Arts in the community as a place-making event

bike

My work with Hanby and Barrett (which became Excavate in 2014) led us to the door of The University of Nottingham where we asked if anyone could help us understand a little more clearly the processes that lay behind the work we were making. Since then our relationship has gone from strength to strength. In 2009 and 2010 we created a series of shows in Bilborough (documented here in a short film) before going on to develop another series of projects around Raleigh (including this rather impressive archive of audio interviews). We’ve since been involved in the Performing Impact project and the last two Being Human festivals, re-staging our community play about the Luddites in the Galleries of Justice, and creating a day long version of B.S Johnson’s ‘The Unfortunates’ across Nottingham (which The Spectator wrote about). And now we’re working on more two projects with them (of which more later).

Below is a chapter for The Routledge International Handbook of Arts and Education that came out of this work.

Arts in the community as a place-making event

Pat Thomson, Andy Barrett, Christine Hall, Julian Hanby and Susan Jones.

Stuart:            Hello everyone, my name’s Stuart, thanks for coming along this evening, it’s good to see you all; especially those of you who have helped me over the last few months, trying to discover the history of this… (unveils tandem) It’s a Raleigh. Someone gave it to me ten years ago. …

On the screen we now see an image of a leaflet – ‘Request for Help. Stuart Bull is trying to discover the history of this bicycle which he has recently taken possession of. If anybody has any information on the bicycle, or would be interested in helping Stuart in any way; then please call him on … or email ….

Stuart:            Many of you will have received one of these with your Raleigh pension cheques; …. and this evening has come about because of the response that I had to these requests for help, just about all from ex Raleigh people, because, as it turned out, this tandem and The Raleigh, the factory, seem to go pretty much hand in hand. Which made sense to me because I used to work there too.

And, as ex Raleigh people do, we began to share memories; and of course we all had stories from the different shops that we worked in.And after all the talk about the good times and the bad times and the work we did and the nutters we knew, someone suggested that all of this information that I’d gathered from these people about this bicycle should be shared with others; because as I said, in some ways the story of this tandem could be seen to tell the story of the factory itself. And there are people out there – like many of you – who would want to know that story. Because the factory, The Raleigh, was such an important part of all of our lives. Such an important part of Nottingham itself. And so we started talking about the best way to do this, the best way to make something that none of us had ever made before. And we decided that we would have to go about it the Raleigh way; with each of us looking after a part, a component and then finally sending it to Finishing so to speak, where we would put the whole thing together.

(Abridged introduction to A lifetime guarantee: A history of The Raleigh and the people who worked there by Andy Barrett, 2012.)

This is the beginning to a piece of community theatre, developed as part of a project to mark the 125th anniversary of Raleigh bicycles. As it happened, it was performed in the year when Raleigh ceased to be a British brand. The shift to Dutch ownership was the last in a long series of associations between bicycles and the city of Nottingham. The project was developed and put together by an interdisciplinary team consisting of Hanby and Barrett, a community theatre company, and academics from schools of Education, Engineering, English, History and Computing Studies at The University of Nottingham. The university’s newest local campus, named the Jubilee Campus for its opening in 2000, occupies the site of the former Raleigh and Sturmey Archer factories. A Lifetime Guarantee was the culmination of a series of activities designed to remember and mark the ‘place’ that Raleigh had in Nottingham’s history and identity.

This chapter explores arts in the community – that is, activities such as A Lifetime Guarantee – as place-making events through a case study of one community theatre company, Hanby and Barrett. We firstly report three key elements of Hanby and Barrett’s methods when working in communities: an ethnographic approach, an emphasis on recognition and the role of language and narrative. We then consider this as a case of place-making practice and suggest that this approach has much to offer institutional-based education in general, and arts education in particular.

Before we begin it is important to signpost the basis on which this case was produced.

Our partnership

Academics Thomson, Hall and Jones have been working collaboratively with Hanby and Barrett, a community theatre company, for six years. Most often, Jones has worked as an ’extra pair of hands’, both observing and participating in productions, but Thomson and Hall have also attended planning meetings and performances. During that time The University of Nottingham has funded four community theatre productions and associated lead- up activities.

We have been jointly engaged in a community theatre practice which builds networks between the university and a section of the city which is generally known by a series of council estate names, or by sets of statistics which designate the area as one of high unemployment, poverty and deprivation. We have taken a counter-view, an assets-based approach (McKnight, 1995; McKnight & Kretzmann, 1996), which began with the understanding that people who lived in this region had histories, experiences, stories, literacies and arts practices which we were interested in and wanted to know about. While there was no doubt that many households in these neighbourhoods were facing hard times, this did not warrant seeing them as uninterested in the arts, in social activities or in policy and politics, which was how they were usually portrayed in official documents. We all saw community arts in general, and community theatre in particular, as running counter to demeaning and demonising discourses.

