Transcript of Episode 4

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Julia Brennan:
Hi, I’m Julia Brennan and I’m Creative Arts Advisor for K-6 with the NSW Department of Education and welcome back to our podcast series. Remember, if you’re enjoying these podcasts and you’d like to subscribe, go to soundcloud.com/primarycurriculum all one word and hit the subscribe button. Today, I am with the amazing John Nicholas Saunders from the Sydney Theatre Company. Welcome, John.

John Nicholas Saunders:
Thank you, great to be with you.

John:
And we’re going to be talking about his experience in the arts, just as we have with other guests in the past and remember this series is all about the Creative Arts in K-6 and some inspiring journeys of people we’ve met along the way and ways of getting the K-6 Creative Arts syllabus into your classroom. Now, John is the Director of Education and Community Partnerships with the Sydney Theatre Company and he’s going to tell us a little bit about his journey but I’d first of all like to just share with the listeners how I first met you John and that was at a PL course that you were offering with Peter, so primary English teachers and it was just amazing looking at the ways in which drama and literacy work together and I mean that’s a fairly obvious thing but just the way you unpacked it was absolutely magical and it really set me off on a path of a much deeper understanding and learning and drama. So, I was really inspired after that.

John:
That’s lovely. It was a great fun workshop.

Julia:
It was a great fun workshop.

John:
For a Saturday morning, an early Saturday morning we had a lovely time.

Julia:
We certainly did. So, John tell us all about your arts journey and how it’s done.

John:
Well, I suppose like many arts teachers that it started with my own experience at primary school and I found learning pretty difficult in primary school. I found reading and writing really hard. I could write but no one else could read what I had written. My spelling was atrocious and my reading really was terrible, I really couldn’t read throughout primary school. And you know when I first started primary school it was a really fun place where the arts had a really prominent place. I think in the early years of primary school where visual art and music and drama and play and movement and dance were all really sort of intertwined.

Julia:
Now, that’s an inspiring story.

John:
It was lovely, it was lovely. And then as you know primary school got more serious then you know people sort of started to say you know you’ve got a learning disability or a learning difficulty and I was diagnosed with ADD and told that you know I’d sort of never go to university and probably wouldn’t finish high school and maybe a trade would be a good thing you know when I get to high school to look at. And then the arts sort of started to become much more important you know all of the kind of naughty kids were sent to after school drama you know and actually lots of us became teachers out of that group which I think says something.

Julia:
Can’t picture you being a naughty child.

John:
I know, I know, it’s shocking. I just think the more that I engaged in the arts, the more confident I became, the more engaged I became and motivated at school. And that sort of carried all the way through into secondary school where suddenly I was actually doing really well academically. And you know through the arts I got to meet great people and become really good friends with people. And so as a whole person I think the arts really transformed me. But I don’t think that’s a unique story either, I think teachers, even you would have seen this time and time again in our classrooms we see it and that’s why I think we’re so passionate.

Julia:
That’s the same as my journey as well. I explained that in the first podcast. I used to have this name, a fictitious name that I would tell the students about where I was called Alice and the teacher came into my classroom one day and changed my life because she could play the guitar and used to sing every day.

John:
Yeah.

Julia:
It sounds very similar to what you had.

John:
Yeah, absolutely. And I think you know it can be just that one thing that you need to you know for me I think it was finding something that I was good at but my peers who were good at everything else or it seemed like they were good at everything else I could do better, I could be a great drawer or I could you know play the piano well. And I could you know perform in the little school play really well and that was actually a commodity that I didn’t realise I think perhaps at the time.

Julia:
And you found your people as well

John:
I found my people, yeah, yeah and I think that was a pretty pivotal moment. But certainly I think that set me on the trajectory to become a drama teacher.

Julia:
Great, so look, well, that really leads into the next question which was you know why did the arts mean so much to you and how has it influenced your life? Obviously we’ve just heard the personal story, talk to us a little bit more about that and the professional side too.

