My best assembly - People like us

24th October 2008 at 01:00
Pupils find it hard to identify with those who fight in wars. You can change that, says James Precious

Collectors came round, but few poppies left the trays. The British Army was fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pupils had been stirred to organise anti-war protests. Why didn't they connect Remembrance with the present? Was it just dead history to them? Some faded sepia photograph, too distant to care about?

To challenge this indifference, I designed an assembly to show pupils the kind of sights that soldiers across the world see.

Music and images, combined well, can be powerful. This Remembrance assembly was built around a remarkable song called "A Walk in the Light Green", by Redgum, an Australian group. In Vietnam, high-risk areas were shown as light green on Army maps. The song is about the experiences of soldiers sent into those areas.

I chose the Vietnam War as a lynchpin, rather than the First or Second World War, because photographs from Vietnam were in colour and looked more modern. This overcame a serious block that pupils seemed to have: seeing people in black and white photos as people like themselves.

Surfing websites, I found vivid, high resolution, colour photographs of soldiers in Vietnam. I chose images to help pupils identify with them - a tatty photograph of a young infantryman in fatigues, looking relaxed smoking, for example.

Some photos showed soldiers on patrol. Others were emotive, such as two soldiers carrying a wounded comrade. And some, I admit, were harrowing, showing the wounded and the dead.

The photographs were sequenced using PowerPoint, then synchronised precisely with the song, so that music, words and images reinforced each other. The trick with PowerPoint is to avoid cliches and excess. Instead, use it like a video editing tool that can create transitions and effects on the fly.

Cuts, fades, cross-fades, and a few well-targeted zooms, for example, look and feel far better than flashy transitions and whizzy effects that draw too much attention to themselves.

On the day of the assembly, I spoke for five minutes or so about a friend of mine who'd been a naval diver and fought in the Falklands. His experiences and feelings, seeing his friends die around him.

Behind me was a projected slide of three soldiers who had just been killed in Iraq, along with the estimated overall bodycount. It turned out that one pupil had known one of these young men. Six degrees of separation? We only needed one.

The audience stayed silent and focused, far more than was usual. Pupils listened attentively. Then they saw the slideshow.

Staff told me they'd never seen an assembly like it. The pupils were spellbound. More than a few cried. Throughout the day, they talked about what they'd seen. Several came to see me afterwards. One, who wanted to join the Army, said he'd never really understood what soldiers went through. A colleague, who'd been in the Forces, simply said thank you for giving the pupils an insight into what soldiering and war were really like.

I've been asked to repeat the assembly many times and the results have been the same.

James Precious teaches at Patcham High School in Brighton.

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