The Only Truth is Narrative Truth

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Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

In his essay on ‘The Fallibility of Memory‘ Oliver Sacks offers us an insight into why discussions about the importance of ‘knowledge’ in education are often superficial, and at times futile. While we debate the relative importance of skills and knowledge, we might be more productively engaged in discussing the elusive nature of knowledge itself:

‘We, as human beings, are landed with memories which have fallibilities, frailties and imperfections – but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information. Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say, and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. Memory arises not only from experience but from the intercourse of many minds.’

The connection between memory and knowledge is a vital one, and Sacks seems to be suggesting that the most reliable knowledge is that which has been ‘contributed to’, a notion which would chime particularly well with the idea of ‘wiki-learning’, where everyone has a contribution to make, however small (for further reading on the use of Wikis for learning follow this link).

In discussing the fallibility of memory, and (again) on the importance of narrative, he has something important to teach us when it comes to understanding the human brain and how it records and analyses what it sees:

‘Christopher Isherwood starts “A Berlin Diary” with an extended photographic metaphor: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

But we deceive ourselves if we imagine that we can ever be passive, impartial observers. Every perception, every scene, is shaped by us, whether we intend it or know it, or not. We are the directors of the film we are making – but we are its subjects too: every frame, every moment, is us, is ours.’

‘There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves – the stories we continually recategorise and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the brains we have. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare and that for the most part our memories are so solid and reliable.’

Our only truth is narrative truth. Now there is something to contemplate.

 

 

 

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You Must Be Joking

funny_chemistry_teacher_quote_no_reaction_postcard-rf4872fee293747cbaf640617e0744679_vgbaq_8byvr_324A guy is sitting at home when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door and sees a snail on the porch. He picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. Three years later there’s a knock on the door. He opens it and sees the same snail. The snail says: ‘What the hell was that all about?’…………..Boom!

Three guys stranded on a desert island find a magic lantern containing a genie, who grants them each one wish. The first guy wishes he was off the island and back home. The second guy wishes the same. The third guy says: ‘I’m lonely. I wish my friends were back here.’

Two of the funniest jokes of all time, according to a team of researchers at Oxford University, who put them to a group of students at the London School of Economics and asked them to rate them out of ten. The jokes were from a pre-selected list of course, which makes the exercise less than useless, but nevertheless, jokes, and the ability to tell them, have been a part of our popular culture since God worried that Adam would be forever lost in the Garden because men hate to ask for directions, and most jokes are just another form of storytelling, which is at the heart of learning and teaching. Right?

How often, as a teacher, have you recognised in a young person the ability to tell a good story, to hold an audience rapt for minutes on end without script or prompt, and yet were never quite sure how the talent could be developed and nurtured? Well, fear not, because an outlet for that creativity is about to present itself, in the shape of a joint project from the BBC and the National Literacy Trust.

‘Comedy Classroom – Having A Write Laugh’ will officially launch on the 19th of April, and it isn’t just for extroverts. The project organisers are calling on teachers across the UK to get their students writing comedy – whether it be stand-up, sketch-writing or simply photo captions. And being the BBC, they have a huge collection of resources to help you on your way.

Footnote: For those teachers who think that telling jokes isn’t real learning, or for those who simply like ticking boxes, here are some of the literacy outcomes which may be enhanced by undertaking such an endeavour. Have fun, but be careful not to overdo it. Learning is a serious business, after all!

Speaking:

  • Take a role within group discussions.
  • Communicate clearly and confidently with an audience.
  • Verbally evaluate the work of themselves and others.
  • Be able to participate in discussions and presentations.
  • Demonstrate they can gain, maintain and monitor the interest of the listener(s).
  • Be able to discuss words and phrases that capture the reader’s interest and imagination.

Reading:

  • Comment on the differences between spoken and non-spoken text.
  • Consider why texts can change to be applied to specific audiences.
  • Be able to prepare comedy pieces to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action.
  • Demonstrate an ability to recognise different forms of comedy writing.
  • Be able to assess the effectiveness of their own and others’ writing and suggest improvements.

Writing:

  • Communicate meaning, adapting their style where necessary.
  • Organise their ideas in an easy to understand, coherent way.
  • Demonstrate an appropriate level of spelling, punctuation and grammar.
  • Demonstrate they can draft and edit to improve their work as well as critique others’.
  • Be able to plan, draft, edit and proofread.
  • Be able to use relevant strategies to build vocabulary, grammar and structure.

See also:

 Eleven Jokes Only Smart People Will Understand

Top Ten Teacher Jokes

Best School Jokes Ever

Teacher, School and Education Jokes

 

 

You WILL Survive. Popularising Shakespeare.

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David Tennant in the stunning 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet

As it happens, I am one of those boring old traditionalists who believe that no school education is complete without some experience of the genius that was William Shakespeare. After all, if the purpose of formal education includes preparing young people for a rich and fulfilling life, helping them understand their place in the world, showing them that they are not the first person ever to agonise over the complexities of human relationships, then who better to turn to for guidance?

