they would describe Lisa to someone who did not know her. Harry says, ‘with my finger… I’d draw her name’. Maia tells me, ‘a artist is who… does very good… pictures, with art stuff’. Grace explains, ‘An artist can be someone who is really good at drawing pictures. And an artist could be really good at doing other things’. Harry elaborates on his earlier contribution, saying, ‘you could use your toe or your finger… sometimes in dance we do it’, so I ask the children if this is something Lisa has shown them. Grace says, ‘it’s like Lisa says, try and make your name with not your finger, like use your toe’, and Harry explains further: ‘sometimes you could lie down for “H”, then a straight down, and across down and another straight down’. Maia comments, ‘you might have to try and make what the weather’s like’. We agree that if the children were asked about Lisa, they would demonstrate some of what she has done with them. My final question is whether the children think they could be artists. Grace says, ‘yes… I would do… drawing pictures’, and Amelia too says yes, and that she ‘would draw books for children’. When I ask if they would use any of the things they have learned from Lisa, Amelia replies, ‘no’. Neither Harry nor Maia think they could be artists.314

Talking with children from Ballydown Primary School I visit Ballydown Primary School first on 10th October 2018, near the beginning of their work with Ann. In this session, Year 2s and Year 5s are working together. I take three groups each of three Year 2s aside first, and then three groups each of three Year 5s. I ask Grace, Michael and Jackson (Year 2), first, what they know about what they will do with Ann this year. Grace suggests they will use ‘little paints… special paints’, and Michael wonders whether they could paint a picture of an elf. When I ask ‘What is art?’, Grace says, ‘art is painting’ and Michael says, ‘it’s something to look at’. We think about what an artist is, and Grace points out, ‘they… paint the pictures’, while Michael simply says he doesn’t know. Jackson says an artist is ‘someone who paints pictures and everything like that… they paint the pictures and they show it to people’. Michael believes that if the artist makes work that isn’t good, ‘they have to put it somewhere else’. I ask whether any of them could be artists, but Grace intends to become a doctor, Michael an archaeologist and Jackson a farmer. 313 Personal communications from Riley, Joshua, Jacob, Grace, Lily and Tara, 27th February 2019. 314 Personal communications from Maia, Grace, Amelia and Harry, 10th June 2019.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Ben, Eden and Beth (Year 2) tackle the same questions. They believe that their work with Ann may involve painting and ‘sticking stuff on’, though Beth specifies that she doesn’t know anything about the project. Beth thinks that art is ‘when you… kind of make pictures’ and Eden thinks art is ‘when you make your own project’. For Ben, art allows you to ‘make your own things’. When asked what an artist is, Beth indicates, ‘it’s when you… make pictures, and make your paper nice and beautiful… when you… stick some sparkly stuff on’. Eden defines an artist as ‘someone who paints loads of pictures’, and Ben explains that ‘sometimes a artist paints a picture… of real things’. Ben and Eden nod when they are asked if they could be artists, but Beth replies, ‘no, not really’. Finally I put the questions to Finlay, Willa Rose and Vanessa (Year 2). Finlay thinks that they will paint during the project with Ann, but Willa Rose and Vanessa have no idea what it will involve. When I ask what art is, they answer, ‘drawing’ and ‘painting’. I ask if they could be artists, and answering together, Willa Rose and Vanessa say ‘yes’ and Finlay says ‘no’, for the reason that he is ‘rubbish at painting’. Vanessa tells me she has plans to paint her craft room ‘sometime… painting the walls a colour’, and Willa Rose explains, ‘I’m making with my daddy… he draws’.315 I move on to talk to Year 5s. First are Ava, Ella and Maggie. I ask them what they know about the forthcoming project with Ann, and they answer that ‘it’s about art’, ‘we paint and help the P2s’ and ‘we’re going to be partnered up with the P2s and we’re going to be doing lots of art for seven days’. In answer to the question, ‘What is art?’, I get the hesitant answer, ‘letting your imagination go wild?’. When I ask what an artist is, Ella volunteers, ‘my mum’s an artist… she draws and… she even sells it’. When I discover that one of the girls participated in Virtually There when she was in Year 2, I ask her how she would describe what Ann does to someone who did not know her. She answers, ‘she paints and teaches other people how art goes because she likes art… she wants to tell other people about it’. I ask the three if they could be artists, and Ella and Ava say they think they could. Ella explains, You just have to think about something you like, you just have to picture something in your mind and then… when you draw it on the page it can turn into something better than you could have imagined. The second and final group of Year 5s comprise Isaac, Jamie and Ben. I ask what they know about the project with Ann, and one boy replies, ‘well, last year they did light, because my sister was doing it last year’, but knows no more about what might happen this year. When I ask what art is, the boys suggest, ‘paint’, ‘loads of bright colours’, ‘some dark colours’ and ‘felt-tips… or oil pastels’. In answer to the question, ‘What is an artist?’, they say, ‘someone who could paint a lot of things’ and ‘someone who paints… great pictures’. Jamie worked with Ann in Virtually There in Year 2, and I ask him how he would describe Ann. He says, ‘she’s very nice… she’s an artist... she paints, and stuff… we done a lot of water painting’. The boys agree that they could be artists, and one says, ‘I enjoy it’.316

315 Personal communications from Grace, Michael, Jackson, Ben, Beth, Eden, Finlay, Willa Rose and Vanessa on 10th October 2018. 316 Personal communications from Ava, Ella, Maggie, Ben, Jamie and Isaac, 10th October 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

