by Corti, P., Pulker, H., Nerantzi, C., Bentley, P., Roberts, V. and Fransman, G.
In this blog post we share our connection to the story we created collectively, what we contributed and how we worked together, the members of the GOGN open picture book team. You will be able to hear the authentic voices of individual team members, unedited or polished. While we have worked closely together during the writing process, it will be the very first time for the team members to gain some insights into how each one of us experienced this creative collaborative process and how we felt and feel about it.
Chrissi: (Im)possible task?
No writing is easy, academic or creative. This project is no different.
We quickly decided to work in two teams. I did, I have to admit, as I felt that if we were all involved from the beginning, it wouldn’t work. Too many cooks? The plan was that Team A makes a start with the story and Team B further develops and finalises it.
I usually write picture book stories starting with a feeling I experience. Something that makes me feel sad, upset or happy. When I start writing, I often don’t know where it is taking me and many times, I am surprised where I end up. And I write the story on my own. This one was not like that at all.
So what happened? First, before even writing, I quickly analysed the survey results and all the data we had. I was in both teams and was the one who started writing the story… well, I actually wrote three skeleton stories. I struggled to get anything good together. Anything relevant, I mean. While as an open practitioner I feel a strong connection to open education, it was hard to write about it in a fiction picture book format on demand. We didn’t plan to write a non-fiction picture book. The original stories had castles and books, gardens, suitcases, a treasure hunt, cats and dogs even. Nothing seemed to fit, to be appropriate. I was disappointed in myself and quickly realised the enormity and complexity of the task. Would I let the team down? The community? I wanted to run away, literally.
I quickly became nostalgic of academic writing, where the framing and the story is based on evidence. Here we were trying to create something out of nothing and the freedom was overwhelming. It really was. I suspect we all felt similar in Team A.
When I met for the first time with the other two first Team A members, Helene and Penny, in October 20, they both showered me with critical comments on all three potential stories, I had shared with them in advance. This is what was needed, definitely but that night I didn’t sleep. It took me a few nights to recover… I binned the stories and started again based on our discussion, which I had vividly in my head and on paper in the form of notes. I didn’t think anything would come out of this. I was confused about my intentions and expectations. Was it an impossible task?
Something emerged, finally, something did. It didn’t smell open education. Nor did the other three stories I had written earlier. But dId this story feel like open education? Some of the fundamentals, principles and values were there, I thought. And Penny and Helene started seeing some of these too. Hidden in metaphors? Penny had suggested a river, I wanted to turn it into an adventure and integrate uncreative writing strategies too that so much remind me of OER. I loved the playfulness of this idea, I could be me again, true to myself, but was it appropriate or a distraction? Despite some more critical comments, or better, thanks to them, we kept that uncreative writing element in but in a much more refined way. I was excited with the re-use of specific well known fairy-tale scenes. For me it was about re-use of storylines that aligned with what we want OER to do. In literature this is known as uncreative writing. Not saying anything else about fairy-tale here. You will need to read the story and see if you recognise any.
We wanted a short story, a simple story, that could easily be translated too. It was short from the beginning and remained short. We worked on the written and visual part of the story with Team A. We made illustration notes. These are actually much longer than the story itself that is just over 200 words. Two hundred words? Yes. People say that illustrations notes are a no, no, as it can limit creative expression by the illustrator. But we had to change illustration plans, so we are ok, as I will have to do the illustration with some/a lot of help by a proper illustrator, Bryan Mathers. This collaboration is captured in another post.
As academics we are used to peer review so we were seeking it actively and throughout the writing process, from within the team and outside.
-Feedback extracts follow:
A story about open education or open education values?
“I am not sure I would have seen what you see without the notes, but that’s its beauty too, right? How people will be able to read different values into it.”
“… the resulting story is not about open education but instead about some of the underlying values on which open education is based although those values are not exclusively unique to open education.”
“Overall I like the story though to me it is a story about the evils of capitalism and personal property rather than a story about open education. And perhaps that is the point – though one we rarely talk about in open education.”
“I like where the story is going.”
“The transformative moment of a big wave coming is dramatic. I like the way animal 5 grabs a tree and holds onto the boat while animal 6 swallows the wave and saves them all. And the after image of all 6 animals now in the boat on an adventure and happy together is wonderful. I think the final spread will be key to fully show the transformation.”
“Big hands, big mouth, big arms. I struggle sometimes when physiology is used to express character as it places value on physical looks over which we often have little control. Having worked with handicapped kids of various kinds I’m sensitive to this issue. And in real life I’ve often found that physically attractive people can sometimes be the meanest.”
“Don’t use plastic bottles in the water”
“I wouldn’t end on inequality and exclusion”
“What animals will you choose? Does it matter?”
“Instead of dragon, only animal that isn’t real. A child or a monkey?”
“I expect the identities and character of these animals will be an especially delightful aspect to bring out in pictures. I think it will take some creativity to express identities based on notions of diversity, inclusion and social – look forward to the artistic treatment.”
We are grateful for the feedback as this did make us think deeper, analyse and synthesise our ideas and be more focused. When I took the story to Team B, I feared that they would reject it and say “what on earth is that?” I think the other Team A members were also curious to find out what Team B would say. Would it be rejected? That was definitely a possibility. It didn’t happen and both Verena and Paola could relate to the story. What a relief! For me and Team A. What about Team B? Quickly we tight up loose ends and decided on our animal characters taken into consideration the survey findings also. Up to then we had animal 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, mentioned in the story, which was a bit confusing. The draft story was ready just before Christmas to be shared or further peer reviewed with our first final draft story reader, while I started storyboarding.
Ada Czerwonogora, our first reader of the complete draft said the following:
“Hi everybody! Thanks for sharing your first draft with me.
I liked the story very much. I think that the doubts that I have now will be solved when the text will meet the illustrations, but it seems quite clear.
Question: What age are you planning the audience to be?”
And after looking at the digital storyboard…
“Loved to see the process! And the story looks much more clear… Are you thinking to include a “reading guide”? Just to clarify the context, maybe…”
I had no idea if this project would work or if it would be a disaster. I mean if we would come up with a story that is our collective story. To which we all have contributed something, each one of us. From my side, I can see that we have achieved this together and I am really interested in finding out what the other team members think regarding this. So their reflections on how they connect to our story will be fascinating for me.
It feels now that we are on a good path to actually progress our project. A little light lid up in me and more creative energy surfaced. I don’t think I would have come up with such a story as this one on my own. Our critical and creative conversations but also our struggles have got us here. Together. Our struggles especially. Our openness and honesty were fundamental, but also our collegiality and commitment to each other and the project. James and Brookfield (2014, 205-206) are right
“Creative and reflective thinking rarely happens entirely alone. We need peers to bounce ideas off, to ask us productive troublesome questions, to introduce us to new possibilities, and to alert us to omissions in our thinking. Our experience is that when these things happen in face-to-face and online communities learning is galvanized.” I am lucky that I was and still am with peers on this journey.
“Everyone is a bit scared,” said the horse.
“But we are less scared together”
(Mackey, 2019, 57)
Thank you all for sticking together and making this possible.
Note: Remember the three stories I mentioned early in this post and we didn’t use? Well, I removed them from this project but have continued working on them, to challenge myself and see if any of them will travel further, in new directions.
Paola: How to get busier and have fun
I love mountains and open air, and – as everyone else I know – I am tired of sitting in front of my computer, due to this pandemic emergency. So, why not to say a great YES! When a friend of yours asks to jump in a picture book adventure to be co-created just working online?
So far, it is refreshing: I never worked on a collaborative picture book before, and I love picture books. Images are powerful and cross boundaries, even the ones created by words. When Chrissi invited me, I told her all of it: she smiled back at me and just welcomed me on board.
