Hilary Ellis reports on a competition that raises both the self-awareness and ICT skills of secondary students while reflecting the increasing diversity of life in Britain
When students across the UK were asked to build websites to celebrate the diversity of British life, a significant number responded. More than 7,000 students took part in a national competition and discovered that their own life stories were as varied and interesting as those of celebrities. They also picked up a new set of skills in the process.
The Insite Schools competition was launched by Channel 4 as part of Origination: Insite - a project enabling people from incoming cultures to make personal websites reflecting on their experience of being in Britain.
Commissioned by Culture Online, part of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the project has become a dynamic collection of sites that paint a picture of Britain as it is today.
Now students in key stage 3 have had their say. With easy-to-use website-building tools and two years' free hosting, students were able to concentrate on the content rather than the technical aspects of their websites. As Graham Thomas of Culture Online says: "It's great when technology recedes into the background and allows the pupils' creativity to take centre stage."
The winning website by Brockworth Enterprise School was created by students in Year 9. The Gloucester school's population reflects the community's relatively high minority ethnic group population. Student team members Tom Cadwell, Luke Hayward and Stephen Crump say: "We looked at the school and its history in cultural diversity. This sparked the idea for many of the pieces that made up the website."
With support from the head of citizenship and RE, Stuart Butler, the students met weekly and worked to tight deadlines. They collected poems and photos of artwork and life stories volunteered by students that had been written in English lessons. They liaised with staff and contacted homes for permission to use them.
"Rule number one is to ensure sensitivity," says Butler. "Give parents and carers a chance to say no. Build up a sensitive link so that you're not prying or using someone but helping to build a community."
The students' editorial policy that less is more meant many stories were left out, but those that remain are rich and moving accounts.
In one piece, Shante Drummond describes what it was like to come from Jamaica to Britain at the age of eight. "I felt different from everyone else because I was the only black pupil in school; I also found out that I was the only black pupil to ever attend the school." Though she was bullied and moved schools twice, she eventually became more confident and successful. "I like being a black person, it's just sometimes people don't see you as an individual and I get discriminated against because of the colour of my skin. Overall I'm a strong person and I try not to make things people do or say bother me."
In another piece, Simran Malhi wrote about his family history and what it was like to grow up in the West Midlands as the child of immigrant parents.
At the age of 11, Simran visited his grandparents in Malaysia for the first time, but shortly after returning his father had a brain haemorrhage.
Simran describes his fear, the sleepless nights and the experience of seeing his father in intensive care. "He was on these machines and he was scared. He was like my superman as I grew up as a kid and now he was so weak and vulnerable. I couldn't bear it. He grabbed my hand and said 'Simran, please don't let them hurt me any more'."
Butler, who has won national and European accolades for his work in the fields of cultural diversity and positive tolerance, says that the real-life stories written by the students were "stories of migration that came from the heart". "The website-building activity brings the world into the classroom," he explains. "It gives young people the ability to translate freedom of expression into action."
In other competition entries, students interviewed local residents for stories of diversity, wrote articles, produced video, audio and photo galleries. Some websites included voting so that users could contribute their views. The tangible result of a website gave students an audience and sense of purpose. "It gave students a sense of watching something grow and being responsible for it," Butler says. "The website put diversity at the top of the agenda."
Brockworth Enterprise School is integrating development of the website into all departments' schemes of work and improvement plans so that cross-curricular skills in citizenship can be developed. "Using stories from local website irespect.net, we're going to do a group project on migrant stories and writing activities. The learning outcomes will relate to our citizenship assessment."
Schools can use the resources to give their stories a platform. The Channel 4 site includes a guidance pack to get started and, for inspiration, links to websites created by museums using the same tools.
Schools can build trial sites at myschoolsite.net and choose free hosting with ads or buy a hosting pack from pound;2.99 per month. All sites are submitted to Google and in 2006 the myschoolsite website will offer a way to search all the school sites that have been built using keywords and descriptions.
Iman Samimi, a Year 11 student who moved to Britain in 2004, captured the aims of the project in his submission to the Cultural Diversity site.
"One of the good ways to change people is to remind them of their forefathers and tell them how they used to live and that most of them were kind and they never killed anyone to get money."
Using Origination: Insite gives students the chance to do just that.
Insiteschools tips l You could create a website about your community, its cultures, traditions or even its day-to-day habits. Investigate stories about how your family came to this country and whether they arrived recently or centuries ago. What is it like to change cultures?
* Steve Doyle, ICT textbook author and judge, recommends collecting content first, making sure it is relevant, and planning where it should go. "Look at professionally designed websites and where they put things, then get a storyboard together."
* The students at Brockworth Enterprise School say: "Set up a team of about five to six people who could cover different aspects of the project and then investigate local culture."
* Stuart Butler advises that teams leave time for editorial discussions and get as many staff on board as possible. "Accept that it will not necessarily be their priority - even if citizenship is taught by specialists, the website is a whole community in action."
www.channel4.cominsiteschools Site-building tips and links to museum sites for inspiration and free website-building tools.
The winning sites:
Brockworth Enterprise School cultural diversity website.
A celebration of diversity at the Commonwealth Games.
Cultured Teens of the UK.
Undercover Culture from Rainford High Technology College.
Active citizenship and positive tolerance in Gloucestershire