John:
I think you know I mean I think I knew it was true for my own experience as a student but then becoming a teacher you also see it in the way that it can transform students’ lives and there’s a sense of belonging and you know wellbeing aspects like I think can increase through the arts. But also I think you know the academic elements as well that can increase. And you know for me I think that the arts really I’m interested in how they can be transformational for students and transferable.

Julia:
Yes.

John:
The skills that I think you develop in the arts, even if you’re not going to become an actor or a singer or a dancer or a visual artist, the skills that you learn are I think the most important thing that you can learn because they are what we really need in the future more and more.

Julia:
Absolutely. You know I’ve had parents in the past say look, I’m not going to let that child learn an instrument for example because I don’t want them to be a musician. It’s not about that is it?

John:
It’s not about that, no. I mean some people will and that’s fantastic and you know and there are careers in the arts for artists. But also you know artists use their skills in a whole range of areas as well. But it is I think the transferability that is so important in the arts all the way from kindergarten through to Year 12.

Julia:
Now, I don’t know if you’ve perhaps looked at these questions before but you keep leading into where I’m heading. That’s fine. So, talk to us about the power of drama for you.

John:
I think drama is, look I love all of the arts and I think they are all really important like a family of learning areas, I think they each feed each other and each I think will resonate with different students in different ways and I think that’s really important. I suppose drama for me you know was something that really stood out for me and I think I saw it more as a teacher where the stepping into the shoes of someone else and that really led me into working in primary schools where children can still so easily move into that playful world where they do step into the shoes of another character. They pretend to be someone else and think like them and feel like them and act like them. And in doing that they see the world through that other character’s eyes and take on their perspective. And I think that is something that is very unique to drama, I’m not sure there’s any other kind of learning area that sort of does that in the way that drama does it.

Julia:
It’s incredibly powerful.

John:
It is, it is. And you know I work with mainly children in primary school but also you know boys in juvenile justice centres. We work with adults in refugee, migrant and asylum seeker backgrounds and it’s the same for all of them I think no matter who you work with there’s something about stepping into the shoes of someone else and imagining life from that perspective. And I think that’s the kind of world I want to live in where we can imagine what it would be like to be that person or have a really different perspective or different opinion and I think that empathy that you know is something we desperately need today.

Julia:
Absolutely. I love that idea of empathy and perspective and that’s something that we don’t talk about enough.

John:
And it’s you know I think empathy and perspective are great. Empathy and perspective also help us you know with our literacy as well when we’re trying to understand characters. That’s right. So, I think you know it’s about the whole, it’s a very holistic or it can be a very holistic way of engaging students I think.

Julia:
Absolutely. So, are there any other things that you would like to add to that sort of discussion about why the arts are important for our students?

John:
I think it is also about you know I think the current kind of situation in education, the current kind of climate I think isn’t perhaps I’m talking very broadly Julia, very broadly I think you know in lots of countries where we see you know a focus on multiple choice testing and high stakes testing. And I think you know we’re seeing so much pressure on teachers globally and a focus on quite limited data within schools rather than holistic data, we’re seeing you know high rates of disengagement particularly in the middle years of school, that end of primary and the first few years of secondary I think are a really interesting period that’s so often overlooked. And I was reading a study the other day about really early childhood kindergarten Year1 and 2 students, the suspension rates had increased quite dramatically in one state in Australia and I think that’s really sad. And the arts have ways of engaging those students of supporting those students so that those things don’t happen.

Julia:
That’s right. Helping them to work through their own personal journeys.

John:
That’s right.

Julia:
In a forum that’s really accessible and …

John:
Yes.

Julia:
… Not really necessarily exposing them.

John:
No and it’s engaging and motivating and there’s you know a huge amount of research that supports that and I’m at the end of my PhD journey but it is totally fascinating to read the research from around the world about the impact that the arts are having in schools, the impact they have on students and teachers.

Julia:
Or just hearing your story, I mean, wow.

John:
Yeah.

Julia:
It’s fantastic, isn’t it?

John:
Yeah, and you’re not unique. Yeah.

