Sparking an interest: volcanoes and creativity

Just before half-term I was invited to Yaxham Primary School to take part in a Science-Art-Writing (SAW Trust) workshop with  writer Andy McDonnell,  artist Liz McGowan and Class 3.  We were the last part of a  SAW triumvirate, exploring different aspects of Earth processes at three Norfolk schools.

In the next couple of weeks the children will continue a collaboration with Liz, producing a joint piece of Art for the Wellbourne Arts Festival.

I was pretty excited to be asked: I’m really interested in what the humanities has to offer towards understanding societal interactions with active volcanoes. I also subscribe strongly to the view that any artificial divide created between science and the humanities in schools needs cheerfully trampled into the ground at every opportunity. Creativity lies at the heart of scientific endeavour and critical thinking about ‘how things work’ is not just triggered by a table of results.

I’d had to provide ‘six images’ to represent my research field ahead of time. So, I was pretty curious about how these had inspired Liz and Andy and in turn how that would inspire the kids. It was a brilliant day.

I kicked off with some broad thoughts about volcanoes and tectonics, and then homed in on a couple of experiments to demonstrate some of the main processes behind different types of eruption. Then we looked at some models of real volcanoes to think about their shapes and some rocks, always the rocks. Volcanoes are (literally) nothing without the rocks.

Shhh! Poets at work. Getting going with the volcano poems. Concentration was intense. Image Courtesy SAW Trust.
Shhh! Poets at work. Getting going with the volcano poems. Concentration was intense. Image Courtesy SAW Trust.

So far so exciting. Then after some ‘warm up’ word exercises Andy used ‘personification’ as a vehicle to inspire the kids to write some poetry about what it would be like to be a volcano. I wouldn’t have thought about that, but he told me personification is a really helpful way to kickstart the writing process. It certainly worked at Yaxham!

  …I blew,

Everything flew,

I bubbled,

My ash clouds twisted and twirled.

 

The rubble was extensive…. (by Grace)

I supplied a few key volcano words (including my favourite adjectives from the Volcanic Explosivity Index) and the poems were ‘terrific’ (++). Even more interesting, it was fantastic to see some of the facts and principles I had told them come hurling back out as descriptions of volcanic activity.

Have you seen my pumice spurting out?

Have you seen my ash clouds falling from the sky?

 …So I think you’ll be glad to know that I screech out a warning!

Don’t come near me, for my breath reeks of rotten cooked cabbage.

I feel bumpy, smooth and I have a wonderful texture of freshly baked bread….

…Don’t hack at my skin because I’ll throw up all over you.

My lava feels like orange slop that sticks to my surface.

(By Ella)

I loved Liz’s artwork, and it was great to see how delighted everyone was to be able to create something so effective.  She’d produced cones of heavy paper and onto these was painted the ‘gloop’ and spattered some suitably volcanic paint.

Our own miniature volcanic arc. Image Courtest SAW Trust.
Our own miniature volcanic arc. Image Courtesy SAW Trust.

The pièce de résistance was a final squirting with water, changing the viscosity of the paint, encouraging it to run and create all sorts of authentic channels in the gloop. I was practically hopping with delight at all the ways it represented ‘real’ processes on ‘real’ volcanoes.

My very own original piece of Liz McGowan art! Notice how the water rivulets have created some really interesting channels through the gloop. This was made of ash, but from Liz's hearth rather than my rock collection, mixed with PVA glue.
My very own original piece of Liz McGowan art! Notice how the water rivulets have created some really interesting channels through the gloop. This was made of ash, but from Liz’s hearth rather than a volcano and mixed with PVA glue.

So did it add anything to the more straightforward rocks and bangs type stuff I would usually do? Unbelievably so, I was bowled over by just how much the poetry enabled the class to reflect on and create their own mental models for what I had told them, and I was asked interesting, provocative questions around the artwork.

When Liz goes back to the Schools they will produce much larger pieces of art together. These will reflect the whole day and complete an ‘installation’ with the other two schools. It will be spectacular, come and see it!  Liz and the pupils will exhibit this at the Wellbourne Arts Festival on Saturday 13th June between 11:30 and 13:00. I’ll be hanging around too, but the children will be the experts. And that’s just how it should be.

Thanks to Jenni Rant of the SAW Trust; Liz McGowan and Andy McDonnell for their collaboration and, of course Class 3 of Yaxham Primary School without whom the day would have been a lot less inspirational.

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