‘Inanimate Alice’ – Preview of Coming Attractions

Sometime you’ve just got to let the kids speak for themselves. Digital Narratives due, hopefully, by Friday, after our Red Carpet Premiere, Period Two.

‘Alice watched as the beautiful Scottish countryside whizzed past the train window into the heart of Glasgow. Although she wasn’t concentrating on any of the massive green fields containing lovely little lambs and their mothers or the horses that resembled Black Beauty, her favourite childhood book. Alice was thinking about the most important thing that was happening in her life so far and it was happening today…’
‘I’m being chased by a boy that I met on a plane on my journey to see my mum. I’ve been running for ages and I’m starting to find it hard to breathe. He is right behind me and I can feel him breathing down my neck. It is dark; however, I can still see the faint shadow of the boy behind me. I sprint round a few corners but my energy is wearing thin. I suddenly stop…I take a breath…And turn round. That faint shadow has gone.  My heart is racing and my legs are shaking like jelly…’
‘Alice can’t concentrate on anything at the moment, not even the Sudoku puzzle in front of her. She is too excited. If this day goes well, her life will completely change. Most seventeen year olds would be panicking at this moment in time, but not Alice; she is very confident that this day will go well. After moving to Edinburgh, Scotland, Alice has become a much happier person. She even has a job, she works at the Apple Store in Glasgow and she finds out if she gets a promotion today. That is why she is excited. If she gets this job she will be an App Designer…’
‘I don’t enjoy being alone, but what’s worse is being alone in the dark. Today was supposed to be an amazing day. Now, I just want it to be over. Nikki and I spent ages planning to go to a theme park for a day. Nikki’s my best friend; we do everything together. It took ages to convince Ming and John to let me go today, after what happened when we lived in England. I promised them I’d be really careful, that I wouldn’t do anything stupid…’
‘I’m really excited. I’ve never been on a trip like this before. I’m even more excited because my parents are coming with me! We never go on trips together. The last trip we all went on was when we flew over here from Russia, but that wasn’t really a trip.
Let’s see, have I got everything I need? Book? Check! Extra Shoes? Check? Ba-xi? Check? Water bottle? Oh no, I’ve forgotten my water! I’ll need to rush back quickly to get it…’
Teachers, do you know those days you get when you are reminded that you have the best job in the world? Today was one of those. I’ve a feeling Friday might top it, though.

Thinking Beyond Alice

I’ve been teaching with ‘Inanimate Alice’ since January and it has been a long old term. We are coming to the end of the session and closer to the day when we will leave Alice behind. So what has changed? What have we all learned?
Throughout this series of lessons and Blog Posts I have tried to be open and honest about what I expect to get from ‘Inanimate Alice’ as well as providing great lessons for my students. From the beginning I looked at this as a learning process for me as much as anyone.  
Increasingly aware that the assessment tail was more and more wagging the dog, as an English teacher I have been for some time questioning the value of some of the Writing in my classes. Indeed, beyond a very shallow assessment remit, Writing is more and more becoming a redundant exercise in schools. How much of what we get the kids to write in class ends up in the bin at the end of the day? Or gets sent off to some anonymous marker at SQA? If we cannot convince students that Writing is important beyond the narrow assessment criteria we present to them then how can we expect them to value writing?
As well as creating their own digital episodes – I hope to post them in the next week or two -my class will write about ‘Alice’. But they will publish their writing in a blog and use those posts as part of a submitted report. They will develop their episodes into more traditional creative writing and produce a class ‘book’ of stories. For if they have learned one thing from their study of ‘Inanimate Alice’ it is the importance of audience. Using words like ‘publish’ and ‘create’ seems to have given what I foolishly perceived as a class of not overly talented pupils in English a greater sense of purpose and enthusiasm.
Standing back and watching these kids completely submerged in their work has shown me that Curriculum for Excellence can and must work. The cross curricular elements married to the collaborative possibilities Alice provides, suggests, I think, that if we are to engage our young people in the future we must construct lessons in which the process of learning is at least as important as the end product. Assessing their ability to try new things in new situations, to be given the time and space to take risks without worrying about narrow criteria has shown me that there is a better way.
It’s no longer Education, Education, Education. It’s Engagement, Engagement, Engagement!

