Who the f*** is Alice? Letting Teenagers Loose in a Digital World.

Inanimate Alice, an interactive online story
Inanimate Alice, an interactive online novel.

It’s safe to say that the pupils in my class did not like Alice, the eponymous heroine of Kate Pullinger’s digital fiction teaching phenomenon, Inanimate Alice (view trailer here). I know they did not like her because when they were let loose on creating their own episodes with which to continue the series, they all chose to kill, or at least maim her. But before I recall the varied inventions and brutalities enforced upon Alice, let’s be clear what we’re talking about.

Inanimate Alice – which, according to my Dutch colleague, sounds like the brand name for a blow-up doll – is an online digital novel currently existing in four episodic adventures. The narrative is a multi-sensory experience, combining text, images, sound, videos and interaction in the form of puzzles and games. Each episode is set in a different country, and the plot invariably follows the same thread: Alice finds herself stuck in some sort of dangerous predicament, and has to rely on her virtual friend Brad to save the day. There is an element of global citizenship here; by travelling the world she is exposed to a variety of cultures – and the novel can be taught in a variety of countries, since the series is available in different languages. Alice gets older with every instalment, and as she does, the story becomes more complex, more dangerous, and more involving for the reader.

It’s always vital to ask why we are teaching a particular topic, rather than simply choosing something because it looks cool. Why teach Inanimate Alice rather than a play, or a novel? I’d argue that for young teenagers (a class of 13 and 14-year-olds in my case) the combination of multimedia modes helps them develop lifelong skills that they benefit from learning early on. It’s likely that many of these pupils will end up in jobs involving processing spoken language, written text, auditory clues and visual images all at the same time, and this is what Inanimate Alice challenges them to do.

This online series is littered with possibilities. As well as offering us the opportunity to study the writer’s character development, setting, motifs, themes, pace – all the usual suspects when it comes to literary study – there’s also scope to boost literacy skills in listening, making notes, drawing comparisons, discussion, even debating (get a Digital Fiction vs. Traditional Storytelling divide going and watch them go). What we are dealing with here is a resource that is rich in learning, literary and literacy opportunities.

So it’s a great shame that my pupils hated Alice. That is not to say they disliked the medium, or the topic, or the varied activities and discussions we had based around the series. They just didn’t take to Alice as a character. Once we’d watched the four episodes currently available online, I asked the class to use the school’s ICT facilities to create their own Episode Five. They took great delight in making Alice suffer, in a frenzy of impressive bloodlust that incorporated their own text, images and sound effects.

One of my pupils had Alice horribly injured in a car accident and then caught up in a zombie outbreak. Another decided that she would become a gangster’s moll and implicated her in bank robbery. These pupils were at least good enough to keep her alive; in other episodes she was stabbed in a street riot, shot in the stomach, flattened by a bus and eaten by a sinister ghoul in a haunted house.

I’ve tried to figure out why the pupils took such a strident aversion to Alice. It may be because she’s an ultimately passive character – basically at the mercy of her parents and surroundings, unable to do much for herself, and relying on her imaginary friend Brad as a sort of guardian angel to pluck her from the various scrapes she gets into.

This passivity is hinted at in the title of the series. One of the first things I did with my pupils was to figure out what “Inanimate Alice” actually meant. It’s a difficult phrase to unpack. Ultimately we decided that it meant that the character Alice remains frozen online, suspended in time at a given web address, until pupils come along and animate her by starting the series. Perhaps it Alice’s inertia that persuaded the pupils that they should, when the time came, put her to rest.

It’s impossible to talk about Inanimate Alice without mentioning the soundtrack. For something so integral to a multimedia story, the music is wildly irritating. On my first day teaching it, this horribly repetitive drone kept me awake most of the night, reverberating around my head. When audio is used to create sound effects it works brilliantly: footsteps crunching in the snow, creaking doors, rumbling engines. These all work as part of the patchwork quilt which makes the experience so immersive. But the music is, in the main, fairly grating. I thought so. My pupils thought so. A colleague observing one of the lessons thought so. It seems like such a fundamental thing to get wrong in what is otherwise a pretty slick production.

I will be happy to teach Inanimate Alice again. The diversity of learning that can be achieved through the four episodes is staggering, and they are developing another, I hear. That is something to look forward to. When it comes out, however, I will make sure to turn the volume down.

