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Issue No.1 - Journeys Around the Past

It should be noted that the seeds of wisdom that are to bear fruit in the intellect
are sown less by critical studies and learned monographs than by insights,
broad impressions, and flashes of intuition.
  - Carl von Clausewitz


Breaking The Ice
Suggestions on breaking the ice in a training session.

Let’s Use the Radio
Using Internet Radio Interviews to support learning.

Reading Photos
Using photographs to stimulate learning.

The Tool of Observation
Using observational skills as a way of deepening understanding of an area of study.

Old and New Views of Teaching
Just how do we see teaching?

Poetry from the Everyday
Seeing the everyday through Poetry.

Parts informing the Whole.

Welcome to the first edition of The Creative Teaching Space ©, an online magazine supporting innovative and creative teaching.

This magazine is designed to showcase creative teaching strategies while also broadening the perspective of what creative teachers do.

This site celebrates the many creative, idiosyncratic and personal attempts of teachers to create engaging and stimulating learning for themselves and their students.

This is not a place for reduction theories or models that can so easily take over teaching and reduce the complexity of what teachers do. Rather, we will explore the ever varied and deeply human potential in learning. As Guy Claxton says:

Learning is a much wider, richer concept than is captured within current models of education and training.
(Wise Up: the Challenge of Lifelong Learning.)

So let’s start. Let’s start gathering ideas. Let’s start to support teachers who are doing really creative things within education and training. Let’s move away from the trendy theories. Let’s open the gates on even newer ways of talking about learning. Let’s begin!

And remember, feel free to contribute. I have teachers coming on board and welcome any contributions discussing creative and innovative teaching.

Breaking The Ice

Following a workshop with Hospitality and Tourism Staff at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne here are some suggestions on Icebreakers you can conduct in teaching and training. If you would like to explore other ways of starting have a look at my article entitled Starter Suggestions:

  • Find 3 things in common with a partner.
  • Say 3 things no one knows about you.
  • Put objects e.g. keys on table. Everyone tries to identify person’s belongings through questions.
  • Adjective tied into subject area same as initials: Darron Davies – ‘dunking donuts’ (hospitality)
  • Stand in Timeline of when you got up – minutes.
  • Famous people you have met or would have dinner with.
  • Group by colour of eyes, postcodes, suburbs, birthplace, zodiac, hair, initials in alphabet line, left and right handed, shoe size, month of birth.
  • Most embarrassing moment.

Breaking the Ice is a way of bringing the social to the fore. It recognises the communal nature of learning and says straight off – "I know you have something worthy to contribute." Icebreakers move through the darkened fjords of Scandinavia allowing easier move for passage. Icebreakers must always keep moving. Ice re-forms and ice can slowly block forward momentum.

Let’s Use the Radio

A man sits in a train. It is in a subway traversing the subterranean world of New York. Familiar stations pass. He knows his stop. On this occasion the train bypasses a large station. This is like descending into Hades, crossing the river Styx. Metaphors struggle to capture the enormity of what has happened above.

They say
Heaven’s high above us
And that hell’s not far below
But inside that subway tunnel,
There was no sure way to know

So sings the American singer songwriter Loudon Wainwright III in an unreleased song called "No Sure Way."

This beautiful song can be heard (and seen) at -

MySpace Video

Loudon’s website explores his back catalogue. He has recorded many beautiful topical songs as well very moving insights into his relationship with his sister, ex-wife, girlfriends, mother, father, son and daughter. This is a fantastic way of exploring and introducing students to a discussion of relationships.

The Picture (see YouTube)

A brother needs a sister
To watch what he can do,
To protect and to torture,
To boss around—it's true;
But a brother will defend her
For a sister’s love is pure,
Because she thinks he's wonderful
When he is not so sure.

"No Sure Way" is a creative response to the September 11 tragedy. How have artists responded? Was the literal so severe that new angles and new poetry had to be found?

Here is a great radio documentary site on the cultural impact of that day.

Richard Thompson on an excellent Fresh Air interview (go to Section 3 of interview) explores how a Taliban fanatic might see the world. An artist takes that leap and explores the unknown a perspective so easily dismissed and very rarely explored. In such artistic leaps we may get closer to the core.

Richard Thomspon many writers and celebrities are interviewed at this site.

Outside of the Inside  (from The Old Kit Bag album) (also see YouTube)
by Richard Thompson

God never listened to Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker lived in vain
Blasphemer, womaniser,
Let a needle numb his brain
Wash away his monkey music
Damn his demons, Damn his pain
And what’s the point of Albert Einstein
What do we need Physics for?
Heresy’s his inspiration
Corrupt and rotten to the core
Curse his devious mathematics
Curse his deadly atom war

There’s a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won’t realise I’m there

Shakespeare, Isaac Newton
Small ideas for little boys
Adding to the senseless chatter
Adding to the background noise
Hard to hear my oratory
Hard to hear my inner voice

Van Gogh, Botticelli
Scraping paint onto a board
Colour is the fuel of madness
That’s no way to praise the Lord
Grey’s the colour of the pious
Knelt upon the misericord

There’s a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won’t realise I’m there

I’m familiar with the cover
I don’t need to read the book
I police the world of action
Inside’s where I never look
Got no time to help the worthless
Lotus-eaters, Mandarins, crooks

There’s a message on the wind
Calling me to glory somewhere
There are signs too deep for the dumb
Like perfume in the air
And when I get to Heaven
I won’t realise I’m there.

We must aim to find many creative entry points into a subject. We do not always have to approach a subject directly. We can come to it through a side door. We can creep up on it gently. The more we use side doors, approaching as if from left field, the greater the opportunity of discovering a deeper truth impressions unveiled, clichés removed.

A fantastic travel book that I read over Christmas, worthy of being made into a film, was Tahir Shah’s "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice". It is a wonderful exploration of the hidden side to India as it follows an Englishman becoming skilled in the craft of illusions and magic practiced by the God men.

I like to use the ABC Radio site to read transcripts of interviews. These are often sharp and to the point. They give one a quick introduction to an issue, its sides as well as recommended links. Radio National is a great place to start. You and your students can brush up on many contemporary issues.

Discoveries are often made by not following instructions, by going off the main road, by trying the untried. - Frank Tyger

Reading Photos

I seek out places where it can happen more readily, such as deserts or mountains or solitary areas, or by myself with a seashell, and while I'm there get into states of mind where I'm more open than usual. I'm waiting, I'm listening. I go to those places and get myself ready through meditation. Through being quiet and willing to wait, I can begin to see the inner man and the essence of the subject in front of me... Watching the way the current moves a blade of grass - sometimes I've seen that happen and it has just turned me inside out. - Minor White

Should a teacher remain open, creating learning pathways, waiting for the moment when a learner can be gently engaged and sent upon his or her own learning path?

Who is this violinist? Is he blind? Where is he going? How does he live? Who is the child with him? Recreate this scene. One student can be the violinist, two others the children. Ask them questions. Explore the moments up to the point when the photograph was taken. What happens after the photo has been taken? Consider interviews, scripts or diary entries. Who is the photographer? He introduces his name as Andre. It may be Mr Kertesz. Explore his life. What does he say to the violinist?

No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen. - Minor White

A ghostly image of a girl. A double exposure. One face could be the truth, the other her dreams of another life. What is she thinking? What is she feeling? What does her inner voice say? A little match girl without any matches, destined to return tomorrow, more newspapers to sell. Alarm. Cold. The figure at her side turns towards her and says…?

These still images of children betray a truth. They worked before these photos were taken and long after. Long hours. Lives probably shortened. What lives do these children live? What are these photographs saying? Explore the lives of the children and the photographer. Check out the Lewis Hine website.

The sad faces of displaced farming families. Dustbowls. Tiredness. Deep lines. Hands revealing more than masked faces. Deeply compassionate images of Japanese internees. Proud. American. Forced into internment camps. Racism and hate. Dorothea Lange speaks through a lens.

While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see. - Dorothea Lange

Check out Dorothea Lange, Lange - Collections, and Japanese Internment sites.

The Tool of Observation

We need to train ourselves to be even more observant. Not just the abstract but also the room around us. Its objects. Its potential for being built into the learning. A creative teacher does not need expensive resources. Even the simplest item can become a metaphor, a stimulus, and a vehicle for enabling students’ minds to shoot in all directions.

He picks up a pencil. It becomes an aeroplane. He will explore take off, landing and the principles of flight. A ballet in the room to a piece of classical music.

