Charoula Rentzelou, Kindergarten Teacher
Contemporary Greece is a multicultural country. This translates into the schooling environment, which consists of a mixed population from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Statistics indicate an increase in the number of enrolled foreign students over the years. However, as a research paper by Skourtou, Vratsalis and Govaris suggests, only a small number of immigrant students proceed to higher education. This is partly due to their inability to understand, speak, and work in the official Greek language. Another factor affecting dropouts is mobility from region to region and country to country. In the same paper, it is proposed that in order for the Greek educational system to face up to the challenges of the new reality of immigration, multiple factors need to be taken into consideration. First of all, the Greek state needs to implement schemes that will assist students with developing the necessary language skills. Another challenge that informs the efforts to establish a relationship between language learning and social cohesion is counteracting xenophobia, which is found to radically affect adjustment to the schooling system.
However, the current social and economic crisis aggravates the possibility for measures targeted to reinforcing integration to be actively implemented. Services, as well as resources, for the maintenance of quality education for all, are radically eliminated. In this climate one has to create an appropriate environment so that the pupils reach their potential and become confident and capable citizens, with low-cost but high-effect methods of teaching. My personal experience as a kindergarten teacher affirms the statistical evidence as briefly mentioned above. There appears to be an urgent need for a classroom environment that actively encourages adjustment of immigrant populations where the linguistic and cultural barrier, as well as the lifestyle of continuous movement, can be prohibiting.
Storytelling becomes relevant as a medium which is particularly important for the development of communication and linguistic skills, and is thus concurrent with the goal of alleviating prejudice, facilitating long-lasting interpersonal bonds between the children, and increasing cultural tolerance and familiarity. According to Barton and Booth, a story is a vital element of meaning-making. It is a structure that reinforces the imaginative framework of the developing child, gives validity to important feelings, promotes insights, nourishes hope, reduces anxieties and provides a rich fantasy life. The ordering of information is particularly significant in this process. According to Hermann, a specialist in memory enhancement, organized information can be learned four times faster than information that is presented randomly. A story line provides this organizing structure, Bruner notes, by assisting in processing the random and unordered world of everyday experience. Smith similarly suggests that ‘The human brain is essentially a narrative device. It runs on stories. The knowledge that we store in the brain, our “theory of the world” is largely in the form of stories. Stories are far more easily remembered and recalled than sequences of unrelated facts.’
From this point of view, an emphasis on storytelling can be a way to counteract the lack of resources: in an environment where the social and financial crisis affects the availability of advanced methods of language teaching and learning, variations of storytelling can provide pathways to imagination and meaning-making that are an equally important part not only of the learning process, but also of the commonality of experience formed in a classroom. Aligned with this view is Skourtou, Vratsalis and Govaris’ remark that ‘what is crucial for social cohesion in relation to language is a high quality communication that assists the development of conceptual wealth, strong personalities and not itself one or another language.’ In the classes I have worked I have found that storytelling can indeed reinforce bonds between peer groups. According to CRESPAR (2003:18), the enrichment of vocabulary is essentially linked to the reading of stories, and in particular when these are accompanied by debate and participatory student activities. In my experience, storytelling that also revolves around kinesthetic and music, other than just language, encourages non-Greek children to realize their talents: they even tend to play roles more enthusiastically than Greek children, perhaps in an effort to compensate for poor language experiences. Their ideas about direction and scene-setting are often innovative, providing a point of reference that promotes commonality (i.e. situational jokes that continue to be evoked outside the time-limits of the activity)
My desire to develop low cost activities that would be linguistic, but also experimental, expressive, and experiential is what led me to consider the field of digital technology in relation to storytelling. Digital storytelling provides the opportunity for active participation, which departs from the teacher-centered approach of traditional storytelling. I was convinced that introducing a new subject that did not fall into the rigid structures of the curriculum would create an environment where children could work and communicate by creating with more freedom and with self-motivated engagement. Burmark notes that combining visual images with written text enhances student comprehension. Digital storytelling enables the placement of abstract concepts into a framework more concrete and thus understandable. At the same time, it is a method essential for teachers seeking to engage students and facilitate discussion about the topics presented in a story. It allows children to debate, discuss, and reflect as they work together on a storyboard, shoot, or edit, digital stories that they have created . According to Frank van Gils, storytelling is a method of teaching that makes the subject more interesting, as people tend to pay much more attention when information is mediated via an exciting story. With the arrival of the digital era, the introduction of electronic media in traditional storytelling highlighted new possibilities for education and learning. Gils pinpoints the advantages of digital storytelling in education: It offers variation to current practice and personalization of the learning experience; it promotes diverse interactive learning systems and reinforces the involvement of students in the process; it makes the explanation of topics more compelling; it helps create real life situations in an easy and cheaper way. He, nevertheless, also highlighted that in order to establish a good balance between education and entertainment, systems should be developed in close collaboration with teachers. Educational purposes are of primary importance in this endeavor, and should be considered on their own accord, beyond the mere possibility of creating an application with the technology that is available.
