What I Have Learnt About Mantle of the Expert So Far

29th June 2019

By Nicole Winter

This blog is from the final assignment of the NEU Mantle of the Expert programme 2018/19

Be authentic

This is absolutely number one.  Dorothy’s statement of Mantle being about ‘a man in a mess,’ rings in my ears every time I do Mantle and drama for learning.  I want the children to feel and experience the fiction, rather than just pretend within it. Being authentic means going deep and slowing down.  When planning, it is so tempting to lay out a whole host of tasks to be undertaken as part of the commission and have grand plans for the final outcomes.  In reality, all this does is have you rushing from one activity to the next with a load of anxiety that you are not going to get to that final piece of writing that you had planned.  Giving children time is the hardest, but most important thing you can do.

I see how different Tim and Luke’s styles are and now realise that my Mantle journey is not about copying everything I see with the final aim of becoming just like Luke or Tim, but about being authentic to Mantle whilst being authentic to myself. There are little things that I do that might not be strictly Mantle, such as acquiring a warm, down to earth, delicious West Country accent when representing a dragon expert, but I think that’s ok.  Mantle doesn’t need teaching clones, it needs teachers who believe in children’s quite amazing abilities, are invested and love teaching through Mantle.

Mantle Learning Never Ends

I now realise that I am never going to be the finished Mantle article and I’m ok with that. I did find it intimidating that 20 years in, Tim says there are still many things that he’s learning, but I would never consider myself the finished article as a teacher, so why would I assume I could be when doing Mantle?  The wonderful thing about Mantle is that you don’t have to know everything about Mantle to give it a go and that every time you do it you learn more.  The important thing is to be reflective and authentic and to look back on what worked, what didn’t work and why and to continue to try and enjoy using Mantle in the class.

Slow the heck down!

Depth is crucial and such a core of Mantle.  Looking closely and taking time to observe things like stance and gesture is so valuable.  Teaching your class to be observers and to mull things over is crucial.  I find using my TA to represent a still image of someone really helps the children to take time to look at the little things, to consider a frown, or how someone is sitting and what this might tell us.  Not only is it wonderful for developing the children’s ability to notice and empathise, but it develops their inference skills, which is fantastic for reading comprehension skills too.  Don’t expect young children to be able to do this automatically though, it will probably need modelling and guiding. Once again, assume the children are capable, but they just need time and guidance to develop the skill.  I noticed this in my most recent Mantle when they independently noticed and took time to discuss how one character (Dame Prudens from the Ruling Council of Ignis, with a dreadful dragon problem on her hands) held her hand and what this might mean and her slightly hunched stance and what this might suggest.  It took them ages to decide to look at what she might be about to write (pen in hand, blank paper) because they were so absorbed with her gesture. I contrast this with the beginning of the year when my TA represented another figure (the Queen of Gimli) and how hard they found it to consider anything beyond a suggestion that she was sad.  This continual slowing down and really looking has resulted in my class developing the ability to infer.

Can We Vote on It?

My class are used to deciding things in a democratic way within the classroom in general terms.  However, this has got me in hot water with Mantle, as they have often suggested it as a way out of any situation where they have opposing opinions about what they want to do next in the story.  The trouble with voting is that it risks leaving those who didn’t get their choice feeling upset and disengaged as the class proceed with a solution that that may have vehemently opposed and eloquently spoken out against. Whilst it is a requirement that children gain a basic grasp of the basics of democracy, the frustrations of the system have to be acknowledged and in Mantle I am learning that there is usually a better way than voting, to sort out apparent deadlock.  To be fair, I didn’t really learn this until Tim talked me through it, but I am finding different ways to help the children feel that their ideas have been explored too, which helps them engage with other possibilities.

For example, Tim and I talked about how to deal with the child who wants to kill the main character within a story, thus effectively finishing the story. In all honesty, up to this point I had either attempted to ignore their ‘they’re dead!’ declarations, hoping that they would give up, or said something like ‘I don’t think we want them to die, do we?’, which I recognise doesn’t respect their ideas and brings out the teacher voice.  I found it hard to work out how to respect and acknowledge their thoughts without the story being sabotaged.  In discussion with Tim, I began to realise that alternative ways forward can be explored in a whole host of ways.  They might involve narrating alternatives so a child can hear their story come to life; discussing what might happen in their version, or imagining both alternatives etc.

I was able to apply these ideas in a recent session where a particular child wanted the sick dinosaur the class had been nursing to die ‘It’s going to die in one minute,’ then a minute later ‘it’s dead now!’ I paused the story and asked if we wanted to agree that the dinosaur dies, to which the remaining children responded with a resounding ‘no!’  I therefore spent a little time clarifying with him that he wanted it to be the end of the story for the dinosaur, which he did.  I verbally acknowledged that in his version of story the dinosaur died and used the narrator voice to describe this.  He clearly found this satisfying, as after I had finished he announced ‘it’s the end for the dinosaur.  The end of the story for it.’  I then said what if we imagined what would happen in the story if the dinosaur lived and off we went into that scenario, with him happy to be involved.  It made me see how important it is to allow children to explore their own choices in some way.

