Engaging reluctant learners

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  1. 1. When Robin Johnson, the cultural curator for Arc School, proposed bringing some students to Kenilworth Castle, where I was formerly the education manager, the castle staff were not thrilled. By the end of the rst visit, they realised that these students were like young people everywhere: present them with something interesting, and theyll be engaged and enthusiastic. Within minutes of their arrival, history became the medium of communication and their special needs became secondary to the positive experiences they enjoyed. Each of Arcs four visits was a huge success. These are my tips for organising cultural trips for young people with SEBD. Initial contact is vital Sometimes schools just book a trip and turn up on the day. However, when there are young people with special needs in the group, I recommend a pre-visit. On Mr Johnsons pre-visit, he and I talked about his students needs, the activities they might like to do, their learning requirements, the professional expertise of the accompanying staff and whether the site staff would need any particular help or information beforehand. Next I went to the school to give the young people a taste of the castle. This is important for students who nd change and new environments stressful. During my 15-minute visit, I showed them some artefacts I had brought along, and took them through some word association games related to castles. Unexpectedly, they were scared of castles; they thought these were intimidating, angry, dark places. Needless to say, they returned to school after their trips with an entirely new set of adjectives. A full brieng For students to get the most out of the experience, staff at cultural centres need to know what to expect. They mustnt presume that their guests will behave like mini adults, walking round in an orderly line and talking in reverent voices. Having been briefed by Mr Johnson, I was able to explain that the students might be challenging, behave unpredictably and make a lot of noise, and that, while this might be unsettling, their teachers knew what they were doing, knew when students were engaged and when things were likely to escalate. I also explained that the teachers needed to be able to give feedback or move things on without the site staff taking offence. For example, I said that they might decide to cut short their visit after just ten minutes, and that this was ne. Short and tight Between us, Mr Johnson and I created a detailed plan of the visit: ten-minute bursts of concentration followed by a short walk to another area in the castle. On the day, he was very good about saying to me: Time to move on, when he thought the young peoples attention was wandering. Even with a plan, site staff need to be briefed to be exible. Out of the four Engaging reluctant learners King of the castle Sometimes teachers are apprehensive about taking challenging students on educational visits. In part two of our series, we look at how Arc School in Warwickshire, which caters for children with SEBD, collaborated with two organisations to make such learning experiences work David Sheldon offers advice on making culture accessible to everyone, including students with challenging behaviour Staff and pupils explore the castle grounds, followed by a lm crew making a video of the visit 18 Special Children 220 Culture and engagement
  2. 2. I was saddened by research from Wide Horizons, which showed that over 35 per cent of young people in the UK have never been to the countryside. I nd it concerning when children exclaim: Look at the cow! when the animal that has caught their eye is a sheep. As guardians of the countryside, the National Trust decided to do something about this. I am an engagement manager at the National Trust. Part of my job is to organise residential bush craft courses for students from local schools. In September 2011, we organised one for a group of Year 11 students at Arc. It went so well that weve run one every year since. What makes them so successful? Preparation We take young people with no experience of the countryside to a remote area in the autumn when the weather might be unpredictable. Preparation is crucial. This includes pre-visits, where we orient staff and students and supply kit lists to everyone. The school and the National Trust team complete rigorous risk assessments and put health and safety procedures in place. The aim is to prepare for everything so that everyone can then enjoy the experience. The point is not to regiment the expedition. Weve learned to give young people freedom within a framework. They need boundaries, to know where they can and cant go, and, equally, we need to know they understand the rules. The adventure With the groundwork done, the adventure begins when the students and accompanying teachers arrive on day one at 10am and we set off through the woods. Initially, we are braced for a bit of backchat: Youre making me walk miles and carry all of these things? However, this is only token resistance and the students are soon looking around, interested in spite of themselves. Its only when we get to the base and explain that the toilet is a hole in the ground and they have to make their own shelters that they start to grasp the scale of the adventure. Thats when we start to see leadership skills coming out and a sense of camaraderie beginning to develop. How to survive Our ranger is ex SAS and really relates to a lot of the young boys who come along. He talks to them about survival in the desert and all kinds of trips hes been on, which res their imaginations. Then he shows them how to make a good shelter before sending them off to collect sticks for their own den. They gather bracken to make a bed and we give them some tarpaulin to make it waterproof. Although we have a communal re, we show them how to light their own with int. Its not easy but the sense of achievement, when even the most frustrated child manages it by the end, is amazing. Time to chill Over the years, weve learned not to worry about lling every second of the day. The most important thing weve found is to give young people time to chill, to spend time in their dens, to chat and play and simply enjoy being in the natural environment. The second day is the hardest for everyone. While the dens are functional, they can be quite uncomfortable when youre not used to that kind of thing. So the amount of sleep that people get varies enormously. Weve tried different formats: the rst year, a facilitator introduced them to green woodworking and showed them how to make mallets and spoons, but it was far too much for them. The following year, we took them volunteering and spent the afternoon dredging a nearby pond. Again this was too much for some of the group. Last year, we did nothing. We tidied up camp and strolled back to the bus. The students were free to have a walk, play in our natural play area and enjoy some tasty bacon sandwiches. It was a lesson for us to realise that it is all right to do nothing, and that just being in the woods is enough for young people who nd it difcult to be in a classroom and who clam up when they have to write something. visits, we never got to the end of our plan. The only constant was that all activities were short and punchy. Thus the visits meandered through the castle taking little detours when something caught the young peoples imagination. Overcome preconceptions The young people themselves were engaged on all the trips, even when this wasnt immediately apparent. Some cultural staff will need to be briefed to suspend their preconceptions about how young people behave when they are engaged. For example, one lad was hanging off his teachers arm, looking the other way and kicking stones. Talking to him later in the day, I realised he had absorbed everything I had said. The visit will also work better if cultural staff have been briefed to ask for regular feedback: Am I doing this right? Is this OK? Keeping this up throughout the day is tiring but it really works. The outcomes As time went by, we saw a marked increase in condence among the young people. One lad came up and asked me a question at one point. I answered him, thinking nothing of it. It wasnt until Mr Johnson turned to me and exclaimed: He said a sentence! that I realised what an impact the visit was having. There was also a marked increase in happiness, and a marked decrease in inhibition and apprehension among all the participants, including the adults. Another positive outcome was a level of interaction between certain groups that no one had seen before, as well as a new willingness to learn. It is not just ruins and stately homes that have stories to tell. All schools have access to worlds immediately outside their grounds waiting to be explored. A night in the wilderness Laura Broadhurst talks about residential courses for pupils with SEBD Top tips Make personal contact with a member of the cultural staff. See how they react to the idea ask if they have experience of this kind of group or if they need more information. If possible arrange for someone from the site to visit the school. Plan the day but be exible. Find out more The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom has resources to help schools plan, implement and evaluate effective outdoor learning experiences. www.lotc.org.uk Success! An Arc School student used int to light a re 220 Special Children 19 Culture and engagement