At the end of 2017, I ran a pilot project at 65 High Street, Nailsea, inviting participants to throw themselves into technology, sometimes for the first time. They’d create something creative and satisfying – a photo book letter to their grandchild or any young person, including some written text in the form of brief stories. It was a project that pushed both participants and myself out of our comfort zones, but the results were more than worth it. Part of the course was looking at imaginative story creation, construction and structure and other exercises I’ve used in previous creative writing courses. This was an essential part of the course, though because of time constraints, in most sessions this became secondary to the IT skills learning.
Nailsea town Clerk Ian Morrell and I have been in conversation for several years over the importance of arts-in-health, and ways of introducing some creative and community activities skills to address wider community needs in the town. All this whilst providing something which Nailsea residents themselves would welcome, enjoy and accept. The council were due to launch their new resource – 65 High Street, an informal community digital hub supported by The Good Thing Foundation. I wanted to invent a course to work into this launch, and encourage people through the door. The course was free except for a small contribution to the cost of printing the books.
Nine beautiful, ambitious photos books have been made, a plethora of skills have been learned and a community has been created, both live and online. We had a Christmas party where participants received their books, shared mince pies and drinks.
Much of the feedback, and a lot of anecdotal comments during the course are helpful to learn from and take forward, including comments about the space and having an assistant in the room: all to be considered carefully in developments of the course. All ten participants would recommend a friend to come on the same course, or already had. Participants also expressed that they wanted another ongoing course for themselves.
Everyone, naturally, had sessions that were more pleasurable or useful for them than others. However, those who came regularly and experienced the week by week build up of skills, expressed appreciation at the planning and teaching – ‘It was a great course. Elspeth kept the momentum going well.’
Gratifying for me of course, but the most rewarding thing of all was to see the end products, the books, and to see the faces of the participant learners when they received them. One, aged 85, who had arrived with few technical skills, created a stunning 50 page photo book, printed multiple times for her grandchildren. Her family commented that she generally found the Christmas period hard, but this year was different: she’d loved researching, gathering materials and learning the skills to make the book and her spirits were high. Another wrote to me to say she’d given the books to her grandchildren and they’d loved them. I bet.
I regularly asked participants what it was they wanted to get out of the sessions and what they were learning. Three areas quickly showed themselves to be important, so I concentrated on these:
- Learning technical skills
- Finding more creative ways of making photo books, and learning story-telling skills
- Being part of a community, countering loneliness and isolation.
Some participants would have, no doubt, preferred the sessions to stay on one or other of the points above, but everyone understood that we were a reasonably large group with different needs; we could have spent each two hours going down 15 different routes. Everyone in the feedback forms said they’d achieved a) some said they’d achieved b) and the majority ticked c).
My personal interest lies most firmly in b) and c). I don’t particularly enjoy IT myself, except in so much that it can enable creativity and enhance communication. So why did I run this course? I believe that sometimes the best people to teach a subject are those who find that subject challenging: they don’t take the learning steps for granted. If you can keep in mind the achievement of the result of your labour, i.e. a beautiful photo book of your life that you’ve made yourself, then you are more likely to sidestep your own horror of technology. To enhance the learning experience for the participants, I invited in an IT teaching expert twice in the process. He did a grand job and I learned a lot from him, for example how to effectively address those in the group who are living with conditions that inhibit learning. Humour and gentle repetition are large factors in this.
At the beginning of the workshops it was clear that most participants were bemused by the ipads, and the app. By the end, some of them were irritated by the constraints of both. This could be said to be a mark of how much they’d learned: they were keen to get onto the next level of learning. One participant bought a tablet after the second session and she went on to take great advantage of the facilities at 65 High Street, learning many IT skills.
On asking learners to write about what they’d learned, these were some of their comments:
‘I learned ever such a lot about myself doing this course’
‘Being an absolute novice at technology I was really thrilled to discover that it’s not so frightening after all.’
‘I learned so much from the way the book was made.’
‘How lovely to look back on family experiences’.
‘I learned the concept of the make up of a book. I would love to do more in the future.’
Several of the participants have offered to be volunteers for further sessions, which could be a good way of reusing the skills they have learned and for them to cement their own skills and learn some more. Creating photo books in time for Christmas presents was a good motivator and goal.
So, my tips for future similar projects are…
Explore several different photo apps. The one we used provided a simple way to get to grips with the technology of the ipad (when the app was working), though I think for some people it was a bit pedestrian, and this may be because it was developed for care homes.
Ensure you have an extra person in the room to help with minor (but very time consuming) niggles that people have with problems on the app, or just simple technical issues people have with their own devices. Things like not remembering their passwords, not getting past an Apple ID screen. I’d originally planned for teenagers or grandchildren to join the sessions to act as technical advisors. The sessions were held on school days so this wasn’t possible if we were to complete before Christmas. Minor technical hitches were frustrating. It would have been easier if all of the devices that we were using had been the same. Another reason I needed more help was that some learners had memory problems, others coordination challenges, and the range of ability ranged from one end to the other.
Provide alternative activities for learners who are not so open to creative activities. The first session involved making hand written letters to a grandchild was a great way of setting up ideas for the course for most people, and set off imaginations. People took photos of the letters and used them in their books. Another time I will provide an alternative activity, as one person made it clear that being creative wasn’t their cup of tea.
Learners were invited to contribute to pay for the printing of their photobook. I took participants’ advice and went to local printer Adroit, who gave a great price for a spiral bound photo book. This did mean more work for me but meant we were able to order multiple copies.
It’s essential to ensure that all participants can hear properly. Table layout helps, plus if possible choose a space with appropriate acoustics.
Working in pairs to explain what each person is doing helps consolidate learning.
On a course like this, which builds knowledge week to week, people need to be encouraged to come every week. I wonder whether a small financial contribution would help?
One learner, a retired teacher, wrote to me afterwards: ‘I think up to 12 people all with different skills and needs is a lot to be expected of you.’ I think she was probably right! However, I trust that some of the above considerations would make another course not only possible and easier to manage, but be even more successful.
As an arts-in-health practitioner, I was a bit frustrated not to have much time on the storytelling aspects of the course. However I loved pioneering this project, and in particular working with these wonderful people. It was rewarding to see important events in their life emerge visually on the screen, then printed in a book, to celebrate with them along with the welcoming staff at 65 High Street and to feel I was part of the beginning of something new for them.