Learning from Hollywood: Voices from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center Conference

I spent the first part of the week participating in a conference, hosted by the USC Cinema School and organized by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, "Learning from Hollywood: Can Entertainment Media Ignite an Education Revolution?" This was the kind of event that warms my radically undisciplined heart and mind -- a gathering of people from many different backgrounds (educators and academics, media industry people from both the commercial and public media worlds, activists and nonprofits, foundations, librarians and curators) to talk about the potential intersection between education and entertainment. In the course of the two days, we heard a lot about the value of stories and storytelling to incite the imagination, to provoke curiosity, to convey our collective memories and wisdom, and to inspire more acts of creativity.

This was perhaps best brought alive for me through a performance by The Story Pirates -- a group of actors, improv comedians, and otherwise kooky and creative people, who go into schools around the country, help young people construct their own stories, and then incorporate them into their performances. In this case, they brought a class of Latino/a elementary schools with them, both performing one young man's previously written stories, and soliciting elements from the kids for a story performed live on the spot.

My own remarks at the conference centered on what the practices and logics of participatory culture might bring to the paradigm of "entertainment education" which I have been learning a lot about since coming to USC. Under the classic version of this model, experts consult with script writers to get information about health or social concerns integrated into the fictional programs and sometimes to get tags or bumpers which help link viewers to the groups working on these issues. I really respect the commitment behind such work and know that it does make a difference for many people. But increasingly, I've wondered what would happen if these same projects got taken up by the fan communities around the show, if the messages were not simply embedded in the program but designed to be acted upon in more creative and public ways. I used the example of what's happened around Harry Potter to describe a movement from inspiring reading to inspiring writing to inspiring activism, remarks which build upon the work my Civicpaths research group has been doing for the MacArthur and Spencer Foundations.

Scott Traylor from 360KID, who I knew from back at MIT, was nice enough to capture my remarks and those of several other speakers via his cellphone camera and has given me permission to share some of these segments with you through this blog. Thanks, Scott. So, this first bit is my talk on Harry Potter and the potential of a more participatory model of entertainment education.

Scott also captured some of the highlights from a panel on Monday night on "Storytelling and the Art of Engagement," hosted by Betty Cohen, the former President of the Cartoon Network and the Lifetime Network, and including film producers Don Hahn (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) and Doug Wick (Gladiator, Memoirs of a Gesha) and television producer Marcy Carsey (The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Third Rock from the Sun), sharing their insights on Hollywood's craft and speaking about their desire to see the work that they do more fully incorporated into both formal and informal education. Getting these kinds of glimpses into the behind the scenes production processes is one of the great joys of living so close to Hollywood.

Here are two highlights Scott captured -- showing Carsey talking about the need to "respect the audience"...

And Wick talking about how he draws inspiration from the work of Bruno Bettelheim:

The event was also a place for demonstrations by some top digital designers and developers, including this segment on Sifteos by a Media Lab alum Jeevan Kalanithi.

On Tuesday morning, we heard from Linda Burch from Common Sense Media and Frank Gilliam, Dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs, talking about the challenges of overcoming existing frames parents and teachers have for thinking about the relations between digital media and schooling. Scott captured Gilliam's remarks, which offer some real insights into how and why some of the messaging around digital media and learning may be falling on deaf ears.

Unfortunately, Scott had to fly back to Boston so we do not have some of the other highpoints of the conference, such as a presentation by Participant Media's John Schreiber on their Waiting for Superman documentary;

an interview with Kari Byron, the charming host of Mythbusters, about their new Headrush initiative, to help inspire girls to think about STEM; and closing remarks by media mogul Peter Gruber.

All told, my head is exploding from new insights and beyond that, new connections, many of which I hope to build upon through this blog in the weeks ahead.

Special thanks to Cooney Center Director Michael Levine who has helped pull together this phenomenal event.