Character Study

AKSEMSETTIN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

A Progressive school in Turkey uses drama and art to help children learn.

Story and photos by Serra Akcan/Narphotos

With a flat yellow smile over a purple and pink bow tie, Toros the puppet is changing the way Turkish children learn social studies, while also challenging perceptions of one of the nation’s underprivileged schools.

Located in Ankara, Turkey, Aksemsettin Elementary School teaches children from poor, nomadic families. Past violent incidents contributed to its notoriety.

AKSEMSETTIN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

“It’s very difficult for children from the countryside to adapt to the big city life and classes,” one teacher explains.

That’s all changing.

With support from the Ankara Kiwanis Club, Aksemsettin now draws on the creative arts to complement traditional courses. Students can now see possibilities when they dream of careers.

Ilgin, 8, dons red ruffles across her hair and darkens her eyebrows to animate a Frida Kahlo self-portrait. “It seems Frida suffered a lot in her life,” Ilgin says. “Despite everything, she was a very powerful woman and that’s what I liked about her.” Ilgin wants to be a pastry chef. 

AKSEMSETTIN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Berat, 7, loves pantomime, soccer, Scooby Doo and English class. He hopes to be a teacher. Or a pilot. Or a detective.

Ayse, 10, teaches her young brother some of the things she has learned through drama, including silent movie acting, a favorite activity. “I’d like to be a brain surgeon when I grow up,” she says. 

 The Form 2-A teacher explains why she sought to make a change. She has worked at Aksemsettin Primary School, searching for new ways to reach and teach the children. The students, she says, had problematic behaviors and low levels of comprehension.

“It was hard to gain their attention and include them in the learning process using techniques from the syllabus,” she says. “So I began to implement different  methods, starting with social skill activities like how they will sit, stand, interact with one another. And I implemented a reading program by which students interpreted the text using different branches of art.”

At first, she applied the program in her classroom, until Kiwanians stepped in with financial support and expertise in engineering and construction. Five years ago, they built a “Dreams Studio,” where students could read books, discuss them, re-enact the stories and portray the characters via different art forms.

AKSEMSETTIN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Impressed by the reading program’s success, school teachers and administrators encouraged the Kiwanians to expand the program by building a drama studio that would broaden creative opportunities for children to unearth talents, express themselves better and improve communication skills.

AKSEMSETTIN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Construction took nine months, which included installing lighting, sound equipment, acoustic walls and cupboards to store costumes, props, puppets and other materials. Their work, one Kiwanian explains, was only the first stage of the program’s success.

“The more important part is to make it useful for the students,” says member Unal Peker, an architect who designed both studios. “That is the second stage: to find people who will implement it.” 

The arrival of a new drama teacher created excitement within the school. Students began counting the days they would return to the studio. Through improvisation, storytelling and puppeteering, they improved their skills of observation and empathy. They began solving problems together. Parents and other teachers became involved too.

“In schools like ours, parents are not expected to participate in social activities or to help their children, but it’s not like that in our case,” says one teacher. “They are involved. They produce art with their children.”

One mother told her mother-in-law she had to attend a PTA meeting just so she could get away for a visit to the studio. She and other parents spent the time painting, drawing and talking about the old days when the school didn’t have a good reputation.

Most of the school’s teachers noticed differences in their students and are now trained to use the studio with instructions provided by the drama teacher, building on a four-month training course.

AKSEMSETTIN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

“We are teachers of a disadvantaged group of students,” a 3-A teacher says. “They are not very happy at their homes. Their parents generally have economic problems, yet we want to change their perspective on life and show them that another world is possible.”

Another teacher, who has worked at five different provinces over the past 18 years, says Aksemsettin has been a turning point in her career. 

Kiwanians are pleased too.

“Aksemsettin has become a very active public school, both because of the structure of the classrooms and the working enthusiasm of the teachers, who are unlike those you will find in many private schools,” says club Secretary Cahit Erkurt.

AKSEMSETTIN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Cahit Erkut, electronic engineer and the secretary general of Kiwanis Ankara ( left ) and Unal Peker, architect, member of Kiwanis Ankara and the designer of both of the Dreams and Drama Studios of Aksemsettin School.

Aksemsettin’s headmaster reports that she has seen a difference in her school’s students.

“They are laughing as if they are not in school,” she  says. “I see happy children. I see children with high communication skills, with high imagination. I think I see everything that should be. So what more should I expect from them? All of this happened within nine months!

“There should be 12 studios instead of 12 classes.”


This story originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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