The Adventures of Alice in Jakarta: What happens when you don’t know all the answers?
Shock, shock, horror:
After moving from an inner city school in the UK (where some pupils didn’t have access to the internet), to a private international school (with a one-to-one student laptop program where every student has an Apple MacBook), I wondered how I would manage to keep up with the technological demands.
Even though my class was comprised of mere 11 year olds, it was clear my year 7 pupils were already light years ahead of me in their understanding of all things technical: apps, platforms, collaboration tools and creating multimedia resources. When approaching our ‘Inanimate Alice: Digital Storytelling unit’, my ‘wonder’ increased to a slight panic: how could I ever ‘teach’ these pupils anything new?
In discussions about leadership training as part of our CPD, I was reminded that ‘good leaders know they don’t need to know everything’ and so it was this mindframe that my year 7 class and I entered our Digital Stories unit…
We approached the Inanimate Alice stories as we would a traditional form of novel – we read and enjoyed, then deconstructed the meaning and the tools used to create the text. Though analysis of character, plot, sentence structure and vocabulary were still there, we were able to develop new knowledge: elements of mise-en-scene and how ideas and concepts are also presented through the mediums of audio, visual media and design concepts. We brought in media terminology and before I knew it, I had A-Level analysis terms being used in a Key Stage 3 class! Year 7 students thrived at adding ‘repertoire’ to their already extensive technological vocabulary.
Having taught English for eight years, I firmly believe that those (students and adults) who ‘don’t like reading’ simply have not found a book that they connected with. Though I’m lucky that reading at BSJ is widely celebrated and eagerly undertaken by students, I have never found a text that so easily engaged and related to all students of my class. They found many similarities in Alice’s disrupted childhood; they understood the difficulty of her unique life; the pressures of moving; her sometimes confusing lack of identity as a ‘TCK’ (Third Culture Kid); her absent father but also her amazing experiences of culture and the world. Our class discussions were rich with anecdotes as students shared and expressed their own feelings and experiences in connection to Alice’s stories. Students’ connection to Alice enabled them to strengthen their analysis: they were able to comprehend the application of pathetic fallacy via colour and props when Alice was sad; they were able to detect the subtle change in non-diegetic and diegetic sounds to indicate fear; they were able to appreciate the impact of a long-angle camera shot to depict the vastness of her unknown setting.
Even though the curriculum skills we were studying were the same, the change of the medium injected a new lease of life into students’ learning and development of their skills; this only increased when they were tasked with creating their own disrupted childhood stories.
As we’ve already established, I am no tech expert, but, luckily, my school’s technology coaches were on hand to help out! They were able to come into classes to support students with their videos and collecting material. As part of our school’s Digital Citizenship Programme, students were taught about usage rights and encouraged to film as much of their own material as possible. The English Department also teamed up with the Computer Science Department so that pupils could share footage in that lesson and learn how to upload videos to their Youtube channels for use in their own presentations. At this point, my confidence with technology was increasing every day as students, the Computer Science Department and the Tech Coaches helped out – it really was a collaborative project!
Through completing their Digital Storytelling, my students became leaders, collaborators and independent learners. Some lessons, I would see them for all of a minute whilst they quickly detailed their ‘filming schedule’ then
Life in the ‘real world’:
At BSJ, we are proud of the school our International Baccalaureate CAS (community, action, service) students initiated and have developed over the years: ‘Sekolah Bisa!’ (School that can!). Sekolah Bisa is a micro school that was set up with the goal of changing the fate of children from local ‘kampungs’ or villages. The Sekolah Bisa! pupils did not have access to education, health care and, in some cases, birth certificates. Some of the pupils from Sekolah Bisa!, like Jihan and Jeffrey, shared with us their disrupted childhoods as they worked long, hard hours collecting rubbish or busking on buses.
Whilst our younger students are familiar with Sekolah Bisa! and many have visited before, this time a selected group of year 7 representatives visited with a new outlook: they were ready to understand and help. They recorded footage, asked questions and listened, as they, some for the first time, began to truly consider the disparity of their lives from those in their country and broader communities. Through their Inanimate Alice videos, year 7 told the stories of the disrupted childhoods of Sekolah Bisa! pupils.
Jihan’s Story (Taken from Transcript):
Before I started going to school, I worked with my father. He looked for used goods. I then met Mr Adrian, and was asked to go to school – at Sekolah Bisa!. After going to Sekolah Bisa!, I found it good because I made a lot of friends, and at Sekolah Bisa i have a lot to learn from school subject.
Sometimes I didn’t feel like going because… because sometimes, I wasn’t being given transportation money. I was asked to walk, but I didn’t want to.
What made me happy were the lessons, studying with Mr Darmaji for instance.
There was a time when my dad kicked me out of the house, so I had to stay at Anik’s place. Anik is my friend, my friend at Sekolah Bisa!. Anik’s mom was already treating me like her own child, but at times, like that one time I didn’t come to school, I busked for money, because without money I couldn’t eat. After that time I was told by Ibu Rima to go to Sekolah Bisa teacher named Ibu Rizki, who insisted that I stay with her. I stayed with Ibu Rizki for two weeks, until it was time to retrieve my report card, which was when I met my mother again. She told me to come home, but I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to get kicked out again. I stayed for another week at Ibu Rizki’s house then I went back home with my family, accompanied by Kak Iwan who is a Sekolah bisa teacher. Everything went well now in the family.
I went back to school because if I didn’t go to school I wouldn’t accomplish my dreams, and if I choose to keep playing instead, I wouldn’t be smart enough to chase my dreams.
