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Bear necessities

Group work and peer tutoring keep Stirling primary teacher Elaine Wyllie and her pupils ahead of the game, as Douglas Blane reports

The first time Elaine Wyllie taught youngsters how to use a computer she learned a vital lesson herself: "I was part-time in a small country school.

We wanted to create an interactive brochure about the village so parents could choose the image and text they liked best and print them off.

"We only had one computer, so the first day I got a group of kids around it and showed them what to do. Then next week I went in to teach another group - but they already knew how to do it. The rest of the class had got the first group to show them at lunchtimes."

That was 11 years ago, and since then ICT in education has altered out of all recognition, says Elaine. But the lessons she learned then are just as valuable now: "I was struck by the motivation the kids got from the computer and by the power of peer tutoring."

Now teaching at St Ninian's Primary in Stirling, Elaine talks about ICT in the classroom in a thoughtful, engaging way that must appeal to pupils, colleagues and parents alike. Enthusiasm is certainly there, but it's not the single-minded zeal of some technology buffs. Instead there's a calm conviction of the powerful effects of ICT on children and their learning.

Elaine also reveals, as she talks, a reflective side, a willingness to analyse what is being taught and learned, that does not always accompany the creativity that is the most striking aspect of her teaching.

"When kids begin producing multimedia presentations, you can see them start to become more sophisticated media consumers. They watch MTV for instance, and see perfect image after perfect image. But it's only when they try it themselves that they realise how much effort it takes, how far from real life it is, and how manipulative all those beautiful images can be."

Elaine believes digital still photography is more valuable than video in a classroom: "You can get every pupil involved, whereas with video it's often just one or two."

She demonstrates by playing on her computer a multimedia story from the life of Jesus, designed and produced by her Primary 7 pupils. "Everyone in the class worked on this," she explains, "making the figures, arranging the scenes, preparing the storyboards, taking the photos. It took them three weeks to make this two-minute presentation."

Other class projects Elaine has organised include a pupils' astronomy website (with images of the Moon and Saturn taken by them, and distant galaxies taken by the Hubble space telescope), an interactive dictionary aimed at preserving the Scots language (which encouraged people to adopt a word, and grabbed the interest of pupils, the local community, the Scottish Parliament, and schools around the country), and a website about Flannan Isle, site of a celebrated lighthouse mystery. "The kids did an investigation, then wrote it up, including their own theories about what had happened. They got emails and letters from experts and their website recorded 800 hits in the first month," says Elaine.

But among all these motivating projects, she says, the one with the most impact - as well as the potential to benefit every area of the curriculum - is the Bear Exchange.

"You wouldn't believe the interest and excitement this generates. I set it up by contacting a school in the States through their website. We posted Scottie to them and they sent us Baxter. Since then the two bears have had all sorts of adventures, and shared them with the kids through emails and websites."

Scottie voted for President Bush, while Blaine went canoeing, visited Stirling Castle, and drove to Dornoch to watch the eclipse of the sun.

"There he is wearing his dark glasses," says Elaine.

Seeing the buzz created by the bears, other classes at St Ninian's have since set up their own projects, exchanging bears with schools abroad and in the UK: "It's all about encouraging children to be active and creative," says Elaine. "That is the key."

* Teaching tips

* Set up a bear exchange. If your pupils are swapping emails with another school it can become unfocused, even boring. Exchanging bears, which then go to interesting places and get their photo taken, brings it all alive

* Get a website with a cool name. If you are doing a project on the Egyptians, say, try brainsdownthenose.co.uk

* Buy a digital camera. Feedback is instant, so the children can keep trying till they get what they like

* Compile a dialect dictionary. This is highly motivating, and generates all sorts of outside interest and educational activities for the children

* Generate ideas. Children learn by being active andcreative, contributing rather than consuming

Websites

* www.imindsoftware.co.uk

* www.astropics-stnins.com

http:wps.wiscasset-ps.wiscasset.k12.me.usmorissettespecialprojects.htm

www.ictadvice.org.uk

* www.bbc.co.ukscotland educationasww2

Runners-up

Andrew Trythall

ICT co-ordinatorDeputy head Sir Robert Hitcham's CEVAP School Woodbridge

Sarah Neild ICT co-ordinator St Mary's Catholic Primary School Billinge

Peter Heaney, Teacher Steelstown Primary School Londonderry

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