When we started playing this game all together, Chrissi set some rules – as in any game – and they have been very useful so far: we are all busy, especially this year, but we all need rules when collaborating at a distance. “Distance”, moreover, is more an idea than a real dimension, in this period of our lives, I think. When we started working in two groups and I was part of the second one, I was waiting for the first group inputs and draft with a lot of curiosity: what will I read? Will I feel comfortable in building on the creative ideas of someone else? Usually creative works send me good vibes whenever I sort of “recognise” myself in something, or it hits me as something radically different than me and creates a sense of curiosity and expectation for a revelation. This time, when we, as group two, got actively involved the first draft of the story was there… and it was AMAZING! But… would I feel comfortable in suggesting something? I needed a moment with the rest of the group in order to let the story come into me, I needed to feel it…
We spent some time brainstorming about how to use less words, how to present characters, how to choose colours and scenarios in order to enforce images and decrease the number of words, leaving just the most powerful there. At first, I felt the need to make proposals for small changes as if I needed to justify them; after a moment, I felt I could say anything and all my suggestions would have been taken into account. Which doesn’t mean we accepted all suggestions from all of us: we discussed them openly and built on one another, till we reached a point that satisfied all of us. This happened both in online meetings and in the DM channel on Twitter. The story in the picture book, my own experience in OE, but also in this collaborative picture book co-creation, they were so close to each other! I felt so much “into it” as the characters are!
Thinking and discussing cultural dimensions, language related points of attention, different ages of the target readers etc. allowed us to cross our ideas and provide Chrissi with some hints. Not that this was even necessary! But she is also open to embrace and implement our stimuli.
The ongoing version of the story is the result of a collaborative process of creative writing and the work Chrissi is doing to create the right image for each element of the story is, in a way, still a collaboration, since she asks for our feedback on a regular basis. I feel like this experience will be a lasting one.
Such a pleasure to get in touch online during our free time: all of a sudden, in our calls computer and webcam were something I appreciated so much! So: mountains are still my favorite place to explore, but this picture book is a real, shared adventure and it made me wait curiously for each image Chrissi is sharing in her drawing – and creatively remixing – process!
Hélène:The path to understanding creative writing
To get the writing going, we were split into two teams. I was put in team A, which was responsible for producing the first draft of the story. At the same time, we were reading through the data we had collected through the survey : we were looking for the most popular animals and for emerging values and challenges of open education. Team A met twice, these two meetings were fantastic. During the first meeting we were able to share ideas and discuss our views on open education and ideas we had about the story. It is then that the idea of the river came about. Then we received several drafts and we had to provide feedback. I was so impressed at the speed the stories were created. I have to admit though, I was finding it difficult to figure out how the stories were about open education. Team A met a second time and raised these concerns. We discussed at length and it was really inspiring to bounce ideas at and to each other. Through collaborative thinking, sharing and feedback we identified our preferred story and as a group we continued to feedback as the story was being polished. As the story was progressing, although I was finding it amazing that we actually had a story, I was still struggling to see the message about open education or the values that we were trying to portray through the story. I was particularly concerned about the reference to a fairy tale, I thought it was impeding the flow and shadowing our message, but then again I was still struggling to see our message clearly. I had imagined that we would have characters going on a learning journey and as they were embarking on their learning path, they experienced difficulties to access knowledge, as there were all sorts of barriers and it’s only when access and resources and kindness were given to them that they eventually managed to learn something, almost as if there was only one path to learning and that would be open learning. I wish I had been able to write a draft. I could not put my ideas into words. As I said in the previous blog, I was surprised to be in the picture team because my sense of creativity and imagination are next to non-existent. At that point, I had given all the feedback I could and I did not know what to do anymore as a member of team A, I just could not see the story in the abstract. This is when I suggested that perhaps we should pass the draft to team B. I think this was an important milestone in the writing journey, it was a very positive thing to do as it helped to move forward. I was constantly wondering if we were off topic, if we had been better off discussing as a team what we wanted the story to say, and then write it. Expert story writers know that when you write a story, it’s not like when you write an essay and you don’t have to have a set plan or a set goal, the story evolves as you write it. I am not a story writer and I was approaching the story as any other piece of writing, and so I am really grateful for this experience because I have learnt so much about creative writing. All in all, so far, I don’t think I have contributed a great deal in the actual story writing but I have tried to contribute in other ways, where I could. The best part of this collaborative experience is its collegiality, respect of others and mutual support. During this pandemic, we, as educators, are all suffering, to a certain degree, from low mood, heavy workloads, online overdose and lack of human contacts and social activities. Being part of this project has given me a) the opportunity to connect regularly with a wonderful bunch of friends and colleagues, and b) something joyful to think about! We have all been extremely busy since the start of the journey and at times it has been difficult to fit it in, but this project has provided an incredible distraction from the difficult times we are currently experiencing. It has been an opportunity to work in a non-judgemental, flexible, and caring environment – the real values of open!
