Friday, August 28, 2009

Brainstorms and butchers paper

Have you ever built a story with your entire class?

Finding a method that allows you to build a narrative together, with equal participation and consensus can be tricky to say the least. So why bother? Why try to build a story together when it's much easier to simply direct your class to create their stories individually?

Well, when you build a story as a class, something wonderful happens. Your students develop a personal investment in the SAME story, and you can harness that engagement in a variety of ways. You can talk about what's working, and what's not, you can explore structure with an example your students are absorbed in because it's their story.

But before we explore how you might approach it, lets talk about working together, because it's an important part of collaborative story building.

We know that we work together to resolve a problem, the strength of a collective approach can be powerful. The knowledge of the crowd can in fact, be greater than the smartest individual in that crowd.

Recent analysis reveals however that brainstorming ideas with your students with butchers paper or on a white board can be a great way to stall the creative thinking you were hoping to harness.

To avoid this, your best bet is to approach your brainstorming online. Creative collaboration online helps remove the barriers of perceived inadequacy that may be present in your students. It allows participants to build consensus in a way that's less threatening and is a more immediate way of collating ideas. Suggestions put forward are more likely to be judged on their merits. Brainstorming online also allows for many ideas to be presented at once.

So how do you approach it? How do you build a story as a class, together, all at once, at the same time, online ... and not have it end in complete disaster and confusion?

First, you need a place to build your story. You need a resource that will allow the entire class to watch the story grow together. You also need it to be a collaborative space, so that students all have the opportunity to update it if necessary.

With a forum, your story will be posted one piece at a time, which is great, except the story will read from the bottom up ... backwards! A shared space like Google Docs has issues with logins and how to share the space. Etherpad is perhaps one of the better options available. It's a space that accommodates many users, has the features you need for simple editing, and it's quick to setup.

Now for the process ... you'll want to talk about what is distinctive about short stories. Fewer characters, set the scene quickly, getting into the action quickly etc.

Now have each students each write an initial paragraph to the story in a Word docuement or text editor. Read out as many as you can, and then using Polleverywhere, have the students vote on the one they think is the best beginning. You want to encourage the students to judge the contenders on what makes the best short story beginning, the one that meets the criteria you discussed at the start of the class. Ensure the polling is projected on the overhead display so that the class can watch the results come in.

Students LOVE this. If you've never used this voting site before, you're in for a treat. Results appear live on screen as the votes are cast. The process takes only a moment, but the room will be captivated until the results are in!

Now, talk about why this is the best beginning, and what comes next. Have we met our hero? Who are they and what do they need/want? Most importantly, talk about the fact that students will need to continue the story using the same voice as the author of the first piece of the story.

While students go on to write the next section of the story, clear the voting results in your Polleverywhere survey, ready for the next vote.

Oh, and remember our brainstorming dilema earlier? Etherpad has a wonderful chat feature to the right of the work space that allows students (and you) to engage in a backchannel discussion about the story. My strong suggestion is to stipulate that this space requires formal language to suggest things to consider in the next section of the story. This helps keep the discussion focussed, and reduces 'chatter'.

This is just one approach to a collaborative story building exercise with students, but it's one of the best I've come up with so far. In my experience it works exceptionally well ... and the students love it!

If you've not used the tools I mentioned in this post, I suggest you explore them with the class first to give everyone the experience of using them. Having said that, I've taught students using this approach that had never seen these applications before, with good results, so it's not a necessity.

Oh, and if you haven't had the pleasure of wandering through the pages of 'The Wisdom of Crowds', Surowiecki's book (exploring the strength of a collective approach) is both approachable and fascinating.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Because we're driven to it ...

Recent studies reveal that we give because it is innate. Altruism it turns out, is something that we're born with, a biological imperative to lesser or greater degree in all of us. When we write in any medium, you might also conclude that we are driven to share our stories. This part of us that is driven to give, must surely influence our sharing stories.

