Sunday, 15 June 2008
the FOUND Project - report by Toby Jones and Chris Meade
We have been hatching projects for a while both before and after Chris left Booktrust, working on new, interesting and above all fun ways to stimulate creative writing in the classroom. Thanks to support from Booktrust and with the advice of their Education Officer, Allison Judge, we were able to take this work a stage further in creating FOUND, a unique experiment in collaborative fiction.
Chris’s new job as Director of if:book, exploring the future of the book and the impact of new media on literaturem provides us with the additional challenge of trying to find new forms and formats in which to express a narrative. We wanted to explore how basic computer skills ( email, video, instant messaging and blogging) might help stimulate young writers to develop and expand a narrative.
As always the project was shaped to a large extent by the circumstances of the class we were teaching. FOUND would be an ongoing story that we would create with a mixed class of twelve and thirteen year olds in their first (second) year of secondary school in Birmingham. The story would last for six weeks and centre on a weekly communique from us, the initiators of the story. The story would throw up issues, mysteries and suggestions for further work that could be addressed both in class and independently via the internet.
We had to find a story that would be relevant and provocative enough to stimulate the class. The story would need to have enough ” space” or ” unresolved narrative” to enable the class to contribute. It had to bridge two different criteria: to be general enough to appeal to the whole class, to be specific enough to matter at all.
Thus the child was found….
We came up with The following situation:
“Somewhere in the West Midlands a scientist, Tobias, is called out to examine a mysterious boy who has been discovered living alone in the cellar of a large house.
Dr Tobias C. Jones-Meade ( usually shortened to just Tobias!) runs the Hauser Institute. The Institute is dedicated to research into “forgetfulness, recollection and identity loss”.
On examination the boy appears to be of mixed race and approximately twelve years old. It is not clear how long he has been living alone but he has not been imprisoned against his will. He wanders freely upstairs but chooses to live downstairs in the cellar of this fully furnished and abandoned house.
The boy is silent. He seems to be able to read but cannot write coherently. When he does write the text seems haunted by his experiences but they are as yet unclear.
Tobias takes the boy into his care and attempts to discover his story….”
Week one of the project gave the class this outline of the story. They have been chosen to help Tobias after he contacted a friend of his, Tim Boyes, head teacher of Queensbridge school ( the actual head at the school).
Tobias requests the help of a culturally diverse class of twelve year olds as the ideal means of plumbing the mind of this similar but enigmatic twelve year old, Tobias’s theory being that the class may be able to ask the right questions of the boy. Furthermore by sharing their experience of ‘ what it is to be twelve in the West Midlands right now’ they might be able to equip the boy for re entry into the world.
It was the detail of Toby’s letter that fascinated the class. “On first inspection the boy appeared to be approximately twelve years old, with dark hair and light brown skin. The boy was almost entirely silent save a few grunts, sighs and inarticulate murmurs. He appeared to have been living alone in the house for a long time, months if not years. His nails were abnormally long to the point of curling back in on themselves. However he was reasonably clean with long hair down past his shoulders. As I mentioned in my introductory letter the boy is able to write and read which he does with great enthusiasm and insistence. The text is full of urgency and has a desperate quality that I find hard to get out of my own head.”
With the headmaster’s agreement Tobias begins to email questions to the class about their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears. The class are then invited to send their written, photographed and filmed responses to to these questions direct to the Hauser Institute website. Every week the class receive news of the boy’s development and education. As they provide their information they also begin to hear from the boy himself.
The boy asked the class for cool expressions to use – and then used this in communicating with them. He asked for their stories, jokes, advice on haircare and tips on how to be twelve. The responses, which were posted on the Hauser Institute blog, were witty, touching and always generous. The jokes were good too:
There are two sausages in a pan,
one sausage goes
“Wow its hot in here”
and the other one goes
“AHHH, A talking sausage!”
One girl wrote:
“You asked: what makes me laugh and cry?
The thing that makes me laugh is hearing a really funny joke.
or being around people who are funny, Tobias sounds funny!
What makes me cry?
Things that make me sad and cry are hearing that my little sister has hurt herself and had to go to hospital. Another thing that makes me sad is when i go away from home for ages. Missing my family makes me sad. do you remember having a brother or sister?
Asma, whose teachers say is usually silent in class, sent this touching note.
you know, its really cool being 12.you go through sooo much.i mean, its your last year of being a kid…enjoy it while you can. the times go really fast. emotions really count. its a part of life. its up to you to feel happy or sad, no-one’s gonna tell you what to feel. but there’s obviously a bad side of being 12. my parents are all like “you’re big, you have much more responsibility then you had from when you were a kid!” SORRY, i think im writing a bit too much!
i hope i hear from you soon!
The class chatted with Tobias and the boy – and each other – with an ease and intimacy that made us think they were suspending disbelief rather than being fooled, but staff at Queensbridge reported back that the class were convinced by our story.