Verena: Creative Escape in Crazy Times
As a member of Team B, I expected to review a draft of a children’s story and make some edits. What I did not anticipate were my emotions attached to the story. I struggled with how my emotions and experiences as an open learning advocate could potentially amplify my personal bias, mindset and pedagogical beliefs. I mean – it is only a story – right?
As I was reading through the story the first time, I struggled with some of the ideas and images from a design point of view. I was unsure what certain images/script represented, what images went where and what would be added or remixed later. It was easy for me to take on an editor’s identity as I gave feedback as comments.
However, when Chrissi, Paola and I met as a team, and Chrissi read the story to us and explained the scenes step by step, I literally felt the waves as a visceral reaction in my own body. My editor “facade” came down as I started to just “be me”. The story was my lived experience as an open educator. It represented the struggles and frustrations and the many, many barriers we have had to overcome. I was overwhelmed with how one collaboratively written story – could also be MY story.
I was not only surprised at my connection to the story as an open learner, but as a Canadian. In our zoom session, as Chrissi described the scenes, she was very open to our feedback about the choices in everything from animals to colours. We were also very aware of cultural interpretations, based on our personal contexts. For example, we considered which animals we connect more with from our cultural contexts (for me it was a beaver, a bear or other northern hemisphere animals). We also considered the actions the animals would take, like “portaging” the boat to get to the next destination. We discussed the merits of spiders, the stereotypes of elephants and the potential of ants in our cultural contexts. We also realized that we were not the best people to decide which bird would be best to “scoop” water, so we were all willing to admit when we needed outside expertise.
I deeply appreciated Chrissi’s transparency around her drawing journey. She described how she was being mentored by Bryan Mathers and shared some of the tips and highlights of learning how to draw. Considering I am not someone with the same talent as Chrissi (as described in her blog post about her passion for creativity) I have to admit that Chrissi actually inspired me to try something new and creative – like drawing. That was quite a shock!
The time we spent collaborating and sharing the story reminded me of a trip to a foreign land, in our case called a zoom room. I was able to escape and think about who I am as an educator, how I work with others, how I live and breathe open learning, how others perceive open learning and how writing a story can be such a meaningful and thoughtful project. Although we collaborated synchronously for a short time, we have continued to add comments and feedback in our twitter chat. Reading the story, giving my feedback and the continuing process has made me realize (yet again) the power of personalizing and contextualizing learning through multiple voices and perspectives. I am deeply appreciative of this experience as a form of wellness in a confusing and frustrating time. You know when you start a project thinking when am I going to have time to do this, but then you are then in the middle of it and enjoying every moment? That’s where I am today.
Penny: Friendship and creativity
Chrissi invited Helene and myself to join team A to thrash out our ideas about the story. We met via Skype 2-3 times and communicated via email and direct messaging on Twitter. The story came about through sharing ideas. From our different backgrounds and perspectives we contributed ideas about what Open Education means to us in the context of creating a picture book for children.
I was delighted to be invited, to make a contribution but also surprised, then frustrated, that I found the concept so difficult (to communicate Open Education via a picture book). Overwhelmed, at times, that I couldn’t make my ideas explicit in a simple, visual form to share with others. Happy to be literally seeing, hearing, talking to, laughing with, and valued by two wonderful women and open educators.
