The World Inside the ComputerFred D'Ignazio, Associate Editor
Sandbox Fred and His Media Maniacs
Recently, while I was in Vancouver, Canada, at the World Congress on Education and Technology, I was asked to teach an intensive weeklong teacher's workshop at Simon Fraser University, one of Canada's leading universities. The first night of my course at Simon Fraser, I learned that most of the teachers taking my course were novices in electronic media, and that some of them had never even touched a computer. They saw me as a media expert and hoped the course would give them some hands-on experience creating teaching units with different media equipment.
The learning resources center where I taught the course has one of the richest collections of electronic media that I have ever seen. To be frank, there were so many darkrooms, multitrack tape decks, audio/video mixers, computers, projectors, and the like, that it was downright intimidating. Even I was scared, so how were my fearful teachers to acquire the courage to use all that stuff?
As I stood in front of my class that first night, I dug deep inside myself for the one thing that I stood for, the one thing that would charge up the class to leap into the media with gusto and pizzazz. Then I thought of the magic word: sandbox. To me a sandbox is more than four boards and a bag of sand. It is a metaphor for play, storytelling, world building, and for a child's personal journey of exploration and discovery. And sand is a metaphor for what good media should beórich, malleable, and gritty. Playing with media should be a multisensory experience. As with sand, you should smell it, taste it, and touch it. It should get in your ears, in your shorts, and in your hair.
I told my teachers that I was not a media expert nor a teacher, but an author. And what I could bring to the course was not technical expertise, but my imagination, my gift for storytelling, and my playfulness. I wasn't going to teach them. I was going to climb into the sandbox with them as "head kid." This approach was not what the teachers expected, but it turned out to be just what they needed.
We began the week with imagination exercises: We closed our eyes and tried to imagine holding a baby. We tried to smell the baby, touch the baby, taste the baby, see the baby, and hear the baby coo, laugh, and cry. We explored how media affects the imagination and how imagination is instrumental in creating good media. Although many of the students had never used a computer before, some had, and the veterans coached the beginners so they could sign onto the university's network. Beginning that first night we kept an electronic journal online that eventually amounted to 50 typed pages. We used the journal to reflect on the week's experiences and to examine the effectiveness of the sandbox approach to learning electronic media.
The teachers eventually divided themselves, according to their interests, into four groups:
- Mandalas (video, animation, sound synthesis, poetry, the arts)
- Choclit (a cartoon with sound synthesis)
- The Sandbox Saga (desktop publishing)
- The Media Maniacs (a documentary video of our week together)
Although no one had planned it, all the groups became intensely involved in storytelling and the imagination. And the groups divided neatly into Mandalas and Choclit, which were an exercise of the imagination looking outward, and Sandbox Saga and Media Maniacs, which showed the imagination looking inward at ourselves. The Media Maniacs theme came from the Fred's Media Maniacs buttons that one of the teachers made for us with the help of his mentally retarded students.
Jumping In Headfirst
By week's end I knew that grown-up, high-tech sandboxing can really work. Teachers threw themselves into their projects with ferocious energy and creativity. They mastered machines that they had never even seen before, fussed with buggy software and malfunctioning equipment, and moved on. Nothing stopped them. And their movies, stories, and cartoons were delightful.
But sandboxes have their dark side, too, and we stumbled into this area often. Playing is good, but sometimes there is nothing in a sandbox to play with. My metaphor of a sandbox as a free, unstructured environment encouraged the teachers to be childlike and playful, but they needed guidance and instruction to produce real results. "It's exciting to watch people playing in a sandbox," said one of my students. "But it's no fun at all if you can't get in."
The best part came at week's end when we held a Sandbox Media Festival for a class of computer software teachers. All the teachers' products were terrific, but I especially liked the ones done by the Media Maniacs. One of its producers, Morey, had gotten his three-year-old son, Cameron, to play the part of Sandbox Fred as a child. In the sequence Cameron zigs and zags around the sandbox in his red shorts and a white sun hat and says, "I'm Sandbox Fred, and I like to play in sandboxes. I'm Sandbox Fred, and I like computers. I'm Sandbox Fred, and I have to go potty on the tree."