Be aware of teacher voice rearing its head

One of the hardest things I have had to work on is banishing the teacher voice from my Mantle sessions.  It has been helpful to think to myself ‘what voice is this?’ whilst in Mantle, as I know I can stray back into teacher voice.  Tim suggested that this could happen when the adult is asking a question that he or she already knows the answer to. For example,  ‘How should we behave when we answer the call?’, to which my class sing songed back ‘politely!’, which is quite different from using the facilitator voice to gently remind them that the caller might well be quite upset when they call because of xxx.  I am getting better, but still have a way to go on this, as I find the transition between needing to use the teacher voice within the classroom for other things and not using it within a Mantle a challenge.  I find it helps to take a moment before I talk helps, to re-focus and get my head in the right space.

Find out the ‘why’ not just the ‘what’

When a child or children suggest something that doesn’t seem to make sense, or seems odd, don’t dismiss and move on.  Probe further to find out why, as they can really surprise you.  In a recent Mantle where the team had been called to examine a nest containing dragon’s eggs in someone’s garden there was much discussion about what should be done.  Should they remove the eggs, as the house owner wanted, or leave them?  One child, who often finds it hard to stay focussed quietly said she wanted them to hatch, which prompted quite a few children to strongly disagree (they had been discussing whether the eggs came from different dragons and if one was carnivore and one a herbivore that one might eat the other). My first thought was to assume that she hadn’t really understood the discussion, but I paused and asked why.  Her reasoning was that if the dragons hatched, when the mother dragon returned to the nest the baby dragons would then be able to fly away with her back to their home and the problem would be solved.  Just pausing to ask revealed she was focussed, had understood, but was following her own interesting solution and line of thought.

Quiet participation doesn’t mean lack of participation

Children feel comfortable participating in different ways.  Some children prefer to observe and participate quietly, but this doesn’t mean they are not engaged or involved.  Sometimes you want all children to actively participate in an activity, but at other times this isn’t crucial and if it isn’t, then allowing the children to choose how to participate can help them to feel more engaged, as they are allowed to do it at their own pace and in their own way. When the class was keen to record the dragon nest, I acknowledged that I could see some of them wanted to do this, which lead to all but three children choosing to record in their own way.  I choose to sit with the few children who hadn’t chosen to record.  As the others were busy working for a significant amount of time it gave me a chance to be with them, observe what they were choosing to do (examine the nest further) and gently discover what they were thinking.  This meant that when we continued discussing, I knew they had something to contribute and they felt more confident.  This made me think.  I have had a tendency to be too rigid and use teacher voice (concerned for written outcomes, I think) rather than allowing them real choice in how to respond.

Give children real, not contrived choice

If you want something to be a fixed point, then make it a fixed point and present it as such through a client demand, or another authentic route.  Don’t pretend it’s a choice.  The choice is not authentic or real if you have effectively cut off all other possibilities, either by leading them so obviously to your intended solution, or because the commission is such that they do not have the knowledge, time or skill to find an alternative.

I made this mistake in my Yanomami Tribe Mantle, where the children had to help the tribe to preserve its land and to stop it being destroyed by local farmers.  When planning the commission, I wanted the children to understand how little farmers were paid and what pressures might cause more crops to be grown.  However, when they were considering a solution for such a vast problem, I felt that the solution would have to be fair trade product, so engineered for them to find this as their solution.  They did not have enough knowledge to come up with any alternatives and I did a great job of laying their solution out so clearly that no other path needed to be considered or explored.  It lead to the creation of some great fair trade chocolate bars, but wasn’t authentic and robbed the children of the chance to consider their own solutions.  In reality it was my solution and my ideas, not theirs and in doing this, many valuable opportunities and experiences were lost. It can be difficult to balance the fixed points with given them opportunities for real choice, but for it to be authentic, there must be some tension and they must struggle a little to weigh up the different points of view and concerns.

Don’t panic!

Because Mantle demands so much from the teacher in terms of knowing when to intervene and lead, when to listen and reflect, and how to take a story forward from a serious meander, it can sometimes feel alarming.  This is particularly true when the class has taken an unexpected detour. You start out in one general direction, believing you have mulled over the likely possibilities and the meanderings, but suddenly they head off in an entirely unexpected direction.  This requires the teacher to observe and consider whilst mental re-configuring.  Is this new path purposeful?  Can it lead in an alternative way to the desired final outcome?  Is this meaningful to them?  Shall we continue this alternative line of travel?  I have learnt that it is important not to panic, even if it appears a little chaotic.  If they are engaged and invested and there is a buzz in the room, breathe and take a little time to observe and probe.  Don’t panic and rush in.  What they are interested in may be something more meaningful than you planned.

