A creative vision

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Bob Overton's pupils are expressing themselves in ways they never thought possible, writes Margaret Whitworth

Joe, who physically cannot hold a paintbrush and transfer paint to paper, achieved an A* in GCSE art and design. Jenny, who has cerebral palsy and cannot stand unaided, performs a magical dance piece. Holly uses the pressure of her tongue against her bottom lip to edit a video about herself.

At Mere Oaks School in Wigan, a special school for pupils aged two to 19, the imagination and creativity of arts co-ordinator Bob Overton has enabled these and many more children to achieve what many might not have thought possible. As he puts it: "Kids who were almost passive are now proactive.

ICT opens up access to the expressive arts, an area which otherwise is difficult."

Bob relishes the challenge of developing strategies for the kids to access the curriculum. "Every child in our school has an obstacle to their learning," he says. "The challenge for me is to find a way round it. These are children who really want to learn."

Bob identified computer-generated imagery as a good medium for Joe. For his GCSE exam piece Joe looked at the work of Picasso and Degas. He wanted to create a work based on a dance, a dream sequence of people in motion. He filmed around the school with a camera attached to an armature on his wheelchair. He varied the camera height occasionally, even attaching it to a helmet. His intention is that "sometimes the dream is peaceful, sometimes it is not". The ordinary corridors are transformed by special effects. Joe changes the colour balance and alters the speed of the film.

Jenny loves to dance. But the weakness in her legs and the jerkiness in her arms makes it difficult for her. In the video, Jenny - Puppet on a String these obstacles are overcome. She uses her chin to push herself up on to her knees but it looks as though the puppeteer is pulling her. Slowing down the film reveals the gracefulness of her movements. At the end, the joyful expression on her face clearly shows her pride in her work.

The enthusiasm of the children in Bob's lessons is obvious. We watch some of the takes for the film the group is making about a chocolate machine.

All have been involved in different capacities whether acting, directing or holding the clapperboard. They now need to choose the best takes, edit out the shouts of "action" and "cut" and think of the music they'd like to add.

A discussion on the impact of sound prompts the group to want to include breaking glass. They are wrapped up in the creative process as the film evolves.

All this need not be expensive. Walking into the art room you are immediately struck by Bob's resourcefulness. The larger-than-life chocolate machine, with money slot and electrical wiring, stands ready for the next stage of filming. A stage set made of recycled computer and electrical equipment simulates a flight deck for another group. A word wall reinforces the language of film.

Bob has been an art and drama teacher for 33 years and has taught special educational needs pupils for the last 15. He has always been interested in film. However, his involvement with digital video is relatively recent. It started when Mere Oaks was chosen in 2001 as one of 50 schools nationwide to participate in the Becta Digital Video Pilot. He was given an iMac and a Canon video camera. From there he went on to win first prize in his category in the 2003 Becta Digital Video Creativity Awards for A Space Oddity.

The children like using digital video. It raises their self-esteem and helps them work together. It allows them to produce high-quality performances and the fact that the children have disabilities is often not apparent and is irrelevant. "We concentrate on ability rather than disability," says Bob. "For me the real pleasure is seeing the pride these children have on their faces."

Sadly the future is uncertain - the school is facing closure by Wigan Council - but for now, Bob and his pupils at Mere Oaks have a lot to be proud of.

Teaching tips

* Let the children use the equipment and experiment, for example filming each other for 10 or 15 seconds each. Don't be worried about breakages - at Mere Oaks we haven't broken a digital camera yet

* Avoid "Hoovering with the camera". Follow two rules: keep the camera on the tripod and don't use zoom when the camera is running (use it before to set up shots)

* Everyone has a role to play. Children who cannot hold a camera can use a tripod and remote control

* Give the children a simple situation to discuss, then ask for a twist.

Listen to them and be prepared to learn - Bob is frequently amazed by their imaginations

* Let the children edit the film themselves Websites

* www.filmeducation.org Resources and support

* www.bfi.org.ukBritish Film Institute

* www.ictadvice.org.uk Becta advice site

* www.nmpft.org.uk National Museum of Photography, Film and Television

* www.britishpathe.com Pathe News Archive A full account of how Jenny's film was created appears in today's TES Teachermagazine. And you can see Jenny's film, along with video of the award winners, on the TES website at www.tes.co.ukictawards

* Runner-up

Yvonne Bennett AAC co-ordinator Highfurlong School Blackpool

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