War of the Words

Call of Duty: Black Ops Annihilation. Photo (c) Dekuwa
Call of Duty: Black Ops Annihilation. Photo (c) Dekuwa/Flickr.

As a published writer of short stories, I’ve long been interested in teaching imaginative writing in schools. When I was training to be an English teacher there were some topics I felt wary of: grammar, poetry, the works of Shakespeare. These were all areas I wasn’t overly confident with; I knew I’d have to rely on planning and research to teach them effectively. Imaginative writing, however, was supposed to be my specialty. A doddle. It was something I had studied. Something I had practiced. Something I actively did myself. There was no doubt in my mind that my pupils would spawn insightful prose and chapter upon chapter of scintillating narrative while I sat in the corner, fingers steepled, silently smirking at the factory-line of writers I had moulded.

It has not worked out like that. The first challenge I’ve had to face is trying to unpack everything I know about writing and trying to quantify it in some way. I realised that I had actually internalised a lot of the things I do when writing, that I am not conscious of many of the techniques and strategies that I use. The other major obstacle is the pupils themselves and the manufactured environment of a fifty-five minute lesson. Personally, I am a binge writer. I go days and weeks without writing anything at all, and then I’ll spend hours spewing everything out onto a keyboard. If somebody sat me down four or five times a week and told me to write solidly, silently, for a set amount of time, I’d find it incredibly difficult. I’d complain. Find excuses. Procrastinate. Is it any wonder that teenagers do the same?

Raymond Soltysek’s paper ‘Wind them up, let them go: the primacy of stimulus in the classroom‘ articulates a lot of the concerns I have with teaching creative writing in schools. It discusses the importance of pupils researching their stories, being allowed thinking time, and getting an audience for their work. Overall, Soltysek’s arguments are excellent, but all the same, I take issue with one of his main tenets. He believes writers should “write a little, often”. He feels that young people should be allowed to spend a short time each day on writing projects — ten minutes at the start of a lesson, perhaps — and then they should move onto something else. Personally, I’d find this horribly frustrating. I would either sit staring blankly at the wall for ten minutes, or hit a rich seam of ideas and be cut short just as my momentum was building.

Soltysek correctly points out, however, that the writing process is not just about sitting at a desk. I only hammer away at a keyboard sporadically; for much of the rest of the time, I am writing in my head. I am working things out, developing characters, playing with dialogue. Perhaps I should go further and sketch these ideas down as they come to me, and maybe this is a skill worth instilling in young writers. My pupils have anxieties about imaginative writing, mainly centred around two problems: what to write about, and how to start — both perfectly valid concerns. So I always spend time with my students providing prompts and developing their ideas before asking them to put pen to paper. The Writing Prompts tumblr is an excellent resource which can be used with all ages.

Over the last year, I’ve noticed a strange trend for teenage writing that is clearly inspired by (or stolen from) video game narratives. This is storytelling medium which, admittedly, I know very little about, but I’ve marked stories set in war-torn bunkers, full of lurid descriptions of improbably-acronymed bazookas, dialogue delivered in clipped Hollywood soundbites, medical packs found in caves which immediately cure near-fatal injuries, anonymous bodies piling up which conveniently vanish from the landscape, and characters who display a complete lack of empathy or internal compulsion beyond some befuddled urge to reach the next level. What all these stories lack is a sense of authentic characterisation, and in my feedback I always ask my pupils to think about how their characters feel about their predicament. Do they have sympathy for the man whose head they have just turned into pixels? Do they miss family or friends from home? Do they have motivations, flaws, weaknesses? These things, for me, are where the story may be found. But teenagers all too often imagine that the story is created by exotic locations and the ever-more-sophisticated weaponry their characters wield.

When writing, teenagers seem to be obsessed with the small details. They can spend half an hour trying to think of a good name for their main character, and even a suitable date of birth. They genuinely believe this is crucial to the success of their story, despite being told that it is not. To show them, I usually use my own process as an example: when writing a story, I name my characters things like Hovis, Fanta, Cadbury, and so on in my first draft. Then, when the story’s taking shape, or is nearing the end, I’ll go back and fill these in with more suitable names. I encourage pupils to use stage names to kickstart their writing. The character’s name doesn’t matter; it’s what the character does and says that’s going to make the story worth reading.

Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe the names of characters, and weapons, and mythical creatures, and far-flung planets are more important to a story than I think. Nobody ever said there was only one way to write. I believe teenage writers should be free to express themselves however they wish. Perhaps if I listen more and explain myself better to them, we can find a quiet, productive no-man’s-land where we can meet and agree upon the same terms.

Still, these problems are all, of course, for us teachers to worry about. Teenagers who enjoy writing will always write, and those who have a talent for it will produce impressive work regardless of our meddling. Pupils under my guidance have written wonderful work, and there is nothing more satisfyingly galling than realising that a pupil has more natural talent than their teacher.

An Onion Walks Into A Classroom

(c) Doc Wert/Flickr

I know in my heart that it was not Carol Ann Duffy’s fault. It was my own fault, and to a lesser extent the pupils I tried to teach on that fateful day. I know these things yet I still cringed when I saw Duffy at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few months ago, and struggled to stifle a brief fantasy about strangling her with her own smock. As though that could be any kind of suitable revenge.

I have taught many of Duffy’s poems to teenagers; they like her, and tend to respond to her work. It helps that she is not yet dead, like most poets who are taught in schools. Duffy also writes with a sense of quirkiness that school pupils don’t always associate with poetry. They expect landscapes and romance and death; she gives them schooldays and jokes and attitude. They admire her also for being the poet laureate, even if they do vaguely think this means she’s like the Queen’s own personal poet who wanders around Balmoral writing poems about the Duke of Edinburgh eating scrambled eggs.

So I like teaching Duffy. But I think it will be a long time before I decide to teach Duffy’s anti-love poem “Valentine” again.

If you don’t know it, “Valentine” uses an extended metaphor to compare love to an onion. They can both elicit tears; they both have layers; an onion is like a full moon on a romantic evening; its brown paper like the wrappings of a thoughtful gift; and so on. It’s fun, and it’s a good poem to teach—full of imagery and double meaning. But some of my pupils struggled with the notion that love could be similar to an onion. But sir, they said. An onion’s, like, a vegetable. They didn’t quite grasp the idea. So on my lunch break I went to the greengrocers.

I later realised that where I went wrong—and you will shortly see just how spectacularly wrong this lesson went—was in my lack of specific instruction; pertinently, I did not tell the pupils precisely what they should not do. This was probably due to a lack of imagination on my part. I genuinely hadn’t anticipated just how volatile a bag of onions could be in a classroom with thirty teenagers.

My pupils were sitting in groups of four, and each table was to be given its own onion. As soon as they came into the classroom they knew something was up. There was a chopping board on the teacher’s desk. A mysterious green carrier bag. A knife.

Ominously, the lesson started well enough. The pupils cottoned onto the fact that I wouldn’t hand the onions out until they were all sitting, smiling serenely, silent—lulling me into a foolish impression that everything was fine. Okay, I said. I want one person from each table to come to my desk and get their onion.

They quickly assembled, peering with wonder into the bag, nudging each other in anticipation. There were onions in the classroom; the incongruity was too much. It was as though an alien had just landed in the playing fields. Onions are surely not that exciting in today’s world of iPads and video games. I’d certainly doubt if any of my pupils spend their evenings raiding the vegetable crisper to see what bulb-shaped delights they can plunder. Red onions, spring onions, shallots. Leeks, perhaps, if they are feeling adventurous.

No, I didn’t think it would be that big a deal. I dispensed the onions.

The plan was to read through the poem, which was projected onto the wall. As the metaphor built up, I’d ask the pupils first to peel the onion, to feel its brown papery skin, and try to associate this with Duffy’s description of the onion as being gift-wrapped.

The peeled onions were held aloft, and I invited the pupils to equate them with a silvery moon. At this stage, there was nothing more sinister than a small mess and a mild oniony pong. I ploughed on.

For the next stage of the metaphor, the pupils had to be blinded with tears, and it was here where things unravelled, spectacularly. I went round the class with the knife and cut each of the onions down the middle, prising them from greedy fingers and placing the two wobbling halves back on the desks. I returned to the front of the classroom. I suppose I knew then, in some way, that things had veered off-course, but the realisation hadn’t fully formed in my mind.

