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'Play' it safe with a Christmas Nativity Film!

How to put on a safe, socially-distanced Christmas nativity play in school: instead of a live performance, make a movie!

With the spectre of the school nativity play looming, educators are thinking about how they can stage a production safely and according to current COVID-19 guidance. Although it's unlikely that most schools will be able to put on a Christmas show as they have done in previous years, the limitations imposed by social distancing also create opportunities for children to learn about performing and creating art in a different media: film.

In this blog post, we take a look at how children, in their class 'bubbles', can more safely produce Christmas films for parents and other pupils to enjoy instead of performing on stage. Aside from being a great way to develop pupils' film literacy, it's also much less intensive and stressful for weary teachers at the end of a long term…

What is the government guidance regarding performing arts in schools?

Before the start of the school year, the government published guidance for schools in England, which included information about music, dance and drama. Additionally, schools in England are advised to follow government advice for the performing arts.*

*It's worth noting that some of the guidance in the second document linked above (for the performing arts industry) runs—in our opinion—contrary to the main aims—and 'system of controls'—set out in the first document to help schools minimise risk. We're not experts, so before incorporating our suggestions for your Christmas production, please read all the advice relevant to your school and region carefully, and check back regularly for updates to the recommendations.

Kill two birds with one stone: teach your class about filmmaking AND produce a Christmas show.

Teaching film literacy in class is a fantastic way to develop your pupils' reading comprehension and writing composition skills, in particular. Through studying film and filmmaking, they'll be exposed to authentic dialogue, character development and narrative structure. Being able to write for a visual medium is a vital creative skill for children, too.

Understanding how films are constructed can help children with their creative writing. Recognising how sequences of shots are devised or how plot points and character traits can be shown rather than 'told' will help them write better stories.

Writing for film is an inherently collaborative process – one that encourages discussion, requires listening to others and promotes cooperation and supportiveness. You can't make a film on your own!

In short: making a festive film, rather than rehearsing and performing a traditional nativity play, is a brilliant teaching 'power-up' that helps improve children's literacy at the same time!

Let's take a look at the skills and equipment you'll need…

Teaching filmmaking: what you'll need.

The two most significant barriers to making films in school have traditionally been access to technology, and the confidence to use it. For most schools, technology is no longer an issue. While it's nice to have a decent video camera, all you really need is a cheap tablet or digital camera – even a laptop's webcam will do, in a pinch. Basically, anything with a camera and a microphone can be used to record footage for your festive film. Here's a quick checklist of what you need—as a minimum—for teaching filmmaking:

  • A device with a decent camera, e.g. an old smartphone, a tablet, a dedicated video camera or a digital stills camera with video recording capabilities.
  • Cables, or a card reader, to transfer video from your device to your computer (some devices can transfer over WiFi or Bluetooth).
  • A desktop/laptop computer with simple video editing software.

If you have a budget for equipment, here are a few things you might want to consider getting:

  • A tripod with a mount for your device.
  • An LED light panel or two.
  • An external microphone (this will make a BIG difference to the overall quality of your films.
  • A clapper board! Children will love using it.

Fortunately, editing video is easier than ever, too. Both Windows and Mac computers come with free video editing apps that are easy to use and work with all kinds of phones, tablets and cameras.

As for the skills you'll need to teach filmmaking: there are a number of fantastic short courses available online, many of which are completely free. We took Futurelearn's brilliant free course, 'Teaching Literacy through Film'.

A woman editing a video
You'll have to edit your Christmas film. Fortunately, with the video editing software included on your Mac/Windows computer, it's quick and easy to stitch clips together and add titles and music.

Whatever training you decide to undertake, you'll want to make sure you know how to teach your class about these aspects of filmmaking:

  • The importance of a storyboard and/or a script.
  • Names of shots and what they're good for (e.g. wide shot for establishing setting, medium shot for dialogue, closeup for revealing plot points).
  • The use of sound that exists outside the world of the film, e.g. narration, music, sound effects.
  • Using the camera to 'show', not 'tell', e.g. using a closeup of a character's face to reveal how they are feeling, rather than have them—or a narrator—explain.

Oh, and don't worry too much about how you'll teach your pupils to use the equipment – they probably know more than you about that, already!

Get creative, but don't reinvent the wheel: use what you've got.

