Alice Through the Looking Glass

Regular readers of the blog will know of my admiration for Inanimate Alice, the digital novel which has captured the imagination of teachers and young readers around the world, and many of you have already introduced your own students to the story, as well as making full use of the literacy resources which accompany the four episodes currently on the website. (You can catch up with my previous posts on Alice here, here and here). After reading about Alice and her travels, young people love to write their own version of the next episode, setting it in their own locations and introducing new characters, but their most frequently asked question is, When are we going to see Episode 5? Recently I caught up with producer Ian Harper of The Bradfield Company at his Vancouver Island base and asked him that very question, as well as what readers might expect as our eponymous heroine develops into young adulthood.

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TLA. It has been a long time since Episode 4 appeared online. When can fans expect to see Episode 5 and can you give us any clues as to what it might look like?

Ian Harper. Yes it has been a while since Episode 4 appeared. Way too long in fact. We haven’t been entirely idle in the meantime and have been concentrating our efforts on establishing relationships with partnerships that will grow the title for the long term. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the relationship we have established with Education Services Australia, the government organisation that has been responsible for the development of the curriculum across the country. We are delighted that Inanimate Alice was the first digital text chosen to be adopted into that national curriculum. That feels like a landmark moment. Education Services Australia has invested in both the development of new content and in the title’s discoverability across all of the nations education platforms and websites. Quite a commitment. It has certainly put Australia firmly on Alice’s map. This year we are developing interactive journals and translating the first four episodes of the series into Japanese and Indonesian for ESA’s Language Learning Space. We must be doing something right!

I digress. These developments, though, have encouraged our creative team to proceed with the development of that long-awaited Episode 5. It is in production now with a planned completion date of the end of May 2014. We are seeking promotion of the episode in similar way to the launch of Episode 3 in the Guardian newspaper. Readers of the series will see familiar scenes in Episode 5 as this episode is set in the same town, the same school as Episode 4. However, Alice is two years older and trying out her storytelling skills using the Unity game engine for the very first time. So those readers may well be surprised to see 3D effects within a 2D linear storyline. This episode provides the transition to the full-on 3D explorable environment we are anticipating for Episode 6 when Alice is “off to college.”

I’m hopeful that long-standing friends of Alice will be pleasantly surprised by developments. There has been much more going on behind the scenes than can be gained from viewing the website. For example, the new Australian project will form part of Season 5: Gap Year where Alice takes up travelling once again, this time without her parents or the Aunt who accompanies her around Europe as part of Season 4. With Japan and Indonesia on the itinerary it is shaping up to be quite a year. Tasters, at least, of each of these Seasons will appear during the year and we will open up windows on Japanese and Indonesian culture in the same way that we have done with Alice’s Australian adventures. Expect to hit the ‘Japan’ button and find yourself in Hiroshima. ‘Indonesia’ will lead to Jakarta and the gateway to a country that doesn’t know how many islands it comprises.

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Work in Progress. A screenshot from Inanimate Alice episode 5. The bird silhouettes, like the cat and the nightclub in the following two shots, are animated and move gently, creating a sense of depth.

TLA. You have said often that IA was written as entertainment rather than education. Have you been surprised by the uptake from teachers around the world, and how do you account for its tremendous popularity in classrooms?
Ian Harper. For sure, teachers have taken us by surprise on many occasions and continue to do so, after all this time. The first surprise came quite early on when we noticed, from the website statistics, that most of the site users were teachers and, importantly, they represented almost all of those returning to the site time after time. It was then we decided to switch tactics and actively support teachers in their endeavours.
As the numbers grew, we were able to detect trends in usage and saw that in addition to literacy objectives teachers were using it right across the curriculum with high-spots naturally in literacy and ICT education. What was at first a surprise and continues to be a joy is the uptake in the language learning community. Around the world, British Council teachers of English are among the title’s strongest supporters. We see usage at international schools particularly across the Pacific Rim. The translations, too, have served to widen uptake with Spanish being by far the most popular at this time. This interest is from the Spanish speaking Americas as much as Spain itself. There are multiple factors at play when it comes to its popularity, the strongest of which must surely come under the heading of engagement. Students are immediately gripped by the dramatic storyline and teachers can rely on having the attention of everyone in the classroom. This is a primary consideration whether students are high performers or reluctant learners. It has turned into a bit of a mantra but one of the beauties of the title is that is suitable for deep-reading and re-reading, The story bears revisiting and viewers are often delighted when they experience something fresh on each occasion.
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TLA. How many episodes are planned in total, and how fully developed are they?