But what really does this pencil say? In the words of Vladimir Nabokov in his novel Transparent Things:

"Now let us not lose our precious bit of lead while we prepare the wood. Here’s the tree! This particular pine! It is cut down. Only the trunk is used, striped of its bark. We hear the whine of a newly invented power saw, we see logs being dried and planed. Here’s the board that will yield the integument of the pencil in the shallow drawer (still not closed). We recognized the log is the tree in the forest and the forest in the world that Jack built."

She sits at a bench. Notebook in had. Recording the events around her. Sounds. Who is he talking to? What do they seem to be talking about? Two others move to the bench and start a conversation. She notes it. A ball is kicked and rolls against one of the bench’s legs. (Thanks to an idea raised in a PD session at Bridgewater PS in Hobart).

She takes her notebook home and revises it. All this has happened around the bench at lunchtime. This is an area she chose. Others have chosen other places. The images will be brought together. Maybe they will turn into poetry. The images and sounds of one day. She instead has chosen to write a story as if from the perspective of the bench. What happened to it in the space of this hour? What did it observe? What did it feel?

He has made careful notes of the machine and its parts. He has noted how it works, how it is started and stopped. He has looked closely at its surface, at its texture, listened to the sounds and how they change. Now he is re-ordering the notes. He thought he might write a manual on how to operate the machine exploring safety. Instead he imagines that it is a person. When did it first arrive? How is it used? Is it abused? What role does it have amongst all these other machines?

They wrote on buses. They listened to conversations in bus shelters, or in damp subways serving as air raid shelters. Bombs falling, the roar of planes, the palpable disquiet in mother’s faces, children cradled nervously on laps.

At about ten o’clock things began to hum, and develop into quite the worst raid we’ve had yet, with a terrible noisy barrage. We didn’t attempt to go to bed till midnight: we were all very much on the edge. My sister and I got into our bed and my brother into his room - and never came out again that night. But my father was really unashamedly jittery for the first time, and neither he nor my mother made any attempt to go to bed. Once or twice I almost dozed, but some suspicious crash, or vibration of the floorboards would wake me every time. Finally there was a series of horrible whistles overhead, which put the lid on things. There were no explosions. My father started to look for incendiaries (if it turned out he was right) and went to the door about 6 times in his pyjamas. Then things went a bit quieter and twice he went down to his bed in the dining room: but each time the barrage immediately burst out again (sometimes it seemed to be drumming out tunes like an enormous Boys Brigade, drum and fife band) and he came trotting back.

(Living Through the Blitz: Tom Harrison, Penguin Books 1990.)

Bring this scene to life! Let us hear the secret fears of the brother, sister or father.

The Mass Observation Movement started in 1937 in Britain. It was an opportunity for volunteers from all over the country to anonymously record impressions of daily life. Snippets of overheard conversations were recorded. A massive archive records the feel of Britain at a time an anthropological feel quite different to that recorded in more depersonalised and historical perspectives.

Students record life in a school. Many anonymous impressions are recorded. An apprentice explores the many occurrences within a workplace. Teachers record many images of school, learning extending beyond the classroom, capturing a feel of the social fabric, broadening the perspective of what really takes place within the school.

We are walking through streets noting all that we see. These recordings are collated and we get a new perspective of our time and place!

The bobby strolls the street. There is grime upon the houses and thick smog hanging in the air. Horses can be heard. Children run through the city streets. Stray dogs emerge from darkened alleys. Here the occasional cough of a person can be heard.

There as little or no life in any of these streets: no gossiping housewives or groups of children to help to interpret the streets to the passer-by. The most instructive feature was the glimpses into back gardens: these generally revealed clothes hanging out to dry: and in three storey Dunollie place a clothesline close by showed sorry linen and a waistcoat the told clearly of working class occupants.

Turned North into Peckwater Street: vastly improved: used to be dangerous to Police going down alone: used to have ticket of leave men here: none now. A great many railway men living here. Mainly two St. houses, and all from purple to pink, except 6 3 St. houses east end, north side, these light blue. In Bartholomew Road on West side, between Peckwater Street and Islet Street. Are two houses not marked on map, that are the worst in the district. One, a general shop, was the scene of a murder, by a woman some years ago.

The Charles Booth Online archive gives an overview of life in London in the 19th century. Recorders accompanied Policeman throughout a range of districts to record details of life for a survey called "Maps Descriptive of London Poverty 1898-1899."