On 5th December 2018 I visit Ballydown to speak to Year 5s alone, at a point around half-way through their year’s cycle with Ann. The group comprises Isabel, Maggie, Sophia, Ella, Jacob and Oliver. I begin with, ‘What is art?’. Ella replies, ‘art is letting your imagination do whatever you think it could do… and sometimes go beyond your imagination’. Isabel mentions that ‘art can be music’ and Oliver talks about tracing as a means of making a drawing ‘really good’. Jacob muses, ‘whenever you do art, you do loads of colours… it always turns out that there’s loads of colours after you do art’, though Maggie demurs, saying, ‘art… can be black-and-white’. Ella suggests using any colours, or mixing colours. Sophia describes something the children have been doing with Ann: Art is something when… you do like drawing, and clay and peelings… Cause everyone had a fruit each, and we started to peel and it was very, very messy. We move on to talk about what an artist is, and Ella tells me again that her mum is an artist. Maggie says, ‘well, an artist has drawed paintings that become really famous’, and Oliver agrees, noting, ‘like Piet Mondrian is an artist’. Ella explains that her mum ‘uses watercolours to paint, and… draws, using fine liners’. Sophia tells me that the class ‘usually go to Miss White’s, for… some art’, which might involve decorating with paint. Jacob returns to Mondrian, explaining, An artist is a person who… does loads of famous paintings… Piet Mondrian is most familiar in doing thick and thin lines, and then doing different colours of squares. While Isabel suggests that artists ‘can draw really well’, she again points out that ‘art can deal with music’. Sophia says, And as well an artist is like a curate [create?] – do curate [create?] stuff, and, em, Miss White told us this massive word… cause we went round and said what was the bright colours – the, em [gets help], the primary colours and secondary colours. Oliver concludes, ‘sculpting is like art… you get like a piece of stone and then you sculpt with a hammer’. I try asking the children to describe Ann and what she does. Ella begins with the comment, ‘she’s got very creative ideas’, and Isabel says, ‘she’s got art talent’. Isabel goes on to list what Ann does, ‘drawing, painting, peeling…’ and Maggie explains, ‘she keeps rotten things and she takes things off, so like potatoes that have hair [and are] green’. Sophia chimes in, ‘Ann is a very good artist because she… can make things, she says that she left… a potato… for three weeks! And now it’s grown hair’. The children are pleasurably disgusted by this. Jacob tells me, ‘with her spare time she likes to draw and paint, and she likes to take things off, like potatoes’. Oliver suggests, She likes getting ideas from like, like old times, or sometimes she uses like different stuff like if you have like a potato and have dipping paint, then you make a pattern. Or you can use your feet. My final question to the children is, ‘could you be an artist?’. Isabel calls out, ‘I could! I would do clay models and paint’. Sophia states, If I was an artist, I would… do painting, clay, secondary colours and… [prompted] primary colours! And watercolours. And… we would do… [prompted] tracing, we would do some colouring-in, we would do some peeling, we would do some… [prompted] sketching, and then the final thing is we’ll do… [prompted] sculpting.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Oliver, imagining himself as an artist, says, ‘I would draw… Christmas trees and snow and do some clay models’, and Jacob would ‘draw… animal pictures… alligators and stuff’. Ella says, If I was an artist I’d paint and sketch like animals, and landscapes, cause I like sketching landscapes and once I painted a really good picture of… a lavender plant…. Observational [painting]. Maggie comments, ‘if I were an artist I would like to make a really big sculpture out of clay and then paint it, and make loads’.317 On 13th February 2019 I visit Ballydown Primary School for a third time, to talk to Year 2s around the midway point of their time with Ann. First, I speak with Finlay, Willa-Rose and Vanessa. I ask them, ‘What is art?’. Finlay replies, ‘it’s a type of work you do sometimes, and it involves painting, pastels, colouring-in pencils’. Vanessa adds, ‘and music’. I put another question: ‘What do you know about what Ann does, now that you’ve been working with her?’. Willa Rose had been struggling to think of what to say in response to the first question, and now volunteers, ‘we put some light things over carrots’. I go on to the next question, ‘What is an artist?’, Finlay suggests, ‘she might do art every day’. I ask what someone does when they are doing art, and Vanessa notes, ‘you can paint, and you can play music whenever you’re painting’. We move to talk about what Ann does, and Willa-Rose tells me, ‘she’s showed us her moon and her carrots’, while Vanessa explains, ‘she peels them and leaves them on tissue’. I want to know whether they are surprised to find out that peeling a carrot and leaving it might be art, but Willa-Rose’s surprise focuses on the fact that Ann is ‘doing loads of art and enjoying it’, and Finlay indicates, ‘I’m quite surprised that she does art all the time’. When I ask whether they could be artists, Vanessa says, confidently, ‘yes, I would like it, I like painting, and drawing, and singing along with music’. Finlay tells me, ‘I would like to be a farmer’, and Willa-Rose says, ‘I’m interested, but in singing’. Vanessa tells Finlay, ‘whenever you’re at home, you could do the farm, and whenever you’re away, you could do painting’ and Finlay agrees, saying, ‘when you’re a farmer, you could… be a artist’. Vanessa concludes, ‘you could paint… animals, couldn’t you?’.318 The next group I talk to comprises Ben, Beth and Eden. When I ask, ‘What is art?’, Ben says, ‘if you want a picture… you can draw it, you can paint it… then you can put it up in your house’. Beth tells me, If you want to do art, there’s lots of things you can do art with, like, like coloured pencils, and paints, and crayons, and felt-tips and stuff, and then if you, if you want, you can draw just with a pencil, and you can colour it whatever you want, and then, and then, you can give it to your mum and they’ll, they’ll hang it up on the wall so you can always remember that day. Eden offers, ‘art is when you… draw stuff… and paint them… and… make them look nice.’ I ask them, ‘And what Ann does is art? She does draw and paint, doesn’t she? Is there anything else you’ve noticed that Ann does?’. Ben replies, ‘yeah… she does… stuff what she can tell us about, and then we’ll get better at doing that she tells us with our art’. I go on, ‘Is there anything Ann does as an artist that surprises you, that [makes] you think, “I didn’t know that was art!”?’. Ben says, ‘when we did the carrots, the first time’, and Beth adds, ‘and when we… decorated our carrots’. We consider what an artist is. Ben offers the opinion, 317 Personal communications from Ella, Sophia, Isabel, Maggie, Oliver and Jacob, 5th December 2018. 318 Personal communications from Willa-Rose, Finlay and Vanessa, 13th February 2019.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

