Teaching in Wonderland

A 21st-century educator reflects on teaching, classroom life and channeling her inner Alice.

GUEST COLUMN | by Kristal Doolin

CREDIT Catherine BlakleyAs a teacher of 21st-century digital natives in a time of major educational shifts, I often sit before my online plan book channeling my inner Alice. It’s the part of me that is, after 18 years in the classroom, more curious than ever and determined to make my classroom a place of exploration and fun. Unfortunately, from time to time as I’m guiding the Alice within, the following scene from Lewis Carroll’s wonderfully imaginative story unfolds.

“Alice came to a fork in the road. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked.

‘Where do you want to go?’ responded the Cheshire Cat.

‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered.

‘Then,’ said the Cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.” 

Last summer, while I was in the midst of this scene and unsure of what path was best for our opening fiction book study this year, I came across what was to me a new concept –Transmedia, a multi-media storytelling technique that goes above and beyond typical digital narrative. It was at this point of discovery that the stars aligned, and I met another Alice – Inanimate Alice. Like the “road less traveled” in Frost’s poem, she has made all the difference.

“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Fast forward to September with my awesome new classes who were willing to go down the rabbit hole with me.

We started small by examining the first episode to determine how it differed from typical stories. In their discussions, this automatically went to common core as my students began to analyze narrative structure, point of view, setting, character, conflict, figurative language, flashback and foreshadowing among others.

To someone just stopping by our room for a moment, this may seem like everyday analysis of text; however, when you stick around you see that the sound, visuals, and interactive elements bring this to a whole new level that met my students where they were in both interest and ability. Watching them discover new ideas and discuss them as I work as a facilitator rather than the keeper of knowledge was priceless.

As we moved on throughout the four episodes, we discovered that this story is not only multi-media but also multi-layered. During small group and whole class analysis, students where picking up on so any levels of Alice’s story that it was hard to keep up with them: one group were researching geographic locations to determine if certain details were accurate, while another group were discussing the link between the interactive game and story, yet another were comparing Alice’s sentence structure and complexity from episode to episode.

The icing on the cake was when Ian Harper, series producer, accepted an invitation to Skype with my students. He graciously answered a load of student questions and provided inspiration for their own Transmedia projects by talking about the creation process for Inanimate Alice episodes 1-4.  Then, he allowed us to be among the few to view Episode 5 pre-publication to provide critical feedback. Could this experience get any better? I thought not and actually dreaded the end of the unit.

However, the good kept going as students created their own Transmedia stories via Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker and Sploder Gamer Maker. I challenged my students to couple what they’ve learned about the characters and story to bring Alice to the United States. This was particularly interesting, as we wanted to be more than “plot junkies” determine to tell an entertaining story. Our goal was bigger than that.

We sought not only to incorporate the details of the geographic location, but to honor the nuances of the series by including important aspects like Alice’s Mother Ming’s love of painting or the way Alice often refers to her mother and father as Ming and John. I can’t say enough about watching students examine their selected locations and make critical decisions about their own script, storyboard, sound, game inclusion, etc. based on those discussions.

After many weeks of work, I’ve concluded that this is the most innovative, engaging idea I’ve encountered since I started using literature circles over ten years ago and introduced students to our digital classroom with Edmodo several years ago. I’ve described Transmedia as a multi-media storytelling “wonderland” that will engage 21st century digital natives while hitting multiple standards and preparing students for the media rich college and career world they will need to navigate later in life.

What I’ve learned from my experience is it is much more than that. It is a shift in thinking much like the shift in our standards, and the change affects everything. For example, after we completed our Inanimate Alice unit and moved on to our Holocaust unit recently, I found my students diving deeper, not through my direction, but through their own inquiry with art, geography, music, video creation and more. This was unlike years past. The trajectory of the classroom has changed.

My advice for other educators: follow that white rabbit.

Kristal Doolin is a Language Arts Teacher at Corbin Middle School. She was the 2013 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, she is a Better Lesson Master Teacher and serves on the Kentucky Teacher Advisory Council. See more of her work at http://mrsdoolin.edublogs.org

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