Making the Wisening Gate
This page is based on extracts from the 'reflective journal' kept by the facilitator during the fieldwork.
Most preparation was conducted from the UK using email and Skype, leaving only a day for preparation in-situ. On the preparation day, the plan for the design and construction of the portal was finalised. The tent was erected, and the tree trunks prepared at the only suitable outside location, next to the playground. A flying fox zip wire ran right across the only pathway to the building from the garden. The children also played football next to the tent.
I discussed the plan of the activity with my previous contact, the Class 1B teacher, and asked her to help with pitching the introductory story for the student's interest and their level of English. The Wisening Gate story incorporated the example woodcarving I selected in the UK.
The Process of Making
The way the participants work together is rhizomatic. As the sessions interweave, the participants repeatedly return to continue with the artwork that had moved on and been developed further by others while they were not present. The participants needed to be adaptable to include these new developments in their own contribution to the carving responding to this "unknown" of the creative process.
Prepared tools, equipment, material and activity stations welcomed the participants on the first day of the intensive ten days. The organisation of the final group rota was at the school management's discretion. The ten days project was considered as a continuous process with rotating participating groups.
The participants listened to the story of the Wisening Gate and inspired by it, drew two animals that they were subsequently asked to re-sketch as a merged creature. The ideas and pictures were shared. After the session, the ideas were summarised and prepared for the next stage of the creative process on the following day.
During the introductory session with the students, it was surprising to see how little understanding the children had in both the concept of portal and the technique of woodcarving.
Rules of the working stations had to be clear and consistent from the beginning, yet these rules had to allow a possible flow of the process to build up. It was also important to remember that only one assistant was accompanying 10 children and so available 1 on 1 help, with physically guiding the tools, was very limited. However, the principal was very supportive in visiting many of the lessons for a few minutes during the day.
Each of Class 1A and Class 4 had an autistic child. After some initial difficulties, these children also managed to join in with their teacher's help.
The objective was to transfer the drawings of the merged animals on to the tree trunks, while sharing or guessing their story. The first woodcarving demonstrations and the first trial cuts also took place.
The children were amazed by the 'magic paper'; this old-age technology carbon (ink) paper proved to be a novelty.
It was a successful building up day with the right mixture of expectation, wonder, and struggling with new skills. The painting of the model portal created an unexpected group-flow process in break time, unfortunately, this happened outside of the range of the fixed video cameras.
I was hoping that this enthusiasm of painting was going to be transferable to further voluntary lunchtime sessions. To encourage this, I cut out additional sun, moon and star stencils. for the children to draw the shapes directly on to the tree trunks.
The first independent carving experiences. Some of the children were the youngest (barely five years old) to whom I had ever taught woodcarving.
The children were seated in a zig-zag opposite to each other on blankets, about half an arm-length between them. This was an absolute minimum for a safe working distance. The woodcarving tools and rules were also introduced.
After the first carving sessions, a Careful Carvers' list was created, offering additional lunch time opportunity for children, who were independent carvers. Unfortunately, it unintentionally became a 'special list' that had to be corrected the next day.
Some events of group flow were observed during woodcarving. The children were engaged and absorbed, taking turns in a voluntary way, like a steady stream, in and out of the tent, all day including break and lunch time. The children stayed as long as they wished, provided there was a place available. The whole school buzzed for woodcarving. Younger classes worked together with the older ones. The regular and reliable participants also became established. Bigger woodcarving tools were introduced to the advanced older ones.
They were cheerful and focused and from time to time, completely absorbed in the activity. The children were sharing out workplaces among themselves, helping each other, discussing their woodcarving and smoothly moving on from one work to the next. The imbedded control process became self-controlling, yet it was fully flexible. As a bonus, an interesting complementary project of fire pit making had been set up by the children outside the tent on the playground.
It was easy and rewarding to facilitate this 4th day of the project.
The last day of carving, the energy level dropped compared to yesterday. I wondered to what extent the 'the novelty wearing off' played in it. However, there were some circumstantial reasons as well, such as timetable issues and some of the most enthusiastic participants were away.
Class 4 had twice as many woodcarving lessons and were getting tired. As a contrast, the special needs students were well settled. Also, the younger classes had a chance to try the big tools.
However, it was time to move on to the next stage of the project.
The children were pleasantly surprised to see the tidied woodcarving (I prepared the wood for painting over the weekend). On Monday morning the painting began. Controlled painting techniques were used, such as the children were not allowed to mix paint in the pot, only on the carving. Such measures were unsupportive of free-flowing creativity but were necessary due to the limited equipment resources, cutting down on extra correction time and reducing the risk of destroying their school uniforms. The project was based on a mixture of art and craft, and this stage was characterised by a more craft type of painting. The children washed their brush and requested the new colour every time they started to paint a new figure. These arrangements soon became a routine that everyone willingly followed.
Despite all the limitations, the children greatly enjoyed the session and quickly entered 'group flow'. At first, they were painting silently and were focused. That atmosphere ggradually changed to become a merry time, expressed in improvised singing.
Some children tried to come back in break and at lunch time but unfortunately, due to unfavourable logistics, the painting activity had to be limited to the scheduled lessons.
Reception class became involved more actively, after carefully observing the older classes for a week. They managed to draw their merged animals after seeing what the older classes had designed.
The painting became an artistic adventure for the older classes with options of detailing the figures with further decorative painting. The energy was generally fluctuating in a high range during the day. Each session contained some level of focused flow time.
The last paintings were completed. The tree trunks were varnished in the afternoon.
After school, the principal explained that it was helpful to have this project bringing the school together and showing an alternative way of teaching to parents and staff equally. The principal said, it was an excellent opening project for the new school community.
No children were scheduled to take part in the construction day. However, some of them, particularly the older boys, became faithful observers and helpers. Some children of Class 1 helped willingly to clean up the lawn collecting the woodchips.
By the end of the school day, the Wisening Gate was completed.
The last day before half term, and also the last day of the project with the portal completed and celebrated. It was also the school's Halloween Day. The festival was held in front of the portal. The parents were invited and according to one of the teachers, an unusually large number of them turned up.
The children carried jars with night lights that they placed on the path between the school building and the portal. Some of the classes prepared songs and Class 1 performed the puppet show using the puppets they had made with the art teacher for the Wisening Gate story. I told the story once more in a Halloween fashion.
The principal gave a speech about the portal-making experience, closing it with prompting all the children to walk through it. The improvised set design of the large spider web in the portal space offered a truly 'magical' touch for this rather ritualistic walk-through ceremony.
The festival was closed with the traditional weekly rewards, of which some directly related to the portal-making process. Many parents expressed how impressed they were with the project.