Monday 18 February 2019

Art of teaching and learning: when 1916 is more than a history lesson

A spark of teacher creativity turned into a flame of citizenship for pupils

Shauna Kavanagh and Bernard Scully, students at Borris Vocational School, Co Carlow, as Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett for their 1916 film 'Til Death Do Us Part'.
Shauna Kavanagh and Bernard Scully, students at Borris Vocational School, Co Carlow, as Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett for their 1916 film 'Til Death Do Us Part'.
David Nolan, Ciarán Whelan and Donal Jordan in military uniform. Photo: Dylan Vaughan.
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

It started with the art teacher, but turned into a lesson that seamlessly crossed the curriculum to take in aspects of subjects as varied as history, English, Irish, music, physics, IT, engineering and maths.

That is what happened when Deirdre Mooney, art teacher at the 500-pupil Borris Vocational School, Co Carlow combined her passion for art and history and planned a project for her Transition Year pupils to commemorate the Easter Rising.

"I had an idea I could make a film, possibly to encourage the children to ask questions and record their parents and grandparents about their heritage, their experiences of growing up, of being Irish in an Ireland that today is changing so quickly," she says.

Ms Mooney believes it is important for children to be encouraged to ask themselves questions such as: How did we arrive at this point? What sacrifices have been made? Were the people from long ago like us?

She says children nowadays are bombarded with visual stimulation , but a project such as this encourages them to be reflective.

"It is all very well looking at something on a film but to put themselves physically in the shoes of that person, to get an idea of what it was like to make decisions that would have an impact on their future and the future of Ireland, is very important," she says.

It had the desired effect. As the project progressed, she was particularly struck by a comment made by one student: "This could have been me."

Ms Mooney also believes in the role of education in connecting students with their local environment: "I am passionate about art. The children in the school come from a community where there is great creativity: film, sculptural artists, painters. artisans and we should embrace it."

For the film, Til Death Do Us Part, they decided to focus on a tragic, human story of 1916 - the marriage of one of the Proclamation signatories, Joseph Plunkett, and Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Gaol, hours before he was executed.

"The story of Plunkett and Gifford became the students' story as they took ownership of the project and researched aspects of the political climate in 1916, as well as the attire, hair styles and social decorum of the period," she says.

The entire school took on supporting roles.

Music teacher and uileann piper Ciaran Somers' rendering of The Banks of the Barrow served as poignant mood music through the film while school secretary Caroline Hanafin helped to organise location shoots.

History teacher Melissa Kavanagh helped with research and 1916 resources, while principal John O'Sullivan and deputy principal Olivia Kennedy made it all run smoothly by rescheduling the normal timetable.

Outside professional support came from Kilkenny Young Filmmakers, who helped the students with aspects of creative and technical production

Then, says Ms Mooney, the "magic happened". Infectious enthusiasm spread well beyond the school to the wider community, and support came pouring in.

The St Vincent de Paul in nearby Thomastown helped with props and costumes. Thomastown parish priest Fr Daniel Bollard and Ann Sheehy, one of the parish team, offered the use of churches, so when the production team took some artistic licence for the setting of the marriage ceremony, it meant they could use the beautiful, 225-year old Mong Chapel.

Meanwhile, the local scouts gave up their premises, an historic old school building, for the Kilmainham Gaol and the GPO scenes.

Some great authenticity was added to the production thanks to €1,000 funding secured by Transition Year coordinator Jacqueline Sheil, which allowed for the hire of military costumes, including an Irish Volunteers' coat.

That sponsorship came from the Five Nations Network project, a forum-sharing practice in education for citizenship and values in England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The film was selected to represent Ireland at the annual conference of the Five Nations Network.

Making the film delivered a rich learning experience for the students, allowing opportunities for all to play to their strengths, whether visual, verbal or the more hands-on, kinesthetic learning style.

Students took turns on the technical aspects of filming, such as sound, lighting and editing, and stepped up into leadership roles such as film director, art director and make-up director. The physics lesson came cloaked in observing the distinctions between the colour spectrum of light and the colour spectrum of an artist.

Ms Mooney says it also provided an opportunity for students to work as a team: "They learned how to share ideas, express themselves and to listen."

Hours, days, weeks of work was distilled into a mini-movie less than five minutes long, which, according to Ms Mooney, also instilled an appreciation in students of the time and effort that goes into quality film production.

Til Death Do Us Part is in the can, but the learning goes on. On Proclamation Day, March 15, as part of the school's commemorations, the plan is for the film to be screened on the ceiling in a darkened room, when students will be asked to lie down to view it, as a mark of respect to those who sacrificed their life for Irish freedom.

"Lying on their backs in a darkened room, with no external stimulus, will encourage them to be thinking actively about why they are there," she says.

Ms Mooney believes it is the "human story, the development of empathy, the story of what it was like to be a citizen of Ireland in 1916, anxious about political unrest, losing loved ones, human sacrifice and the belief in a better tomorrow that will remain with the students long after the popcorn is eaten."

The film is one of a range of 1916-related projects in which the school is involved, including the choir's participation in A Nation's Voice, on Easter Sunday at Collins Barracks, Dublin, when more than 1,100 voices from 31 choirs from all over the country will join the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and conductor David Brophy in an open-air performance.

Irish Independent

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