How Tom Sawyer Helped Me Out – No Longer Living Next Door to Alice- Week 6

In Chapter Two of Mark Twain’s glorious, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ – believe me, if you are an adult and haven’t read this in years, drop everything,  stop reading this daft Blog and go and read it; I promise you’ll thank me – Tom is punished for his bad behaviour by having to whitewash his Aunt’s picket fence.  Initially mocked by friends, Tom’s genius and razor sharp mind manages to turn the tables and convince everyone that painting the fence is the best party in town. The task itself becomes the prize.

Daniel Pink, in his book ‘Drive’, calls this ‘The Sawyer Effect’. He cites Twain’s key principle of motivation; ‘that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.’ ‘Rewards’, Pink goes on to say,
‘…can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work. And by diminishing intrinsic motivation, they can send performance, creativity, and even upstanding behaviour toppling like dominoes.’
                                 (Kindle edition, Canongate Books, 2011)
When I read this I couldn’t stop thinking about our work on Inanimate Alice. Almost everything we’ve done so far- analysing and reading the episodes, creating timelines and storyboards, working together to ‘infer’ and constructing our own episodes – has been fun, even play. I’ve had to do little motivating; the task is motivating itself. However, I have a Parents Evening on Wednesday. I’m told that Parents want to see things their children have done. Yes , I’ve been teaching for years and have had about sixty Parents Evenings in that time, but I still need to be told that.
Therefore I’m faced with a dilemma. If I suddenly begin to talk more about outcomes and targets do I impose the ‘Sawyer Effect’ and deflect from the ‘Play’ aspect of Inanimate Alice which so clearly exists? Or do I allow the students to speak for themselves, to discuss the experiences and the fun they’ve had with their parents?
This seems like an age old problem teachers are faced with. How much does evidence of learning need to be something you can read?
Earlier successes – and, I’ll be honest, some nice comments from educators around the world – can’t blind me from the fact that we need to produce something. Yes, the journey is often more enjoyable than the destination but I truly feel that with time and effort we could all produce episodes of which we can be really proud.
What I’ll take away from this series of classes is a huge lesson in motivation. Given the correct challenge, motivation takes care of itself. I’m already transferring this idea to other lessons. Give students the time, space and opportunity to be creative and they’ll knock your socks off. Pressures of coverage have already meant that we have only two fifty minute sessions a week but I’m already looking forward to Alice in America, Scotland, France, trapped in a fairground in Florida, locked in a store cupboard in an ‘Apple’ store in Edinburgh. As for Wednesday’s Parent’s Evening, I’ll have laptops out  so that mums and dads can read their child’s Glow Blog. They will read comments like this:
Beth’s Blog
The best bit about the episodes were the storylines, I think they were really good, and the way that episodes three and four aren’t like the first two. They are longer and more interesting, and definitely scarier. The scream in episode three and the face on the wall in episode four? I’ll be honest, I was a wee bit scared.
My own ideas for the episode we’ll be making in groups will be the same sort of changes the episodes have. Alice will be a few years older, Brad will help her out of her problem, her player will be different and she’s in another country, just things like that. I’d like to make it scary though, I think that would be fun to do. Obviously it will have games and maybe a few animations in it as well. The difficult thing will be making it not look like a power point though, but I’m always up for a good challenge!

