Article written by Natasha Freedman, studio2909 Director
In search of Aether: a cross-curricular creative programme with secondary schools exploring our right to breathe clean air.
The shrieks of 267 Year 7 students that filled the school atrium with positive energy as we finished our last rendition of their song and called a wrap on filming, suggested they had had a good time.
This is high energy, slow in-depth work that penetrates deep into a school, builds trust and transforms its culture; that gets senior leadership on board and engages all teaching staff, supporting creative approaches to teaching and enhancing subject teaching with connections to science, environment, health and arts professionals; that encourages teachers to make connections across the curriculum and beyond to real world issues that disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities and helps students grapple with the complexity of our interconnected world; and that uses high quality playful approaches to enhance young people’s creativity and sense of empowerment.
In search of Aether was born out of conversations in the first London Climate Action Week 2019 about how to mobilise the whole of society towards a sustainable future and was built on years of working with communities and schools, using creative practice to engage people in conversation and action. In 2019 we explored the current day implications for London of increasingly frequent flooding and extreme weather events, through the ancient myth of the flood that exists in all cultures, all built around a production of Noye’s Fludde. We worked with the Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets and with secondary schools in areas of London that are built in high flood risk areas or that have outdoor spaces that are just concrete and tarmac. https://www.studio2909.org/news/singing-not-drowning
As Covid-19 hit many of the communities we’d been working with particularly hard, we were asked by several schools to help them make sense of the complex world in which we are living and support them with joy and creativity to keep their students engaged and motivated as numbers of young people experiencing mental health issues rocketed. Air pollution was being highlighted by the pandemic and our very right to breathe sharpened into focus with the death of George Floyd. Black Lives Matter was transformational for the young people we typically work with, recognising the link between inequality and health, and realising their power to have a voice.
And so we began, during the lockdowns, working to develop and deliver In search of Aether, linking our right to breathe clean air with our right to the head space to imagine a positive future, exploring lung health, mental health and social justice. Teachers took part as collaborators. Young people took part as co-creators and performers. We used song-writing to give young people a voice in their school, local community and on wider public platforms about their right to feel able to breathe and to be able to imagine. We used singing as a practical tool to highlight the quality of air we are breathing, to learn breath control to manage anxiety and power an under-represented youth voice – and as a joyful collective act that supports wellbeing.
Students were supported to become agents of change in their school and to connect with other young people through the power of their ideas and creative outputs.
Our 2022 collaboration with Riverside School (Barking) developed from our 2020/21 pilot and kicked off with a creative CPD for all teaching staff, enhancing curriculum learning at Key Stage 3 around breath, lung and mental health and allowing teachers and students to make connections between subjects. Creative workshops with Year 10 music and the whole of Year 7 generated lyrics and music ideas that were crafted into an original song by Aga Serugo Lugo. Weekly whole year singing assemblies prepared Year 7 for performing their song to camera for London Climate Action Week.
In search of Aether was selected by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health as a case study of best practice at their Annual Conference 2022 for inspiring young people to take positive action around their own health. It supports teachers and pupils to develop their understanding of the health impacts of air pollution and develop their agency to bring about change as individuals, as a school and in their local community – and has revealed gaps in the curriculum at KS3 and 4 around the health impacts of air pollution.
The project model is flexible and can adapt to different school needs.
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Natasha Freedman, studio2909 Director
- 306 young people in Years 7-12 at Westminster City School, Sydney Russell School and Riverside School actively participated in sessions with professional artists and scientists in the pilot project
- 97% said the project increased their understanding of air pollution and the impact it has on their own health
- 69% said it was important to have the head space to imagine a positive future and this project helped them feel more empowered
- 64% said they want to take action to raise awareness of air pollution and social justice to help drive change