Autumn thoughts turn to classes

blackberrying Angus Racy HelpsI’ve never understood why I was taught to think of Autumn as a metaphor for closing down.  Okay, so my early school was rural.  In this season tractors hauling crops regularly passed our gates, and after 3.30pm many of us roamed amongst the workers gathering things in.  We even helped, occasionally, especially if fruit was involved.  Yes, days were getting shorter and winter was approaching.

But, and it’s such a big but I was tempted to set it in capitals, at the same time as harvests were happening, soil was ploughed, harrowed and sowed with crops for the next year.  In the UK, it’s one of the busy times of the agricultural year.

The same rule applies to learning.  Autumn is the beginning of the new academic year.  Remember the noise and excitement of that first day at school, the energy: the excitement?

Working in the FE sector on short courses, I’ve learned that September and October are still the main time when people think about signing up to learn something.  Are we wired to look for classes in autumn, or just following a pattern established in childhood?

Either way, now’s the time when I begin to check in with the office to see how the pre-enrolment numbers are going.  What will be popular?  How busy will the next few months be?

Busy, busy, busy, that’s my view of autumn.  Okay, so the days are shortening, but far from life slowing, in the classroom, the energies and excitements of the summer are being re-focused.  What better way to keep spirits up, as the light levels drop, than to learn or practice something?

It’s easy to feel that once we reach adult-hood we can, or maybe even should, put ‘school’ away.  Not so.  While it may be tricky to fit learning into the busy modern lifestyle, once tried, many stick with it.  They discover that joining a group of focused and enquiring adults can be stimulating, fun and stretching.

Aside from the chance to make new social connections, there are long-term health benefits to returning to classes as an adult.  In a Radio Times article from April 2016, Ellie Walker-Arnott reported that:

A Scottish study has tested over 600,000 factors in a group of 79-year-olds regularly since they were 11. It found that a quarter of brain ageing is down to genes while three quarters (75%) is dependent on our lifestyle choices.

One of the lifestyle choice the studies advocate is on-going education.

Learning something new changes the micro-structure of your brain and sees its size increase in certain areas, rather than shrink.

If you do similar sudoko challenges every day for 10 years it won’t work different parts of your brain, it’s got to be something new. Life drawing is a good option, as each picture is a fresh new challenge. As is learning a new language. Whatever you choose, continuing to learn as we age can have a “dramatically positive effect.”

Autumn thoughts, it seems, should be active.

 

*    Illustration at top of page, ‘Blackberrying’ by Angus Racy Helps.

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Where did you find out about that?

As you may know, quite a few of my classes are organised by the WEA.  ‘Who are they?’ people tend to ask, when I tell them who I work for.

‘Workers’ Educational Association,’ I say.

‘Oh,’ they say.  ‘Where’s your college?’

‘There’s no campus,’ I say.  ‘Classes are organised within the community, by volunteers who run the local branch.  There could be some taking place just around the corner from where you live.’

‘Really?’

weaI’ve taught in community centres, out-of-hours schools, village halls, church and chapel halls, library meeting rooms and pub-lounges.  These are all places where people pass through and might see the posters, even if they don’t sign up.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, Saturday I went to the WEA Area Meeting, where delegates from four of the local branches gathered to exchange news and share ideas.  Publicity was one of the items on the agenda, and despite the fact that this year there have been some popular courses put on, there was still a general feeling that the WEA needs a higher public profile.

pitmen_paintersThis is an organisation with a one hundred and thirteen year pedigree: that’s created a healthy alumni and alumnae.  Yet apart from the wonderful, Pitman Painters play by Lee Hall, there’s not much mention of WEA in the national or local press.

Some branches post on social media, and most put up posters and leaflets.  Finding spaces for paper publicity is tricky.  Many of the places with ‘What’s On’ displays are managed by commercial organisations, and often that limits the room left for others.

Our local newspaper used to produce a supplement that contained all of the adult education courses on offer in the county.  That’s how I came to sign up for my first creative writing class.  I remember that I browsed the list, and then took out the page I was tempted by, folded it to the relevant section and kept it on the side for a couple of days as I psyched myself up to phone and enrol.

What I’m wondering is, how can we do that with social media?  The posts on twitter and face-book move rapidly down the page, it’s no wonder that people using it for publicity put out so much duplication.

