In 1979, Joe Strummer of The Clash wrote a song called Lost in the supermarket. It opens with the line ‘I’m all lost in the supermarket/I can no longer shop happily’ and is an autobiographical account of Joe Strummer’s life on the World’s End estate in London. Although reading up on the context reveals that it is about a specific supermarket on a specific estate, the symbolic connotations of the supermarket as non-place (Augé) are intrinsic to what the song is arguably about – that the spaces in which people live and are made to live their lives can sometimes be perceived as transient non-places where people feel anonymous. Not the sort of place you’d want to be lost. I quote these lyrics because I like The Clash and try to slip them into every conversation because they echo a theme that I recognized in the creative writing produced by students at the secondary school where I teach. Their writing often felt depersonalized; settings were transient, characters lacked…well they lacked character, and meaning or messages weren’t happening. While this might be praised in post-modernist literature that explores these issues creatively, their stories were non-place. Ultimately, for the students in my class, subject English had sadly become a non-place, and this was reflected in their creative writing. BUT, believing (as I do) that non-places are at least partly subjective, as in they don’t have to be perceived as such, I decided to have a crack at doing something.
It’s relevant here to note that the conurbation in which I work is geographically interesting, as sitting between two Midlands cities the town alternates between two counties in official documents. Currently, it has one city’s postcode, while simultaneously belonging to another’s county. This confusion of place makes for an interesting atmosphere when the derby match of the two local football teams takes place. It is tempting to credit the common perception amongst pupils of their town as being a kind of non-place to this geographical quirk. I also feel that place is a useful thing to be aware of when it comes to reflecting on and understanding pupil’s everyday life both in and outside of school.
The lessons that I created aimed to synthesise some of these concerns and thought processes. With all of this in mind, I felt that employing a critical pedagogy of place would add relevance to the lessons, allow the pupils more ownership and leading to increased creativity. A critical pedagogy of place (Thomson et al.):
- interrogates the ‘local’
- makes connections with global and national politics
- is oriented to equity and social action
- resists homogenising effects of standardisation
- decolonises knowledge systems
- promotes differences
I felt that this approach could facilitate creative learning and illuminate the pupil’s perception of place with value. Also, I hoped that this method might mean that pupils are more likely to make connections with their schoolwork and the world outside of school, gain valuable critical literacy skills and engage in the subject on a level beyond the examination.
Using the creative pedagogy of place model, I drafted up a five lesson SoW that I hoped would enable the pupils to engage with notions of place, explore how writers use place to create their worlds, and allow the space needed for students to foreground place in their own creative reading and writing. Pupils engaged in a critical pedagogy of place usually go on a school trip to interact with the learning topic; however, due to the time constraints this was not possible. As a result, I decided to incorporate the use of Google Maps into the planning of pupil’s creative writing.
I had however recognised that students when working on computers had a tendency to use Google Maps to explore their local area, often pointing out to each other their homes and other places that were of personal significance. The feeling of being fascinated by seeing your place in a context that you would normally not associate it (LOOK OUR TOWN IS ON TV!!! or THERE’S MY GRANDAD FROZEN ON A LADDER [real story]). Google Maps might therefore function as a technology that enables pupils to bring their world outside of school into the everyday space of school.
|Introduction to place: What is place?||Children’s experiences, prior knowledge and curiosity is focused on the topic.|
|How do writers create place? Teaching the big idea:||Read extracts from literature (Dickens’ Hard Times and Tolkien’s LOTR). introduce key terminology and explore writer’s methods.|
|How suitable is your place for setting a story? Extend and deepen understating.||Explore suitability of student’s place for creative writing setting and read extracts from local literature (Silitoe’s Saturday Night Sunday Morning and Alan Dance’s Bendigo.|
|Use Google maps and plan creative writing task.||Use Google maps to choose writing image for pupils to use as stimulus. Use key concepts to plan writing.|
|Write story, redraft and consolidate learning.||Complete writing and reflect on learning.|
What happened in the lessons was really interesting and I’d like to share some field notes from lesson 4. (All names have been changed).
I started the lesson by modelling the process of finding an appropriate image on Google Maps and using the internet to gather some information regarding the location that might be useful. While I anticipated this to be a quick ten-minute starter this process ended up deviating from the lesson plan significantly. I asked a pupil to think of a place in the local area that we in order to demonstrate this process. Consequently, we ended up getting an image of the local power plant and researching the local history connected to this place. The pupils became fascinated with the environmental protests that have occurred at the plant and the consequent arrests of protesters.
Sam: What is a protest?
Teacher: Google the definition Sam and see.
Sam: It is a statement or action expressing disapproval of or objection to something.
Liam: Well that’s not fair. Getting arrested for protesting is like not having a freedom.
Enabling the discussion to meander and direct the learning resulted in the pupils taking ownership of the lesson objectives. I decided to follow their interest and this eventually led to the students collectively deciding that they wanted to use The Protest as their title. Therefore, allowing fluidity of the pupil-teacher paradigm had created a space in which their curiosity had driven the learning. In addition, pupils were increasingly engaging in critical literacy as they became interested in and gained knowledge of local environmental and political issues.
While I do not want to ascribe levels based on mark schemes to the creative writing produced in the lessons, I believe that the content, ideas, themes and clear personalisation of the narratives are of significance. Across the stories, there was a recurring theme of how individuals struggle to maintain ownership of space. The students represented this tension as being connected to identity and in some stories appeared to be alienating.
In Sarah’s narrative, the thirteen-year-old protagonist runs away from home because his parents tell him to stop believing that dinosaurs still exist. This leads to him seeing dinosaurs in the local nature reserve, filming the event and posting the video online. The narrative concludes with these words:
So his life went on. Knowing that there were dinosaurs somewhere, and that they were alive, but from that day forward he always had a protest on his porch.
Within this story the societal norms inhibit imagination, and if we take the dinosaurs as a metaphor for imagination, the protagonist has the courage to hold onto this – which is high level Peter Pan stuff.
In stories where individuals worked together the narratives were able to resolve the tensions inherent in space. This is clear in two pieces that create a narrative in which the equilibrium is disrupted due to the imminent threat of school closure. In both, the school community join forces and protest, succeeding in preventing their school’s closure:
When we put the posters out more and more people stopped to read our sign and came up to us and started talking to us about the protest, and their response was always:
“Yes I will join your protest lets go beat these people!”
Once more and more joined we had a big protest and we succeeded and the government went somewhere else to build houses!
Similarly, John’s story ends with a triumphant tone:
There was NO way they were getting in.
This is OUR school.
Theory + Practice = ?
I feel that the two school based stories can be read as exploring the political nature of place and ultimately demonstrating the power that communities can possess when they work together, which is a decent lesson to learn. Also, this process certainly contributed to the pupils taking more ownership of their classroom space and perceiving value in their personal authorial voice and their place. As Ken Robinson’s definition points out, creativity IS a process. It therefore needs time to develop.
I’d like to finish with Sarah’s dinosaur story. Not because it is perfect or would receive the highest 9-1 grade, but because I like it and I think The Clash would too: