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June 30, 2015

World Building at Mayne School

This project received funding from a large-scale Artists in the Classroom grant. This blog post was written and submitted by artist Tina Farmilo, who worked on this project with Principal Matti Girardi, teachers and students at Mayne Island School on Mayne Island, BC. This post is part of an ongoing series chronicling the progress of select AIC grant recipients.

World Building is a container or frame story, inviting students into world creation and storytelling on a grand scale, with potential for smaller more focused individual stories, adventures or events to evolve within the larger frame story. It is interdisciplinary process-based art engagement... taking the leap of faith into the unknown! 

We begin with a mysterious invitation...

January 20, 2015 — We begin the hands-on adventure with everyone elbow-deep in about 600 pounds of various kinds of raw clay, mounded up on a big table I put together in the school workshop — two sheets of heavy plywood bolted to some permanent saw-horses, covered with building wrap.

Clay table set up in the workshop.

The instructions were simple:

  • Build your own worlds out of clay
  • You get to decide what and how
  • Anything goes — physics, magic...
  • Everyone works together
  • Share the clay
  • Share the earth-building and the story-making
  • What is the name of your world?
  • Who lives here?
  • Tell us the story...

Everything was up for invention — what kind of world, magic or not, who lived there and so on.

The teachers and I carefully divided the children into four mixed-age groups, with the Intermediate and Primary students collaborating. The goal was to encourage a natural leadership to emerge, with the older students providing some guidance and the younger children the unselfconscious play energy.

The whole school participated in the original energetic building process, creating a panoramic landscape which became ever more detailed and storied as the weeks went by. The children enthusiastically embraced the creative process and took ownership of the "Worlds". They appreciated the freedom to choose what to make, and how to make it.

Very quickly, four distinct countries or lands — each with its own characteristic features and stories — emerged from the primordial clay, with several smaller off-shoots evolving as time passed. The four main territories were Monster Island, the Mythical Forest, Ottie Polka Dot Land and Whacko Land. Zombie Minecraft Island was a small community constructed just off the coast of Whacko Land, and Prehistoric and Volcano Island emerged out beyond the sea.

Interesting social dynamics among the children shaped the stories, which some of the children (especially the older students) made reference to in their journals. I wish I had access to their notes at this time. As an example of some of the evolving narratives, I'll mention the transformation of Magical Unicorn Land into Whacko Land, which I was privy to in the workshop. The original name was the invention of the oldest girl in that cohort, but there was resistance from some of the younger children in the group. As another teammate commented, "It isn't fair because she just wants to boss us around and tell us what to do, but she doesn't want to actually build anything herself." 

Eventually there was a lava eruption that wiped out the unicorn's cave (an especially cherished feature of "her" world, for the older girl), and at that point she got fed up. She jumped ship and joined the Monster Island crew instead. Her former teammates renamed their world Whacko Land and continued harmoniously with their building and story-development.

The water slides in Whacko Land.

Journals as a Tool for Reflection

We were open to any possibilities for extending the learning. I kept pushing to use reflective tools like discussion circles and journaling, which I've found rewarding practices in my own creative work and study. Unfortunately this was not the case with the Intermediate students. At first, there was willingness from many (never all) to participate, but after a short time it became almost painful to try and keep pushing this as a regular practice. I had support from the classroom teacher, but somehow we didn't manage to engage the children. It was one of the less successful aspects of the engagement — I keep thinking about ways to make it work better next time. It isn't just me — I know that some of the failure was related to the resistance to any structured approach to learning that was manifesting in that classroom this year. I saw this again later when we brought in guest artists to offer workshops in Digital Storytelling and Animation.

The primary class happily carried on with journaling their experiences, moving from clay to drawing and telling stories very naturally and easily. As well as encouraging those who were writers to record their own words, we took lots of dictation — a practice I developed in my work with pre-school age children. This evolved very directly with the primary class into creation of the individual stories that we eventually produced in book form.

More Adventures in Emergent Curriculum

There were too many elements to the learning experience to fully outline here. Here are some more adventures we undertook with the students... 

