Here be dragons

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Dorothy Walker visits a primary school where modern technology is used to look for mythical beasts

"We are obsessed by dragons at St George's," says Mary Robertson, headteacher at St George's Primary School, Edgbaston, and she points to a trail of dragons' footprints across the playground.

Year 3 pupils really went to town with the theme in Urban Dragons, a digital photography project which earned the first-time photographers a media prize - the Chrisi Bailey Award, which encourages photography, digital art, animation and video among under-10s.

St George's has a strong tradition in the arts and has worked with many artists through Creative Partnerships, a government-funded initiative.

Urban Dragons was done in collaboration with photo-grapher Ming de Nasty and explored how ICT could contribute to creativity, using traditional and digital tools.

The project was done by a group of 13 pupils with English as an additional language who took part in six workshops run by Ming and the school's art technician, Lynn Brown. Before it started, teachers were also trained in digital photography in a workshop led by Ming.

The theme was suggested by the pupils, their imaginations fired by the prospect of tracking down dragons which inhabited the inner reaches of their city. The children pieced together every detail of how these fantastic creatures lived, using the computer to create a collage (see today's TES Online, news) which celebrated their colourful lives.

The first task was to learn how to use both conventional and digital cameras, before taking home disposable cameras to photograph lairs where dragons might sleep, eat and play. Pupils also explored the playground, recording the giant footprints cast in concrete, and imagining where they led - an activity which featured in every workshop.

The second session showed how photographs could be manipulated and combined, as a prelude to later work that would take place on computers.

Time-honoured cut-and-paste tools - glue and scissors - were employed to make a collage.

Lynn Brown says: "We used pictures from magazines, and took digital pictures of parts of ourselves - feet, hands, eyes, ears - then pieced everything together to make our own imaginary dragons."

In workshops three and four, they were joined by costume designer Gary Jones, who helped the children make dragon masks and a fabulous, carnival-style dragon costume. Pupils photographed each other in the masks, and the costume was the focus for a studio photography session with professional lighting and backdrops. Children took it in turns to dress up, and were photographed by classmates, using a top-of-the-range digital camera belonging to Ming de Nasty.

Now it was time to consider what dragons might eat and drink, with everyone bringing in their own props to create a feast. A table was laid with a range of dragon delicacies from chocolate to cockroaches. One of the boys, who had suggested human flesh as a main course, rolled up his trouser leg and had his shin photographed on a plate, garnished with grass.

Lack of space means St George's does not have a computer suite, so the group used Athena, a suite available to all schools in the education action zone, for editing and composing the final collage (the school does, however, have computers in every classroom). Pupils learned how to use Photoshop to cut out their images and add backgrounds, dragging their dragons across the screen so they could soar above buildings or peep out from under the bed.

Lynn Brown says: "They were absolutely overwhelmed - they hadn't seen the software before, and they thought it was the best thing ever. We demonstrated it on the interactive whiteboard, and they picked it up so quickly."

The children also wrote dragon stories to accompany their work, and one of the plans for continuing the project is to help them make their own books, illustrated with some of the photography.

Lynn Brown says: "We will now be making more use of computers in art."

Not only has the success of the project underlined the benefits of ICT, the award has provided photographic equipment and creativity software which will be put to good use in a newly created arts suite, where Lynn Brown will work alongside teachers on projects.

She says: "The children's excitement and enthusiasm was absolutely outstanding - their ideas kept on growing. On a project like this, it is important just to enjoy it and go where the children's enthusiasm takes you. Don't try to stop them going off on a tangent, as you will get so much out of it - their ideas are much better than mine."

Headteacher Mary Robertson says: "Art plays an important part in our learning, both as a subject and as a tool for developing children's imagination and deep thinking skills. Urban Dragons was an exploration of ICT in art, and we think ICT is truly wonderful - it opens up so many new horizons for creative learning. It helps inspire creativity, and it is a vehicle for the children's ideas. The fact they can manipulate their ideas instantly is absolutely fantastic.

"Our children do not use cameras at home, and this kind of work opens up possibilities for them in future. We thought digital cameras would be a good vehicle for children with English as an additional language to express their ideas. We do a lot of work here to welcome new pupils and help them blend in."

* Arts minister Estelle Morris will present St George's with its prizes at an awards ceremony in Birmingham next month

* The Chrisi Bailey Award provided St George's with pound;1,000, which will go towards the development of an open-air classroom and amphitheatre - the Dragon Theatre - in the school grounds. The annual award is open to children under the age of 10. Entry details and the work of all past winners can be found at

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