1979: top year at Stivichall Infant School, Coventry, one afternoon. My teacher asks me to do a painting of the unflinching Mrs Blue-Hat of Shelia McCullagh’s book series One, Two, Three and Away. She’s proved too much for one of my class mates and a replacement is needed for display. Despite having my eye on Jennifer Yellow-Hat, I’m more than happy to do this. I love art and this is my chance to show I’m good at it. I complete a big, bold vision in blacks and blues on buff sugar paper. My teacher likes it and it makes the display.
Connecting Art and Stories
I so clearly remember that afternoon and what my picture looked like. Using our reading books as our inspiration was something we often did at primary school. We read and we listened to stories; we thought about them and together we talked about them. We painted and drew freely, visualising them within an A3 framework.
When I was about nine or ten, we read The Hobbit. We were halfway through the book and the teacher asked us all to paint a scene we’d enjoyed. Mine (I recall) was of Bilbo Baggins being dangled upside-down and poked in the belly by one of the soon to be turned to stone trolls. In the background I added poster paint glints of a rising sun. Nearby were the other two trolls arguing. I’m not entirely sure it was a very accomplished piece (in fact, I’m almost entirely sure my Bilbo Baggins was for some reason a real dead ringer for Captain Caveman) but I do remember spending that whole lovely long lesson caught up in the magic of the story and trying my best to re-imagine every last detail. We loved our class readers and wanted to spend time with them and we were given the space in which to do this.
A Common Bond
Years later, I trained and worked as a secondary art teacher before I became a primary practitioner. I transferred down with anticipation of creativity without bounds and space for stories and pictures. I was told straight off that I needed to find another main subject because I wouldn’t get anywhere with art. Opportunities were few and far between for educators and pupils, I was to discover.
Although big budget projects were something most children got to experience at some point (and that was brilliant), the bread and butter of art- the drawing and painting I’d grown up with – was becoming a more and more elusive part of the curriculum. Class teachers were often not part of it at all. The bond of a teacher sharing a book with their class and being able to enrich it with art wasn’t just vanishing though, it was being swept under the carpet. It became, and still is seen as a waste of learning time with no measurable benefit.
The Primary Curriculum
A lot of us have direct experience of this. I was pulled up in a literacy lesson observation for allowing my Year Fives to illustrate their written work. I was told it wasn’t writing and had nothing to do with it. That the children would rush their writing in order to do the art. I disagreed: by illustrating, they could explore the text through use of a different language. The children had enjoyed their writing and now could explore ideas,become more proficient and enjoy contributing to a great cultural history of words and art in collaboration. They were engaged in their reflection of the written work and contributing creatively to the school environment. And yep, the bold type relates to our current national curriculum.
Means and Minds
I wished I’d said this. In reality I just nodded a lot and didn’t illustrate another extended write. Looking back though, what was implied was that children don’t like writing and that art is an excuse to not do it. This is not just a shame, but also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children pick up on this stuff.
The primary curriculum offers many possibilities if we let it. Observe, review and revisit can easily be used in relation to enriching our class readers. With The Hobbit all those years ago as one tiny example, we were observing: observing our own relationship with the story. We were reviewing the scenes we’d listened to and choosing our own to depict. By revisiting the story and applying and expanding our own knowledge and abilities, we owned a world of imagination. We have curriculum guidelines now, but they are open to interpretation and can allow us to adapt them to our own children’s needs. We have the means and the minds to justify what we do.
A Thousand Genius Lesson Ideas
Last week I asked my Year Six class how they would want to respond to a book if they could choose a way. Overwhelmingly, they wanted to draw. They wanted to do art about their books in wonderful and imaginative ways. They wanted to picture their favourite book character at different points in their lives: imagine a teenage Dumbledore or Matilda as an old lady. How cool is that? They just wanted to draw with thought and then see it on the wall afterwards. They had a thousand genius lessons at their fingertips that they’d always wanted to experience.
Children haven’t changed. They want to be read to and they want to draw about it. Regularly. Not in ‘Golden Time’. Not during wet break. With value and worth attached. As teachers and leaders, we ‘re working so hard to encourage reading for pleasure, to move away from reading as an assessed task or even worse a punishment. With art, and in particular drawing and painting, we need to do a really different job: step back from art as a treat or reward and lose the given ‘hobby’ tag. Bring art and literature back together and let them meet in the middle.
Making Art and Stories Happen
As an enthusiastic amateur artist and long-time promoter of reading for pleasure, I’m going to be doing my best to champion this and encourage more art back into the primary classroom in connection with the brilliant books you’re all reading to your classes. Nothing expensive or hard to resource, but relevant though, and hopefully also enjoyable, valuable, reflective, individual, inspiring and memorable. I’ll be looking at the amazing children’s books I’ve reviewed and giving you art plans you can bring to your teaching. Please let me know of any books you’d like me to focus on as a priority and I’d be more than happy to do that. Let’s reconnect art and stories in the primary classroom.