Play It Again, Sam

It has been a long wait – almost seven years – since I wrote about the wonderful world of Samorost, and the creative opportunities it provides for an inventive teacher (see Sam, The Spaceship and Me), so you can imagine how excited I am to get my hands on Samorost 3, just released by Amanita Design, and described thus:-

‘Samorost 3 follows a curious space gnome who uses the powers of a magic flute to travel across the cosmos in search of its mysterious origins. Visit nine unique and alien worlds teeming with colourful challenges, creatures and surprises to discover, brought to life with beautiful artwork, sound and music.’

What’s not to like? If that doesn’t tempt you, have a look at the preview.

See also Machinarium, from the same company.

For teaching ideas across all curriculum areas, see previous post by following the link.

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

 

 

 

 

Can Creativity Be Taught and Measured?

There must be very few people in education who have not yet seen Ken Robinson‘s provocatively entitled presentation ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?‘. Loved and loathed in almost equal measure, the fact that it has been viewed over 5 mistakes.jpgmillion times on YouTube would suggest that at least he is hitting upon something that reaches to the heart of our education systems, the debate about whether creativity is something which can be taught, or whether it is part of our DNA and can therefore only be nurtured or stifled. Is education indeed ‘a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul’, in the words of Muriel Spark‘s most famous fictional character Miss Jean Brodie, or does creativity still justify its place at the top of Bloom‘s revised, but increasingly less revered, hierarchy of skills, to be taught as well as learned? The issue was brought into focus for me again recently with the publication of Education Scotland‘s new ‘creativity measuring tool’, the ‘Brewstometer‘, which apparently “introduces the principles of creativity and helps learners reflect upon and evaluate any creative experience they have had recently. This could include a lesson, a workshop, a performance, a gallery visit or project. You can use the Brewstometer in any way that suits the needs of your learning environment, whether as a whole class, in small groups or one to one.” The Brewstometer has been developed by Creative Scotland and Education Scotland as part of Scotland’s Creative Learning Plan.

“The Brewstometer is a Creativity Measuring Tool that introduces the principles of creativity and helps you to evaluate any creative experience that you have had recently. This might have been a lesson, a workshop, a performance or project. The Brewstometer will help you and your learners to think back and reflect on the experience, how it made you feel, how successful it was, and ultimately how creative everyone was being.”

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The Creative Scotland ‘Brewstometer’

So there you have it. A tool which measures how much creativity has been ‘taught’ by a gallery visit for example? An interesting concept. My initial reaction was one of extreme scepticism – there are some things which cannot and should not be measured – but it seems that everything in schools and education these days has to be measured, assessed and inspected or it is of little value. As always, however, I would be delighted to hear from any teacher whose use of the new tool has made their classroom or its inhabitants more creative. Regardless of your views on the ‘measurability’ of creativity though, the Creativity Portal from the same partners will provide you with some excellent resources and ideas to make you reflect on how creative you are as a learner and as a teacher. The site also has some useful links to blogs, case studies and contacts across all areas of the curriculum.

Further Reading

Flipping Bloom’s Taxonomy by Shelley Wright

I’m Not Really Sold on Bloom’s Taxonomy by Jaye Richards-Hill

Education – Playing The Ultimate Game?

“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

Here we are in the middle of another ‘glorious summer of sport’ as the mainstream media would have it, from the Wimbledon tennis championships via the British Lions’ rugby tour, The Ashes cricket series and a certain tour of France to THE-ICARUS-DECEPTIONthe Open Golf Championship at Muirfield in Scotland. For anyone who is interested in such things – and I count myself as one of them – there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from feeling part of the drama these events undoubtedly provide, but I have posted before about the danger of making easy comparisons between sport and education (see Learning in the Long Run). My instinct then was that ‘playing games’ may provide a more appropriate analogy, though even that notion seemed to imply that in education there must inevitably be losers, an idea which I was finding difficult to accept. Not all games are the same however, as I discovered this week when reading Seth Godin’s latest book, The Icarus Deception, in which he makes reference to the work of James P. Carse, Professor Emeritus at New York University, and specifically the distinction he makes between finite and infinite games:

“A finite game is one with a winner and a loser. A finite game has rules, yes, but it also has an end. The goal of a finite game, then, is to win, to be the last man standing. The industrial age embraced the idea of finite games. Market share is a finite game. Hiring someone from a competitor is a finite game as well – you have this all-star, your competitor does not. Every season of the NFL is a finite game, with just one team winning and everyone else walking away a loser. Infinite games, on the other hand, are played for the privilege of playing. The purpose of an infinite game is to allow the other players to play better. The goal of your next move is to encourage your fellow game players to make their next moves even better.”

