Poetry in motion

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Working with a performance poet inspired a south London primary school teacher and his pupils to create an award-winning video about inner-city life, reports Dorothy Walker

As lonely as an empty suitcase ..." was one of the memorably poetic ways in which James Clark's students responded when asked to describe city life.

They went on to put their poetry in motion, filming their thoughts and winning the coveted Creativity in Digital Video Award. The prize was one of many spin-offs from an unconventional literacy project that has reaped rich rewards.

James Clark teaches Year 6 at St Stephen's Church of England Primary School in Lambeth, London, and earlier this year four of his students won the award for their film City Life Poems. Several pupils in the team have worked with English as an additional language (EAL). When their work was screened at the awards ceremony, it quickly became clear that the Lambeth poets have a winning way with words.

The film was made over the course of three hour-long lessons, planned and supported with the help of staff from Lambeth Education Action Zone (EAZ), which lent the school a camera and video-editing computer as part of a digital video evaluation. There were two literacy objectives: choosing form and content to suit a particular writing purpose, and speaking and listening in group interaction and discussion.

The exercise supported goals for information and communication technology (developing and refining ideas by bringing together text, tables, images and sound) and citizenship (talking with people and developing relationships). It also built on the students' enthusiasm for an earlier lesson, when they had the chance to work with an inspirational poet they met at morning assembly.

The source of inspiration was Adisa, a performance poet who runs workshops with schools, tapping into street culture to encourage young people to express their creative thoughts in poetic terms. He performed his own work at an assembly, in a rip-roaring call-and-response session which saw the students joining in enthusiastically.

The follow-up was a visit to Year 6 for a poetry-writing workshop entitled City Life. The class brainstormed ideas on what makes a city - cars, skyscrapers, street markets, shops - with Adisa demonstrating how one powerful simile or metaphor could capture the essence of an image in their minds. Poems were completed in the 90-minute session and, with the help of James Clark, students went on to illustrate their work, taking photos around Lambeth and using iMovie editing software to bring together words and pictures on screen. Everyone was able to take home a copy of the production on CD-Rom.

The project was so successful that the EAZ suggested the class field an entry for the Creativity in Digital Video competition, run by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta).

James Clark selected four representatives who would make a two-minute film, asking them to think again about city life, this time in terms of moving images. The first of three intensive lessons was spent working on metaphors and storyboards. "They were thinking about making a contrast between people's perceptions of city life and what it is really like," he says.

"For example, they contrasted the harshness of blocks of flats with the green spaces around the school. Some lovely metaphors came out of the exercise. The group was closely supported. This was the first time they had storyboarded a film, so they had to decide what kind of camera shots would be used, and where the equipment would be positioned."

Filming was done in the second lesson. "Some of the time they didn't use a tripod, which added a sense of immediacy - exactly the feeling they wanted to capture. The result was quite arty."

Students spent the final hour editing the rushes, adding transition effects between shots and recording their poetry as a voice-over. The whole class reviewed the film and were much more confident in their judgments than they would be if faced with a written text, says James Clark. "Children don't write very often outside school and they don't read as much as they should.

But they are constantly seeing highly polished work on television and they understand what works on screen."

After the film was submitted the equipment was lent to another school and the competition slipped from James Clark's mind until the invitation to the awards presentation arrived on his desk. At the ceremony he watched proudly as his usually shy young poets mixed effortlessly with the audience, relishing the praise they won from fellow prize-winners and professionals.

"The interaction they had at the ceremony was a major part of the project," he says.

"Since this project, the students' self-esteem has been noticeably higher in all lessons and they are more willing to engage. There has certainly been an improvement in their writing, and their speaking and listening skills have improved. When the class is asked to discuss a topic in pairs the discussions are much more focused."

He believes that teaching literacy through new media has been a vital factor in raising standards at St Stephen's, which recently won a School Achievement Award. "Because of the focus on Sats, especially in Year 6, you could take the view that a project like this would interrupt the literacy objectives for the term. But we decided the children need this kind of thing to happen, because it gives them much better access to the curriculum - they have something to relate their writing or vocabulary to.

"We have a high number of EAL students and visual learning through film and images gives them amazing access to the curriculum and a better grasp of the English language. With a video camera and computer they can transform their ideas and words into something that is really meaningful to them."

The school won a camera and an Apple eMac computer, which James Clark now plans to link to his interactive whiteboard so the whole class can produce films together. "Digital video supports a brand new style of teaching and the possibilities are endless."

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