Julia:
Yeah. Look, John you’ve talked to us a little bit about the power of drama and the power of the arts in general for our students. But let’s be honest there’s a lot of teachers out there who are scared to teach the arts and particularly drama. They might think look, I didn’t do that at school or that’s not something that I value. How can they go about starting this journey? Let’s just say that they’ve realised through listening to you that it’s something they should go ahead and try. How can they get into it?

John:
We’ve seen in pre-service teacher ed courses that the time for the arts has been cut and cut and cut over the past thirty years. So, I think there are lots of teachers, lots of our colleagues who come into the profession wanting to use the arts but not feeling particularly confident or they have you know particular connotations about the arts from their own experience. I mean I think there are lots of resources out there. I mean the primary English teachers association professional learning event that you and I met at is you know a great example that there are lots of professional learning events all around that really support teachers to use the arts and particularly drama. And not just teaching it as an art form but also using its pedagogy across the curriculum and using the arts to make meaningful connections across the curriculum. But there are also great resources around I think you know there are great books, there is great professional learning programs, there are great podcasts like this and e-books and iBooks. I think there is a lot to support teachers out there if they go looking. And I think a good place to start is with the professional associations as well that are around that are here at Sydney Drama NSW who offer professional learning to all teachers.

Julia:
And of course, you’ve been supporting us through our journey and creating the Act Ease series so that’s very exciting.

John:
Very exciting, absolutely, another fantastic …

Julia:
So appreciative of your efforts.

John:
Not at all, another fantastic resource to help teachers. You know and I think once you start you sort of go ‘Oh yeah, this isn’t scary and I can do it’. And when you see students working in that way I think it’s motivating to keep going.

Julia:
And I think for me when I first met you and saw you in action, watching what you did with a children’s picture book was just so inspiring. And we had a principal in a few weeks ago for a podcast, Unity Taylor-Hill from Anzac Park and she mentioned because she learnt through Robyn Ewing about just how upsetting it is to see a teacher just read straight through a text and not stop and break it down and that’s something I’ve seen you do so well. Do you want to talk us through just one example of doing that? Maybe one thing we could do with a picture book

John:
Yeah, I call it the apathetic pretext model. And in drama often you know you can just read it, a text will take an idea and jump into the drama but I think you can use drama devices and strategies throughout the book. So, you kind of read an episode of the book, a page or two and then dive into the book so you’re not sort of re-enacting what you’ve just read, you’re going really deeply into the story. So, something like hot seating a particular character at a particular point in time. You might do it as the teacher pretending to be that character and answering questions in role as that character. I mean you might read a little bit more of the book and dive in again and the students might be predicting what could happen next at that critical moment. So, in groups they might create two or three frozen images and share those with the class. So, you know they’re really common devices and strategies that are in our syllabus documents, they’re in lots of books and resources. But you can sort of place them strategically throughout quality layered children’s literature. And I think it just completely changes the experience for them, well it does, it deepens the learning.

Julia:
And you don’t need to be an academy award winning actor to do any of this, a teacher can do it.

John:
As you saw in my workshop that you do not need, that’s right, no nominations for an Oscar were being handed out at that workshop.

Julia:
I think you’re undervaluing yourself.

John:
Thanks, Julia.

Julia:
So, John you do have quite an incredible position that you work in. Can you share some of the incredible stories that you’ve seen perhaps primary school teachers or students working in drama?

John:
Yeah, look I suppose Julia the Sydney Theatre Company and my work there has been such a privilege to be able to work alongside primary teachers in a co-mentoring relationship where we share our expertise with each other. I share my expertise in drama and they share their expertise with me as well as expert educators. And I think through that I mean personally what I’ve seen have been teachers who have come out of their own shell I think and found a joy in teaching English and literacy in a very different way and perhaps a different way than they’ve been doing for decades, teaching really well but it just can be something completely different without desks where we are using all of the emotion and the senses and you know cognitive skills as well altogether but also with the students I think you know. I work with students over a term in the school drama program so you see a shift during that term throughout that term you know particularly boys I think, particularly boys who find English and literacy difficult or who find school a bit disengaging. I think of the ones who I see the most significant shifts in their engagement.

