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Collect Connect Create: Thinking Routines and Creative Writing


This week I’m exploring an innovative project at the National Civil War Centre in Newark, England developing creative writing skills through art and using thinking routines in really innovative ways. Read or listen below.


I have two special guests on the podcast today. I’m talking to Sarah Clarke and Denise Greany from National Civil War Centre in Newark, England. We’re exploring Collect Connect Create – an innovative project they created during the Covid-19 pandemic called developing creative writing skills through art and using thinking routines in really innovative ways.

Sarah Clarke is the Learning and Participation Manager for Heritage and Culture in Newark and Sherwood in the county of Nottinghamshire in the UK. An educator through and through, Sarah is a qualified primary school teacher, yoga teacher and English language teacher. She now manages engagement across three sites: the National Civil War Centre, Newark Castle and Palace Theatre Newark. 

Denise Greany is a museum educator based in the UK. She has worked in schools as a teacher, advisory teacher and literacy consultant in Oxfordshire and in London. For the last 8 years, has been a Learning and Participation Officer at The National Civil War Centre and Newark Museum.

I first met Denise in 2017 when she took part in my Visible Thinking in the Museum training in London. Since then both Denise and Sarah have taken my VTMO course and have been a part of my Visible Thinking Membership (now ended). We’ve explored a lot of thinking routines together. 

In our chat today, we talk about how the visual literacy Collect Connect Create project was developed to raise self-esteem, self-efficacy and motivation for year 10 pupils, 14-15 year olds,  who had struggled with disrupted learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The longer-term aim was that young people would develop the skills, knowledge and experience to raise their attainment in their English exams, having the confidence to write a “convincing and compelling” piece of fiction, using extensive and ambitious vocabulary and demonstrating the use of different language techniques.

Denise explores the key features of the programme, how it worked for students and the collaboration they had with writer Ioney Smallhorne.

Then we focus on the thinking routines that they used in the programme and specifically the thinking routines that they adapted and the new ones they created specifically for the programme. 

We talk about how the thinking routines offered tools to the students to assist them with their writing, how they helped them learn how to look as well as write, how they gave them a framework for organising their thinking and were a launchpad to writing

If you’re interested or curious about incorporating thinking routines into an educational programme or developing creative writing skills, then this episode is for you. If you’re interested in creating your own thinking routines, listen in as well! 


Claire Bown: Hello and welcome to The Art Engager Podcast with me, Claire Bown. I’m here to share techniques and tools to help you engage with your audience and bring art objects and ideas to life. So let’s dive into this week’s show.

Hi, Sarah and Denise. Welcome to The Art Engager Podcast.

Denise Greany: Hello. Thank you. Hello for inviting us.

Claire Bown: I am so pleased you’re here. It’s lovely to have two guests on the podcast today. So perhaps you could introduce yourselves. I don’t know if Denise, you want to go first, explain where you are in the world and where you do it, and then perhaps Sarah, you could give some background to the National Civil War Centre where you work.

Denise Greany: So, yes, my name’s Denise Greany and I’m a Learning Officer at the National Civil War Centre and Newark Museum. Newark is right in the centre of England on a large crossroads, which is what made it so important during the British Civil War. And, we run sessions for schools, mostly about the British civil wars, but also about other elements of our local history collections, such as pre-history, the Romans and the Anglo Saxons.

Sarah Clarke: I’m Sarah Clarke. I’m Learning and Participation Manager for Heritage and Culture in the Newark and Sherwood area. So we manage not just the National Civil Centre, but also Newark Museum, Newark Palace Theatre, and Newark Castle. The Civil War Centre focuses on the story of the British Civil Wars, as Denise said in the 17th century, but our Newark collection is much broader than that.

The Newark collection includes artefacts from the stone age to the present day. There are about 90,000 objects in our stores that are very rarely exhibited, including some really interesting artworks, and that was really the starting point for this project.

Claire Bown: Ah, brilliant and nice link there. The reason I asked you to come on the podcast, I’ve known you both for a number of years and I was fascinated to hear about a project that you’d run called the Collect Connect Create Project and I wanted to hear more about it, and when I did, I was completely fascinated.

So perhaps you could tell us a little bit about the project and the vision behind it.

Sarah Clarke: Yeah, sure. So this project was born in winter 2020, and I’m sure your listeners will all know about winter 2020, we were fully in lockdown because of the pandemic. But there were a number of different factors that all came together at the same time, which made this the perfect time for this kind of project.

