Directing the 'X-Files' in French was one approach to language teaching on a weekend at Castle Toward, says Eleanor Caldwell
For a group of 21 S5 and S6 pupils from across Argyll and Bute, a residential weekend at Castle Toward near Dunoon, offered new challenges with a combination of digital video film-making and language development. Directing and producing This Morning with Richard and Judy in Gaelic, and Popstars and the X Files in French made an unusual change from classroom work.
As part of the two-year Partners in Excellence languages initiative involving 29 schools in Argyll and Bute, East Ayrshire, and North Ayrshire, the Castle Toward weekend earlier this month brought together Higher pupils from outlying islands and mainland Argyll to make group videos in French and Gaelic on subjects that were deliberately lightweight.
On their first night, the 26 girls and five boys split into three groups and were allocated their video subject and storyboard to work on. Although the programmes came from British and American television, all script had to be in their chosen language. Drama workshops led by Garnock Academy's drama teacher, Louise Dalgleish, broke down inhibitions and helped pupils to get to know each other. Saturday was devoted to scripting and filming.
On the Richard and Judy set, Richard was played by Gary Ferguson, a classroom assistant at the Gaelic medium unit in Onthank Primary School in Kilmarnock. This edition of the programme featured one girl's makeover. Gaelic teacher Janet MacDonald from Tobermory High acted as linguistic adviser and wrote the script on flipchart cue cards, as directed by the group. After filming with running commentary on the make-over, they looked for a dramatic location in the castle for the girl to make her entrance on to the television set.
The French X Files-Alien team were also on the look-out for suitable sets for filming scenes of strange abduction. French-speaking agents examined slumped bodies on stairs and ventured out into the rain for a more sinister atmosphere.
Linguistic advisers with this group were Tobermory High's principal teacher of modern languages, Lynne Horn, and French assistant, Herve le Gall, both of whom were enthusiastic about the weekend. Lynne Horn hoped to make more use of video filming with younger pupils: "I'd like to take an S2 class out into the town and perhaps work on making a film about Tbermory."
Herve le Gall enjoyed seeing pupils relax more with the language. "In school they worry too much about making mistakes," he said. "Here they just want to know the correct language to make their film."
The recent Popstars programme gave the third group, in the castle's main room, the chance to include song and dance in their production. All aspects of the programme were covered, including moments of truth when the young hopefuls were told they had been successful. Christine Inglis, principal teacher of French at Tarbert High and Emilie Geiller, French assistante at Dunoon Grammar, offered linguistic support.
Throughout the weekend, the project director, Mark Pentleton, moved from group to group, offering advice on acting, filming and language. He was also in charge of the Popstars disco lighting and music. Brian Green, a video production technician with East and North Ayrshire, provided technical advice on filming and production. A technical workshop on the Friday night taught pupils the rudiments of digital video production. Using iMovie applications, they spent Sunday editing their videos on three iMac computers. "The kids really enjoy the combination of working with this new technology and seeing their own work on screen," says Brian Green. On the Sunday morning pupils watched their completed films and were treated to an Oscar ceremony recognising both linguistic and production success.
This was the third Partners in Excellence weekend and Mark Pentleton is delighted with results so far. All schools in the scheme will soon have full video conferencing and Internet facilities, he says. It is also hoped to develop online teaching for Advanced Higher languages and to introduce a beginners' course in a minority language such as Italian. A dedicated website for the 29 schools is also being designed, which will include S56 resources in French, German, Spanish and Gaelic, submitted by a team of teachers and language assistants across the three authorities.
Mark Pentleton stresses that the initiative and the residential weekends in particular aim to use the foreign language as a basis on which to develop pupils' skills across a number of curriculum areas. The success of this was measured at Castle Toward by the acting, singing, dancing and directing expertise shown by a group of young people who have discovered a whole new direction for language learning.