Okay, I said. Love is like an onion. An onion and love can both make you cry. Sniff your onions. Feel the sting in your nostrils and the tears in your eyes.

But they were, in all honesty, no longer listening. One boy had rather artfully drawn a face onto his onion, and was performing a rudimentary puppet show for one quarter of the room. His ingenuity was quickly followed by others, and soon there was a cast large enough to stage a one-act production of something by, perhaps, Beckett. I moved to quell their behaviour, but was stopped by something far more alarming in the other corner. A boy leapt from his chair, holding his tongue and retching violently. What are you doing! I shouted. Then I saw, on the table, a half-eaten onion—teeth marks gorged into it, much of the onion’s meat missing.

It burns! he cried. It’s burning my tongue!

Have you just eaten half a raw onion? I demanded uselessly.

He picked up his empty water bottle and squeezed its remnants into his mouth. He turned to me, wild-eyed, mouth hanging open, eyes pink. Go fill it up, I said.

If this had taken me by surprise, it was to be surpassed. Taking advantage of my momentary distraction, another girl had plucked the two halves from her table and was systematically rubbing the onion’s flesh into her eye sockets. Her face was red and tears were falling from her chin onto the table; in the eyes of her classmates, she was already a hero.

I shouted at her to stop, and she did—perhaps relieved to be told to—but already a spate of copycat offenders had cropped up. Pupils bit into the onions and chewed them as though they were apples, spitting out frothy lumps of the stuff and roaring with the displeasure of it. Others grounded wedges against their eyeballs, twisting and squeezing the juice out. Onions flew through the air. The room stank. Screams and roars filled the class and we were only at the sixth line of the poem.

Later, when order was finally restored and the onions binned, I lectured the pupils strongly on my expectations of their behaviour. I praised those few pupils who had sat silently, bemused, during the pandemonium. I warned the rest of them of the dire consequences they would face if I had to deal with such feral mischief again. I was angry, and scared. Scared that they had done things I could never have imagined; scared that I hadn’t predicted they could react so chaotically to something as normal and everyday as a small white onion.

They took the lecture with faces that were pink and sore. They’d ruined the lesson I’d planned for them, but I’d been taught a far more valuable one.

Greyskull High*

*The school’s name has been changed for the sake of anonymity.

(c) cinderellasg/Flickr

They stare. Stare at the new guy in the cheap suit. Thirty-two Glaswegian teenagers with gelled hair and fake tans, stinking of Lynx, chewing gum and fiddling with phones. They stare at you, in your new shoes, taking notes in wobbly handwriting. You stand in the corner. Avoid eye contact. An imaginary force pins you against the wall, next to the door. You cannot cross that boundary. That is their territory, not yours. They smirk. Sneer. Talk about you in barely disguised whispers. “Who the f…?” “Looks like a…”

You scribble in your notepad. You are here to observe. You write down thoughts on the layout of the room, the seating plan, the lighting, the wall displays, the way the pupils enter, the distribution of resources, the temperature, the lack of plant life, the stains on the floor, the graffiti on the desks, the smell, the noise from the corridor, the ratio of girls to boys, the lack of school uniform, the worrying amount of teenage thigh on display. Still, they stare. The teacher ambles to the front of the room, shouts at them to shut up. They carry on talking. The teacher shouts again. “This is Mr Gillespie!” he yells, pointing at you. “He’s a student teacher, and he’s going to be spending some time with the class. Say hello.”

Student teachers spend eighteen weeks on placement in schools. They take up to 70% of a full timetable. They plan lessons, create resources, mark assignments, set homework, attend parents’ nights, mete out discipline. They spend these days lecturing, questioning, shouting, smiling, laughing, farting, stamping, clapping, singing, stuttering, sweating, writing, ticking, crossing, counting and cursing. They don’t get paid. They borrow classes from established teachers to learn their trade. Sometimes the established teachers sit at the back of the room taking notes, interfering with lessons or reading the newspaper. Sometimes the established teachers squirrel themselves away in the staffroom or go round the corner to Starbucks. No two lessons are ever the same for the student teacher.

