Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education


Leave a comment

The Mighty Creatives:  sharing what we know about the Big Unknowns.

In February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, the then US Secretary of State for Defence, stated at a Defence Department briefing: ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.’

Whilst his words became a source of satire for some time after, little did any of us expect to be living our daily lives with so many unknown unknowns shaping what we do, how we work and how we relate with each other.  Covid-19  has injected the concept of ‘unknown unknowns’ with unimaginable levels of ambiguity, confusion and uncertainty into all aspects of our lives.  We’re all living with the Big Unknowns right now and it can be scary.

However, one thing we do know at The Mighty Creatives is that our fight for the creative voice of children and young people continues apace, often in deafening and confusing circumstances.

We’re reminded on a daily basis too that the work of teachers, artists, leaders, support staff, schools and cultural organisations across the East Midlands continues to be humbling and inspirational.

In amongst all this un-knowing-ness and uncertainty, we want you to know that we’re here for you in the weeks and months to come.

We don’t want to bombard you with knowledge, information and advice as we expect that you’re already receiving far more than is comfortable at the moment: but if you are looking for knowledge and practical skills on

  • Creativity in the classroom and at home
  • CPD on arts, culture and creativity for school staff
  • Online safeguarding
  • Online cultural and schools networks
  • Young People’s Creative Voice
  • Pupil and student engagement

We have a wealth of materials, content and connections which could help and support your challenge of turning your unknown, unknowns into your known, knowns.

If you would like to know more about us then please register on our website and we’ll make sure you get regular updates about how we’re leading the way for cultural education in the East Midlands: but if there is something specific you would like to know  and discuss with us please feel free to contact me.

 


Leave a comment

Hypnotists, ventriloquists and impersonators: the messiness of ‘children’s voice’

You can’t go far these days without hearing about the importance of pupil voice in school improvement, planet climate warnings or, at the older end of the age spectrum,  the Brexit referendum, perhaps the biggest pretence at listening to the voices of the British people in recent years. The referendum tells us a lot about how voices are manipulated, distorted and selectively listened to; and there’s some learning here for us if we want to ensure that young people’s voice is at the heart of what is important to us.

Fighting for the creative voices of children and young people is something that’s dear to our hearts at TMC and has been since we were established 10 short years ago and we’ve recognised that children and young people adopt many different ways to express their views –  laughing, crying, smiling, gaze, grasping, touching, pointing and uses of materials amongst many others.

It’s been central to much child centred learning pedagogy across the world too but there’s always a risk that claiming to privilege children’s voice as  the central plank of your cultural or social policy making  becomes a tokenistic  attempt at democratic education, which can, with a hypnotistic Kenny Craig waving away of the hands –  Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes, don’t look around my eyes, look into my eyes, you’re under –  mask several other agendas  – pupil compliance, customer satisfaction, and the inexorable marketisation of education – in full flow.

Hypnotists, ventriloquists and impersonators – the old Music Hall Variety shows can tell us a lot about the risks to fighting for the creative voice of children and young people.

Ventriloquation – when a speaker speaks through the voice of another for the purpose of social or interactional positioning (Wertsch, 1991, Bakhtin, 1981) – is not just a spooky music hall act but is brilliantly demonstrated in Toy Story 4, when Woody, on his quest to return the trash toy, Forky, to his owner Bonnie, chances upon a doll called Gabby in an antique store and her slavish ventriloquist’s dummies, the Bensons.

The conflict between Woody and Gabby Gabby is at its heart, a fight for the voice of the child.  Gabby Gabby’s voice box has been broken and her desire to replace it leads to her capturing Woody and offering a deal – give me your voice box and I’ll give you back your lost toy, Bo – and by implication his long lost love.

The Bensons are instrumental in her fight to regain her voice box, and Woody, ever the Tom Hanks hero, obliges.  He donates his voice box to her through a surgical procedure; which leads to her eventually gaining the attention of a lost child at the end of the film which ensures both the toy’s and child’s happy-ever-afterness.

Scratch the surface of Toy Story 4 and there are several other delights in store when it comes to understanding the complexities of children’s voice – or better put, voices.

