Reaching for the stars

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How collaboration with a professional orchestra and theatre company brought more than just glamour to our West Midlands special school

Funding for specialist status has created many opportunities for our school, Welcombe Hills, an all-age generic special college for visual and performing arts. During the last academic year, we were involved in a major project, in collaboration with Thomas Jolyffe and Wilmcote primary schools, Stratford-based Orchestra of the Swan and theatre company Talking Birds, to produce Space Odyssey, an intergalactic opera written specially for pupils at our school.

Our pupils have complex and significant learning delay; many have autism and a large number have a physical disability. The opera schedule initially seemed quite daunting and, for our students, the challenge was enormous. However, a series of workshops, led by professional artists, allowed the pupils from the three schools to work together and grow in confidence and self-belief.

The aim was to enhance the skills sets and learning of everyone involved. Staff from all three schools set out to support each other in enriching pupils’ creative learning and enabling them to develop new skills. For the artists, it was important to try to understand the idiosyncratic learning styles of individual pupils so they could communicate and work with them in meaningful ways.

All workshops started with a warm up, which involved both staff and students in moving to rhythm. Warm ups were followed by vocal training, led by vocal coach Rebecca Ledgard. This invaluable exercise encouraged our pupils to follow instructions, work as a group and prepare themselves mentally and physically for the session ahead. This was also the time when interaction with children from the primary schools started to take place.

A scene from Space Odyssey - Battle of Scyllar.Working alongside pupils from other schools helped the participants forget their differences. For many of our young adults, communication and social interaction are significant barriers to learning, but these barriers were overcome by the friendships that developed and the experiences they shared. As their confidence grew, our pupils were able to work increasingly independently and started to put themselves forward to take on key roles in the performance.

Writer/lyricist Nick Walker and composer Derek Nisbet, from Coventry-based theatre company Talking Birds completely captured the students’ imagination with a witty intergalactic version of Homer’s classic tale of Odysseus, as the hero made his epic journey home from a planet somewhere in space. The students became the Scyllar’s many heads as her voice sang hauntingly to the lost crew, they were the baaing sheep that Odysseus used to hide his men to elude the Cyclops, and they were the choir from Planet Siren, singing a mesmerising song about chocolate rivers to trap the crew and lure them to their death. Pupils from all three schools helped Penelope weave the blanket she used to delay the narrator’s attempts to marry her, as he tried to convince her Odysseus must be lost or dead. They learned from Penelope’s example of patience and determination the importance of never giving up because, in the end, her efforts were rewarded.

In addition, our Key Stage 2 pupils worked to great effect with audio visual artist Mathew Beckett to produce intergalactic sound effects for the performance.

The opera experience also provided our students with a unique opportunity to talk to the artists involved about their different roles in their own professions and find out about the technical side of producing a show. They discovered the qualities they needed to make the performance a success, such as commitment, timekeeping, self belief, teamwork, focus, listening skills and hard work. Importantly, the opera experience brought together our local community and opened the hearts and minds of all who went to see the final performance.

Now that the opera has run its course, we are left reflecting on the impact it has had on our pupils. There is no doubt that we shall continue to work in partnership with our primary schools and with professional artists. Our pupils are more confident, they are proud of the part they played in the opera and they have made new friends. Moreover, the artists remarked that pupils from our school were mature and self composed, that they were excellent role models and that they had exceeded expectations in their ability to remain focused and on task. Staff from the primary schools also reported that their pupils had become far more confident and that their self esteem had improved.

Our special partnership with Orchestra of the Swan was crucial to the success of this community opera project and we have been fortunate to have enjoyed close links with highly talented musicians from the orchestra since 2005. Together we have carried out action research projects to enhance the skill set of our staff and to enhance our pupils’ ability to engage more meaningfully and purposefully in their creative learning. With sensitive handling all round, our pupils’ individual learning styles and needs have been respected, allowing them to take part in projects like Space Odyssey with dignity and pride.

We are also extremely fortunate to have received regular visits to school from David Bradley, well known to our pupils as the narrator in Space Odyssey and to all as “Filch” from the Harry Potter films.

We are already planning a second major creative project involving more local primary schools and more artists. The pupils have all said they thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the opera and would like to do another one. At the outset of the project, some staff felt it might be too ambitious, but the pupils and staff pulled it off. Our pupils will continue to surprise themselves and their families; they will make us all proud once again and they will discover they can achieve their ambitions with a little bit of help and a whole lot of self belief.

Further information

Niki Jones is Deputy Head and Director of Specialism at Welcombe Hills School:
www.welcombe-hills.co.uk

For information about the professional companies involved in the Space Odyssey project, visit:
www.orchestraoftheswan.org

www.talkingbirds.co.uk

This article was first published in issue 48 (September/October 2010) of SEN Magazine.

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