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Posted on March 20th 2017
Conversations with Cake - What is HGAED 'Debate Cake'?
Lessons don’t usually start with tea and cake. But this isn’t an ordinary lesson. It’s a new project at Harris Girls’ Academy East Dulwich that helps students explore challenging topics in a relaxed café-style environment.
“We’ve called it Debate Cake because we talk about intellectual topics in a way that feels open and relaxed,” says Head of Art, Clare Stanhope. “The tea and cake definitely help. It’s about breaking down the boundaries between research and conversation – taking a more creative approach to exploring ideas.”
Debate Cake sessions happen once every half term and are facilitated by an outside artist or visitor. At the latest session, local artist Heather Agyepong came along to lead a conversation about identity.
Six Fine Art students sat around the table with tea and cakes to talk about stereotypes and race –how people see you and how you see yourself. It’s a topic that fascinates Heather and which she explores through her art. To prepare for the session, students looked at Heather’s work in a special exhibition at the school’s own gallery space.
Girls talk openly about their own experience of being told they are ‘acting white’ or ‘acting black’ and how this might shape your identity. “If you listen to classical music they say you are acting white,” said one girl. Being well-spoken can be called being white, added another. One student of mixed race said it annoyed her when people assumed her mum was white and dad black, because in her family it was the other way round.
The conversation is organic, not structured. There are no exercise books, just large sheets of paper covering the table on which students can jot down their thoughts using coloured markers (the paper helpfully catches crumbs too). As the 60-minute discussion develops, Heather draws out recurring themes and invites girls to develop their ideas.
The next Debate Cake will be with artist Alex Bizet, who uses hair to create artworks and also maps communities through hairstyles. The one after will be with Louise Rondel, a PhD researcher at Goldsmiths University, about how the beauty industry, including false nails and tanning, creates an embodied experience.
“Girls get a chance to talk and be heard in a way they couldn’t in an ordinary lesson,” says teacher Chris Brown. “Universities are increasingly doing discussions like this as part of their selection process so Debate Cake means our girls feel comfortable in this kind of environment and know how it works.”
It’s also about showing students the best conversations can happen in the least expected places, adds Ms Stanhope. “You don’t have to be in an academic setting to talk about academic things. The conversation doesn’t have to stop when you leave the classroom.”
Tea and cake help to create a relaxed environment for sharing ideas.