Subtitled ‘How High Will You Fly?’, the Icarus ‘deception’, according to Godin, is that while everyone knows that part of the myth which tells how the wax melted on his home-made wings when Icarus flew too close to the sun, sending him spiralling to his death, the other part of the story is now largely forgotten – the warning about the dangers of flying too low and the risk of crashing into the sea. The tale of Icarus has become synonymous with vaulting ambition or hubris, and is often used to prevent people ‘getting above themselves’, a familiar schooldays lesson for many. Godin’s point is that in the industrial age we have been rewarded for fitting in, knowing our place, not making a fuss, while ignoring the dangers of aiming too low. In the post-industrial age of what he describes as the ‘connection economy’, there will be no alternative but to stand up and stand out, and no limits on what can be achieved. In the connection economy, the true measure of your work is whether you touched someone:

“The connection economy has changed how you get a job and what you do when you get that job. It has changed how we make and listen to music, write and read books, and discover where to eat, what to eat and whom to eat with. It has destroyed the mediocre middle of average products for average people who have few choices, and it has enabled the weird edges, where people who care find others who care and they all end up caring about something more than they did before they met.”

Let us suppose then for a moment that the purpose of education is to prepare young people for their place in the world, and that the modern world is indeed something like Godin describes it. Would it be reasonable to conclude that education is more of an infinite game than a finite game? If your inclination is to answer that question in the affirmative, the implications for any formal education system are clear – that ,while competition can be useful, healthy and fun in certain contexts, we need to move away from the fixation on competition in the form of standardised tests (finite games), and emphasise instead the more important ‘C’ words – Creativity, Cooperation, Caring and Connection. It is only by doing this that we will free young people to be themselves, take risks, fly higher, make better art and recognise that they all have something valuable to contribute to the common good.

“As you’ve guessed, the connection economy thrives on the infinite game (and vice versa). Because connections aren’t a zero-sum investment, because ideas that spread benefit all they touch, there isn’t an overwhelming need for a winner (and many losers). In the finite game, there’s pressure to be the one, the one in a million. The problem with one in a million is that with those odds, there are seven thousand other people on the planet who are as good as (or better than) you are. Winning a finite game in a connected world is a sucker’s bet. In any finite game with high stakes, it’s obvious that it will quickly become work, that you’ll be under pressure to take steroids, cut corners, and abandon generosity in favour of focusing on the end. Our best art is strenuous. But it’s not strenuous in service of creating scarcity and of winning a finite game. It’s strenuous because it’s personal and generous. Infinite games bring abundance and they bring the satisfaction of creating art that matters. Play.”

Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception

Further Reading: Finite and Infinite Games, A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse

New on Storify: Teaching – An Academic Career?

Given my conviction that storytelling is at the heart of learning, I was always going to be intrigued by a new curation tool and website which makes the creation of stories simple and intuitive. Alerted to Storify through my Twitter PLN (Personal Learning Network) where so much of my learning comes from these days, I decided to experiment with it and effectively write this latest blogpost using it as an alternative platform. To stimulate some discussion around a topic I posed the question ‘What is an academic?’ on Twitter and followed it up with ‘Do teachers regard themselves as academics, and would they choose to do so anyway?’. The responses were intriguing. I saved the tweets to my ‘Storypad’ (see notes on how to do this at the end of the blogpost), added some text and quotes from other sources, and published my story under the Education section. Unfortunately, because this is not a self-hosted blog, I am unable to embed the story here in its original format but I have added a screenshot of the introduction to let you see what it looks like. If you want to read the whole story just follow this link to My Storify

To create a story using Storify, just follow these simple steps:-

  1. Decide on a topic or theme
  2. Decide which media to include in your search (available sources include Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Google, YouTube and others)
  3. Search media
  4. Save chosen media items to Storypad
  5. Click and drag selected items to story template
  6. Re-arrange structure as required
  7. Add text and commentary
  8. Publish to Storify

To save tweets to the Storypad (or desktop):-

  1. Open selected tweet
  2. Click on the day or time tag at the top left (this opens the tweet in a new window)
  3. Click on the ‘Storify’ symbol below the tweet
  4. Save to Storypad or an existing story (text or comment can be added at this stage if you want it)

As storytelling and essay writing become more digitally based, I think Storify provides an attractive platform for learners and teachers to experiment with new formats, It also gives the teacher a context in which to discuss issues such as plagiarism, cut and paste, ‘value added’, creativity, effective internet searching, essay structure and effective storytelling. What do you think?

