It’s a wet and windy spring morning in Melbourne’s CBD. A group of young people are battling the wild weather and pasting sheets of paper to a brick wall opposite a busy exit from Flinders Street Station. Several sheets later, a pair of eyes stare out from the wall, then a nose is added – a face takes shape.
Paste ups, or graffiti created by drawing, cutting out and then pasting paper to walls is a vibrant part of Melbourne’s street art culture. These young artists are contributing to the flourishing artwork of Melbourne’s lanes and alleyways in a new project called ‘Break Out’, which is aimed at keeping young adult students engaged with learning during college break time.
In this two-week program, students explore Melbourne’s streets for inspiration, learn design and media skills, and work as a team and to produce and exhibit their artwork – a series of portraits of the people who populate Melbourne’s Degraves Street.
Some of the students are enrolled in the Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) a ‘hands-on’ option for students in year 11 and 12. The Centre for Adult Education’s VCAL course co-ordinator Clare Kellett says VCAL students are a diverse group of young adults, from a range of backgrounds, and with a variety of educational experiences. Whether they went to a government high school or a private school, whether they live in the leafy suburbs of Melbourne’s affluent east or the far-flung suburbs of the poorer west, all have become disengaged from education. ‘What they share is that they’ve had trouble fitting in at a mainstream high school – .whether that’s because they’ve had some learning difficulty or because they are non-conformists. Many describe feeling judged at high school and most have been bullied.’
The VCAL course ‘gives students a sense of community, it’s a place of certainty and security’ but it can be fragile and staff worry about some students when term break time comes around Clare says. Without the routine and the network, boredom and even depression can set in. And in Clare’s experience, that can mean trouble.
‘Break Out’ is a project aimed at helping all CAE students aged under 24 to use their break time constructively. For VCAL students, it not only offers a chance to stay connected to their course and classmates but it counts towards their qualification.
Artist and ‘Break Out’ co-ordinator Rachel Taylor says you’d never know the young people she’s working with hadn’t had good experiences of high school. A couple might have been motivated to come along at first because of the incentive of completing the course towards their VCAL. ‘They are all very interested in street art and when they were told there was a wall for them to put their art on legally, they got very excited, the whole idea stimulated lots of creative ideas.’
Getting caught up in the excitement of the creative process means they don’t notice that they are learning Rachel says. ‘They are constantly learning by doing. The process involves literacy, communication skills, teamwork, reading, writing and maths, computer literacy and visual literacy. And all the while they’re having a great time.’
Rachel can identify with young people who might have felt marginalised at school. ‘I hated school,’ she laughs. ‘It wasn’t until I’d left school and started a photography course that I really started learning. Photography taught me history, maths, science, and chemistry. I know what it’s like to find yourself empowered and engaged and inspired through learning. And it’s even more powerful when you are working to create something with a team of other people.’
Projects like ‘Break Out’, Rachel says, stay with learners long after the classes are over. ‘Creating art is about providing people with an experience. People come to Melbourne and they experience the street art as they walk through the streets. It’s not like they are walking through a pristine city without marks on any walls. Street artists inspire and engage people through their art. For the students involved, art is a way of connecting people and that stimulates something in them that they will take along with them forever.’
Clare Kellett says that when she started at the CAE four years ago, most of the CAE’s VCAL students were troubled young people from difficult backgrounds who’d dropped out of school and most often referred by youth welfare groups and networks. Now the demographic is shifting, Clare says, with an increasing number of students referred by school careers counsellors who see that a different kind of educational experience may well be the way for a student to blossom.
VCAL can be a pathway to work, to further training, to trade and industry and further and higher education. The CAE VCAL program currently has around 80 students enrolled.
The challenge for Clare and her staff team is to create classes that focus on their students’ strengths and help them overcome barriers that might have hindered learning in the past. The flexibility of the VCAL year 12 curriculum allows staff to develop a range of creative projects to keep their students engaged and actively learning.
An atmosphere of mutual respect, Clare says, helps resistant students relax and enjoy the opportunity that classes and their interactions with other students and teachers can give. ‘We treat them as adults,’ Clare says. ‘And we allow each student to define their own version of success. For some that might be arriving on time for classes each day, or making it here three days out of five. For others it’s the sheer fact of joining in and completing a qualification.’
Staff model the kinds of behaviour they expect from their students and provide feedback that will help them learn important skills for getting on with future colleagues and bosses in the workplace. For example, Clare says, in contrast to high school students, CAE VCAL students are allowed to bring mobile phones into class. ‘You don’t want to miss a call from Centrelink when you’ve been waiting on them to phone you back.’ But students are encouraged to be responsible and mindful of others. ‘We discuss what sort of calls it’s OK to answer, and how to do it in a way that’s not a disruption to people around you.’
Clare says an accepting and respectful atmosphere is a crucial environment for engaging with disengaged young adult learners. The diverse student group is also terrific for the students Clare says. ‘We often survey our students to see how they’re feeling and what we could do better. The one thing that emerges time and again from our research is that students say the thing they’ve most enjoyed is meeting and mixing with a range of different kinds of people they would never have met otherwise.’
The ‘Break Out’ project was initiated and managed by Project Leader Marie Baird.