KS3: The Book of Suffering

Mid-Wales Entertainment Circuit and Year 7, Ysgol Y Gader, Dolgellau

The Book of Suffering
Overview

The project took a whole school year and was based on the stories of the persecution of the Quakers in Dolgellau in the seventeenth century. It drew on

Original texts written by the Quakers (‘The Book of Suffering’), court records from the time and historical papers documenting the life of William Penn and the lives of the Quakers travelling to Pennsylvania. The stories behind Marion Eames novel ‘Y Stafell Ddirgel’ and original records from Quaker settlers in America were also studied.

During the first term, the students developed creative writing in response to the stories. In the second and third terms, they experienced and produced a dramatised version of their heritage.

Background

The Book of Suffering project was developed by Cytser, part of the Mid Wales Entertainment Circuit – a network of eight theatres in mid-Wales that have a long track record of collaboration.  

It was led by Lydia Bassett, the Mid-Wales Circuit co-ordinator, in collaboration with freelance writer Sian Melangell Dafydd, Theatr Felinfach and Coleg Meirion Dwyfor. Together they developed work on the dramatic and shocking history of the persecution of the Quakers in Dolgellau during the seventeenth century. The project received funding from the Arts Council of Wales and the Heritage Lottery Young Roots programme, which aims to actively engage children and young people in the history of their own communities. 

The source material for much of the project was the Book of Suffering (‘A collection of the sufferings of the people called Quakers for the testimony of a good conscience’). Written in the seventeenth century, this explored the history of the local Quakers, describing in their own words how they were tried for refusing to go to church, imprisoned and condemned to be hung or burned for their beliefs.

The project looked at the history of the time but it also enabled teachers to deliver the relevant sections of the Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF). For Year 7, in terms of literacy specifically:

  • Oracy – Developing and presenting information and ideas – Speaking, Listening, Collaboration and Discussion
  • Reading – Locating, selecting and using information – Responding to what has been read
  • Writing – Organising ideas and information – Meaning, purposes, readers, Structure and organisation.

The subject matter worked well with the combined humanities curriculum covering history, geography, religious education and literacy. The children's knowledge and engagement with their own community and its history fits the ‘Ein Bro Ni’ (our community) elements within the Curriculum Cymreig. 

What happened

The project was a collaborative effort involving writer Sian Melangell Dafydd who was employed during the first term, and the theatre practitioners who delivered terms two and three, based at Theatr Felinfach, Ceredigion.

At the outset, the plan was to take pupils to the National Library in Aberystwyth to view the original texts on which the project was based. However, as time went on, it became clear that it would be more powerful to draw on actors, delivering scripted presentations of the lives of key characters.

Drama students

Trips were organised for the 87, Year 7 pupils to the hills where the Quakers lived and where the stories they had studied had taken place.

Coleg Meirion Dwyfor's Welsh language drama students performed in costume and gave pupils the opportunity to ask open questions about the differences between modern life and the seventeenth century.

A performance

While the first term’s work was largely based around creative writing, involving children in creating three pieces in response to the stories, there was also some active drama work: 

  • A Quaker meeting was recreated in the school with each of the groups and with the former head teacher of Ysgol y Gader, herself a Quaker, to understand the power of silence in Quaker meetings.
  • The floor of the hall was marked out with tape to show the amount of space allocated to each family travelling on the former slave ships to America. The learners were asked to occupy the space and reflect on how they would have spent their time on the six to eight week journey. 
Outcomes and Evaluation

The performance work was challenging, but ensured that all learners were included. The end result was all the pupils could all be proud of and showed their increased strength in team work, improved confidence in negotiating issues as groups around challenging behaviour, and the ability to conquer nerves to perform in public.

The evaluation drew on the comments of artists, teachers and pupils.

Sian Melangell Dafydd (Writer),

“Learners had experiences beyond the normal school curriculum and as such looked forward to many of the sessions. All the artists wanted to make sure that high expectations were expected from every pupil”.

The project involved writing stories and plays, storytelling and play performance of their own work, confidence building, engaging with local people and communities, film, documentary, period theatre in site-specific locations. Through the activities they learned about the history of the Quakers in their area, the Restoration period in the UK and what it meant to be alive then (lifestyle, costume, fears and hopes), concepts and values in religions (and The Society of Friends) now and then, the different faces of discrimination and ‘unfairness’.

Seeing the children engage with their local history with enthusiasm, ownership and creativity (multi-disciplinary, with a focus on creativity and story-telling) was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my career so far.

I hope more children can benefit from this model, tailor-made to suit their localities.. Having seen the change in the pupils once they had experienced the day-trip (especially) and other creative tasks, (together with) the huge step in empathy, enthusiasm and imagination, I am convinced that this is a model to use as an example for other histories and other locations”.

For Year 7 teacher Shelly Thomas,

“It’s been a really worthwhile experience for them, and very different. They seem much more confident in performing but also generally, it takes a lot of guts to perform even in front of Year 8 learners. Some of the children who really struggle with behaviour have been taking some of the bigger roles and working as a team. There has been a lot more focus on the children wanting to work together and certainly half of these children would never have been on the stage before”.

For Year 7 teacher Bethan Jones,

“They've really gained in confidence and certainly in terms of team work. They’ve used more Welsh that they normally would have done because the project has been entirely in Welsh. They've really understood the subject matter around the Quakers and also understood the themes about people from different backgrounds and cultures and the resonance of that today. Having done this we'd certainly think about having a drama club in school but it’s been really useful to have people coming in from outside and bringing different skills to the school. It’s also great that all the children have been involved, including those who don't normally get the chance to go on visits or trips and that everyone has taken part. Everyone has contributed to writing and making the work, including children 
with a huge range of abilities and issues, and everyone's got something out of it”.

Pupil feedback

Each child was asked to complete a feedback form giving, 

Three words to describe the project; two things they would like to change and capturing their feelings about the project.

Reflections

The fact that the project only involved the whole Year 7 intake once every four weeks, made it challenging to maintain momentum. However, the feedback from the children reflects the ability of the artists to engage 11 and 12 year olds in understanding and reacting to challenging materials around a subject which might not naturally seem the easiest to teach. The consensus was that the project was hugely successful in engaging the whole year and all abilities.

‘The project was more than simply a theatrical performance. It involved the engagement of the children in understanding their local history and its significance in the world.’