Ian Harper. We have long held on to the vision that there will be ten episodes in all, spanning Alice’s life from an 8 year old through to her mid-twenties, when we see that she has achieved her ambition to work as a computer game designer. One of the first tasks undertaken, by the writers Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph, was to develop a story bible that not only described the arc of the narrative but also delved into the multimedia guidance we needed to understand her circumstances at each juncture. This document keeps us generally on track in managing her ever-improving skills as a digital creative, yet affords the flexibility for us to learn both from feedback gained and the improving technologies that help us better present the story. Beyond Episode 6 which has an established format, we have not developed the later episodes in any detail. The shift to 3D graphics and the provision of interactive journals that will run alongside and in-between episodes allow great opportunities to discuss challenges and intended outcomes with partners.

TLA. Are you prepared to give away the ending of the story?

Ian Harper. The straightforward answer to this question is NO! However, I can tell you that the complexity and interactivity increases exponentially with each episode and that by the end of the series the last episode will have the look and feel of a AAA computer game title. That ambition brings great challenges and we hope to surprise and delight ‘Friends of Alice’ many times along the way. It is no secret that the Inanimate Alice series was developed from a theatrical movie screenplay. The ambition holds that folks, having met Alice through all 10 episodes, 3 hours of screen-time, but never having seen her face, will want to visit the Tokyo Games Show and meet her together with Brad for the first time.
TLA. One of the features which makes IA unique is that, in your own words, it was ‘born digital’. Do you think that the era of the paper book is over?
Ian Harper. By no means. The printed word remains just as fascinating, just as gripping as it always did. People still love to get their hands on a book. I’m sure that that desire will remain, but the sorts of books that consumers will buy in paper form will certainly change. The revolution we are now experiencing centres on content, words with audio-visual accompaniment, appearing in multiple forms, often concurrently. Formerly, readers would have the single option of getting their hands on a paper book. Now they can read and experience on myriad devices. They can browse now or download for later reading. They have the choice of ‘read only’ or selecting an enhanced version that offers the prospect of venturing outside of the linear narrative. This enhanced narrative experience is in its formative stages and its an exciting time to see this unfold.
From our perspective, one of the great advantages of having the title ‘born digital’ is the prospect of simply being able to take the title in any direction. It’s just as easy to anticipate smartphone delivery as it is to imagine what Inanimate Alice looks like in print formats. Ease of translation and switching between translations suggests far greater reach than the mere option of “do you want the paperback or PDF on an e-reader?” and thinking beyond “how much is it?” What fascinates me is the challenge of delivering stories and translations for example in print to students in Australia, while offering a mobile version of the stories directly to kids in Japan, China and Indonesia. This kind of reach was the sole domain of the world’s largest publishers until digital came along.
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If you haven’t already joined Alice’s growing band of supporters you can do so in a number of ways. Here are a few of them.
Follow Alice on Twitter
Like Alice on Facebook 
Follow Kenny Pieper and his English class as they engage with Alice here
Find out more about Alice on Wikipedia
Read the latest Alice news at Scoop.it!
Collect Alice images and pin them at Pinterest
See how other teachers are using the Alice stories on Edmodo
Download and re-mix the the digital assets from ‘Alice in Australia’
 
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What Do You Mean By Literacy?

Readers of the blog will know that one of my regular mantras is, ‘Learning IS Narrative’. ie not only is narrative  – or storytelling – an important element of learning, but that all learning consists of the creation, analysis and sharing of stories. This is HOW we learn, and has been so since there was life on earth. What changes is the variety of media through which we create and tell these stories. I was reminded of this when reading this excellent blogpost on the use of film and media in English, literacy and creative writing by Tom Tolkien, which included the following lines:-

“If printed literature is seen as a brief period in the historical synthesis of storytelling, it isn’t surprising that technology will deliver a succession of new forms for the delivery of stories. Whether film will last longer then print as a form is debatable, but film is currently more accessible and more engaging to young learners than books. How many pupils have seen the film but not read the book? Is that a good thing – I don’t know – but it’s certainly worth taking advantage of when considering how to improve the teaching of writing.”