Of course when we tell a story there is ego involved, as well as a wish to entertain and enlighten. We tell stories to benefit our tribe warning of pitfalls, guiding by stories of example. People write for many reasons, but at the root of what drives us to share our stories is ... well ... sharing.

It's just another reason I see digital storytelling as enduring, an inevitable tide that is gradually coming in. Telling stories and needing to hear them is something that's innate within all of us, and the medium is now changing. Not all at once mind you, but slowly, over time, how we tell a story is undergoing a revolution.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

When context is king

I've been watching Steven Pinker talk about language and thought, and he's a man that takes language seriously. I've never come across a person that could discuss verbs with such fervour, or a such length ... except perhaps for my English teacher in year 10.

So why did I find this interesting, and how does it relate to digital storytelling forms in particular? First, let's observe the fact that we live with a fixed series of constructions that govern our language, and we use them for the most part, unconsciously. Our sentences are, largely, framed around verbs for example.

Steven talks about this framework, about how we're strongly influenced by our preconceptions in language, his work explores how we can have an unconscious understanding of what people mean by using language in a particular way. For example, using the phrase 'Let's get it on' would most commonly be interpreted as something other than looking for a light switch.

Preconceptions like these are largely at our discretion when we're reading a novel, we make decisions about what we think something means based on our experience, but also based on the context in the story. Observing how language is interpreted, how one word or phrase influences another is the art of the author.

When we want young writers to observe language more closely, there are a number of ways it can be done. One way can be to have them build smaller and smaller stories. 2 paragraphs becomes 1, becomes 20 words, becomes 10, and then 6 word stories. This forces the writer to hone their language, and closely consider the relationships between each word, and as a whole.

With digital storytelling however, closer attention is a necessity. There are additional influences on the reader more diverse and potentially beyond our control that may ultimately be the undoing of our story for the reader. For example, where I refer to a 6 word story website earlier. The page I have linked to is completely beyond my control in so far as the stories presented at that website are changing constantly. If you were to read something objectionable on that site, and then return to this post, it may adversely influence your reading of what I have written.

With digital storytelling, there are potentially so many influences on our reading of the text, that once we are aware of this, we are forced to adopt a more closely observational style of writing. We must remain alert to how these external influences may affect the reading of our work. Context becomes king, in a way that it does not with static text offline, and I find this fascinating, because context is one of the few ways in which the art of writing is teachable. You can teach context, in the same way that you can guide a new photographer to develop an eye for their art.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The gegoraphy of our stories, and David Lynch

This series of short interviews was commissioned by David Lynch. He sent a team across America, on a 20,000 km road trip. The team interviews everyday people, hundreds of them, about their hopes and dreams, what scares and inspires them. It's worth a look, and you'll find some of the stories gripping.

I tried to identify, as I watched, why that was. Was it simply that some problems are universal? Probably. Each of our stories is far less unique than we'd like to think, and yet we are so individual and fascinatingly different that it defies belief. The answers to questions from the interviewers are honest and revealing, and the stories released thus far resonate long after watching.

The focus on geography also caught my interest. The interactive map that shows the path that the Lynch team is taking, the links and pictures on the route you can select to discover more. So many of our stories explore location in a very real sense now. So many applications are available now that map the geography of our lives. Whether it's using Google Maps to place a national news item in an online newspaper, or an iPhone location reference displayed to tell anyone that will listen where we are, as we tweet what we're doing.

Hearing voices and reading stories from a 'real' location helps the stories feel real, and we want real, we want startling honest evidence that these stories are true. 'In the olden days' as daughter calls my past, when we wrote letters instead of emails, location was the sending address on the envelope, the origin of the postage stamp and the postal stamp.

Many of our stories online are however, not marked, and drift in the ether. Spam messages with no evident origin or owner, stories that could have been posted from home, or on a trip interstate in the car. Perhaps the increasing focus on the geography of our stories is because we fear this feeling of our stories being adrift.

When we see where the story has been made, it feels like a tangible thing, not something we've read online. When we see where something happened, we can imagine the terrain of the event, map out how we might have experienced it. When we know where it was, it feels a little closer, we feel a little closer, to the people involved, to those telling the story. In the end, being a little closer is what so many of our stories online are all about.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Finding some perspective!

