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Creative Leadership in Learning Case Studies

Hear inspiring and transforming stories from participating schools: Casula High School and Lansvale Public School

Lenny Ann Low

Embracing the fertile unknown 

Case Study: Lansvale Public School

Five years after Mark Diamond, principal at Lansvale Public School, first encountered Sydney Opera House’s Creative Leadership in Learning program, he remains its greatest fan.

“It has been a completely life-changing experience for me as a principal,” he says. “Profound and extraordinary. It has honestly been one of the best things in my 30-plus year career in public education”.

Lansvale Public, a south-western Sydney school with 800 students, has a large multi-cultural community, including Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, Arabic, Samoan and Hindi heritage. Forty per cent of students have a Vietnamese background.

The school’s partnership with Creative Leadership in Learning (CLIL), which began in 2017 and continues in 2020, has ranged from student and parent projects with artists to professional learning with teachers exploring how to teach more creatively, and performances and art work presented at the Opera House.

Mark during Teacher Professional Learning
Teacher Professional Learning

Artists, including visual artist Howard Matthew, musician Luke Escombe and theatre-maker Alice Osborne, have created original art work with teachers, students and parents allowing participants to uncover strengths, take risks creatively and discover new ways of working. Images: Lansvale Public School.

Mark believes CLIL’s programs, its drive to engage creativity in the classroom and broader community, has revolutionised the school’s approach to learning.

“The whole notion of teaching is to have some anticipated outcomes, to aim for them and measure our success in achieving them,” he says. “But the

Opera House has reminded us that mistakes can be beautiful, that questions underpin good learning and that not knowing where something is going (to end up) can be exciting. They call it the fertile unknown and we've learned to embrace that.

“I don't want that to be misread as laissez faire, a ‘Let's just do stuff’ approach. No.

Meticulous and particular planning goes into the preparation and our kids learn to lead and follow really well, to work in an ensemble, explore that fertile unknown, and reflect on how to be better in the future.

Children engaging in creative learning. Images: Anna Zhu

“And it’s been a reciprocal relationship too. I'm proud of the kids for providing the Opera House with that additional lens, the lens of the learner, the lens of a multicultural south western Sydney kid.”

Lansvale’s partnership with CLIL also evolved to connect with the families and community. Frank Newman, Creative Learning Specialist at the Opera House, recalls how a year into the program, parents and carers were expressing their wariness about its worth.

“Many were resistant to the kinds of contemporary learning that the school was trying. They wanted their kids to end up at private schools and get selected for the major high schools.

“Their feelings were, ‘You don't need to use drama to teach maths’. They wanted ‘proper teaching’.

“So the journey with them was bringing them on board to the idea of creativity as a way of teaching. And they did, 100 per cent. They're now the program’s biggest advocates.”

Sydney Opera House, Creative Learning Specialist, Frank Newman and Mark designed a project within the program that involved the parents. Collaborating with visual artist, film maker and educator Howard Mathew, a group of 15 parents spent ten weeks creating part of an art work inspired by an Asian food cart. Over the following ten weeks students then created their own art in response.

The work, an interactive installation called the Dream Makers Kiosk, was presented for the Opera House school holiday program in 2018, and then twice again in 2019, with more than 14,000 children and their families visiting the cart when it was installed in the Opera House’s Western Foyers to make puppets using a series of faces and designs created by the Lansvale students.

Children engaging in creative play at the Dream Makers Kiosk at Sydney Opera House. Images: Anna Zhu

“That group of parents had been on a wonderful journey where they had developed culture and trust and a much deeper understanding of creativity and its importance in lifelong learning,” Mark says.

“They now hold us to account for how important creativity is across key learning areas in the learning of their children.”

As CLIL’s partnership with Lansvale blossomed so did the connection between the school and the Opera House. Few of the students and parent community had spent significant, or indeed any, time visiting the Opera House, whether to see performances or explore its world heritage architecture.

Students, teachers, parents and carers from Lansvale Public became members of the Opera House community, whether in on-site workshops, touring behind the scenes, seeing shows or standing on stage to perform the stories, songs and theatre they had worked on.

Students from Lansvale Public tell history and humour with musician Luke Escombe. 

When the class of 5/6H performed Boat of Dreams and Asian Supermarket, created with Luke Escombe, as part of the 2019 Amplified festival, tears welled in the eyes of family, friends and teaching staff in the audience. Mark Diamond recalls his overwhelming pride and emotion.

“It just blew us away,” he says. “We knew the kids that were good at music. We knew the kids that were articulate. We knew the kids that were good at literacy and numeracy, but other kids just emerged from the pack and led that group.