↓ St Patrick’s Primary School working with artist Sharon Kelly

‘I think it is… people who do very good art, and they’ve got that job’. When asked what an artist might do every day, Ben elaborates, ‘you paint, you colour in, and sometimes people go up to, like… some places where it’s quiet, and get a big canvas for it, and they do it, and then it’s a big picture’. Beth suggests an artist ‘paints pictures… if you’re sitting down keeping still then they can draw you… and then you can stand up and go and see it’. Ben warns, ‘but if you move, they’ll get something wrong’. I finish with the question, ‘Could you be an artist?’. Eden says, ‘I want to be an art teacher’, and Beth says, ‘I want to be a teacher, too, when I grow up’. Ben tells me, ‘I would like to be an artist… because I think it’s going to be fun, because painting is fun, when you paint pictures’.319 Finally, I talk to Michael, Grace and Jackson. I begin, as usual, with the question, ‘What is art?’. Grace says, ‘I think it’s like painting, and drawing, and colouring’, and Michael suggests, ‘I think it’s colours… on walls, and… art that people have done’. Jackson concurs, saying, ‘painting pictures, and I think you use it for painting the walls’. I ask them what they’ve been doing with Ann, and Grace tells me, ‘we’ve been wrapping, and gluing and stuff ’. I ask them whether those things are art, too, and they all answer, ‘yes’. My next question is, ‘What do you think an artist is? Now that you’ve known Ann for a while’. Michael explains, ‘I think she paints stuff and… she colours stuff, and… wraps stuff? And glues stuff!’. Grace says, ‘I think a artist is like a big stand with paper on it and you can draw and colour and do that kind of stuff, where you draw, like, someone, and copy’. Jackson says, ‘a artist is like, like you paint, like a picture around’. I try probing a little further and ask, ‘What do you think Ann does in her studio, day after day?’. Grace says, ‘I think Ann does… wrapping, and drawing, and colouring and stuff like that’ and Michael explains, ‘just to show us what to do’. When I ask the children whether they could be artists, Michael replies, ‘no… I’m looking to be an archaeologist’, and Jackson explains, ‘I don’t know if I want to be an artist or not. I wanted to be a farmer and then it was too hard’. Grace notes, ‘when I was P1 I done a very good drawing and colouring’.320 My final visit to Ballydown Primary School, on 15th May 2019, coincides with Ann’s final session, on which she has come to the school in person to work with Year 2s and Year 5s together. She, Julie and Judith have set up interactive displays of the children’s work in the two classrooms and throughout the day will facilitate the children in looking at, handling, remembering and discussing it. First, I speak to six Year 2s together, Raphael, Willa-Rose, Joseph, Lucy, Beth and Ben. We begin with their ideas on what art is. Willa-Rose suggests, ‘when you draw pictures of stuff’, and Raphael posits, ‘when you paint?’. Ben thinks that ‘art is… a think what you could do when… you get bored, and you could just do that’. Lucy says, ‘art is so fun’. Raphael states, ‘Miss White is a artist’, and Ben disputes that, but Raphael does not back down. We agree that she is a teacher as well. Beth indicates that ‘art is when you… make things out of playdough… or clay’. I move on to the second question, ‘What is an artist?’. Raphael and Lucy essay the opinions, ‘you paint pictures?’ and ‘you actually paint?’. Ben explains, ‘artists go out to different places, sometimes outside, and… then they go out and copy a real thing’. Joseph suggests, ‘an artist is a person who… paints stuff and makes stuff’, and Willa-Rose concludes, ‘an artist would be someone who… draws pictures and stuff’. Raphael declares, ‘boys and girls can be artists’, continuing, ‘when I grow up I’m going to be an artist’. I tell him that is what I was going to ask next, and ask why he wants to be an artist. He says, ‘because I’m really good at painting 319 Personal communication from Beth, Eden and Ben, 13th February 2019. 320 Personal communications from Grace, Michael and Jackson, 13th February 2019.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

pictures’. I extend the question to the rest of the group, and Joseph muses, ‘once I made a good… picture’. Ben says, I want to be a artist because… one time when I got bored I did a picture. And there was a tractor sitting outside my house. And… I did a picture of that… And I got a wee table outside and then I sat on it and just keeped looking at it. My next question to the children is how they would describe Ann to someone who did not know her. Lucy says, ‘she can work with us’, and Raphael says, ‘she teaches art’. Ben disagrees, stating, ‘she doesn’t teach’. I ask Ben how he would describe Ann. He responds, Is this only the school what Ann goes to? How did Miss White meet up with Ann?... I would… tell you her name, and we could maybe show you – if you’d never been here before and we were already doing to project with Ann, we could show you some stuff what [we do] with Ann. I finish by asking them what words they would choose to describe what they do with Ann. Ben replies, ‘Have you never heard of art? That would be one word’. Raphael suggests, ‘Ann is a really good artist’, and WillaRose adds, ‘and she’s really nice, very friendly’. Ben interjects, ‘Ann likes being an artist, right? And she likes hanging around with us. And Miss White’. Raphael adds, ‘Ann paints lovely pictures? And good pictures’.321 Later in the day I speak to a group of Year 5s comprising Evie, Ella, Ava, Harriet, Isaac and Lexie. Asking, ‘What is art?’, I get the immediate answers, ‘colour’ and ‘imagination’. I take a different tack and ask if their ideas of art has changed since working with Ann, and all children readily agree. I ask, then, what kind of art Ann does. Harriet calls out, ‘With vegetables! And we would never do anything with vegetables!’. I point out that all of them have made art with vegetables now, and ask if that felt strange. They answer, ‘yeah!’ and ‘it did at first’. We consider what an artist is. Isaac says, ‘an artist is someone that can draw things, and create things’. In the pause that follows this, I suggest they think about how to describe Ann to someone who does not know her. Two girls together quickly reply, ‘creative’, and laugh. Ella explains, ‘she looks at things and how they change, after a while’. Lexie offers, ‘she does different things… does drawings of things… does prints of things’. I ask Lexie if he uses the word ‘different’ to mean ‘different from other people’, and he agrees. Evie clarifies, saying, ‘more interesting things’. I ask the group if they could be artists, and Ava replies, ‘no’. Harriet thinks not, saying, ‘I could learn, but it would probably take quite a while’. Isaac replies, ‘maybe’, and Lexie says, ‘I could experiment, and try it out’. Ella returns to the idea of change, and comments, ‘it was interesting how when [the vegetables] got older they shrank’. I ask those children who said they could not be an artist whether they answered that way because they think they are not good at drawing or painting, and a couple say yes. I ask, then, whether Ann does only drawing or painting. Harriet puts an end to the subject by explaining, ‘it’s not because we’re not good at drawing or painting, it’s just because I want to do other things’. I ask then whether they have enjoyed working with Ann in school, and am answered with emphatic agreement. Ella points out, ‘it was also different that for an art topic we had to preserve things, instead of painting things we had to preserve things’.322

321 Personal communications from Raphael, Beth, Ben, Willa-Rose, Lucy and Joseph, 15th May 2019. 322 Personal communications from Ava, Harriet, Ella, Lexie, Evie and Isaac, 15th May 2019.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

After their final session – the Celebration Day on which Ann, Judith and Julie brought both classes together to reflect on their year’s work – Ann and Julie asked Year 5s to think for a time about what art is and what it is not, following Leanne’s questions to her Year 2s. Children wrote:

‘Art has no right or wrong answers.’ ‘Art doesn’t have to be good.’ ‘Art is not boreing.’ ‘Art is always fun and scientific’ ‘Art is not for messing it is all about consentration.’ ‘Art is ‘wonder’ ‘Art is ‘magic’ ‘Art is ‘fruit’ ‘Art is ‘drawing’ ‘Art is ‘creating stuff’ ‘Art is everything to me. It’s in my home, my heart and my soul.’ ‘Art is not ‘maths’ ‘Art is not you being good at drawing its about being creative and imagineing things in your head and being posative.’ ‘Art is freedom.’ ‘Art is experiments.’ ‘Art can be anything.’ ‘Art is not judging yourself or comparing your art to other people’s… Art is not just drawing and colouring.’ ‘Art is not timed you can take as long as you like.’ ‘Art is something enjoyable that lets you go free.’ ‘Anyone can take part in an art project.’ ‘Art is when you are creative in your own way.’ ‘Art is interesting.’ ‘Art is ‘strange’ ‘Art is not hard’ ‘Art is investagating new things and trying new things out.’ 139

Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Interpreting the questionnaires and conversations The parents of children in Aughnacloy Primary School who answered the questionnaires suggested they were familiar with art as a concept and as a practice. All but two felt that art was important in education, and all but two agreed that Virtually There offered child participants a range of benefits. All but one believed professional artists could contribute to a good art education. The greatest range of responses came with the statement that children receive a good art education through the mainstream curriculum; one parent disagreed, nine were uncertain, eight agreed and five strongly agreed. Suggesting what they would like their children to get from participating in Virtually There, parents highlighted confidence, particularly confidence in self-expression. They were keen too for their children to: enjoy themselves and have fun; to accept their differences from others and others’ differences from them; to build their imaginations and their creativity; and to use art to observe and explore the world around them. One parent specified the hope that their child would think about process and not product. There was a general appreciation of the possibility that engaging in a high-quality art project would help children to develop new – more confident, more complex, more aware – senses of self. Thinking about children’s responses to Leanne’s questionnaire, posing the questions of what art is, and what art is not, their range and imaginative power is clear. I was most interested, however, in children’s definitions of what art is not. They specify that it is neither rules nor literacy nor numeracy. Implicit in these statements is children’s experience of the curriculum by which their mainstream education is guided; there is a suggestion of rigidity and perhaps monotony. In the comments section of the questionnaire, children are able to make their opinions explicit, and declare, ‘art is not work’, ‘art is not hard’ and ‘art is not boring’. Again, art is not ‘following rules’, art is not ‘being perfect’ and art is not ‘being the same’. There is a sophisticated sense here of the expectations and perhaps pressures of mainstream education, and significantly, a sense that art ought to enable them to sidestep these. Further, though watching television and playing computer games might be more open-ended and more fun than curricular activities, and despite the fact that Virtually There involves screens, these are not considered art. The responses given by Year 5s in Ballydown Primary School to Ann and Julie posing the questions of ‘What is art?’ and ‘What is art not?’ echo those by Year 2s in Aughnacloy Primary School, though in more detail and with more complexity. There is a distinct theme of the absence of right and wrong. Interestingly, one child explains that though this is one reason to enjoy art, they also experience it as ‘tricky’: presumably being daunted, to an extent, by fluidity and open-endedness. This comment reflects Julie’s point that children who flourish academically can be reluctant to take risks, and despite their discomfort, benefit from being pushed to in Virtually There. Concomitant with there being no right or wrong in art, these children are aware that anyone can make art, and everyone’s art is of value. Leading from this, they frown upon the notion of copying others’ work: implicit is the idea that if everyone feels confident in making art, no one will feel the need to replicate someone else’s art. Like the Year 2s, they specify that art is neither maths nor reading nor tests, and it is fun and enjoyable, but a few suggest art is not easy, it is not ‘messing’ and it requires focus and concentration. This possibly reflects the way in which their work with Ann stretched and challenged them. In talking directly to the children, I encountered conventional ideas of art from start to finish of their cycles with Lisa and Ann; it was defined again and again as drawing or painting or both. Artists were described as


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

people who liked to draw or paint, or who were good at drawing and painting. Some children mentioned music as an art form, and others sculpture. Among Lisa’s group there was recognition, certainly, of dancers as artists, but most children believed that whatever else Ann and Lisa did, they also drew and painted. In talking about art they tended to use adjectives like ‘nice’ and ‘beautiful’ and ‘good’, suggesting art was for looking at, and giving pleasure, and might be made to represent something real or capture a moment in time. Michael and Ben conceptualised art as something that could be done badly, or go wrong, in which case it would not be shown to others. Some ideas were more fluid, with suggestions that art is imagination and creativity and a sense from Ella of art as something with its own energy, that once embarked upon, could produce results that outstrip plans and visions. Jacob’s notion of farming as art made for a very interesting conversation. Though I am neither sure I got to the bottom of his meaning, nor avoided putting words in his mouth, I was struck by the breadth of his thinking, that leap in making connections that could be argued to characterise creativity. I liked Eden’s statement that art was ‘when you make your own project’, because beneath its surface simplicity is the idea of a self-determined engagement in process that by teachers’ testimony is rare in mainstream education. Considering definitions of artists, several children conceptualised them as people who made ‘great’ art and were famous. When asked about Ann and Lisa, children abandoned generic explanation and focused specifically on what they know Ann and Lisa to do and make, based on the artists’ work with them in school. Lisa was described as making shapes with her body, and through activities and exercises in which she had led the children. Ann, children said, liked art, and wanted to tell other people about it. As well as drawing and painting, she keeps rotten things and peels carrots and wraps and glues things. I liked, too, the idea that Ann ‘does things what she can tell us about’, which evokes something of the deeply collaborative, give-andtake nature of Ann’s practice. Ella gave a beautifully simple and at the same time profound statement of what Ann does when she said that Ann ‘looks at things and how they change, after a while’. When asked if they could be artists, most children seemed to respond according to whether they felt they had skills in, and enjoyed, drawing and painting. Lexie, however, applied the idea of experimentation as developed by Ann and Julie through Virtually There when he suggested he could try it out. Joshua indicated the significant role that Lisa might play in some children’s ongoing development when he explained he could be an artist because he had been watching her carefully session by session. → Killard House School working with artist Julie Forrester