First of all, during the autumn, my team of learning officers and I had all taken part in your training program with Thinking Museum which, because of Covid and we were all working from home, gave us an opportunity to start thinking about using art in new ways and to start getting excited about how we could do that. We were also looking for ways at the time to get some of the art collection outta storage so that it could be enjoyed by people in our local community. And I had been speaking to the English department from a local secondary school about their fears for the cohort of children who were going to be taking their exams in June, 2022.

So the first cohort of children to take exams after significant disruption in their education due to the pandemic. So all these things came together into one general idea. When I heard of some funding from an organisation called Max Literacy and the Max Literacy Fund gives museums and galleries an opportunity to experiment with new ideas and new ways of working with schools and their collections.

So we applied for some funding. So the vision was to work with local teenagers 14 and 15 year olds to work with them using our art collection to try and really increase their motivation to engage with school and with creative writing. Our vision for the project was to work with children who struggle with literacy. Perhaps some of them were coming from low income families or young people with learning difficulties or who didn’t feel very engaged with school. So we wanted to foster their self-esteem and their sense of agency, and we thought we could see ways that art could do that. We wanted to help them develop their core literacy skills and also of course for us to create an essential long-term role for the museum.

Claire Bown: So, as all of this was happening during 2020, you had this idea, this vision for this project. Perhaps Denise, you could explain the key features of the program and how, how it worked.

Denise Greany: So a really important stage of the project was to take a small group of year, 10 students from our local school to our museum store where these 90,000 objects are kept and give them free reign to choose artworks and objects that were of particular interest to them.

And then the idea was that we would transport these objects back to the museum, put them on open display, and then invite the wider group of year 10 students to interact with the artworks and objects and work with a creative writer who was in residence at the museum at the time, and create some pieces of writing in response to the artworks that they’d chosen. So with some trepidation, we took a small group of students to our museum store. And we orientated them a little bit. But then we, we literally let them roam around. And we never do this. Our museum store is full of boxes on roller racking that are closed. It has an art collection that lives behind calico curtains and has rarely been seen for decades and is of great value. And it’s cold. It’s not really designed for engagement to be honest. It’s designed to keep objects and artwork safe.

It’s dark, so that the light levels and humidity can be controlled. And there are some parts which have objects on open display, and those bits look like the Room of Requirements in Harry Potter. To be honest, it’s quite spooky. So we weren’t quite sure what they were going to make of it. And, and as Sarah explained, we deliberately chose students who perhaps didn’t find traditional educational environments inspiring or who were struggling a little bit. And they absolutely loved it. They really rose to the challenge and they really made the most of the experience and they really warmed up, in such a cold environment. They took full advantage of the opportunity to peer inside things and to literally lift the curtain on these artworks. And we did orientate them. We did talk to them about what we liked. We talked to them about what we thought they’d like, and they did choose some things that we expected.

So they did make choices of artworks that were related to the local area. They chose some paintings of Newark’s Market Square, which is quite an iconic location in Newark and where teenagers regularly hang out. Some of the students were very interested in sport and they chose some William nicholson prints of boxing matches.

And also we have a fascinating portrait of a Notts County football player who apparently holds the record for the fastest hat trick in international matches. So he was chosen. But to be honest, we were really surprised by lots of the things they chose. Lots of them were very enthusiastic about some grey etchings of very peaceful natural scenes. Some of them chose a colourful Jamaican underwater coral reef. They insisted on some photographs. One of King George the Fifth, visiting a local landmark and also some soldiers in the First World War on parade. And they insisted on bringing an old Victorian camera to a display alongside those images.

And they also annoyingly wanted to choose a massive piece of public art that was created for a school in the 1980s, a kind of life size stylised tree, which we had to order a mini bus to transport back to the museum with us and other things like a very dark 19th century portrait of an unknown man wearing black against a black background.

So things that we didn’t expect them to want. But we honoured their choices and we loaded them into a minivan and we drove them back to the museum and we purchased a set of easels and plinths to display them properly. And then we worked with our creative writer who was our artist in residence for a day with the wider group of year 10, who then came to see the objects that their colleagues had chosen and to do some writing in response to them.

