'Year of the Sheep' at Seaton Academy, Workington, February 2015:

180 children from Reception to Year 2, using painting and digital media

Involving each child in the school in an identical activity turned out to be an unexpected treasure trove, enabling an insight into the preoccupations of 180 children at a particular moment in time. The starting point was a celebration of the Chinese Year of the Sheep, and included a visit to school by 2 Chinese students and some real sheep.

Approach: I decided to focus on descriptions of people born in the year of the sheep according to the Chinese Zodiak, to create a digital projection that could be used throughout the year with a 'Sheep of the Day' projected onto a whiteboard. The first thing to do was to turn an empty classroom into a creative space where we could work on the floor on a large tarpaulin. Around the edges of the room were some desks with laptops.

Children came in groups of 12 with a teacher or TA to the ' sheep station ' for 40 minute sessions.

Initial conversations: focussing their minds on emotions: For 10 minutes we sat on the floor and had a conversation framed by the personality traits and emotional tendencies of people born in the year of the sheep according to the Chinese Zodiak. This immediately deflected the focus away from different breeds of sheep to personality types, feelings, emotions etc. We brainstormed the kinds of sheep they would draw. I said 'we need 180 different sheep'. The children almost all responded by spontaneously mapping their own feelings onto sheep.

Painting: All the children had to paint a different pictures of sheep, onto a large pieces of paper on the floor, using black paint. I demonstrated the painting approach I wanted them to follow, standing up using black drippy paint- not what they usually did, and stressed that we needed big images filling the A3 sheets of paper. The children responded enthusiastically to the creation of very individual sheep. The sheep motif allowed them to project their own feelings onto the animal in a very direct way. They anthropomorphised them to a great extent and often mapped what was going on in their own lives onto them.

Guiding the activity: Using a uniform size of paper, and restricting the paint to black only allowed the pictures to have a unity, and enabled comparison. It was very important that what the children said they were planning to do was written down first, as it formalised the activity, kept the children focussed, and gave the pictures titles. Some of the paintings looked like gestural marks, so the descriptions helped with interpretation. I wrote down their initial descriptios of what they planned to do directly on each painting, and finished it with a small potato print 'SA' (Seaton Academy) like those on Chinese paintings. Working with each child in the school on an identical activity enabled an insight into the preoccupations of 180 children at that particular moment in time. It provided a snapshot of the range of anxiety or happiness across the pupil population. The younger ones were more absorbed in painting than the older children, and took longer to do their paintings, which I hadn't anticipated. Older children had more of a tendency to bring in elements from the media.