Heteroglossia (roughly translated as ‘multi-languagedness’) is described by Bakhtin in his work “Discourse in the Novel.”  The idea is that there are several distinct languages within any single (apparently unified) language or text: and that different languages each have a different voice which compete with one another for dominance.  So, when we refer to ‘children’s voices’ we’re better accepting that children – like all of us – do not speak in one coherent voice but that many competing voices are at work in their utterances.   Responding to what we think are authentic children’s voices is not as straightforward as our desire would like it to be.

This is exemplified brilliantly in Toy Story 4: at a crunch point in the search for Woody, Buzz Lightyear, who all through the film has been advised to listen to his inner voice, struggles to listen to the voice he wants to hear from the button-induced phrases from his own voice box:

“Stand back everyone” doesn’t cut it.

“Everyone take cover!” isn’t what’s needed.

“To infinity and beyond!” is missing the point.

But finally, the inner voice phrase “The slingshot manoeuvre!” does the trick and Buzz is off to save the day again, reminding us in the process that the ‘inner voice’ is also, far more complex, more heteroglossic, than it might first appear.

Toy Story 4 also shows how children’s voices are heard through acts of impersonation.  In one of the final chase sequences through the carnival at the end of the film, one of the toy gang, Trixie,  impersonates the family car’s  GPS system and the toys manipulate the controls, so taking control of the car.  Other moments in the film have utterances from Woody being heard by the humans in the story – breaking the convention in the films where the toys can only be seen as inanimate objects by the humans, never with agency, and certainly never with voice. Out of sight they may be, but for the first time perhaps, the toy has found their voice and agency in the land of the humans through acts of impersonation.

So, as well as bearing in mind the hypnotists, ventriloquists, impersonators and elusive butterfly of the inner voice, the other aspect of children’s voice we’d be mindful to be aware of  is its fleeting nature.  Always in transition and translation, voice is not a fixed entity.  We do not speak consistently for long.  We are always learning; and always listening to new voices which we try to ignore, assimilate, pass off as our own or wrestle into a completely different form.  Our authentic voice – true children’s voice – can never be completely pinned down or determined because our lives depend on flux and flow, confluence and influence.


1 Comment

गम से फखर तक का आखिरी सफर: hearing the student voice in Jalandhar, India

Educational reform informed by creativity and cultural education is a global phenomenon. China, Singapore and Korea are some of the world’s major nations which are looking to creative and cultural methodologies to provide them with a new approach to teaching and learning and in recent months, we have developed a strong relationship with the Ivy Education Group in India who share our vision of transforming children and young people’s lives through creativity and cultural education.

This relationship has led me to being invited to visit 6 Ivy Education Schools in the Jalandhar area of the Punjab, in order to establish exchanges between our organisations, teachers, students and universities across the Midlands.

This was an exciting prospect at the turn of the year but about two weeks before I arrived in Jalandhar, tension in the area escalated rapidly after a convoy of army vehicles carrying security personnel on the Jammu Srinagar National Highway was attacked by a suicide bomber in the Pulwama district of Kashmir on 14 February: St. Valentines Day.

The attack resulted in the deaths of 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel and the attacker: the responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed.  Kashmir is fiercely contested by India and Pakistan and three wars have been fought since Britain partitioned the country in 1947. The importance of cultural and creative education became more charged than I had expected when I was planning my visit at the turn of the year.

In the short time I was there, I presented the work of The Mighty Creatives to over 1,200 students, parents and teachers and was humbled by the welcome everyone showed me and the interest they expressed in the work we do across the Midlands.

One overwhelming memory was a poem written by a young student, Simran Bhardwaj, from Cambridge International School in Phagwara. As part of the school’s welcome, she read out her tribute poem, गम  से  फखर  तक  का  आखिरी  सफर (The Last Trip from Gam to Fakhar.)

Shown below in Hindi and its English translation, she mourns how a day dedicated to love became a day of tragedy through the eyes of a dying soldier.  Her performance reminded me that whilst newspaper reports and academic papers explain something of our history, it takes the word of the poet and the voices of children to provide a deeper insight into our humanity and the struggles in which we find ourselves.

