With over a decade of experience in delivering arts, creativity and cultural education programmes with high learner outcomes, we decided to embark on one of our most challenging, needed and satisfying creative endeavours. Aptly titled ‘Beyond Labels: In Young Men’s Shoes’, the project went on to became a ground-breaking touring exhibition of film, photography and the spoken word, managed by the school’s extended services co-coordinator, who had secured external funding from a local arts organisation to deliver the programme.
Research into schools that use creative approaches to learning has found that pupils ‘tackle their personal areas of difficulty more steadily when they could offset them with achievement in an activity that gave them scope for self-expression’ (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services... More, 2010, p. 21). Creative approaches can also encourage pupils to reflect critically on the effect of ideas and actions (Ofsted, 2010).
The aim of our project was to use creativity and arts – in particular, film, photography and spoken word poetry – as a vehicle for self-exploration and self-expression, developing a platform where young men can openly express their feelings, thoughts and aspirations. Young men are faced with considerable pressures, some of which are assumed to only affect girls, such as body image issues, bullying and uncertainty about the future. In addition to this, boys who openly express such concerns and feelings are often told to ‘man up’, which may further discourage men to voice their concerns. We wanted to give the participants the opportunity to not only learn about the different art forms, but use them to produce something tangible that could be experienced and shared, ultimately allowing them to address a variety of issues and pressures that they may have been harbouring or bottling up. As Yanofsky et al. (1999, p. 339) discuss, ‘this type of poetry appeals to teenagers because it allows them to express themselves in their own language and to address issues that they find important’.
To ensure the project was inclusive we sent out an open call to all pupils at the school. However, most participants were referred by members of staff who had identified various issues that could potentially be addressed through opportunities for self-expression provided by the project, including low levels of confidence and lack of engagement. In the end, the project comprised of 11 courageous young men from five different nationalities between the ages of 11 and 16. The majority had never participated in a creative project or had access to high-quality arts and cultural programmes. This was a real challenge, as the process was very alien to the participants – we had to ensure that the participants would remain engaged and committed throughout, especially as they were required to demonstrate considerable bravery in sharing their lives, feelings and emotions with the rest of the world.
The creative process
The workshops took place outside of the school curriculum over a 12-month period, and were broken down into four three-month phases. In each phase, participants worked alongside different creative practitioners, engaging with the three prioritised art forms of film, photography and spoken word poetry.
During the first phase, pupils worked alongside spoken word poets to develop an anthology of spoken word poetry that would include individual pieces as well as group poems.
With these labels the world destroys our confidence,
But what if we decided to design our own brands to wear?
And advertised our identity proudly
Then we would use labels to build and not destroy
(Extract from Beyond Labels group poem)
In the second phase, pupils worked alongside a professional film company in order to develop and produce a short film based upon a group poem they had previously created. The third phase involved pupils working alongside a photographer to create thought-provoking images that complemented their poetry. The final phase involved participants undertaking a six-date tour at a variety of venues across East Lancashire, where pupils performed their poetry and showcased their film and photography to both school and community audiences.
The learning environment
In contrast with usual school lessons, these workshops were mostly pupil-led – the practitioners acted more as facilitators than instructors, which allowed for more open dialogue and conversation regarding social and personal issues. Students also had the time to learn from and about each other in a way that was more organic, which was particularly important as they were going spend the next two years together.
Learning took place outside of the classroom: some workshops were held at the Contact Theatre in Manchester, and most of the filming and photography took place at a variety of outdoor locations chosen by the participants.
Each individual participant had to overcome barriers relating to personal issues as well as societal pressures – for example, bullying, racism and lack of confidence. The creative process allowed them to not only address these issues but also to share them. We saw a new-found confidence in the participants, who had the courage to express their thoughts and feelings, clearly demonstrated during their Beyond Labels tour.
I’ve learnt to not call people by their labels, and start thinking more about the person rather than the label. I think that’s a pretty key skill to have considering we are all human – that’s the only tag we need; that and our names.
(Sam Moore, Year 8, Beyond Labels participant)
My personal journey has been the fact that before I never used to do anything and shut myself inside. The journey has let me get out and made me realise there are better things I can spend my life doing instead of just being upstairs.
(Owen Purcell, Year 9, Beyond Labels participant)
The project went on to receive regional and national recognition, with the participants winning multiple awards including ‘North West Culture Education Awards 2018’ and ‘The Diana Award’ in 2017, resulting in the young poets being invited to a number of community events to perform and share their stories. Through this new-found confidence, knowledge and skillset, the group went on to lead and deliver community and school-based workshops. For example, they delivered CPD to an adult audience for the arts organisation ‘Creative People and Places’, looking at the impact that creativity has on people’s wellbeing. We are currently looking forward to the third iteration of the project: Beyond Labels: The Unified Generation.
Delivering high-quality arts-based initiatives can require a change in conventional approaches to teaching to ensure that the correct platform is available for the participants to flourish and develop their ideas. For example, we used the ‘Beyond Labels’ approach for a curriculum-based spoken word poetry project delivered during Year 9 English lessons, with teachers giving students the opportunity to create their own material. Learning was also supported by short ‘master classes’ delivered by external practitioners. Again, we found that learners excelled through this approach, which culminated in a live performance to a community audience.