Tripping the light fantastic;Art;Cover feature

10th September 1999 at 01:00
3Schools are connecting to the National Grid for Learning and teachers are being trained, but what software, materials and support will be out there for them? George Cole investigates the role of good content for the cyberschool generation, followed by a subject-by-subject stock-check

For longer than he cares to remember, primary teacher Stuart Harrison has been trying to find time to complete a painting that sits half-finished on an easel at his home in Nottingham. However, in the meantime, his self-confessed passion for art has been put to good use in his classroom -with a little help from the latest technology. And the results demonstrate how well art and ICT can work together as part of the curriculum.

Harrison's enthusiastic Year 6 class at Hempshill Hall Primary School in Nottingham won this year's Chrisi Bailey award, one of the country's most prestigious art competitions. Run by the Arts Council and open to all primary age youngsters, the award celebrates projects that explore photography as a visual medium rather than as a record of events. The young photographers at Hempshill Hall used a digital camera to produce a series of breathtaking images. Hauntingly beautiful, their close-up images of plants seem suspended in space and their poetic captions - "Chocolate asteroid", "Grasping heart claw", "Parachute of feather smoke" - heighten the sense of mystery. Yet the techniques used to produce this winning entry were so straightforward they could be employed in most classrooms.

Pupils gathered from the playground plant material such as flowers, seed-pods and leaves. These were put under a microscope and, using a digital camera held over the microscope's eye-piece, pupils took their photographs. The pictures were transferred to a computer, and a brainstorming exercise produced the text to accompany each.

Harrison came up the marriage of microscope and camera in the classroom almost by accident. He says: "We were doing a science-based investigation on old coins which the children had brought in. We have a binocular microscope and were using it to look at the details of the coins. It's very exciting - you can usually find the engraver's initials hidden somewhere and on farthings there is a mark like a tiny worm. I suddenly thought: 'Let's hold the digital camera over the lens of the 'scope and take a picture.'"

The technique simply involved holding the camera at arm's length, and if Harrison was surprised when it worked first time, he was stunned when the pictures were enlarged on a screen. "I couldn't believe how good they were," he says. "So we carried on doing it as an extension of all projects."

A keen photographer, Harrison sees the digital camera as a major step forward. "You can get almost instant results. We can have an idea in class, do it, and within minutes we can be using the image. You don't even have to go to the bother of printing it out. We did all the work for the competition on the computer screen." The school's digital camera, bought two years ago, is a basic model, "although it cost almost pound;400 at the time".

Harrison says: "I always find it more valuable to work towards a goal which is tangible for the children, rather than break down the curriculum into separate slices and do a bit of this and a bit of that." The Chrisi Bailey project was no exception, incorporating science and English targets. The pupils were observing their natural environment at close range; the "Chocolate asteroid", for example, was a seed from the cherry tree they can see from the classroom window. And thinking up captions for the pictures was a powerful exercise in the use of metaphor. "We all sat around the screen and I said: 'What can you see in this picture?' They had to imagine what it was, rather than saying what it was like. They came up with hundreds of ideas, and I remember thinking to myself: 'I am doing a literacy hour!'" Harrison says.

The project was produced on an Acorn computer with the aid of HyperStudio software. Harrison is a great fan of another Acorn-based art package, Draw, which enables children to construct complex drawings by using simple shapes as building blocks. He says: "Even if you are not artistic you can build up sophisticated images. It is more akin to building something in 3D than drawing it. You are applying maths and logic, but the end-product looks artistic."

But although a computer encourages children to experiment with art, Harrison believes it is vital that young children also use real paints and crayons. "If they have never used pastel and are offered software that simulates pastel, a crucial element is missing. You need the real experience before you can value what is happening on the screen. Like so many other creative subjects, art is being squeezed out of the timetable. We do paint and draw in class, although not as much as I would wish."

He strongly disapproves of clipart, the collective name for the ready-to-use images of everything from cats to cartoon characters. The same goes for downloading pictures from the Web. Harrison's pupils

are instead contributing to the school's website.

He delightedly says the school will use its pound;1,000 prize money to buy another camera, perhaps a video model that can also take stills. The generosity of the remark is only apparent when you learn that Harrison, who is also the school's IT consultant, has for the past two years been trying to get on to the Multimedia Portables for Teachers scheme to learn skills to switch from Acorn machines to PCs. At Easter he finally admitted defeat and bought himself a laptop PC. "I convinced myself I could afford it," he says, "but I can't, really - it cost me nearly pound;1,000."

Hempshill Hall:

For more information on the Chrisi Bailey Awards please contact the Arts Council on 020 7333 0100.

10 websites

London Association of Art amp; Design Education

IN-TELE Internet Resources for Schools - Art


The Amazing Picture Machine


The Digital Camera Resource


The National Gallery,

Lycos image search engine


Yahoo Image Surfer

Berkeley SunSite Image Finder


10 resources

HyperStudio, Roger Wagner, pound;99.97, from TAG.

Tel: 01474 357350

Draw comes with every Acorn computer, from Castle Technology, Tel: 01728 727424

Adobe Photoshop Deluxe, pound;30, Corel Draw 8 by Corel, pound;85, IMSI Masterclips 500,000, pound;49, all from RM.

Tel: 01235 826000

Printshop Deluxe Teacher's Pack, pound;29.95; KidPix Studio Teacher's Pack, pound;39.95; both by Broderbund, both from TAG (details as above)

Paint Shop Pro 5, JASC Software, pound;41.97; from Digital Workshop. Tel: 01295 258335

from RM (details as above)

My Oxford Picture Box, Oxford University Press, pound;16, from Multimax. Tel: 01652 651651

Great Artists, by Attica, pound;34.03 from TAG (details as above)

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