Article from Primary Teaching Studies, vol. 9, no. 1 (spring 1995)
'Full of very different people all mixed up together': Understanding community and environment through the classroom video project
Concerns about the relationship between schools and their surrounding communities have tended to produce discussions which focus on ways in which bits of the wider community can be pulled into the school, whilst pupils themselves are largely ignored. It is, perhaps, assumed that children must be inherently integrated into that anonymous mass, the 'community', from which the school sees them emerge. Yet a genuine concern and connection between the child and their local community is not something which occurs naturally, nor through an afternoon tweaking the dials in the parish bobby's panda car. Local history or a walk around the neighbourhood can begin the process, but remain unfocused. This article will discuss a project in Leeds which gave children at five primary schools the opportunity, through the process of video production, to more fully consider, explore and record their feelings about their community.
The first fruits of this scheme, a programme of short videos collectively entitled 'Action! The Future', had a premiere screening at the 1994 Leeds International Film Festival. The videos were devised, planned and filmed by the children themselves, with assistance and training from professional video-makers, who had brought their expertise - and camcorders - into schools during the summer term. The project was co-ordinated by a video company, Vera Productions, who had raised funds from Leeds City Council and Leeds TEC, and persuaded other companies and colleges to lend equipment and assistance for free; however, whilst such generous provision was undoubtedly an asset - particularly in enabling children to work in small groups - the basic project could be emulated by any teacher with access to a video camera.
The videos for 1994, it had been decided, were to be related to 'the environment'. Whilst a cynic might have expected to see, then, a series of imitations of worthy Blue Peter items carping about rather abstract issues mangled through half-remembered phrases - the greeneffect house, the icing layer - the final productions actually tied the environmental theme into local and everyday concerns with a startling eloquence and simplicity. Whilst the three videos made by secondary school pupils in the same scheme tended to rely more on the amusing but relatively predictable conventions of science fiction, or 'wacky' high-school drama, the five primary videos managed to be both less derivative and more challenging in their approach.
This article, grounded in interviews with both class teachers and the video-makers, focuses in particular on 'Radio Woodhouse', a six-minute video made by seven eight-year-old pupils at Quarry Mount Primary School, in the inner-city Woodhouse area of Leeds. Energetically mixing scenes of local life with a News at Ten pastiche ('Bong!'), cheery jingles, music, and a rap, the video highlights certain local problems whilst maintaining a positive, even celebratory note. As their class teacher, Heather Brown, notes, 'It was the children that came up with the original ideas - for example, the litter problem, the graffiti problem, the lack of facilities. But they also came up with the idea that they liked their area - they really wanted that in, so then we had to balance it'.
The notion of 'community' can often seem vague and idealistic. A workable definition is provided by Cushner, McClelland & Safford (1992:218): 'community usually means a geographical (and often political) entity or a sense of "we-feeling," of belonging to and identifying with a particular group of people'. Sensitively fostered in children, such an association can - in theory at least - lead to a greater concern for the local environment and all of its inhabitants. More pragmatically, it is also part of the cross-curricular dimension of 'Citizenship' for the National Curriculum in England, and is especially relevant to the more progressive Welsh alternative, 'Community Understanding' (see Burns, 1992). The video project, it is argued here, can be a highly effective means of developing this community identification.
The benefits of video projects
Whilst the technology might be both the most striking and daunting aspect of the video project to some, it actually becomes invisible - provided that a certain level of competence is in place - when we consider the value of video production work. As unimportant as the paper and pencil are to poetry, the camcorder with its tricks and buttons (picked up very quickly by the children, several adults noted) becomes just a tool in a social and emotional process which supports the development of links between children and their subjects - and each other.
Cooperation was remarked upon as an inherent part of video-making by everyone I have spoken to - reflecting an emphasis made also by Dewar (1992), Brown (1993) and Emerson (1993). Teamwork is crucial in both planning and filming, and seems to have developed quite naturally in the groups, perhaps partly because video is so exciting to children that they are willing to temper their enthusiasm with some patience, in the desire to get it right. Initially, of course, adrenalin rules: as Heather Brown recalls, 'They were completely amazed because we did an introductory session on how to use the camcorder, and we did that trick where there's a long line of children, and you keep cutting and one's disappeared every time. Then we watched it, and they were absolutely incredulous that we could watch what we had just filmed - they were just so excited by that'.
