Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

A very ambitious plan for an art experience based on Invisible Cities

So, I’ve been thinking about the installation art proposal project that I assigned for a last assessment in my senior English class. I wrote about how excited I was as the students got to work. (Check out the details of the assignment and whatnot). As I said before, I was nervous about the final projects. We are talking about second-semester senior year, last assignment, out of the box project that I thought was super cool. Sometimes I forget that not only am I still uncool, but I am also old now, and therefore what I think is a cool assignment does not always translate that way to my students. Sometimes my enthusiasm can bridge the gap, but not always.

Well, I am happy to report that the entire enterprise was a success. And not even just an end-of-the-year-they-turned-something-in success. It would be a success at any time of the year.

First, the students engaged in the kind of thinking I wanted them to do. In creating their proposals, they had to review some of the key thematic ideas of the course and one of the texts in particular. In addition, they had to consider how to transform ideas from one medium into another while thinking about what would make for an engaging and thoughtful art installation (thanks to @oneissilva I know this is called transmediation). As I walked around the room during the several class periods of work time, I loved what I heard. And, I wished that I had a group to work with too.

On the day of the presentations, we had some guests–two other teachers who are also department chairs. I like to have visitors for a couple of reasons. First, the students usually do better with an audience (the audience effect is real). I like to make the presentation a bit more of an event and visitors do that. Also, visitors keep me honest. I can get a little carried away when I think things are going well. I get too excited and think everything is awesome (is everyone singing the LEGO movie theme song now? Just me?) So, being able to check in later with another colleague who was a witness to the event is a good dose of reality. I take advantage of their feedback when I give final grades for the work too.

The actual proposals and posters worked in a lot of ways. First, the format allowed the students to focus on the idea and concept rather than the actual creation of an art piece, but at the same time, it was easy to imagine the exhibit. The structure and outline of the types of information that were required meant that if the group did each part, the audience had a good sense of the ideas and concept.

A note on grading. I considered this project a complete success and the grades ranged from B- to A. Every group tackled the work thoughtfully. Some groups ultimately were missing a few bits or had more straightforward ideas, but I consider every project to be a success. There were 6 proposals and each book that we read was chosen by some group.

Here are a few details from some of the proposals. Note: since this is a fantasy book class, so I did say that they could plan to have some things happen “automagically” in their exhibits.

One group planned a multi-room experience inspired by Bailey, from The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

 

The exhibit itself is designed to have viewers initially interact with a series of touch screens arranged in a circle, like a clock (the clock is important in the book and the group made a strong case for the clock’s connection to Bailey). Then viewers go through another room with many varied settings to wander through and finally end up in a space where each person sees a personalized video that is created based on what the person did on the screens in the first room and where they wandered in the second space. The idea was that viewers would get insight into their own dreams and desires and therefore be more able to take action to make them real, like Bailey. (I am not doing their ideas justice here, by the way.) The group also described the experience of walking through their space in the style of a particular part of the book (the interludes that describe how “you” experience the circus, for those who have read the book).

This group also commented on the way their ideas changed over the course of their brainstorming. I love seeing this, and the success I have had this year in asking for some amount of process commentary on assignments has totally convinced me to include this type of commentary on pretty much everything next year.

 

Another group planned a heart exhibit for the Tin Man from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As they were planning, I was concerned that their idea was quite literal. Oh, how wrong I was. Visitors move through 4 metal rooms (the chambers of the heart) while wearing a heart monitor that allows sounds and lights to match the heart rate of the viewer, among other things. It is a dark, conceptual plan.

Below is their description of what happens in the first chamber of the heart. They were super serious about their idea, even though they had a grand time in the planning.

