Rough and ready video clips shot by teachers might reach the pupils that professional films miss, says Gerald Haigh
Last year Guy Shears and Natasha Bowler from Swanshurst School, a 1,800-pupil specialist science girls' college in Birmingham, became documentary film-makers while visiting South Africa. Their raw and ready footage won't win any film awards, but it has engaged the hearts and minds of students and enhanced the school's global citizenship curriculum.
Guy, who is deputy head, taught in a rural school in the Eastern Cape during the summer. He went with the Global Teacher Programme, part of Link Community Development, which builds education partnerships between countries. Natasha, a geography teacher, was in Cape Town on a two-week Christmas holiday. They shot lots of video to provide a curriculum resource on north-south development contrasts.
That is an interesting and enterprising thing to do - but, you might be tempted to say, not all that remarkable given teachers' traditional travel habit of magpieing material to use back in class. The Swanshurst project, though, has taken this idea and made it into something special. The key to its having that extra level of purpose has been in the planning, in the quality of the material and in the way it's been made available through the school website.
The power of the video was evident when I sat with a group of Year 9 children as they showed me a clip of Amanda, an African girl of their own age, and a pupil at Ntafufu Senior Secondary School - Swanshurst's link school - talking about a day in her life. We heard Amanda say how she gets up at 5am, walks 11 kilometres to school, fetches water from the river, cooks and cleans, does her homework and goes to bed at 9pm.
As we watched, the Swanshurst girls were captivated by it, even though they'd already seen it several times. Part of their engagement comes from the fact that although Amanda's life is so different, she very clearly comes across to the Swanshurst girls not as a far-off person, someone to wonder at, but simply as one of them.
Hayley Farrell, aged 14, put her finger on it: "Her life is so different, and yet so much is the same - she listens to music and reads magazines and does her homework. She could come here and fit right in."
The whole website works at that level. It contains lots of similar two-minute video clips reached either through the usual on-screen menu or by clicking the appropriate point on a panoramic picture. People speak to camera about their lives and there is footage on routine activities in the classroom, the school grounds and the village. Tellingly, there's a funeral, because HIVAids makes funerals a common sight in Ntafufu.
The Cape Town section, similarly organised, introduces the urban dimension, with shots of the townships and more affluent areas of the city.
Using short clips rather than longer documentary-style passages means it's much easier for students to use them. "If they want something about water supply, for example, they can go straight to it," says Guy. "There's no need to search through a long sequence."
The clips were intended to fill the needs of a Year 9 geography unit on the differences between countries at different stages of development. By putting it on the web, the material is available to pupils and teachers in school and at home. And it's accessible to a wider audience.
"A lot of the students have stereotypical ideas," says Natasha. "We wanted to address that and also to look at differences within South Africa, between urban and rural communities, and also internal differences like that in Cape Town between the townships and the richer areas."
Shooting was planned for specific aims: "It was a case of the department sitting down and deciding what they wanted to deliver in the classroom - shots of housing, water, fuel, transport, for example."
They knew, too, what they wanted from Ntafufu school itself - children arriving, classroom and playground activities, the "day in the life" stories. At the same time, both Guy and Natasha knew they had to be responsive to what was happening when they were there.
At the end of the clip of Amanda describing her day, we hear Guy thanking and praising her - he and Natasha appear quite a lot in the various clips.
"It's teacher giving a lesson in situ, holding a camera and talking to it, none of it written down," says Guy. "The footage is quite raw and rough, and it works better like that."
Over time, activities are being developed around the website - curriculum-linked questions and tasks. One aim here, says Natasha, is to make children think beyond the obvious. "So we might compare one of the Ntafufu children with someone at Swanshurst and ask who is more likely to own a bicycle, or to read a book." The answers are not clear-cut, and they start lots of discussion.
Swanshurst's South Africa website carries the hallmark of a really creative resource in that it has limitless potential and will develop over time.
There are possibilities for English, for example, for PSHE and citizenship, history, drama and music. The girls told me how struck they were by the singing on the video: "It's emotional; you sing as you feel," they said.
And, of course, the geography department is going to find more curriculum links across the school's age range.
At least as important as anything else has been the impact at Swanshurst on whole-school global awareness and on fund-raising in a school which already has a good track record in this area.
"The children here are very keen on addressing poverty and the unfairness of trade," says Guy. "Seeing a girl of their age talking to them puts a face to it and makes the link real. It's breathed life into fund-raising, too, which we've now restructured and linked to citizenship."
If you're travelling at home or abroad and shooting video for school, plan what you want in advance, with the curriculum in mind, but be prepared to be flexible.
* Use the web. It makes the material accessible at all times in school and outside.
* For the web, think of a menu of two-minute clips with stills (where appropriate) on single topics, rather than a long narrative.
* Rough and ready is fine; talk just as you would to a school party out on fieldwork. The approach is as suitable for local fieldwork as it is for other countries.
* Be in the shot. You may not like it, but for the children it adds realism to see the teacher being the teacher.
* Don't be afraid of editing. The Swanshurst group use Moviemaker and Year 9 is competent with it. You can get help with the website from within school or from the local authority.
* Tap into The TES Make the Link campaign, which promotes joint curriculum projects, global citizenship and sharing expertise:
* Link Community Development www.lcd.org.uk