From page, to paintbrush, to screen: learning takes all forms

9th April 2010 at 01:00
The English and art departments at Strathaven Academy are joining forces to encourage cross-curricular use of words and images

You can't beat words and pictures for telling a story. But words belong in the English department and pictures in art. At least that is the traditional school curriculum. So pupils rarely get the chance to pull the two together.

Curriculum for Excellence means schools and teachers are breaking down these artificial barriers, allowing children to make creative connections. But how does a school get two such disparate departments to work well together?

"A trial run is the best way, I think, so colleagues can see the benefits," says Elspeth Banks, headteacher at Strathaven Academy. "Our Pictures into Words project began that way, as a collaboration between English, art and our associated primary schools.

"We had a couple of keenly interested English teachers working with the art department on the pilot. Their colleagues saw the results and the whole thing more or less sold itself."

Any selling still needed was aided by the fact that English lost nothing from the collaboration, says Alex Simpson, principal teacher of the creative and aesthetic faculty. "For them it's belt and braces. They have covered themselves with everything they would normally do. They haven't lost anything.

"It is good solid creative writing - with enhancements," agrees Mrs Banks.

So how does the cross-curricular, first-year project work in the secondary school? It's quite a complex story, say the pupils.

"It's called Words into Pictures - Pictures into Words and it sounded kind of confusing when they first explained it to me," says Katie Baker. "You had to start by picking one of those nine pictures on the board there. Then you made a story from it. Mine was about twins who go out at Halloween and get lost."

That process from image to story did take some time in English lessons, says Cameron Bell. "First the teacher got the whole class to put their hands up and give her ideas for plots. But she said we came up with stories that would take too long to write. They were Hollywood blockbusters."

It took some guidance on plots, characters and descriptive writing to get from there to a short story from each pupil, says Alexander McNeil. "We had to think about what our picture meant. So there might be a burnt match, but that didn't necessarily mean there was a fire. It could mean anything. You were looking for complications."

With the short stories written, the next step took the project into new territory, up in the art department, says Nicola Lambie. "We worked in pairs. First we combined our stories by taking bits from each, like maybe characters from one and setting from the other. Then we got a big piece of paper and did a storyboard - 20 pictures with words to show everything that happens in the story."

These storyboards were the starting point for the artistic element, says Mr Simpson - and a springboard for future work.

"On this project the first-years are creating graphic novels from their storyboards, using (software such as) Comic Life and Photoshop," he explains. "But they're also learning a range of the skills they'll be using as they go up the school for film-making - which is firmly established in this department now, and increasingly across the school, as a way of making learning creative, imaginative and challenging."

Strathaven Academy's interest and growing expertise in film as a medium for learning - moving image education - began three years ago with funding from Scottish Screen, says Mr Simpson. "We have a little left and are now looking to buy good microphones. In film-making, it is the quality of sound that really makes the difference."

Skills learned by the pupils during Pictures into Words provide a solid grounding for later film-making, says Mr Simpson. "Storyboarding is particularly useful - setting a story down scene by scene, thinking about narrative sequencing.

"As a school, we are doing more and more student film. It is firmly established. The pupils love it and the stuff they produce is fantastic."

Both departments benefit from cross-curricular working, says Mrs Banks. "The English teachers say the quality of the children's writing is exceptional - simply because they are so motivated. We are now looking at projects like this with other departments around the school."




Strathaven Academy's advice on getting started in cross-curricular film- making:

- Film-making is highly motivating for pupils

- Schools should recognise the spectrum of abilities and keep thinking about how to get best out of all pupils

- Cross-curricular projects can work well, but make time to talk to colleagues

- Show a short film at the start to show what is possible

And some film-making tips from Scottish Screen:

- Test equipment before you start

- Sound is crucial, so get the microphone as close as possible

- Try not to pan and zoom madly or, better still, don't pan and zoom at all

- Use a tripod

- Compose shots to explain your narrative and think about the edit as you shoot

- Don't shoot too much, or too little - you'll regret it when you come to edit


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