Students at two Prince Edward Island high schools have been finding their story-telling voice in a whole new way.
The Voice Project, which was piloted by UPEI’s Digital Economy Research Team (D.E.R.T.) at Colonel Gray and Three Oaks high schools in Charlottetown and Summerside, is an alternative mode of teaching for Grade 10 English classes.
This project-based learning approach gives students skills in new and different types of storytelling, such as digital, rather than a straight-up essay or written composition.
In creating a composition in any medium they chose, whether it be video, comic books or clay animation, they were mentored by local culture experts, such as filmmakers, website builders, puppeteers, poets and dancers.
“I genuinely enjoyed coming to class to learn this . . . . When we were working on the film, it was actually really exciting,” says 15-year-old Colonel Gray student Jenny Dunne, who was part of a team that created an insightful video that tackled the tough subject of bullying.
The Voice Project was created as an alternative to the traditional text-based method of delivering the inquiry unit of the English writing 421 curriculum.
“We’re saying that the traditional writing skills that you might learn, where you go to the library (for example), can actually be learned in a different way that may be potentially more engaging but can still have the same thinking processes,” says education researcher Sean Wiebe, who is an assistant professor of education at UPEI and a member of D.E.R.T., which is a team of UPEI education researchers who investigate digital and multiple literacies to improve classroom instruction.
The students worked in teams to produce a unique final product that allowed them to share their voice.
“Some of it is creative (writing). With this course it’s more about process — the process of writing is what they’re learning from ...,” says Colonel Gray teacher Sarah Charlton.
“The question we came up with this year was if the world stopped to listen to you for a moment what would you say — trying to get at an issue that they felt was worth discovering or worth investigation.
“So the choice was fairly broad, but we gave some parameters like ‘What kind of things in the world are you concerned about? What are some social issues? What are your interests?’ And from there students were able to pick something.”
First up for the Colonel Gray students was the idea pitching process.
“Each of us first had to pick what kind of a project we wanted to do, like if we wanted to do a comic book or a video or a Claymation. After that we formed into groups of five or six people, then the pitch assignment was, if we had one chance to tell the world, what would we tell them?” says 15-year-old Kitty Yin.
“Each of us pitched an idea for that and as a group we combined them all together as one central theme of our project.”
Kitty was part of a team that focused on using clay animation and video as the media for their message in A Moment of Clarity.
“We made a short film, (the theme of which) was how to live a positive life full of meaning and very goal oriented,” Kitty says.
“We basically had this main character, Craig. He is really an ungrateful teenager. In a dream he receives this mysterious letter telling him that he only has one day to live, so he absolutely alters his whole life. He stands up for bullying — that was one of the group member’s pitch ideas, so we incorporated bullying into that.
“At the end when he wakes up from the dream he realizes he still has his whole life ahead of him, makes goals and lives a really inspiring (life).”
One of the things that became quickly apparent during The Voice Project pilot was that it allowed the specific strengths or the skills of each student in the group to shine.
“In my pitch assignment, I discussed the theme of living a positive life and living passionately, and Kitty and the group made that (idea come) full circle,” says Jack Campbell, 15, who was also part of the Moment of Clarity creative team.
“I had some supporting ideas that we as a group created, and Kitty really helped us form it into a perfect story. The rest of the group worked on the figures and the setting.”
Stratford visual artist and animator Kate Sharply was the mentor for the clay animation team,
“It was so up to us what we wanted to do with it. Our mentors were there to really help support our ideas, so that was really helpful,” Kitty says.
Island filmmaker and digital media expert Brian Sharp was the mentor for Jenny Dunne, 15-year-old Aaron Ryder and their project mates.
“For our video we wanted to take a different spin on what bullying was,” says Aaron.
“Normally, it’s that the bullies are these bad, mean people, but we thought (anyone) can be a bully and there must be some good to some people. So (we focused on) what’s behind the bullying, where does the bully get to that point where he or she feels the need to bully someone?”
While writing is typically an individual process, The Voice Project approach required a team effort.
“We had a lot of different ideas in the beginning, but at the end we all came together. And with this project-based learning we all had an opportunity to do what we do best and explore our different areas. It was great,” says Jenny who, along Aaron, had previous acting experience and utilized that skill in the video.
“I liked that in these kinds of projects. Everyone (is on an equal learning field),” Aaron adds.
“If you’re a visual learner you can create something that is pleasing to the eye. If you’re a writer you get to write. If you’re an actor you get to act. If you’re an artist you get to create art. There is something in this project for everybody.”
Their team also conducted a student survey to ensure that the content of their video was true to life.
“For the information, we put in our videos or the subject matter, we used comments that we thought bullies would actually say to people, not something like ‘You’re a silly head.’ A bully wouldn’t actually say that, so we actually got some stuff that you would actually hear a bully say in high school,” Aaron says.
“Everything that is in our video is authentic,” Jenny adds.
“It’s either something that they’ve heard or something that’s been said to them.”
The nine-week project started in October and wrapped up with a big celebration presentation nights for both schools.
“At the end we show an end result of everything that we put together, it’s a final, edited and just really polished piece,” Kitty says.
“That’s really exciting to see that all our hard work is condensed into that one final product to show everyone.”
Various components of The Voice Project process were graded. For example, the students’ pitches counted as writing assignments.
“We’ve graded them independently on what they were doing connected to the project and the actual product they’ve created we’re not associating any grades.” Charlton says. “We’re going to grade them on their presentation and completing it and all the processes though(out). But (we) felt that grading such diverse product — I’m not an expert in any of those fields — is a bit unfair. And so (we’re) just celebrating the fact that they created it and that the process or the journey was where a lot of the learning happened.”
An unexpected discovery for Kitty was that she excelled in a leadership capacity.
“Before I always only worked on my own. I just really liked that. I wasn’t really comfortable with negotiating with other people or really opening up about my ideas and (saying), ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ I think this forced me to get into that leadership role. I learned a lot about myself and the potential that I have to help the whole team.
“The other thing that really surprised me was even though some people in my group, their personalities were more quiet or they didn’t talk as much, all of them were really engaged in the thinking process.”
The Voice Project pilot struck a particularly strong chord with Jenny.
“I personally don’t learn best sitting in a classroom having a teacher lecture me or just reading out of a textbook. So this project-based learning helped me so much because it’s all about the process of doing things,” she says.
“I’m a kinesthetic learner, which means I do things with my hands and my body, that’s how I learn. So this whole project-based learning allowed everyone to use their own type of learning and their own type of strengths to get to the final product, which I think was the best part."