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Reflections ← St Patrick’s Primary School working with artist Sharon Kelly

In the literature review and report of the first year’s research I sorted my material by theme. In my report of the case-study research I took a different approach. Rather than submitting observations, conversations and other material to a framing device, I chose to write them as narratives or otherwise represent them in their entirety. The reason for devoting the second year’s research to two case-study schools was to explore in more detail and depth how Virtually There worked in those places at those times with those people, and to look at the broader context in which the project takes place. In presenting my research as narrative, unthemed and only lightly interpreted, it is my intention to tell these stories of the project as fully as possible. I intend it to reflect the way in which Virtually There encourages dwelling in process. As the teachers and artists describe it, this means slowing down and taking time to look and listen along the way. Narrative reporting allows a slow and thorough absorption of what happened in observed sessions and what artists, teachers and children are making of those and other sessions; it also allows a slow and thorough absorption of participants’ rich thinking about their work. This material would lose some of its vividness and depth if cut and shaped to fit themes or theories or to create digestible chunks. Further, I believe it would do the project a disservice to instrumentalise it. For example, even though it is plain from what teachers and artists observe that Virtually There is a means by which children benefit in multiple ways, to make any or all of those indicators of its value would leave out swathes of the whole story, which takes in artists, teachers and Kids’ Own as well. Likewise, to present Virtually There as it is as a model for other arts education programmes would be problematic. Certainly, there are some elements of its structure and methods which seem to provide for high-quality arts education and could be replicated, which I discuss below. However, the outworking of the project is so varied and shaded in such fine distinctions and inflections according to each artist’s practice and the collaborative practice developed between artist and teacher, that to make it serve as a pedagogical template would inevitably edit out some of its complexity and vitality. It will be for readers of this report to consider how they might apply structure, method and thinking in other contexts, because there will be multifarious possibilities. Therefore, in this concluding – but not conclusive – section, I reflect on some of what I can identify as the strengths of the project. I begin by looking at Virtually There in light of Anne Bamford’s 2006 report, A Child’s Right to Quality Arts and Cultural Education, a comprehensive international review of arts education policy. Bamford provides clear guidelines on what constitutes ‘good’ art education, and I use it here to show explicitly how Virtually There not only meets but exceeds those guidelines. I move on to draw out certain insights from artists, teachers, children and others, highlighting their interest and their implications. I reflect on the importance of process and outcome; relationships and project longevity; and artists’ practices and the use of technology. Finally, I make some concluding remarks.

Virtually There as best-practice arts education The many ways in which Virtually There answers to theorists and practitioners’ ideas of what art education could and should be will be evident from the literature review, observations and conversations. Anne Bamford’s study, A Child’s Right to Quality Arts and Cultural Education, synthesises many of the elements of


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

‘good’ arts education mentioned in other papers included in the literature review, so it is a useful framework against which to consider Virtually There.323 First, according to Bamford, to offer good arts education, teachers need tailored training – even if in the context of professional development – and in the best programmes, schools tend to seek and sustain partnerships with artists and/or arts organisations in order to support teachers and deliver arts education collaboratively. Former Ballydown Primary School principal Wilson McMullan describes Judith White’s experience on Virtually There as career development, pointing out how it builds expertise and confidence as it unfolds year after year.324 The involvement of artists, as professionals from outside the education sector, and Kids’ Own, as the administrating and mentoring body for the project, has been central to the potential for career development for teachers. The time teachers are permitted to take out of their ordinary school duties and devote to planning, reflecting, spending time with their artist-partner or meeting with project colleagues and Kids’ Own staff, fills the vacuum left by non-existent professional development in an era of cuts to educational funding; it is both refreshing and stimulating, and affirms for them their professional value.325 Further, as Judith and her colleague Julie Orr, and Leanne Kyle from Aughnacloy Primary School suggest, artists’ involvement (and Kids’ Own’s oversight) gives the experimental practice they engage in weight and status, which teachers feel they could not achieve alone.326 Next, Bamford points out that the content of any given programme of arts education will be less relevant to its quality than how it is carried out. In a table reproduced here on page 17 she describes structures and methods which she believes are best practice. Again, structure and method in Virtually There correspond closely to these. Looking at structure, teachers partner actively with artists and Kids’ Own. Although the project takes place year by year with only one class per school, or two classes in the case of Ballydown Primary School, all children in those classes are involved. Teachers benefit from professional development through partnerships with artists and annual project reflection days organised by Kids’ Own. Teachers and artists are free to decide how to spend their time with children year by year, so the organisation of the project is flexible across all schools. Teachers and artists and Kids’ Own share responsibility for planning and carrying out the project, both with children and among teacher-artist participants. I have not seen evidence of what I could call permeable boundaries between schools, Kids’ Own and local communities, not least because Kids’ Own is Sligo-based and participating schools are scattered across Northern Ireland. However, each school in which Virtually There takes place liaises with Kids’ Own and welcomes Kids’ Own staff annually to observe sessions and speak to children; as a Kids’ Own-commissioned researcher, I freely spent time in every school in the last two years, and much more time with the two case-study schools in the last year. Kids’ Own also arranged a research visit by Norwegian artists and educators to Ballydown Primary School in 2018. In the schools’ own local areas, parents are kept abreast of the project not only through their children, but also through exhibitions and performances of the children’s work; local art galleries have been used to exhibit project work; and the online journals co-created by children, teachers and artists are available for anyone to look at. Finally, Kids’ Own practises ongoing assessment of how the project is operating, whether changes need to be made and what those changes might be, if any. The organisation remains responsive to artists and teachers and their needs. Through the recent Paul Hamlyn Foundation More and Better grant, Kids’ Own commissioned this action research, to thoroughly understand and communicate how the project works and why. 323 Bamford, A Child’s Right to Quality Arts and Cultural Education. 324 Personal communication from Wilson McMullan, 10th October 2018. 325 Ibid. 326 Personal communications from Judith White, Julie Orr and Leanne Kyle, 25th February 2019.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Looking at method, Virtually There is a project, and the art education it delivers is project-based, in the sense that each yearly cycle is an open-ended exploration of a theme or concept determined by teacher and artist. Children are involved in working together from the outset, as well as teacher and artist collaborating. All participants engage in research, discussion, exchange of ideas and storytelling. Indeed, Virtually There promotes thinking and talking about ideas, thoughts, artwork and artists’ work almost as much as it promotes making artwork. Children are facilitated to reflect throughout each session, and often have more formal reflection time at the end of a cycle, while artists and teachers too reflect both informally, week by week, and formally in their paired reflection time and time with other artists and teachers organised annually by Kids’ Own. Artists and teachers and Kids’ Own certainly undertake meta-critical reflection on learning approaches, prioritising listening and responding to children and collaborative partners throughout. Creating is integral to the project, whether that is drawing, painting, sculpture, film, animation, photography, movement or even creating experiments. Creating is connected to the themes and ideas the teachers and artists introduce and explore with the children, and the themes and ideas are connected with the teachers’, artists’ and children’s interests, aesthetics and practices. Where appropriate, curricular connections are established, and Virtually There is holistic in this sense. Public performance and exhibition of children’s work happens annually within the schools, and Kids’ Own, artists and teachers have organised a major exhibition and publication to disseminate Virtually There (2014–15). Artists and teachers focus on using local resources, often the local environment, for materials and to provide children with context for their making and discussion. Artists and teachers facilitate children to engage with the work of other artists, and to use and play with artists’ materials and techniques, such as making and using charcoal or drawing with oil pastels. The approach to techniques and materials, however, is neither limited nor didactic; they are used experimentally and fluidly, with applications to the wider field of learning. For example, Ann Henderson’s work with Julie Orr straddles a boundary between making art and engaging in science, with fruit, vegetables, cosmetics, salt, vinegar and watercolours coming into play this year and last in exploring ideas of skin and surface, inside and outside, decay and preservation. Not only children, but artist and teacher are encouraged through their work together to take risks, accept the possibility of failure and challenge themselves to engage with new ideas, materials, techniques and approaches. Bamford goes on to pinpoint ‘sustainable, long-term and reciprocal’ partnerships as fundamental to good art education, enabling artist and teacher to develop trust and collaborate fully and equally.327 Like the Virtually There teachers, Bamford sees the involvement of professional artists and an arts organisation as validating of the project in the eyes of school management, colleagues and parents. Further, she suggests teachers’ collaborative involvement in arts education enhances their pedagogy in all areas; again Virtually There teachers concur, speaking of how the project has taught them to be more flexible and more exploratory and to respond to children’s interests. Bamford then identifies other key components of good arts education, including allowing time and space for children to talk about their feelings and how they express themselves artistically, and the positioning of each child as an artist, both of which are central to Virtually There. The exercise in answering the questions ‘What is art?’ and ‘What is art not?’ carried out by children in Aughnacloy Primary School, for example, turn up the observations, ‘art is for everyone’; ‘Art is a way of communication. It is used to show our feelings’; and