We were also interested in understanding better how community theatre ‘worked’ and ‘what it did’. To that end, we engaged in a great deal of documentation of process, and Susan Jones worked as an ethnographer on the first three community productions undertaken in the Bilborough estate (Hall & Thomson, 2010; Jones, Hall, Thomson, Barrett, & Hanby, 2013). We also undertook a desk study to see what kinds of literatures might inform a better understanding of the processes so highly valued by and in community theatre(Thomson, Sanders, Hall, & Bloomfield, 2013, see also www.performingimpactproject.wordpress.com). This chapter is a further exploration of a key concept we have been working with – that of place.

An ethnographic approach

Hanby and Barrett are usually contracted to work in specific places, material locations boundaried by their postcodes (Cresswell, 2013). Some of the work we discuss here is based in a large post war Nottingham council estate, Bilborough. Like all geographical locations, this is not a homogeneous neighbourhood, but has multiple social and cultural networks and associations within it, and which extend beyond it (Massey, 1995). However we also discuss the production with former Raleigh workers: while most of them live in one region of the city, their association is one brought about working on the same geographical site. The University of Nottingham Jubilee campus where the academic authors work, is strongly associated with the city itself as the site of the former sprawling Raleigh factory. In this instance, the place involved is the site of the factory, not where former workers live.

Place based community artists typically begin their approach in ways not dissimilar to community developers or teachers planning a unit of work. They start by doing some research about the area they are about to enter. Hanby and Barrett began their work in Bilborough and on The Raleigh in the library. They were not looking for official statistics, but rather for documents which told a story – how the council estate was developed, how bicycles were advertised, what the public were told about how they were manufactured, which important people visited the factory. They also searched for current organisational contacts and addresses – sporting clubs, churches, social organisations listed in Bilborough, and retired employee and bicycle-based organisations in the case of Raleigh.

This desk research was followed quickly by person-to-person connections. Hanby and Barrett always seek out places where they can talk with people (Figure 1 details an early stage of their first project in Bilborough, a play based on memories about how one post war working class garden estate was built and occupied).

Teas and breakfasts are ordered and A and J tell me about the meeting they had just had with various people – luckily, one meeting had led to others, when they had bumped into people. They seemed pleased with the reception they had got on their first encounter ‘proper’.  A man who was apparently ‘Mr Bilborough’ had thought the project was a good idea and A and J felt that having such a mover and shaker on board could only be a good thing.  They left with an offer of the community group of which this man was a chair distributing 800 flyers around the community to promote interest in the project (invitations to a meeting).

A and J are buoyed by this interest in the first hour. However, they warn me that there are many issues with a project such as this.  A shows me a LONG list of contacts they have made with various community groups, all of which have to be re-contacted now the work has started.   This is extensive and ranges from social issue agencies funded by local government to Guides and Scouts.  J receives a phone call from someone who is responding to an email.  He invites them to a meeting next week (Local Action Group), of which there are two – one in the eve for families, and one during the day for elderly people ‘who daren’t go out at night’.

A and J then set to work on looking at shop windows for community notices. A and I go to find the church.  We find the church hall, with a notice for Bingo, Karate and Japanese sword classes.  The church is nearby, although closed.  There are two services a week here.  A has been in contact with a local GP who is interested to involve young mums and toddlers in the project.  He decides to write to them, though, rather than drop in today.  The medical centre is right next to the pub, in front of the library – it feels like everything is located in a 200 yard stretch. We go to community centre to look at notices – A continues to list them (there are many) – dance groups, T’ai Chi, toddler craft sessions, youth drop-ins…

Then we head off towards the stadium. On the walk there, we pass many prefab houses, some of which have been externally modernised.  A thought he’d heard that there was a nickname for this area, ‘tintown’, based on the style of houses

(Susan’s field notes. 2nd October, 2008)

Sites for conversation ranged from child care centres, play groups and senior citizen’s centres all the way through to ‘door stopping’ – bringing a lounge chair to the local market and inviting people to stop and talk for example.

sofa 2

(Andy Barrett chats with a local resident at the local market. Julian Hanby is behind the video camera recording the conversation).

John Thompson (2009) argues for applied theatre practitioners to take just such an ethnographic approach. He writes of theatre in trauma and war contexts and argues “for an ethnographic perspective that starts with the knowledges and practices within a community before diagnoses, treatments or performance techniques are assumed to be appropriate”(p. 71).  Listening, hearing and respecting local ways of being and dealing with life militates against incoming theatre practitioners initiating activities that are can lead to more distress and harm, rather than the healing that is intended.