Two groups planned exhibits based in some way on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. One dealt with the journey aspect of the book and tried to tackle each type of city, creating something more concrete from the very abstract ideas of the book. They were an idea factory! (The image at the beginning of the post is their plan.) My favorite part of this plan was the fact that on the way out visitors walked a kind of ring road that circumnavigated all the previous rooms and allowed them to look back in on the other spaces and reflect. Here is some of what this group said about their work:

Artist Statement: We want the audience to go through our installation and get a view into the mind of Marco Polo, while making their own connections and redefining what it means to know a place. Marco Polo stated he connected every city he visited to his own, Venice, which is why each room, or set of rooms in the case of hidden cities and cities and the dead, is accessible only through Venice. As each room represents a grouping of cities from Hidden Cities, we also want the audience to see that each grouping is applicable to all cities, though in different ways.
Process Commentary: The eyes room was inspired by Ai Weiwei’s installation piece entitled “Hansel and Gretel,” in which the audience is tracked by cameras in the first space, then is later able to find themselves in past footage and pictures in a second space using face recognition. We originally thought we would have one room with maps of different cities everywhere and strings connecting each one to Venice and the other cities in its category, but we ended up deciding individual rooms all leading back to Venice would work nicely. As we did not want to lose the connection between cities, we made continuous cities a loop where each person can look into the rooms previously visited, and reflect on how everything comes together. We also made some interesting new connections from the book, and after the floor plan poster idea was set started trying to figure out the big picture of each grouping. During brainstorming, we decided cities and the sky, cities of the dead, and hidden cities could all be in one close to one another, with hidden cities literally being embedded in the city of the dead.

The other took a more conceptual approach to the same text and proposed a two-room installation that spoke to the idea that even those far away from a city can have power over it and impact how it changes. Visitors in the first room interact with a seemingly random group of objects. As they do this, a city changes in the next room. When the visitors enter the next room, they see the city but also two side by side videos of their actions in the earlier room and what happened in the city room.

Each group had some sort of visual, but it was secondary, as was planned. The driving force was the idea.

I really cannot wait to use this project idea again.

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CCO Creative commons image

So, I’ve been thinking about assessments. I worked really hard this year to develop assessments that addressed our essential questions, combined analytical and creative work, and pushed students to think.

I’ve already written about a brief research project where I used VoiceThread for the final, virtual presentations and the following installation art proposal project (more on that soon). But, here I want to describe two writing assignments that I think combined all the parts I mentioned above.

First up, my first-semester class (Fantasy literature with a focus on fantastic creatures, interdisciplinary approach). This paper was an early part of a larger project. We read most of The Odyssey and looked at images by a wide range of artists who interpreted Odysseus’ adventures, including Cy Twombly’s 50 Days at Ilium, a graphic novel interpretation by Seymour Chwast, and many works by Romare Bearden. Here’s what I asked students to do:

Think and Write:

  • How will you remember Odysseus in your personal, mental library? (look at the collection of epithets on the topics page) What characteristic stands out to you?
  • Which fantastic creature stands out and is particularly memorable to you? Why?
  • Who are your people* and how do your Odysseus and your fantastic creature speak to them?

No more than 800 words, a few, short quotes are a must. Share link to final draft in this chart. Read what your classmates wrote! (100 points) (Rubric)

(*This is based on the following from author Neil Gaiman “Mythologies tell us about being human. They are glorious; they are timeless. They need to be retold. . . When you’re retelling stories, you’re retelling them for your people.”)

I initially thought of this as something different to do with a text that was very familiar to them (many read a middle-grade version in 5th grade and almost all were familiar with many of the individual episodes). Since Odysseus is one of those characters who people tend to remember in some shorthand way, I thought it would be interesting for students to take a conscious look at something that we do unconsciously. And, considering how that choice of how to remember this character might be related to their own personalities seemed like an excellent option for seniors in the midst of writing college essays.

It was interesting to me that students found it difficult to make the personal connection between their choice of how to identify and remember Odysseus (the wily Odysseus, the old warrior etc) and themselves. It was hard for them to see that their choice perhaps said something about who they are or what they appreciate. Since I knew the students quite well, it was pretty easy for me to connect the dots. The dots appeared like lighted runway arrows to me. Most of the group ultimately found some connections, and they were amused to find that many of the connections were not that tricky to identify, although a few just totally could not or would not go to any personal reflection. I think that combining the analytical and the personal was a novel experience, and they were uncertain about leaping in.

