How to Wow: introduction

1st in a series of posts describing and reflecting on the experience of delivering a ‘wow project’.
How to Wow: Introduction
How to Wow: Day 1
How to Wow: Day 2
How to Wow: Day 3
How to Wow: Day 4
How to Wow: Closing thoughts

Over the last year or two I’ve worked on several projects in schools. Two of these were “wow!” projects. I love wow projects – they have the potential to be everything I’m passionate about regarding learning and developing. They’re difficult to get right though, and even more difficult to pitch to schools without being able to point at precedents. I learned a huge amount from the first wow project I worked on (Pod in the Quad, lead artist Anne-Marie Culhane), and I built directly and extensively onto that experience when I delivered the second project.

That I’ve not come across projects like this outside of Creative Partnerships in Leicester (now part of The Mighty Creatives?) leads me to suspect (I hope I’m wrong) that this type of project is still quite rare.

Because I so strongly believe in the merits of this type of project and I want to be able to get better at designing them, (and I want more opportunities to work on them too) I’m going to publish a series of posts outlining how I approached the more recent of the two projects I worked on.

The intention of these posts is not to say “this is how it should be done”, but rather to say “this is what we tried; this is what we learned from it; what should we change next time around?”. Writing things down forces me to analyse them more thoroughly and through publishing the documentation it opens up the possibility of dialogue, constructive criticism and, hopefully, allows others to initiate their own projects with the advantage of being able to learn from the mistakes – and triumphs – of others.

Wow projects are great – but there’s still plenty of room to make them better. There’s a little invisible question mark at the end of the “how to wow” title…

What is a “wow project”?

Who knows?! “Wow project” is a term that’s evolved out of the groups of people I’ve been working with. I’m not sure where it originated from and I think we’re probably still in the process of finding out what it can mean. Here are a few adjectives that I think are key:

  • Immersive – you’re in it, it takes over
  • Challenging – you will be outside your comfort zone. You will step up; you will learn; you will grow.
  • Awesome – it will be beyond your expectations. It will give you things that could not have been planned.
  • Inspiring – there will be spaces left for you to fill in in imagination technicolour.
  • Pervasive – it will seep out of the classroom and reach beyond lesson times
  • Malleable – it will mean different things to different people; also, you will need to plan and contingency plan… and then adjust those plans on the fly in response to what is presented to you.

Here’s a link to the initial project brief I received for the project I’ll be outlining in this series: WOW! A Song for Skatz.

In my application, and with reference to the previous “Pod in the Quad” project, I declared an intended agenda that focused on inspiration and malleability:

In particular I’d be looking for strategies that leave enough unknowns that a) there is space for the details to come alive in each child’s imagination, thus making the experience very vivid and b) there are no ‘wrong’ answers.

We will revisit these ideas, and look at how we used unknowns and spaces, later in the series.

The planning stages

I was lead artist on the project and therefore responsible for the artistic side of the project management. The Creative Partnerships (CP) representative (Creative Agent) managed the budgeting and a lot of the liaison with the school in general.

There was a half-day meeting between myself, the main teacher contact, the school’s CP link person and the Creative Agent. We explored lots of ideas and got a better idea of what was wanted from the project. I think we left that meeting with no particularly fixed ideas of what the project would be like, but understandings of who people were, what might be involved in a wow project, and, importantly, having found out that the main teacher I’d be working with had loads of ideas and enthusiasm of her own but had never had the opportunity to put them into use on a creative project at the school. As she gave me a tour of the school, I remember telling her that in my ideal world my job would be to be a back-seat driver, steering the school staff to design and deliver their own project.

I really dislike the idea that artists might be expected to come into schools, deliver a project independently of the school staff and independently of that particular school’s context, finish the project and then disappear off again as life at the school goes back to being exactly the way it was. (It was far from happening in this case, but I have experienced it elsewhere.) I much prefer a collaborative style of working and conversation is a critical part of that.

It can be tricky to manage effective conversation in school projects when there are very limited budgets and therefore timescales. It’s the channels of communication that are open outside of the planning meetings that can make really raise the project’s level up a few notches – wow project or otherwise.

With school projects where there are, as a minimum, 3 distinct parties that need to keep in touch, email and phone can sometimes get unwieldy. For this project I set up a free wiki so that everyone could easily find the most recent version of timetables and lesson plans etc, whilst also being able to edit them.

There were some promising responses when I first introduced it, but in this case it turned out to only be myself and the other creative practitioner that really used it to any great extent. It was invaluable for quickly mapping out Skatz’s backstory and brainstorming questions the pupils might ask and that we needed to have answers for. Had the circumstances worked out, I think it would also have been very useful for discussing and getting feedback on the proposed timetables I was producing for the delivery days too.

Use of a wiki to centralise the planning is definitely something I’d try again (so long as the others involved were reasonably happy with online things), but I think I might also try and provide a training session by way of an introduction and demonstration on how it works. Training sessions rely on having everyone present at the same time though, and this is not always possible in school contexts.

For this project we worked very closely with one of the two class teachers, but had minimal contact with the other whose class would also be involved in the project and no contact with either of the teaching assistants until the project began. I feel this was a mistake and I would recommend to include all staff in the planning stages to some extent. Even if they are not actively involved in the decision-making, wow projects are a lot about ownership and that goes for the staff as well as the pupils. Wow projects are also pretty bewildering things to have thrown at you if you don’t know what’s coming.

We had enough budget for 3 planning days with the school and another 2 for me working at home. I think the project needed another day with the school, which I would have used to make sure all the staff were trained up and confident with the activities they had to deliver (more to come on that later). I estimate I also spent at least 5 days planning the project and gathering/preparing props.

How do schools feel if more of the project budget is spent on planning compared to delivery? I’m used to things being that way around, but what are the expectations of the teachers?

Wow projects are lessons and theatre and improvisation all rolled into one. Each aspect must be planned in relation to learning objectives, contingencies, wet weather alternatives and curve balls the pupils might throw at it. They need a lot of planning.

Balance this with the need for open-ended conversation: a lot of the content for the project (1 day partial, 3 days full delivery) did not come together until the 3rd planning meeting, and then it changed significantly after Skatz came onboard and sessions were tweaked to make best use of his skills. This is also the point where it became apparent what narrative was best to hang everything together on.

Suggested process flow:

(from the point the lead artist comes onboard, through to beginning delivery)

→ introductions and scope
→ tour of school
→ class observation (remember to do this in the style of the character you will play during the project – I took a notebook with me and asked pupils if they’d seen anything strange in school recently…)
→ developing ideas
→ refining content
→ identify other creative practitioners
→ recruit other creative practitioners
→ further adjust and develop ideas in response to (and in partnership with) the new team
→ train and thoroughly prepare the team

All this may take longer than expected and you may have to be flexible with your planned dates for delivery. Better to postpone a project like this and get it right, than to hurry it and not do all that planning justice.


  • Wow projects are hard work, but completely worth it.
  • Don’t underestimate the amount of planning required.
  • Don’t rush.
  • Establish effective frameworks for communication and collaboration.

The next 4 posts in this series will look at each of the delivery days in turn and then I shall finish off with one more about what happens after the delivery.

1st in a series of posts describing and reflecting on the experience of delivering a ‘wow project’.
How to Wow: Introduction
How to Wow: Day 1
How to Wow: Day 2
How to Wow: Day 3
How to Wow: Day 4
How to Wow: Closing thoughts