 

[View the story “Getting started” on Storify]

More Than One Way to Tell a Story

“All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”

Jean-Luc Godard

Queneau's iconic Exercises in Style

Very few people would dispute that there are some literary texts which are universally recognised as ‘classics’, some of the works of Shakespeare being obvious examples. What educated person could regard their education as complete without some experience of the works of the greatest writer in the history of the English language, whose lines have entertained, enlightened and moved us to tears for over four hundred years? Yet no other writer in history has had their texts re-worked in so many ways, from stage to film, musical to rap, ballet to opera, film to graphic novel. In 2010, members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in association with Mudlark, an internet and TV production company, presented a version of the play Romeo and Juliet entitled Such Tweet Sorrow as an improvised real-time series of tweets on the micro-blogging site Twitter, during which the performers engaged with the audience as well as each other, using YouTube to communicate images and video text.

What endures through all of these re-workings are two things: the beauty of the language and engagement with the narrative. But while the poetry and the flowing prose is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s, the story almost always isn’t. Versions of the tale of ‘star-crossed lovers’ for example had been entertaining readers and audiences for centuries before Shakespeare ‘borrowed’ it from Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem – itself translated from the original Italian – and embellished it for the Elizabethan stage to mixed reviews (the diarist Samuel Pepys called it ‘a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life”).

The attraction of the narrative of course isn’t simply that we find it entertaining or ‘dramatic’, but that we are able to recognise in it some universal truths about the world and about ourselves, whether that truth is about age, death, love, lust, family obligations, gender roles, loyalty, or any of the narrative’s numerous other themes. To put it simply, it has many lessons to teach us about the meaning of life.

The narrative of Romeo and Juliet itself dates back at least as far as Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe in the first century AD, a story of forbidden love which contains parallels to Shakespeare’s story: the lovers’ parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the 3rd century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion that induces a deathlike sleep, but the earliest known version of the Romeo and Juliet tale which we might recognise from the events of  Shakespeare’s play is the story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, in the 33rd novel of his Il Novellino published in 1476. As Christopher Brooker would have it, Romeo and Juliet ‘unfolds precisely through the five stages of the tragic cycle’ and thereby fulfils the criteria for one of the seven basic plots.

As the example of Romeo and Juliet amply demonstrates, there is more than one way to tell a story, but how many are there exactly? In 1947 the French poet, novelist and mathematician Raymond Queneau made a humorous attempt to answer the question in Exercises in Style, a collection of short narratives in which the author retells an apparently unremarkable story in 99 different ways. Standing on a crowded bus at midday, somewhere in Paris, the narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him. When a seat becomes vacant, the first man takes it. Later, the same man is observed in another part of the city with a friend who is advising him on the style of his overcoat.

A page from Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story

Using a variety of styles ranging from the sonnet form through Cockney rhyming slang to mathematical formulae, Queneau’s work is both comical and experimental, a tour of literary forms and a demonstration of playful invention. The text became a cult classic and was the inspiration behind a similar experiment more than half a century later, when the graphic novelist and comic illustrator Matt Madden, in homage to Queneau, set out to explore the same idea using visual narratives in 99 Ways to Tell a Story. In a fascinating series of drawings which questions the very definition of narrative, Madden stretches the limits of the comics genre by telling the same story from different narrative perspectives and in a range of styles including maps, graphs, ‘Public Service Announcement’ and even ‘Paranoid Religious Tract’.

Experimenting with very short stories in the way that Queneau and Madden have done is a fun and engaging way to teach young  learners about narrative, and because the basic plot has to be as simple as possible, it is an inclusive exercise – everyone can try it. Similar success can also be found in setting young people challenges such as the Six-Word Story (where the writer has to compose a powerful story in only six words), the Six-Picture Story (the same exercise using six randomly selected pictures) and the 50-word mini-saga, in which writers have to compose a story of epic proportions in exactly fifty words, not a word more and not a word less.

For more on this topic see previous posts Every Picture Tells a Story and Stornoway Saga.

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.