Making Movies : Moving Minds

Tim Brook is Creative Media Director at St Felix Middle School, Newmarket

As part of a ‘Life Cycles’ project a reception infant class (4 and 5 years old) had made a collage frieze of a garden with coloured paper and junk.  A photograph was taken of the frieze and pan and zoom software was used to create a slow moving video of the image.  The video was projected onto a screen and children positioned between the projector and screen, making hand shadow butterflies that fluttered around the garden.  The shadow shows were videoed, edited together and the resulting movie shown to the whole class.  The subsequent discussion explored many questions, among them:
How hard was it to make the shadows go where you wanted?  How do butterflies find their way round?  Which sections of the film best portray the movement of butterflies and can we explain why?  What would make the movie better?

In addition the children chose the best butterfly music from a selection and added it to the movie.  Their words about how it might feel to be a butterfly flying round a sunny garden were recorded and added too.  Throughout the project groups of children were involved in the capture and editing of assets via the interactive whiteboard.  During the morning the children covered learning objectives from Science, Art, Music, PE, ICT and English.

The proportion of primary educators of the 500+ members of the MEA is low.  The number of primary teachers at MLC2010 was also low.  Does this mean that primary teachers are not interested in media education?  In a recent comment on my blog Joy Simpson, a Devon Literacy Consultant, who very actively promotes media as integral to Literacy, wrote,
I think in primary we just don’t see ourselves as media educators.  We see ourselves as educators of children and media may be one of the tools that we use to achieve this.  I have tried to get primary teachers to join the MEA but they just won’t…One told me they were too intimidated.  I don’t know what to do to overcome it.

Yet most Primary teachers do see themselves as literacy educators.

What are the obstacles to media education being considered an essential component in a balanced curriculum?  The unconvinced, with some justification, claim “It’s all very well for them – they don’t have to: plan a whole curriculum, put up with our rubbish equipment,  struggle with discipline / confined space / assessment…”  and a host of other objections that cannot lightly be dismissed.

The Primary Curriculum
A “delivery” model of education has been favoured by Governments for 20 or more years.  Primary schools are working with a curriculum divided into academic disciplines whose boundaries are unnatural.  It is very difficult to create an activity like the butterfly video by starting from a list of learning objectives from several subjects. The activity must come first.  The focus on SATs results, and the unbalancing this can cause, often dominate Years 5 and 6. The legacy of the Literacy Hour is with us still. The idea that doing less “Literacy” and spend time enriching learning, could actually bring better results is counter-intuitive for many teachers; though evidence from the Cambridge Primary Review suggests this is so.  Yet reducing curriculum content is politically difficult – witness the current debate on the Baccalaureate
Curriculum over-crowding militates against using one of the very tools that might bring some coherence; for when the question of media education arises it is perceived as “just one more thing to do”.  It was expedient for the BFI’s Reframing Literacy project to tie its colours to the mast of “improving reading and writing” but creating media virtually became an optional extra.  The Butterfly scenario makes it apparent that creative media education’s natural territory often lies in the cracks between subjects.

Many of the primary teachers I have met who use movie making as a teaching tool are ICT geeks.  We are the teachers prepared to jump the technical hurdles needed to video, edit and upload movies and are convinced it is worth the effort. We are, however, sometimes our own worst enemies: our enthusiasm can cause colleagues’ eyes to glaze over and our delight in wonders of ICT also makes us prone to rush on headlong to the latest and most amazing of the many Web 2.0 sites.  ‘New’ media offer exciting opportunities to pursue ideas, collaborate, reach new audiences and form new communities.  In the main, however, they work with fundamentally familiar teaching concepts – albeit with new conventions and with an important shift of emphasis.

On the other hand the century of movie history, culture and language are frequently less well understood by non-specialists. The fact that widespread popular participation in this culture was, until this century, limited to consuming and critiquing, might be a contributory factor in the slow pace of its acceptance as being worthy of study.  Perhaps an older generation of society have not yet appreciated that film is now a complete literacy; with its digital ‘books and libraries’ and with authoring and publishing easily accessible. Technologically, things are changing very fast indeed, with continuous refinement of the digital tools and materials, but educational ‘initiative overload’ overshadows efforts to understand the skills needed to surf this wave.