All of which has of course set me to wondering about definitions of literacy which are appropriate for the age we live in. What does it mean to be literate today?  This is a short presentation I delivered at last week’s TeachMeet Ayr/Aberdeen at the University of the West of Scotland. It is intended as a light-hearted starter for discussion. Feel free to use it with your students or with your colleagues if you find it of any value.

For a version of this presentation with video introduction go to YouTube

Looking for Patterns

Call me crazy, but I don’t think we have yet begun to realise the full significance of recognising ‘patterns’ in learning across the curriculum. So much so in fact, that one of my favoured Seven Reading Strategies for exploring a text, whether the text is written, spoken or visual, is Looking for Patterns. Where once, as a young English teacher, I would often spend time creating a set of close reading questions to try to elicit the main points from the study of a text, or to start a discussion, now I would do it quite differently. One of the strategies I would use is simply to ask students, working in pairs or groups, to identify any patterns they can find, and begin the discussion from there (*note that this is only the start of the discussion, not an end in itself). In that way, the students are not immediately playing the ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ game,and the questions raised are ‘real’ questions, in the sense that the learners genuinely want answers to them.

The patterns identified will usually include elements of the plot (if there is one), structure, elements of grammar, layout, use of graphics etc. Some will focus on language patterns, the repeated use of particular words, images or symbols, and the recognition of common themes in a text or group of texts. So whether you have set out to teach an aspect of language, or structure, or author’s purpose and viewpoint, you are in a very real sense teaching these things because you have been asked to, and the difference is tangible.

One of the most obvious contexts for this kind of approach is when studying poetry. Ask students to read and listen to this classic poem, From a Railway Carriage by Robert Louis Stevenson – listening is important since many of the patterns are aural – and write down as many patterns as they can find. Now use their findings to explore the significance  of the patterns, their contribution to the whole text and the overall effect in terms of the writer’s purpose. By learning this simple strategy, and using it regularly to compare and contrast different texts, students begin the journey to becoming more sophisticated readers, with a growing understanding of the concept of ‘genre’, which, after all, is simply the study of patterns in literature.

mapping51.39.jpgIt isn’t only in the study of literature that patterns are important however: patterns in number, musical notation and in art immediately spring to mind. I was also intrigued to find this link recently to a fantastic resource called Mapping History, a site created by the University of Oregon. Thanks to Richard Byrne at Free Technology for Teachers for bringing it to my attention, and for the following insight:

“Some of my favourite social studies lesson plans included having students use maps to analyze data and identify patterns in history.” Richard Byrne

It stikes me that the ability to recognise patterns is an essential element of reading, and of learning, regardless of the curriculum area or context, but as always of course I would love to hear from you on whether, and how you think it might apply in your own particular area.

The Ikea Effect

Last week I had the dubious pleasure of assembling some flat-pack furniture from everyone’s favourite value store, the ubiquitous Scandinavian giant IKEA. Like many of my contemporaries, I served my apprenticeship, in furniture-building terms, on the inferior British version, MFI, cursing and swearing with the best of them when discovering that the 16 2-inch screws required to complete the job numbered only 15 in reality, and that on completion the missing screw would make the difference between a sturdy family heirloom and a pile of kindling. It wasn’t entirely the fault of MFI, however, since back then I felt that the pictorial instructions were included as a bonus – a kind of first aid kit to be opened only in case of emergency – and that the whole thing was really down to male intuition and an innate sense of logic. Much experience and many years later, and heeding the words of Thucydides, as you do, that ‘few things are brought to a successful issue by impetuous desire, but most by calm and prudent forethought’,  I carefully opened the boxes and started to READ THE INSTRUCTIONS.

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What I didn’t appreciate until well after the event was that the sense of achievement I felt on completing the job and realising that it could hold several books without reverting to its original state, has actually been identified and named by a group of American academics as the ‘Ikea Effect‘. In a series of experiments, Daniel Mochon, a marketing professor at Tulane University, along with his colleagues Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael Norton of the Harvard Business school, demonstrated that people attach greater value to things they have built themselves. Building your own stuff ‘boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent’ apparently. I’m going to ignore the fact, for now, that the bookcase had actually been ‘built’ by someone else and only ‘assembled’ by me. Let’s not go splitting hairs when feelings of pride and competence are at stake.

