Thursday, 11 July 2013

Are You Ready?

I sometimes wish there was some sort of system whereby students could truly see the work and effort that goes into the Teaching and Learning experience for each one of them. 

Being on the Teaching and Learning committee this year has really opened my eyes to what a broad and ever moving student body we have. But also how their expectations are shifting and moving and how we have to jiggle to accommodate. 

'Engagement' 'Retention' and 'Success' were the key players in yesterday's Teaching and Learning committee away day, and these are not just things that we discuss to amuse ourselves. The engagement and sense of belonging for each student is key to our success. And in order to achieve that we have to go beyond merely laying on some events in the students union or occasionally ask 'how's it going?'. We have to be aware of what the university community is now - because it's not just the students on campus, the students away from home, the undergraduate students or the students who have a thriving social life. All of these groups still exist but we are also meeting more students living at home, from non-traditional academic backgrounds, post-graduate students, students completing their courses online and those who merely don't want to identify with their university as anything other than their place of education. And all of these students too have to be 'engaged' somehow - driven to come to university and take part in their education. 

In response? Well, it seems we have to be flexible; offer information repetitively in as many formats as possible and allow the students to see and hear information in their own time and at their convenience. 

I know, it doesn't sound like rocket science. But actually, in the academic world this can mean big cultural shift. Academics working alongside the students and making information accessible, whilst maintaining that university education is about independent learning and study. The student still has to want to find out in the first place. 

But bigger than that, and more important was a real drive that students should be involved in their own systems for engagement - not just having a few nights out or buddy systems (although they're important too) but in being part of the strategy and its implementation and see their work in action. 

This year the Drama department have embarked on a project with the Higher Education Academy to look at initiatives and interventions which aim to improve and sustain retention and success across the university sector - 'engagement' by another name, We have chosen to look particularly at our pre-arrival students looking at how we can engage our new students before they even arrive in September. With our new slogan 'Are You Ready?' - we challenge our freshers and hope that they take the bait. And with our new pre arrival website we give them 'JEIJET'...........

Just enough information in just enough time. 

It may be simple but we hope it's effective and I'll be bringing the findings to this blog - why not take a look......

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Big Singing at Kingston's Big Sing

This Sunday hoards of people joined in Kingston's Market Square at 3.30. A sense of anticipation hung in the air as 4 choir leaders took to their mics and all together............they started to........sing.

Maybe we should rewind a little...........

Months ago I was approached by Kingston Borough Council to discuss this year's Big SIng. The event, an annual event which is now commonplace in cities and towns across the country, is an attempt to bring together the 'already singing' (members of local community choirs and singing groups) and to possibly entice some of the general 'non-singing' public to a day of community singing.

My views on the power of community singing are already well documented (mostly in pub conversations and a few articles) but I have a special place for the Big Sing. Particularly because of the sheer scale of it - after all these years there's still a very excited tingly feeling about large scale singing events. The sound can be electric and there's nothing like it.

So, at 12 noon choirs and general public came together at the Rose Theatre as myself, Mary Bourne (Singing it Back), Max Barley (Thames Youth Choir) and Simon Toyne (Tiffin Boys School) took them through their vocal paces learning two songs - Ke Aronaa traditional South African song arranged by Siphiwo Lubumbo and edited by Tony Backhouse, and Sit Down, the anthemic James classic arranged by myself.

What was so fascinating in the learning was a very lovely clash of musical cultures. Mary and I are very used to one another's leading style, co-leading a weekly choir in Kingston. The choir is non-reader (members don't have sheet music), unaccompanied (no instruments) and always leads to good humoured and very friendly 'banter'. Simon and Max both come from more traditional singing backgrounds, very much rooted in the dots and the technical aspects of the music. It was so wonderful to come together on an event such as this - we learned from each other. By the end Max was throwing his hands in the air to signal each section of the music with great aplomb.

We also seemed to work well together - a bit of light competition between the basses and....well, everyone else. A few jokes to the crowd and gradually coming further away from the mics - trusting the singers and enjoying the sound.

After the rehearsal Kingston was treated to a wide range of pop-up events across the town, and such a singing smorgasbord was on offer. Singing it Back performed in the ever-glamorous rug department of John Lewis, with a great acoustic and wonderful sound.

In the Bentalls Centre shoppers were treated to a musical outburst from Surbiton Escaltor Choral Society - the look of bemused enchantment was a thing to behold as a moving choir slid past. Thames Youth Choir and The Tiffinians also took their leaders Max and Simon to glamorous locations, delighting passers-by. As well as many more in pop-up events cross the town.

As the sun shone, we came to Kingston Market Place to round off a wonderful day. Throughout the day we had drawn people along with our musical caravanserai and there was quite a crowd watching and delighting in the event.

So many lovely comments, some great stories from the day and another affirmation of the importance of community singing. This was a day to be remembered but also to be replicated - it is possible to make something happen, and get people involved.

For more information about singing in Kingston please see the Singing it Back website -