With funding provided by the ScotRail Foundation, the Scottish Writers’ Centre Educational Outreach Programme pilot saw Teaching Artist Alexander “Twig” Champion visit Haghill Primary School, taking children from the Connect 2 Out of School Care Programme on nature walks to develop their writing and drawing skills, and to raise their awareness of the world around them.
Twig is an artist who creates walking sculptures – walks the experience of which is considered a work of art in itself, and which then produces further works of art in the documents that record it: usually photographs, drawings, or, in the case of Twig, haiku poetry. Twig discovered the intimate and fruitful relationship between walking and creating during his time at art school, but didn’t get involved in teaching until the end of his studies: ‘I was complaining to a random member of the public at my degree show that high schools don’t prepare students properly for studying art at university,’ he told me. ‘He turned out to work for Education Scotland, and offered to take me on board to work on developing a new curriculum.’
There are, in the present education system, Twigs feels, disjoints between high school study and what art schools are looking for. All art schools look for life drawing experience, for example, but almost no public schools teach it. The role of the teaching artist is, among other things, to realign these disconnects by offering knowledge and practice specific to their field that wouldn’t otherwise be available to children or their teachers.
It was in this capacity that Twig was visiting Connect 2: to offer the children an experience they wouldn’t normally have, but one that would also feed into their established learning and development. We walked, over the course of the afternoon, around Alexandra Park, an open green space at that time just beginning to be tinged by the coppers and rusts of autumn. The children were asked to make a list of all the things they saw that interested them – lists that contained everything from rosebay willow herb and fallen bird feathers to dog poo – before writing haiku and drawing pictures to accompany them back at the school.
Twig finds haiku an appropriate medium both for teaching children and for documenting and disseminating his own walking sculpture for a number of reasons. Historically, haiku as a form has very intimate links with movement and nature, being based from the time of the Japanese ancients on observations of the seasons and travel. Haiku poetry is concerned with concentration, and, through a structure of three lines consisting of seven syllables, five syllables, and seven syllables, focuses on an intermingling of the internal and external, and a union of the fleeting and the eternal.
The first haiku poets were often monks who would wander the country asking for alms: and the poems they produced preserve the sense of the immediacy and presence that surrounds a miraculous observation of one’s surroundings. Haiku in this sense function like textual snapshots of a thought or experience. Though modern haiku poets don’t necessarily utilise the traditional means of strict syllabic organisation any more, they maintain a devotion to succinctness and brevity, and to the meditative act of distilling things to their very essence.
The haiku’s intrinsic relation to time and historical connection to movement make it an ideal medium for recording Twig’s walks, he finds, and likewise finds walking an excellent way to inspire their writing – ‘It’s something to do with the movement and rhythm, I think,’ he tells me.
Haiku poems are also perfectly suited as a teaching tool for children, as not only do they allow conversations about history and other cultures, they promote an easily-graspable kind of personal mindfulness, functioning with characteristic condensation as a vehicle for teaching a variety of literary and linguistic concepts beneficial to children of all ages.
The short length of haiku makes them an easy medium to grasp, even for younger children, and their strict formal organisation also makes them easy to imitate. They teach numerical skills in counting syllables, as well as linguistic skills in constructing sentences and utilising punctuation, and, more than anything else, constructing them is enjoyable. ‘I think they’re fun’, Twig tells me: ‘the experience is fun, it’s something they’ll remember, and when kids are having fun they learn better.’ This kind of engagement is at the core of Twig’s investigations for the new curriculum, and an interest in capturing similar moments of small joy that might otherwise be overlooked forms the heart of his own artistic practice.
Going forward, as well as continuing to work in schools with Education Scotland and the Scottish Writers’ Centre, Twig wants to apply the traditionally natural principles of haiku to urban life – to capture the fleeting moments around him, and record and revel in ‘the zen of the city’.
Words and photographs by Scott Crawford Morrison