Of course, the residents of Bilborough and the workers from The Raleigh are not in war-ravaged Rwanda or Sri Lanka. Hanby and Barrett are not engaged in theatre as healing. However, council estate residents and factory workers alike have been subject to a range of belittling discourse and antagonistic and/or paternalistic policy agendas. Community theatre runs the risk of perpetuating harm by reproducing stereotypes, or berating residents for failing to mount sustained and effective political opposition, or commiserating with them for being powerless victims of a totalitarian state.

But common to theatre in war contexts and that undertaken in Nottingham is ethnography as a practice of ‘recognition’.

Recognition

This ethnographic approach continued right through the Hanby and Barrett theatre-making processes. Working in much the same way as good journalists, or good academic ethnographers, Hanby and Barrett focused on the places where people congregated and then asked questions, followed up leads, listened carefully and took copious field notes. They wanted the performances to ‘ring true’ to the people who were involved, and the people who came to see. And they did.

All of us – academics and theatre practitioner alike – have frequently observed how people reacted when they saw their stories re-presented back to them in artistic form. Even if the story was not exactly as they told it, but as a version of it, they almost always responded as if something of the essence of what they had talked about had been successfully captured. They didn’t leave the performance moaning about how ‘they got it wrong’ but rather left talking animatedly to others, using the performance as a way of re-remembering the events and others like them. The performances were also very important to those who were involved.

The Wigman Ladies group have been in every Bilborough production. They have been meeting together since the 1950s. They were important sources of stories for the first Hanby and Barrett production which was based in memories of the area. They starred in a film which recreated their get-togethers from that time. Jones reminisced with the Wigman Ladies about this experience:

Susan: What was it like to be in the film?

JF: It was brilliant.

JW: I’ve never laughed so much in my life.

JF: When I’ve let people see it, they think ‘Oh no’, then when they watch it they say ‘that film’s absolutely brilliant’.

JW: You know when we’re all walking in the door, that’s the funniest bit.  I can remember Daphne – you know Daphne, who died – it was a windy day and her hat blew off!  We was running down somebody’s garden path fetching this hat back.  We kept saying I hope a bus doesn’t go past.

B: And everybody got involved, even the people who couldn’t walk very well, they all got a part to play.

JW: Joan did the money, didn’t she?

JF: Doris worked at – what did she do – worked at Boots?

B: You know when you watch the film back, I’ve got about three jobs – I worked at Boots, I worked at Raleigh and I did something else.  I did everything.   I didn’t realise.

JW: I loved it, when we all watched the film, when we all stood up and sat down.

K: Me and Daphne had to change hats.

JW: It was brilliant. I think they’re (Hanby and Barrett)  very clever people.

JF: How they got it exactly…

As the women got braver, they carried on these re-enactments into further productions.

wigman ladies

(The Wigman Ladies re-enact on the stage).

The concept that seems most to capture ‘how they got it exactly’ is that of recognition, as used in the writings of Nancy Fraser (Fraser, 1995, 1997, 2000). Fraser argues that one of the ways in which people are marginalized and discriminated against is if their identities, languages, choices and ways of life are mis-recognised. This misrecognition then turns into active discrimination and injustice. Fraser argues that a politics of recognition works for justice as a parity of participation – that is the right to participate in society on an equal footing with others. She says:

“According to the norm [of parity of participation], justice requires social arrangements that permit all (adult) members of society to interact with one another as peers. For participatory parity to be possible, I claim, at least two conditions must be satisfied. First, the distribution of material resources must be such as to ensure participants’ independence and “voice.” I call this the objective condition of participatory parity. … the second condition requires that institutional patterns of cultural value express equal respect for all participants and ensure equal opportunity for achieving social parity. This I shall call the intersubjective condition of participatory parity. … either burdening them with excessive ascribed “difference” or by failing to acknowledge their distinctiveness.”(Fraser & Honneth, 2003, p. 36)

Community theatre does at least some of these things, particularly in relation to respect and voice. We know that many of the community members and school students who participated in Hanby and Barrett’s productions do not experience parity of participation in their everyday interactions with for example, school, the health service and housing authorities. We know that they come from an area of the city which is spoken about in media and government reports as if they are feral and feckless, or quaint relics of a bygone age or simply unimportant places where ‘nothing happens’ (as a local government officer described Bilborough to Hanby, Barrett and Jones). We know from conversations that Jones had with participants in the project that they are often fed up with other people making decisions for them and speaking for them. They often feel that their versions of events do not warrant attention and that the attention they do get is sometimes stigmatizing or misleading (c.f. Peel, 2003; Vincent, 2012).