There are no solutions to the region’s conflicts in Simran’s poetry and no objective analysis of the historical factors which have led to the current situation: just the clear, direct and plaintive voice of a young child whose past and future lives have been, and will be,  informed by that regional conflict.

गम  से  फखर  तक  का  आखिरी  सफर

मज़िल थी बड़ी दूर जनाब,

पर हमें में भी कम नहीं थे देश सेवा के जज़्बात…..

बाँध कफन सिर्फ़ पर और हाथों में लिए बंदूक,

घाटी की हसीन वादियों से निकल रहे थे हम……..

कभी घाटी की ख़ूबसूरती को निहारते,

तो कभी बीते हुए वक़्त से अपने परिवार की यादों को……

पर हुआ ही ना एहसास हमें कि वक़्त बदल रहा है अपनी करवट,

दिल में मेरे मची थी एक अजीब सी हरकत…….

मंज़िल की दूरी जैसे-जैसे हो रही थी कम,

वैसे ही हमारे क़ाफ़िले से जा टकराए यहाँ हमारी मौत का वो आख़िरी बम…….

एक झटके में टूटी हमारी साँसों की डोरी,

फिर भी जारी थी हमारी ज़िंदगी और मौत से एक आख़िरी सीनाज़ोरी……

चाहकर भी चल ना सका बस हमारा,

आख़िर टूट ही गया जो देश से था वादा हमारा……..

ए ख़ुदा काश़ तु बख़श देता कुछ मोहलत इन कम्बख्त साँसों को,

तो इतना बता जाता कि……

ग़म ये नहीं की शहादत नसीब हुई,

पर ग़म और शिकायत तो उसके तरीक़े से है…….

ग़म ये नहीं की शहादत नसीब हुई,

पर ग़म इस बात का है कि आख़िरी बार माँ भारती की सेवा न कर सका……..

ग़म ये नहीं कि मेरी हम सफ़र का साथ छूट गया,

पर ग़म इस बात का है कि उसका मंगलसूत्र उतर गया……..

ग़म ये नहीं कि मोहब्बत के दिन फ़ना मैं हो गया,

पर ग़म ये है कि अपनी हम सफ़र से किये वो वादे मैं अधूरे छोड़ गया……

ग़म ये नहीं कि मेरे बच्चों के ऊपर से बाप का साया छिन गया,

पर ग़म ये है कि अपनी ही औलाद को पहली नज़र भी ना देख सका………

ग़म ये नहीं कि मेरे माँ-बाप के बुढ़ापे की लाठी छिन गयी,

पर ग़म ये है कि जिन बाँहों में बचपन बीता आज उन्हीं बाँहों को सुनी छोड़ आया हूँ, तड़पता छोड़ आया हूँ………

सुना है खुदा आख़िरी वक़्त पर इन्सान झूठ नहीं बोलता,

तो आज अपने इस आख़िरी वक़्त में मैं भी अपना एक आख़िरी सच बता जाता हूँ,

कि मुझे ग़म से ज़्यादा फ़ख्र है……

फ़ख्र है इस बात का कि मैं एक हिंदुस्तानी सपूत हूँ …..

फ़ख्र है इस बात का कि माँ भारती ने मुझे चुना है अपनी सेवा के लिए……

फ़ख्र है इस बात का कि मोहब्बत के दिन अपने मुल्क से मोहब्बत मैं निभा सका…..

फ़ख्र है इस बात का कि मेरे प्राणों की आहुति मेरे देश के लिए थी…….

फख़्र है इस बात का कि आख़िरी वक़्त में भी मेरे तन पर सेना की वर्दी थी और मेरी आँखें फख़्र से ऊपर थी…….

फख़्र है इस बात का कि सोने चाँदी के बदले मेरा कफन तिरंगा था, मेरा कफन तिरंगा था,मेरा कफन तिरंगा था…..

The Last Trip from Gam to Fakhar

The destination was very far away,

But we also had high enthusiasm for serving our sacred motherland……

Tying shrouds on our heads and having rifles in our hands,

Passing through the valley of Kashmir the only heaven on earth……..