In the second semester the course, still English with an interdisciplinary approach, focussed on fantastic places in literature. One of our texts was Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It is the story of Marco Polo telling Kublai Khan about the cities in his empire. However, each city may actually be based on Venice or Marco Polo’s imagination. Each city is described in a few paragraphs or a few pages and is grouped into one of nine categories. The students had never read anything like it.

My assignment description was the following:

Post Invisible Cities writing project

This is NOT a research paper. Do NOT search for or use any other sources (criticism, reviews, wikipedia, etc). This is your own deep investigation of a piece of this text.

Part 1: Analysis of a collection of city passages (choose whichever topic you wish)

  • Formulate an original idea about these passages.
  • Analyze the passages, explain your notion of their identity, use quotations, etc
  • ~1100-1200 words (no more than 1250)
  • Assessed as a typical analytical paper (see English department general rubric on bulletin board)
  • Worth 50% of total points

Part 2: Creative descriptions of the place you chose

  • Write 2 short descriptions of your location in the style of the theme you analyzed
  • You do not need to imitate Calvino, but do use his writing as a model
  • Each one should be 250-350 words
  • Worth 25% of total points

Part 3: Connecting the dots Commentary

  • A commentary or reflection on your own writing and analysis
  • How have these two parts (analytical and creative) informed each other
  • 400-500 words
  • Worth 25 % of total points

Total points=200

All parts should be in one document. A simple row of asterisks can be used to indicate a move to the next section. No need to label the parts.

Although this description of word count and points makes it seem like this assignment was very rigid, there was A LOT of room to move within these boundaries. The book itself is hard to get a grip on so having so very set specifics for the writing was a good anchor. And, to spread out the work, we had worked on the descriptions of place a bit in advance.

The final products here were very successful, in my opinion, in that they pieces each contributed to the whole. I can’t imagine understanding any of the student’s thinking without all the pieces. In some ways, the commentary was the most valuable. By that point in the assignment, the student had done the thinking, analyzing, writing, and editing. For many, it was the place where everything came together the most succinctly. It also gave me some insights into the student’s process and intentions with the creative writing, in case they could not quite carry off what they intended. We talked about this quite a bit in class, and I wrote the creative pieces as well. I shared that my pieces were certainly more heavy-handed than Calvino’s in terms of the themes I wanted to get across. But I also reminded the group that Calvino is a pro; it’s ok for him to be better at this and it’s ok for us to try to copy some of his writer moves (as long as we say that is what we are doing). In giving them that permission, I got back all kinds of careful observation notes and comments about the writer moves each of them was trying. Plus, with the different parts of the assignment, there was something for everyone.

So, what I learned is that combining the analytical and the more creative or personal leads to good thinking, solid writing, and quality engagement from the students. Plus, the final products were interesting to read. Victory!

So I’ve been thinking about the final project for my senior English class. I have known that this would be the assignment in some shape or other since the summer. It was one of the very first things that I determined about the class, and I’ve been excited about it ever since.

A little background.

This is a one semester, interdisciplinary English class focusing on fantasy literature and in particular fantastic places. For this final unit, we have learned about installation art (I wrote about my students’ voicethread projects on installation artist the other day), and we have just read The Night Circus by Ellen Morgenstern. In the book, two magicians make various displays and tens within a magical circus (think more fair than circus in that there are many displays and parts of the place rather than a single big top). The circus, open only at night, travels from city to city and serves as a venue for a competition between the two magicians, who have each been trained by a different teacher. Some of the tents that they create have the feel of installation art. I told the students the rough outline of this assignment about halfway through our reading. I would have told him sooner but It would not have made sense. Here is what I shared with them at that point:

Immersive Environment Proposal

Simply put, you will create a proposal and explanation for an immersive environment. This environment should have one specific, intended audience member (from one of our course texts) and allow for others to participate. It should also address a big idea that we have investigated over the course of the semester.

