Harry Potter and the Fan Fiction Factory

Teachers, and perhaps especially teachers of English, understand how difficult it often is to convince young people that writing is a worthwhile activity. This is especially true where there is little incentive beyond ‘this will improve your final grades’ – always the last resort of a desperate teacher – but I wonder whether the opportunities afforded by access to the Web have just introduced a whole new set of  challenges as well as opportunities. Could it be that unless teachers can guarantee a real purpose and audience for those youngsters who are already motivated to write – possibly via wikis and blogs – they will increasingly look elsewhere for more meaningful outlets?

In Convergence Culture – Where Old and New Media Collide, the American author Henry Jenkins considers the shift which new technologies have brought in the way we think of our relationship to media, and how the skills we acquire initially through play may have implications for how we learn, work, participate in the political process and connect with other people around the world. Dismissing talk of a ‘digital revolution’, he prefers instead to think of a ‘digital evolution’ where popular storytelling increasingly takes place across different media platforms (transmedia), in a world where passive consumers have been replaced by active  participants or ‘players’.

In the chapter Why Heather Can Write, Jenkins examines the phenomenon known as ‘fan fiction’, and the ways in which it exemplifies the new media landscape. On fan fiction websites like Fiction Alley for example, the largest of a number of websites dedicated to fans of Harry Potter, young writers come together to write, collaborate and share stories about their favourite characters, and sometimes to invent new characters of their own. New writers are mentored by an army of unpaid volunteers known a ‘beta readers’ – a term derived from the world of technology where ‘beta’ means ‘in development’ – and criticism, while it is always positive and constructive, is also focused and direct, dealing with issues of grammar and style as well as plotlines. The beta readers are also contributing authors and what all the writers have in common is that they are looking to improve their work, not simply to have it praised. On another fan fiction site, FanFiction.Net, beta reader Cat Foxglove describes her strengths as ‘Very picky about grammar and continuity. If tenses constantly change, words are continually misspelled, or the very flow of a story contradicts itself, I have no problem saying so.’ Night Monkey, who describes herself as a college writing major from Pennsylvania has written 23 stories for Batman and Dr Who, and says in her beta profile, ‘I’ll read just about whatever you’d care to give me, but I would prefer humor above all else. I’m also, oddly enough, a fan of horror. If you do fanfiction based off (sic) books, there’s a good chance I’ve read or at least heard of it. I’d be tickled to work with Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Stephen King fanfiction. I won’t say no to Twilight, but don’t bring me senseless crap.’

This relationship between learner and mentor, based on the trust of peers on what is effectively a shared journey is, by definition, quite different from the formal teacher-pupil relationship found in school and allows the young writers to experiment with their craft within the safe confines of a pre-existing fictional world. For many of the writers who contribute to the fan community, the journey begins by simply reading the efforts of others, before they are comfortable enough to submit their own stories. Once they are committed however, the feedback provides the incentive for them to develop and improve. They quickly come to regard themselves as real ‘authors’.

Critics of fan fiction argue that it is unoriginal and imitative, but as Jenkins points out, this kind of ‘apprenticeship’ model is common in other cultural spheres, and historically young artists learned their craft by initially imitating the great masters, sometimes contributing to their work, before establishing styles, techniques and content of their own. Whether the same conditions for writing can be created within a formal school setting, is a different matter. Again, as Jenkins points out:

“Schools have less flexibility to support writers at very different stages of their development. Even the most progressive schools set limits on what students can write compared to the freedom they enjoy on their own. Certainly, teens may receive harsh critical responses to their more controversial stories when they publish them online, but the teens themselves are deciding what risks they want to take and facing the consequences of those decisions.”

Armed with this knowledge, it might be tempting for teachers either to write off fan fiction entirely as inferior or worthless (despite its massive popularity), or to wholeheartedly encourage their students to get involved and even to join them in the endeavour, but the growth in such online communities raises a number of questions for teachers and schools.  Could it be that part of the attraction of fan fiction writing and its devotees is that they are outwith the formal structures of the education system? Should teachers simply accept that there are some elements of a young person’s literary (and literacy) development which should be left alone, and, whether or not teachers embrace the new orthodoxy which determines that we are all learning together, will there always be a gap between formal and informal learning? I’d be interested to hear your views.


The Millionth Monkey’s Movie

It was once said that a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters for a million years would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare, but what if you gave them a movie camera? How many times have you seen a film and said, “I could do better than that”? Well here’s your chance to put your money where your mouth is and see how many people want to watch your movie!

Filmmakers (D-Media) and Film Fans (Close-Up Film) have come together to challenge our perceptions of how great movie ideas are born, and are using social media to ‘crowd-source’ the next big cinema hit. Launched on 6th December, the project will run over three months, with entrants first building up support for their movie concept. Open to amateur and professional filmmakers alike, voting begins on 1st February 2012 and thereafter no new projects can be submitted to the site. Voters can vote for as many of the pitches as they like, but only once for each idea. The leader board will show the top ten projects each week.

How does it work?

  1. Start with an idea, a character, a place, a plot, a sketch.
  2. Post it on the website.
  3. Tell your Facebook friends, Tweet family, and anyone else you can reach, to see if they are intrigued enough to come and have a look.
  4. Get them involved, sharing ideas, passing comments, or just having a look.
  5. Add to, alter and develop your movie pitch and see how many people you can persuade to want to see it on the big screen.

The more interest you attract, the higher you move up the leader board. Ultimately, the concept with the most fans wins.

Cost of entry is just £30. For this, you will have your own page on the Millionth Monkey’s Movie website, your work showcased to over 100,000 people, online resources,  access to film industry professionals and, of course, the chance of having your film made and seen.

The Winner will pick up two thirds of the net money received from the entry fees for the competition and the  support of D-Media in having the film produced, starting with a tour of the facilities at Pinewood Studios. Gina Fegan (The Tournament, Devil’s Playground) will also be appointed executive producer of the film to support the project.

The team behind the Millionth Monkey concept

The Runner-Up will win a tour of Pinewood Studios, including an industry lunch, and one day with D-Media and Close-Up to develop a realistic outline of how to take the project further.

The Weekly Winner, will be profiled on the weekly leader board and will win two cinema tickets.
To find out more and enter the competition, visit: www.millionthmonkeysmovie.com


Substance Matters Too

Following my blogpost yesterday on the impact of Howard Gardner‘s Theory of Multiple Intelligences on those of us who were teaching in the 1980s, it was quickly pointed out to me that I had wrongly attributed the concept of ‘preferred learning styles’ to the man himself, a schoolboy error if ever there was one. In fact, on re-checking my sources, it seems that Gardner was keen to distance himself from the idea. On pages 83-84 of the paperback edition of Intelligence Reframed he clearly states, under the heading ‘Myths and Realities about Multiple Intelligences’:

“Myth 3. An intelligence is the same as a learning style.”

Bizarrely (in my view), in the course of the next few lines of commentary, he goes on to offer the following observations:

“In my view, the relation between my concept of intelligence and the various conceptions of style needs to be worked out empirically, on a style-by-style basis……….

Perhaps the decision about how to use one’s favored intelligences reflects one’s preferred style. Thus, for example , introverted people would be more likely to write poetry or do crossword puzzles, whereas extroverted ones would be drawn to public speaking, debating, or television shows.”

So, if you are still with me, the argument seems to run along the following lines: There is more than one kind of intelligence. Intelligence is not fixed. We do not all have the same kind of minds. We all have preferred ways of learning (which should not be called ‘preferred learning styles’). Therefore, schools (and by definition, teachers) should take account of these differences when planning curricula.

Now copy these notes in whichever style you prefer

On a more practical note, Gardner expands on the ways in which students with different strengths may be engaged with and helped to understand a topic, by offering seven ‘entry points’ to learning which he equates roughly with specific intelligences:

1. Narrational – The narrational entry point addresses students who enjoy learning about topics through stories.

2. Quantitative/Numerical – The quantitative entry point speaks to students who are intrigued by numbers and the patterns they make, the various operations that can be performed, and insights into size, ratio and change.