Is this chatter the best way to attract the attention of a tentative first-timer?

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‘WEA? It stands for Workers Educational Association,’ I reply.

There is a moment of thought, and then Jackie says, ‘Does that mean you’re socialists?’

I smile and shake my head.  ‘We’re not a political organisation.  “Workers” were who the organisation was originally set up for, in 1903, so that they could access higher levels of education, and have the chance to improve their opportunities,’ I say.  ‘The title’s historical.’

Jackie wonders how she’s never heard about WEA before, if it’s been around so long.

‘It always surprises me how many people haven’t,’ I agree.

‘So what is it about now?’ says Jackie.

‘It’s still about improving lives,’ I tell her, ‘but that doesn’t necessarily mean economically.  It’s also about health and well-being, about keeping our minds active and enquiring, and getting us involved with our communities.’

I think about all the different sorts of classes I’ve been involved with since I started tutoring for the WEA over a decade ago.  As well as the Open Access Programme anyone can sign up for, there have been community groups set up for students with chaotic lifestyles, and disadvantaged backgrounds, where creative writing activities have provided a safe outlet for self-expression, and for some, has provided a first step  into employment or back onto the education ladder.

‘People come to classes because they want to learn, not because they have to,’ I say.  ‘That creates a real buzz in the room.’

‘So your students are still workers in the sense that they’re working at their education?’

‘I like that,’ I say.  ‘I might steal it.’

‘Help yourself,’ says Jackie.  ‘Can I keep this brochure?’

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Our WEA heritage

wea-heritage-projectThursday evening I went along to Blackfriars Priory, where the latest exhibition of the South West WEA Heritage Project was being launched as part of the Gloucester History Festival.   What a lovely event.

blackfriars-gloucesterThe priory is a beautiful building, and the weather was perfect.  Sunlight slanted across the ancient stonework, and those heavy walls kept the air comfortably cool.

The Heritage project has raised some fascinating stories.  Essays, minutes of meetings, branch brochures and newspaper accounts and photographs have been tracked down in attics, cupboards and archives; memories have been jogged and research skills honed and practiced.  A map of the way the WEA has developed, expanded and adapted to suit the changes of the last one-hundred and thirteen years is building.

The stories have circulated.  Last week, for instance, I was told about classes being held in a railway carriage, during the home-going journeys of commuters.   Imagine that…

During the 1930s, the Gloucester WEA Branch had a separate Dramatic Section.  The one surviving Programme I’ve seen, for Four One-Act Plays to be performed on two nights in February 1937 had a cast of 26, 14 front-of-house and back-stage staff, plus an orchestra, under the direction of Arthur S. Morrell.  The background notes about the WEA Players says that in seven years they staged ’60 plays of varied types.’  That’s quite an achievement for a small city.

Those were different days.  To get back to that kind of commitment we don’t just need to remember times when there was no social media, we have to think about no tvs, and the majority of us relying on public transport, bikes and shanks pony.

A Minute book that survives for this group makes interesting reading, not just for the level of commitment the Players had, but also for the incidental references to events in the local area and occasionally, the wider world.

At the end of a meeting on March 8th 1939, Mrs Sparrow read a letter from Mrs Edwards, thanking the Players for their efforts on behalf of the food ship for Spain.

The thing I like about research is the way it invariably widens my horizons.  I’ve had to revise my cosy assumptions about The WEA Players, and think about what their engagement with world events suggests about the learning that was taking place.  In the programme notes for the Four One Act Plays the Players say:

To promote and develop a love for the Drama seems to be, in these days, not only worth-while, but very necessary.

The Study and performance of these plays also gives much satisfaction to the players, who are glad to think that they afford their friends an evening of pleasure and entertainment.

We would also bring to the notice of our audience the opportunities existing in the Worker’s Educational Association for the study of a wide range of subjects.  If you are interested…please leave your name and address with one of the stewards.

I think The Players would have ticked the six points of WEAs ‘mission’ today:

  • Raising educational aspirations
  • Bringing great teaching and learning to local communities
  • Ensuring there is always an opportunity for adults to return to learning
  • Developing educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged
  • Involving students and supporters as members to build an education movement for social purpose
  • Inspiring students, teachers and members to become active citizens

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