Things to consider or questions you need to answer:

  • What big, conceptual ideas will your work/space examine?
  • Who is this space for? You need to have a specific audience member (presumably a character from the semester, but if you have other ideas, please ask) in mind and design for that person (and others)
  • How does this space speak to both you and your audience member?
  • How do you imagine the audience moving or not around the space and why?
  • How does the audience interact with the environment? Can they change it or engage with it in a way that alters the experience?
  • What materials would you use and why?
  • How have you been inspired by any of the artists you or your classmates studied? Be specific about your inspiration.
  • Consider technological and fantastic options. Just because you don’t know HOW you would make it work, doesn’t mean you can’t suggest or plan as if you did.

More details about words and images to come, but this is enough to let you get started thinking.

 

We really started talking about it a little more in earnest as they finished the last section of the book. I asked for feedback from a few colleagues. I talked with the class about product and group or individual project.  We actually came to the idea of a poster session as a group. After all that, I added what I think are clarifications to the description of the assignment.

Please look at the TED Talk video on The Night Circus topic page (on LMS) I think it gives a good example of how an artist might think about big ideas yet represent them in maybe unexpected ways.

Due Date: Friday, May 4th.

Format: poster (and shadow box or model–optional) with images and text.

  • Artist statement
  • Detailed description of the piece. This does not all have to be words. You can and should have some visual elements here (diagram, colors, picture of materials, etc). How will visitors experience the work? What do you hope they notice? etc
  • Process commentary. This will walk us through the ideas you drew upon, reference images or artists you borrowed from, discuss the process of coming to your final idea. (So, take notes along the way of where your ideas have come from and how they have changed).

We will have a gallery walk through the proposals. There is a special schedule on Friday. 4th is after 1st. I am worried about completing all proposals in a single period. We may need to meet on Monday for part of the time as well.

I have been updating a Pinterest board with images of installation art and linked that to our class page as well. The groups are formed. The topics are chosen. The students are working. On Monday I had expected that we would have time to work in class after finishing a discussion. However, the discussion was going so well that we didn’t get to it. So, students have had time in class but only the past couple of days. I would have liked to have given them shorter bits of time over more days, but that is not how things turned out.

One of the things that I needed to clarify and find a way to explain more was the idea of this being an art piece, not a stage set or an illustration of some piece of the book. Most of the very first ideas they were batting around in their groups were very literal. I was concerned. After another conversation with my art colleague who had helped out during the introduction to installation art, I returned with the following words: our goal is Art, not illustration. While this seems succinct and to the point, I was not sure that the students would know what to do with it. I added more to the assignment description. (Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)

NOTES:

  • Our goal here is ART, not illustration. That doesn’t mean you might not start with some more literal representations of your ideas, but then consider how to move a bit away from that. Your audience should be able to bring their own experiences and ideas to the work. You don’t want to dictate exactly what they are supposed to think or see.
  • It is fine to be inspired by or have someone else’s work spark an idea for you as long as you then do something different with it. It’s hard to explain why seeing x makes you think of y. Giving credit to that initial spark does not make you unoriginal. It makes you a respectful member of a community of creators.
  • Keep generating ideas. Don’t necessarily settle for the first idea that comes to you. Be willing to engage in significant revision to the point that the initial plan is not even visible.

Oh, me of little faith.

On Wednesday, students came in with lots of ideas. They must have been doing some thinking about the project, and I was impressed by where many of their ideas had gone. While there is still a lot of literal underpinning for what they’re planning, they are pushing themselves to be more abstract as well.

Victory!

A couple of the groups had some heated discussion about where and how they would bring their ideas to life. One group has been laughing up a storm as they try to imagine making their ideas visible–blood and wolves are involved. This group is particularly amusing to me because two of the three students are from my 5th grade class, and as I watch them laughing about  the absurdity of some of their ideas, I can see them as those 5th graders in my room who laughed about the craziness of the Greek myths and ran around the playground at recess. Usually, I walk around and talk with each group, which I did some of, but there was so much good conversation happening in each group that I really didn’t want to interrupt the flow. I did more walking and listening. And, at some point, I just sat down. They really did not need me to do anything else.

I am so excited to see the final results.

