Revenge of the Nerd: How being a geek helped me to raise literacy standards in my class.
Up. Creek. Sh*t. Re-arrange at your leisure. This was the immediate thought of an NQT when the resource CD-ROM for an entire unit of literacy went AWOL. I was preparing to teach 'Stories set in imaginary worlds,' four weeks into my first term, and every lesson in this unit was based on dragon tales. I googled, I scoured dusty store cupboards, I followed forked sticks around the school, but the frustratingly specific dragon tales eluded me. After considering writing my own tale for every lesson (arduous) skipping the unit (cop out) and committing hara-kiri (a step too far) I thought about finding an alternative theme. I began to daydream; wandering through all the weird and wonderful imaginary worlds I had come across during years of over-exposure to various geeky pleasures. Could my nerdy self-indulgence be the source of inspiration for my Year 4 literacy lessons? Then it hit me.
The Game Grid.
I was late to the party where the movie Tron was concerned, due to the slight inconvenience of being a gleam in my dad's eye at the time of its release, but after the first viewing, I was hooked. Then, in 2008 I downloaded a teaser trailer for the upcoming sequel that made me feel about nine years old. Watching the newly imagined lightcycles race and battle across a foreboding electronic landscape, if only for two minutes, reminded me what it was like to be a kid waiting for Christmas. The mixture of exhilaration and anticipation was intense, and I knew that enthusiasm was contagious, so I went for it. Instead of dragon tales, I tentatively began to tell my class a story about an orphaned boy who discovered that his father had been abducted by an evil computer program and imprisoned in a remarkable, yet treacherous, virtual world. And now I had an ultimate resource weapon. Not a worksheet or a CD-Rom printout but a jaw-dropping movie trailer.
After the first viewing, and the subsequent chorus of 'can we see it again, sir!' we began to discuss ways to describe the extraordinary places we had seen, and thus the first significant development in this modern media experiment came to light. The children's desire to find new and adventurous language to aptly describe what they had seen was palpable. Thesauruses in hand, the abandoned arcade wasn't just dusty and dark anymore, it was murky and sinister. The Game Grid wasn't big and bright, it was vast and luminous. The buildings were no longer simply tall and dark, they were towering and threatening. The visual medium seemed to have given the children just enough stimuli to spark excitement and imagination, without over-prescribing the nature of the characters, the atmosphere of settings, or the interaction between the two. We were off, and I began to wonder how far we could go.
Fairly quickly I decided to challenge the children to use the trailer as a story starter (as, by its nature, it had provided a mere flavour of the narrative, and hadn't so much as hinted at the conclusion) and to create their own build-up and resolution from it. After some additional work on atmosphere and character interaction, as well as writing the introduction in their own words to allow themselves to become acclimatized to the tone of the text, they eagerly took up the challenge. They were able to use the basic information garnered from ultra-close observation of the trailer, combined with their own imaginative yet sensible and well-reasoned inferences, to create innovative and thrilling stories. Their enthusiasm made them strive to create tales that aimed to be, as they told me, 'just as good' as what they had seen of the multi-million pound blockbuster. This motivation was intensified by the release of new trailers, pictures and clips as the film drew nearer, and with each titbit I shared, the children would clamber to see if they had predicted the story correctly, or better still, made a more exciting version than the real thing. Each new promotional release became both a new and exciting resource, a carrot dangled before the noses of enthused, excited writers - It's funny how you get 31 pieces of fantastic writing with the right reward on offer. In just two weeks, every single member of the class had written some of the best fiction they had ever produced, both technically and creatively, and even better was the obvious sense of pride and excitement they had about completing, sharing and even further improving their own and each other's efforts.
Drawbacks? Perhaps a few. First of all, using a worksheet after working for half a term with such an exciting set of resources and you might find motivation, concentration and quality of work not quite up to the same level. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I know it has made me strive to find new and exciting stimuli ever since, because I know it's worth the effort and gets results. Tech-wise, a lot of schools do not have access to YouTube, the place where all my clips came from. Neither does my school. So thank heavens for savevid.com, one of a few handy sites that allow you to save streaming videos to your computer or memory pen, so you don't even have to rely on the network behaving itself when you decide to show your clip. Final snag? Enthusiasm. I said before that I knew enthusiasm was contagious, and I knew that I was enthusiastic about Tron, which is why it worked for me. If you don't know the first thing about Tron, it won't be as useful for you. But after a bit of brain-racking you are sure to come up with something out of the ordinary that you are excited by and can use to move beyond all those tick box objectives.
At the end of this term, and in preparation for writing this piece, I actually asked my pupils outright, why had they enjoyed learning literacy through films so much, and through Tron in particular? They replied that 'it didn't feel like a literacy lesson, more like a movie lesson.' That they could 'see parts of the story, which made it more exciting.' That 'writing the stories made them feel like the new makers of Tron.' That it 'helped them concentrate because they were so interested.' That 'it taught them a lot of new words.' That 'hearing music helped them to know what the characters were feeling' (showing multimedia awareness - a hugely exciting prospect.) And finally, and most encouragingly, that 'it felt like Golden Time every lesson.'
And that's the point. If I can help a child learn without them even realising it, develop their knowledge, skills and understanding as they genuinely enjoy themselves and revel in their own creativity, all through a few movie clips, I reckon I am barking up the right Tron.
By Mathew Sullivan