When the bell rings on my first day I feel physically sick. I have not been in a classroom since I left school nine years ago. My placement is at Greyskull High in one of the toughest areas of Glasgow, surrounded by schemes plagued by unemployment, drug abuse and casual violence. I am supposed to observe for the first week, but the thought of being exposed to these streetwise kids, these spitting, swearing, posing kids, has kept me awake at nights. What will they make of me, with my fauxhawk hairstyle and leather manbag? Can I engage them, hold their attention? I am not a PE teacher, who can run them ragged on the football pitch, or a technical teacher who will let them play with soldering irons and chisels. In my class they will not learn to cook meals or blend paints. Nothing hands-on. I am an English teacher, armed with powerpoints on Shakespeare, spelling mnemonics and a bank of creative writing prompts. What will they make of it? Can I harness these little people, these lunatic children, with the power of a perceptive metaphor? Have they heard of a simile before? Do they care?

The first surprise is that the bell to mark the start of the day doesn’t sound like a bell at all. There’s no elongated, bristling ring heralding the children to class. Rather, the bell beeps like a lorry in reverse. The school building’s relatively modern, with an intercom system through which the headteacher can address the whole school from the comfort of her office. There’s a smartboard in every room, an expensive and potent piece of kit which no teacher actually knows how to use.

In the first lesson I observe, the classroom teacher sits with me at his desk while the pupils supposedly work on essays. “The problem with these kids,” he says, “is that they’ve got no attention span. A total inability to concentrate. They spend all night playing computer games or sitting on Facebook, then spend all day drinking energy drinks and eating sweets. Their brains are messed up. They can’t focus on anything for any amount of time.”

The teachers are well aware of the environment that the pupils at Greyskull High come from. You’re supposed to call it an “interesting” catchment area, or a “particular socioeconomical background”, and really what you’re saying is that the place is an utter hole. A ridiculous number of the kids are on free school meals allowance, but don’t use it for fear of being stigmatised. Some of the kids live in care, others probably should but don’t. Some of them are carers themselves. You see the state of the clothes they wear to school, the hygiene and cleanliness of them, and you realise that if nothing else, when they come to school they should be safe, given attention, listened to. That’s your priority, forget Dulce et Decorum Est and bloody Pythagoras. If a kid’s not done homework you ask yourself if homework’s a big part of this kid’s home life, and if there’s someone to help him with it, and if there’s even a pencil at home. There’s no point shouting. You’re there to help the kids out and that doesn’t always mean battering them to death with grammar and punctuation lessons.

In the last lesson of my first day at the school, I sit in with some senior pupils who have basically just stayed on because they can’t get into college or find a job. They seem to have reached a truce with the teacher—don’t bother us with too much work and we won’t give you a hard time. I’m being all keen and enthusiastic, still scrawling down notes on everything I see. There are two boys sitting well apart from the others at the front. I ask the teacher why they’re separated from the rest of the class.

“Paul,” he tells me, “is sitting on his own because he has extremely violent tendencies. There’ve been a few incidents and it’s best that he’s on his on. But he’s a nice guy.”

I look at Paul. He has spiky hair. His shirt is untucked. He looks like a typical sixteen-year-old—a bit spotty, a bit lanky, not quite comfortable yet with the skin he’s growing into. But there’s something weird about his eyes. They dart, glaze over. His cheeks go red because he knows we’re talking about him.

“The other boy, Humza,” says the teacher, pointing at the other isolated pupil, “stays up all night playing Call of Duty. So when he comes in here he just sleeps.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Nope. He’s been spoken to by the headteacher, by social services, everyone. He’s a total addict. So he just comes in and has a nap.”

Humza’s sitting there, still wearing his jacket and schoolbag. His head’s hanging forward. There’s nothing on his desk. Paul looks at Humza and spits on the floor.

In general the kids are brilliant; alert, cheeky, naive, cocky and daft. One girl tells me her grand plan is to save up five pounds a month until she’s twenty-three and then move to America, because she hates the rain. She’s got it into her head that life over the pond is all Californian beaches and Floridian sunshine. I tell her some areas in the States get as much rain as Glasgow. She thinks I’m lying.

Another girl grabs me as I walk past her desk. There’s a look of slight worry on her face. “Sir,” she says. “Sir, what’s philosophy? Is that, like, the dinosaurs and stuff?”

