War on the web

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Pupils in two schools - one in Scotland, one in Gozo - forged an award-winning partnership to bring experiences of the Second World War to life. Dorothy Walker hears how ICT helped them do it

When pupils in an Inverness school invited veterans of the Second World War to share their memories on the web, recruits signed up on the spot. And when the children enlisted the help of a school in Gozo to extend the exercise, the partnership went on to earn a prestigious European award.

Pupils at Cauldeen Primary School in Inverness teamed up with children at Dun Salv Portelli Primary on the tiny island of Gozo, a neighbour of Malta.

Earlier this year their project, Talking Through Time, won an eTwinning Award in recognition of the strong partnership forged between the schools with the help of ICT.

The roots of the project go back to 2003, when Primary 7 (Year 7) pupils at Cauldeen began investigating the impact of the Second World War on people in the Scottish Highlands. Headteacher George Glass says: "There was a lot going on here during the war. There were preparations for the D-Day landings, the Commandos were training, new tanks were being tested and convoys were going to Russia.

"However, we found there was a shortage of learning resources, so we obtained funding for the children to research and visit local places connected with the war, and publish their material on a website."

The site won an award from the Imperial War Museum, and the pupils were invited to London for the commemorations that marked the 60th anniversary of D-Day. They had the chance to chat to veterans, and teachers were impressed by how well they got on. George Glass says: "The children were full of admiration, and we decided they should make videos and record the stories of veterans in our own area.

"What we can't get from the history books is first-hand commentary on the thoughts and emotions of the people who were there. It was the personal experiences we wanted to capture, before they were lost for ever."

Back in Inverness, the children staged an exhibition of their project at an art gallery. With the help of the British Legion, invitations were extended to local people who had lived through the war. When they heard about the plan to record memories, several signed up there and then, agreeing to give talks at Cauldeen and to be filmed in interviews.

Volunteers included Alec Sutherland, who spent five years in RAF Bomber Command; Donald Grant, a former Royal Marine, and Sheila MacKay, who grew up in Inverness during the war.

Work began in autumn 2004, with a new Primary 7 class of 32 pupils. The 11-year-olds conducted and filmed the interviews, and edited the digital footage and transcriptions ready for publication on the web.

George Glass says: "We paid a company to create the site, as we wanted to present the work of the children and veterans as professionally as possible. This wasn't just a school project, it was an archive for future generations."

Midway through the year, George set out to find another school that would capture recollections and swap information with Cauldeen, allowing children to compare wartime experiences in two European countries. He attended the launch of eTwinning, a scheme to help schools in Europe work together with the help of ICT.

His attention focused on Malta, which had suffered heavy wartime bombardment by German and Italian air forces. He says: "Malta suffered very hard times, because of its key position between Europe and North Africa. A Maltese school could help our children broaden their perspective, and we could help its pupils develop their second language, which is English."

Dun Salv Portelli is the smallest school in Malta and Gozo, with just 50 children, and there were eight pupils in the equivalent of Primary 7. Their interviews captured the wartime experiences of a teacher, a teenage boy and a baker (who recalled that "bread was more expensive than gold itself").

Both schools visited key wartime locations, swapping notes and photos by email, and all the material was brought together on the project website.

One of the themes they explored was shelters. In Inverness, pupils attempted to build an arc-shaped Anderson shelter from corrugated iron, while Dun Salv Portelli pupils visited the Maltese mainland to photograph the rock shelters that provided refuge from the worst of the bombing.

George Glass says: "When the pictures arrived, we asked pupils to search the Pathe News website, where they found wartime newsreels of people emerging from the shelters.

"We were trying to reinforce the idea of going back to a historical source, to verify that the information they were receiving was correct."

The project produced some surprises. George says: "Alec Sutherland from RAF Bomber Command explained that 1,000 men from Inverness were held in prisoner-of-war camps overseas. Alec, and many of his peers, had cousins and brothers in the camps, and they wanted to get them back. More than anything else, they were fighting for their families and friends."

Pupils were shocked when Alec told them he had been pleased to hear the news about Hiroshima. George says: "He was just about to be transferred to Burma when the Americans dropped the atom bomb. He told us: 'I was very pleased -after five years away, I could go home to my Mum and Dad.' It didn't change the pupils' point of view, but they could empathise, because they go home to mums and dads every day."

George says the benefits of the project were wide-ranging. "Pupils developed speaking and listening skills in a historical context. They made links with geography, by investigating how Malta's geographical position influenced its history. They were encouraged to take decisions and form their own opinions; we didn't try to tell them what to think about what they were hearing. The project also fostered inter-generational understanding and helped us forge new friendships with senior members of the community."

The Inverness award-winners are now at secondary school, and eight of them have been selected to enjoy the eTwinning prize - an ICT week in Lanzarote, where they will meet their partners from Gozo for the first time.

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