More importantly, especially for the development of community consciousness, the act of having to produce a video focuses children's minds on both the abstract issues to be considered, and the concrete ways in which these can be represented. Catherine Mitchell, the video-maker who worked with the Quarry Mount class, says, 'I found that they structured it themselves, because once we got an idea and they knew that we were out to show shabby places, for example, it was like "Let's get this! Let's get this!", so they really had taken on board the idea of what we wanted to show, and they understood what we were trying to say with it. They'd say let's get the burglar alarm and satellite dish versus the coal hole, or a shot of litter next to daisies, and that may be slightly clichéd but it was fantastic, because those are really complex things, and I was so pleased that they were just going for shots like that'. Heather Brown agrees: 'We were doing a project on the local environment anyway, but with this the children looked more, because they knew they would be going out with the camcorder'.
Despite the encouragement to look critically at their area, the children maintained a strong sense of loyalty to it, and so constructed an argument which identified the source of the problems. 'In all three of the inner city videos,' Al Garthwaite of Vera Productions notes, 'the children were saying, this is a good area, but these people who don't care about it are doing horrible things to it, and they should stop; the cars are making pollution, and that should stop; and people are dropping litter and that should stop. But they do want to like their areas'.
The video project gives children a different way to express their ideas and experience - which may be particularly liberating for those whose skills with written English, or other forms of artistic expression, are not so fully developed - and to compile a wide range of images and arguments relatively quickly. As Al Garthwaite argues, 'I think that children have a lot more ideas, at primary age particularly, than they're able to physically write down, or to get articulated; whereas with a video camera you are given a lot more scope to portray those ideas, in a way that's still obvious, in a different medium'. Having prepared a presentation of local problems, the children can feel not only ownership of the video product, but also some responsibility towards the predicaments themselves; and the empowering experience of pointing the camera and creating 'television' images may help to hold back some of the apathy or helplessness which can be overwhelming responses to such issues.
These arguments are obviously presenting 'ideal' outcomes, since some pupils might remain indifferent throughout any project, but the unique nature of video production seems to be one of the most likely ways to rouse reluctant learners. As Bower (1992:317) enthused, about a not dissimilar video project at his school in the Peak District, 'Asking pupils to articulate their views is a vital step to their own understanding of issues and of their position, and giving them the means to communicate those views is a liberating process which will hopefully empower them to influence others'.
The project can also sweep up many National Curriculum demands in one go. The 'Radio Woodhouse' video alone involved English for preparation of the scripts, art for the storyboards, music for the soundtrack, maths for planning and timing, technology for production tools, and a considerable amount of geography: as Ms Brown says, 'Thinking about the weaknesses of the area and how it could be improved is a massive component of [National Curriculum] Geography, and this was an ideal way of doing it. They haven't actually gone and improved the local area, but they've thought deeply about it, and they've balanced the weaknesses with the strengths, in a very clever way'.
The video project and intercultural education
Fyfe (1993) proposes the concept of 'intercultural education' as a bridge between the too-long divided camps of the liberal multicultural approach (which would prefer to treat differences as invisible) and the more radical anti-racist view (which seeks to confront racism more directly). Interculturalism denotes 'the active process of intergroup relationships and the educational response to this [multicultural] reality' (p.47). In other words, it is multiculturalism with wheels on and somewhere to go.
The video project would seem to produce learning conditions which are those generally regarded as favourable to the aims of interculturalism. Brown, Barnfield & Stone (1990), for example, suggest that the fostering of communication skills, empathy, positive self-image, rational argument, co-operation, evaluation skills and interdependence are important aspects of an educational environment which would promote racial harmony and intercultural understanding. They also happen to be terms which recurrently appear in descriptions of the learning conditions which the video project produces. Grugeon & Woods (1990) similarly emphasise children's articulation of their own ideas, cooperation rather than competition, and questioning and listening as important components of multicultural learning. They argue that egalitarian education is most successful when characterised by 'person-centredness' within a structured framework: 'The emphasis is not so much on extant bodies of knowledge and facts (though these are not unimportant) as on the development of the pupil's powers, skills, and abilities, and the appropriation of knowledge into the pupil's own scheme of relevancies' (p.211). Again, such conditions are commonly at the heart of the video-making process.
The focus on local community as the subject of the video serves to reinforce this learning - beginning with the definition of terms. In discussions, one pupil suggested that the community 'is everybody and everything'; describing in the video what he likes about Woodhouse, another declares, 'It's so different! It's full of very different people all mixed up together'. Their teacher had built on these feelings right from the start of the project, by introducing the word 'diversity' to the whole class, which the pupils discussed in pairs, ultimately producing a large chart with several branches delineating the diversities of the area, centred largely around people, buildings and places. This positive view of diversity was then implicitly reflected in the children's choices of how to represent the area in the video - as Sarland (1992) had also found.
