Maureen McTaggart reports on an imaginative educational odyssey
How do you put a globe in front of a five-year-old and explain that it takes a whole day to get from England to Australia, when you can trace the same journey with your finger in less than five seconds?" asks Fiona Bailey, projects organiser at the Photographers' Gallery.
But the amazing ability of the Internet to put her in instant contact with everyone else using the global system of computer networks has helped her solve this longstanding conundrum during a collaborative arts project at a south London infants school.
The digital revelation came to her while she was ensconced in Rosendale School, Herne Hill, working on a project with the pupils to celebrate the school's forthcoming centenary. "The penny does eventually drop when they begin to communicate with schools abroad and start translating the inches on the globe into miles an aeroplane has to travel to get to another country," she says.
Fiona Bailey, fellow photographer David Lewis and video artist Shona Illingworth are using their camera skills with pupils and staff to help them develop practical geography and history activities. It's a whole-school project that will last one year.
It would have been quite easy to do just another "artist in residence" project before leaving to go on to another job. But the trio had other ideas. Inspired by the school's approaching centenary, they conceived the Rosendale Odyssey, based on the idea of using information from the children's family backgrounds to involve them in an interactive multimedia exploration of their personal histories using the HyperStudio multimedia authoring program. The project will then be published on World Wide Web pages for the whole Internet world to see at the school's own Web site. This will be maintained at Artec, the north London multimedia education centre.
"We thought that rather than taking a nostalgic look at the school's Victorian origins, the approach should be to take the historical theme as an opportunity for the children to assert the importance and significance of their own experiences," says Fiona Bailey.
Since September, the pupils have been investigating local and international events in relation to movements of peoples during the past 100 years: a simple holiday to New Zealand was translated into a journey of discovery by looking at the route the aeroplane would take from London. Moreover, the diverse mix of nationalities and the 22 different languages spoken in this large inner-city school gave the project a lot of advantages.
To build up the Rosendale Odyssey, the youngsters were encouraged to quiz parents and grandparents while taking photographs of them, their homes and favourite food. By taking these oral histories as starting points, they are now tracing and drawing the journeys made by their families plus their many different experiences to build up what Shona Illingworth describes as a "quilt".
Each patch will contain different elements of a child's story and, when transferred to the computer screen, it will form a non-linear book that has the information going off in different directions. Drawings, photographs and writings will be added to the structure, so that by clicking on a child's box a synopsis of the family history will be unfolded.
Fiona Bailey says this is as much about children's creativity as about technology, although it is part of the Education Superhighways project which will be evaluated by the National Council for Educational Technology. The high-tech part will come when the pupils visit Artec in north London to take part in live multimedia events on JANET, the joint academic network. She says this technology is just one of the media they decided to use to look at geography and history, combining facets of the children's lives.
"The aim for the reception class children is to produce My Book about Me, which will incorporate a range of photographs, drawings and writings with the central theme of personal history and locality, and use the term topic 'food' as a focus in a way that relates to the individual child and to the culture and geographical origins of food."
After six months of photographing plates of fish and chips, with warnings of "don't try to open the back of the camera, it will spoil the whole film" ringing in their ears, Rosendale's pupils will be ready for their Web debut in April. The initial Web pages will contain examples of the children's images and writings, but the core project work will continue and extend to involve input from Years 3 and 5 of the junior school.
She feels there has been a lot of hype about new technology, and that so far most of the work has been channelled into secondary schools with no one thinking about how very young children can use the medium. However, through fund-raising efforts, generous funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Sir John Cass Foundation and the Walcott Foundation, and sponsorship from Kodak, the school now boasts two Apple Mac Performa computers and peripherals such as a scanner and modems.
Photographer David Lewis, who has spent two days a week helping the children put together their treasure boxes, says they wanted to work towards creating a project that was long-term and not one that would just be considered "a bit of fun".
"We were keen to leave something behind that the teachers could take forward, " he says. "We didn't want to make magic with a select group of children, but it is vital for teachers to get the ball and run with it, otherwise it might as well be another six-month project."
The Rosendale Odyssey will be shown in a "virtual gallery" space on the Internet at the Web address below, and will be produced as an interactive CD. The children's work will be exhibited at the Photographers' Gallery during a major exhibition of digital work by international artists in January 1997.
* Rosendale's e-mail address:firstname.lastname@example.orgWorld Wide Web address:http:WWW.artec.org.ukrosendale * The Photographers' Gallery: 5 Newport Street,London WC2H7HY.Tel: 0171 831 1772.