  • Adding Colour to the Clay — All students
  • Creation of the Avatars— All students
  • Making the Books — Primary class
  • Digital Storytelling — Intermediate class
  • Sharing the Books — All students
  • "Persistence of Vision" Animation Workshop — Intermediate class
  • "Journeys to Other Worlds: Building the Portal" — Primary Class
  • Making Art in Nature, with Nature

Anticipated Outcomes

  • Invites multi-disciplinary creativity and exciting individual and collaborative play
  • Piggy-backs on children's ageless interest in make-believe worlds and dramatic role-play scenarios
  • Builds on concepts that drive popular digital children's games like Mine Craft
  • Supports a multi-media approach
  • Adapts readily to a range of curricular demands
  • Encourages thoughtful research and hands-on exploration
  • Develops storytelling and story-mapping skills, and awareness of social structure and other real-world concerns
  • Includes an invitation to other local artists and artisans to participate (with support from a separate grant)
  • Allows students opportunity to acquire diverse artistic, technical and craft skills
  • Provides numerous possibilities for spin-off learning opportunities

May 29, 2015 — I took the ferry into town to pick up a proof copy of one of the books, students Parker and Riley's story, The Adventures of the Bajan Canadian. Just before I sent the final digital files to the printer I had to reformat everything (yet again) to try and improve on image-quality. A necessary tedium, I think, because I knew some of the action photos I took of the children's characters had pretty borderline lighting levels. I was really concerned the printed images might come out too dark. After all that, the proof looked great — just like a real book. Such a relief!  I know the children in the Primary class are going to be so proud and impressed when they see their stories in this format. There is real substance to these creations.

I'm very happy with this strand of the World Building at Mayne School initiative. It struck me afresh as I stood there in the print shop, holding the book in my hands, that these books represent a tangible success: the final fruit of a creative endeavour that's been running from the first days of the engagement in January 2015 through the end of May, when the books are finally being printed. So much growing and learning has already gone into these works! And I am slowly coming to recognize what a treasure they're going to be in the future as well, a long-lasting literacy resource for the children and the school.

It's a great satisfaction to be able to point to ways the World Building frame-story has manifested so many creative learning opportunities, especially in the Primary class. Over the weeks and months we saw learning emerge from play and art making, creative inquiry and storytelling, all the creative exploration and activities flowing organically together with the curriculum. The World Building "frame" allowed for a variety of spin-off learning opportunities. Numerous curricular connections have been made including Art, Film, Drama, Language Arts, Mathematics, Communication, Physical Education, Relationship Building and Leadership Development.

There were many wonderful, peak creative-play experiences with the children. It was fun for everyone most of the time. This is all the more welcome because the project has not been without its challenges and hard times, mainly in the area of engaging disconnected young teens. If I remember always to call it creative practice, it helps me to emphasize the importance of beginner mind. Embrace mistakes as interesting opportunities!

June 1, 2015 — I brought the proof copy of The Adventures of the Bajan Canadian into the Primary classroom to show the children. The student authors, Parker and Riley, were extremely pleased (in quiet ways) with the book — their reactions almost solemn. It was another glimpse of the ways the books will meet literacy development goals. Riley (age 6) stroked the cover and turned the pages with a kind of mute wonder. Parker (age 8) sat right down on the rug and read it carefully, cover to cover, whispering the words aloud to himself. He handed it back to me with one word: "Awesome!" 

The children's enthusiasm for their own stories, full of adventure and fighting, candy, video games and TNT, made me think of Sylvia Ashton Warner's literacy successes with young readers using the concept of Key Vocabulary , which she evolved. (See "Teacher" by Sylvia Ashton Warner, published 1963. Key Vocabulary is a concept developed by Ashton Warner for teaching Maori Children in New Zealand. This literacy method allows the learner to approach written culture on his/her own terms. Rather than using a pre-developed text, learners are taught the words that feel meaningful and important to their lives, and encouraged to write sentences and stories which are shared with the other learners.)

The children want to master these stories, their own and other people's too, because they have been part of the creative process right from the very beginning. Each step of the way they have been participating fully as co-creators. And the books are about characters they've made, about topics they find interesting, full of words they want to read. 

Tina reading Parker and Riley's Adventures of the Bajan Canadian to the Primary class.

We've printed several copies of each story. Of course the students will each take home a copy of their own book, and we can print more if parents want to buy extra copies. One set of all the books will stay in the Primary class and another set in the school library, for future generations of students to enjoy. 

This project was supported by an Artists in the Classroom grant disbursed by ArtStarts in Schools and funded by BC Arts Council and the Province of BC.

Feeling inspired? Apply for Artists in the Classroom grants to work with professional artists in your own school. The next deadline to apply is October 15, 2015. Learn more at

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