Garden gnomes and Daleks might not feature in a typical in-service training day, but they played a key role in sessions Barrie Day organised to help fellow teachers explore the creative possibilities of film animation. Even more unusual was his suggestion that they bring along some students. Not only could the pupils help their teachers learn the tricks of the animation trade, Barrie was also convinced they would be keen to forge ahead with the technology when they returned to their classrooms.
"It worked brilliantly," says Barrie, head of English at Newman School, Carlisle. "I know it's great to go on courses, but the minute you get back to school you're hit by a wall of day-to-day work, and all the inspiration quickly evaporates. ICT-based work tends to be led by children anyway, so I thought I would try this new training model."
The sessions focused on storytelling through stop-frame animation - Wallace and Gromit-style film-making, using toys or clay models. The characters are moved around by hand, a single camera shot is taken after each adjustment and software brings the frames together as an animated film. Barrie's own students have used it extensively and some of his Year 10 pupils were there to act as peer mentors.
Each teacher brought two pupils, and together they worked with a peer mentor. Nine primary schools took part, with pupils from Years 5 and 6. The secondary session drew in Years 9 and 11 pupils from four schools.
A great fan of Digital Movie Creator, an inexpensive digital video camera which can also be used for stop-frame animation, Barrie began with a demonstration of the editing software supplied as part of the package. He says: "Some film sequences are provided, and you can use the software very creatively without the camera, animating everything from helicopters to aliens, and adding sound effects."
The groups spent an hour on the computers and showed each other what they had produced, before Barry demonstrated the camera. Some schools brought along scenery and characters, others dipped into the box of toys Barrie had brought for the occasion - an enormous collection amassed from charity shops and cut-price stores, the assorted dolls and dinosaurs now looking the worse for wear.
"The toy box is becoming grotesque, with more and more dismembered appendages," laughs Barrie. "But it is important to use toys, because it avoids the self-consciousness and embarrassment students would feel if they had to make characters or appear in front of the camera themselves. "It also allows boys to play with toys again - because the computer's there, it's cool."
The groups mapped out their plots on a storyboard, and began the painstaking process of filming. Most of the cameras were attached to laptops the teachers had brought with them, so that they could take the work back to school.
The group dynamics were fascinating, says Barrie. "The children were so caught up in their ideas that the teachers just tended to follow them, and that is really quite revolutionary. Many teachers are nervous about getting their heads round new software and they feel inhibited, so they were quite relieved they didn't have to take the lead."
Barrie did not provide a storyline brief, and the end-of-day screenings included everything from the adventures of mechanical dinosaurs to takes on popular fairy tales. "You can't anticipate where children will take this software, that is what is so exciting. Years 6 and 7 tend to create conventional fairy stories with heroes and heroines. By Year 9, the hormones are kicking in, and the storylines can be truly bizarre.
Sixth-formers are heavily into parody and satire, and they produce really clever send-ups of films or plays."
At Newman, Barrie has built stop-frame animation into the English curriculum for Years 7 to 9. He says: "There is a lot of literacy going on.
For example, it helps with understanding story structure, and the nature of storytelling using sound, vision and speech. But I didn't put a literacy label on the training sessions. They were about storytelling, imagination and creativity, and that struck a chord. That is what teachers really want to be doing.
"In English, GCSE allows very little creativity and key stage 3 can be a killer. When students do animation, they are often surprised at just how creative they can be. And they are employing ICT, covering literacy targets, developing social skills and maturity and building self-esteem, enhancing their learning in all kinds of directions."
* Digital Movie Creator 2: tiny digital video camera with software for video editing and stop-frame animation. The camera can be hand-held, although Barrie prefers to keep it standing in its holder, permanently connected to the computer. From TAG Learning, pound;84.95.
Tel: 01474.357350 www.taglearning.com
* Laptop computers, preferably, as these are easily moved around and save lots of space. Barrie says: "This won't work in a conventional regimented ICT suite. We did the training sessions in the school library, where we could spread out all the toys."