Published 28.01.2016
by Kids’ Own

Virtually There: Exploding imaginations and other adventures in Strandtown

Before Christmas, Virtually There Curator Ann Donnelly visited Strandtown PS to find out what the pupils of this Belfast school are doing for this phase of the Virtually There online residency project. 

Pre visit, I am very excited to get into the classroom and see how the project is working in this setting. It has been a long time since I had the privilege of seeing things from the perspective of the children and class teacher. I’m also looking forward to seeing the seasoned partnership of artist Andrew Livingston and teacher Vanessa Patton in action.

There is a fizz of excitement in the small classroom and that feeling intensifies when the connection is made with Andrew. He and Vanessa get things moving very quickly with an invitation to carry on the work from the previous session. The children have been working on storyboards. These are distributed and a set of colourful cardboard TVs appear. The TVs have a slightly retro look and can be worn over the head so that the face appears as if on screen. The children explain that they have worked on them in small groups in earlier sessions and are planning a range of TV programmes for broadcast on chosen channels.

TV sets1

TV sets2










In the first group I talk to, the children have designated roles for themselves in order to complete their storyboarding work:

He’s the author and I’m the illustrator.

One group of children is working around the idea of the four seasons. They have been gathering images together and have made a list of props that they wish to make. In another group a girl is writing out a dinosaur joke. I ask her how it fits in with the project. She explains:

Because we’re making TV. Our TV’s overall channel is called Nature TV so the animals link in with the nature.

While some of the group are working on their storyboards, others are adding decorative touches to their TV sets or practising their interview skills. For the practice video recordings, the children are using the iPads quite instinctively. Their sense of composition is really strong. They are trying to get the timings right when pressing the record button and it’s also challenging to keep the momentum of the interview going. When they finish recording a clip they are reviewing the work and discussing what to do differently on the next go.

Storyboarding and recording

One group is waiting for their interview subject to become available. I take the opportunity to record a quick interview with Jake, one of the boys in the class.

What’s it like to work on the project with Andrew?

Well it’s really exciting because I’ve never done this before and for me I love art so it’s just really exciting and for me it gets more exciting as we go on.

What’s exciting about it?

Em, the fact that we’re doing art and it’s – I just love the project because if you’re stressed out or whatever, you just feel really calm doing it and you can just explode with your imagination.

So that explains what all those noises were earlier. This is a wonderful turn of phrase but Jake tells me that there is a better way to describe the project.

I’ve got one word.

What’s the word?

“Funner” [he makes the parenthesis with his hands.]

And why is it “funner”?

Because it’s better than work and it’s good. It’s just amazing. It’s a great subject.

Do you not feel like you’re working?

Yeah, but the way we’re working, it’s in a teamy – teamworking way and usually when you’re doing it [normal school work] you can work in teams but it’s things that you properly, properly have to think about but with art it’s just – you do it, you make a mistake, you learn from that mistake and then you know what to do next time – which I like.

And how do you know when you’ve made a mistake?

Because it usually … it doesn’t work because ours [he turns to another member of his group] Remember making a microphone? It took us ages to think about how we were going to do it but then we found in the process we found nine ways how not to do it but only one way worked but it was really efficient. It was combining all of it together, wasn’t it? Which was really good.

This session looks and sounds very relaxed and informal but it’s very clear that the children have a strong idea about what they want to achieve and they are willing to persevere until they get it to a point where they want to share it with Andrew and their teacher for feedback.

Exploding Imaginations1

Without being prompted, groups of children are coming up to show Andrew their work and discuss ideas. These conversations happen in front of an iPad on the classroom wall to one side of the whiteboard. Andrew’s image can be seen simultaneously on the whiteboard screen and on a computer monitor on the teacher’s desk. In the busy classroom even a couple of metres away it is hard to make out what the children are saying but his replies are coming through clearly on the whiteboard speakers.

In the photograph below, Andrew is photographing the scene from his end as a group of children and a student share a recorded video with him through the iPad. Some of the group members are watching on the computer monitor in the foreground and in the background the rest of the group are watching on the big whiteboard screen. As I took the photo, I was conscious that these multiple layers of audio-visual communication are completely normal for the children, who are chatting and laughing and nodding and responding to the video. You can see how carefully the group is watching Andrew.

Multiple layers of audio-visual communication

Class teacher Vanessa Patton is moving around the classroom from group to group, supporting the process. Occasionally, she listens to the conversations between the children and the artist but she doesn’t interfere and the two of them spend relatively little time in conversation during the session. The trust between the two is implicit. Each seems confident that the other’s advice or input will be positive and appropriate.

Time passes very quickly and I come back from watching a group video recording in another room to find that they TV sets are being put away and everything is being tidied up. As swiftly as it began, the session is reaching an end. Despite the exploding imaginations – and there were quite a few detonations while I was there – I’m pleased to report that the kids are alright.

Watch Jake’s interview here: