The final residency of Tell me a Tale in Turkey took place in a village school in Gümüşhane, a small province in North Eastern Turkey in the Black Sea region. I was keen to take the project to a village school as I had heard so much about them since my arrival in Turkey.
When teachers graduate from university they are required to sit an identical government exam (whether their subject is music or maths) which determines if they will be able to work for the state school system. All government employees are expected to carry out ‘doğu görev’ (eastern duty). This is where they are placed in a more ‘disadvantaged’ area for 3-5 years (the more disadvantaged the area the shorter your duty). Although the name suggests that these areas are all in the east they can in fact be all over Turkey and are in general small towns and villages rather than cities. The only way to finish your ‘doğu görev’ early is if you have a spouse who works elsewhere and then you can apply to move near them- this results in many teachers marrying young and even organising marriages of convenience. Most ‘class teachers’ (general education teachers for children between 7-11) start their career in village schools. Some of the village schools are for as little as 30 pupils where all students aged 7-11 are in the same classroom and their one teacher is also the school principal. Most of the time these class teachers have just graduated and are therefore inexperienced teachers. At the boarding school I went to in Ekinözü many of the students had previously attended village schools and they themselves said that the education they got at Ekinözü YİBO, a larger school, was much better.
Altınpinar İlköğretim Okul is a village school in the town Torul. It has 100 pupils (including a reception class) and has around 10 teachers many whom also work part-time at another village school in the area. I was working with the reception class and also with two 10-13 year old groups. Something that has surprised me during this project in Turkey is the difficulty that young people have in expressing themselves and giving their own ideas and opinions. It was interesting to see that when working with the reception class (6 year olds) the children quite confidently created a story about a school of fish scared of other sea creatures. They suggested that the fish could disguise themselves with masks to combat their fear. In general the children were keen to give ideas to create the story. We then made papier-mache masks which could be used within the story. This also highlights the importance of exploring other arts practices even when the focus is on drama. In the work I do with children with special needs I often combine music, dance and art with drama but sometimes forget the possibilities this creates when working with mainstream groups.
Working with the older group of 10-13 year olds I came across many of the similar issues with students in the other schools from this project. I would even say that students in this school struggled more when it came to improvisation and creating characters. This could possibly be due to the fact that they live in a remote location and are not as socially active as children from larger towns. Around 25 of the schools students were ‘taşımılar’ meaning ‘daily travelling’. Their much smaller village school had closed the previous year and they now travel daily to Altınpinar to go to school there (many of the smaller village schools in Turkey have started to combine to create better education opportunities). These students found the drama workshops even more challenging and once again this made me wonder if coming from a smaller village they socialised even less thus affecting their ability to express themselves. However it was also interesting to compare them to the reception class and wonder what exactly it was that between the ages of 6-10 that made the children become much more fearful of their own imaginations and how are we able help them use their ideas with confidence once again?
What was wonderful to see however from the children at this school was the sheer excitement of attending school. All of the teachers live in a town called Torul, 8km from the village and travel in everyday by a bus service. Every day as the bus pulled into the school playground the students would run up to it with excitement and say to each teacher with delight ‘good morning teacher!’ I saw this every day for 2 weeks and each morning we were greeted as enthusiastically as the last. How wonderful it was to have children so eager to learn and so happy to be at school. Even though they struggled with the new experiences that the drama classes brought them they never lost interest or enthusiasm. There were times that I felt frustrated with their challenges to give ideas and opinions but every day they would try harder and harder. I would say out of all of the mainstream schools I went to, these students struggled the most but their ambition to learn was greater. I think the frustration that I felt could have been seeing how much effort the students were making but I felt that their ‘progression’ was much slower. They still however created 6 dynamic plays within the two weeks to perform to the rest of the school and the local community. If anything this school highlighted the importance needing more creativity in the education system in Turkey. Drama can be such an important tool in developing social skills and self-confidence which are always essential but more so if the children decide to move to larger towns or cities. The aspiration to learn is so strong and it is a great shame that the resources are not.
My time in Turkey has now come to an end. In the next few months I will be writing a research paper on the project. At the start of the project I had hoped that I would get a strong understanding of the Turkish education system but instead I feel that I have just skimmed the surface. What I can say with confidence though is that although the new curriculum has a focus on ‘learning through living’ this is not yet widely practiced in schools and to improve this drama certainly could and should have a place within the education system.