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Sneaking in software that inspires creativity and chat

The combination of motivational challenges and Comic Life has energised reluctant students in Falkirk

The combination of motivational challenges and Comic Life has energised reluctant students in Falkirk

Sometimes a teacher has to sneak literacy lessons under the learners' radar. A great way to do this is with software called Comic Life, says Iona Henderson, lead teacher on a new programme for S5 Christmas-leavers at Falkirk High.

"We have wide variation in literacy levels in the group," she explains. "So this encourages all of them to reflect on their experiences, write them up and produce something they can be pleased with. They will also be using what they're doing now in presentations at the end of the project."

What they are doing now, all round the computer section of the library, is creating comic books from photographs of themselves and their colleagues, artistically arranged and spiced up with their own words and captions. The photos were taken during the expeditions and activities that are a key feature of the vocational and motivational programme Falkirk High has devised for these youngsters - who often don't want to be in school, but who can't leave until they are 16.

Sheridan Smith has been selecting photos mainly from their Outward Bound experiences. "That's me half-way up a huge tree," she says, pointing to a slight figure in harness and helmet. "It was a bit scary when you looked down, but you couldn't fall because of the ropes.

"I don't think up a plan first, when I'm doing the comic. What I do is pick out the photos I like - not always with me in them. Then I add captions and bubbles to show what people are saying. It isn't hard."

Making comic books is new to them, says Jason Ferguson, who is already selecting images, adjusting them and adding text faster than the eye can follow. "We only started last week. This is our first time on our own. I do a bit of planning. If you go straight in, you can make mistakes."

A good way to create humour in a comic book, says Miss Henderson, is to show one bubble for what someone is saying and another for their thoughts. She turns to Jason and points to his page on the screen.

"Remember we talked about this?" she says. "So in that picture, after you'd had to jump into the loch, you've got a bubble that says, `I'm freezing'. But what was it you told us you were actually thinking?"

Jason looks slightly abashed at the thought of sharing his humour outside the group, then makes the effort. It goes down well and he looks pleased.

"Now think of another way to say that," Mrs Henderson tells him.

This is just the kind of instant feedback and formative assessment the medium supports well, she explains: "As we go along, we can present their work for peer assessment on the whiteboard. At the end of the course, it will become part of their portfolio assessment, as well as being used in the presentations they'll deliver at their graduation. It also gives them something to take away and share with friends and family."

A comic book can make a good gift, says John Buist, who has already decided on the recipient for his: "Martin, the instructor on the residential course we did up at Loch Eil. He did a lot with us. As soon as we arrived, we had to jump in the loch. James went first - that's him in the photo - and I was right behind him.

"On the second day, we'd to walk 12 miles to a valley in the mountains and camp out. It was raining, muddy and we couldn't get our tents up. It was torture, man."

He points to a group photo in his comic, of weary-looking wanderers back at base, with succinct speech-bubbles expressing their feelings, and Martin Davidson, head of the centre, looking fresh and unfazed. "He's a good guy," John says. "So when I'm finished, I'm going to print this comic off and post it to him."

Comic books encourage listening, talking, reading and writing, says Miss Henderson, by providing ways to be creative and achieving aesthetic satisfaction that you can't get from text alone. "Kids can get frightened if you ask them to do a big block of writing. If you don't set limits, they just get on with it - and they will write much more than with any other method, without realising they're learning."

Alicia Hannah has discovered the feature that creates fancy fonts, colour gradients and neon-looking lighting that can be used to jazz up simple words. "I picked this up myself," she says. "You drag the lettering across, then type the words you want. Then you can change the size and shape, or try different colours. It's really easy and it looks good."

Artistry is clearly at work, too, in Sarah Anderson's page layouts, with the photos on page one chosen for size and aspect ratio, then rotated at interesting angles, while the second page is basically a plain layout with complex, colour-matched crowd scenes coming through.

"I want it to look good before I add words," she says. "You grab a corner of a photo and turn it. Then you decide what's going on and write in what people are saying.

"We've learned loads on this whole course. I used to be shy but now I'm comfortable standing up and giving talks to people. If school was always like this, I would always be at school."

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