Dr Frances Alter, senior lecturer in creative and performing arts education at UNE, has used “everything from cooking classes to puppet shows” to engage students – and that’s while teaching English as a second language!

“I spent a year as a volunteer teacher in North India in my 20s. There, and later as an English as second language teacher at UNE, I found creativity helped students gain and retain their knowledge of English,” she says.

This early experience set Frances, then a visual arts graduate, on a career path to teaching, where she continued to incorporate and foster creative experimentation in her primary and secondary school classes. Sometimes accidentally.

“Once when casually teaching at an Armidale school, I had to step out of a Year 8 art class, where we were working with clay, to find keys to some art supplies. The students had been busy while I was gone. I figured they had been up to mischief but couldn’t quite figure out what it was … until the various plugs of clay started dropping from the ceiling throughout the lesson!” she laughs.

But, seriously: “Without experimentation, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. Encouraging risk-taking and problem-solving through the arts has always been my aim. Creative and performing arts encourage and foster higher-level thinking, because they engage students cognitively, physically and emotionally,” she says.

To encourage art participation, Frances also started the UNE Schools Acquisitive Art Prize (UNESAP), and the annual Let’s Hang It! exhibition, showcased at the New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) in Armidale. Now in its fourteenth year, the exhibition has expanded to include most primary and secondary schools in the New England North West area. Many past winners and finalists have become established creative arts practitioners.

While she counts these as career highlights, she says preparing teachers for creative and performing arts education also continues to excite her.

“I particularly love it when I have students who have little or no background in the creative and performing arts who discover new skills and talents and gain the confidence to apply this in their classroom teaching.

“I see many of my students bring new methods and approaches to teaching children, which is always exciting. They often tell me about the challenges of doing this but also the joy and satisfaction of achieving positive learning and teaching outcomes.”

Image: Dr Frances Alter with a student entry for the UNESAP.