Leamington Spa lamps project

As part of the Making Histories project I was invited to take part in through Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum, I was asked to see if I could approach one of the local schools – with the particular challenge being to investigate the potential of local materials for making ceramics. Following the key idea behind the project, I hunted through the museum store, looking for something that might be a starting point for a project with the local children, something that would have a purpose and be simple / logistically practicable to make with whole classes of children across a year group. I quickly encountered a Roman lamp, made in Egypt in the first century AD which took me back to one of my favourite ever moments during my years in archaeology, where stumbling about on a Sicilian mountain top, the site of a ruined Greek city, I found a tiny oil lamp (see below) – that has stayed with our family ever since…..

Clay was dug, working with the Year 5s from a Leamington Spa primary school, that lay only a few hundred metres from the likely site of one of the many clay pits that radiated from the nineteenth century Leamington and Lillington Brick Works in the town. The clay pit lies on the edge of Newbold Comyn, a beautiful stretch of public park extending to rolling hills and woodland, with old kiln sites and other historic monuments within its bounds. Digging was carried out with permission from the local council – who were incredibly supportive and helpful.

The children not only helped dig the clay, they helped hand process it, hammering the dried clay to granules, slaking, blunging and sieving it, drying it on plaster slabs. They then experimented with making thumb pots and finally in making small palm held oil lamps – similar to the Sicilian lamp I referred to above. The lamps were fired in a sawdust / dustbin kiln during arts week, and were lit as part of a small celebration of light at an open evening for parents at the end of the weeks activities.

Up-coming article…

I’m delighted that I have an article to be published about the work at Woodrow First School (see below – November 23, 2015), in the summer 2017 edition of Primary Geography. I will be sending out new leaflets about the work I can offer to schools in the new year….. It would be great to have the chance to do this kind of work again.

Looking at the tiles and thinking back on the discussions we had about the importance of shelter – it is clear to me that reflection on core human “needs” (shelter, water, air, food – and care / love – call it what you will) – is absolutely vital in education. The children have so much empathy, interest and concern – for other people, and for wildlife. When that is combined with work that develops analysis & critical thinking (along the lines of Bloom’s Taxonomy – e.g. see for one interpretation) with the ability to react – and actually do something, then there is not only the development of knowledge and understanding, but also some empowerment as well. We can make a difference – and be part of the solution, not just part of the problem.

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Project with Woodrow First School, Redditch. Sept 2015

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In late June I was lucky enough to be invited to carry out a special project with Woodrow First School in Redditch, Worcestershire. The school is a wonderful, creative place of learning, with a focus on delivering their rich and varied curriculum through Mantle of the Expert approaches designed by Dorothy Heathcote. They also have an innovative reciprocal partnership with the Qattan Foundation teacher exchange programme based in Ramallah.

The project, which took place in the early Autumn 2015, aimed to investigate the red clay on which the school and town stands…. The connection is fairly obvious through the place-name – Red-ditch, but a quick investigation on the UK Soil Observatory website made the link even more concrete…. We decided to use the project to develop the children’s knowledge and understanding of materials and the way they change, linked to a wider theme of shelter (a good lead-in being the Three Little Pigs story….perfect for an introductory assembly which would include four year olds….). The outcome was to be a series of sawdust fired tiles.

As an additional outcome, we decided that I could turn our excavation site – i.e. our clay pit / marl-hole, into a wildlife pond.

The project was really successful in engaging two classes of Year 3 children (7-8 year olds) over a full week, all of them helping with the testing (ring tests), blunging, sieving, tile making, decoration (printing key words linked to shelter), kiln preparation and initial lighting (the kiln burned over the weekend)… The ground was way too hard, with an arm breaking compacted stony layer, to involve them in the actual digging, but they were witnesses to the digging and drying on large plaster slabs…..

The children have decided to use their tiles to protect the roof of a hedgehog house that is now placed in their wildlife and growing area, next to the pond. Some of the tiles were also given to exchange teachers from Palestine on the Monday morning after the weekend sawdust firing. Perhaps one of the most profound moments was the response to the watching of John Anderson and Robert Fournier’s 1965 film about Isaac Button. This silent, black and white film, lasts for over 30 minutes. I thought we might show a clip of about 4-5 minutes. The children recognised the processes they had been in engaged with immediately, and were spellbound for the full half-hour. “He makes it look so easy” was a memorable quote….especially when they had seen how hard the preparation process was, how heavy clay is as a material, how difficult it is to form, how sensitive it can be on firing (we had different coloured tiles from oxidising and reduction conditions)….

Huge thanks to Richard Kieran (Headteacher), Seb Benney and all at Woodrow First School for giving me the chance to work with them on this project.


Investigating clay with Year 4 class at a Redditch First School….

Last week I visited a First School in Redditch (Worcestershire) that I may do some work with this Autumn – linking work with clay as a material to themes in sustainability as they work towards their Eco Schools Green Flag Award. The children (8-9 year olds), were fascinated by the stuff I brought in…. “Is this the clay part?” (referring to the coarse base of a bowl), “What’s this shiny stuff?” (wondering about the glaze…)… They were intrigued to think that the material the bowls were made of, might be similar to clay under their school (a quick reference to the UK Soil Observatory website had confirmed before my visit that then geology beneath the school was mudstone / claystone – which was promising). Whilst the class did PE, I dug a couple of trial pits in an area of rough grass in their school grounds, and having gone through a shallow topsoil and stony layer, found the profile change to one with a higher clay content. The ring test didn’t work out in the field – by this time the children were over with me and quizzing me on what I had found. They were full of questions about treasure (had I found any?) and the soil itself. Having taken a couple of small samples in sample bags, we retired to the classroom to add a little water – and things looked more promising still, as the samples became stickier and more plastic. Having returned to my studio, I sieved the sample first through a kitchen sieve (to remove grit / stones), and then through a 60 sieve (to remove the larger sand / silt particles), and the result, dried on a plaster slab, was a wonderful plastic material – with a successful ring test. I’m hoping the school may want to take this investigation further, but that’s entirely up to them. It was however, great to see the children’s fascination….

Work with St Barnabas CE Primary School:

Over the week of the 6-9th May, I worked with St Barnabas CE Primary School in Worcester around global themes exploring sustainability, our shared future and the school’s commitment to this approach. They have just been awarded their fifth Eco Schools Green Flag Award!

As part of the week, which involved song-writing, developing a collaborative arts piece (currently on show at Worcester Cathedral for the county’s Voices and Visions exhibition) and cooperative games, I worked with the schools Eco Committee to make a small tiled frieze that will capture some of their sense of awe and wonder and fascination they feel towards the natural world. The tiles have just come out of the kiln.