Home by Christmas

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Douglas Blane reports on a project that evokes the reality of war by using digital video to focus on one individual tragedy

History is too important to be left to historians. When great wars fade from memory, political leaders feel free once more to spin their stories about imminent danger - stories that send young people full of promise to terrible deaths. At the start of the First World War, troops from all countries involved were being assured that it would be a short war, and they would be home by Christmas.

"Before we started this project I had no idea what the First World War was like," says young Daryl Toye. "We watched black-and-white film of the trenches, with dead bodies lying around, while people still alive were running about in them."

A million deaths, as Stalin pointed out, is a statistic, while one is a tragedy. Edwin Trydell died at the Battle of the Somme. A century later, pupils at Bellshill Academy in Lanarkshire are learning about the Great War through Edwin's story. "I had the idea that we could bring that time to life by using the war monument just outside the school," says history teacher Justin Auty.

The Bellshill monument was a portal to the past, but the key was provided by a collection of grainy images taken in those terrible times of the early 20th century. At tables around a high-ceilinged classroom in Bellshill Academy, 20 middle-school pupils are studying these images on their iMacs, and selecting those that in their minds best capture the essence of the times, the feelings of the young men who marched to war and the families they left behind.

"I've never done anything like this before," says Tracy Irvine, aged 15.

"You're making it up yourself, so you learn more. You pick the facts and the pictures you want, then put them all together to produce your video with your own voice-over. What makes it so good is that it's you that's doing it. When you are just reading about things you don't always understand what it is you're reading."

Bellshill pupils like Tracy are fortunate in attending a school that is well equipped with ICT and has a unique unit, the Learning Centre, a focus for new educational developments using multimedia. "We develop, test and disseminate innovative approaches to teaching and learning through multimedia and ICT," says centre manager Kevin O'Hara. "Not just in Bellshill Academy and its community, but throughout North Lanarkshire."

The centre has rapidly become an integral part of school life. Projects that will in time benefit other schools are tried out first on willing Bellshill pupils. With two computer suites, two digital arts studios and a sound recording studio, the centre is bulging with high-tech hardware. But expertise and imagination matter more. Centre personnel have already collaborated with teachers on history, art, home economics, English, geography, PE and religious education projects. They have developed a database of websites, worked on citizenship with children at risk, and made mind-mapping digestible for students struggling to memorise and organise.

Films and film-making provide the focus for many of these activities. "What you can do with film-making has changed out of all recognition in recent years," says Kevin O'Hara. "Teachers nowadays don't need a lot of hardware and software to do the kind of thing we're doing here. The software, for instance, comes with the latest Macs or PCs. What they do need is a little time and imagination - and I don't mean enormous amounts of time." The separation of film making into distinct stages is the key, he explains - with all the educational benefits for pupils of acquiring creative and research skills and becoming active and independent learners.

"Traditionally there are three stages to film making: pre-production, production and post-production. To do all those is a massive job. But today's technology lets you concentrate on any one of the three, chosen for its educational benefits." In pre-production, the focus is on creativity, storyboarding, teamwork and thinking skills. Production turns the spotlight on acting, presenting and performance. "We have developed projects around each of those stages," says multimedia specialist William Davidson. "But this history project - and those we've done for many other subjects - is very much about post-production. We provide a collection of photos, film clips and written sources, and pupils select from them, prepare their own voiceovers and create a documentary."

As with any project, time and effort are initially needed to gather and organise resources. But once that is done, they can then be used again and again to connect young people of the present to the recent and more distant past. "We teach pupils how to use iMovie in two lessons," says Mr Davidson.

"Windows XP has a similar package. When we tell teachers they can be editing video in a couple of hours, they are amazed.."

Justin Auty had never used iMovie before. "But it really is dead simple," he insists. "In essence, pupils are writing an essay using a variety of resources and research. Tell them that though, and you won't get much enthusiasm. Tell them they're going to make a film and... well look around."

Headphones on ears, eyes on screen, the entire class is engrossed in the past. Edwin Trydell's family received a letter from his best friend to tell them he had been killed in action on Saturday, September 25, 1916: "Edwin was shot in the stomach during a charge on the enemy trenches... He was one of the bravest men I ever knew." The young soldier died at the infamous Battle of the Somme, the first day of which cost 58,000 British troops, many of them shot the instant they stepped out of the trenches. "The First World War was nothing like I imagined," says young Susan Brownlie. "So many people died."


For comprehensive background information and pupilteacher notes for Learning Centre projects: www.thelearningcentre.org

* A list of sound and video clips compiled for the project: www.thelearningcentre.orgprojects_ww1.html

* IMovie is "an ideal tool", according to the Learning Centre. "Students spend time studying their subject, not learning movie-making."


* The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website has details of the 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during the two world wars, and the 23,000 cemeteries where they are buried.


* "Remember me: echoes of the lost generations" is a new compilation of resources on the two world wars aimed at upper primary and secondary schools. http:

* The reality of life and death in the trenches is vividly captured at www.firstworldwar.comfeaturestrenchlife.htm

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