Animating the Classroom – No Longer Living Next Door to Alice – Week Five

“The conversations that follow viewing the stories are often filled with the feelings associated with discovering new territory: excitement about being in a foreign land, anxiety about not understanding the native language, in this case the language of media, and frustration as they struggle to remain open-minded. It is my job to act as guide…”
Jason Ohler; Digital Storytelling in the Classroom p.21 (Corwin Press, California, 2008)
After four episodes of Inanimate Alice our world was somewhat turned around this week as we began to construct our own episodes.  We agreed, as I claimed in my last ‘Alice’ post, that the story had to be the most important thing so we had to ask some hard questions.
 I was faced with some big decisions; how much freedom would I give them?  Should I give any guidelines, rules, deadlines? Should they work in pairs or groups?
As teachers, we can often be guilty of being too controlling in the classroom. We can be over prescriptive in what we expect our students to produce and in the manner we expect them to produce it. We can stifle creativity and explode confidence and self-esteem when we express disappointment if they produce something which does not match our assessment criteria. Even if it is really, really good.  Therefore, no rules from me. They will have to organise their groups, their assessment criteria, their homework targets.
Blogging their thoughts has allowed students to track their own progress and understanding and they all had a good idea of how their episodes would fit into the series. The difficult things for me this week was reiningthem in to keep to the story. Ideas about music, movie, colour, everything, could potentially distract them from an effective story.
Again from Jason Ohler: ‘music (especially)…can be so emotionally engaging all on its own that it can easily overwhelm a story, or worse, compensate for the lack of a story.” P.30
However, this was proving to be an extremely complex process. Have we taken on too much? Am I asking too much of them?
Half way through Friday’s lesson, I took a step away and took in this scene. One group was researching oil rich capital cities for potential settings; another had a storyboard sketched out; another was whistling possible soundtracks for the scarier scenes of their episodes; the last group was involved in a heated debate about what the 16/17 year old Alice might be thinking.
They delegated homework tasks to work on the technical aspects – try out movie-makers, music etc- everyone has a job to do.
Our work on Inanimate Alice has taught me that allowing the flow of creativity in the classroom means I have to step back, bite my tongue, sit on my hands, and let them get on with it.It is often difficult for educators to admit that sometimes our students know more than we do but it is vital for the learning process. It has been a remarkable learning experience for ME so far. The students are loving it; my classroom is coming alive.

It’s the Story, Stupid! – No Longer Living Next Door to Alice – Week Four

I quoted some of my students’ Glow Blogs in my previous post, where they were beginning to reflect on the reading experiences involved when studying ‘Inanimate Alice’.  These experiences helped us this week as we begun to think about creating our own episodes.

Episode Three is staggeringly good, a hugely imaginative and clever development from Episode Two. The interaction is more complex, story more grown up, and reader involvement all the more focused, reflecting Alice’s development in skills, age and articulacy; and that was the subject of our first class talk this week. Why do the episodes get longer?
Indeed, we noticed that the common themes from the first two episodes were all here – Baxi, Brad, Dad’s job, etc – but more complex storyline, darker subject matter and increasingly sophisticated, and surprising, gaming suggested that Alice – and her readers – were growing up. The students cleverly pointed out that this reflected a similar pattern to the Harry Potter novels in a way. Each successive episode becomes darker and more serious. Something for us to think about. However, what happened next proved to be even more illuminating.
As a teacher with little or no ICT expertise beyond e-mail and Internet –I only successfully learned how to use the Digital Projector LITERALLY an hour before the first Inanimate Alice lesson – I have been relying on my class to teach me as we proceeded.  Their confidence in creating online content is fabulous and they were raring to go. However, despite their excitement about the music they would use, the movie makers they would employ, the photos they would upload, they were insistent that the story had to be good first and, as a Teacher of English and lover of reading, that delighted me.
Of course they are right. If Digital Stories are ever to take root in Scottish Secondary Schools then the story must be key.  So we will start next week with writing an excellent next episode of Inanimate Alice. It will fit in well with the previous episode and lead on to a next episode. It will reflect Alice as she grows up, as she continues to be The Animator; and this increasingly impressive, abundantly creative group of  thirteen year old Scottish children will make it happen.
What have I learned this week? If you intend to create new episodes of ‘Alice’ get the students thinking about the technical possibilities and potential problems as early as possible.  However, remember that the story is the most important thing.  It’s the story, stupid!