Finding perspective can be a difficult thing when you're writing. Often, you're so close to what you're doing that it's hard to take a step back, particularly if you need to resolve a problem.

Sometimes it can help to visually collect your thoughts, and today I came across a wonderful list of graphic organisers at Freeology that helps you do just that. The organisers are as you would expect, clearly labelled, to help you find just the right one for you or your students to approach a problem.

Of course, using an online alternative like Thinkature will save trees, and you have the option of collaborating on your problem with a group. If however, you're like me, and tend to do all your writing online, using a pencil and paper can help you look at things in a different way.

It may also help to take your printed graphic organiser and pencil to the kitchen table to nut out your problem. A change of scenery can also do wonders.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


One of the aspects of digital narrative that I find so absorbing is that it is a form of storytelling still only in its infancy. Each new form that emerges is fascinatingly unique, and yet like any visual artists former work, you can often glimpse influences of earlier styles.

When I first came across Samorost years ago, I was at once struck by how different it was to many of the other animated games available at that time.

An enveloping atmosphere reminded me of the Myst series, but with an entirely unique approach. Designer Jakub Dvorsky describes his games as 'something between an animated story and a regular game.' Built in Flash, the first installment was released free, and such was the attention that it received, that a sequel was released, equally absorbing and fascinating.

Samerost, and its sequel Samerost2 are both games by Amanita Design, a Czech independent game development studio founded in 2003. Their work has a wonderful lingering narrative style that draws you in. Both Samerost games are filled with richly detailed and absorbing sketchbook drawings, enhanced by simple but effectively surreal animation and effects, and a story thread that tugs you gently along. The score for both games distinctively dreamy, adding a moody and memorable atmosphere to the games.

Samorost is not what I would call, strongly driven by character. The problems faced in the story are simple, the character Gnome's story arc is elementary and yet the narrative resonates because of the numerous background stories that were imagined for the series by Jakub. These were stories created by Jakub purely to develop Gnome's character, to make him more fully realised.

There is a saying, that you should know the characters in your story well enough to know the change in their pockets.
Though Gnome appears to be a simple character, he was fully realised for Jakub, and as a result, for his audience.

Machinarium is the third in the series, due for imminent release, and it promises to be something different again. While the first two releases were a gentle story driven by the reader, solving simple puzzles and following the adventures of our hero Gnome, Machinarium has more action and 'game' aspects.

I'm really looking forward to the third in this series, and would strongly encourage you to explore the two current releases in this series by Anamita Design. You can also follow the work of this innovative design company by subscribing to their blog.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Rushing through the process

I spent the afternoon with my daughters at the Museum today. There were queues at the door which was heartening to see, until I got inside. Yes there were many parents allowing their children to take the lead. There were just as many however, that were frantically pushing their children from exhibit to exhibit, caught up in making sure they 'saw everything' and got their money's worth. I watched some children literally pulled away from exhibits they were absorbed in to get to the next thing ... and it made me wonder what on earth those parents were doing there.

When young adults are actively seeking out knowledge, it's something you have to slow down and enjoy. You can't rush them through the process to get the ribbon at the end.

It made me think about the many stories I wrote when I was young that ended with 'and then the world blew up'. I always rushed the ending because we were often busied along to finish our creative endeavours in an allotted time.

Imagining an entire narrative arc when you're in grade four could be a little challenging at times, but was far worse for working to a deadline. Ending the world (and my story) in one quick sentence at the end meant I never had to contemplate where my story was going, I could just enjoy the writing process.

Stressing that students don't have to come up with an ending, or finish in an allocated time can go a long way to settling them down to actually enjoying the writing process! It might also give the four students at the back of the room that often struggle with creative writing tasks, the breathing room to settle into the activity.

Of course, guiding the writing task with a particular purpose is another way to approach this. Simply have them focus on one aspect of their story, building atmosphere or character for example, with an understanding that finishing is not the purpose of the exercise.