Claire Bown: I love the excitement that they had in the museum store. You know, the whole, as you say, the ‘unboxing’ experience. Mm. Making their personal choices that maybe were based on their interests or, or their passions or local history or just sheer curiosity. I’m thinking about the tree here. But that really fired up the curiosity for the project, didn’t it?

And really helped get the momentum going for it. So once you had all the artworks in-situ, then they had to create a piece of creative writing in response to one of the artworks. Is that right?

Denise Greany: Absolutely.

And that’s where we brought in working with thinking routines and we were very much honed in on that idea of their personal interest.

We had been doing your course during lockdown, so we were quite influenced as a learning team by some of the techniques that you’d shared with us. And we’d been using them in online sessions and also as, as visitors came back to the museum with some of our school groups. And we invited our artist in residence on the project who is a really exciting creative writer and spoken words performer called Ioney Smallhorne to choose an artwork herself and an object from the collection and create some work based on it. And then we just watched her work and we talked to her about her process.

And when she articulated what it was she was doing, we really felt that we could capture what she was doing by using an overarching thinking routine, which is where this thinking routine Collect Connect Create came in, because what we saw her doing was collecting inspiration from our collection by looking at the things that interested her, as the students had done in our store, but then responding to the things she’d chosen, guided very much by her own set of references and connections. And creating this kind of personal verbal palette, if you like, of images and color connections and words and cultural and social references and preferences. And as Sarah said, we were wanting to help the students to do better at school with writing. And every student in the UK does a G C S E exam in English language at the end of year 11, when they’re 15 or 16. And one of the really tricky parts of that exam is something called paper one, question five. And the students are given a picture. And they’re asked to respond to it creatively. And it’s quite a task. It’s quite a challenge, to teach students how to do that without necessarily telling a story and demonstrating what is called compelling writing.

So you have to make your writing compelling in order to do well in that exam. And when we asked Ioney what she thought made writing compelling, it was this very personal and specific set of references that she was talking about. And so what we wanted was to give the children the opportunity to track the collect, connect, create process. And we broke down that umbrella thinking routine into smaller thinking routines that guided particular aspects of the process, so that we could produce a resource that was really concrete. So that students could remember the things they’d done with us in the exciting context of a museum store and a museum gallery, and remember those things and do them in, in the context of a classroom or an exam.

And we created this very portable, literally pocket sized zine, which incorporated some little thinking routines, some of which you’d shared with us, and some of which we made up ourselves.

Claire Bown: I love this so much.

So from what I’m hearing, I’m just going to summarise, so your overarching thinking routine, perhaps, you know the framework or the foundation for the project is Collect Connect Create.

And out of that, you used a lot of smaller thinking routines, some of which are thinking routines that perhaps I shared with you, and some are ones which you devised yourself. Perhaps you could tell us a bit about some of these thinking routines that you created especially for the programme.

Denise Greany: Yeah. So we started at the museum on the day when Year 10 visited by asking Ioney to perform her writing and then model the kinds of things she does in order to prepare to draft the writing.

And so we did lots of the activities that we had learned from you. So you, in one of our online sessions had asked us to look at a piece of art and make a personal connection with some of the colours in a painting. And so we sort of built on that and we called this activity Personal Palette.

So we asked the students to look at one of the artworks that their colleagues had chosen, the Willie Hall football portrait. And we asked them to just scope out the colours and then make personal connections and to ask them; ‘What did they remind them of?’

And then we did things like getting them to zoom in and zoom out of the painting, to step inside the mind of the person who was being painted, to time travel to the moment just before and the moment after.

All of which are activities that we mined from some of your resources. But in addition to that, we created some things that we made up ourselves. So for instance, we created an activity called Look Lift Lose, where we asked students to notice 10 things about painting and then choose the three things that they thought really encapsulated the most important thing about the painting, that the painting really couldn’t be the same without. And then we asked them to reimagine the painting without those things. So what happens to the artwork if you lose those things?

And we also did things like, we asked them to notice the shapes in the painting and to describe the relationships between the shapes. So what was towering over what, what was leading off into the distance, what was in front of what. And then we called that Shapescape. So in a way, some fairly standard creative writing activities kind of become more portable and more concrete if they’re presented and named in a thinking routine kind of way.

So things like Shapescape or Sensescape, which are exactly what you would do with students all the time, asking them to collect sense impressions become something very memorable, something that they can trot out in a stressful moment, when they’re looking at a picture in exam conditions.