“It was beautiful, just beautiful.” 

Planet Home

What does home mean to you? In lieu of singing, students from Lansvale Public School came together and signed in Auslan the words to their original song, Planet Home.

Transforming teaching

Case Study: Casula High School

Casula High School began their partnership with Creative Leadership In Learning (CLIL) in 2017 with a specific intent. Their first year of the program would focus entirely on professional learning for the teaching staff and school leaders. 

PE and Special Education teacher Andrew Walsh, who has since become the CLIL project leader within the school, recalls how significant this became for the Casula staff, students and community.

“One of the keys to how successful Creative Leadership In Learning has been at Casula is that we had all the senior executives with us at the beginning,” he says. “Our three deputies, our principal at the time and seven teachers who all began the journey.” 

Gareth Smith, Principal, Bonnie Griffin, Head Teacher CAPA, Jenny French, Former Principal

While the individual projects in each school are different, the consistent driver of inquiry is based around a single focus question developed by the school. At Casula this is: “How can we embed creativity into the programming of all KLAs [Key Learning Areas] across the school?”. With this question at the forefront of their minds the group began working with Opera House Creative Learning Specialist Frank Newman and artist Lilly Blue in 12 master classes.

Exploring notions of creativity through physical theatre, visual art and artistic process exercises, and bolstered by a training day at the Opera House, the teachers discovered and developed ways of engaging creativity within the classroom.

Crucially, it was when the group then collaborated with each school faculty to work out how to use these new ideas for different subjects that Casula’s teaching transformation began.

“This meant that every year these things we learned are getting used,” Andrew says. “And they're getting used commonly around the school, no matter what subject the students are in.

“Students will be, or have been, exposed to the activities and strategies on a regular basis and that has made this whole process really successful at our school. 

“It has revolutionised teaching and learning at Casula High School.”

In the following two years, as teachers and school leaders continued a strong focus on professional learning, students began creative projects with artists. In 2018, theatre artist Jane Grimley, and teacher Emily Signorini, worked with Year 10 STEM students exploring the theme “tragedy as a provocation for design in STEM”, creating a stage work presented at the Opera House in a combined show with performances by Liverpool High School.

One of the Casula High's proudest outcomes came from the students of the 20 Special Education Unit who worked with artist Howard Matthew throughout 2018 to create a film titled Voyage to our Future. Delving into their hopes and fears for the future, it explored what life might hold after finishing school and leaving the care of the unit.

Voyage To Our Future. Created by students of the 20 Special Education Unit who worked with artist Howard Matthew.

The school has also developed creativity classes for students in Year 7 as a way to help them transition to high school and understand new and different ways of learning after primary school.

Of all the positive effects of the program, Andrew’s strongest memories come from students presenting work on the Opera House stage to family, friends and teachers.

We targeted different groups from around the school and gave them that exposure, which, for a lot of our students with low socio-economic backgrounds, has been a significant step,” he says. “They’d never been to the city or to the Opera House before. They’d literally never seen the Harbour Bridge.

“Getting to travel in there and have their family and friends invited, it's a huge deal for them. To this day, students who graduated from our Special Ed unit last year still come back and talk about that day and night, which is unreal.”

The transformative effect on teachers has been equally momentous. Opera House Creative Learning Specialist Frank Newman recalls teachers feeling dubious and questioning the process in the early days of the professional learning master classes he and Lilly Blue led.

“For teachers taking the program it’s big,” Frank says. “Often they're taking huge risks, trying things, making art for the first time since they were in primary school.

“Quite often they walk into the first session, and they'll go, ‘Oh listen, I'm right up for this but I'm just letting you know, I'm not at all creative’. Almost every time in each new school, or each new group inside a school, someone says that “And I go, ‘Oh, that's fine, thanks. You're wrong. You are creative just by virtue of being a human being. You just haven’t flexed those muscles for a while’. 

“Then they end up doing all sorts of wonderful, weird, beautiful things and challenging themselves. It’s a real journey for them. I’m as proud of the work CLIL does with teachers as I am of the work with the students. While the joy on student faces is incredibly obvious to everyone involved with the program, the positive impact and changes on teachers are there – just far less visible.”

Andrew believes the CLIL program, and the effect of implementing it across all of Casula High School’s faculties, gives every teacher a new confidence and motivation.

“There’s not a negative part to it,” he says. “In my opinion it changes teaching and it change students' learning for the better. We’ve been working to make sure it’s sustainable and part of the school for a long time.”

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