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New York box-cart

Now any English teacher in the land (of Britain that is) could have pointed to the story of Spit Nolan by the Irish-born writer Bill Naughton and said, ‘He told them so’. In this much-loved tale of working-class kids from the North of England, the eponymous hero, Spit, is without question the district’s champion trolley rider, the ‘trolleys’ being the carts or buggies made from bits of junk collected in the local scrapyard. Spit’s success is all the more remarkable for the fact that he is recovering from tuberculosis, a common illness in poorer areas of Britain in the first half of the 20th Century. Spit’s trolley has been lovingly crafted by his own hands, and he remains unbeaten until his friend Ernie appears with the Rolls-Royce of carts, assembled in his father’s factory by his engineering colleagues. The challenge is set – and the outcome in the balance – but the moral of the story is already making itself known to us, in flashing lights, in the words of the unlikely hero himself:-

“You own nothing in this world except those things you’ve taken a hand in the making of, or else you earned the money to buy them.”

Spit Nolan by Bill Naughton

Not everything about the Tulane report was positive however; it comes with a health warning. One of the implications of the Ikea Effect is that we tend to fall in love with projects we have spent a great deal of time working on, even when they are quite clearly failing, losing any sense of objectivity along the way. Which is why we need ‘critical friends’ who are prepared to tell us that in fact that shelf is not quite straight, or that lesson plan might just be a tad unrealistic.

“It’s a good reason — and this is true whether you are running a big complicated project involving millions of dollars or finishing a third-grade craft project — to have someone from the outside, who isn’t invested in you or your work, give you some objective feedback before you show your project to the world.”

Shankar Vedantam, NPR

Visual Literacy – No Longer a Luxury

We are fast approaching that time of year when we gather together to celebrate the birth of the moving image. More television – and especially films on television – will be watched in the next three weeks than at any other time of the year. Living, as we do, in a predominantly visual age, surrounded by moving image texts, one would think it almost perverse for schools to ignore the extent to which these texts shape and influence our daily lives. Yet teachers still often find it difficult to justify using film as a medium in the classroom when they should be concentrating on raising ‘traditional’ literacy standards, and this despite the fact that various studies have recognised that working with moving image texts can improve those very skills. Digital Beginnings, an extensive study carried out by Jackie Marsh and colleagues at Sheffield University in 2005 concluded that in England “the introduction of popular culture, media and/or new technologies into the communications, language and literacy curriculum has a positive effect on the motivation and engagement of children in learning”, that “practitioners report that it has a positive impact on children’s progress in speaking and listening….”, that “parents feel that media education should be included in the school curriculum” and  that “this should be so from when children are very young.” In 2006, an independent evaluation of Scottish Screen‘s MIE (Moving Image Education) project in Brechin, conducted by the University of Glasgow, reported that ‘all teachers were aware of a significant impact of MIE on pupils’ listening and talking skills….by the second round of interviews, teachers reported significant developments in writing skills.’

Cartoon by deleuran at www.toonpool.com

Cartoon by deleuran at http://www.toonpool.com

Most young people have watched countless hours of film and television before they enter pre-school education, and already they have set about building, in their heads, a rich audio-visual library. Unfortunately, it is most often a library – to extend the metaphor –  in which the texts are simply piled up in a disorderly heap in the middle of the floor. Rarely do they have any understanding that what they are watching and listening to is a sophisticated text which has been painstakingly constructed and edited, and not simply the result of pointing a camera at real-life and real-time events.

