Small shots fill big screen

15th July 2005 at 01:00
A pilot project using film-making as a tool to teach literacy has won critical acclaim. Now Angus hopes to extend it. Douglas Blane reports

Famous Hollywood actors are rarely spotted in rural Scotland. So it was not surprising that the red carpet was laid out and people lined the street when Brian Cox visited Brechin, in Angus.

However, the star of block-busters such as Rob Roy, Troy, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Identity was not centre stage. The clicking cameras and popping flashlights of the paparazzi were pointed at schoolchildren attending the Baffies, the Brechin Awards for Films in Educational Settings.

The pupils, dressed in posh frocks, sparkly shoes and colourful kilts, took the cheering crowds and red carpet in their stride as they arrived to celebrate a pilot project which has "enormous" potential, according to Jim Anderson, the Angus director of education.

It is a view clearly shared by the Scottish Executive, which has committed pound;410,000 over four years to Moving Image Education, an innovative approach to literacy teaching in primary schools.

"I don't want to pre-empt the evaluation," says Mr Anderson, "but it has been so impressive in its first year that we want to look at how, in a year or so, we can roll it out to all our schools."

Moving Image Education was set up with Future Learning and Teaching funding from the Executive to investigate whether the analysis and creation of film texts can boost attainment and literacy.

Glasgow University will eval-zuate the pilot, but teachers involved have already noticed "a marked change" in language skills - talking, listening, reading and writing - as well as in self-esteem, teamwork and co-operation, says Andrew Gallagher, the project leader: "These life skills can't be ticked in assessment boxes. But for us teachers it has been marvellous to see these changes."

Before the awards ceremony, all nine films created by the six primary schools in the project are shown on the big screen. Creativity is evident right away in the variety of subjects - historical and topical drama, environ-mental and health issues, imagin-ative variants of popular TV formats.

Every film is enlivened by flashes of humour, reflecting the children's inclination and the personality of their project leader - the funniest teacher they've ever met, according to the youngsters. Musical soundtracks add texture, heightening the drama, enhancing a mood or assisting a change of pace - as they do in commercial films. The dialogue sounds polished and authentic, and the acting convinces.

Animation features strongly in the majority of films, even those that contain live action. It was one of the most demanding aspects of the job, says Cameron Skene (P7) of Tarfside Primary, which produced I Always Wanted a Dog, a short film about the Loch Ness monster being found and turned into a dog by a wizard.

"It takes about 15 minutes to produce one second of filmed animation, and you have to get everything absolutely right. We have learned a lot besides film-making - working in teams especially. It's easier to speak to each other now. Our story writing is better. It has helped our grammar and language - and our listening."

Sandra Guthrie, teaching head at Tarfside Primary, says that her P4-7 pupils have gained confidence, improved their discussion skills and learned to work "fantastically well" as a team. But writing was the focus of activities for a long time.

"Andrew would come in once a week to work with them, and we would take it on from there. They'd watch a bit of film, then decide what might happen next and take the story forward," she says.

The youngsters have watched many short films, talked about soundtracks, characters and plot development, she says: "A fantastic amount of work has gone into what we saw there for five minutes on screen."

The project had a major effect on the programme of language work. "We don't have to use many textbooks now. All our topic and discussion work come from this project," says Ms Guthrie. We started filming at Easter, so a whole lot of language stuff - diaries, functional writing, imaginative writing - came before that."

Teachers were initially unsure how the new project would fit into the curriculum, says Christine McLean, who teaches P4-7 at Lethnot Primary: "We were studying the Picts in environ-mental studies, so we did a film on them. It brought the topic work to life. We have seen an improve-ment in literacy, particularly among the weaker pupils. It gave writing a meaning for them."

The entire class prepared the script, she explains, with small groups of pupils writing different sections of the story: "Everyone played a part.

They listened to each other's ideas, then they said what they thought. It was very much teamwork. Kids who didn't have much confidence at the start say it's given them far more, because they could come in with ideas; they could contribute."

The Lethnot film, Pictish Pursuit, is one of only a few dominated by live action rather than animation, which meant that actors had to be cast. No one in the class was big or scary - or, indeed, red-haired - enough to play the Pictish warrior. But the time-travelling youngsters were well within their scope.

"What surprised me was how much work you had to do to learn your lines," says P6's Heather Duff. "But I quite fancy being an actor when I grow up."

Classmate Liam Howe found the film-editing process partic-ularly interesting: "We didn't know much at first, but once we got into it we learned a lot."

Writing the story was enjoy-able, says director Ross McLean, P7: "The first bit was always the hardest, because you had to think of the idea. But once you got started, you could easily go on."

For Jim Anderson, Moving Image Education is bringing clear benefits to literacy, information and communication technology (ICT) skills and children's confidence. But it is also a good model of a "bridging project" to provide continuity at the primary to secondary transition, as the children will continue to be involved, making a different film each year as they move from Primary 6 to Secondary 2.

"We probably wouldn't roll this out straight from one cluster to all eight, just because of the infra-structure needed. Mind you, the most important infrastructure is Andrew and the teachers - who are hugely enthusiastic because of the way the kids have responded," he says.

As a primary teacher, Andrew Gallagher shares this enthusiasm and was a major factor in generating it, says Mr Anderson.

While proficient in ICT, Mr Gallagher had no previous experience of film-making. "I got a lot of help and expert advice from Scottish Screen," he says. "I prepared lessons to cover specific 5-14 targets, and went into every school each week from the beginning of the year to work with the kids and teachers. Pupils would watch a bit of film, then tell us about the opening, the characters, the writing, what happened next.

"The teachers stuck to the lesson plans at first, with them and me delivering alternate lessons. But very soon they were developing things themselves, and taking them in all sorts of directions that suited them and their classes.

Crucially, the project was not an addition to an already crowded curriculum, says Mr Gallagher: "It was an alternative way of delivering it.

I believe this project will change how literacy is taught in Scottish education. It is taking part of the curriculum that hasn't altered in decades and bringing it into the 21st century."

Moving Image Education is funded by the Scottish Executive (Future Learning and Teaching programme) and supported by Angus Council, Angus Digital Media Centre, Scottish Screen, and Apple Education. The four-year project is being piloted in Brechin at Edzell, Andover, Lethnot, Maisondieu, Stracathro and Tarfside primary schools.

Scottish Screen:


As one of Hollywood's most compelling actors, often in powerful but villainous roles, Brian Cox has no reason to doubt his abilities. But he would rather face "a six-foot Govan welder", he says, than a classful of kids.

"I have great admiration for teachers," he adds. "They are so dedicated.

Every one of these 210 kids is going to remember this project - how Andrew and the other teachers took the mothballs out of learning, made it fun and translated it into their own lives.

"At this age, they have so much imagination, which usually gets kicked out of them as they get older. At drama school I learned the craft of acting and how to speak, which I needed, as I had the thickest Dundonian accent you can imagine.

"But one thing I regret was... losing my innocence, I guess you'd call it - the innocence of wonderment. You have to try to preserve that with children. That was what was so powerful about today. You felt these kids were still un-damaged, still intact. They've done these extraordinary things and they're going to do so much more.

"I was also impressed by how exciting they said it was to work in a group.

That's a major achievement because it doesn't come easy to kids - taking somebody else's ideas and not disparaging them, but absorbing them and moving them on. That's what creativity is about. What film-making is about.

"This has been a great afternoon, one I'll remember for a long time. I think what we've seen today is the start of something extraordinary. Someone should take the DVD of these films to Jack McConnell and say: 'This is what is possible. This is what should be happening in every school in Scotland'."

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