Claire Bown: I think always with thinking routines as well, they’ve always got catchy names, most of the time I’d say, names that actually point exactly to what they’re doing and exactly what you should do with them. Mm. And those names are quite memorable. So calling it, Look List Lose is fantastic. I can’t wait to use that one. But yeah, as you say, so that when you are using them in other contexts, they’re instantly retrievable, instantly memorable, and even under the stresses of exam conditions, you’ll be able to use them.

Denise Greany: Absolutely. And I think what they also are, are a memorable way of thinking before you write, and this is something that I think is so powerful, that Sarah and I both feel, that you learn so much about writing before you even touch the page.

And so what we were trying to do was to slow the writing process down and provide these very Memorable, pocket sized ways of thinking about what you were looking at, slow looking, before you start attaching words to your impressions.

Claire Bown: So almost taking a step back before you commit the pen to paper helps with the creative process.

Denise Greany: Absolutely. And it also foregrounds your own personal and imaginative response. So we really wanted these students to write like them. And that was something that our writer, Ioney, was so good at modelling, that there is a way that you write and that is actually what makes your writing compelling and that is drawn entirely from the way that you see this piece of art, that’s different from what everybody else sees.

So we were really trying to empower their personal understanding of the way that they respond to visual stimulus before they started even thinking about writing.

Claire Bown: Fabulous. So I want to bring Sarah back in here. Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about what happened next.

Sarah Clarke: Yeah. So, to go back on what Denise has said, we were very excited by this ability to help the young people to find ways of finding their own voices, but particularly, to give them tools, so that even those who were high ability writers would have tools that they could use to enrich their writing, but also those students who were perhaps trying really hard to pass their exam, those students would have a tool, that they could sit down on the exam, not panic and go (instead), ‘what would Ioney do?‘ And to use those thinking routines to help them. So they were able to do that. They created some really interesting work, they created drawings, they created poems, word scapes, wonderful little pieces of work that we gathered together, and we turned it into a popup exhibition so that the young people were able to exhibit their work alongside the artworks that they had chosen from the collection.

So if you can imagine, a large hall, we have a Tudor building at the museum, so we filled the hall with the paintings and sculptures that the young people had chosen. We put them on plinths. And next to them we exhibited the young people’s writing as works of art in their own right. And we created a booklet out of their work as well.

And then we opened up this exhibition for their parents and carers and families to come along in a celebration event. Which was wonderful, just to be able to say, look at this great work. You have done this. We are really proud of it. You should be really proud of it. The, the English teachers from the school were so delighted that their students had had this kind of opportunity to be able to showcase their work, and they were really very impressed by the growing confidence of their students. And well, the changes in their writing style and ability as the project had progressed.

Claire Bown: And it didn’t stop there though, did it? I believe that there was another final step that happened with the project.

Denise Greany: Yeah, so we are very lucky, as Sarah said at the beginning, that we are kind of heritage and culture hub. We are a museum and a theatre joined together. And so because Ioney is a published poet, but also a spoken word performer, we took the students into the Palace Theatre. And put them on the stage.

And we were keen to show them that although we are learning about writing in order to pass exams and to do well in exams, writing isn’t just published on a page, it’s also performed in a performance setting. And so we gave them the opportunity to do group performances of their writing. They melded their writing together in interesting ways, and they performed their writing on the stage.

Which was amazing. And the teachers were amazed at how confident the students were in that setting. They had been convinced that this would not be something they wanted to do, but they all did it. They all wanted to do it. Partly I think, because of how inclusive and engaging our writer is and how comfortable the students felt with us after this process.

And I think how much ownership they felt of the writing, which had been part of a lengthy process. And so they did a fantastic collaborative performance. Which, which we recorded.

Claire Bown: So good to hear. Just going through the different stages of the project, thinking about the thinking routines that you created, starting right back in the stores with giving their students agency for their own choices, helping them with their creative writing, what factors do you think were a contribution to the success of the CCC program?

Denise Greany: Well, I think, we really revelled in the benefits of partnership working. I think it was partly that there were so many people involved, that it was a, a true collaboration between a real creative writer who was modelling an authentic process. The fact that we were able to offer students true agency in choosing their own stimulus and working with their interests.

The fact that we worked with the language and teaching activity and learning styles of the school, and so we had a lot of input from our teacher and the fact that we were able to draw on our museum learning team’s work on Visible Thinking, which was part of our team strategy at that time.

