The process of making a short film can bring some of the driest subjects to life for students. Jerome Monahan reports on the winners of the BBC Over To You 2006 project
It is a rare 13-year-old who gets to have his debut film performance, describing volcanic lava as "vomit from hell", projected large on one of London's biggest cinema screens in front of an appreciative audience of hundreds of his peers. Teddy Boateng, a Year 8 pupil at Preston Manor School in Brent, west London, had this heady experience recently when his and 10 other three-minute "shorts" on themes in geography and science had their premieres at the Odeon West End, in London.
The event was the culmination of the second Over To You project - a collaboration between 21CC, the BBC's 21st Century Classroom digital learning centre, six London City Learning Centres (CLCs) plus one in Newcastle, and 11 groups of Key Stage 3 children drawn from schools in both cities. The hope for 2007, say the organisers, is to build on the success of this and last year's pilots, turning the scheme into a national event.
In 2006, the scheme included film and editing training for teachers and BBC volunteers (two per school) who then worked alongside CLC staff helping pupils to create their films about such diverse subjects as volcanos and rainforests, food chains and microbes. "As well as conducting research, planning and capturing their own footage, the schools also had access to a cache of curriculum-relevant material from the BBC archive," explains Grace Cumley, the Over To You II project manager. "The challenge was to weave this material into their own, in order to create instructive and coherent narratives." The pupil production work had to be completed in only three days. The final results proved to be highly creative and quirky.
The geographical highlights included Preston Manor's staged eruption, justifying lots of camera shake and the colourful script already mentioned; Tower Hamlets Mulberry School's use of green-screen back projection, and hilarious use of a foreground lily-cum-orchid to suggest news reports from Hawaii, for another project on the theme of plate tectonics and eruptions; and Kingsbury High School's drama-based evocation of life in the Amazon. Of the science films, it was the contribution of West Gate Community College, Newcastle, concerning diet and health (made in the students' own time over a series of Saturday mornings at their nearby CLC) that contributed one of the afternoon's zaniest moments - a final animation in which a talking gravestone exhorted us to avoid a diet of burgers and chips.
In most cases, the films selected for screening had been chosen from a number of shorts - often following a vote by the whole of the year group.
"I think ours was chosen," says Preston Manor's Alex Duthie, 13, "because it was comic." Explaining her film's success, Samira Nazir, 14, of Salisbury school, feels sure it went down well because it conveyed a large amount of information clearly. "We had to do a lot of research, reading up on volcanos, for our film, and also going through all the BBC films to see what we could use," says Samira. Seher Bozkina, 14, adds: "It has helped stick the information in my memory."
Clearly, this is one of the goals of the project: underlining the educative value in approaching potentially dry subjects using film and, in the process, encouraging students' enthusiasm for research, given the need to create an informative product intended to be capable of communicating to real audiences. That is the theory. As far as some of the teachers go, the jury is still out. "My feeling is that a film project like this is a good way to embed pupils' understanding of a subject with which they are already familiar," says Mulberry's science teacher, Deborah Colvin.
"On the other hand," she adds, "one of the greatest pleasures for me was taking part in genuinely collaborative learning alongside my students as we grappled with the filming and editing." It is a point that is echoed by many of the adults involved - teachers and BBC volunteers alike.
Another important element was the power of the medium to grant a voice to those students who, perhaps, struggle with more conventional forms of communication. A BBC online sports journalist, John Sinnott, worked alongside Salisbury school pupils. He recalls: "There was one young boy originally from Iran whose camera work was fantastic. It was a way in which he could really express himself, despite his still limited English writing skills."
Also pleasing was evidence that Over To You II had been extended to a broad range of children. "The Kingsbury High School group were challenging," says Sarah Hoyle, Preston Manor CLC learning and curriculum co-ordinator. "And this meant we had to forego the planning and story-boarding parts of the process. But thanks to the enthusiasm of their teacher, Katrina Winter, and our BBC volunteers we were able to come up with a lively film. We asked them to find out facts about the Amazon they could speak to camera, and this proved a great way of encouraging them to find out all they could."
Another spin-off from working with film is the increased awareness that students gain of behind-the-scenes processes in professional film and TV.
"I've been noticing more continuity blunders," says Karl Cam, 13, from West Gate Community College. "You know - when someone's eating a sandwich in one shot, and then suddenly it's a cake."