Perhaps your students could write notebooks from an imaginary perspective, or a real perspective of what they can observe over a couple of hours. Another great source that can be used is Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor, volume 1. This text aimed to capture the life of London in the mid-nineteenth century. Mayhew:

"Of a Neglected Child, A Street Seller"

Of this class perhaps there is less to be said than of others. Drunken parents allow their children to run about the streets, and often to shift for themselves. If such parents have any sense of shame, unextinguished by their continued be-sottedness, they may feel relieved by not having their children before their eyes, for the very sight of them is a reproach, and every rag about such helpless beings must carry its accusation to a mind not utterly callous.

Among such children there is not, perhaps, that extreme pressure of wretchedness or of privation that there is among the orphans, or the utterly deserted. If a "neglected child" have to shift, wholly or partly, for itself, it is perhaps with the advantage of a shelter; for even the bare room of the drunkard is in some degree a shelter or roof. There is not the nightly need of 2d. for a bed, or the alternative of the Adelphi arches for nothing.

I met with one little girl ten or eleven years of age, whom some of the street-sellers described to me as looking out for a job every now and then. She was small-featured and dark-eyed, and seemed intelligent. Her face and hands were brown as if from exposure to the weather, and a lack of soap; but her dress was not dirty. Her father she de-described as a builder, probably a bricklayer’s labourer, but he could work, she said, at drains or such like. "Mother's been dead a long time," the child continued, "and father brought another woman home and told me to call her mother, but she soon went away. I works about the streets, but only when there's nothing to eat at home. Father gets drunk sometimes, but I think not so oft as he did, and then he lies in bed. No, sir. not all day, but he gets up and goes out and gets more drink, and comes back and goes to bed again. He never uses me badly. When he's drinking and has money, he gives me some now and then to get bread and butter with, or a halfpenny pudding; he never eats anything."

Students from a range of subject areas can explore this site. Any sociological or historical study provides a perspective that can be informative and relevant. A Hospitality student reads the tricks of the trade of "The Tricks of Costermongers.":

I shall now treat of the tricks of trade practised by the London costermongers. Of these the costers speak with as little reserve and as little shame as a fine gentleman of his peccadilloes. "I've boiled lots of oranges," chuckled one man, "and sold them to Irish hawkers, as wasn't wide awake, for stunning big uns. The boiling swells the oranges and so makes 'em look finer ones, but it spoils them, for it takes out the juice. People can't find that out though until it's too late. I boiled the oranges only a few minutes, and three or four dozen at a time."

Oranges thus prepared will not keep, and any unfortunate Irishwoman, tricked as were my informant's customers, is astonished to find her stock of oranges turn dark-coloured and worth-less in forty-eight hours. The fruit is "cooked" in this way for Saturday night and Sunday sale -- times at which the demand is the briskest. Some prick the oranges and express the juice, which they sell to the British wine-makers.

Learning is more than the acquisition of the ability to think; it is the acquisition of many specialised abilities for thinking about a variety of things. - Lev Vygotsky

We need to look at our subject area through a variety of lenses. History and sociology show broad human experience. It is up to us as teachers to connect the students and the subject area to the past. We must find many connections that link the past with the present, informing our knowledge and showing often through creative methods a shared humanity and a relevance far beyond simple facts and figures.

The very reality of teaching is one of being creative and adapting teaching material to the day, the needs of one’s students, as well as one’s feelings and intuitions. Teaching is a fluid activity, deeply personal and well beyond a prescriptive list of competencies. The best teachers are fully aware of how professional and academic discussions of teaching fall short of reality. They rarely operate in a linear fashion. Changes are constantly occurring. Intuitions come into play. They direct a class into new areas of engagement. What was planned yesterday is passed over today. Engagement and creativity become central. Bureaucratic requirements are creatively tagged onto the learning experience.

Teachers do not plan their courses or units of work in a linear way that starts with the learning they want to achieve, and then identifies the methods and materials which might lead to those outcomes being realized. Rather, teachers start with knowledge and feelings about their pupils, with their intuitive understanding about what is likely to excite and engage those pupils, and with their own passions and enthusiasms about ideas, topics, materials and methods that they can picture working with their classes. Only after planning collaboratively (and dynamically) with their team colleagues, and sometimes with input from their pupils too, do teachers then go back to the outcomes, as a checklist, to ensure that nothing is out of balance or has been missed out. - Andy Hargreaves: From Reform to Renewal: A New Deal for a New Age: Beyond Educational Reform - Bringing Teachers Back in.

We know that children are capable of peak experiences and that they happen frequently during childhood. We also know that the present school system is an extremely effective instrument for crushing peak experiences and forbidding their possibility. - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Old and New Views of Teaching

Here is an interesting quote on education from English Film Director/Producer Lord David Puttnam:

There's a story I try and tell teachers and I think it's worth repeating. If you time-travelled, a very good doctor from the year 1900 to the year 2000 into an operating theatre, he literally would be an exercise in incompetence.

He could take a cup of tea, take the patient's pulse and do nothing else at all, because basically, technology has obviated his original skills. You've taken a schoolteacher from 1900, put her in a classroom in the year 2000, give her some chalk and a blackboard, she in most subjects could teach a class.

Now that speaks unfortunately against the teaching process. We haven't begun to apply technology to the learning process in the way that we've applied it to medicine. But that will happen in the next 25 years.

Charles Dickens

A good example of how classrooms once operated is provided by Charles Dickens at the start of Hard Times. It may be worth exploring this to show how teaching and training settings have changed over the years.

'NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!'

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker's hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker's obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders,-nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was,-all helped the emphasis.

'In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!'

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.


THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir-peremptorily Thomas-Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind-no, sir!

In such terms Mr. Gradgrind always mentally introduced himself, whether to his private circle of acquaintance, or to the public in general. In such terms, no doubt, substituting the words 'boys and girls,' for 'sir,' Thomas Gradgrind now presented Thomas Gradgrind to the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts.

Indeed, as he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanizing apparatus, too, charged with a grim mechanical substitute for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.

A New View of Learning

From "The Axemaker’s Gift": A double Edged History of Human Culture: James Burke & Robert Ornstein 1995, C Putnam’s Sons, N.Y.:

A simple chain of web-data links might go:

Toilet roll, invented in response to sanitation ceramics, resulting from 19th century sewage developments, triggered by cholera epidemic, whose social techniques generated public health legislation, that established pathology labs, able to function due to tissue staining techniques, that used aniline dyes, discovered during a search for artificial quinine, in coal tar that was a by-product of the manufacture of gaslight, that illuminated early workers classes, in factories spinning cotton in America, processed by Eli Whitneys gin, after he developed interchangeable musket parts, that made possible the manufacture of machine tools, for production lines that introduced continuous process techniques, that would one day make toilet rolls.

There are two main attractions to this way of accessing information. First, it is easy to operate because the user can join the web at an entry point matching their level of knowledge and which therefore can be as complex as a quantum physics equation or as simple as a toilet roll. Second is the interconnected nature of the web that make sit possible to move from the entry point to anywhere else on the web by a large choice of routes, one that will best suit the user’s own idiosyncratic interests and the level of ability.

Since there is no ‘correct’ way to arrive at target data, designated, say by curriculum needs, in the education process that the web might make possible the web could offer the user a means to ‘learn’ the target information by arriving at it in their own way. "Knowledge" could then be the experience of having travelled on the web, like the knowledge of a city’s streets. The journey, therefore, would be more valuable than the destination and the relationship between data more valuable than the data. It might be that we would eventually come to value intelligence no longer solely by information retrieval but by the imaginative way a student constructed such a journey. The web could become a microcosm for society itself. It could serve as a means to play out scenarios for knowledge manufacture and its potential social effects.

How about letting your students explore the many web-like links on the Internet. Take the subject area and explore its many links and connections. Where does a topic take you? What does it connect with? What new areas of knowledge open up to you? How is it mainly covered in this web? Your students could present any topic as a chart of connections.

Poetry from the Everyday

I remember a very simple and meaningful activity that I came across in my work at Glen Waverley Primary School. The teacher had asked students to write sentences about the area of study – the colonial era – and these sentences were transformed into a form of poetry. Sentences, taken from textbooks, had conjunctions and punctuation removed. The phrases were set out in a style like poetry and the students displayed their work on large paper at the back of the room. Is this poetry? At least it is an opportunity to work actively with words and phrases. Encourage students to explore their senses – sounds, sight, smell, touch, and taste. This allows the space for reflection and seeing the meaning of a text in a new light. Imagine doing this with any report, text, or manual. To remove oneself from the format, into another style, can allow students to see, for example, the shape of words. They can explore meanings, word origin, and even grasp in whatever degree, a poetic nature to the area of study.