However, Shakespeare is a bit like maths at school. Badly taught, it can have a more profound effect than when it is taught well. ‘I hated Shakespeare at school’ is almost as common a refrain as ‘I was never any good at maths…….’.

Imagine the scene. As an English teacher you find yourself in the position of trying to convince a group of young people, many of whom wouldn’t know the difference between a sonetto and a cornetto – even if they did know that the latter was not originally an ice-cream cone –  of the beauty and relevance of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You will teach them, of course, about the Italian origins of the sonnet, its traditional structure of two quatrains and a sestet (14 lines in all), the regular musical rhythm that they will come to know and understand as ‘iambic pentameter’, and you will demonstrate along the way how Shakespeare was dealing with the grand themes of love and loss, of jealousy and revenge, of lust, hatred, fear and hurt. You may give them some very useful notes, or you may even ask them to make their own. God job done.

Well, sometimes, and for some kids, yes. But, consider the potential difference it could make if you were to ask them to ‘be Shakespeare’ for a while. Write a sonnet as if your life depended on it, which his almost certainly did.

‘Too hard!’ they cry.

Well, OK. The language is challenging, 400 years down the line, the themes a bit adult. But how about if you started by actually giving them the content, and asking them to ‘translate it’ into a sonnet? Which is exactly what Erik Didriksen has done in ‘Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favourite Songs’ from publishers Fourth Estate.  Starting with songs from modern-day pop artists like Beyonce´and Taylor Swift, Didreksen has re-written them as Shakespeare might have done. And here’s the real payback, one of the things we struggle to impress upon modern-day students of the great man – the themes don’t really change!

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Gloria Gaynor is given a Shakespearean make-over in Erik Didriksen’s ‘Pop Sonnets’

This technique, which is sometimes referred to in film education as ‘generic translation’ (see previous post here), can be a very useful strategy when trying to develop a better understanding of any text, as it allows the reader to think about what it would look like from the inside, in a different context and for a different audience, while demanding that they look more closely at the conventions of the genre.

Footnote:- While writing this blogpost I just happened to discover this excellent collection of resources from TES for teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.

See also Shakespeare’s Words

 

 

 

 

Digital Narrative Changes Gear

“My name is Alice. I’m nineteen years old, I have a boyfriend and I work at a remote gas station just outside the city. I’m up against the clock to deliver my latest college assignment before the deadline, but as usual things aren’t exactly going to plan. I’m surrounded by clutter and paperwork, bombarded by alerts and text messages. The last thing I need is a mysterious customer turning up in a gas-guzzling sports car…”

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The new-look Inanimate Alice website

Fans of Inanimate Alice, the popular digital novel for young adults, will be delighted that the much-awaited Episode 6 is due for imminent release. Building on the life experiences of the young protagonist Alice Field, Episode 6 takes the series to a new level, both in terms of the narrative and digital storytelling itself, moving from 2-D to a 3-D gaming platform and what is described as a ‘fully immersive’ experience for readers. Alice is now aged 19, and working in a remote gas station on the outskirts of town to pay for her studies at the local college, where she is …………well……….creating her own story. And this time around readers get to see under the bonnet and inside the engine of the story via Alice’s development blog, where she talks to the reader about scripting, 3D audio, video game graphics, spatial narratives and more.(http://devblog.inanimatealice.info/). This is a feature which started with the beautifully-crafted ‘Development Journal’ to accompany Episode 5: Hometown 2, and is especially interesting for students who are developing their own digital stories. Here is how the story-makers for the Bradfield Company describe what they are trying to achieve:-

“With Episode 6, I’ve been exploring Alice’s drive to become a games designer using the sort of technology and approach I could very much imagine Alice herself getting excited about. This episode feels like an immersive game – you literally are in Alice’s shoes. It’s quite multi-layered. As she gets older, the issues Alice has to deal with as her story unfolds get more complicated, and the more ambitious, adventurous and (hopefully) accomplished she becomes with new media.”

Andy Campbell, Director of Digital Media at One Development Trust (and Inanimate Alice developer)

“The challenge with Alice, traditionally a linear narrative, has been to build up her storytelling strengths (add more emotional arcs and depth, create three-dimensional characters) while responding to the user’s actions with a greater measure of agency (meaning, your choices have real consequences). The episode is in Unity 3D, which introduced a range of new interfaces and a free-roam environment with a first-person point of view. Instead of “playing as Alice,” my idea is to play as a “friend of Alice”—going along on her adventures, interacting with her, and occasionally making choices and taking actions that she might not like. The trick is, fans of Alice know that the user never actually sees her. In past episodes, her presence is most prominently featured in the form of narrative statements—simple text on the screen, aimed at her audience in an indirect but personal way. We’ll see how that plays out in this new format.”