327 Bamford, A Child’s Right to Quality Arts and Cultural Education.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

‘creat[ing] my own work’.328 Another key component of good art education for Bamford is the foregrounding of process, again integral to Virtually There, which I discuss more fully below.

Process and outcome Caroline Sharp investigates the meaning of creativity, and how it is allowed for – and not allowed for – in education. Rather than being about innate talent, creativity is, she suggests, about imagination and problem-solving, among other things. It can be learned and applied in any and all subject areas, including the arts, but Sharp shows that embarking on formal education tends to bring about a decline in creativity in young children. For creativity to be fostered, she indicates that teachers need to attend to process more than outcome and be comfortable themselves with ambiguity, complexity, open-endedness and experimentation, including the risk of failure. In turn, they need to attend more to the processes children engage in than the outcomes they produce. Because teachers can be hampered by the primacy of literacy and numeracy, Sharp recommends that children be given opportunity to work with artists. Virtually There artist Ann Henderson considers process to be integral to her work. Process involves not only making, but talking and thinking; for Ann, these join seamlessly to form the process in which she and Judith and Julie and the children engage in Virtually There.329 She points out that Orla Kenny, late creative director of Kids’ Own, consistently told artists to ‘trust the process’.330 For Ann that means openness of approach and willingness to stay with ideas and practices that generate energy for artist, teacher or children. Leanne, Judith and Julie, the teachers in the case-study schools, make clear the challenge for teachers of engaging in open-ended process, with the possibility of outcome uncertain, deferred and even set aside. They can see that artists are used to this way of working, and very comfortable in it, and explain that in training and in practice, teaching tends to value set outcomes.331 Leanne describes how, in her first year of Virtually There, her focus from the beginning was on a concrete outcome that would impress her colleagues and the children’s parents.332 Julie explains that her work with Ann is always about process rather than product, drawing on her background in science as well as Ann’s practice, but acknowledges that other teachers find that difficult to understand or appreciate.333 The primary school curriculum in Northern Ireland seems to allow for process-based education, particularly through its Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities strand. However, both Virtually There teachers and Education Authority staff point out that no matter how positive the rhetoric around process, the actions of the Education Training Inspectorate suggest an ongoing fixation with outcome; inspectors consistently seek out data and examination milestones call a halt to fluidity and flexibility. The teachers agree that with the system’s hunger for data they are not given space to pursue process. Even when creativity is identified as an important element of education, the Council for the Curriculum, Education and Assessment (CCEA) applies controls over how that is understood and carried out. The substance of Virtually There – a funded project managed by an external organisation partnering teachers with professional artists – is key to teachers’ ability to carve out time for process in the Virtually There cycle, if at no other time in the school year. As Adelaid Sproul had it back in the late 1960s:

328 Answers from questionnaires distributed by Leanne Kyle to Year 2s in Aughnacloy Primary School in 2018. 329 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 6th March 2019. 330 Ibid. 331 Personal communications from Judith White, Julie Orr and Leanne Kyle, 25th February 2019. 332 Personal communication from Leanne Kyle, 23rd November 2018. 333 Personal communication from Julie Orr, 25th February 2019.


→ Strandtown Primary School working with artist Andrew Livingstone

Open Space: An action Reid research report from the Virtually There project Bryonie Action research report on Virtually There


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

The current pace is fast and pressured – a long way from the deliberate pattern of life that trained the artist-craftsman to recognize with his body what Aldous Huxley called “beauty-truth.” The slow, sure development that comes from living with materials and gradually associating form and idea, as a farmer comes to know his fields and animals and weather, is a gestalt that is too often by-passed… We do not need instant Rembrandts… The trick is to have no tricks but to discover a direct language for an innocent engagement with the world.334 Almost 50 years later, Shaunna Smith and Danah Henriksen were identifying the same educational paradigm with the same concomitant problem. When education hurries through process, or bypasses it altogether, to reach a desired and pre-determined outcome, it is operating on the assumption that ‘traits [are] innate’ and cannot be fostered or nurtured by giving children agency in their work. It also privileges the idea of success. Successful children are those who achieve the required outcome. Those who do not are left with a sense of unproductive failure.335 That dwelling in process that artists can support teachers in, by dint of both their own practices and their expert status, has emerged for me as a crucial to Virtually There’s significance. As teachers report, they, and the children they teach, thirst for process even as it appears, at first, a daunting prospect. All testify to the benefits of not rushing for set outcomes: for themselves; for children who struggle with literacy and numeracy requirements, and for children who excel academically.

