building a City of Literature

Joanna McIntyre and Susan Jones of CRACL have been awarded funding from the University’s ESRC Impact Accelerator fund for a project called ‘Building a City of Literature’.

The project builds on over a decade of educational research in the Centre on the most effective ways of developing sustainable partnerships between schools and local cultural organisations.  It extends our work on the signature pedagogies of creative practitioners and uses arts apprenticeship and mentoring models which have been explored in CRACL research in order to develop local knowledge amongst pupils and teachers, using the arts as a means to develop a sense of value about place.

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Teachers from three Nottingham city schools joined us at the School of Education to launch the project. They will be working with creative practitioners from local arts company Sheep Soup to support their pupils in researching, writing and performing plays about the communities in which their schools are located.  They will start by exploring some of the resources which have been developed as part of CRACL’s long-standing research partnership with community arts company Excavate.

These include the scripts of two community plays, written by local playwright Andy Barrett.  The first play, Road to Bilborough, is a spy story about the friends and neighbours who migrated into a local council estate in the 1950s.  The second, A Lifetime Guarantee, was a play which resulted from a project which examined the history of the site of Nottingham’s former Raleigh factory (now the Jubilee Campus).  Performed by a community cast, both plays toured local venues to packed out audiences.  Both were based on the oral histories of those who lived and worked in the places they are about.  The oral histories generated as part of the Raleigh project have been archived on a website, and this will provide further material for pupils and teachers to explore.

IMG_0765.JPGWith these two plays and the website as a starting point, the Building a City of Literature project will support teachers and pupils to explore the processes involved in researching, writing and presenting stories about the places in which they live and learn.  One of the outcomes of the project will be playscripts, which will be published as a resource for schools to use.   Work from the project will also feature on a website, developed in collaboration with the teachers involved, which will support other teachers with practical strategies for developing place-based approaches in their schools.

By working with local creative practitioners, the young people involved in the project will also be made more aware of the possibilities available to them to engage with creative organisations in the city, whilst the development of place-based approaches to teaching and learning of literacy offers strong support to Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature status and to the Arts Council’s initiative on Cultural Education Partnerships, both key aspects of Nottingham city’s agenda for engagement with the arts in the city.

I, Daniel Blake reveals the rich complexity of literacy – and why it matters

This post by Susan Jones is re blogged from The Conversation, Feb 9, 2017.

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The Bafta nominated film I, Daniel Blake portrays the often brutal experiences of those attempting to navigate the British welfare system. Director Ken Loach has said of his film, however: “It’s for those people who are struggling against the cruelty of bureaucracy, whatever country.”

The film gives us insights into the ways in which today’s world can be particularly alienating for those without the specific skills it demands. Viewing the film through the lens of literacy, we see how letters, booklets and forms accrue as pillars of a system decried by Daniel Blake as a “monumental farce”.

Within a knowledge economy, literacy is bound up in a wider suite of policy based on an economic/financial model of human development and a narrow view of how people make use of literacy in their everyday lives. As is shown in the film, this both compounds the challenge for those in need of access to vital resources and renders their everyday experiences invisible.

Daniel Blake is not “illiterate” – he is resourceful, creative and willing to work, and we see him using his skills and sharing his knowledge. He is told that the benefit system he is forced to navigate is “digital by default”. Daniel’s riposte that he, as a craftsman, is “pencil by default” reflects one of his key challenges. The pencil is associated with versatility and being open to change. However, it can also be rubbed out and replaced, like the generations of workers Daniel represents in post-industrial society.

When he is asked to “run the mouse up the screen” of the computer in his local library, where he has sought help with his benefit form, he tries to do so physically. When he is told his screen is “frozen” he replies: “Can you defrost it?” The unfamiliarity of these processes place this man, who has never before needed state support, in an alien world.

A world moving on

New technologies may be moving on, meaning people like Daniel can be left behind, yet the film demonstrates how digital technology is a key resource for creative and collaborative responses to economic challenge. Daniel’s neighbour has been forced to use his initiative to supplement a meagre income from a zero-hours contract by ordering counterfeit trainers through a contact in China.

Daniel is left incredulous at the Skype conversation he witnesses – his disbelief at the fact that this conversation is taking place at two different ends of the globe emphasises how the world is moving on around him, leaving him without access to resources, recognition or the means to participate in society. It is this neighbour, China, who is finally able to complete the Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) form online for Daniel, after days of his thwarted attempts in more official institutions.

Despite the stranglehold placed on claimants by the bureaucracy depicted in the film, the two most powerful texts in Daniel’s story are his own. His spray-painted graffiti makes public the individual struggles that take place within a hidden maze of official texts. The note Daniel prepares to read at his appeal, handwritten in pencil, also challenges the system he has been forced to navigate. Announcing himself as “I, Daniel Blake” in both of these texts, Daniel is defiant in reclaiming his identity from those who have sought to define him.

Insecure times

The benefits system with which Daniel grapples is the result of the most significant reform of the British welfare state in half a century: that is, in the time since Loach directed Cathy Come Home. However, the challenge for those made vulnerable by poverty is even more acute today than it was five decades ago, and media-friendly epithets of “skivers” or “strivers” hark back across centuries to notions of the feckless and undeserving poor.

Researching for his Bafta nominated screenplay, screenwriter Paul Laverty heard stories across the UK of insecure housing, zero-hours employment contracts, inflexible fitness to work assessments and punitive sanctions. Katie’s desperation at the food bank is one of the film’s most powerful depictions of the impact of recent welfare reform on personal dignity, and it reflects the reality of an eight-fold increase in their use in the last five years.

A close focus on literacy in I, Daniel Blake highlights the impact of welfare policies which are based upon a narrow view of people’s lives. It also shows how this impact is compounded when such policies rely upon narrow ways of viewing literacy and the rich complexity of its role in everyday life. Literacy education and research can and should continue to challenge reductive models of what it means to be literate, and to critically explore the implications of this for social justice. This can provide valuable space for voices, such as that of Daniel Blake, to be heard