Transmedia and Education – Living Lab Madrid 2012

Just catching my breath after a great conference in Madrid where I had the privilege of sharing a platform with some very impressive speakers and activists from the emerging world of transmedia, including a truly inspirational masterclass from the master of transmedia himself, Henry Jenkins. The three-day event was perhaps the most professional and well-organised event I have ever attended, thanks to the tireless efforts of the organiser Fernando Carrion, and the sponsors Fundacion Telefonica of Spain, who hosted the conference in their new state-of-the-art auditorium in central Madrid. One of the key themes of the conference was of course literacy, and the implications for formal systems of education of the developing culture of transmedia.

You can watch all the presentations from the conference, including Henry Jenkins, here.

“What skills do children need to become full participants in convergence culture? Across this book, we have identified a number – the ability to pool knowledge with others in a collaborative enterprise (as in Survivor spoiling), the ability to share and compare value systems by evaluating ethical dramas (as occurs in the gossip surrounding reality television), the ability to make connections across scattered pieces of information (as occurs when we consume The Matrix, 1999, or Pokemon, 1998), the ability to express your interpretations and feelings toward popular fictions through your own folk culture (as occurs in Star Wars fan cinema), and the ability to circulate what you create via the Internet so that it can be shared with others (again as in fan cinema). The example of The Daily Prophet (a web-based ‘school newspaper’ for the fictional Hogwarts) suggests yet another cultural competency: role-playing both as a means of exploring a fictional realm and as a means of developing a richer understanding of yourself and the culture around you. These kids come to understand Harry Potter by occupying a space within Hogwarts; occupying such a space helped them to map more fully the rules of this fictional world and the roles that various characters played within it. Much as an actor builds up a character by combining things discovered through research with things learned through personal introspection, these kids were drawing on their own experiences to flesh out various aspects of Rowling’s fiction. This is a kind of intellectual mastery that comes only through active participation. At the same time, role-playing was providing an inspiration for them to expand other kinds of literacy skills – those already valued within traditional education.”

HenryJenkins, Convergence Culture, 2006

The American-inspired Telefonica building on Madrid’s Gran Via

It strikes me that if schooling is to continue to be relevant in the modern world some fundamental changes have to be made. We need to have a much broader approach to literacy and literacy development than we do at the moment. In Scotland, as in many other countries, the curriculum narrows as young people develop into their mid-teens, and their formal education ends with the study of perhaps five or six subjects, one of which is English, which consists of the analysis of printed text (usually prose) and the ‘critical evaluation’ of one or two works of ‘literature’ (usually historic and too often repeating long-established interpretations of the text). The students’ success or failure in this endeavour often determines their future career pathway, as Higher English or its equivalent is the benchmark of acceptable intelligence. I have in fact often heard it referred to, with some affection in educational establishments, as ‘the gold standard’.

But think about it for a moment. Wouldn’t a more appropriate measure of literacy for the mainstream school leaver be an awareness of popular cultural media and an ability to make critical comment on their creation, distribution and effect? And shouldn’t a key aspect of that assessment be of the student’s ability to create and share such texts? Let’s call it Transmedia Studies.

See my photos from the Living Lab Conference here.

See previous post on Henry Jenkins and Convergence Culture here.

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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.

Storytelling in the Classroom

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”

Ancient proverb

It is likely that oral storytelling has been around for as long as there has been human language, as ancient communities were  maintained and strengthened through stories that connected the past with the present and the future.  Writing (and drawing) in his indispensable study of the history of the comic book – Graphic Storytelling and Visual Art – the great American comic book writer Will Eisner considers the importance of storytelling in any medium:-

“The telling of a story lies deep in the social behaviour of human groups – ancient and modern. Stories are used to teach behaviour, to discuss morals and values, or to satisfy curiosity. They dramatize social relations and the problems of living, convey ideas or act out fantasies. The telling of a story requires skill.”

Here is Roger Hurn’s ‘take’ on teachers as the inheritors of the storyteller’s tradition, presented by Brainpop‘s famous duo, Tim and Moby.

