Hannah Brennan Year 4/5 Teacher at Greenacres Primary School, Shropshire & Carolyn Drever English and Outdoor Learning specialist
Change the Story is an Erasmus+ project with partners in Turkey, Hungary, Italy, Austria and the UK.
‘Change the Story empowers pupils to create the future they want: to explore how climate change impacts their lives and to create meaningful stories about how climate change is being tackled now and what needs to be done in the future. Pupils use digital technology to create stories about climate change, producing new narratives to challenge the status quo, encouraging young people in their school, community and across Europe to take action.’
(Change the Story Handbook for Teachers, June 2020)
‘The project follows a framework where pupils explore past-to-present changes, then look at present-day change-makers, building up to the point where they create their own change stories for the future.’
(Change the Story Moodle resources, Course 3: Future)
Friday afternoon; the classroom is dark and shadowed by one o’clock. It faces a hedge-lined yard overlooked by houses. Yellow mecanopsis bob in the border – butter-bright against the green-grey. The June rains have flattened the flowers and wearied the children. Twenty two pupils, girls and boys, Year 4 and 5, come in from lunch fractious with a list of misunderstandings. They stop abruptly when they see us. Then slowly, shyly, smiling, they remember what their teacher Mrs Brennan has told them: we are the animators, come to turn their stories into films.
For nine months they have worked on this project, through Lockdown two and Lockdown three and now, in the last three weeks of the school year it is time to reveal what they have learned. They are ready to tell their stories about climate change and how what we do now will shape our world in the future.
But here lies the problem: exactly how do you take your storyboard and put it into a Fire Tablet and onto a screen?
“Are you the artists?” a girl asks, sidling up, “I’ve always wanted to meet an artist.” A boy appears at our elbows, pushing forward a story plan full of detailed, graphic explosions. Soon more cotton on: everyone has something to say and something to show. But we are not artists. We are not even animators. We are an English teacher and an ICT specialist and we are here simply to help them get their stories out.
We begin with one of their stories. It’s full of action – there’s a machine that turns plastic into seeds, a machine that makes a machine that makes watering cans, in fact there’s so much going on that the first thing we need to do is break it down. A six frame storyboard is great for planning, but when a five second film takes 25 frames and that takes about 5 minutes to make then the devil is definitely in the detail. So together with the class we work out that there are three different stories in that one storyboard and we decide to focus on just one.
Fortunately, we have a story ready, about an unhappy sunflower in a field of plastic bottle tops who is relieved when the litter is taken to a recycling plant and turned into a watering can. Our film is 16 seconds long. The children watch patiently, but it’s so fast we have to watch it three times for the class to catch all parts of the story. It is clear their stories will need to be slower and longer if they want their audience to understand their messages. Our story has no audio, so we show them a version with audio – just emotive, burbling sounds of sadness, surprise and joy that carry across all languages. This makes the class laugh, but what else can we do to make our audience follow our story? We show them another film, this time with narrative, titles and credits. They smile and nod, they understand. But they are restive.
The films are okay, it’s better than a usual Friday afternoon, but what they really want to do is have a go themselves. And then the fun begins.
Pre-made backdrops ready and props out, they get into groups to take turns at recording characters moving and making sounds. Under the Number Line strung across the room and on a table somewhere between Rainbow Writing and New Vocabulary (canopy, camouflage, endangered, extinct, foliage . . . ) while one child moves the props another child records. They play it back. Delete a frame. Record again. Play it back. Now audio. While one child records, another speaks. They play it back. Don’t like it. Record again. Play it back. There are endless possibilities to change and re-make their worlds of the future until they get them exactly right.
We have an hour to ensure every child has a go. It’s a quick turnaround, but by a quarter to three we are all done and everyone is back in their seats ready for the evaluation. Reading the slips, it seems that all the pupils believe they can record a number of shots, make an object seem to move and record sound. Only playing it back seems to fox them – three are unsure. Clearly something to work on another time.
Flushed and thrilled with their achievements, their ‘What I liked best about the lesson’ statements are a firm endorsement of two hours well spent: “I liked planning and recording noises and moving the object”, “I liked pressing the record button”, “I liked recording audio and building models”, “I liked moving the things, making the background and building”, “I liked making my backdrops and making my props”, “I liked playing the sound!” Later, one boy’s comment is perhaps more revealing: “it’s shocking we have not done this before”.
We pack up our props and backdrops at three, leave Hannah Brennan with the filming instructions and PowerPoint and say our goodbyes. The children say their thanks enthusiastically – they want to film their stories now. Glancing out of the window, the sky is even darker than when we arrived and the mecanopsis are suddenly still, waiting for the weekend storms.
Three weeks later, when the stories start coming in, they are an insight into what these children imagine lies in the years ahead: saving animals from eating plastic, waste eating monsters and cleaning up rainforests. When asked what they will do differently now they have studied climate change and finished the project, they have the best intentions: “I’ll use an electric car”, “I’ll start walking to school to stop releasing gases into the atmosphere”, “I’ll use less plastic to help the environment”. Even: “I’ll play outside more and not use any electronics . . .”
They say the project has changed them: “I am feeling more confident because I have studied climate change and how it affects the world – the blanket around the Earth”. They are passionate about it: “We’ve learned about it and we need to do something about it, with animals dying, we need to do something about it”. And it seems to have empowered them: “I thought I could express my ideas to make me feel more confident to talk about the positive things rather than the negative things”.
There were links to science, geography, English, computing, history and PSHE: the effects of climate change on their local area; interviewing older residents; comparing street views of the past and present; making a model of their future town with less cars and more bikes. They read Greta Thunberg and watched MrBeast. They heard a Buddhist monk talk about sustainability and they made a video call with a partner school in Italy. As one of only three schools in the UK, this small suburban primary has successfully completed the pilot and the project is now ready to be rolled out across the country.
Stop motion animation was the way this school chose to get its stories out – a two hour workshop on a rainy afternoon clearly worked for them – but there are other digital tools and other means; comic strips, interviews and even recipes for the future have all been produced by the partner schools.
“How will you teach it differently next time?” Hannah is asked at the final pilot evaluation in July.
She answers emphatically: “Spend more time on the future. We spent too long on the past and present – it was interesting and the children enjoyed it, but I would spend more time thinking about the solutions to climate change. More time creating stories that present solutions. And make it clear that the children can make that change themselves.”
Change. We look out at the yard. It’s hard to imagine change here in this classroom, facing that yard, overlooked by those houses. But change is happening and solutions need to be found to combat rising sea levels, forest fires, species extinction, the list goes on and on . . . and if Year 4 and 5 pupils can see the problem then surely others can too?
The mecanopsis bob again, butter-bright against the hedge. And the sky is grey once more. We leave before the rain starts – it is summer after all. The storms are on their way.
Change the Story is delivered in the UK by Wild Awake https://www.wild-awake.org.