In creating media children can: find a voice, solve problems, communicate with a wide audience and learn to think and focus over an extended period – and be creative.  A wide range of learning styles can be catered for within the roles needed by a film crew.  Subject learning too, is enriched and deepened by a change of medium.  In working with others on a shared task children learn skills for collaboration.  As one Year 5 Child in the Worcestershire Persistence of Vision project observed, “I like sharing because you can put your ideas out – everybody can work off your ideas – and it lights a fuse and becomes a great big flame”.

So what needs to be done?

I am a teacher and have been for over thirty years. This means, of course, I have brilliant ideas about changing the entire educational system. While there are things I can do to make my feelings known, but I also know that ultimately they don’t amount to a hill of beans. I will leave it to others to argue for a more progressive education system. My suggestions for change are practical and could be realised relatively simply.

Excellent primary resources for the critical and cultural study of moving image media in schools are already available. Planned, regular use of BFI’s Primary film resources, Starting Stories and Story Shorts, would be a fine starting place. I believe that they continue to sell very well; so, even if some are ‘lost’ in the resource room, they are being used widely. In combination with resources from Film Education and others and using online video it is entirely possible to construct a really good film education curriculum – given the will and belief in its importance.

Critical viewing, worthwhile in itself, is also a resource to be drawn upon in creating media and in being used becomes more deeply understood.   Making movies needs to be made easier for the sceptical; for only then will they have the chance to observe the benefits at first hand. The technical hurdles of movie making in primary schools should be as low as possible. I have been using Movie Maker as my editor of choice for nearly 10 years because it is ubiquitous and free. I have found there is much that can be done by way of media making in the primary years when Movie Maker is used in combination with Audacity, PhotoStory and a little ingenuity.  However, although imperfect, it has now been supplanted by a considerably inferior “Live” replacement, which schools will be forced to use as HD video completely replaces the lower definitions that Movie Maker 2 uses.  Online video editors should be “the answer” but the quality is dependent on connection speed, so it is likely to be some time before they are as good as desktop editors and even then will be designed for the needs of adult users.  I am also well aware that in addition to the “suite” of programs mentioned above I also regularly use, Sqirlz, Pivot, Camstudio and a raft of additional effects and transitions for Movie Maker. Whilst all these are free, they also require sufficient enthusiasm to expend the time and patience finding, installing and learning to use them and, for maximum effect, to use them together. So an intuitive, configurable Media suite is sorely needed. It would use a common interface to capture, edit and render live action, animations, rostrum camera effects and sound. A generous helping of useful effects for stills, video and sound would also be included. It would have been extensively trialled on older, slower machines.  Context help in the form of brief video tutorials would be part of the package, freeing the teacher to focus on students’ ideas.

There is plenty of advice available on making full-scale movies. But time-consuming and ambitious film making can only happen once a term at most, and, more likely, once a year. A few years ago, in a project funded by the Historical Association, we used digital storytelling to completely replace the written element in a QCA History scheme of work, losing none of the History-specific learning objectives.

Currently, my students are working on a project where everyone in the class is making their own, complete one-minute narrative movie in three, one-hour lessons.  Using screen capture software and webcams, they need not leave their seat.  But a range of even shorter, simple movie making activities need to be made available,  that can replace or support some of the conventional approaches in subject-based activities.

  • Make a webcam advert – It’s a Man’s Life in the Legion.
  • Animate a multiplication table using multilink.
  • Use two images, text, movement and sound to explain the concept of inequality.

If well planned, the skills thus acquired will be utilised in larger scale projects. Primary teachers and learners need a well-resourced and publicised movie making website. It would have a wide-ranging core of quick and medium length movie-making activities with: clear guidance for students, specific curricular links, built in assessment materials and illustrative videos.  Crowd-sourcing further ideas from teachers and pupils would provide activities rooted in classroom practice.

A group of our Gifted and Talented History students recently attended a History Day at a local High School. A sixth-form assistant was heard to remark with astonishment and admiration on the video-editing skill of one of our Year 7 students. The (entirely unsolicited) response?  “Oh we learn that at school”. If facility in movie-making were developed throughout the primary school, what could its potential be for communication and learning in the secondary years and beyond?


1 Comment

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  1. joy simpson says:

    Hi Tim
    It was well worth the effort and worry!
    I think the curriculum designers made such an error when they didn’t take a broad approach to reading and writing and include film in it. Just mentioning the word would have encouraged more teachers to dip their toes into the water. The opportunity has gone now.
    I agree that a website that has simple, short ideas for film making would be a great help. My line manager suggested I write a book with just such ideas in it. I’d rather help you make the site!

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