So, I’ve been thinking about the plans my students presented before spring break. The project was a YA book plan, either historical fiction or fantasy, depending on the genre the students in the group had been reading.

Last year, the entire class was reading various fantasy books and everyone, either in a group or alone, created a plan for a fantasy book. (I wrote about it last year, including the project description.) It was very successful in that students did good work, did not hate the project, were creative and collaborative, and I got new information about their interests and abilities.

This year, I have a lot of students who like historical fiction and/or don’t particularly like fantasy. So, I quickly created a historical fiction unit as an option to the fantasy unit. Historical fiction worked for a similar book concept final project which meant I could keep my successful project by making a few simple tweaks. (Fantasy project description. Historical fiction project description.)

Students knew about the project from the beginning of the unit. Having fantasy and historical fiction units going on simultaneously does not seem like an obvious pairing. As they read and talked about various books, I frequently connected at least part of our discussion to their goal of a new book project. Not only did that remind students of the upcoming tasks, but provided a unifying element in what might otherwise be a pretty random situation. For example, after each group’s first reading assignment, we looked at beginnings. I did a little talking about options writers have for beginnings, then groups examined the way their writer and text started, talked about the benefits and potential drawbacks, and finally, students wrote individually on a forum about what they were thinking about in terms of a beginning strategy for the book they would plan.

Once we got to the project, again the students really came through. This is work they are doing the week before spring break, not a time known for high-level work. Students had a short amount of time. Although they were to come in with some basic ideas on Monday, they basically started work on that Monday, had class Monday and Tuesday (long block of 65 minutes), homework time, and presented on either Wednesday or Thursday (the Thursday groups each had someone missing on Monday or Tuesday). With only four groups (3 historical fiction, 1 fantasy) I could spend quality time with each group asking questions, pushing them to consider options etc. On Monday, I was worried. They had ideas but were pretty far from solidifying anything. On Tuesday, they were significantly farther along. With a long class period that day, I was also able to get around to each group twice. It was interesting to see how various ideas changed and what had either fallen by the wayside or moved to the front.

It was clear from the final presentations that the groups had thought a lot about the structures of the books we have read over the course of the semester, beyond this unit. (Narrative structure has been an ongoing topic of discussion.) All groups made very particular choices about format and structure that they explained in terms of their responses to other works they read earlier in the semester. Students did solid research for the historical fiction stories. They thought about how they would incorporate enough of the necessary history into the story without sounding like a textbook. The fantasy group had animal characters and made interesting choices about character traits and lessons learned. In addition, each group had a presentation that included images to help us imagine the setting or characters. A few of them were very creative visually.

I was thrilled.

And, I was worried that maybe I was just being the proud teacher and excited over mediocre work done by students I love. It’s sometimes easy for me to spread affection over work like jelly, allowing it to cover burnt toast. I know this about myself. However, I invited another teacher to the presentations (The year before I was worried students wouldn’t take the assignment seriously and had another teacher there for the serious factor. This group did not need that, but whenever there is a performance/presentation, I think it’s a great idea to have outside eyes and ears for celebratory or seriousness reasons.) Then, I showed the final products to a real, live YA author. While neither of these ladies thought my students should give up their day jobs of being high school students, they both agreed that my students’ work was indeed quality stuff.

Whew.

What a great way to head off to spring break.

Here are a few slides from the presentations:

This book plan combines Ann Frank’s diary with a boy in a detention center. The boy has to read about Ann Frank and write in response to her entries. His initials are also AF, which I thought was a great little twist. This is an example of some sample text that might be in their book.

 

This book concept focusses on 9-11. There are four main characters who do not all connect to each other. At the end, they are all at the 9-11 memorial at exactly the same time. This is what each a shared chapter/passage.

 

More sample text. This concept has the story set in WWII, but in North Africa. There are two main characters, one older, one younger. The plan is for the younger medic to tell the story, but have the older soldier as a friend/mentor and information/history source.

 

Finally, the fantasy story. This story is about a naked mole rat who wants to see “above” and light and colors. The background on the slide is a maze of tunnels.