Lorri Hopping, Game Developer, writer and narrative designer on Episode 6: The last Gas Station

If you can’t wait for the official release of Episode 6, you can watch the trailer and sign up for early access on Alice’s website at http://www.inanimatealice.com which will also give you free access to the Development Journal referred to earlier and some sneak previews of Episode 6 screenshots. I also have it on good authority that plans are underway for a special Teachers’ Edition of IA some time in the New Year, which will bring all of the educational resources from Episodes 1-5 into one neat package for use in the classroom.

In the meantime don’t forget that you can already access these episodes and some fantastic resources absolutely free by going to the website and clicking on Education. The Create link will take you to a gallery of content created by students of all ages from around the world, as well as the ‘featured classroom’ of Kristal Doolin, young ‘Teacher of the Year’ who talks about how Inanimate Alice transformed the way her students developed their literacy skills.

Finally, for a comprehensive overview of the learning opportunities afforded by using Inanimate Alice in the classroom, I would suggest you check out this article by Robert Stumbles, an educator with over 15 years experience teaching in schools in Australia and Japan. Fantastic stuff. Enjoy!

Found In Translation

One of the highlights of last week’s Scottish Film and Learning Festival was Rob Smith’s presentation ‘Using Film in the Classroom‘, which you can hear (though unfortunately not see) on the Radio EduTalk website by clicking here, and I would suggest that one of the reasons Rob’s workshops and Literacy Shed website are so popular, is that he is thoroughly convincing when he argues that using film in the classroom is the key to unlocking creativity, especially when it comes to the quality of children’s writing. And that is the point. Reading or watching film is often seen as an alternative to using printed texts, which leads to a polarised debate about the relative merits of films and books. ‘Books allow you to use your own imagination, while in a film the director has done all the work for you’, the argument goes, ‘and surely the only way to improve writing skills is by studying WRITTEN texts?’

If you listen to Rob, you will discover the fallacy of both statements, and if you accept that using books and using film in the classroom are not mutually exclusive, you will have made the problem disappear. Keep in mind also that there are many ways to create texts, and the written word is only one of them. Which is why one of my Ten Tools For Reading Film is the grandly titled ‘Generic Translation’, an approach which allows teachers and students to experiment with media and come to understand the possibilities each of them presents. Take this example of a short animation, based on the Charles Bukowski poem ‘The Man With The Beautiful Eyes’. What better way to develop an understanding of metaphor than by studying the printed text and the animation side-by-side.

You will find more detailed suggestions on how to use this film in the classroom, as well as many others, at the Moving Image Education website by clicking here.

To listen to more talks from the Scottish Film and Learning Festival see previous post.

A Feast of Film

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Introducing the first Scottish Film and Learning Festival

You know that feeling you get when you have been planning a big event for the past few months and suddenly it’s over? That’s how I’m feeling today, after a truly fantastic day at the first Scottish Film and Learning Festival in Glasgow on Saturday. The area around George Square really did have a festival feeling, as the Great Scottish (Children’s) Run was also in town, but not even the samba band immediately outside one of the conference venue’s seminar rooms could dampen the enthusiasm inside. For those of you who were not able to attend this time, here is the complete list of presenters and presentations. If you click on the title of the presentation it will take you to some further information or resources related to the speaker and/or the presentation topic. A big thank you to John Johnstone from Radio EduTalk who came along and captured some of the presentations, which you can hear by going to the EduTalk website.

John Murray – Reading Explorers

Jo Hall – BBC L.A.B.

Sarah Wright – The Show-Stopping Toolkit

Rob Smith – Using Film in the Classroom

Mark Reid – Cinematheque Francaise and Understanding Cinema

Tim Flood – Draw What You See

Jonathan Charles – Using Storyboards to Develop Visual Literacy

Claire Docherty – Using the Scottish Film Archive in the Classroom

Bill Boyd – Ten Tools for Reading Film

Sarah Derrick – Discovery Film Festival DCA

Athole McLauchlan – Film Studies in Social Studies

David Griffith – From Shots to Sentences

Barbara Hill and Gordon Brown – SQA and the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy

Jo Spence – Into Film Programme for Schools

Craig Steele – Movie Mashup

Jennifer Jones – Commonwealth Digital Project

Glow Scotland – Using Glow to Enhance Visual Literacy

Bruce Eunson – Film and the Scots Language

Art For Art’s Sake

There’s hardly a day goes by these days but I am engaged in a conversation with someone about ‘the future of the book’. The future of reading, not so much, which I think just goes to demonstrate how ‘reading’ and ‘books’ have become synonymous, despite the fact that most of the reading we do now is demonstrably NOT linked to a book. Personally, I find myself reading novels almost exclusively on my eReader, while I buy physical books for their physical qualities i.e. the look and feel of the book. You could say that I am increasingly looking at books as artefacts, or indeed ‘works of art’, but here’s someone who is taking that to a whole new level. Brian Dettmer is an artist who creates beautiful sculptures from old books, one form of recycling which definitely makes you sit up and take notice.