I think it was, it was kind of the opposite of a perfect storm. What’s the opposite of that? The kind of perfect collaboration really between all of those elements. And it also, the project also gave us access to the expertise of our collections team. And we were able to learn about successfully packing objects, transporting objects, choosing objects which we don’t normally have the opportunity to get involved in.

So I think really, At the heart of the success of the project was, was partly the collaborative working and partly that the students self-efficacy was right in the centre of the way that we were working.

Claire Bown: Yeah. You can see collaboration is just all across this project from start to finish as well.

Brilliant. So Sarah, what were the outcomes for the participants, for the school and also for, for yourselves, for the museum? What did you learn?

Sarah Clarke: There were lots of great positive outcomes from this project. One of my favourite outcomes is that some of the young people who were involved when they were in year 10 came back the following year to do work experience with us.

Only, you know, maybe eight months later, and some of those young people have continued to be involved in the day-to-day work of the museum. So they got so engaged in this project, that they really didn’t want to leave us. I always feel that learning in museums is a long game. You work with people a few times when they’re children or young people, and if, if the experience is positive enough, they will come back again and again and they’ll be lifelong supporters of the museum and the work of art galleries and the cultural world for the rest of their lives.

For the school. They were delighted. They really felt that this had improved the children’s outcomes for their exams. So that’s a big tick in their box. For the museum, I think the partnership working that Denise mentioned was one of our most positive outcomes. We developed better relationships between the learning team and the curatorial team, for instance. And we found new ways of working with them that began while some of us were still even furloughed back during the covid pandemic. But those have continued so that now we have more effective ways of working with collections in our learning programs. For us as educators, I think we learned an awful lot from working with a writer.

Working with Ioney was really special. And that has now led to further funding applications. We are now being funded by Arts Council England, just starting a new program where we are going to have two artists in residence a year for the next three years.

Our first artist starts next week, so we’re really excited about this. Ways of using our art collection and the artifacts in our museum collection to be able to inspire people in new ways ,with new ways of looking. So I think we just, we learned so much from this and it has led us on from strength to strength over the last couple of years since we started.

Claire Bown: Absolutely brilliant. And Denise, I’m going to ask this question to you. What about the thinking routines, you’ve used in the project itself? How are you using thinking routines in other programs at the museum?

Denise Greany: So we use them a lot with our A-Level (16-18 year old) students and particularly the simplest ones. See Think Wonder and See Think Connect. We found those really helpful when we put objects or archival sources on the table for A-Level students to interact with. They really slow the process down for those students and stop them from making judgments without looking closely. We’ve just completed a project in collaboration with Newcastle University Archive using the same school that we worked with in the Max Literacy project and other schools in Newcastle, where we shared with the students some of our archival sources related to Newark’s role in the British Civil Wars.

And we use these thinking routines in order to help students to answer an inquiry question about what life was like for ordinary people. So when you put something complicated, you know, an archival document that’s written in manuscripts, secretary hand from the 17th century, and you say, what can you see?

What words can you see in this document? What do those words make you think is happening and what are you left wondering about? You ask a very simple question. We found that students really did find a way into the document, stopped worrying about what they couldn’t understand, and really looked for what they could recognise.

And we ended up coming up with an idea about life during the British Civil Wars. And so that’s something that I think we’re gonna start doing regularly in our program. And has really empowered us, I think, to work with some complicated sources in a new way.

Claire Bown: Fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing all about the collect, connect, create project. But perhaps you could tell listeners how they can find out more about the project or indeed some of the resources associated with the project.

Denise Greany: Yeah, so we did develop a legacy resource so that if you were interested in running a project like this, either using our artworks, or objects or artworks of your own you can find all of the resources on the Max Literacy website.

If you look at you’ll see Newark Museum’s project there, and it includes all of our artworks, as well as videos of Ioney talking about what she’s done. And it includes all the lesson plans and resources and the principle pocket prompt zine that includes all of our curated and invented thinking routines that you can use and adapt yourselves.

Claire Bown: It’s a fantastic resource. It’s incredibly detailed and I love the pocket resource as well. Folding that up and putting that in your pocket is a great way to use thinking routines on the go. So thank you so much for sharing today. Thanks for being on the podcast.

Sarah Clarke: Thank you very much, Claire.

Denise Greany: Thanks a lot.

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