Can you read this?
💪⚔❤☮💬👍👥👑🏪🌾👞 or 🐪+🐑👑⎚♚✋🌄🌆😡💂▲😵🙏🌞9👑📝👑🚯👐📚←👑⚔🌎👐💰9👑💪🌄🌆🔨💪🔨🌱🌊
Or maybe this?
(English “translations” will be revealed later)
I’d like to share the story of a short assignment we did in recently in Individuals & Societies class. It was a very simple assignment, but the way the students responded to it was so interesting and exciting to me that I feel compelled to describe it at length.
Since the assignment was thought up and executed so quickly, what follows is not really action research or anything nearly that formal, but just a narrative where I’ll try to sort out my thoughts and share what I think was interesting about the project.
🎯What we did (and why)
📚Too Many Notes
Last week I found myself with a problem. I was absent one day, and my substitute plans called for my Year 8 students to research the Incas, Mayas and Aztecs as part of our MYP I&S unit. The problem? I hadn’t realized just how well they’d been taught a varied palette of powerful note-taking strategies by the Year 7 team, including Jennilea and Caitlin, last year. When I returned to my room and flipped idly through a couple of the students’ notebooks, I was shocked to see page after page of detailed, organized notes. A few of them had taken nearly ten pages of handwritten notes on their Pre-Columbian civilizations.
What bothered me about all this almost disturbingly successful note-taking was that I didn’t feel I had an interesting enough payoff waiting for the students at the end of this research. I’d planned to just have the students who’d researched different civilizations do a little jigsaw to share what they’d learned, maybe pull out some big themes in a short discussion, and move on. But now I wanted to be respectful of all that research by letting them create something with it, to let them climb a bit higher on the Mayan step pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy (revised) towards the beating sacrificial victim’s heart of Creation at its apex. (I realize that’s not the official metaphor)
I only had a couple of days before the end of the semester, so I couldn’t actually have them go through a full-scale project of any kind, but I wanted to do something interesting. I racked my brains for ways students could summarize or reproduce their learning quickly, in just a class period or two, but in a way that everyone could finish and which would also be fun. Posters? Too boring. Prezi? Too dizzying. Comic books? Take too long. Puppet show? Skit? Interpretive dance?
Emoji. Remembering an epic emoji retelling of the plot of “Les Mis” I’d recently seen, I wondered if it’d be fun to tackle the story of South American colonialism in a similar way.
💩 Explaining the Bison
While the idea was obviously quite silly, I couldn’t stop wondering if it could work. I figured that if students could summarize/crystallize/retell the high and low points of the colonial encounter in a series of emoji, it might actually have some value as a record of their learning and connect to the unit’s big themes and questions. Would it really be that different than, say, creating a detailed presentation retelling the most important events from this period in history?
Well, yes it would, obviously. The first things you’d lose would be any sort of detail or subtlety. But we didn’t have much time, so that all might work in our favor.
It wouldn’t be a presentation, but they’d still have to choose what information to retell – they’d just be using a predetermined set of tiny pre-made images instead of slides. Or it’d be like creating a detailed historical timeline, only using emoji instead of those little images of Cortez’s head, etc. that are always floating above and below a timeline.
Sequential visual storytelling boiled down to its essence. The heart of a strange Venn Diagram where the serious ideas of historiography collide with the cute forms of modern hieroglyphs. If it turned out the juxtaposition and/or sequential progression of the emoji didn’t actually convey anything to viewers, then, I reasoned, the students could show their learning by explaining the sequence to others, in the same way that that poor old prehistoric cave painter must have had to patiently narrate to his or her friends what exactly was going on with all those bison.
I wrote up this experimental assignment as if it were a small summative assessment, just to help students take it more seriously, and told them if they succeeded it might turn Pinocchio-style into a “real” assessment in the future. I tied it in with our larger unit questions, etc., which are about global interactions and specifically the relationships of power and resources during colonialism. Here’s what I came up with:
A – Knowing and Understanding
What does this look like in this task?
A – Knowing and Understanding
ii. demonstrate knowledge and understanding of subject-specific content and concepts, using descriptions, explanations and examples.
ii. You demonstrate knowledge of the history, motivations, and effects of the interactions between a Pre-Columbian civilization and the Spanish, using a short story of emoji descriptions and examples, supported by an explanation paragraph.