Sometimes beholden with the beauty of valley,

And sometimes lost in the memories of my family from the time passed by……….

But we didn’t realised that time is transforming itself,

Though I felt a strange movement from depth of my heart……….

As the destination was coming closer and closer,

The bomb of our death on the moving vehicle approached our convoy………

Just with one jerk the string of our life was broken,

Still we were continuing our struggle between our life and death for one last time…………

Trying our best to assert our will on our pre-decided destiny of ultimate death,

But we weren’t able to do so………

At last the promise to our motherland was broken……

Oh Almighty! I wish that you had lend me with some more breathes, so that I could tell everyone that:

Grief isn’t about being martyred,

But my complaint is about the way of being martyred……

Grief isn’t about my death being so early,

But my sorrow is about being not able to render my services to my nation for last time……

Grief isn’t about leaving my better half forever,

But my pain is for that her wedding necklace has been removed and her vermilion is cleared after my death…….

Grief isn’t about that I had died on the day of love,

But my sadness is about the promises which I made to my better half that will remained incomplete……..

Grief isn’t about that my children has lost the shade of their father over their heads,

But my mourning is being for the reason that I wasn’t able to see my child’s face even for first time……….

Grief isn’t about that my parents had lost their only support of old age,

But my regret is about that I had left those arms vacant and yearning in which I had grown…….

Oh God ! I had heard that at the time of death a person never lies. So, today at my final and last stage I shall tell my final and last truth of my life to this whole world that instead of being in grief I am highly proud:

I am proud of being an Indian warrior….

I am proud that Mother Bharat has chosen me for her service…….

I am proud of being able to fulfil my love for my motherland on the day of love……

I am proud that at my last movement my eyes were open high with pride…..

I am proud that at last movement also I was wearing the uniform of army on my body…….

I am proud that my life has been laid down for my country……

I am proud that instead of gold and silver my shroud was our national flag tirangaa, our national flag tirangaa.

By Simran Bhardwaj, February 2019

My time in Jalandhar was short, and my time with Ivy Education schools very sweet: albeit infused with the taste of tension in the airspace and on the land those two great nations occupy. Hopefully the voices of the poets and the country’s young people will be heard in the weeks to come and that a longer period of peaceful international relations will prevail.

 

 


Leave a comment

Act4Change: what binds us?

I want to welcome you all tonight: the young people from Leicester, Nottingham, Northampton and beyond, the young people who have participated in The Mighty Creatives’ Act4Change projects which are designed to challenge you to change your communities through the power of art and culture.

People say to me that there’s no such thing as the East Midlands. That the region is a figment of some politicians’ imaginations, cooked up in the back streets of Westminster back in the day when politicians carved up several regional and national boundaries, along with their breakfast bacon and eggs, not only here but across the world.

Many of you will know that Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent have all been on the receiving end of British politicians who have tended to cause disruption, distress and dismay with their arbitrary carving up of regions and communities so that people are left confused and bewildered about where they live, who their neighbours are and who they belong to.

A few years ago I was riding a train one day back from the Taj Mahal to Delhi in India and found myself completely baffled about what was it that bound the people of India: a country with over 1.3 billion people, more than 2000 ethnic groups and with representatives from every major religion, who between them, utter all four major families of the world’s languages across its vast land mass.

What binds you? I asked of a fellow traveller who was sat next to me on that rickety rackety train which stumbled along at an average speed of no more than 10mph. What connects the man or woman in the south of this huge country to the man or woman in its north? His answer was swift, decisive and simple: cricket.

For him, cricket provided the solution to the challenges posed by geography, language and faith. Cricket bound his people to a common cause and in doing so, allowed the country to celebrate the achievements of its communities throughout the ages.

And that’s what we’re doing here tonight, albeit in a more modest way. With all of you who’ve travelled the journeys you have – and I don’t just mean the physical travel up or down the regional motorways or train lines – but the emotional and psychological challenges you will have faced during the time you worked with on your Act4Change project – all of you are here because you’ve been bound by the power of art and culture.