Springing from a viewpoint that approaches audiences —in the context of education— as consisting not just of listeners, but also of learners that can interact by shaping a story through digital storytelling, I embarked, in cooperation with the children, on creating new digital storytelling methods in the kindergarten environment. The awareness that children will be nourished and eventually called to function and be creative in a digitalized environment, prompted me to cater my teaching material accordingly. The children are often already familiar with basic uses of available technology i.e. moving the mouse around, playing games. What they appear to be lacking, however, is a realization of the possibilities for individual creativity within a digital environment. Rather than promoting existing digital products, my aim was to prompt children to create their own recreational and learning products that would involve a critical stance toward their broader exposure to new technologies.
I should note that the school I work for belongs to the zone of educational priority, and is equipped with an interactive board (digital projector). I generally adjust my projects to the needs of the demographic of each classroom. The schools I work for are varied, in terms of the social status and linguistic and cultural background of the pupils. The number of the pupils for the current year is fifteen (15). Five (5) of them (1/3 of the classroom) are Albanian. Two of them did not speak any Greek at the beginning of the year. The remaining 3 could communicate with their peers, but not in the institutionally formalized linguistic environment. In addition, some of the children’s’ parents are away for prolonged periods of time, in order to stay within the work force and provide for the rest of the family. Either one parent has migrated, expecting the rest of the family to join at some point, or one of the parents is constantly moving from city to city, for long periods at a time, in order to make ends meet and provide for the rest of the family. In the context of that climate of mobility and precarity the children’s academic performance is radically affected.
In my class, I have implemented digital storytelling strategies through power point and power director. The children are thus familiarizing themselves with these media as a way to present their work. They become acquainted with tools which they will come across in the future as adult users, and start realizing how easy it is to talk about their work when everybody has full view of it. By putting the children at a position of control with regards the digital product and providing them with the opportunity to intervene and change it, I have aimed at encouraging interactivity and participation.
For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on five projects, each of which adopts a different strategy towards this direction. The material I will be projecting consists of: projections of the illustration of known stories created by children with the purpose of open floor commentary; dubbing of cartoons selected by the children with the purpose of individual intervention in the expressive modes of the storyline; devising storylines on a musical background. All of the cases are accompanied by footage. I had no assistance with these projects and there was no prospect of publication or public viewing at the time of their creation. The material is therefore rough, filmed and recorded in real time, within the classroom environment, while I was carrying out the activities.
1. The illustration of the children’s story book ‘Boris Bad enough’ by Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego,1976. (Using Power Point)
The story goes: Mother and father take Boris to the psychologist when his behavior goes from bad to worse. The psychologist reprimands them on the grounds of their dysfunctional family relationships, thus avoiding attaching blame exclusively to the child. Boris, during the session, kicks the psychologist. The parents start scolding Boris, but the psychologist reacts by telling them to go home and reflect on their respective behaviors. When they all go home, the psychologist’s remarks start sinking in, and they decide to try and be “good”.
I read the text of the story to the children, and then they were invited to illustrate it. Children started illustrating random scenes that made an impression on them, and when we collected the papers, we put our story together. Each child explained which scene he/she illustrated and placed it into sequence with the other illustrations. Finally we spotted which scenes were absent, so we could fill in the missing parts. This is how we proceeded to complete the illustration. I used Power Point to project the illustrations (including the text) on the board.
This illustration eventually helped them express themselves on issues that are important, concerning their everyday lives. For example, what is a “bad” boy or girl, and what does it mean to become “good”. I have to point out that children in their attempt to illustrate the story often used their own image in terms of gender. (Power Point 1)
The presentation triggered a lot of conversation on what a bad boy or girl is and how it is defined by their acts or the effect those have on others. The results of the illustration were relevant as much to the socioeconomic status of the pupils, as they were on previous projects undertaken in the classroom, which had focused on expression of feelings/sentiments.
(Power Point 2) .