Teachers, of course, have long recognised the power of storytelling, and now it appears that the introduction in Scotland of new curriculum guidelines has encouraged a revival in story-based pedagogy in the classroom, as witnessed by a growing interest in the Storyline approach which originated in Scotland but has lain dormant for a number of years, and the exciting work being done at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

To try to establish whether this renaissance is random and coincidental, or whether there is a systematic story movement growing across the country, former primary teacher-turned researcher Fiona McGarry is collecting data via an e-survey to inform a research project on the use of story in the primary classroom. The survey forms part of a national study on the use of story in the primary classroom by the University of Dundee, in association with Scottish Youth Theatre and The Scottish Storytelling Centre. It takes about 5 minutes to complete, and as a “thank you”, teachers completing the survey will be entered into a prize draw for a 15- book Roald Dahl Collection.  The results of the survey, and the implications for practice arising from these will be shared via Glow when the data analysis has been completed. So if you are a primary teacher in Scotland, or if you know any primary teachers in Scotland……….you know the rest!

Welcome to Planet Alice

Fans of the digital novel Inanimate Alice – and the number is growing rapidly – will be interested to hear of some new developments and more resources for teachers. The series was given a boost this week with the publication, in conjunction with new global education partners Promethean, of the third edition of Alice’s School Report which features a ringing endorsement from no less a figure than filmmaker, media expert and educational authority Lord David Puttnam:

“Here is a terrific reading-from-the-screen experience that talks the language of digitally literate educators. Kids will read this when they won’t read from books. It’s vivid moving imagery embracing some of the techniques used in both film and video-games. It’s authentic rich-media, yet it is a high-quality text that teachers can rely on. Surprisingly intimate, the feeling for the characters forms in your head, just like reading a book, surely more so for those whose prefer engagement with “born digital” material. Kids will love reading with Alice.”  David Puttnam

Read the full School Report here.

One welcome change to the new-look IA website is the addition of a Starter Activities Booklet on Episode 1 for teachers who are new to the story, while a host of extra materials can be found on the Promethean Planet website. No need to have or use a whiteboard to access the materials, simply open a free account and go to the User Group to find out how other teachers and kids have been engaging with Alice and taking her on their own adventures. If you are a teacher discovering Inanimate Alice for the first time, I suggest you watch and listen to the introduction from teacher-librarian and media specialist Laura Fleming, and if you are  introducing young people to Inanimate Alice for the first time, this film trailer is perfect for setting the scene. Perhaps after reading the series you could challenge them to make their own version. Find out how to make a film trailer here.

Lighting a Spark for Literacy

My friends over at LitWorld have been busy putting together a summer book and school supplies drive to help two major projects bring literacy and the power of storytelling to disadvantaged children in different parts of the world, and they need as much help as they can get.

KENYA:On July 8, 2011, members of the LitWorld team are headed to Kenya to visit our partners at the Children of Kibera Foundation. LitWorld works very closely with the Children of Kibera Foundation’s Red Rose School, where we run programs such as the Girls Clubs for Literacy Project. The Red Rose School is a beacon of hope for the children of Kibera, and is a positive learning environment providing education for children who are HIV/AIDS orphans.

HARLEM:Starting this summer, LitWorld will set up the Story Power Camp project, a summer reading enrichment program for the youth of the Children’s Village, Polo Grounds Community Center. The Story Power Camp aims to engage young people in reading and writing through fun, interactive activities, while encouraging each participant to boldly share their personal stories. The Children’s Village works in partnership with families to help society’s most vulnerable children so that they become educationally proficient, economically productive and socially responsible members of their communities.

To contribute, view their wishlist via Amazon here (donations are being accepted until 30/06/2011): http://tinyurl.com/litworlddrive

*****

Storytyne Gateshead

For me, narrative is at the heart of learning, so you can guess how delighted I was to be part of the Storytyne Conference in Gateshead on Friday. Organised by the irrepressible Steve Bunce (@stevebunce), Regional Manager of Vital in the North East, the event was headlined by the amazing Tim Rylands, aided and abetted by his lovely partner Sarah (@sarahneild). If there’s anyone out there promoting literacy for young people in more exciting and innovative ways than this couple, I’d like to meet them. It also gave me the opportunity to meet and hear a number of people I had only met previously on Twitter, including Bill Lord (@Joga5), who certainly didn’t disappoint. A great storyteller himself, Bill shared with us some of his work as a Primary Literacy Adviser, which he does with such enthusiasm that he has been known to dress up as Burglar Bill to take part in a webcast with kids from various schools. Both Tim and Bill have blogged at length about Friday’s event. Read their accounts of the day’s events here and here.

