Projects

“Is Goldilocks guilty or not guilty? Guilty!” – Rachel Noelle on her internship with Literature Wales

Rachel Noelle is a writer from Chicago. In June 2016 she joined the Literature Wales team as an intern, working on the South Wales Literature Development Initiative. If you would like to find out more about volunteering opportunities with Literature Wales please email post@literaturewales.org  

This is part 2 of Rachel’s blog. You can read part 1 here. You can follow Rachel on twitter here and read more from her blog here.

Rachel

‘And is it good to break into somebody’s house?’

We have Goldilocks on trial. The whiteboard lists all her offences: breaking and entering, vandalism, theft (stealing porridge), and squatting (falling asleep on the Little Bear’s bed). Performance poet and writer Mike Church poses the question to the classroom, all boys, between the ages of 7 and 12, ‘Is Goldilocks guilty or not guilty?’

‘Guilty!’

This seems like just a fun game but underlying the listing of offences, the testimony from my colleague posing as the Little Bear, and the students serving as the jury, there is a strategic mission that involves promoting anti-criminal behaviour.

We’re in a referral unit in rural South Wales. The school works with pupils who have been deferred from mainstream education because of disruptive or challenging behaviour. When Mike Church was asked to lead the project, he was warned that the kids would have short attention spans and might not listen. But so far, he’s been brilliant in keeping them engaged. The activities include play, storytelling, acting, and circus tricks. Some activities are more focused on identifying criminal behaviour while others subtly encourage choices that simply benefit mental health and understanding. Mike draws out ideas from the students and crafts a story which advocates thinking-before-doing. He acts out three different characters who fail to get a DVD refunded, one character having little confidence, the next demonstrating appropriate interpersonal skills, and the last exhibiting poor anger management. When it’s time for the pupils to try their hands at Devil Sticks and Spinning Plates, Mike teaches techniques which require concentration and controlled energy.

The workshop is one of the many projects of Literature Wales’ flagship outreach scheme, the South Wales Literature Development Initiative (SWLDI). My colleague is the scheme’s officer whom I assist during my internship at Literature Wales. We meet up with Mike a week before the workshop and he tells me how children’s literacy levels are used to predict their likelihood to commit crimes later in life. I learn later about a study done in 2011 that suggests ‘a positive relationship between participation in organised arts activities and pro-social and anti-criminal behaviours.’ This correlation propels the major component to SWLDI’s project of bringing creative activities to the referral unit. The workshops inspire pupils to engage with literature, drama, circus tricks, and other forms of cultural activities, potentially decreasing their likelihood to commit a crime.

‘These kids need hobbies,’ one of the teachers tells us. ‘They go home and stay indoors and have nothing to do.’

I always felt that creativity and cultural activities were helpful to mental and physical health. But I never thought it could help facilitate anti-criminal behaviour. As the classroom’s teacher who acts as Goldilocks admits to her faults and apologises, the lesson is made complete. Don’t break and enter into somebody’s house. Don’t steal their things. The moral has an effect on me at a personal level. A few days ago, somebody broke into my house and swiped my laptop, money, iPod, and passport. I was already feeling insecure as it was my first weekend in Cardiff so the burglary made matters worse. I didn’t feel in control and I certainly didn’t feel safe. My confidence had plummeted.

Coincidently, confidence works as another theme to this project. The teachers speak to us about how a number of their pupils suffered from discouragement at home and at past mainstream schools. One student struggles to contribute his own ideas in the classroom and a teacher predicts it’s due to a pattern of harsh criticism prior to his placement in the referral unit. But the creative activities that Mike leads is gradually working to empower the students. Judging from the looks on their faces, the most rewarding activity has been the circus tricks. Mike lays down a poster of the solar system and has the students walk across it with a spinning plate in each hand.

‘You can go home and tell your parents that you walked across the universe with two spinning plates!’

He lets them try his balance board and even lets go of their hands – ‘Can you do the 5 second test?’ – for as long as they can stay balanced.

But of course, in addition to the circus tricks, Mike works to raise an interest in literature. He acts out the first chapter to a book, performs a poem of jokes, and tells a story with contributions from the students. The interactive element means the kids can tap into their creative side and use their imaginations. Their efforts do not go unnoticed. Mike cheers on their input and works to incorporate their ideas into the story. I remember a statement I read by the Arts & Health Foundation that said how engaging in creative activities can provide ‘a mental boost.’ Creative writing specifically can relieve stress and provide an outlet for emotion, among other mental and social benefits. This doesn’t surprise me.

Now that my internet access has been drastically limited what with my laptop gone and my lack of a Smartphone, I have no choice but to spend my free evenings penning scraps of prose into a notebook. But the experience has been as rewarding as crossing the solar system with a spinning plate in either hand. I’ve been channelling my frustrations and insecurities into creative expression, feeling satisfied with the finished work even if it’s fragmented or melodramatic. Gradually, I’m regaining my confidence and sense of control.

As the kids at the referral unit get a turn suggesting how to discipline Goldilocks, their voices get heard and their confidence also gets a boost.