The following is an outline of the course run by Oisin McGann, along with Liz Morris and other teachers of St. Mary's, in conjunction with Poetry Ireland. It took place in one and a half to two-hour sessions, once a week over eight weeks. The final project was displayed in the Central Library in the Ilac Centre.
The aim of this course was to train the pupils in the basics of storytelling, using both writing and illustration. Every class was started by reading a story and discussing briefly how it was put together. The plan was to produce a series of stories linked with one idea; Oisin would write the beginning and end of the series - 'Monsters Clink', the tale of a mass escape from a monster's prison - and each pupil would create their own story to fit into the framework he provided. Monsters would allow the boys to give their imagination free rein, and would give them some leeway in their drawing - more realistic and mundane subjects can often seem harder to draw.
It was crucial that we set the lessons up to give the boys the confidence to plan and complete what would be one of the biggest projects they had ever undertaken. In the beginning, we gave them a great deal of help and guidance, showing them tricks and shortcuts and laying a lot of the ground for them.
We gave them some simple tips for character and plot development, and some suggestions on how to structure a story. Because of the varying levels of literacy in the class, pictures were going to be a major part of the overall project, so much of the first few weeks was spent learning some simple rules and illustration techniques, while introducing the idea of working words and pictures together. The last four weeks were spent producing the stories themselves. This is a breakdown of the lessons.
This was a chance for Oisin to see what the pupils could do. We got each of the pupils to create monsters on paper. Many nasty, ferocious beasts were brought to life. We covered the basic elements needed for a simple plot: the 3 'P's, People, Place and Problem - the solution to the problem being the end of the story.
To introduce the pupils to the ideas of building up a drawing, we gave them a number of different, roughly sketched monster shapes, to which they were then to add their own details or features. They had to decide how many eyes the creatures would have, whether they had skin, or scales, or fur, if they had fingers or claws, etc. We did the same with some hero shapes. This showed the pupils to think in terms of shape first, and then features, but allowing them to indulge their imaginations without having to work too hard at constructing their drawings.
In this session, we did some more work over sketched monster shapes, and then tackled the more difficult problem of form. Once again, each pupil was given rough sketches, but this time the roughs were laid out on model sheets, showing front, side and back views of the monster. The pupil had to fill in the features, and had to think about how the character would look from different angles, so they would need to create a 3D image in their head. We did the same thing with a hero character, leaving it up to them to decide if he or she wore armour, or a cloak, and different kinds of weapons. For the next week, they had to create a monster of their own, and think about its characteristics; its look, its sound, its smell, its strengths and weaknesses, what it liked and didn't like. They would need to do the same for their heroes later on.
In this session we worked on how to construct a background, and covered the basics of perspective. The pupils were given a background to trace off, and two characters in an array of sizes to trace onto the background, to help develop a sense of proportion and composition. They were now to begin thinking about where their story was going to take place, and what kind of backgrounds they would be drawing around their characters.
This was where work on the stories began in earnest. The pupils were given a basic storyline, which they could use as a basis for their own plots, or they could come up with an entirely new plot if they wished. The key to structuring their stories was to know the ending before they started writing. In this case, they had to know how their monster was going to be beaten by their hero. We tried to rule out obvious shooting, beating up and chopping up scenarios in favour of more inventive finales. To help them plan their stories and illustrations out, they were shown how to do thumbnail storyboards - introducing them to the idea of sequential art, and structuring their plots. This was hardest part of the course, as it demanded a combination of creativity, logic and discipline; but would result in only a few lines of text and a few sketchy pictures to show for all their planning. However, once they had their stories laid out, the actual writing and illustrating became much easier. The tough part of working out the path of their storylines done, they could now enjoy letting their imaginations run riot. And they did. Before they started work on the final stories, we gave them some sample backgrounds drawn in a very simple style, and some suggestions for how to frame a picture, to help them think about composition - how to arrange the elements of an illustration within the frame.
The pupils had now started their stories; we worked with each one individually, helping them get the products of their fervent imaginations down on paper. We suggested changes and improvements, but it was up to them to do most of the work, and they displayed energy and diligence as their stories took shape. Suggestions included changing location to keep the plot moving, involving secondary characters, and using buildings and vehicles as props. Dialogue could give life to the narrative and help explain the character's thoughts and feelings. Some of the boys even added speech bubbles to their drawings, a good way of tying the text and illustrations together. Some found that looking at their pictures helped them figure out what to write next, whereas others wrote first and drew afterwards. The importance of planning their stories out with the storyboards became clear, as they were able to proceed from one page to the next with deliberation and confidence.
With a big assembly due to bring an early end to the final session, this was the last full class we would have to work on the stories. An atmosphere of barely-contained chaos ensued as all the pupils wrote and drew at top speed to get as much done as possible, many of them managing to finish their stories before the end of class. In the clamour for attention, it was hard to keep up; the boys' drive to get their stories perfect requiring a constant supply of paper, sharpened pencils and answers to a withering barrage of questions and problems. This session was more a matter of reacting to the pupils' demands, rather than planning a means of holding their attention.
This was the day of the assembly, and with a concerted effort from all the teachers involved, the stories were completed on time. The pupils stood up in front of their school, displaying the work from the course and talking about what they had done. Jane O'Hanlon - of Poetry Ireland - and Oisin presented each pupil with a certificate for the magnificent amount of effort and imagination they had put into their work.
But the real proof of their achievements can be found in their series of stories, 'Monsters Clink'.