The Student Perspective – No Longer Living Next Door to Alice- Week Three

There are some days when teaching is merely a series of small battles. With management, with colleagues, with pupils, with parents even; with computers which get huffy at exactly the same time you want them to be your friend. I had some of those battles this week in preparing for Episode Three of Inanimate Alice.  It seems that every computer suite in the school was overbooked for weeks ahead and the fabulous notebooks we used last week were nowhere to be seen. For two days, all of my preparation had to stay on hold. But did I lose heart? Well, yes, I did a bit.

The first two weeks had gone so well that perhaps inevitably I was forgetting that, when teaching something so completely new and, to me , original, it can be a rocky road at times. I’ve never been through the process. Next time I’ll be more aware. I teach in a school of 1800 kids; the ICT provision is ‘unhelpful’ at times; and, yes, I did replace another word with ‘unhelpful’.  Trying something like ‘Inanimate Alice’ takes a lot of preparation; but it’s worth it.
My class and I had recently set up Individual Blogs on GLOW – Scotland’s National Intranet for Schools – and, as a temporary measure until I could gain access to notebooks , I asked the students to Blog their thoughts on Episodes One and Two. This week, I’ll let them tell you their story.
Harry’s Blog

“When I first saw Inanimate Alice, I had walked into the middle of it because I was at a music lesson. After I came in, I quickly tuned into the story.  Once a few scenes had passed I noticed that it was the same story we read a few days ago. When I first saw it I read the words and then noticed the background images and film. I also heard strange music which made me uncomfortable.
The first time I saw “Inanimate Alice” I really loved the idea of it and watched it at my home, it is a very different experience to reading which I love. I also love film and music so it was a very enjoyable experience.”
Morgan’s Blog
“To read the online story you need to be aware of everything you are watching, hearing and reading. I tried to look at every part of the screen so I didn’t miss any picture or movement in the story. The sound is really helpful as it helps you imagine how Alice is feeling whereas with just the words it is not as obvious. The thing I really enjoyed was the interaction in the online stories because it is fun and it makes you feel part of the story.
 My favourite part of the story so far is when Alice falls out in the snow in the second one because the sounds are loud and fast and it makes you hold your breath!”
Scott’s Blog
“The part of Inanimate Alice that worked for me was the puzzles because they made the story more fun. In Episode Two I was more used to the screen layout and I did not get distracted from reading the words. My reading skills changed after reading Episode Two because I became more able to read with things distracting me from reading. A tip I would share with other digital story readers is to try and not get distracted.”
Beth’s Blog
Inanimate Alice has been great!
“The music and the images just make the whole thing really exciting. Sometimes though, the music was quite uncomfortable. I’ve never seen anything like it and it was so good when we got to use the netbooks. We could go at our own pace and notice more because it was closer to us.
I’ve enjoyed everything from Inanimate Alice so far. The group work has been good because we all put our ideas together and came up with what we think the next episode will be like. We’ve noticed things that each other hasn’t, giving us more questions to think about!
Trying to make sense of the story is difficult though, I have so many questions like, Who is Brad, is he real or totally made up, and how can he speak?
I can’t wait till we can make our own Inanimate Alice episode. I have some pretty good ideas and even though it looks quite difficult it’ll be loads of fun!”
Ailsa’s Blog
“I really like ‘Inanimate Alice’. I like the way you were seeing everything through Alice’s eyes. It was cool the way it had the black background and the white text because usually it is a white background with black text. I like the way you need to play a game on the player to get to the next scene. My favourite game on the player is the bicycle game where you need to make the whole bicycle pink.”
Rebecca’s Blog
“When I was reading this I couldn’t get my eyes away from the screen. It literally brought you in and wouldn’t let go of you. When I was reading I scanned my eyes up and down and all around.
What really worked was it actually made you read between the lines and not just skim it quickly, you actually read it, looked around the screen then read it again to really take it in. My favourite part was when Brad speaks to her because I have so many questions that haven’t been answered about this part. How does he speak? Is he based on a real person? Is it her imagination?”
Lewis’s Blog
“In my English class we used netbooks for the second episode of Inanimate Alice. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen, it was that good. The best bit I thought was in Episode Two and it was the part where Alice was going to go to ski school, but she fell in the snow. That got my heart thumping.
The most difficult part to read is when the writing is flashing to make the part look scary. The music worked very well with the story. By the time I read the second episode I knew what to expect. I would tell people who are reading their first digital story – ‘focus on everything you read, see and hear.’”
I apologise for such a long post this week but I was delighted with the kids’ responses. We eventually got to see Episode Three late on Friday but had no real time to follow up. We’ll do that on Monday. However, what I’ve learned this week is that, even though I prepare my lessons thoroughly at all times, if you are considering Inanimate Alice for your class, make sure that every aspect is covered. With schools cutting back all over the place, don’t let a lack of hardware get in the way of the student experience.

