Improvisation in Ekİnözü

I have spent the last week at Ekinözü YİBO in the province of Kahramanmaraş (Maraş) in southeastern Turkey. Ekinözü is a small town 180km from the city of Maraş. YİBO stands for Yatılı (boarding) İlköğretim (primary: age 7-14) Bölge (region) Okullu (school). Boarding schools in Turkey are free government schools and most of the students come from disadvantaged backgrounds from villages surrounding the region. The villages are widely dispersed and it is therefore more affordable for the government to provide a boarding school for students rather than a transport service to and from the numerous villages each day. The school has 510 students, half of which board and half of which live in Ekinözü itself.

In this school I have been working with a special needs class, a girls mainstream group and a mixed mainstream group (the mixed group are children aged 9-14 who are usually shy and the school counsellor recommended them for the residency). The special needs class has 8 students and are taught by a teacher and two teaching assistants. Having just come from two residencies at rehabilitation centres for children with special needs where students only attend school 8-12 hours a month it has been uplifting to see that the students here have access to full time education. They have several classes a day in their own class and they are also integrated in some of the mainstream classes. They all have Mild Learning Difficulties (MLD) and are lucky to live near a school with a special needs class. Other children with more severe special needs who live in the area have to travel further (to Elbistan- a bigger town) for their education and once again only have a limited amount of hours provided by the government. This has confirmed what I had predicted after the last two residencies. Children with MLD in Turkey have access to free full-time education if they live close enough to a government school that has suitable facilities. Children with SLD or PMLD have access to free education in private rehabilitation centres for 8-12 hours per month if they live close enough to centres that provide this education.

This school has given me a great insight into the government Turkish education system and I have been very grateful for support from the school and teachers who have welcomed me into many of their classes. I have also been staying in the girls’ dormitory so have been fully embraced into boarding school life. For the children, having someone from outside of Turkey come to their school has been a huge excitement. Ekinözü is not an area that international tourists go to, so for many of them it was the first time they had met someone who lives outside of Turkey. I was followed everywhere I went for the first couple of days and even had students come to watch me brush my teeth and put in my contact lenses. The curiosity of someone who the children saw as ‘different’ from them was quite overwhelming. Now I have been here for over a week they have begun to realise that in most ways I am just like them.

The education system itself is currently going through a time of change. Previously it was based on memorising facts and then being tested on them. There is even a saying here that says ‘they come to school as children and leave as robots’. In the last ten years the focus has changed to children being given the topics that they are expected to learn and exploring it themselves (through books, encyclopedias and the internet). Change is never easy and this has certainly been the case for the education system. New teacher graduates have been taught the ‘new way’ of teaching whilst more experienced teachers have struggled with the shift. Children have struggled with the different teaching methods and the curriculum is still going through the process of change. In theory I think it is a very positive change but in practice it is clear that it has not yet settled. National exams are still very focused on having memorised factswhich makes it difficult for the teachers to prepare students for tests based on the new method of teaching. In the classes that I have run the students struggle to use their imaginations and they are always looking at me for the ‘right’ answer. In drama however you create your own questions and answers which is why the focus of this project at Ekinözü YİBO has been on choice.

All three groups have created their own theatre companies and come up with their own rules and regulations. This might sound like the average start to a drama project but here rather than the usual ‘respect each other’ rule that I’m used to hearing I heard ‘respect your teacher’. The idea that the group had to work together as a team and not simply do as I say involved a huge shift in thought. When I first asked students to walk around the room and explore the space they marched up and down the room in a formal line. Moving away from this sense of ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ has been a struggle for myself as well as the students. I’m not used to being looked towards for so much guidance and it was hard to see students struggle with what I would usually consider very simple exercises. With the mainstream groups I slowly introduced improvisation through Augusto Boal’s Frozen Images, gradually introducing feelings, thoughts, and then words and sentences. The groups created their own original stories as well as exploring fairy tales. All of a sudden the two-week residency seems impossibly short to explore basic drama techniques and students have only just begun to unleash their creativity. I have found it harder than usual to give gentle direction whilst trying not to impose my own ideas on the students. This has been particularly tough as I am constantly looked towards for ideas by the students as they continue to struggle to open their imagination. It has been interesting using Boal Theatre of the Oppressed techniques with the group as the students seem so oppressed within the education system that they struggle in exercises where they are expected to be the ‘oppressor’. In the special needs class we have explored the seasons through words and movement and the students have created a piece on what they do in each season- once again the focus being on choice and improvisation.

What has been extremely positive about this residency is how the school has opened its doors so warmly to Tell me a Tale with fairly limited knowledge of what the residency would entail. ‘Projects’ (anything outside of the curriculum) in Turkey have started to grow in schools over the last five years but outside of bigger cities such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir they are still quite rare. Drama is offered as a subject only in private schools or in very limited cases in government schools in the big cities. It has therefore been great to see the positivity in which the project has been received and to see how open-minded the staff  have been to a form of education which is very different from what they are used to. I have got three days left at this school and I look forward to seeing what stories the children continue to create and to see how they are received by the remainder of the school at the performance on Friday.

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