Literacy, Democracy and Responsible Citizens

If ever there was any doubt about the links between literacy, education and democracy, and the struggle which many in today’s world still face before they have access to what some of us take for granted as a universal right, we were brutally and starkly reminded of it this week in the story of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by a gang of militant thugs, after having the courage to speak out about the realities of life under the Taliban in the Swat Valley, which included the closure of girls’ schools in the region. Fortunately, Malala survived the attack and has since been flown to England for more specialist treatment, but in the meantime the Taliban have confirmed that they will try to kill her again.

Developing responsible citizens. One of the four aims of the Scottish curriculum.

Closer to home, in Edinburgh to be precise, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond and the British Prime Minister David Cameron officially signed an agreement which sets out the conditions for a referendum on Scottish Independence, to be held in the autumn of 2014. It is a historic moment in Scottish politics, and one of its more interesting and controversial features is a proposal to allow 16 and 17-year-olds a vote for the first time in the history of democracy in this country. Opponents argue that this would set a precedent for elections in the UK, a matter which should be fully debated at Westminster rather than in the context of a referendum, while supporters point to the fact that before the age of 18 – the current minimum voting age – a young person could be legally married or join the armed forces, and is already paying taxes through VAT on purchased goods. The result will have consequences for democracy across the British Isles, and potentially across the globe – at the moment Brazil is one of the few major democratic nations whose citizens have the right to vote from the age of 16. However, no matter the merits of the argument, the referendum does provide the ideal opportunity to engage young people in learning about the democratic process and the role of the media (including new media) in politics, helping them to become  the ‘responsible citizens’ which the new curriculum sets out as one of its key objectives. In terms of literacy development, it will be interesting to watch and judge how many politicians and media commentators are able to say they have met this crucial outcome:-

“I can persuade, argue, evaluate, explore issues or express and justify opinions within a convincing line of thought, using relevant supporting detail and/or evidence.”
Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, Literacy Across Learning, Outcome 4-29a (age 14+)

There is no doubt also that social media will play a significant role in the referendum campaigns, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube perhaps featuring most prominently, but there are numerous emerging new digital tools and websites within which young people can learn to gather information from various sources, edit, re-order and present the arguments in their own words and with added commentary. Isn’t that, after all, what the the traditional ‘discursive essay’ was designed to show? I have listed just a few of them here.

One of my favourite sites is dropping knowledge, a good place for teenagers to begin to explore some of the big issues facing them and the world today. After joining the community they are able to contribute to existing discussions, or can begin a discussion by posing their own question. (see my ‘Asking Questions’ reading strategy for more on the significance of educating young people to ask questions as well as answer them). Dropping Knowledge itself arose from an understanding of how provocative, challenging and entertaining questions, presented through powerful visual images, can inspire new thinking.

“Respect is the number one policy. dropping knowledge users come from many different countries and cultures and have widely different views. In fact, the platform encourages and celebrates multiple viewpoints. Treating others with respect is part of co-operating effectively to build a dynamic online community.”

Dropping Knowledge ‘Golden Rule’

Mashpedia, which describes itself as a ‘real-time topic explorer’, is a web application that aggregates content for millions of specific topics. It fetches content from different online sources in real-time, and aggregates everything in a user-friendly interface, including information from Wikipedia, recent news, books, videos, images, twitter messages and Facebook pages – all related to the topic in question. Mashpedia aims to simplify the access to information and content stored on multiple sites, while making sure it is immediate and up-to-date. Go there now, type in ‘Scottish Independence’ and see what happens.

Take Part is a digital media company with the single mission to ‘make participating in positive change easy, rewarding, and part of everyday life.’ Students and teachers can take part by commenting on articles, videos, galleries, and blogs, receive news and updates from Take Part on the burning social issues of the day, or actively participate in groups or campaigns on topics such as Food, Education, Social Justice, Animal Welfare and the Environment. Registered users, who must be 13 or over, may upload and post photos, profiles, messages, notes, text, information, music, video, and other content, provided it does not ‘infringe or violate the rights of third parties’. If you want to discuss with your students issues surrounding copyright, ethical use and Creative Commons, this may be the place for you.

Google recently launched a new service called What Do You Love? It’s a simple search box, similar to the one on Google’s homepage, but it returns results from more than 20 different Google services, including Google Translate, Trends, YouTube, Maps and Groups. The results are presented in self-contained boxes that can, in some cases, be extended by clicking on the forward arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of the box. If you need even more results, you can always click the button in the lower left corner of the box and go directly to the chosen service. Like Mashpedia, the results are displayed in an attractive format. The discussion begins when choices have to be made and there begins the learning process!

