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.

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