In your work on your Act4Change projects, you’ve demonstrated the power of story telling, of radio, of photography, drama, music, art, fashion and literature. It’s these things which have brought you together tonight and bind you to a greater cause.

The power in your art means that not only have you achieved great things for you and your communities, but you are now empowered to make even greater social and cultural changes in your lives to come across the region which you are creating as a result of your inspiration and commitment.

We’re delighted to be celebrating those journeys with you and to celebrate the power of your achievements and your artistic ambition, endeavour and insights.

Tonight is about recognising that the power of the East Midlands – its identity and place in the world – is being made by you, its children and young people.

Congratulations and on behalf of the Board and staff of The Mighty Creatives, we hope you have a fantastic evening and look forward to hearing all about your recent work, your journeys  and your plans for the future.


Leave a comment

The good lies of stories: writers working with refugees

“Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent” Neil Gaiman[1]

Working with refugees means that writers are faced with some provocative challenges about their practice. Are they there to interpret the history of the young refugee who who’s standing in front of them, bewildered and angry? Tell their truth for them? Help them write English? Help them find some accommodation? Or just get out of the way?

Or, given that we live in post-truth times of fake news, is the best that writers can do, to paraphrase Gaiman, is to entertain us with stories that are good lies which pay the rent?

At this year’s Writers Conference, produced by Writing East Midlands at The University of Nottingham, we were delighted to introduce the The Mighty Creatives’ Risk:Change programme to conference delegates; over 150 writers and storytellers from a diverse set of backgrounds and interests. Risk:Change is a four year programme, funded by Creative Europe, which aims to improve understanding of how cultural practice affects social change across 10 European partners; from the Balkans and South East Europe up to France, Holland and into the East Midlands of the UK.

Now an annual landmark in the region’s literary landscape, The Writers Conference provides workshops, panel discussions and debates designed to assist writers’ professional practices. This year’s conference interrogated the idea of ‘migration’, not by debating ‘rights and wrongs’ but by taking an inquisitive look at how ideas might move, as people do, and what this might mean for writers of all backgrounds.

Never mind the Alice in Wonderland world of Brexit promises, delusions and fear. The work that is being undertaken by partners, artists and migrants in the Risk:Change programme is all about engaging in the real world of the complex relationships between culture and migration in ways which aim to understand and give voice to the migrant and the new communities they find themselves within. Being able to introduce this work to writers, who are increasingly finding themselves invited to work with refugees, is a vital element of the Risk:Change programme.

By investigating the opportunities for sharing literary cultures, sparking creative processes, and embracing new ideas, stories and truths, we asked, through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s “Heroic Journey” why certain stories continued to appeal, what the commonalities were and whether the use of archetypes – hero, mentor, villain – were useful in creating narratives which helped the refugee voice to be created, platformed and heard.

Helping to challenge the theory and practice was Jacob Ross, Associate Editor for Fiction at Peepal Tree Press and author of The Bone Readers: Shonaleigh, a Drut’syla (storyteller) from the Yiddish oral tradition and the UK Deputy National Storytelling Laureate and Andrew Walsh, an award-winning writer/director with credits for more than 70 video games including Prince of Persia and Harry Potter.

The question of who is ultimately responsible for creating the refugee narratives – whether it’s the writer, the refugee and or a combination of the two – was also challenged many times. There were no simple answers to this question – but the fact that they are being asked and discussed by writers and refugees is a promising way forward.


[1] http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2004/11/politics-portugal-and-no-gumbo-limbo.asp


Leave a comment

Risk Change: culture, migration and 3 days in Maribor.

Day 1

I’ve never been a refugee or a migrant. Sure, I’ve travelled from city to city in the UK sometimes to find work, sometimes to relocate in order to work – but never with a gun to my head, my entire family trudging through mud beside me or as a result of persecution in a place I once considered my home.

But I’m here at Kibla in Maribor, Slovenia this week representing The Mighty Creatives along with partners from 9 other EU countries to examine the refugee experience, research how cultural activity can inform that experience and who knows in the long run, perhaps inform future international policy on how cultural practice can enhance meaningful relationships between the migrant and their host community.