According to its founders Storify ‘helps its users tell stories by curating social media’. There are four stages in the creation of a digital narrative using Storify:-  1.SearchIn the Storify editor, you can search social media networks to find media elements about your chosen topic. Look through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram and more to gather material for your stories. 2.CurateDrag and drop status updates, photos or videos to bring together the social media elements that will best illustrate your story. You can always re-order elements in your story, or delete them if you find something better and you can always add more items later on. Your story is always editable, so you can pull in the latest from the social web. 3.WriteA Storify story is more than just a collection of elements from social media. It’s also your opportunity to make sense of what you’ve pulled together. You can write a headline,an introduction and insert text anywhere inside your story. You can add headers, hyperlinks and styled text, build a narrative and give context to your readers. 4.Embed. Stories can be embedded anywhere on the Web by simply pasting an embed code, just like embedding a video. You can also connect Storify to your WordPress or Drupal blog, publish to Tumblr or Posterous, or send an email newsletter through Mailchimp. Read more about Storify in my previous post below.

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Sam, The Spaceship and Me

For the past few days I have been playing games, or one game to be precise, to explore some of the possibilities for using it in the context of improving literacy in the classroom. Samorost is a free online adventure/puzzle game created by Jakub Dvorsky while he was a student at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague; it is produced by his freelance Flash and web design agency Amanita Design. I first heard of the game from Andrew Brown at Learning and Teaching Scotland, who are doing some really interesting development work on Games-Based Learning.  I am also indebted to Dave Terron at Elgin Academy who has used the game in his English classes to very good effect, and to Kim Pericles, a primary teacher in Sydney, Australia who has used the game with her students for some time now – you can see some of their creative writing by clicking here.Samo_1

The object of the game is to direct the main character, a small white gnome-like humanoid (let’s call him Sam), through a series of visually stunning landscapes, by clicking the mouse on various objects in the correct sequence, and to help him avert a collision between his home planet and another planet/spaceship which is hurtling towards it. In the sequel, Samorost 2,  the gnome goes on a longer quest to save his kidnapped dog and return home safely.

Both games are played out against a uniquely atmospheric soundtrack, which is another of the game’s attractions, and against a backdrop of surreal worlds which combine natural beauty, spooky underground caves and a kind of post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland. Another positive is you can have endless attempts to solve the many puzzles which are put in front of you, and no matter what you do you can’t be killed. The problem-solving element of the game is difficult, at least for me, which probably means it is suitable for 12 or 13-year olds, and I could imagine it being used in a variety of contexts within the curriculum to develop listening and talking, writing, collaborative working and problem solving skills. Here are just a few ideas for discussion and other activities which immediately come to mind:-

Samo_2English/Literacy

Group Discussion-Who is this character? What is happening here? What is going to happen? What should we do next? What would happen if….? What would happen in real life if…..?

Writing – freeze the frame at almost any point in the game and ask students to describe what they see. Ask them to create and describe their own “world” to include as an extra level in the game. Tell the story from the point of view of another “character”. Write detailed instructions for someone else to play the game. Write instructions to play a game they are familiar with, including board games and street games. Write another adventure for Sam and/or his dog.

Art and Design

Discuss the design of the game in terms of colour, form, detail, tones, texture and pattern. Describe what it is that makes the game visually appealling. Design and draw a new character/landscape/object/ planet  for the game. Design a new game. Make a board game version of Samorost. Make a short animation of one of the levels of the game.Samo_5

Music

Play the soundtrack without the visuals and ask students to describe what they think is happening (music tracks are available from iTunes). Identify instruments used on the soundtrack. Explore music relating to outer space/the planets/other worlds and to suggest alternative soundtracks (Space Oddity? Lost in Space? The Planets? Star Wars Theme? War of the Worlds?). Compose and play an alternative soundtrack.

Science/Planet Earth

How many animal and plant species can you identify? Find out as much as you can about them and find out how they depend on each other for survival. How many different ways are there of creating energy in the game? Examine any of the means of transport that the gnome uses in the game and explain how it works. There are numerous opportunities at various points in the game to examine and discuss the concepts of ecology,evaporation, distillation, gravity, flow, substance, compound, circulation, motion, suction, current, voltage and quite a few others.

Technologies

Sam_3There are a number of “machines” in the game, most of them in the Heath Robinson style of design. However, they provide excellent opportunities to discuss such things as valves, pulleys, thermostats, pressure and combustion. You could ask students to build a simple version of the ski lift or the metal ball which lowers Sam into the underworld in Samorost 2 or to design and build a new rocket for Sam.

Social Studies

How much do we know about Sam’s planet? How does it differ from the other planets he travels to? Are there any clues as to what era we might be in? What kind of society does this seem to be? What can we tell about the creatures who kidnap the dog?   Is there life on other planets? Debate the merits and demerits of space travel in the 21st century.

These are just a few ideas but if you have any more, or indeed if you are already using the game I would be delighted to hear from you.