Participatory arts with young people

As part of our activities for work package two of Representing North Merthyr, we have been working with the Year 6 class at Dowlais Primary School. The class came on a banner march with us as part of the 2014 Connected Communities Festival, marching down the Taff Trail and taking part in a performance on the Glanfa Stage at Wales Millennium Stadium in Cardiff Bay.

 

Since then we’ve worked with them on a range of arts activities including drawing, poetry, song writing and participatory film making. Richard Davies, of Forge Films and Merthyr College, worked with us to deliver participatory film workshops with Year 6. He brought in professional equipment as well as handheld video cameras, and from the outset we encouraged pupils to film as much of the process as possible. Not that they needed any encouragement! Out of all of the art forms, they seemed to engage with film the most and, although they found it a challenge to understand exactly how the equipment worked at first, all of the pupils were excited to get behind the cameras, as previous research in this field has also found. Over a number of workshops pupils occupied the roles of camera operator, interviewer and interviewee, collecting visual data from their peers on what they value about their community and what they wanted to change, as well as their aspirations for the future, which they had drawn in pictures.

 

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Pupils then worked with a musician to create a song based on poems they had written in class, and had a trip to Redhouse in Merthyr town centre to record their song, called Merthyr’s Big Heart, and film a music video.

And here is the Video – Enjoy !!

The lyrics to the song are presented below:

 

Our community is so welcoming, it’s a lovely place to live

Just look a little bit closer, we’ve got a lot to give

A friend at every turn, puts a smile upon my face

That’s what makes our town to joyful, a great big heart warming place

Merthyr has a Big Heart

Which gave us a wonderful start

 

Merthyr is our town

Don’t try to put us down

Don’t talk about deprivation

We need a good reputation

 

This is our nation

Let’s share it with the world

 

We’re like a group of jaybirds, we always stick together

Our community is a lion, and will live on forever

Just like New York City, Merthyr doesn’t sleep

Hopes and dreams are ours, with memories to keep

 

Our rivers flow like starlings, gliding in the sky

The breath-taking mountains in the distance up so high

 

Merthyr has a Big Heart

Which gave us a wonderful start

 

Merthyr is our town

Don’t try to put us down

Don’t talk about deprivation

We need a good reputation

 

This is our nation

Let’s share it with the world

 

The film work, together with our field notes, has produced a mass of audio visual data that we are working our way through as part of the next phase of the research. As well as the substantive data on pupils’ perceptions of their community, health and wellbeing, we also have a considerable amount of methodological data relating to the use of participatory arts with young people. Particularly around issues of voice and representation, we have noted tensions between the version of ‘reality’ constructed by pupils through the workshop activities and the public-facing representation of Merthyr constructed through the song and music video. Aesthetic form and potential audience play an important role in this; whilst in Merthyr’s Big Heart it was not acceptable to participants to include any negative constructions, in the documentary film footage produced by pupils they speak much more openly about what worries them about their community. This reinforces our understanding that the arts are not a value-free methodological tool; participants have used them to co-create cultural representations that satisfy their own priorities on how their town should be portrayed. So far, this has involved a process of negotiation between stakeholders, and some voices have been louder than others at certain points.

 

Our approach to this work is informed by the epistemological position that children and young people actively construct their own lives and are able to participate in and construct research processes as competent actors. Although we have used visual and arts-based methods in order to engage and excite pupils in the research, we acknowledge the limitations and challenges of this type of creative work. Following other critical academics in this field, we contend that there can be no single, ‘authentic’ voice produced by these methods. Furthermore, our work took place within the highly regulated environment of the classroom, where pupils were subject to a particular ‘gaze’ inevitably working its way into the research process as well. Hence it is crucial that we consider Merthyr’s Big Heart as one piece of data (and one cultural representation) among many, and that it becomes one part of a multi-dimensional understanding of community life, health and wellbeing in north Merthyr.

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