In order to illustrate this point, in the course of preparing this post I contacted the Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok De Wit, creator of the hauntingly beautiful animation Father and Daughter, which won the Academy Award for Best Short Film in 2000, and asked him how long it took to make (the film itself is eight and a half minutes long and not a single frame is wasted.) This was his response:-

“It’s exactly as you say, animated films like these belie their complexity. It was a challenge to make the final result look simple and whole, but this challenge was enjoyable and very motivating. I worked on the film about four years on and off; I interrupted the production to teach and to do some commercial work. Altogether it took me about two years to make the film (writing, direction, most of the animation and all the backgrounds). I had one animator helping me for roughly four months and one assistant animator for two-three months. Two technical experts did the scanning, colouring, camera movements and compositing (combining all the different layers) for about three-four months altogether. The music composer and sound person each worked for about week, and finally, the film had two producers (for international funding reasons) who altogether devoted several weeks of their time each. One could say that if one person would have done everything alone, the film would have taken three years to make.”

With best wishes,

Michael

Since it is unlikely that children are going to be taught to ‘read’ moving image texts at home any time soon, it seems to me that teachers responsible for the development of literacy therefore have a responsibility, not only to use moving image texts in their classrooms, but to teach film literacy as part of the mainstream curriculum. In order to do this, teachers themselves need to be familiar with some basic concepts relating to films and filmmaking, including a vocabulary which allows them to discuss – and possibly create – moving image texts with their students.

If you are thinking of introducing moving image texts into the classroom the key to success, as with printed texts, is to begin with short films. A full-length feature film is a hugely complex piece of work and can be quite daunting to a teacher and students hoping to engage in critical analysis, while at the same time there are many advantages to using short films in the classroom. Shorts can be played in their entirety within one lesson while longer films lose their impact by being viewed over a number of lessons or by being screened only in extract form; the short running time of the films makes it possible for repeated viewings, allowing teachers and pupils to become quickly familiar with the texts and to explore them in more detail. Short films, like short stories, are not governed by the same conventions as longer films, and often provoke stronger responses from their audience. Finally, film and print, while different in many ways, are also very closely allied, so that the study of film can be used as a vehicle to improve the traditional literacies of reading, writing, talking and listening, and, importantly, film is an inclusive medium, often accessible to pupils who are more visual learners and who otherwise may feel that they have little to contribute. But don’t just take my word for it. Here is the celebrated film director Martin Scorsese talking about the importance of visual literacy.

See also my Ten Tools for Reading Film

See previous post for the best sites to find short films for free

Find some amazing resources at The Literacy Shed

Further Reading: Download a copy of Moving Image Education in Scotland here.

Taking the Metro or Jumping on the Bandwagon?

Anyone taking the bus or train to work in the UK this morning would have been confronted by this headline in the popular free newspaper the Metro, creating the impression (again) that our schools are currently populated by armies of illiterate teachers who can hardly distinguish their anus from their olecranon. So let me try to put the ‘problem’ into perspective. One of my many responsibilities in a previous role as a DHT in a large secondary comprehensive school was to read, comment on and sign the twice-yearly reports for my year group – around 250 students. In the course of doing that I would regularly have to return to members of staff who had errors in their reports and ask, as diplomatically as possible, that they be re-written, to save potential embarrassment all round (Note that ’embarrassment’ is a tricky word to spell). It is a task I did not enjoy. Was it ignorance on the part of the teacher or simply the pressure of deadlines and a hundred and one other things on their minds? In my view it was much of the latter and a little bit of the former.

“Evidence presented to the Review suggested that a small, but none-the-less significant, number of initial teacher education students lack some of the fundamental attributes to become good teachers, including limited interpersonal skills and basic weaknesses in literacy and numeracy. Although the evidence was largely impressionistic and applied only to a minority of students, the concern was persistent and widespread and needs to be addressed.”

Teaching Scotland’s Future – Report of a review of teacher education in Scotland January 2011

Teachers do, occasionally, make mistakes when writing reports. But we all mistakes, don’t we? Of course we do, yet teachers, uniquely it seems among the population at large, are not allowed to. They must be above reproach, infallible, superhuman, an expectation all too easily taken up by the mainstream media. Newspapers, and newspaper journalists themselves you may have noticed, also make mistakes, despite having internal mechanisms to ensure that they don’t, a point not lost on independent ICT consultant and founder of L4L Leon Cych, who contacted the Metro and asked them about their newspaper and the role of the sub-editor. You can hear the resulting conversation here (Note that it is easy to confuse ‘hear’ and ‘here’ if you are in a hurry).

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Poor spelling or a case of revenge?

