Sunday, January 27, 2013

An experiment

Over the winter break I read “Snow Fall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” At first, I didn’t pay attention to how long the article was, nor did I check out all of the interactive features – I just read the story, focusing on the parts that interested me and skimming the parts I found less interesting. Later, as I was thinking about how I wanted to start the semester, I came back to the article and re-read it, this time thinking about how students might react to it and how I could use it as a mentor text in class. On the second read, I clicked on every link, watched every video. Personally, I found many of the enhancements distracting – there were only a few that helped my understanding of the story and several that added interest, but some just seemed extraneous to me. I also found two additional articles describing the creation of the piece and read both of those ("How We Made Snow Fall" and "Q & A: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek".

I assigned the reading over three nights, two sections per night. As I assigned the reading, I explained that many were calling this the "future of web storytelling" and a new kind of digital journalism, and asked them to read with this in mind. On the second day we spent a significant amount of the period discussing the two sections they read. We talked about the multimedia features and how those affected our reading, and we talked about how narrative and informative text were woven together to tell a complete story. I also asked them to talk about their background knowledge – how many skied or snowboarded, how many had been “out-of-boundaries” when doing so, if they had even been caught in a wave (an analogy used in the first section to describe the feeling of being swept up in the avalanche). A handful of students had never seen snow; about a third of the class skis/snowboards regularly. The response to the first two parts was fairly positive.

We didn’t discuss the second two sections in class; instead, I had them write about what they had read. Again, feedback on the reading was mostly positive. Then, after completing the final two sections, we had another discussion, evaluating the helpfulness of each non-textual element. The students also worked in small groups to descriptively outline a section of the story, chunking the writing and indicating its purpose in the larger section (narrative vs. informative, for example). We spent time talking about how the text is structured – how narrative is interwoven with explanatory writing and graphics, and how that affected our reading.

I explained that the goal ultimately is for them to produce their own multimedia piece that combines narrative, informative, and non-text elements. I left the project pretty wide open – they can choose topic and final format, but all elements must work together to tell story and convey information.

I wanted them to have some practice before turning them loose, so we spent three periods trying to turn Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” into something more than a story on a page. One period was devoted to reading the story and brainstorming possible enhancements. The second period was spent in the lab, hyperlinking photos, videos, and audio clips (surprising how many kids did not know how to embed links in a Word or Google doc), and inserting comments to explain what they would like to do, but didn’t have skills to do. Some of their multimedia enhancement ideas were quite interesting! The last day we were back in the lab, evaluating each other’s versions of the same story – which additions helped their understanding of the story, which were unnecessary or distracting, which were really creative ideas of how to enhance the story.

As they started planning their stories, I shared other examples I found by searching for interactive storytelling and multimedia fiction. Here are some of those stories:
Nightingale's Playground
Inanimate Alice
Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro
BlackHawk Down
For Amusement Only: The Life and Death of the American Arcade
The Long, Strange Trip of Dock Ellis
Cyborg America: Inside the strange new world of basement body hackers

We also looked at children's books to get a better idea of how pictures can be used to tell a story, as well as this photo essay which prompted a great discussion.

We will revisit "Snow Fall" this week, looking closely at how the author introduces new topics and characters, how he includes dialog, how he builds tension – getting into the nitty gritty of the writing with the hopes that they will be able to emulate that in their own stories.

I have no idea what kind of final product many will share with me, but the buzz in the lab on Friday was good. I can't wait to be amazed by their creativity!

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