Ruth Johnson on working with Kelvin Grove Community Primary School

In this blog, theatre maker and director Ruth Johnson reflects on the experience of working on the Gateshead Young Writers programme with a group of young people from Kelvin Grove Community Primary School.

In the summer term of 2019, I had the pleasure of working for six weeks with a group of Year 5 and Year 6 students from Kelvin Grove Community Primary School, with brilliant musician Calum Howard, and Gateshead Young Writers Project Producer Becci Sharrock. From meeting the teachers prior to the project to the final session, we have been privileged to work in a school where the young people are treated as individuals who have voices to be heard.

The teachers were keen that we explored the theme of being online and in the initial meeting we discovered that they had recently been exploring the lives of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots as their learning topic. Whilst being online in the 21st Century and Tudor times don’t necessarily strike us as the most natural of partners, we all got excited about using the lives of these incredible historical figures as a way in to exploring the theme of how we treat each other online. Both Elizabeth and Mary used their own versions of social media, using paintings as propaganda, and there was something interesting about the intense relationship they had without ever actually meeting in person. Also, the young people knew a lot of factual information about these women, so to start with these figures allowed us to explore the themes without it getting too personal.

When adults think about the internet, social media and the online world, we are quick to think about the dangers. What was so very apparent working with the young people was that the online world is so intrinsic to their daily lives. They are the experts, and if we are going to learn more about the ways in which we can navigate this world then we need to learn directly from them. The idea of appearance and reality was a strong thread that allowed us to unpick the positives and negatives of communicating online, and the images created in the scriptwriting and song writing were potent with the light, shade and nuance of negotiating the online world.

Over three sessions, I worked with the group to create a script and over two sessions, Calum composed and wrote an original song with each group. The results, which we shared with each group in the last session, were beautiful, and the pride the young people took in their words was very moving. One young person said, “It feels very special to hear the other group’s ideas.” And it was. Half of the students were leaving Kelvin Grove to start their new secondary school, and you could feel their emotion as saying their goodbyes to a school that has nurtured them so carefully was starting to feel close and real.

Their teachers reminded them to keep the ideas and their words with them as they start their new adventures; to question “who is who” and not to lose “who you really are.” And it struck me how much I would take from their ideas and words in how I handle the online world. Young people are the experts in this and we need to listen and learn to them.

Since the end of the project we have created a music video with Y6s from Kelvin Grove and animator Sheryl Jenkins to accompany their song, Who You Really Are. A choir of pupils performed the second song, Who is Who?, at New Writing North’s Inside/Outside event at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art on 20th January 2020.

Listen to Who Is Who? on Soundcloud –

Watch the music video –