Julia:
You’re reflecting on your own personal journey.

John:
Yeah, I think so. I think I knew that to be true but I certainly see that, I really picked that up in almost every classroom I go into. And I think it’s important to say also that you know working in this sort of way isn’t the one solution you know our research shows it will help lots of kids, it will help almost everyone in the classroom but there might be a couple of kids who don’t love it who you know doesn’t quite work for them. And I think that’s why that broad repertoire of skills that we bring as teachers is so important, you know there’s no sort of golden bullet that will fix everything, it’s about a broad repertoire of teaching skills I think.

Julia:
The process of building up those skills is not about having that final product or the assembly item or anything like that.

John:
No, no, that’s right, that’s right.

Julia:
Consistent and often.

John:
The process, the making you know for Gonski said ‘It’s not important what young children create but that they do create’. And I think that is you know it’s true for all of us that we learn so much through the process of making.

Julia:
That’s right, doing.

John:
That’s it, that’s it. And we do it without even noticing. You can walk into any primary classroom and see children making art, making drama, making visual art, making music. And it is that process which I think is …

Julia:
Yeah, that’s right. It doesn’t have to be about that end product.

John:
No.

Julia:
That’s great. Look, John a lot of people are going to be excited to hear your voice because they’ve you know watched you in action or heard you in action over the years. So, tell them all about what your average day at Sydney Theatre Company is like.

John:
Look, I’m super lucky, I mean I was a teacher prior to coming to the Sydney Theatre Company. So, the best part I think is that I’m still able to work in a classroom one morning a week on the school drama program and I think that feeds me in a way that nothing else does. So, I find that’s wonderful. But a day will involve sometimes being in a school and teaching alongside a teacher and then I’ll be back and working with my incredible team in the office overseeing a whole range of programs. So, school drama being the biggest of those programs where we’re in almost every state and territory across Australia. So, it’s coordinating teaching artists who are working in schools all over the place. It will be you know answering questions from a teaching artist and supporting a teaching artist who might be working in juvenile justice centres, running through what the team who are working with adult refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in our connected program what they might be doing next, then it will be you know a budget meeting or looking at next year’s season of plays and what the connections will be to the curriculum. So, it’s really varied. Yeah, a bit like teaching, no day’s ever the same.

Julia:
Tell us about some of the amazing people you’ve worked with along the way.

John:
I mean, well I think that for me I think that what’s impacted my journey at the Sydney Theatre Company the most has been probably working with our former artistic directors, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton together with Professor Robyn Ewing from the University of Sydney. And really those three people I think and my predecessor, Helen Hristofski started the school drama program. And I think for artistic directors today they’re going to invest in education, we’re going to make that a real focus and we want that to be something that lasts beyond our time as artistic directors. I think it’s a really big deal and for that program you know it’s now ten years old, we’ve reached over 30,000 teachers and students across Australia and New Zealand. I think you know to have that vision eleven years ago and to put in place things that would sustain you know years after they’ve gone I think is really important, really special. And I think I’ve been so lucky to work with Professor Robyn Ewing who you know is in her heart I think is still a kindergarten, Year 1-2 teacher and I’ve learnt so much from working with her and working alongside her, seeing her work with a group of you know five and six year olds is completely mesmerising but she’s also a terrific academic and a brilliant scholar. And you know I think you know personally has kept pushing me and I kept learning from her over the years.

Julia:
So, you know that my short list of children’s book authors if I had to narrow it down which I get asked all the time, I’m down to kind of a Shaun Tan, Anthony Browne kind of …

John:
Two brilliant, two brilliant young people.

Julia:
Two absolutely brilliant people. Have you got a favourite author? I know it’s a horrible question.

John:
It’s hard, it’s hard. I actually really didn’t like Anthony Browne for years, it took me a very long time to get into Anthony Browne.

Julia:
Very confronting.

