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Gilly Smith

Rip it up and start again

I’m still musing on whether my ‘paper doll’ inspired exercise was a catalyst for a show of brilliance, or whether it fell flat on its face. 
To start, it was all going so well; I’d introduced them to the idea of power with responsibility and the ethics of storytelling.  I’d even used the word ‘ideology’ by 9.20am, but when I asked the group to build a collage of words and images from their papers that resonated with who they were, they looked utterly blank. And a bit worried. I had imagined an inspired group of young people slicing through their copies of The Mail, surfacing from a sea of images of Cheryl Cole and X-Factorless faces, and ripped up headlines creating new ones about my newly aware flock. Not quite; one older student muttered that he hadn’t even read his Guardian yet. Error #1; students who have spent their last pennies on a newspaper just because I told them to are very unlikely to tear it apart for the sake of some dodgy creative writing exercise exploring their sense of self. 

Sulkily, I allowed them to write down the words instead of ripping the guts out of the opinion pages, but as their words built their pictures, so their interests spilled onto the page. Teaming up into groups of four, I asked them to see what they could find in common and to allow the seeds of a programme to emerge.

By the end of the morning class, we had four strong programme ideas siphoned from their combined words and pictures. The flamboyant Gok-wannabe had used the efficiency and good sense of his team members to create a magazine show on the history of glamour that had enough roots to grow into a good idea. The Guardian readers had pooled their disenfranchised old Labour grump into a satirical sitcom featuring characters called Nick, Dave and George who live on a housing estate in Tower Hamlets. The music fans had created a series for Radio 1 exploring musical genres from.. er Dizzie Rascal to Mica. Ok, so they’ve still got some way to go.  Only one group’s ideas refused to materialise, but with the members’ confession that they really didn’t know who they were as a group – or even as individuals – even their formlessness gave the class something to learn from.

The afternoon group is a little more lethargic at the best of times, and paper ripping was clearly not something that they were up for. So after they had written their careful lists of words, I ordered them to rip up the biggest picture they could find in their papers. Tentatively at first, and then with a gusto unseen before in this class, award winning pictures of flood victims lay on desks alongside the Rooneys and the X-Factors before being named, characterised and classified by political colour, education and survival skills – or anything else I came up with at the time. After they had passed the images to their right, writing each idea on the back and then giving it up, the programme ideas began to emerge. Cheryl Cole and the director of an international charity were soon pitching against each other in panel game show, a Panorama on home-schooling sneaked in from left field and a sequel to ‘I’m a Celebrity’ called ‘Get Me Out of Here!’ was showing signs of something rather watchable. Did they get the giving up of control that the exercise is supposed to probe at? Probably not. Did it matter? Probably not.

It’s important that these young people who think that they haven’t got a programme idea between them find out each week that they have. But if the exercise did give them a glimpse of what they are made of, it was a bit like pulling teeth at times. And I think they’re beginning to see me as a bit weird… I’ll wait to see what they write in their reflective essays on it due in tomorrow, but my feeling is that it’s back to good old deconstruction next week.


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