One of my all time favourite lessons was a session I put together and delivered in 2013 with some Year 4 students. They were studying Vikings and the saga of Beowulf and we were helping them develop their creative writing skills by integrating a couple of iPad apps.. We used Morfo to turn the students into the Viking character of their own sagas and then an app called Epic Citadel to help them with the setting. Epic Citadel was a tech demo from Epic Games and provided an empty castle for the user to explore using an on-screen thumbstick interface. The students enjoyed exploring the empty castle (NB in their story they had just arrived and would soon find out that the castle had been under attack by a monster, something they would go on to battle.) and went on to produce some of the most effective, emotive and descriptive writing I ever saw from 9 year olds. (Side note: The very first blog post I ever wrote for iPad Educators back in 2014 was all about this project and can be found here.)
Over the years, I have found that primary age students who are developing their writing skills can often overlook the setting. Characters? Yes they will describe them all day long but the teaching kids to paint the setting with their words is a whole other art form. I would often have a student read their story to me and try to highlight the importance of setting.I would sometimes get them to close their eyes and then point out that what they were seeing (nothing) was what their reader would picture without a descriptive setting.
This was why the Epic Citadel session was so powerful. It gave them an immersive stimulus to help them picture the setting and then focus on developing the descriptive detail.
Flash forwards four years and I've just been hands-on with the beautiful Nature Treks VR app on the Vive. Nature Treks offers users a range of truly immersive settings to explore. Within these settings you have the power to create life by selecting from a range of orbs that can grow trees, release butterflies and more. The sound is particularly effective and really creates a calming ambiance. During the last #CPDinVR event, Immersive VR Education CEO Dave Whelan commented on the importance of audio for truly immersive experiences and this is a fine example of that in action.
Here's a quick look at how the app works:
The actual purpose of the app is to create a peaceful atmosphere for relaxation and meditation in a virtual space. This itself could be a valid outlet for the app in schools. It could be harnessed by SEN departments as a tool for helping children with additional learning needs to focus, calm down and thus reach an optimal learning state. Alternatively it could probably benefit many a staff room!
For me though, all I could think about was the potential for using the app to inspire writing. There was just one issue. Whereas Epic Citadel could never offer the same level of immersion, it did mean that students could have a notebook to hand to jot down their ideas as they explored. With the Vive headset on, this would be a logistical challenge...
So I came up with a way to turn this problem into an answer - and one that actually elevated the experience from my original idea. Students could work in pairs. One is the eyes, the other the hands. The student inside the experience can see everything but the student outside the experience would be responsible for taking the notes and recording the thoughts of their partner. This would be achieved through targeted questioning and prompting the user to paint the picture in their partner's head. The activity would help students develop collaboration and communication skills whilst also developing their descriptive language.
Now the only problem was I really wanted to test this idea out but it's the middle of the Summer holidays. Luckily a family friend and neighbour also happens to be a student from JESS Dubai so I invited her to have a go with Nature Treks whilst I played the part of the note-taker. For context - she is 13 years old.
Below you can find the writing she produced. NB although I took the notes, I asked her to turn it into prose independently.
When I arrived, the most breathtaking view stood in front of me: a lush, tropical jungle stretching farther than my eye could see. As I walked in, dried leaves crunched under my boots and I saw that the jungle floor was covered in vibrant splashes of yellow and red flowers. A small fog drifted amongst them and there were golden flickers of light that slowly floated beneath me. Convincing myself that they were fireflies and not some kind of magic, I shifted my attention to the calls of exotic birds that had welcomed me in. Their chirps came together from different trees to form an enormous, bright and cheerful symphony. However, when I looked up, I couldn't see any colourful feathers or yellow beaks as a dense canopy of verdant leaves hid everything in its way. Ribbons of golden light occasionally managed to cut through and they created playful shadows around me. As I trudged further, the sound of a waterfall drowned all my senses. I pushed through the two enormous plants in front of me and stifled a small gasp at the view...
A silk sheet of water between two jagged rocks cascaded down into a turquoise coloured plunge pool. Around it, blue butterflies flapped their delicate wings and I saw a couple of birds gliding through the sky. I stared at it in awe and soaked in the beautiful scenery. It reminded me of a painting that I once saw in a gallery. Suddenly, a crocodile caught my eye. I wondered about why I hadn't seen this enormous reptile in front of me but then realised that it had been hidden by the twisting cave of mangrove roots behind it. It's rough, scaly body was half in and half out of the water and as I inched closer, It’s orange eyes locked into mine.