You may even like to send me examples of short poems, or even photos of your desks!

The End of School

Bell rings, boys run, doors slam,
Distant feet in the playground;
Only the silent steps of the cleaners.

Colin Chapman Age 12

The Desk Lid

I looked at the desk lid in wonder;
Thinking of all the kids that had sat there,
Thinking of all the pens that had touched there,
Wondering what weather had passed there
Even thinking of teachers that had taught them,
I wonder what lesson the person was having
When he had written ‘I am me’.

Fay Lawrenson Age 11

(Family and School Penguin English Project Book)


Ruins tell us what has been lost, what has decayed, what has been weathered, what has been sacked by angry hordes.

Tourists flock to Europe to see ruins. All over the world ruins hold incredible appeal to people. Even in 18th century England the gardens of estates included mock ruins. Poets have eulogized the power of ruins. They carry an emotional and aesthetic appeal – a sense of a time long gone. We expect to see collapsed columns, hedge-grown walls, statues lacking in arms or heads.

They tell us of the past and what could have been. They stand as a testament to a time as well as the reality of mankind. Bodies have returned to the earth yet buildings still stand. Chemical residue lingers. Metals rust. Metal is transformed. Nature slowly reclaims all that is deemed not important as history.

So is the case of ruins. We see them in historical books. We may visit them. Ruins enable the imagination to reconstruct, to breathe new life into the past.

Let your students visit ruins, or pictures of ruins, to try and find a sense of the past. Draw the location, fill in the missing places, imagine that characters emerge from the rubble and interview them. Imagine the sounds of that location. Imagine that you are the people, or the buildings or the rubble. What have you seen? What has been your journey over the years?

Let your students adopt the role of archaeologists. Let them piece together the ruins of what now stands. They are several hundred years in the future. A science lab is found. What is discovered? Sports equipment is discovered. How was it once used? A record player lies beneath rubble. What was this ancient device used for? An archaeological perspective, and a sense of ruins, can lead to many new perspectives on what surrounds us.

I came across an interesting adult picture book recently that explored the present from a future archaeological perspective. A bathroom had been discovered. The archaeologists were puzzled. They thought that the body in the tomb – a bath in fact – was an ancient burial. The toilet, that made a sound when flushed, was thought to be a mysterious foghorn signalling death. Motel of The Mysteries David Macaulay.

Now--the single little turret that remains
On the plains,
By the caper overrooted, by the gourd
While the patching houseleek's head of blossom winks
Through the chinks--
Marks the basement whence a tower in ancient time
Sprang sublime,

From "Love Among the Ruins" by Robert Browning


There lay in front of me
Scattered stones
All parts of palaces and temples
Of the rich, who must have once lived
On the place where I
For now freely roam.

The poor in the past, like me,
Must have lived in houses but more so
In the ruins, which their predecessors
Must have with heart built
But which like the ruins of their predecessors
Must finally bow to time.


Ruins are not always old. Even in this present day many ruins are being created. Archaeologists are horrified by disasters that are currently happening in the Middle East and other poor or war torn nations.

In this book of photographs – "Afghanistan" by Simon Norfolk – we see the makings of a current disaster. Here the ruins are not caused by natural disasters such as an earthquake. Bombs have left their mark. Land is decimated, unable to be farmed due to the chemical and radiation residues. Land has been ransacked or vandalised by locals. All that is left is a constant reminder of the internal scars waiting to be healed.

A former teahouse takes on a ghostly present. It is like Stonehenge. Next to the ruins a man sells balloons. The fragile meets the hard.

A tank tread looks like a menacing caterpillar about to move across the desert floor.

Tanks rust. Camels wander past. An outdoor cinema screen remains pockmarked by bullets. Damaged, twisted and immobilised planes look as though they are about to climb out of the desert. Unexploded or discarded shells look like blossoming flowers. An arch reveals the ruins left by the vandalised stone Buddhas. Distant vapour trails in the beautiful landscape are trails left by active bombers. They are at work killing people.

Here is a perfect example of art finding beauty, truth and irony within events. Finding a new language to express the inexpressible. Enabling new perspective. Allowing space for reflection – "is this what really happened?"

Explore the photos within Simon Norfolk’s book at this site.

What other sites, books, poems, etc are you aware of that bring ruins to life?

Darron Davies

© Copyright In Clued - Ed 2009


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