Advances in computing hardware and software and the Internet and email, mean that teachers and pupils are sharing a refreshing enthusiasm for creativity. Stephen Heppell and other writers dig the new breed.
The Infinity Story is an ambitious name for any website project, but especially when concocted on a couple of old Acorn computers. Having the entire website deleted by your ISP (Internet service provider) is another unexpected challenge. And exposing it to the imaginations of every child, teacher and governor of the school could simply be seen as madness. Yet Godwin Junior School, in Forest Gate, east London, has successfully created an interactive art project that has the potential to continue indefinitely.
The Infinity Story is an illustrated online tale about a fictional family living in London's East End, written largely by primary children over the last three years. Each year group, totalling more than 300 pupils, worked on a part of the story for three days before passing it on to the next class. Incorporating information and communications technology (ICT), English and art, the text and pictures describe the antics of the Patels and their mad babysitter, Rosie.
The project was initiated and co-ordinated by one of the parents and governors of the school, Loraine Leeson, director of The Art of Change. She worked in collaboration with independent artist Camille Dorney, who undertook the design, classroom and post-production work, with funding from the John Cass Foundation.
"I knew that computers were coming in to schools, but nobody really understood how ICT would improve anything. I saw its potential for encouraging a shift in thinking, to give people a glimpse of how to do things differently and better, not just replicating old forms," says Leeson. Rather than accessing websites like pages in a book, the structure encourages a non-linear approach, exploiting the participative nature of the Internet.
According to Leeson, the very merging of art and technology is creative - taking a piece of work to a new level - and represents an ideal relationship. "Art is a very good means of unlocking new technologies," she says. "The arts can help deliver ICT creatively, while ICT can offer a means to deliver the arts."
She laments the lack of arts training for teachers and its subsequent weakness as a subject in the curriculum. "The importance of creativity in education hasn't been highlighted. My children have had very little art in their education, yet children are incredibly receptive to it and they love doing things on the computer. After working on the Infinity Story, one Year 6 child told me how great it was that they hadn't done any work for three days."
The Infinity Story started during the first stages of the National Grid for Learning in Newham LEA. The first class, Year 3M, chose their favourite books upon which to base the style. The students then discussed the important elements of writing, and devised an outline of the plot and characters. They scanned illustrations of characters from various books, which were manipulated using Adobe PhotoShop 4 software, drawing or painting over the pictures on-screen. The text was entered into an HTML editor for Web presentation, with the rest of the schoolprogressively adding a few lines each and creating new pictures.
Headteacher Tom Canning now oversees the project with IT co-ordinator Asif Mahmood. "The power of Infinity Story is that it showed us how IT can bring a school together as a community. It's made us more confident and aware of the possibilities for technology," he said. "The project also encouraged us to develop our resources, from the early stages where it was done with pen and paper, to the Acorns, to PCs and a laptop, and now the Internet."
Loraine Leeson emphasises that IT was deliberately not presented as an overt component of the work. She believes children absorb technology more effectively by first getting a sense of what it can do. "They have to have something they want to do with the software before embarking on skills training," she says. "By enjoying it and doing it hands-on, the learning will follow. Children, like many adults, find it boring to just learn skills, so we didn't try to teach them how to use PhotoShop. We gave them a sense of how technology can manipulate words and pictures and they learnt by doing."
Other schools have expressed interest in contributing to the story, although Canning feels they would be better to start afresh.
The Infinity Story has so impressed The Arts Council that it is presenting the school with an award to honour the project this month. The Art of Change and Godwin Junior School will share the pound;1,000 prize. The Art of Change is now seeking commercial partners to transfer the Infinity Story into teaching materials that can be accessed by other schools.
Along the same lines, TAG Developments has a package called EasyBook Deluxe that helps students illustrate their stories. The child is given blank pages of a "book" to fill with standardised pictures or their own drawings. Another enduring product for upper primary and lower secondary art is Tom Paint, from Ransom. This awardwinning CD-Rom allows children to create and animate faces with "rainbow paint" and patterns.
For older pupils, images can be manipulated with programs such as Morph Artist from Havas International. This transforms scanned photographs, drawings, text, video clips or supplied art from the compatible Print Artist by merging two images into one. Morph Artist includes QuickTime and Video for Windows to enable you to turn your morphed pictures into a film or flipbook.
Colour Magic from RM, most suitable for primary, combines the instruction of several paint packages without needing to learn to use, or buy, a new product. Early learners start at the basic level, acquiring simple drawing and clipart skills, then move up to more advanced techniques of colour sampling and creating shapes, using a full range of brushes, lines and special tools.
Louise Goldsbury is a freelance journalist
The Art of Change
The Arts Council of England
Tom Paint from Ransom Publishing
Morph Artist from Havas International
Tel: 0118 920 9100
EasyBook Deluxe from TAG Developments
Colour Magic from RM