I think back to the units I did at university on Kant, Plato, Hobbs. I think about telling her about utilitarianism and the state of nature. She looks at me, expectant, keen.

“I don’t really think I’ve got time to go into it,” I say, and run back to my spot in the back corner of the room.

Within a few weeks I’ve got four classes on my timetable. One hundred and twenty kids a day sitting in front of me, jotters open, looking at me. Go on then. Teach. Let’s see what you’ve got. I get over the nerves. I learn that my voice can go louder than I’d ever known. I develop a scary wide-eyed glare that I use when kids fail to follow instructions, or chat, or text, or fight, or sing, or pass notes; the glare is supposed to say I simply cannot believe you think you can get away with that in my classroom. They tell me to stop looking at them weird.

In November, the school sells poppies to the pupils for Remembrance Day. The poppies have the plastic green stalks that are useless unless you have a button hole. Some genius decides to also give the kids little pins so they can attach the poppies to their jumpers. The next day, a spate of stabbings breaks out among the junior pupils. Armed, they attack one another’s limbs and torsos with the pins. Tiny little bruises peek out from behind cuffs and collars. The nurse’s station is swamped with crying 12-year-olds. The headteacher delivers dire warnings over the intercom. Few pupils actually wear a poppy.

Before long, I am doing it. Teaching. I teach; they learn. The pupils come into the room and sit down and muck about and work and sometimes do as they’re told. Nobody leaps to their feet and screams about the imposter at the teacher’s desk. We do novels, poetry, imaginative writing, personal writing. Some of the work the kids produce is stunning. Some of it is unexpected. Some is crap. I take a pile of jotters home and read the words these little people have made and I write encouragements and criticisms. I evaluate their progress, compare them to national guidelines, advise and record. The kids get their jotters back and ask each other what they got. They ignore my feedback and try to find out who got the highest grade in the class.

I try to be different. A bit funky. I keep a harmonica in my pocket and use it to get the kids’ attention. I get them to write poetry about places in the local area and then display their poetry there—verses about haddock in the fishmongers, about coach trips in the bus stop. We do a unit on the persuasive language techniques used in spam emails. The kids write scripts and film themselves. We recite Shakespeare in the playground. Twitter templates are used to develop characterisation. I do not want to be a boring, typical teacher. It sounds daft but I want to surprise them, help them, inspire them. I want them to miss me when I’m gone and talk about me when they’re older. If you don’t want that then why the hell do it?

Some teachers have been at it a long time and are jaded. They slag the kids off in the staffroom, real personal abuse about how the kids look and act and work. One teacher decides to teach the same poem to four of her classes at the same time, so she doesn’t have to worry about preparing resources or planning lessons. It’s not right and I feel uncomfortable sometimes, but I’m new and making mistakes myself and you need these experienced teachers for advice and comradeship. I find behaviour management with some classes a real struggle. I’m not naturally assertive and bawling at kids feels alien to me.

Weird things happen. A nearby bank is the scene of an armed robbery and the police say all the kids have to stay in over lunch because they haven’t caught the guy. A helicopter patrols the area above the school. The kids are demented. Wild. No chance they’re working when there’s an armed robbery in the neighbourhood. Another time a deer gets loose in the school’s playing fields, and guys from the RSPCA are trying to catch it, chasing it round the running track and the kids watching it all out the windows during Biology. Then they come to me and I’ve got some stuff prepared on Carol Ann Duffy but it’s hopeless; they’re bonkers and obsessed and spend the lesson ignoring me and wondering what’s happened to the deer. Kids need routine. Change shakes them. If there’s a fire alarm during a lesson the whole day’s pretty much a write-off. They go loopy if it rains hard. Snowing? Forget it.

We’ve all been there ourselves but pretty soon, we forget what it’s really like to be ruled by a school bell and only allowed to walk on one side of the corridor, surrounded by sweaty, stupid, silly teenagers. You should go in and stand in the corner and watch the kids, the way they act, shout out, and remember which one you were—the loud one, the funny one, the quiet one. You were there once though you might not remember. Go in and watch; watch the kids and then watch the numpty at the front—orchestrating, guiding, freaking out, just praying for the bell to ring.