For my own part, it gave me the opportunity to introduce a whole new group of teachers to the joys of Inanimate Alice, the digital novel which I have spoken about previously in the blog. Breaking my own rules on PowerPoint, where I would normally focus on images and very few words, this time I put together a few slides consisting of some powerful quotes – gathered mainly from the Inanimate Alice website – which represent a small sample from teachers around the world. If you follow the links on the last slide you will find some interesting resources as well as some lesson plans and case studies. You can also catch up with Alice and friends on Twitter and Facebook.

In the final session of the day, Tim and Sarah rattled through some of the many free Web tools which are available to help teachers and young people develop their language skills. I will be reviewing some of these in the weeks to come, but if you can’t wait to find out what they are you can find links to all of them here. This list was created using Linkbunch, another handy little tool I hadn’t heard of before. As if that wasn’t enough, delegates left with a handful of goodies, including the very useful Thinking Dice, and they were even invited to take away their own ‘storychairs’.

In a very full and busy day, some of the key messages for teachers:

  • Storytelling is a vital part of learning. Do everything you can to encourage young people to tell their stories.
  • Think carefully about how you construct your own learning and teaching narratives.
  • Don’t be limited by outdated definitions of ‘text’.
  • There are no reluctant readers, only the wrong books.
  • There is a plethora of free online tools available to help you (and the kids) make exciting narratives, but it isn’t about technology. Talking and listening to stories, exploring, thinking critically, and creating, are what really matters.
  • Start with what they know. Young people who think that their stories are not worth telling, are wrong.
  • You can’t write about what you haven’t experienced. Immerse young people in experiences before asking them to write.
  • Visit other worlds, real and virtual. Put them in situations and ask them to record what they see, feel, hear, smell. Take time to look around.  One of my favourite quotes from Tim’s presentation: ‘Don’t just do something, stand there!’
  • Stories are not just about fantasy and make-believe. Information is communicated via stories too.

Thanks again to all of those who were involved and to the organisers, especially Steve Bunce, for a truly magical day. I hear a rumour that a storytelling roadshow may be in the pipeline, but like those subtly dropped hints about Christmas presents past, I don’t want to think about it too much in case it doesn’t happen.

I Want to Tell You a Digital Narrative

Writing in this week’s TESS, Peter Wright, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, offers a six-point plan to ‘rescue’ Scottish education from the doldrums in which he claims it to be currently stuck. Some of his ideas I happen to agree with, such as his recommended class size maximum, but on the subject of improving literacy he has this to say: “It must be defined as the ability to read and write. The current fad, which defines it as the ability to access texts in all their forms, must be shelved.” On this I couldn’t agree less.

That statement is wrong on so many counts. For one thing, ‘the ability to read and write’ is in itself meaningless, as it immediately begs the question, ‘the ability to read and write WHAT?’  The ability to read, and the ability to access texts in all their forms, are not mutually exclusive. The use of the word ‘fad’ is simply a sign of a desperate man in search of an argument.

I have written before about the blurring of the lines between reading, writing, listening, watching and talking, and about the development of digital narratives which appear to be breaking down the divisions between books, films and computer games. Inanimate Alice is a particularly exciting example of a multimedia, interactive narrative which combines digital photographs, video, printed text, drawing, painting and sound. The narrative is progressive and increasingly complex, not to mention absorbing and engaging. For a range of other good examples of digital narratives in development, and a wonderful range of materials and suggestions for creating digital narratives I would suggest you visit Martin Jorgensen’s definitive website The Digital Narrative – Finding Your Story with New Media and its close relatives The Lightning Bug, where young writers are provided with a host of ideas to inspire and support them in their efforts, and Building Community in Your Classroom, for teachers who are keen to introduce new technologies into their classroom but don’t quite know where to start.

I have also been excited recently by computer games such as Samorost and Machinarium, which have a narrative structure, but little or no printed text. They are described as ‘games’ but have a definite narrative or story – even although they have very little or no printed text – which only becomes complete or obvious after the player has solved all the puzzles and the plot has been resolved. These games are visually quite stunning and provide the perfect stimulus for discussion and for the creation of text, including the writing of stories. Beyond these however, it is difficult at the moment to find computer games which have a strong narrative element, rather than simply providing a context for interactive learning and social integration, commendable as both of these aims undoubtedly are. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the narrative which counts, and at the moment it seems to me there are very few games which are able to provide this. The problem for games developers is perfectly summed up in this very funny presentation from Daniel Floyd of Animation Mentor.