At the risk of spoiling the fun for anyone who has yet to attend one of my literacy sessions with teachers, I often begin with a spelling test consisting of four or five words, offering a substantial prize for anyone who achieves full marks. Only one person has ever claimed the prize, and he admitted later that he had attended an earlier event so remembered the words, which I hadn’t changed. The moral of the story is that whether you are a teacher or just an ordinary human being, when it comes to literacy none of us is the finished article (Note the singular noun ‘none’ – no one – takes a singular verb ‘is’). The key issue is not whether you know, or think you know, everything, but whether you are aware of your weaknesses and are taking the appropriate steps to improve them.

Footnote: the most common error in the reports I was responsible for checking was a failure to distinguish between ‘practice’ and ‘practise’. When I explained the difference to one colleague I was told that I was making it up.

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

Click ‘Spam’ to open tin. Contains pure classic comedy cuts

A couple of months ago fellow Scot  Alan Gillespie, an English teacher and one of my Twitter PLN, wrote a very interesting and amusing article for  The Guardian on the use of spam emails as an exercise in persuasive writing for students. It was such a compelling argument – and such an obvious context for learning and teaching an essential element of digital literacy – that the only wonder is no one had thought of it before. I urge you to read it (imperative mood, urgent tone) if you haven’t already done so.

Alan’s article caused me to reflect on the sheer volume of spam – or fake – emails and messages travelling across cyberspace, including those which appear as ‘comments’ in response to a blog post. Many of these are obvious fakes and are thankfully filtered out without the blogger having to read them. There are so many of them that I usually just press the ‘Empty Spam’ option and move on to read the genuine comments. Sometimes however, there are those which have been filtered out by WordPress’s filtering service Akismet  which may actually be genuine but simply expressed in poor English. How many of these comments which have appeared on my blog recently would you have been tempted to ‘approve’, simply on the grounds that they might inflate your ego even further?

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While you are making up your mind, I must go and reply to an urgent letter from my friend Dr Mills.

Greeting in the name of our lord and savior, my name is Dr. Cadman Atta Mills the younger brother of late Prof. John Evans Atta Millis whose untimely demise on the 24th July 2012 whilst  in office has distraught the heart of many Ghanaian both at home and in diaspora not excluding the international communities, taking into consideration the colossal condolence and glorious tributes we have thus far received from various  Head of states including the president of the United States of America Pres. Barack Obama, Prime Minster of Great Britain David Cameron, Pope Benedict,  Secretary of the United Nation Mr. Ban Ki-Moon the list goes on and on.

My brother as I affectionately call him was the third President of the fourth Republic of Ghana. He was inaugurated on the 7th of January 2009 having defeated the ruling party candidate in the 2008 election. He once served as the vice President of the Republic of Ghana from 1997 to 2001 under the presidency of Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings.  Based on my position as member of the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) chaired by Dr. Gobind Nankani I have very credible information of a contract in the total sum of US$ 6,500.000.00 (Six Million Five Hundred Thousand United States Dollars) I’m seeking for an experienced business person who can chivalrously work with me in receiving this contract sum into his designated Bank account for an appropriate investment.
It’s very vital I also bring to your notice that this transaction will be handled with absolute confidentiality, so we have to always do the needful to get it accomplished, it is very important also that you quickly provide me with the listed information as stated below to enable me commence with the official documentation of the contractual paper work with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning and the Ministry of Energy.  Taking into consideration that we have from now till next month to finalize and officially submit all contractual paper work with the said Ministries.
Upon the receipt of your responds I will officially submit all your particulars including the contractual documents for verification and approval by the Finance Ministry. I intend to part 50% of this fund to you while 50% shall be for me. I do need to assure you that there are practically no risks involved in this.  It is going to be a bank-to bank transfer. All I need from you is to stand as the original beneficiary of this fund you are not to worry as I will provide all legal documents, Contract document, International Competitive Bidding certificates, Bank documentation and also refer you to the Ghana Procurement Board to prove that you are entitle to this fund. You do not need to worry, if you do according to instruction everything will work fast and effective without any problems at all.
I will immediately proceed with the contractual documentation and agreement with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning and  furnish you with all documentation for your meticulous perusal.
I look forward to a very mutual and beneficial business relationship with you.
Yours Faithfully,
Dr. Cadman Atta Mills