But the ways in which people interact within the frames of community theatre might offer some redress to this lack of parity. We have seen that community theatre can provide moments and spaces in which stories of everyday life can be told and be valued and respected and held in esteem equal to any other life story. Recognition via parity of participation is one of the processes which leads to community members saying they have valued the experience of participation and of being an audience member, that they have ‘got something out of it’.

Sharing in a performance which ‘recognises’ allows a reinvestment of local meanings in a site which has been largely been taken over with nationally oriented representations of apathetic, social abjection and deprivation (Tyler, 2013). Arjun Appadurai (1996) argues that local neighbourhoods, as a context for human activity, have been under serious duress. Not only are neighbourhoods vastly unequal in income, power and status, but neoliberal governments have sought to turn localities to their own ends, defining them only in relation to national needs and interests. So the council estates in Nottingham and other places are best known by national referents to levels of employment, income, health and education levels, and are discussed in policy in relation to their use of services, capacity to contribute economically, and so on. Projects that seek to work with local understandings of place can thus be seen standing out against the erosion of local meaning-making practices (c.f. Hayden, 1996; Rose, 1997).

In this process, language and narrative played a key part.

Texts of their lives

‘Texts of their lives,’ is a term used by Bob Fecho (2011) in his explication of the dialogical writing classroom. Fecho begins by suggesting that, in school, many students are given assignments and exercises that have no connection with their own lives. They do these dutifully, reluctantly or not at all, and the learning that results is valuable only in terms of test results. Fecho argues for classrooms that not only allow students to gain the skills and scores that count but which also ‘create opportunities for students to use writing to explore who they are becoming and how they relate to the larger culture around them’ through the provision of ‘systematic and intentional means for reflection and action,’ which offer ‘a means for making sense of their lives’ (pp. 4–5). Such a classroom sees the lives of students and their families and communities as valued, key classroom multimodal texts from which to build and extend learning.

This is not the same as an experiential curriculum but is rather, as Fecho puts it, an extended ongoing conversation that brings together the intersections of the personal and academic in ways that help children and young people – and their teachers – build understandings of themselves and their worlds (pp. 7–9). Fecho proposes that teachers take the idea of ‘texts of their lives’ as central to their classroom practice.

Hanby and Barrett worked with ‘texts of their lives’ in all of their projects. We suggest that a key to the recognition that was produced in Hanby and Barrett productions was the practice of deliberately searching out, valuing and using the texts of the lives of Bilborough residents and the former workers at The Raleigh. And of course, these texts were sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes a reminder of what making a life in past times actually meant – the realities of working. Hanby and Barrett did not dodge the unpleasant.

‘I was put on this tool punching holes into wheel hubs. It was a very difficult job; you just couldn’t earn your money. One and threepence a hundred. How they came up with that figure I’ll never know. You may as well have stayed in bed all day for the amount of money you were going to earn. And once you were on it that was that. Nobody was ever going to offer to swap jobs with you. Nobody wanted it. And then this lad who lived over the way from me told me how to get off of the machine, because he’d been stuck on it once. And it was simple really – if you put the wheel hub onto the lathe backwards then the tool would break. And if you broke the tool then you’d get taken off of the job.

It took me a bit of courage to work up to that. They weren’t stupid. That machine had been broken quite a few times. But I thought never mind, it’ll be worth it. But it wasn’t. I was given as right dressing down and they put me on Banding. Even worse. Taking off all the little bits of scrap metal from the screws and nuts that had been drilled and tapped. It sounded easy enough, it always does. ‘You just pick up the screws and touch them on that emery band. That’s it. Three pence a hundred’. But the screws were that small you could hardly pick them up, and as soon as they hit the band, that was going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, they would ping out of your fingers. Terrible’.

(Excerpt from the script A Lifetime Guarantee).

The extract contains expressions familiar in Nottingham and other parts of England – ‘the lad’, ‘a right dressing down’ ‘to moan’. Here is also a narrative of mindless labour, of work that hurts the body, of low wages, of no other option. This was a narrative familiar to very many who worked at The Raleigh – they had either experienced this directly or knew someone who did and thanked the arbitrary employment gods that this wasn’t their lot.

