Straw And Order: Schools acting out the nativity... with a twist
Teachers and pupils are adopting an open mind for the Christmas show to reflect growing diversity in communities, writes Kathy Donaghy
For parents, watching their child perform in the school Christmas play or show is one of the highlights of the season. But the performance may be a lot different from what they remember from their own childhood. While the traditional nativity is still going strong, schools are embracing plays that reflect the diversity of their populations, as well as exploring themes of sustainability, inclusion and kindness. Some are even tackling big societal issues in an age appropriate way.
At St Joseph's NS, Bonnybrook, Coolock, Dublin 17, teachers Rebecca Doyle and Rachel Jones have been working with pupils from third and fifth classes on their unique take on the nativity, exploring the issue of homelessness. It opens in a court room.
Rebecca, who teaches third class, says the production, called Straw and Order, reflects the challenges of life of which the school population is all too aware. She explains that they have had children from families living in emergency accommodation and families who suffer with the burden of financial stress at this time of year.
And in choosing the play, she and Rachel, who were at primary and second level school together before going to St Pat's to train as teachers, wanted to do something with which their students could really engage.
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Rachel, who teaches fifth class, says her pupils would be aware of what the Government is trying to do to alleviate homelessness and of the issues around it.
"It is very close to home, in that their peers have been in that situation. It's not something that's new to them," she says.
Their play begins in a court room in Bethlehem where it's the cows versus the donkeys and they are arguing with each other, before a narrator moves the focus out of court to explain a night's events in a stable to the judge: the cows feel pushed out of their stable and they want it back; the donkeys, accused of having invited over a whole host of people, including a baby, deny all charges.
While there is drama and serious themes being tackled, the teachers say there's plenty of laughter too, along with songs and a message of hope.
"We've spent a lot of time in class preparing for this and it's relevant to us and what we experience in school. The kids are really engaged with it. They're coming up to us and saying they've never done anything like this before. It's been a huge undertaking, especially when you're under time constraints trying to get the curriculum in," says Rebecca.
Despite their concerns, the teachers saw students engaging with other children they wouldn't usually engage with, children working well in groups they don't normally work in and less academically talented children thriving on the part they had to play in the production.
At Lecarrow Community National School (CNS) in Roscommon, the school's 10-strong pupil population has been working hard on exploring the themes of Christmas around the world.
The school changed from Catholic patronage to being a Community National School this year. Enrolments had been plummeting and it's hoped that with the change of patronage, the school will attract more pupils from families looking for a multi-denominational education.
Principal Naos Connaughton explains that children in the junior classes have been researching Christmas around the world to see how different countries celebrate.
Instead of the traditional Advent calendar, the children have an 'Act of Kindness' calendar, with each day presenting a kindness challenge tied in with their homework.
"This could be picking up the phone and calling an elderly person. Even if you're not a Christian, people celebrate Christmas because it's a time for family," he says.
He is a past pupil of the school himself and his mother was a teacher there. His own recollections of Christmas at the school, when it was under Catholic patronage, are more traditional. He remembers being a shepherd, flanked by his cousin Seamus and his friend James.
As principal, he's encouraging the children to explore themes of sustainability in preparation for the season.
"They are debating Christmas presents and gifts and looking at the positive and negative impacts, asking are gifts good for the environment and looking at how gifts have changed," he says.
The school performance is not based around the nativity or any religion; rather, it's a showcase of the children's talents, the principal explains.
Through Music Generation, a music education programme backed by U2 and the Department of Education, Lecarrow CNS pupils have been learning the trumpet and this will feature strongly in the show.
"It's about giving the children the opportunity to go forward and showcase their own particular talent. They can decide if they want to do something individually or in a group," he says.
At Portrane/Donabate Educate Together NS in north county Dublin, a series of performances marked the end of term, and all the children got the opportunity to take part. Principal Maeve Corish says different classes took on different plays, but one thing that ran through all the productions was the theme of inclusion.
"Inclusion is really important. Some children elected not to go on stage - they wanted to be stage hands and they were applauded at the end. The show wouldn't have happened without them," she says.
As children get older, they are encouraged to write their own scripts and have more of a say in what they do. While the younger children put on a performance of Snowman At Sunset with its message of co-operation, second class put on a production called Dogman Saves The Day. "It was a skit on me, where I got kidnapped from the office," says the principal. "It's my favourite time of the school year. It's wonderful to see their confidence grow. I don't think anything puts people in good humour quite like seeing children perform," she says.