Mull your Mantle

Planning a new Mantle is like my homemade French dressing.  It is at its most wonderful if left for a while and is given time to develop.  If I have to use it as soon as I make it, it lacks depth and is usually a bit disappointing. I do my best Mantle planning by making brainstorming notes, going away to allow my head to start tinkering and thinking about the idea and then re-visiting.  Once the idea is there in some form, I find it useful to mull it over with another person, voicing my thoughts out loud and listening to their thoughts.  Slowly, it begins to take form.  Time planning steps into the fiction is never time wasted.

Sometimes aesthetics are important.  Just sometimes

I never cease to be excited about what can be achieved in Mantle with imagination and a piece of chalk, or a stick, or a person.  Mantle doesn’t demand anything beautiful or fancy because anything can represent something else and the children’s capacity to imagine and go with the story is quite wonderful.  However, sometimes a special object is valuable to the process.  I can’t deny that I love a beautifully crafted scroll, a gorgeous and shining dragon’s egg, or a tiny box and I think there is a place for them now and again to create a buzz in the room and really draw the children in.

Tension, tension, tension!

The element that I think I still have the most to learn about is how to bring tension effectively into the fiction.  It is something I notice Tim does in an apparently effortless way, whilst I struggle, often using the same kind of tensions and techniques.  I am painfully aware of the vital role tension plays and have seen how the lack of real tension can make a project sag and lose energy. I am slowly learning to think about the different levels of tension and to recognise when tension is needed. I now begin by thinking ‘who in the story would have an opposing view to this?’, or ‘what would demonstrate the real need to complete this commission?’

The element of grace is essential

When adding tension, it can be really tempting to introduce the outraged or angry person who opposes what is going on, but it is so important to remember that there are no comic book villains in Mantle.  Just as in life, characters in Mantle need to have depth and authenticity and an element of grace that allows children to empathise with them and learn that people are driven by a whole host of factors.  We want them to understand that they need to probe to find out what might going on behind that behaviour and what their reasons and motivations are.  They then begin to learn not to assume, but to understand a whole host of different things in life might lead a character present or act in a certain way and it is their job to dig deeper to find out more. 

Keep it simple

Something I learnt from watching Tim with children is his down to Earth approach.  I have a tendency to over think and try not to break the spell of the fiction when attempting to deal with issues, meaning that I over complicate things, whilst Tim would be direct and honest.  I see that if he was representing someone and everyone was talking at once at him, he would deal with it quickly and honestly by coming out of role and saying something like ‘Do you think x would be able to deal with so many questions at once?  I’m doing my best to represent x here, so ..’ My approach would generally to be to stay in role and try and deal with it as the character I was representing.  Sometimes this would work, but often my frequent ‘ooh dear I can’t hear you I’m afraid, you are all talking to me at once’ would be entirely inauthentic and pointless.  Would anyone really be talking like this in an important meeting?  Who am I really representing? I have learnt to be much less afraid to pause the fiction, deal with the issue in a simple, down to Earth way and dive back in, just as children do when they move in and out of the fiction in their own play.

Co-creation of stories

Sounds stupid I know, but I didn’t really consider Mantle in terms of the co-creation of a story with a group of children.  I think this was because at the beginning I had a very detailed idea of the story, with little elements of choice within this for the children to explore. As a teacher I was used to my medium term plan and weekly planning, which plotted out how and when we would reach these points.  I am beginning to revisit some Mantles I planned two years ago before I began the course, to decide which ones to do with my new class.  However, when I look at my Mantle planning I am shocked at how prescribed and fixed it all was.  The client and commission were there, but my control and path was so obvious.  To be honest, it has been a challenge to step back from this and accept that I shouldn’t know everything that is going to happen, to allow the children more agency and choice and create the story with them.  However, I see how important it is to do this and the change in my plans reflect this. I was actually very chuffed to hear that Tim thought I was asking permission and seeking agreement too much in my observed session, as I had been working hard on not being too controlling! I now realise that it these things are not an either or, but about balance and moving along the scale as needed.

I now see my Mantle planning in terms of a winding, unchartered canal being made together. It meanders around, but now and again passes through locks that already exist.  There is a final destination, which is why we started out in the first place, but the journey to the destination is the thing, not the race to get there.  I might have sketched lightly my thoughts about where this canal might meander between the locks, but there is agency and space for them to discover and create their own journey path there.

Nicole Winter works at St Nicholas Primary School, Wantage and Tweets as @WinterImagines



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