Taking a Step Back -No Longer Living Next Door to Alice- Week Two

I received some fantastically supportive comments on my last ‘Alice’ Blog post. Most astonishingly for me anyway, a direct response from Kate Pullinger, the original writer of ‘Inanimate Alice’. A convincing argument for a global classroom if ever there was one. Within minutes, yes minutes, of posting my Blog  on Twitter I was receiving messages from interested teachers from around the world. My work was posted on FACEBOOK – never been a fan, slightly changing my mind now – so I knew things were happening.

Some of my first thoughts and ideas on what to do with ‘Alice’ came from a Scottish educator, Dave Terron, someone I shamefully failed to mention in my first ‘Alice’ post, and someone who , if you’re an English teacher in Scotland – or anywhere for the matter – you should be listening to and reading. He was kind enough to send me some of the things he’d gathered together in order to complete some excellent work with one of his classes. Without his help, I never would have undertaken this project. So thanks, Dave.
The great feedback I’d received found me bounding into school on Monday morning. However, it was the eagerness of the students on Monday which convinced me ‘Alice’ was working. The main ideas they had gleaned from last week were the differences between the written and the visual. While they insisted on calling ’Inanimate Alice’ a ‘Media’ text – perhaps later we could discuss the difference between ‘Media’ and ‘Digital’ – on paper, they did think that, in some ways, they had to work harder to access the story. Black writing on a white background meant that they had to create the visuals themselves in their own imaginations; but they now had a better idea of what ‘baxi’ was, and were developing an awareness of how sound was being used to manipulate them as readers. The silence at times, contrasted with the fast-paced modern beat when excitement mounted. Words like ‘discomfort’ and ‘fear’ were mentioned during the ‘static electricity’ scenes.
The students just got it. On Friday, after a hard day’s bargaining to book a trolley full of netbooks, I took a step back – or was told to by them – as they got into Episode Two – Italy. It was amazing. I’d tried hard to learn how to use a digital projector the week before, but before I could get to grips with these new fangled netbooks, they practically pushed me aside to get on with it. We agreed that the only three headings they would have in their notebooks would be SOUNDS, WORDS, SIGHTS: and away they went. The added value of interactive games – even on this simple level – grabbed them and the lesson was amazing. There are times in every teacher’s year when you remember exactly why you got into this teaching game.  As I stood back and watched my class, all wearing headphones, glued to their screens and furiously scribbling at the same time, I thought just that. Full engagement; high challenge; relevant. It doesn’t get better than this.
So what did I learn this week?
  • Well, I think it was good idea to challenge them to create their own episodes of ‘Alice’. Their complete bewilderment at my challenge during the first Episode is now beginning to grow into something very interesting indeed.
  •  I spent a lot of time preparing these lessons, way more than I normally would, but it is hugely important that, while they are perhaps more ‘techy’ than me, not all of them are. I must keep in mind that at I have to be able to step in at any time.
·         However, having said that, the beauty of ‘Inanimate Alice’ is the value the students themselves bring to the table. Even the quieter ones have great things to say and I need to remain flexible and allow the lessons to move in their own direction, to an extent. Isn’t it so dispiriting when teachers don’t see what they think they should be seeing and are, ultimately, disappointed? The creativity of my students is coming to the fore and I will let them amaze me – no matter how tempted I am to jump in and join in the fun.
Next week? The class will be blogging about their ‘Alice’ experience on GLOW. I may well share some of those thoughts with you.

No Longer Living Next Door to Alice

For about a year and a half now I’ve been peering enviously over the wall at those incredibly inventive teachers who been teaching and enjoying the amazing Inanimate Alice, the interactive digital narrative which has been lighting up classrooms for a few years now. The blog posts, the wikis, the web pages I visited all glowed with the originality and depth of this new, modern and ground-breaking narrative form.

A mixture of words, sounds and visuals, the intended ten episodes follow Alice as she grows up in an increasingly complex world. My envy has finally got the better of me. Following a New Year bout of soul-searching about the things I could teach easily and the things which would challenge both the students in my class and me as a teacher, I have taken the plunge. This week, Inanimate Alice has consumed my teaching life.
The key word in that last paragraph was ‘challenge’. After ten years in the classroom I think I could happily take any written text and teach it well but over the last couple of years it has increasingly felt like I’ve been ‘phoning it in’. The challenge was not always there. I could also say that, while my students enjoy the texts I teach, I was missing out on a bigger part of their ability to access information and different ways of interacting with stories and other texts. Inanimate Alice looked like it could be perfect.
So, for the purposes of my own reflection, as well as a record of the success and failures we experience as a group of learners,  I’m going to blog my thoughts and findings as I work my way through the series of lessons, perhaps noting my ‘Eureka’ moments along the way. Perhaps, if you’ve been tempted to enter Alice’s world, there may be some helpful advice here.
  1. I read everything I could find on Inanimate Alice on the web. I found Wikis, the ‘Alice’ website, Bill Boyd’s excellent blog post. Alice’s School report was particularly helpful for advice and tips. There are some great people out there who’ve been fighting Alice’s corner. Pull on their coat tails. Learn from them.
  2. I watched Episode One – China – over and over until I was happy with what I thought the students might get from it. I would normally read a text at least twice before teaching it so this was standard for me. I would recommend this as it focused my mind on the idea of reading a media narrative. What did I see and hear? What might my students think as they watched and listened and read?
  3. Before I began, on Monday of this week, I wanted to construct a list of questions which I wanted to answer as I progressed through the lessons. I was holding off on Learning Intentions as I wanted this to remain open to an extent. I’m hoping the students will adapt those LI s as we go.
·         How do you read a text?
·         What do we mean by ‘text’?
·         Are there different ways of reading texts?
·         And others along those lines…

    1. We discussed the title ‘Inanimate Alice’ as a class. What did ‘Inanimate’ mean? How could we break it down to work out the meaning? Are there many different meanings?
    2. We, as a class, read through a printed text of the story. I deliberately left the meaning open and asked the students, in groups, to ask as many questions as possible. The evidence is in the photos below. I think I made my first error here. They rushed into the task and came up with what were, at times, fairly bland, poorly thought out questions. ‘Why is she frightened?’ Why is it dark?’ With hindsight I would have taken more time to discuss the types of questions I was looking for. However, there were flashes of gold in there which we followed up in discussion in the next lesson.
  1. For homework I posed the question, ‘How do you read a text?’ They came back with excellent responses about how we construct meaning traditionally through words in a story and those words develop as we get more sophisticated in our reading and our experiences. I believed that these thoughts would act as an effective entry point to discussion of the digital narrative.
  2. Today, we watched the digital narrative and were blown away. Students couldn’t believe at first that they were reading the same story. We discussed the differences in reading both versions of the text and, on Monday, we’ll continue with that. What impressed them most was the ability to move on when they chose and look back and forward at bits they wanted to see again. Yes, like a traditional story but even then they were seeing the visuals in a different way.
So there you have it. My first week with Alice. It has been everything I’ve been waiting for. Dipping my toe into the future of Narrative text. What I’ve learned is that the ability to change our practice is within us all. Don’t stand on the sidelines wishing you could do that; you can. I have. I’ve seen the future and it is rooted in Inanimate Alice.
We are all looking forward to the coming weeks.