…or…the day Maisie Williams came to school.
I was really inspired by Summer Turner’s “Thinking Outside the Books” post on providing context for learning, as this is something I have always striven to incorporate into my own teaching. Part of my passion for media studies comes from the fact that it is so readily contextualised. Each year the AQA GCSE exam is a simulation of a “real” media brief and the students respond in role as if they were producers; the OCR A-Level course we follow incorporates an institutional case study as half the AS exam. This helps ground the subject in the world and give the students the kind of context that Summer was alluding to in her excellent blog. In this post I hope to outline one of the best examples of this it’s ever been my pleasure to be involved in – the day Maisie Williams came to school.
My GCSE media class were really buzzing after YouTubers Jack and Dean visited the school to talk to them about film making, scripting and editing back in November. In a chance conversation following this visit, we were discussing who I should try and get as our next special guest. One of my class mentioned that she had a contact with Maisie Williams, currently starring as Arya Stark in the HBO hit drama Game of Thrones. I had to sit down at this point. I love Game of Thrones. I’ve seen every episode, read all the books (so far), got the box set. Not only this, but Arya is, for me, the best character in it. And, on top of all this, Maisie Williams’ portrayal of Arya is mesmerising.
As the recent Guardian blog said of her performance in Season 3, “Maisie Williams continues to shine, perfectly capturing both Arya’s humiliation at being disarmed and her later desperation to escape before the Hound revealed all.” Needless to say, this was going to happen.
It was then that I realised this was an opportunity for some genuine context-based teaching. Rather than get Maisie in for a Q&A with the class about being on a film set, the TV industry, and production processes (interesting though this would doubtless be) I decided to take a different approach. The students have to create magazines as part of the practical production assignment in media studies, and usually dress each other up as pretend celebrities for one another. This requires an extra level of invention in creating a completely fictitious character but here, on my doorstep, was a genuinely talented actress in a hit TV show. I asked whether she’d be up for a “press junket” simulation, and she agreed. Unbelievable.
My students were split up into magazine production teams. Each team was set a different genre – high end fashion (Vogue, InStyle), women’s glossy (Elle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan), TV Guide (Radio Times, TV & Satellite Weekly), Film (Empire, Total Film) and teen (TOTP, Sugar) – with example magazines issued. They researched the genre and worked out what sort of photography would be required, and what sort of interview questions they would need to ask. For homework they worked as journalists to prepare for the interview, researching Maisie’s career to date and the various projects she’s been involved with. We borrowed the A-level Photography lighting rig and DSLR cameras, a drama studio from Performing Arts, dictaphones from English, and hired a photographic backdrop from our film-making Performing Arts technician. We were ready…
Let me just say, Maisie Williams is lovely. A charming, humble, but clearly hugely talented young woman. She could not have been more helpful. And my GCSE class, who are also lovely on a daily basis, excelled themselves – they were professional, well-prepared, and conscientious in their work. It was as close as we could get to a “real” experience; a live interview and photoshoot with a real actress to generate the material for their practical productions. I sat back, snapped a few photos, and let the day unfold. It was a privilege to be there. The students are now working with the photos and recordings from the day to construct their magazine features and front covers – the first of many if Maisie’s career continues on its current trajectory!
As if having one of the best days of my teaching career wasn’t enough, it was also Maisie’s 16th birthday. A House Stark cake was the least we could do to thank her for giving up her time so freely…
UPDATE: here is a selection of the magazines the students produced. I’m really proud of them! If you can’t see the embed, click this link.