In their ongoing conversations with local people, Hanby and Barrett were always on the lookout for individual stories, local expressions, recurring events and views. The field note extract earlier in the chapter shows Andy already thinking that the expression ‘tintown’ might have some resonance locally. This was something he then proceeded to test out in subsequent conversations. Finding out about the neighbourhood was an iterative process. It was this attention to language that alerted Andy very early to the fact that although most of us knew the bicycle factory as Raleigh, it was known by insiders as The Raleigh. Using this terminology created rapport in interactions, showing Hanby and Barrett to be on the ‘inside’ and also perhaps able to be trusted with further insider information.

Audiences recognised this language, the stories and the events. Some could pick out the exact words that they had spoken. But all of them knew that what they were seeing was ‘true’, as shown in this extract from an interview with residents of a retirement home.

Brenda: They did it true to how people had said, really.  They were using a lot of the words that was in it.

Betty: Perhaps they were the memories that most people had got, you know.

It was these moments of shared recognition, produced by the narratives and specific use of language, developed through taking an ethnographic approach, and their presentation in an artistic form, that constitutes place-making.

While Hanby and Barrett productions were discrete and occurred over a relatively short period of three years, they did change associational patterns in the neighbourhood. New friends were made, and the performance itself became a new shared memory.  A place-making event has these characteristics – the material, geographical location becomes, for those who are involved as either audience or participants, a little more imbued with public meanings – meanings built from the life experiences of those who live there, told in language that is familiar. This stands in contrast to media and political recasting of local experiences into bureaucratic and sensationalising texts (Smith, 1993).

Arts in the community as place-making

Place is not simply a physical location. A location becomes a place by virtue of the meanings that people attribute to it (Casey, 1998; Tuan, 2011). A postcode becomes meaningful through what happens there, the social interactions and networks that are established, the cultural and political actions that are taken and experienced, the memories and stories that are built up about it (Gallagher, 1993). Place as meaningful to people is always in formation. Meanings can be changed over time, as relationships, events and interventions occur (Hiss, 1990; Nast & Pile, 1998). Some places appear to be consolidated in memory, but these memories of place do change – and these memories are what community theatre often works on and with, as is the case with Hanby and Barrett productions.

We are drawn to Massey’s (2005) notion of place as an ‘event’. Rather than place being fixed, it is always in formation, always being made, unmade, and changed. Massey argues that a location becomes special, meaningful to people not because of a ‘romance about a pre-given collective identity’ or coherence. Rather, she suggests place is ‘throwntogether’, the result of ‘the challenge of negotiating a here-and-now… drawing on a history and a geography of thens and theres’ (p 140). Massey contends that place, as an on-going act of negotiation requires dealing with multiplicity and this entails a particular, political engagement with human and non human others … ‘the sheer fact of having to get on together; the fact that you cannot ‘purify’ spaces/places’ (p. 142). If place is always an event, then community arts in general, and community theatre in particular, can be seen as having the possibility of place-making through the processes of bringing people together as performance and audience.

We want to suggest that the notion of place-making goes beyond our case study of Hanby and Barrett; it is one that could be of interest to arts educators.

The notion of place is not unknown in schools of course. There has been a great deal of interest in recent years in place-based education (Gruenewald & Smith, 2008). This approach suggests that school students can learn a lot through a focus on their own local area. They are able to use their own existing knowledge, as well as that of family, peers and residents, to connect to the mandated curriculum. Using local and intergenerational ‘funds of knowledge’ (Gonzales, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) can also create new social networks for young people, allow them to do important identity work, and consolidate understandings about the local, national and global (Thomson, 2006). Some place-based projects are overtly political, seeking to address local issues of pressing significance, such as the conservation of water resources (Comber, Nixon, & Reid, 2007), and the preservation of significant oral histories (Wigginton, 1986).

The notion of place-making however offers a more active role for schools and teachers than simply educating in and about place. The notion of place-making suggests that teachers can be active in producing new social connections and cultural meanings. By adopting the three key elements that we have outlined – an ethnographic approach, recognition, and the use of ‘texts of our lives’ in the form of local language and stories – teachers can encourage students to connect with their wider neighbourhood in acts of place-making.

We propose that arts educators are very well positioned to do this kind of place-making work. The arts can bring people together to engage, as participants and audiences, in acts of shared meaning-making. They offer ways for students and their extended families and friends to build a collective public expression of what it means to be ‘ in this place’. Arts education might be seen as not simply responding to place, but as actively making and remaking what place means to young people, and to the people with whom they interact. When place-making events are put together as a practice and pedagogy, arts education has the capacity to not only offer knowledges, but also an enhanced sense of identity, and a lived experience of ways of living in the world together.

References

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Wigginton, E. (1986). Sometimes a shining moment: The Foxfire experience. Twenty years teaching in a high school classroom. New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday.

 

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