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Getting the message

A project that gets students to design and create photo-stories about social issues is helping to change their own behaviour. John Galloway reports

Although they don't always have fairy tale endings, the photostories in girls' magazines are usually about falling in and out of love, hankering after your best friend's "fella" or wondering what to wear to the school disco. The content is seldom about more humdrum "social issues", such as bullying or making friends in a new school. However, these were the stories that groups of girls at St Paul's Way Community School in Tower Hamlets chose to create when they were asked to do it for themselves.

The lessons were organised by teacher Claudine Rausch while working with two Year 9 groups. She has been running these groups for four years as part of the school's PSHE offer. Students come to her for a variety of reasons.

When asked, one pupil says she is there because she has been in trouble.

"It's because of the way I speak," says another girl. "My form tutor said I am very upfront. Sometimes that can appear rude and abrupt."

The photo-stories came about after the group had been studying women's magazines to explore their pervasive influence. Claudine Rausch felt that by creating their own stories the girls would better understand the messages that tell them what they should look like, think about and watch on television.

One of her aims was to help the girls find ways of expressing themselves effectively. She asked students to write on a piece of paper one of the social problems they had already discussed as a group. They then chose one of these at random and talked about it. From here the ideas for the stories emerged - one about being new to a school and the other about being bullied over a boy. The students made their own decisions about the direction the stories would take. "We were the bosses," explains Narin. "Miss just sat back. The rest was up to us."

Thasmena agrees: "All of us wrote the story together. We planned it all out."

Between them the girls decided on the jobs they would each have, in front of the camera or behind it. Some of the students fell naturally into roles.

"In the photo-story I was the geek," explains Jenny, smiling. "I think that came quite naturally. It was good doing it, because I'm a bit of a nerd in real life."

Everyone joins in her laughter. But not all of the jobs fitted natural characteristics. Some girls surprised everyone. Jubeda initially seemed quite quiet. She didn't want to be in the photos, so the girls chose her to be their director. "It surprised me that she did it," said Claudine Rausch.

Everyone agrees the role brought out a more assertive side in Jubeda's character. She made sure everyone stood just where she decreed to get the shot she wanted.

After agreeing the stories, the girls created storyboards from which they visualised the photos. They took pictures on disposable cameras and had the prints developed and burnt on to a CD-Rom. The prints were laid out in order and the dialogue was written beside each one and revised several times until the story emerged as the group wanted it. As well as speech, "thought bubbles" were added to show how people sometimes think one thing and say another: a teacher walks away from an incident thinking, "I'm wasting my time again"; a girl responds to her friend's hopes for a particular boy saying, "Good for you", while thinking, "In your dreams".

Once finalised, the students used PowerPoint to create an on-screen version of the stories, using one image per slide. When the stories were printed they used the "hand-outs" option to place four or six pictures on a page.

This meant the layout of the final versions looked like the real thing.

Once completed, the students say the project helped them learn new information and communication technology skills. Although they could have used more high-tech equipment, such as digital cameras and word processors, it would not have been appropriate for them. The technology they did use meant they had to work together to achieve the result they wanted. As Shafea puts it: "We shared opinions and listened to each other. Someone chose who was going to be who and we stuck to it. We didn't moan about it.

We helped each other out when we needed the help."

The group is disappointed that the photo-stories are the last project they will do together, as it's time for another group to form. Claudine Rausch says the project taught the girls about themselves. They also made friendships and developed respect for each other.


Plan your story

Organising it is the least exciting part. However, time spent planning means there will be less arguments about who is in the foreground and what the characters' motivation should be.

Take your photos

You don't have to use a digital camera, even though you will need the photos in a digital format. Claudine Rausch and her students used disposable cameras and had the photos developed and burnt on to CD-Rom at the local camera shop.

Use a computer with PowerPoint

Don't bother with wizards or templates, simply choose a blank slide in PowerPoint, then place your photos. For simplicity, everything can be done from the "Insert" menu. Choose "Insert", then "Picture" and "From file" for the photos, then "Insert", "Picture" and "AutoShapes" to create the speech or thought-bubbles, and "Insert", "New Slide" for the next page. Drag the pictures to fit the slide as nearly as possible and use a font size big enough to be read when printed (30 points or more).

Print it out

The print menu in PowerPoint includes a "Handouts" option, which allows you to choose the number of slides on each page. Using four or six gives the print-out the feel of a magazine photo-story.

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