Earlier this year, the Centre for Medical Humanities had the great pleasure of hosting four pupils from Teesdale School. Rhian, Maddie, Alec and Jack came to the Centre to present a report of their observations of an arts in health project at their school. They did so with quiet confidence and great aplomb, seemingly unfazed by questions from staff and students alike. As Dr Angela Woods observed

“This is quality and comparable with some undergraduate work.”

They have started a new school year and taken some time to compile the following blog post of their findings:

Hi, we are R-JAM Investigations from Teesdale School in South West Durham.  Last year we the given the task of becoming Student Researchers to investigate the success of a project taking place in our school.

The project was run by Creative Partnerships and was led by Jeremy; it aimed to help the students explore their journey through the school year by thinking about the ways the journey was changing them and what things they would like to take with them in a suitcase as they continued their journey.  The students participated in several sessions during school time; the sessions included activities such as drama, photography and drawing.

We first met Mary Robson and Mike White from the CMH at Durham University.  They explained the project to us and talked us through some principles of research and interview technique.

We formed our hypothesis: ‘We think this project is helping the young people to develop their goals and aspirations for this year and the rest of their lives.’ We then came up with a series of questions for the interviews. We asked the students about the activities they did, how the sessions made them feel and how they felt the sessions had affected them. Mary and Mike helped us to refine  the questions.

As part of our project, we purchased two Flip HD video cameras.  This enabled us to conduct the interviews in pairs with one person asking the questions and another person recording the audio (often the person we were interviewing was uncomfortable with being filmed).

Many students said they particularly enjoyed drama and photography activities because ‘they were fun’.  One student also said ‘the activities make me feel happy’ and several said that taking photos of things that represented them helped them to express themselves.  Students also said they found creating freeze frames helpful because the exercise allowed them to step back and look at situations from a different perspective.  However the students added that they thought many of the activities were ‘pointless’ and didn’t understand how these activities were helping them.

Several students said that during the sessions they were learning to express their emotions in different ways; one said that the activities had helped them to ‘express my emotions by writing them down rather than lashing out’.  Another student added that the sessions ‘make you feel better because you can talk about it’ and added that the sessions allowed her to ‘let it all out’.

Overall the students said they mostly enjoyed the sessions but sometimes found them boring.  One student said they were discovering more about their personality and the way they responded to situations and several added that the project had helped them make new friends.  In one interview a group told us that they felt they would be happier one year from now as a result of this experience and that the project had helped them approach and talk to new people.  One person we interviewed said they would like to continue the sessions but did not like sometimes having to miss their favourite lessons.

We think that these sessions are mainly helping the young people learn to express their emotions rather than helping them develop their goals for the future.  This is because when we asked the young people about how they see themselves in one year’s time they said that they felt they would be able to deal with their emotions better and be less angry but they didn’t give any specific targets that they would like to achieve.

After we had completed the interviews we compiled the results and wrote a short report detailing our findings.  We then compared our findings with Sarah from Creative Partnerships, who had conducted a separate interview.  It was interesting to see that the young people had definitely opened up more to us student researchers than to the adults.  Often during the interviews the students would at first give negative responses but if we asked them more questions they would start to tell us their true feelings.  We felt that the students often wanted to appear that they didn’t care in front of their friends but would express themselves and bounce off each other if their friends started talking.

1 Comment

Sarah Jackson · October 14, 2011 at 11:48 am

R-JAM did a great job of presenting their research findings to the CMH team at Durham University. It was the depth and honesty of response that they were able to tease out from the participants in the wellbeing project that really shone through. R-JAM knew that their older peers “wanted to be seen as these big people who don’t have emotions; they wanted us to be intimidated by them” but R-JAM weren’t put off: “their automatic response was negative, but then we probed them further”.

When asked by CMH staff as to how they felt to be hearing quite sensitive and personal information from their peers, R-JAM were perceptive in their response: “it felt quite weird knowing certain information about some people. But we weren’t bothered or upset by it. It was emotional information , but we all felt safe in what they said”. R-JAM were successfully able to create a non-threatening space that made the conversations work and they understood a major issue: “if they respect you, they give you the answers – emotional, deep stuff”.

This issue of respect was, from the start, at the heart of R-JAM’s work with Mike White and Mary Robson as they were talked to as adults – as their Assistant Headteacher Ms Ellis noted – “they realised that they were influencing others”. I believe that Rhian, Jack, Alec and Maddie felt empowered by this and so replicated this respectful approach in they way they worked together to devise their questions and in their interview technique, thereby gaining such excellent feedback from their peers.

Having the opportunity to visit Durham University was a great boost to the students and not at all as they expected – they were amazed by the homely feel of some of the buildings at St Chad’s and they way that undergraduates had flexibility in their study hours! Subsequently two of them have reconsidered their options and are now seriously contemplating applying for University. Parents also commented during a Governors’ meeting last term on how significant an impact the visit had.

Teesdale School are continuing their relationship with CMH and are planning to work further with R-JAM to support the new ethos and focus on wellbeing of both students and staff which is helping to drive change in the school.

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