Creative Voice: Laura Fleming

I don't think it's a controversial stance to say that our education systems need help, especially with digital technology advancing so quickly. Well, Laura Fleming is the kind of teacher I would have loved in school. She truly understands how education can be improved -- and implements it in her own classroom every day, using transmedia storytelling methodology to weave curricula together across subjects and engage her students in ways mere textbooks simply don't. She's also involved in Lance Weiler's Robot Heart Stories -- and was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

What excites you most about transmedia storytelling?

What excites me the most is the opportunity to use transmedia storytelling techniques to create a rich LearningWorld (or many LearningWorlds) with a global reach that expands and extends learning beyond the hours of the school day and the confines of the four walls of a classroom. Students will be able to move online to offline to online in a seamless and integrated way to fully immerse themselves in their learning and create a totality of learning experiences that encompasses the school, the community, and the home.

How did you get interested in transmedia as a storytelling method and possible tool for education?

My interest in transmedia stems directly from my teaching and my classroom and seeing how the implementation of these methods creates transformational learning experiences. I am very much interested in how these methods help to break down the barriers between students and teachers, making everyone learners learning together, and how they leverage the distribution and the proliferation of knowledge.

How did you first learn about transmedia storytelling?

I first became interested in transmedia storytelling after reading Patrick Carman's novel, Skeleton Creek.  My students responded to that book in a way that I had never seen before.  After much investigating, I finally discovered that Skeleton Creek was an example of transmedia storytelling.  Once I discovered that, I took a year to investigate, research, and experiment with my students to discover how these techniques could be used to create an immersive learning experience across the curriculum.

Your passion has always been the potential of transmedia storytelling in education, and I’ve always agreed that this multi-platform, engaging, digital, and community-based form of storytelling is a great way to help fix many of the problems with modern education. But for a teacher with a limited budget and limited time as it is, how do you put together something as engaging and complete as it needs to be?

I have often considered what a transmedia methodology means for the average classroom teacher. Although I don't feel teachers need to know all of the complexities of transmedia, a basic understanding of these concepts is important. By nature educators are expert planners, and teachers can take it upon themselves to draw upon their existing resources to plan for and create their own innovative transmedia LearningWorlds.

In education, where does the money come from to produce a transmedia project? Is there a way for a production studio to put something together for multiple teachers around the country or world to use, and get the budget to do so?

I think there are multiple ways to finance the production of a transmedia project. Right now, I am involved in a fantastic independent project with Lance Weiler and his collaborative team. The project is Robot Heart Stories and it is raising its funds through Indie GoGo. Kickstarter is another great place to get a crowd-funded budget. In the case of Robot Heart, it was felt that the crowd funding mirrored the collaborative nature of the project. It seems that more and more digital media and learning funding priorities are focused on models of 21st century learning and are attuned specifically to creating these types of participatory learning experiences.

How much interest have you seen so far from teachers, librarians, kids, and parents, when it comes to teaching using transmedia storytelling? Is it still a niche interest, or are people ready to gobble it up?

I am so pleased to say that since I have entered the transmedia world, I have seen a growing interest from the educational community. Several months back, I co-wrote a piece with John Connell for Cisco’s Get Ideas Educational Community and it generated more interest than any other piece on their site. In addition, a piece I wrote for Edutopia drove more educator traffic to the site for the transmedia project Inanimate Alice than ever before. I have been asked to speak to educators and librarians as well as to write for them on the topic. It seems that more and more I am hearing about and speaking with companies who are now taking a transmedia approach in their endeavors.

Can you tell me about one of the projects you’ve put together for your own classes?

One of the projects I that I have written about before was one that I put together for the book Weslandia by Paul Fleischman. The theme of the project was 'self-preservation'. This theme proliferates the standards cross-curricularly and provided the perfect opportunity to engage a larger school community outside of just my classroom.

For this project, I made students a part of the creation of the learning experience. Together we explored places in which we could extend the narrative. Not surprisingly, students wanted to create a Facebook page for the main character Wesley. They felt that seeing who his friends were, what his interests were, and by reading his status updates, we would have a deeper understanding into Wesley as a character and how being an outsider made him feel. Students also expressed interest in examining Wesley's struggle with fitting in and what events may have occurred before Weslandia that shaped Wesley into the boy that he is. With the help of our Student Assistance Counselor, students are creating skits that demonstrate events that may have happened with Wesley - such as being bullied by his peers. They will be composing blog entries that will give us further insight into his thoughts during this period of his life, as well as resources and information for students who have been bullied in real life. Students were emotionally connected to Wesley, which brought his story to life for them.

In Physical Education class, students are learning about sports and games and how their stories can teach us about cultures and civilizations. They then will be creating a game that Wesley may have created for Weslandia. Their games will reflect Wesley's vision of Weslandia and reflect values that he desired such as fairness and good-sportsmanship. In music class, students are jumping off a pivotal piece of the story in which Wesley is laying on a hammock in Weslandia and playing a song on a flute. Students will be composing musical pieces that extend the story by giving us insight into what Wesley was feeling at that moment.

I now approach all of the learning experiences in my classroom with a transmedia eye. I have found these practices to be effective for even our youngest learners.

What drives you, as a storyteller? What are you interested in, story-wise, and what do you hope to accomplish with the stories you tell?

Transmedia storytelling in education has the ability to reach all types of learners but all kinds of children as well. I am driven by learning in which students make connections to themselves and to the world around them, which naturally begins a dialogue based on a story that relates to their family and life experiences. Learning in this way gives each and every child a voice and inevitably leads to a higher level of engagement.

What would be your advice for an indie transmedia creator?

I think transmedia creators should remember that it is essential that their educational projects have an underlying pedagogy. Ultimately, I feel that educators should be a part of the research and development from the beginning of any education project.  I also believe in transparency in the creation process and the importance of connecting learners directly to the storytellers, enabling childen to become storytellers themselves, and allowing for powerful opportunities for co-creation and user-generated content.

Who is your favourite other creator in the industry, or what project do you think deserves more attention? (Other than Robot Heart Stories and Inanimate Alice!)

My favorite creator in the industry is Jeff Gomez.  I was lucky enough to speak with Jeff early on my transmedia journey and he has influenced me like no other.   Besides being a creator and producer of highly successful transmedia franchises, Jeff has spoken about the incredible power of using the power of narrative to fostering a dialogue and unite people all around the world.  This is something I admire, particularly in the education space.

Where do you want the transmedia storytelling industry to go? What would you like to see happen in this community?

We all know that learning is enhanced by transmedia practices and I am eager to see the transmedia storytelling industry weave standards and curricula through their narratives to create, on a big scale, robust story worlds for our students to immerse themselves in. Combining media in an integrated way meets today’s children where they are ready to learn and where they want to learn.