Engaging the Disengaged – Digital Literacy Really Works

Long before the dizzy heights of, sometimes, twelve views per day on my Blog, when I started blogging in January, I was about to undertake a project which would completely rejuvenate my classroom and my approach to teaching. Inanimate Alice grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and shook me about a little bit. It did indeed turn out to be storytelling but not as we know it. I like to think I’ve never looked back. Making this blog post somewhat redundant, you might think. What I learned from the experience was that there is another way. I have never come across a resource which fires up the reluctant learner more than the digital storytelling power of Inanimate Alice. Perhaps until now.

Digital literacy has its critics, however,  and I’m not sure I would recommend it for all ability groups. I became an English Teacher because I was inspired by books, poems, and plays and wanted to share that love of language with others. I still get a thrill when they ‘get’ ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Macbeth’, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Lord of the Flies’, ‘November’ or ‘Out, out-‘ ; but there are kids who will never get it, whatever ‘it’ may be, will never belong to that world. We need to do something about that.

My class of demotivated learners – the same class who undertook the Sugata Mitra/ Carol Dweck lesson earlier in the year – have been working on Machinarium. If you haven’t heard of it yet it’s a puzzle point-and-click adventure game developed by Amanita Design (thank you Wikipedia) and, as a stimulus for lots of quality writing, it is simply wonderful. There is a free three level demo which my class have been working on but the downloaded paid version has thirty levels. I gave my lot a handful of lap tops and left them to it.

It doesn’t fit the mould of the usual ‘shooty gun’ games they are used to and challenges them to work out problems and think of strategies and sequences. I ensured that they got a taste of their own medicine as I replied, ‘I don’t know’ to every question, but the initial confusion was quickly overcome as one pair, then another, then everyone began to manoeuvre through the stages. Their sense of achievement as they moved on was something they have struggled to find this year. The classroom was buzzing.

The wonderful graphics are ripe for descriptive work on setting, which will, hopefully, lead to some great imaginative work; they want to create an advertising campaign to publicise the game; and they are currently working on a functional help guide. Not bad for a class who would not write, never mind could not- not well anyway. They are now blogging on GLOW and producing pieces of writing of a far more sophisticated standard.

What I’ve learned from dipping my toe into the world of digital literacy this year is that it may not be a panacea for all but in my never-ending quest to engage the disengaged it has been amazing.  It is not and should never be a replacement for reading quality literature – I still feel it is my duty to open this world up to them – but as an aid to writing I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

Don’t dismiss digital literacy as a modern fad. It doesn’t mean you have to ditch the classics; but Machinarium may just be the answer to some of your prayers.

13 thoughts on “Engaging the Disengaged – Digital Literacy Really Works

  1. Hear hear Kenny. My S2s love Machinarium and they managed to work out the clues and puzzles quite quickly. Some creative stuff as a result as well as an ‘idiots’ guide’, a letter from the prison cell, propaganda posters and secret instructions for the rebellion etc.

    • Thanks, Dave.
      Was inspired by some of your ideas to be honest. (What’s new?) I really think it just takes a bit of courage and a little bit of know how to make these things work. I was a bit wary of setting up things like ‘Inanimate Alice’ but the kids make sure it takes care of itself. Appreciate your comments as always.

    • Thanks Jen,
      I quickly realised that the text is almost secondary here. We need to find more and more ways to engage kids in writing. Machinarium certainly fits the bill,

  2. Love Machinarium and also Samorost & Samorost 2 – worth a look if you haven’t tried them. Also check out Vectorpark.com.
    I used Inanimate Alice with a group of mature-ish (twenties and thirties) graphic design students and they hated it. This surprised me as I thought they’d appreciate the mix of multimedia and the interactivity. They told me it was irritating and confusing. They then went on to create their own part of an interactive story and made a good job of it, but I didn’t feel their work had the power of Inanimate Alice. Perhaps they were just the wrong target audience, but I was really surprised at their response.
    I’m glad you’re having better luck with it, and I’ve certainly read many more reports that have hailed Alice a success. I may try it again sometime.

    • Amazed at that. can’t imagine anyone not loving ‘Alice’. Have looked at Samorost and thinking about it for S1. this has enthused me to try more and more digital texts in the classroom. Thanks your comment, as always,

  3. This is fascinating Kenny, and exemplifies the fact that digital media, video, games, art, etc, have a valid place within the English classroom. I would argue that they should be an integral part. This is the 21st century… Shakespeare is important and still relevant but no more relevant than a Darren Shan novel, a film by the Coen Brothers, a games such as Machinarium as you have been using or a painting by Picasso. Creative works old and new form part of our world narrative and can (clearly) be enlightening, puzzling, motivating…

    Having read this and having followed Doug Belshaw’s work on Digital Literacy, I do think that the term itself has become part of the problem. Like the age old debate between the value of ‘High and low culture’, ‘digital literacy’ has taken on a negative discourse in which the implications of the word digital create a barrier for people/teachers experimenting with multi-media texts. As I say to my AS and A2 media students. The word ‘text’ defines anything that you ‘read’ and that includes: paintings, ads, films, video games, tweets, books… the list will go on forever.

    I think it is fabulous that you are making progress with your class and that games have played a role in that. Your students have been gripped because they can read Machinarium. The point? They are reading. It might not be Shakespeare, but it has inspired them, much the same as Hamlet might inspire others.

    • Thanks James,
      You make a great point about what we define as texts. Too many of us, I think, assume that to use digital texts means throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This lot coped very well with a class novel too but are totally consumed by Machinarium. Might not work for all but it is our duty to engage all of our students not just those whom we think will ‘achieve’ whatever that means,
      appreciate your input always,

  4. Hi there,

    Just getting to grips with Inanimate Alice after I spoke to you at literacy twilight last week. Downloaded a ton of resources and looking at how to adapt them to suit P7 and perhaps develop it into a stand alone AND a transition project.

    Any advice is welcome and please make a friend request to LiteracyDave on Facebook to see progress on those projects I showed you.

    Interested to see how your school blogs worked within Glow too, thinking of the Quad Blog pilot.

    Love this blog too, nice one! Shared by Andrea Reid on my private Facebook group page.

  5. Hi Dave, great to hear from you. Really enjoyed your twilight last week. Thanks for the kind words, I really appreciate them. Not on Facebook but if you want some Inanimate Alice resources I can e- mail them if you like. Glow blogs too. Get in touch and we can swap some stuff.

  6. Pingback: Six months on… Has the iPad Changed My Life? | Just Trying to be Better Than Yesterday

  7. Hi Kenny,
    I am a literacy and numeracy development co-ordinator with the charity YCSA, based in Pollokshields. We support young people from BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds to improve skills, confidence and chances for their future.

    My clients are often difficult to engage or communication may be an issue if English is their second language. I am therefore always on the look out for engagement hooks to ‘hang’ literacies on. This looks really interesting for such purposes.

    Thank you for your post

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