3. Logical – The logical entry point galvanises the human capacity to think deductively.

4. Foundational/Existential – This entry point appeals to students who are attracted to fundamental kinds of questions. Nearly all children raise such questions, usually through myths or art; the more philosophically oriented pose issues and argue about them verbally.

5. Aesthetic – Some people are inspired by works of art or by materials arranged in ways that feature balance, harmony, and composition.

6. Hands On – Many people, particularly children, most easily approach a topic through an activity in which they become fully engaged – where they can build something, manipulate materials, or carry out experiments.

7. Social – Many people learn more effectively in a group setting, where they can assume different roles, observe others’ perspectives, interact regularly, and complement one another.

I think this is a very useful checklist to keep in mind when preparing a topic or a series of lessons. Going back to look at what Gardner has to say about learning is extremely powerful – even if a little confusing at times – but on one thing critics, academics and practitioners all seem to agree. From the moment Howard Gardner began to question our assumptions about intelligence, the days of the  ‘preferred teaching style’ of chalk and talk were numbered. It was no longer good enough for teachers to talk at children and assume that if they were smart enough they would get it.

Style Matters

The topic has been around for the best part of thirty years now but the controversy surrounding it has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent weeks thanks to the social networking sites Twitter and YouTube. I’m talking of course about the concept of ‘learning styles’ and the flurry of excited posts on Twitter celebrating the research of Professor Daniel T Willingham of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia which – he claims -demonstrates that ‘learning styles don’t exist’. Quite why there should be such enthusiasm for his ‘findings’ is worthy of consideration in itself, but if you haven’t yet seen or heard it you may wish to listen first of all to Professor Willingham in his own words:

I’ve written before on the blog about my admiration for the work of Harvard professor Howard Gardner and his Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which transformed thinking about learning and teaching in the 1980s. Gardner’s notion – arrived at largely through his work with brain-damaged adults – that there are different ways of learning and that we all have preferred learning styles, led us to question traditional notions of intelligence or ‘IQ’ which until then were based largely on an academic model of learning through reading, and depending wholly on the teacher/expert for the transfer of knowledge:

“The daily opportunity to work with brain-damaged adults and with children impressed me with one brute fact of human nature: people have a wide range of capacities. A person’s strength in one area of performance simply does not predict any comparable strengths in other areas……..

We are not all the same; we do not all have the same kinds of minds (that is, we are not all distinct points on a single bell curve); and education works most effectively if these differences are taken into account rather than denied or ignored.”

Howard Gardner, Intelligence Reframed – Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century

Over time, Gardner’s views were often misinterpreted or distorted, with some schools and teachers in extreme cases going so far as to label children as one kind of learner or another, reinforcing the concept of ‘fixed’ intelligence which the theory of MI had done so much to rebut, but for many of us it marked the recognition at last that significant numbers of young people in the system were being failed because they didn’ t fit the narrow definition of intelligence which had hitherto prevailed. Suddenly, it was not acceptable to focus only on a small section of the population, with talk about those who were ‘willing to learn’ as opposed to those who weren’t, those who were ‘bright’ and those who would never ‘get it’.  The common practice of ‘streaming’ in secondary schools (grouping pupils according to IQ scores into the same group for all subjects) was largely abandoned. Learning and teaching became a whole lot more challenging and  a whole lot more rewarding at the same time.

I believe that Willingham falls into the same trap as those who took the theory of MI too literally and who wrongly came to the conclusion that the way forward was to identify a young person’s preferred learning style and cater for that exclusively from then on in, when in fact what Gardner had been advocating was that teachers use a wide range of methods and approaches for all students.

It’s well worth listening again to Howard Gardner himself in this 1997 interview on the importance of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences and its significance in the context of education:

For more on this topic see Ian Gilbert’s excellent post over at Independent Thinking.

Next time: ‘Entry points’ for understanding and why they matter.