When Year 9 students rush into the classroom asking: "Are we doing drugs in art today, Miss?" it needs a bit of explaining to the headteacher and parents of Norton College, where I am in charge of art. Although Norton is a technology college, art is the best performing subject at GCSE level with a 100 per cent pass rate at A*-C this year.
Last February I attended a course on "Using Art to Address Drugs Issues". The initial idea was piloted by Estelle Corbyn in Stokesley School, and is endorsed by David Uffindall, North Yorkshire County's Advisory Teacher for Health. The possibility of an issues-based project to engage the interest of Year 9 in the spring term had definite appeal. I began the project immediately.
A letter was was taken home by students to inform their parents that they were doing a project on cartoon art linked to personal, social and health issues, and why they would be asking questions about drinking habits.
A booklet produced by the health authority, A Parents' Guide to Drugs and Alcohol was made available.
My own knowledge of drugs is overwhelmingly weighted in the area of alcohol, so that seemed like the best starting point for the project. I could not stand in front of the group of children, many of whom regularly see me enjoying myself in the local pizzeria, and start condemning alcohol.
However, the approach of putting forward the benefits before the downside ("It has become apparent from recent research that not only does alcohol taste good, it also does you good.") lent credibility to what I said.
The first homework task took the form of a dialogue between parents and their children using prepared questions. Ben, 13, referred to this later in his evaluation. "It involved many questions about their views on drinking, and if they allowed me to drink, and if so, how much and when. Also if they knew the limits of when to stop drinking and if you did not stop what may happen to you. We also had to ask if there had been any incidents when they had been drinking, if something either embarrassing or horrible had happened. This was to give us ideas for our story."
The unit of work, which was of half a term's duration, began with an introduction to th art of comic illustration as a useful genre for putting across important issues, and its relevance to teenage culture.
Alcohol-related health and social issues were discussed frankly, and notes were made. I could tell I had made an impression when the biggest, brashest boy stuck his hand up. Pale faced, he asked: "How do you spell 'testicular atrophy', Miss?" Next they worked in pairs to complete a worksheet on "The Art of Comic Illustration". After class feedback from their discussion with their parents, they were ready to write a story of an alcohol-related incident. It was necessary to check for any inappropriate content and language at this stage. However, it is important to allow some fairly colourful language to maintain the credibility of the genre as a part of teenage culture. It is amazing how motivating it appeared to be when they were allowed to include "puke", "blurgh" and other examples of street slang.
Next came the characterisation, sequencing of events and the awareness of the need to "show not tell" when the rough draft was drawn up. Observational drawing skills were practised with the study of a beerwine glass containing coloured liquid.
A demonstration followed, on the use of drawing inksgouache to create a wash, tone and detail. The final picture story was made on A3 cartridge, with the addition of any necessary text, titles and sound words. The students did this by hand or using the computer. A wordprocessed evaluation completed the work.
The project also addressed a range of key skills, including communication, applications of ICT, problem-solving, working with others, and improving own learning and performance. Its relevance as a contribution to PSHE in the curriculum was recognised.
Student Sarah wrote of the project: "The message intended is to make people aware that drinking in excess can have very serious side-effects. My feelings about this project are that it was very worthwhile, as it was both fun and informative."
Thomas agreed: "Comics are a successful way to show the dangers of alcohol to my age group. I now know that alcohol in moderation is OK but too much alcohol can kill."
Julie Cowdy teaches part-time at Norton College, Malton, North Yorkshire and is an educational course tutor