I definitely feel that my ideas were incorporated into the story. And my/our ideas were improved through honest and open debate and feedback. I worried about not being able to pin-point and communicate exactly what Open Education means…to differentiate it from all of our ideas that initially came flooding in. That feedback from critical readers would pick up, and feel the same about, the point above.
The whole process worked well under Chrissi’s guidance. A project like this needed someone with the skills and patience to bring a group of people together, from around the globe, to create a children’s story about an ill defined concept. It is such a worthwhile collaborative process.
I really enjoyed it, but it clashed with the final stage of writing and submitting my thesis. I wanted to give it more time. My main sources of enjoyment were friendship and creativity.
Now, really looking forward to seeing the final product. Love Chrissi’s creative idea to use visual resources from the Rijksmuseum to illustrate the book.
Gino: Collaboration is in the Open
The opportunity to collaborate on a creative endeavour was quite intriguing to me, Chrissi’s invitation and project purpose was clearly a different way to consider taking Open to another audience. 2020 was a year where several projects and activities I was involved in were coming to a head, not to mention the challenge of a global crisis. Toward year end it seemed things started to jumble into one another in what became a flood of crashing deadlines.
Trying to whittle down ‘what Open means to me’ has been manifested through the actions taken in this project, and the successes of those actions. My renewed understanding of ‘what is my Open’ emerged being part of a team of actors who each tackled that same question, and who creatively negotiated what it means to each of them in the form of a story. To me, Open means having and likewise enabling the gift of sharing, and being part of a collaborative. The collaborative can be a structured group, as in this one where animals come together. The collaborative can likewise manifest as an assembly or progression of users who engage with Open materials, even those doing so on their own.
Open means kindness and support by its very nature, making it possible to benefit from what exists even as you seek to add to or reshape it. Here, Chrissi’s leadership has been a driving force of note. In many group activities, a common experience is where one or two members take the lead, and others lean back. In this project, the opposite was true as the engagement was robust across several platforms. If anyone leaned back in this instance, it was a somewhat burnt out me, and yet the collaboration meant that progress was never defined by instances where one member lagged behind, as the group impetus pushed it forward. The story is truly meaningful, and allows readers to draw inspiration from common experiences many will identify with. Using images from the Rijksmuseum to add into the already compellingly illustrated story was inspired, and it all contributes to a worthy addition to the Open world.
What are the themes that emerge through the individual narratives? We would love to hear what you notice. Please respond here by leaving a comment or on Twitter using the #GOGNpb hashtag.
Our collaboration led to the creation of a story in 217 words. Tiny. Yes, it is and some might think or even say… what have you been doing all 6 of you? You only wrote just over 200 words since October 2020? Thirty six words each? In all that time? Is this all you could do? Our collaboration is more than just the story we wrote and we have realised this. It has become a supportive and caring group of friends that are there for each other. And while we have only written 217 as a creative writing task at the same time we have been super productive in reflective writing and have captured our journey on this project and different aspects of our collaboration through our regular communications and collaborations via our DM group on Twitter, conference proposals, a proposal for publication and in our blog posts in great detail: 1472 words (in GOGN post 1), 3202 (in GOGN post 2), 1664 (3 in GOGN post with Bryan) and 4705 (in GOGN post 4, which is this one!). So a total of 11,043 words. Not bad 😉 … Now you can see how much work did go into our 217 word story and what we have recorded here is, of course not all.
Note: Chrissi drew the little portraits.
Word cloud of our story, created using https://www.jasondavies.com/wordcloud/ What story can you make using these? Illustration made by Chrissi Nerantzi and Ody Frank using details of the following exhibits from the Rijksmuseum made available under a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license: 1. Under the Wave off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai, 1829 – 1833 and 2. Tile Tableau from the Orphanage in Sommelsdijk, anonymous, c. 1725
James, A. & Brookfield S. (2014) Engaging Imagination. Helping Students become creative and reflective thinkers, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Mackesy, C. (2019) The boy, the model, the fox and the horse, London: Penguin