Toby writes: “I think that the project was a success in many ways. Over the course of six weeks the story engaged the class and their contributions to the Hauser website were funny, informative and sometimes poignant. From my own perspective I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the class’s imaginative responses to the emerging story.”
The class developed in several ways. They set up Google accounts and were able to log in and out of the site away from the class room. In any future project it would be good to encourage other ways of responding and find ways of getting the class to upload films, music and images into the story.
From the if:book perspective we began to imagine a new kind of text made up of both the story and the thirty or so responses to it. We would encourage the class to pursue their research into details of the story as they try to investigate elements of the mystery that make no sense. It was fantastic to hear the way the class had pieced evidence together in so many different ways. These investigations could become the basis of other versions of this story or the inspiration for new ones.
We could imagine an expanding website dedicated to the Foundling story with the central narrative of the boy’s “education and development”. From this centre the website could interweave: research, blogging, images, questions, new story strands etc.
This idea began to emerge as the direction of our story shifted in about week 3 due to the unforeseen circumstance of the discovery of the Josef Fritzl atrocities in Austria - the situation of the boy found living alone in a cellar was too similar to the real life situation. As a result of this we decided to shift the focus of the story back onto its eccentric narrator, Tobias.
We introduced a housekeeper, Brenda, into the story, played on video by Cindy Oswin (who was dragged out of bed one morning to film an urgent message to the class). Unbeknownst to Tobias, Brenda contacted the class to inform them of the emerging relationship between the boy and the Professor.
In fact we had been concerned for some time about the ending of the project. How would they reveal that there was no boy? How would they find an ending that satisfied the class and respected their contributions?
From week one it was clear that the story had been set up very well. The class had no problems identifying with the boy and his situation. So we had to find a way of broadening the story and we began to plant clues undermining the veracity of Tobias, our narrator.
In fact we decided to make the story about him. We began to leak details into the story of Tobias’s past. The boy, whose grammar and vocabulary was improving thanks to the class’s input, began to write poems to the class with mysterious allusions ( place names, veiled events and characters). The class seized upon these details and plundered the net for further information about the story. This research could all be included in the eventual larger if:book we were creating.
We planted clues that might eventually reveal that the boy was a fiction created by the professor to sublimate the loss of his pregnant wife in an earthquake twelve years earlier. This meta narrative helped us deepen our story but it also enriched the breadth of the class’s reading, writing and research.
Then came the second intervention from the real world. The earthquakes in Burma and then Sichuan coincided with our own integration of the earthquake back-story.
As the story came to its climax in the sixth week we decided to include the real earthquakes as a means of explaining the profundity of the Professor’s grief and subsequent breakdown. We sent a short film of the professor talking directly to the class with News 24 blaring in the background, reports of real catastrophic loss.
In his final confessional letter of apology and gratitude to the class the Professor cited these real events as being the trigger of his confession.
Reactions to this revelation were strong: real anger and genuine sympathy too, plus a frank recognition of how much they’d enjoyed the whole process.
Finally we visited the class to tell them that not only didn’t the boy exist but Tobias was actually an actor, the Hauser Institute e a fabrication. By this time pupils had written their own versions of the story from the point of view of Tobias and the the boy, showing a quality and empathy that impressed their teachers.
Those teachers are impressive too. Head of English Ellie Clarke and Queenbridge’s ‘creative agent’ Jo Klaces were prepared to make up the rules as they went along, to handle last minute receipt of hastily filmed instalments, and field difficult questions about what was and wasn’t true. Without them this project would not have been feasible; with their experience and enthusiasm it was exciting and rewarding for us as well as the class.
We have a very clear mental image of an if:book as a kind of scrap book leading the reader in and out of this story from many different perspectives, both real and invented.
The if:book would be a collage of the many directions in which a readership is despatched by a story.
The if:book includes the call and its many responses.
It might comprise of the many images, ideas,voices and films that its story provides and provokes.
It could be a real, tangible object on a shelf or a virtual, endlessly adaptable space on a computer.
It begins to explore the space between the writer the story and the readers. It begins to fill this space.
The Foundling if:book might include everything that is on the Hauser website already but also: the research into the story, our discussions on where the story might go, the class’s imaginative response and their scepticism, the lexicon they have created, the compendium of their advice, other foundling stories, movies and links…….
It would be good to develop a process by which teachers could invent stories that permit such rich communication over a period of time.
The stories need to be loose enough to adapt to the readers’ response.
They need to be provocative and relevant enough to generate a response.
Next we would like to develop a workshop exploring the challenges this process has thrown up.
We are now keen to run if:book workshops in collaboration with Booktrust and also talk to funders about the potential for further projects like this one based around specific texts and involving children’s authors.
- Toby Jones & Chris Meade June 7 2008
Toby Jones is an actor and writer who has appeared in more than twenty films. He voiced Dobby, the house-elf, in the Harry Potter films, portrayed Truman Capote in the biopic Infamous and plays Karl Rove in the forthcoming Oliver Stone movie, W.