I wouldn’t be smart if I kept on playing, but if I go to school I can be smart.
Jeffrey’s Story (Taken from Transcript):
So, Mr. Adrian asked me whether I was interested in going to school and I said I wanted to. Then, he invited me to go to BSJ. At BSJ, we met… a lot of people and afterwards, learnt a lot and in such a short span of time, I was already making a lot of friends. Turns out, a lot of them were invited to come to Sekolah Bisa!. At Sekolah Bisa!, we learnt… a lot, we learnt just about anything sir.
[Before SB] I helped my mum busk and find money for our daily needs and my school fee, my allowance too. I played, and I kept the money and used it as pocket money for my daily expenses, such as to buy snacks. And then when I started attending school, I used it to buy food there. I busked at Blok M one time with my mother when I was young, then I followed in her footsteps in busking.
If I was ever bothered, it would have been by the POL-PP (Civil Service Police Unit).
I’ve been bothered by the POL-PP (Civil Service Police Unit) before. I was chased, but my mother had a friend. Her friend told me to hide. After hiding, the PP lost my whereabouts and left. I came out of hiding and went home.
In Sekolah Bisa!, there are a lot of friends; there are a lot of lessons too. I can accomplish my dreams, gain knowledge instead of simply fooling around. If I play, I won’t gain knowledge. Then I wouldn’t be able to reach my dreams. They [my parents] actually supported me. For example, if I was ever too lazy to go to school, they tell me that I’m still young and that I shouldn’t be lazy, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to work when I grow up.
My mom busks. My dad sweeps for a living.
As well as the Sekolah Bisa! students, pupils also considered the disruption of their own TCK childhoods – like Alice, they expressed the difficulties of moving around and living in a mega-city like Jakarta. Our year 7 pupils were inspired to reflect on the many disparate lives presented around them. They responded with zest and sensitivity.
And Breathe: Final Reflections
One of the main inspirations for teachers is to feel like you are making a difference by positively influencing students. By allowing our students to engage with the real world and their environments, this project was a fantastic way to begin their journey into real-world critical thinkers – the kind of thinkers who truly have the potential to become future leaders.
The Inanimate Alice project showed me the power of engagement; that it can transform my role as an educator, moving me away from the forefront to simply the starting point. I learned I could introduce a concept and the necessary tools then watch as students flourish to achieve it. What’s better, is that they relied on each other to support, guide and critique. The project next year will continue to involve Sekolah Bisa! as our year 7 pupils learn more about the inequalities of the world they live in; we will also increase the technological focus by using different tools and support from our technology coaches, so that pupils can begin to demonstrate their understanding of sound knowledge, for example. I’m excited about teaching the unit again – no longer fearing the unknown, simply waiting for the inspiration and creativity the project once again evokes. So, in my final reflections, I’d like to say thank you Alice; you journeyed into the unknown and we came with you: what an adventure we’ve had!
The prospect of teaching the transmedia story Inanimate Alice to my students came to me in the most conventional of ways. My wife and I are both teachers and my parents showed us this article in Maclean’s Magazine about teaching transmedia in the classroom. My wife was super keen on the idea and brought it to her classroom immediately. With her successes in teaching with it, and a desire to bring the same passion to my students, I decided that I would love to give it a try as well. As a teacher whose goal is to bring new learning, new engagement and new ways of seeing the world to my students, this seemed like a natural fit.
This is now the fourth time I’ve taught Alice to my students and each time I’ve found a new way to engage with the material. Each time it has brought out wonder and depth to my students’ comprehension of text features, as well as using multimedia components with text to make it come alive. I believe that over the past few years, as the technology availability and capability has grown, it has become almost possible to completely recreate an Alice episode with Google Slides together with some links to Youtube for music. This year, the students have jumped in with both feet and have completed stories well beyond what I would ever have expected from them.
We started out by exploring each episode and seeing how it could be laid out on a Freytag Pyramid, working with them together as a class, then in groups, and then independently. Following our exploration of common themes and conventions, students were able to begin to create their own stories. They started out by planning their stories on this blank Freytag pyramid, and after much discussion about what was possible, they began their journeys.
Another great element of their stories is the coding aspect. We have had a focus on developing our computational thinking skills over the course of this year and with the games element of Alice, my students use Scratch to build their own games that connect to their storylines. This made the work even more enriching and powerful.
I write this now as we begin to wrap up the collaborative editing piece. Collaboration has been key to our entire journey, they are so excited to share, get and give feedback to each other and read each other’s work. To watch this happen has been so rewarding for me as a teacher. In conclusion, the depth of learning that went on through teaching Alice was beyond what I could have ever expected and I am so proud of the students’ work but even more so, they are so proud and empowered. That, I think, is the greatest reward!
Please see my grade five students stories here.
An eighth year teacher with the Halton DSB, Cameron currently teaches grade 5, as well as robotics and computational thinking to grade 2’s. Over the course of his career, he has taught Kindergarten through grade seven, as well as technology integration. Cameron was featured on CBC’s “The National”, for his work with computational thinking in the classroom, and on the Edugains 21st Century Education web series. A frequent presenter for both ETFO and OTF, Cameron has recently been hosting OTF Connects webinars on a wide variety of topics as well as mentoring for OTF’s Teacher Learning Co-ops. Cameron is a passionate educator whose motto is “engage, inspire, learn” and he strives to bring this with him to both his presentations and his daily teaching practice.
Cameron can be found on twitter @mrsteltman.