Video production and media education
More broadly, the process of video production almost cannot help but contribute to the participants' media education. In making them 'writers' as well as 'readers' of the visual media (Buckingham, 1993:297), they come to understand the implications of how the mass media can represent any bits of the world in different ways, highlight them or leave them out. Hands-on experience short-circuits much of the need for the often rather patronising, 'Watch out, kids!' pedagogy of more didactic media education, whilst also breaking down some of the distinction between media producers and consumers.
Furthermore, cultural critic Stuart Hall has argued that 'it is important to get people into producing their own images because... they can then contrast the images they produce of themselves against the dominant images which they are offered, and so they know that social communication is a matter of conflict between alternative readings of society' (Quoted in Grahame, 1991:149). By producing alternative representations of themselves - their own expressions of identity - young people can gain a more positive sense of themselves and their communities, even if this is necessarily achieved through resistance of more dominant conceptions (see Dewdney & Lister, 1988).
Finally, children's video productions serve as a timely slap in the face of many academic assertions about children's relationship with television. As Buckingham (1993:282) has noted, 'Mainstream research on children and television has tended to define children as more or less "incompetent" viewers. What children do with television is typically compared with adult norms, and thereby found wanting'. The considerable media literacy demonstrated by the really rather young children who contributed to the 'Action! The Future' programme would suggest that any assumptions that children are ignorant and passive viewers, unable to recognise the constructed nature of television, are in need of re-evaluation. My own research seeks to begin an understanding of children's mediated relationship with environmental issues through taking a video camera into schools and giving children the opportunity to make an environmentally-themed video. As well as the pupil-centred outcomes described above, the work turns away from the traditional use of pupils as subjects to confirm pre-ordained theories, and hands them instead the opportunity to shine, and surprise.
The video project, of
course, can only ever be one part of classroom activity and the burgeoning curriculum.
Nevertheless, it can be exciting and valuable for children in equal measure. It
can be a way of beginning to cross boundaries, not only between schools and communities
but also between media consumers and producers, learners and teachers, alienation
and empowerment, and between children whose cultural and academic differences
may more usually keep them apart.
Bower, R. (1992), Media Education as an Essential Ingredient in Issue-Based Environmental Education, in Alvarado, M. & Boyd-Barrett, O. (eds), Media Education: An Introduction (London, British Film Institute).
Brown, C., Barnfield, J., & Stone, M. (1990), Spanner in the Works: Education for racial equality and social justice in white schools (Stoke-on-Trent, Trentham Books).
Brown, K. (1993), Video Production in the Classroom: Creating Successes for Students and Schools, Tech Trends, vol. 38, no. 3, pp. 32-35.
Buckingham, D. (1993), Children Talking Television: The Making of Television Literacy (London, Falmer Press).
Burns, S. (1992), Citizenship or Community Understanding? - The Welsh Alternative, Multicultural Teaching, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 16-18.
Cushner, K., McClelland, A., & Safford, P. (1992), Human Diversity in Education: An Integrative Approach (New York, McGraw-Hill).
Dewar, K. (1992), 'Nature Park': A Project with Media Education Focus, in Alvarado, M. & Boyd-Barrett, O. (eds), Media Education: An Introduction (London, British Film Institute).
Dewdney, A., & Lister, M. (1988), Youth, Culture and Photography (London, Macmillan).
Emerson, A. (1993), Teaching Media in the Primary School (London, Cassell).
Fyfe, A. (1993), Multicultural or Anti-racist Education: The Irrelevant Debate, in Fyfe, A. & Figueroa, P. (eds), Education for Cultural Diversity: The Challenge for a New Era (London, Routledge).
Grahame, J. (1991), The Production Process, in Lusted, D. (ed), The Media Studies Book: A Guide for Teachers (London, Routledge).
Grugeon, E., & Woods, P. (1990), Educating All: Multicultural Perspectives in Primary School (London, Routledge).
Sarland, L. (1991), '...Different, but not better...': A Primary Video Project, Multicultural Teaching, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 28-34.
When this was written, David Gauntlett was a PhD research student at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. Now he is Professor of Media and Audiences at Bournemouth Media School, and director of the Art Lab. For more info, see this website.