John:
Yes, very, Robyn Ewing loved Anthony Browne and kept sort of going you should really try and engage with this. And I was like I don’t know, I don’t like it. But you really have to work slowly with it I think, but so rich and deep, I’m converted now, you’re relieved.

Julia:
Thank goodness.

John:
Look, I think that’s really hard. There are a couple that I love, Armin Greder’s work I really love, very dark work, ‘The City’ and ‘The Island’ that he wrote are two I think really fascinating, meaty texts. I really like his work as an author and as an illustrator I think. ‘Fox’ by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks, you just can’t go wrong with that. It is so, you know you can work on it with a group of Year 3s. You can work on it with a group of fifty year olds and it’s still so rich and layered. And then my most recent obsession is ‘Tricycle’ which I think is the one that you did with me by Elisa Amado and Alfonso Ruano who are South Americans, it’s out of print, you can buy like a second-hand copy you know online. But I just love that book.

Julia:
That is a gorgeous story, it is gorgeous.

John:
It’s fantastic.

Julia:
Absolutely gorgeous.

John:
Yeah and I think it is because those texts are so rich and layered you know that you can pick them up you know at different points in your life and still get a lot of meaning from them. And every time I do it with a class and look at that text and explore it there’s something else that comes up which I never thought of before which I just think you know that’s a sign of a good text.

Julia:
How powerful is that?

John:
Yeah, yeah.

Julia:
Fantastic. So, John what pathways do you think are open for our students if they’ve got an interest or an ability in the arts? I mean you’ve shared with us your journey which is fantastic. What other pathways are there?

John:
Well, transferable skills that everyone has I think are really important. But I think there are lots of great programs that lots of arts companies run that support students to engage in the arts. The Arts Unit, is you know one example of a unit connected to the department who run great programs that help students further develop their interest and skills. At the Sydney Theatre Company we run a work experience week program which is like an intensive week where we bring twenty five students from across NSW in so that they can really investigate all of the different roles that we offer at the company. So, it’s not just about performing or directing or writing, it’s about learning about our marketing team, about our set and costume designers and the set and costume makers and everything in between. So, I think that there are so many jobs out there.

Julia:
So many jobs out there. Look, I was only speaking to a colleague the other day who mentioned that her husband designs the sculptures that are in the background in the sets in movies.

John:
Yeah.

Julia:
There are just so many jobs out there that you don’t realise exist.

John:
No.

Julia:
It’s incredible. And it’s not just about going into the arts, it’s about expanding ourselves as we mentioned before.

John:
Totally. And you know I mean the research about like future employment I think is fascinating.

Julia:
Critical and creative thinking that the arts do so well.

John:
Totally, totally. And I was just looking at Frey and Osborne, two academics from Oxford University did a study of US employment and they looked at like seven hundred and two occupations and how susceptible they were to being replaced by computerisation over the next I think like fifteen or twenty years. And they found like forty seven per cent of all US employment was highly susceptible to being replaced by computerisation.

Julia:
Wow.

John:
But the jobs that were least susceptible were the ones that required creative and social skills. And I was like that is so intrinsic, so deeply embedded in drama. You know I think that’s just another reason why everyone should do a bit of a drama.

Julia:
I think you’ve convinced us all John. Look, John we’ve got to wrap up but just in finishing are there any other inspiring stories or experiences or just a message you’d like to leave us with today?

John:
I think the message that I’d like to leave with is that you know it’s not scary and it’s not hard to teach drama and it can just be a little bit and it can be a little bit in an English and literacy classroom and that’s a great start.

Julia:
Well, look thank you John, it’s been such a pleasure having you here today. Every time I chat to you I always leave inspired and laughing my head off at the same time.

John:
Thank you, Julia.

Julia:
So, a big thank you to John Nicholas Saunders from the Sydney Theatre Company who’s joined us today. If you’ve enjoyed listening to today’s podcast remember you can subscribe by going to soundcloud.com/primarycurriculum all one word and hitting the subscribe button. My name is Julia Brennan and I’ll look forward to talking to you again soon. See you later.

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