Today’s post is by Ben Ballin, who’s a member of the West Midlands Sustainable Schools Network [@wmsussch], and an Educationalist at Big Brum. He reports on the work of the Standing Conference on the Arts, Education and the Environment.

“We are literally in the mouth of the Giant” – conference participant

“Children are too often sold a false promise that small things (walking to school, switching lights off) will have a bigger impact than they do. We need a wider conversation …” – Solihull teacher 

In July 2023, with NAEE support, Big Brum TIE hosted an event in Birmingham to initiate a Standing Conference on the Arts, Education and the Environment. This standing conference runs in the first instance for three years and aspires to bring arts educators and environmental educators (including teachers and school leaders) together on an annual basis to:

  • develop creative and innovative practice; 
  • share key debates and examples of practice; 
  • explore synergies and new syntheses and enable new partnership opportunities. 

It aspires to open up a ‘cultural front’ in the struggle for quality education, sustainability and the environment and it aims to enable understanding and fresh thinking between the arts education and environmental education sectors, thereby enabling more effective and imaginative working. 

The inaugural event used Big Brum’s fairy story The Giant’s Embraceas a stimulus.  In this story, Tom has made a promise he can’t keep. The event considered Tom’s dilemma as a way in to exploring the needs of the present and the future child. It asked, ‘what can we offer to Tom, individually and collectively?’

Exploring Tom’s situation, his promise and his dreams through the story as a central focus allowed participants to explore our own situation, dreams and promises afresh. It helped steer us away from the everyday demands of our organisations, of convention and rhetoric, and to reimagine what might really be happening and what might really be possible.

We recognised that we are all like Tom, in that we are small people caught up in existential dilemmas and contradictory problems. As one participant said, we are – like Tom and his promise – buying time in a world where it is often running out.  But we collectively noted that we were also like the greedy Giant, inexorably devouring the forest that he lives in, trapped by his own hunger and an infantile need for self-gratification.  And – as another participant noted – we are also like the woodland mouse that comes to Tom’s assistance: we are trying to help, but we are really very small.

These metaphors resonated powerfully throughout the day. We ended the day asking ourselves, what makes our promises so hard to keep? How can we help each other keep these promises?  Participants recognised many personal and systemic factors at work here. One of the ways in which we can do the latter, we all agreed, is to keep coming back to these questions, to keep them alive, to keep imagining and to keep sharing thoughts and feelings about them.

A further event is planned in Birmingham for Summer 2024 (provisionally 26th July). Please contact Big Brum for details.

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