Making a Christmas film opens up several creative possibilities which a traditional nativity play doesn't allow for. Here are some ideas for creative filmmaking which you could use:

  • Use stop motion animation to tell a part of your story. Characters could be made of lego or plasticine.
  • Your film doesn't have to be an entirely fictional piece! You could include interviews, guided tours of the school or reports about seasonal school events.
  • Adopt a variety show/sketch show approach: include musical performances, dance routines, poetry readings or highlight reels of sports events.
Children playing musical instruments
Include footage of entertaining aspects of learning in your school, such as musical performances.

 Remember: parents will be happy to see the children enjoying themselves and getting involved – it doesn't matter too much what it is just so long as the children are seen* and the content is engaging!

*Of course, some children are not permitted to be in photos and videos at school, and you'll have to bear that in mind when filmmaking in class. The beauty of filmmaking, though, is that there are plenty of creative 'jobs' behind the camera where children can learn and develop new skills: scriptwriting, storyboarding, costume/sound/set design, directing and editing – to name a few!

The ultimate time-saving teacher hack: use your existing lesson planning as the 'source material' for your class film.

This is almost killing three birds with one stone! Not only will you teach children about filmmaking at the same time as making a film of your Christmas production, but you'll also be delivering your planned lessons, too.

Filmmaking is the perfect skill to use in English lessons, but that's not to say you can't do it in other subjects, too. You might be teaching your class about Christmas traditions in the Christian faith, or perhaps you're taking a multi-faith approach and looking at winter festivals in a variety of religions. Why not use filmmaking to show what children have learned?

Here at PlanBee, we've got a selection of Christmas lesson plan packs that are ideal for adaptation and inclusion in your Christmas films. In particular, 'Twas the night before Christmas is perfect! Teach your class all about poetry and rhyming structure, then base your Christmas film around the verses of the famous festive poem! Here are a few suggestions for ways you can combine regular lessons and making a Christmas film:

'Twas the night before Christmas

Teach children the famous poem and base your production around each verse. You could get them to perform parts of the poem by acting, dancing, singing, making stop motion animations or using puppets.

Christmas Journeys

Focussing on the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, teach your class about religious pilgrimages. Lots of opportunities to re-enact traditional tales and share children's learning.

Christmas Traditions

Ideal for children in Years 3/4 or Years 5/6, learn about Christmas traditions old and new. There are opportunities not only to explain what these traditions are but to demonstrate them, too. For example, children could demonstrate making gingerbread houses in the style of a cooking show, or perform a song and dance to the 12 days of Christmas!


Raising funds – and spirits, too!

The school Christmas production has often been used as a fundraiser where proceeds from ticket sales, raffles and Christmas Fairs all help make money for school projects or to cover the costs of other events throughout the year.

As well as raising funds, they're an opportunity to bring pupils, parents and teachers together and engender a sense of school spirit! With social distancing, that's going to be difficult this year, but that's not to say that you can't create a sense of community through film.

Here's how your school Christmas film can raise funds, and spirits, too:

Turn your film into a fund-raising event.

One of the limitations of an in-school performance is that once it's done, it's done. But with film, the opportunities to raise funds from viewing it continue for longer. Here's how to make sure your film encourages parents to make a donation:

  1. Include appeals from your main stakeholders. A message appealing to parents from the headteacher, governors, other parents and pupils will send a powerful message.
  2. Include a PayPal link on the page where you host your video, e.g. in the YouTube description or on your school's website. Mention the link and explain how easy it is to donate via this method.
  3. Share information about other upcoming events, e.g. PTA fundraising activities.
  4. Encourage parents to share the link to the video with friends and family. You never know: you might get some donations from people who would never have attended an in-school production!

Bring parents, teachers and pupils together by celebrating your school.

In your festive film, include 'behind the scenes' footage of the film being made, a tour of the school at Christmas, or interviews with pupils about what they love about their school. Show examples of brilliant work on the walls, or fantastic lessons in action. Parents love to see what's happening in school, and doing so in your film will really bring everyone together and engender a sense of community. Don't be afraid to show a little of what goes on 'behind the scenes' at your school, too – parents will love it!

It's time to introduce filmmaking into the classroom.

While it's disappointing that many schools won't be able to put on a Christmas production in the same way as they have done in previous years, there is significant value in shaking things up a bit and embracing filmmaking as a teaching tool. Now's the perfect time to do so, when we all want—and need—a bit of festive cheer. Filmmaking is a great way to share your school Christmas show or nativity play while keeping safe at the same time.

Teaching children about filmmaking will give them new creative skills that they'll undoubtedly have use for in future, too – as technology is increasingly important for their learning, relationships and interests.

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