Relationships and project longevity In the introduction to this report I explained how integral relationships have been to Virtually There. Throughout the two years’ research, artists and teachers have talked extensively about their relationships with each other; as those who knew and loved Orla come to terms with her death, there have been further conversations about their relationships with her. When Ann Henderson, Judith White and Orla embarked on what became Virtually There, they were able to take the risk and experiment with an innovative format because they knew and trusted one another. Other artists joined the project, either with an existing long-standing relationship with Orla, or developing a relationship with Orla as they worked together year by year. These friendships, and those between artists and teachers, seem to have provided the stability that enabled the project to flex and morph year by year, despite funding being uncertain. The artists and teachers who were recruited most recently, with Paul Hamlyn Foundation money, quickly became integrated in this web of relationship, with each other, with project colleagues and with Orla (although her illness reduced the time and energy she could give to Kids’ Own and Virtually There in this latest iteration). I discussed earlier the importance of process. A key to the ability to stay in process and defer or let go of outcome is trust. Working in the acceptance of many possible outcomes or no outcome means letting go of control and remaining open to the ideas and energies of others. It also requires toleration of ‘failure’; that something tried by oneself or together with others may not work as expected or at all. That is a vulnerable position, and Virtually There’s artists and teachers have taken it up willingly and committed to it. Artists and teachers reiterate the increased and enriched potential accorded to relationship – and therefore process – by longevity. I mentioned Leanne Kyle’s recollection of her focus on outcome in her first year of 334 Quoted in Leeds, Teaching and the Reasons for Making Art, p20. 335 Smith and Henriksen, Fail Again, Fail Better, p7.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

working with Lisa. In that conversation, she went on to explain that in their second year together, she was able to set aside thoughts of outcome from start to finish, and in this cycle she and Lisa did nothing more than record by photograph and film some, but not all, of the children’s processes. This was due not only to her developing trust in the value of process, but also her developing trust in her relationship with Lisa. Their relationship had reached a point in their third cycle at which Leanne talked of ‘our practice’. For Lisa, with time it has become ‘very much back-and-forth between us’, and she pointed to Orla’s hand in helping this happen as she decided who to pair with whom.336 She also indicated that having become close and established trust through three years’ work together, their roles blurred and to her mind they came simply to ‘cohold’ creative space.337 Judith White and Julie Orr spoke to me of how their present comfort with departing from planning has been built up over many years work with Ann. They remember when it was another way, and know that their confidence in exploring and experimenting with Ann lies in how long they have known her and how deeply they trust her.338 This level of trust means, for Ann, that she and the teachers are able to work slowly, taking all the time they want or need to explore anything that sparks their interest or the children’s.339 Further, as they build year on year of work together, there is time for it to evolve, and each year draws on learning from previous years. This, Ann noted, is a luxury.340 Again, theories of how to do art education well supports the evidence from Virtually There that where artists are involved, their relationships with teachers are key, and relationships require time. The authors of the 2012 report into Creative Partnerships in English schools emphasise this, explaining that only close collaborative relationships enable the ‘sustained exploration’ that underpins ‘creative learning’.341 They also point to the ‘informal and friendly’ relationships the creative practitioners in their study developed with children, suggesting these significantly benefited the children and the work.342 They conclude that mutual relations of trust between creative practitioner, teacher(s) and children are key to spreading creative practice schoolwide. Only through long-term relationship is this possible; and only through long-term relationship will such changes in educational practice be permanent.343

Artists’ practices and the use of technology I began this research with the idea that the virtual element was a kind of second-best: the ideal would be to have artist and teacher in the classroom together in every session, but because funding and distance did not allow for that, participants compensated by connecting virtually. It quickly became clear that on the contrary, the virtual element was in itself a positive shaping force in the project, one which artists especially wielded creatively and intelligently in relation to their practices. Even when the artist could quite easily be present in the classroom – John D’Arcy, for example, lives close to teacher-partner Chris McCambridge’s school – the virtual connection is retained and seen as of value in itself. From my first year’s research I reported the insights of various artists on their engagement with the virtual. Despite difficulties with schools’ dated equipment and patchy internet connections, occasionally clumsy software and the limited interaction with the children, the artists tended to see specific benefits. Ann Donnelly commented on how the virtual 336 Personal communications from Leanne Kyle and Lisa Cahill, 23rd November 2018. 337 Personal communication from Lisa Cahill, 10th June 2019. 338 Personal communications from Judith White and Julie Orr, 25th February 2019. 339 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 6th March 2019. 340 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 28th May 2019. 341 McLellan, Galton, Steward and Page, The Impact of Creative Partnerships, pv. 342 Ibid. 343 Ibid.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

