Moving pictures from the front

3rd August 2012 at 01:00
Young film-makers have shared their insight into wartime in a documentary. Jackie Cosh reports

We may not be in France with them, but watching the pupils as they stand on the front line and hear the harrowing stories has no less impact when seen on film. The auditorium is full of people whose eyes are welling up just like those of the youngsters.

For the past five years staff and pupils at Bishopbriggs Academy in East Dunbartonshire have been making an annual trip to the First and Second World War battle sites with Mercat Tours.

With a maximum of 40 pupils per trip, only a few can benefit, so the school staff decided to make a documentary of their trip to share with others at the school and, via Glow, with schools across Scotland.

Tonight is the premiere of the film which, for 90 minutes, allows the viewer to become a fly on the wall. In it, pupils provide a video diary of their daily thoughts and feelings and we are taken on parts of the tour with them. We visit the Pool of Peace and experience the atmosphere with them. When visiting a makeshift hospital, we know how they feel when they are told: "You are standing in the spot where Adolf Hitler once stood."

We watch pupils remembering the dead, finding graves of family members who never returned.

Lorna Smith, 17, says: "A family friend told me her granddad had died there and asked if we could possibly visit his memorial. My friend and I found it. It was good to do it and to see the difference it has made to her and her family."

Ellen Graham, 13, found her great great uncle's grave. "It was really emotional, more than I thought it would be. We laid a wreath and a wooden cross and poppy. My gran was so happy that finally someone had gone there to remember him," she says.

Religious, moral and philosophical studies teacher Kirsty Alexander was instrumental in making the film happen. She says: "It came from a frustration from taking a small group, and seeing the impact it has on the pupils. We wanted to find a way to share it."

Local businessman Stephen Anderson funded the project and was moved watching it. "The kids really do bring over the horror, the loyalty and the sacrifice of war. With so much gloom and doom, it is good to be able to back the passion and dedication of our teachers," he says.

After five trips, Mrs Alexander has had time to see the benefits to pupils, in terms of confidence and academically. "The pupils who go tend to have an interest in history, but the whole thing is about values, so it is beyond history," she says.

She cites examples. One boy had a poem published. One girl wrote a song about the trip, while another entered her photograph from the trip into a competition, which she won.

Mrs Alexander stresses that the documentary has been made for teachers to use: "Our aim was not to create a diary of events, but to create a unique educational resource, which teachers in our school and schools across Scotland can use to teach religious and moral education, history, personal and social education, English, music ."

Along with the documentary, the school has put together a teaching guide with ideas and suggestions for activities for different subjects or the whole school.

"We think it encompasses a whole-school approach," says Mrs Alexander. "We see it being segmented according to theme and place. If you were teaching geography, you could use it to teach about clay kickers. In English, it could be used as a prompt for writing poetry . Even in RMPS it could be used for the questions - `should we remember?' And `for how long should we remember?'"

PE teacher Robin Blackburn is convinced of the trip's benefits to pupils. "Their sense of perspective as well as what is important to them in life changes," he says. "They don't get involved in nonsense or play up. They have a better sense of value of what is important."


Des Brogan, director of Mercat Tours and a former history teacher, says: "When we start out, we promise to change youngsters. They look at us strangely. When we come back, they are fundamentally different.

"There is no question about whether they change. We get them to write something at the end of each day - not what they saw but what they thought and felt. The first night they write a few lines, the second they write a few paragraphs, the third a page.

"My teaching motto is, `History is a damn good story - it needs a damn good telling.

"One night a fifth-year boy came to me and put a letter in my hand. With tears in his eyes, he was unable to speak. The note said, `You have shown me the path to manhood; now I know what I will do with my life.'

"To have a kid so moved is powerful and rewarding."

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