We’re doing this through a programme called Risk Change: a 4 year programme supported by Creative Europe Co-operation funding.   Organisations from 10 partner countries in the EU aim to  interact with different audiences, using a range of cultural methodologies to build connectivity  between new coming migrants and settled inhabitants of multicultural communities across Europe.

It’s a tall order at the moment given what’s happening across the continent and the U.K. especially given our recent Brexit ‘decision’.

We’ve no idea what to expect this week. Of course, we have the paperwork and the schedules and all the requisites to ensure a constructive collaboration. But until we look at each other in the eyes and hear how we breathe and talk together, the documentation is just text.  It’s the subtext that’s going to count this week: the verbal, nonverbal and physical communications which are going to tell us whether or not we’re on a long productive road with our colleagues at our sides or on our backs.

Day 2

We kicked off our kick off meeting yesterday with an introduction to the research that all 10 partners need to do as the first stage of the project. There’s quite a bit of it too: a shed load of desk based research covering national policy and initiatives on migration; 60 participant interviews per partner and countless reports, ‘call-outs’ and actions. The list goes on and on and on and on….

It occurred to me mid-session that we could really add some value to the process by introducing colleagues to the methodologies involved in arts based educational research (ABER), a form of ethnographic research which involves using arts based processes as the means of undertaking research (not just communicating its results).

I was involved in a lot of ABER practice some years ago when I ran the Special Interest Group for the British Educational Research Association (or the ABER SIG for BERA as it was called in those acronym crazed days): so I drew on some of that work and presented it to colleagues.  If you’re interested in the field, the following practitioners are as a good a place to start as any:

ABBS, P. (2003). Against the Flow. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

BAGLEY, C. (2008). ‘Educational ethnography as performance art: towards a sensuous

feeling and knowing’, Qualitative Research, 8, 1, 53–72.

EISNER, E. (1993). ‘Forms of understanding and the future of educational research’,

Educational Researcher, 22, 7, 5–11.

LEITCH, R. (2006). ‘Limitations of language: developing arts-based creative narrative in stories of teachers’ identities’, Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 12, 5, 549–69.

SAUNDERS, L. (2003). ‘On flying, writing poetry and doing educational research.’ British Educational Research Journal, 29, 2, 175–187.

Day 3

“I’ve never been a refugee or a migrant…” or so I thought at the start of this week. Yesterday we covered a lot of ground about the concept of who ‘counts’ as a migrant and why they ‘count’.

Fortunately, we were spared conversations about definitions of migrants which much like definitions of ‘creativity’ are interminable, exhausting and inconclusive. This is because someone at UNESCO had the good sense to conjure up some definitions of what counted as international migration which all the partners were happy enough to go along with. In summary, these were:

a) Temporary labour migrants: also known as guest workers or overseas contract workers: people who migrate for a limited period of time in order to take up employment and send money home;

b) Highly skilled and business migrants: people with qualifications as managers, executives, professionals, technicians or similar, who move within the internal labour markets of trans-national corporations and international organisations, or who seek employment through international labour markets for scarce skills;

c) Irregular migrants or undocumented / illegal migrants: people who enter a country, usually in search of employment, without the necessary documents and permits;

d) Forced migration: in a broader sense, this includes not only refugees and asylum seekers but also people forced to move due to external factors, such as environmental catastrophes or development projects. This form of migration has similar characteristics to displacement;

e) Family members: or family reunion / family reunification migrants: people sharing family ties joining people who have already entered an immigration country under one of the above mentioned categories;

f) Return migrants: people who return to their countries of origin after a period in another country.

The guys at UNESCO also make the useful point that:

“Migration is not a single act of crossing a border, but rather a lifelong process that affects all aspects of the lives of those involved.”

So in hindsight (always my best friend, Mr Hindsight), perhaps I am a migrant after all… perhaps we all are, one way or another… Something to consider over the weekend as I migrate from Maribor to Ljubljana and take on the role of being another form of transient: the tourist.