connection calls for a much more closely collaborative dynamic between artist and teacher; Julie Forrester talked about how it allows for live visual dialogue; Naomi Draper explained that it hones listening and communication skills; and John D’Arcy pointed out that it frees the artist from any responsibility for classroom management. Several artists enjoy being able to appear to the children from their own studios, for various reasons ranging from being surrounded by their own work, to having a quiet space in which to keep their thinking clear and their focus on the children. The significance of a studio, and how it is set up, depends very much on the artist and her or his practice. During my case-study research, Ann Henderson allowed me the privilege of observing one of her sessions with Judith White from her studio at her home on Rathlin Island. Reporting on this visit and the conversation we had while I was there, I wrote, She notes, “For me I think that the evidence of processes that you see in there – they are the thinking”. The studio is like an extension of her self. It, Ann and her activity in it overlap, intersect and interweave in various ways. Working from there means she can come to Virtually There from a place (not necessarily or only physical) of deeper understanding and can reach out to her collaborative partner and the children with both sensitivity and daring.344 Ann’s exposition of what it means to her to work with Judith, Julie and the children from her own studio set me thinking more closely about how this aspect of the virtual connection can function. I wondered about how the space in which an artist habitually works becomes an extension of her, and felt my way into the idea that as the artist thinks through doing and making – process, again – her thinking becomes externalised and tangible: spatialised. As the space is fashioned through and around the artist’s work, perhaps it begins to function like a tool for apprehending, understanding and outworking ideas, in the way a limb or hand or eye or ear or voice does. If so, then the studio, both shaped by and containing the artist’s thinking and doing, is another means (aside from mind and body) by which she reaches out into the world and processes and responds to what she receives of the world. For Ann, and other artists who use and think about their studios like this, technology that allows the sharing of those spaces is important; it pushes and shapes their practices and exposes colleagues and children to the reality of contemporary art practice in all its diversity, subtlety and complexity. In my reading, theorists’ views of technology in education in general and arts education in particular tended not to map on to the ways technology is being used in Virtually There. Its primary use in the project is to connect artists, teachers and children in one virtual/physical space; other uses include sharing studio space and practice; that visual dialogue prized by Julie Forrester and Ann Henderson; and one-to-one communication with children via webcams. A host of other effects and advantages come along with it, mentioned and discussed throughout the report. Of course, the mediation of the artist’s presence via technology can be frustrating and limiting too. But while its use in this project occasionally resonates with theorists’ ideas of its pedagogical role, these are also sidestepped and outstripped. Anne Bamford alone points to how technology operates to enable communication, and the potential it has to facilitate education in different and less formal settings. Children in the second decade of the 21st century are well used to communicating via software like Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp, and take to and use these and more very ably in Virtually There, moving between interactive whiteboard and webcam, class iPads and 344 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 6th March 2019, reported in full on p90.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

teachers’ smartphones. Some of the children have been using the project’s online journal to communicate and create their own content, but participants tend to agree that this has been an underused element of Virtually There. Marc Prensky’s thinking on how digital technology could and should shape education is of interest in relation to Virtually There chiefly for his arguments about how traditional education needs to change. Most relevant in this context is his contention that bringing hardware and software into a classroom can deceive educators and parents into believing education is progressing: he warns that unless the technology is being used thoughtfully and purposefully and chiefly in order to empower children to find out rather than be told, it is a ‘mask’.345 This chimes with Vine Haugh’s sense that the technology in Virtually There is of worth only when it ‘adds to or enriches the creative experience’ and not because it is part of contemporary everyday life and signals being up-to-date.346 Technology in Virtually There is not about visual literacy or integrating children’s domestic use of technology with education. Neither is it about being cutting-edge; nor preparing children for a world in which technological competence is crucial. It does not replace use of risky or expensive or difficult materials or equipment. Rather, in Virtually There digital technology began simply as a tool to connect artists with teachers and children in classrooms, and over time has evolved to meet, reflect, challenge and stretch artists’ practices and artists and teachers’ collaborative practices. Children use iPads to talk with artists and to document their work, whether that is in the form of self-choreographed movements or letting an ice-cube filled with chopped leaves melt on a paper-covered slope; occasionally the iPad is used to make work, such as animations or other still and moving visuals. Whatever the case, artists and teachers think carefully about how and why children will be asked to make use of technology beyond communication and documentation. → St Colman’s Primary School working with artist John D’Arcy

345 Prensky, Technology as Mask? and Do We Really Need Dedicated Ed-Tech?. 346 Personal communication from Vine Haugh, 20th November 2018.


Open Space: An action research report from the Virtually There project

Concluding In my first conversation with Ann Henderson, she made the comment that in school, ‘there’s multiple intelligences… just squashed… into not being’.347 Virtually There, she thought, went some way towards discovering, valuing and nurturing these multiple intelligences. From what I have seen, heard and read, I agree. And in light of this insight from Ann, I was pleased to find the poem, ‘No way. The hundred is there’, by Loris Malaguzzi, founder and long-term director of the Reggio Emilia education system in Italy. I quote it here in full, as a provisional full-stop to this report on Virtually There, a project in which artists and teachers collaborate lovingly and with commitment to restore work and play to seamless togetherness; to think and do simultaneously; and to explore with each child Malaguzzi’s ‘hundred hundred hundred’ things.

No way. The hundred is there. The child is made of one hundred. The child has a hundred languages a hundred hands a hundred thoughts a hundred ways of speaking. A hundred always a hundred ways of listening of marveling of loving a hundred joys for singing and understanding a hundred worlds to invent a hundred worlds to dream. The child has a hundred languages (and a hundred hundred hundred more) but they steal ninety-nine. The school and the culture separate the head from the body.

They tell the child: to think without hands to do without head to listen and not to speak to understand without joy to love and to marvel only at Easter and Christmas. They tell the child: to discover the world already there and of the hundred they steal ninety-nine. They tell the child: that work and play reality and fantasy science and imagination sky and earth reason and dream are things that do not belong together. And thus they tell the child that the hundred is not there. The child says: No way. The hundred is there.

Translated by Lella Gandini, in Edwards, Gandini and Forman, The Hundred Languages of Children

347 Personal communication from Ann Henderson, 23rd October 2017.


↓ St Patrick’s Primary School working with artist Sharon Kelly

Bryonie Reid is a writer and artist whose work explores identity and belonging in relation to place. She works independently and as a member of quarto (www.quartocollective. com) in the field of community engagement with place and the past. She carried out oral history research with border dwellers between 2005 and 2008 and co-authored Partitioned Lives: the Irish Borderlands with Catherine Nash and Brian Graham. Artwork arising from this research, (re)writing, was exhibited in The Dock in Carrick-on-Shannon in 2012. Her recent publications include ‘The Elephant in the Room: Colonialism and Postcolonialism in Northern Ireland’ in Historical Geography (2014) and ‘Trying Identities: Roger Casement and Erskine Childers’ in The Irish Review (2017). Collaborative artwork Holding Together, looking at memory, family histories and archives, was shown in the Public Records Office in Belfast in 2019.arts and their potential to impact positively on the lives of children.

This publication is dedicated to the memory of Orla Kenny, former Creative Director of Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership.

What is the value of connecting professional artists with children and teachers in educational settings? The Virtually There project facilitated long-term collaborations between artists, children and teachers across eight schools in Northern Ireland with a pioneering approach that enabled the artists to connect virtually from their studios. This publication interrogates the impact of the project and offers readers an insight into highquality arts in education processes. Virtually There was developed by Kids’ Own Publishing Partnership, a children’s arts organisation and publishing house based in County Sligo. Kids’ Own advocates for the intrinsic value of the arts in children’s lives and supports all children to express themselves through publishing and the arts.

Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.