In the same vein we read the story Five Minutes’ Peace by Jill Murphy. All Mrs. Large wants is five minutes' peace from her energetic children, but chaos follows her all the way from the kitchen to the bathroom and back again. I proceed to take pictures as the children enacting the story under my guidance, but also independently during their free time. The photographed performance serves to re-illustrate the story. The new material is exhibited in power point, on an interactive board, alongside the original. Then a decision is made, as to whether to keep the original version or the one made by the children for each scene. Children enjoyed the process and commented on the performance of their peers, often recalling instances of the enactment. (Power point 3)
2. Creation of ending variations for an Aesop fable (using Power Point)
The children expressed their dislike for the ending of a cartoon based upon Aesop’s fable ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’. So we decided to give our own ending to the well-known fable of the lazy grasshopper and the industrious ant. Each child illustrated his or her own version of the resolution, which was accompanied with text explaining the main idea (as expressed by the children but written down by myself). The endings the children provided could be seen to reflect their thoughts and reactions to the current economic crisis, especially because the story revolves around the ideas of money-saving, material needs, and reward. (Power point 4).
3. Audio-visual adaptation of a Beatrix Potter Story (using Power Director)
We read stories by Beatrix Potter, and then watched their adaptation from the Royal Ballet of London. After the children grasped the concept of the possibility for audio-visual adaptation of a story, we created our own story against the background of music with intense rhythmical variations, and proceeded to enact it and film it. A simple storyline was devised, whereby the act of mice searching for food was covered by slow music, with the accelerating intensity corresponding to a cat emerging and chasing them. The children proposed a few variations on this idea: the cat managed to eat a few mice in the end, the cat gave up and the mice returned safely to the storage room etc. I then proceeded to do the editing of the filming, during which the children played an active role by intervening and altering the storyline. (video 1) In the end we viewed the final version and corrected parts of it, or left others as they were, according to popular opinion.
4. Dubbing of an animated story (using Power Director)
We watched Reksio Terapeuta, an animated story featuring a dog, which helps a disabled chick survive and, in the end, become a hero. We muted the video and inserted our own dialogues over it, which we then recorded. I did the editing, and then we watched the video invested with our voices. (1st try, (video2). Due to the children’s dissatisfaction with the absence of music, I decided to encourage the production of a new version which would be most appropriate for the anime (i.e. the disabled chick’s wheelchair sound that bothers the other chicken in the story, the happy parade of chicks searching for worms, the applause of the chicks for the bravery of their brother, the encouragement of Reksio on the chicks’ improvement). I made a new montage using different audio recordings, and filling the speech margins. (video 2)
The children intervened by not adhering to the linearity of the story, but insisted that they recorded the episodes they felt strongly about first. They complemented the missing parts of the story later on.
5. Creation of a lifestyle advertisement (using Power Director)
Within the context of the Health Awareness Program for schools, we created a filmed advertisement for freshly squeezed orange juice, at a kindergarten located at an agricultural area of abundant local orange production. (See: hara the kindergarten teacher, BlogSpot). It was the period of the harvesting of oranges and the village was animated with the vans and the workers, many of them parents of the pupils. We transformed our classroom into a pretend-house. The storyline was that children are woken up in the morning, and the first thing they do is to consume freshly squeezed orange juice rather than processed prepackaged products. The dialogues did not turn out so well, so we just turned the material into a brief advertisement in the end. (video3)
The effect of this relatively elementary use of digital methods in the classroom environment can be summarized in the following points. I have found that 1) it enhances children’s intervening power. They start comprehending that creating a story is not permanent and unchanging, but rather a fluid narrative that may be edited and altered, or given a new ending. In the end, the process aspires to help them demythologize ready-made narratives. 2) It empowers them in terms of opinion-sharing, confidence and expression, problem-solving and solution-suggesting skills. It became apparent that this shift was, at least partly, due to the digital projects and their emphasis on individual agency. 3) Very importantly, it promoted community making in an unprecedented way. Digital familiarization became a «common language», uniting children of different gender, and from radically different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, on equal footing. Digital storytelling, as a new subject that did not fall into predetermined rigid structures provided the freedom for the expression of a specific commonality of experience.
Unfortunately, it has come to my attention that since our interactive board broke in February (due to financial difficulty it has not been replaced) there has been a change in this dynamic. Children have become more complacent and markedly more withdrawn, especially those who do not speak Greek as their first language. It becomes apparent, through the change that the lack of these activities has provoked, that digital storytelling is of paramount importance for the creation of cooperative environments and for confidence boosting, especially in multicultural environments. The fact that activities such as the above help children express themselves and develop a sense of belonging, often even relieving them from anxieties and tensions, highlights the need for considering the use of digital technology in learning from the early stages of the educational system.
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