Tell the story of the colonial relationship between the Mayas, Incas or Aztecs and the Spanish by using only a series of emoji in a row (140 characters absolute maximum). Your story should be historically accurate, make sense (as much as possible), and answer the question “Who gained and lost from this global interaction, and how/what/why did they gain or lose?”
Plan/Outline (students were encouraged to include around 4/5 of these in their story, backed up by research and described in an explanation paragraph):
- Origin and early history of the Mayas, Incas or Aztecs
- Facts from your research about their civilization – government, infrastructure, culture, geography, population, economy, etc.
- First meeting(s) with the Spanish, and the Spanish motivations/journey/technology, etc.
- Effects and changes, gains/losses (resources taken, lives lost, culture changed, etc.)
- Facts from research about life in this area after colonialism – government, infrastructure, culture, geography, population, economy, etc. (could include national flags, religious symbols, modern money, sports, etc.)
- Final thoughts / judgment on the relationship (thumbs up/down, for example) [note: nobody did a final thumbs-up or thumbs-down. As you’ll see, perhaps it was because this idea was too clumsy for the rather more nuanced stories students ended up telling]
❓What happened and what we learned by doing
The first thing that happened, before the students really got down to business, was that I had way more fun than I should have had creating a Twitter account for the class to share their ideas.
Once I had the account in place, I decided my second tweet should be about a llama.
There is no llama emoji.
This immediate standstill got me thinking that we should start a glossary of basic terms. How would you say “llama” in emoji? Would it be done through pictures of animals, or through some kind of rebus-like sound puzzle? I remembered that there are three basic types of Chinese character – pictograph, ideograph, and phonetic borrowing. This might be a useful distinction to try to make, I decided.
I tacked all this on immediately before throwing the assignment at students, and while I didn’t expect them to use the terms like experts, I hoped they would grasp the three main ideas. If I were to do this again I’d be interested in making this linguistic angle a bigger part of the project from the start, and perhaps connecting it to some meaningful history lessons in Egyptian hieroglyphs, the story of the decipherment of Mayan glyphs, etc. In any case, after having all this thrown at them I think most of the students got the distinction, and I felt that the three types of expression proved almost immediately to be useful language for discussing their creations.
I noticed that some phonetic ideas caught on and were used by almost every student, like the instantly famous “ink-a” invented by (I think – this was in the dark ages before I realized everyone needed to sign their tweets to the shared account) Aaron:
I myself added a phonetic definition which turned into a part of many stories (and which I would soon grow to hate), the absurd and regrettable”cone-kiss-ta-door”:
However, I noticed that after a certain point during our first period sharing ideas, those students who had algebraic or crossword-puzzle-loving minds exhausted their glee at coming up with new phonetic expressions. As we all started to realize the power of visual storytelling, the more primitive pictographic representations started to dominate. For example, Avan started out with a lot of phonetic jokes, like the ant-des mountains…
…but then he moved quickly to a very baroque style, where he tried to use the emoji almost as a word-for-word substitute for English, trying to cram in actual dates and specific facts from his research:
This is the first example I used at the top of the post. Its full explanation, as Avan wrote it, is as follows:
Incas: Largest empire in pre-columbian America, covers several regions of South America, Specifically Peru, Machu Picchu, Southern Colombia, Northern Chile, Northwest Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Andes mountain range. Centered in Cusco, Modern Day Peru:
Began in 13th century in Peru, when the Sun God Inti sent his son Mano Capac to kill his brothers and lead his followers through the wilderness settled near Cusco in fertile valley.
Incas were fierce warriors, yet prefered peaceful negotiations. Offered gifts for leaders and promised benefits, including education and crop storage. They expanded their empire to 800,000 square kilometers and included 10 million people. Was connected by roads and bridges. Usually Llama transportation:
💪⚔붙❤☮💬👍👥👑🏪🌾👞 or 🐪+🐑
Government was organized, the emperor controlled the entire empire from Cuzco. Had a fearsome army, used language of Quechua which is still spoken today by millions of South Americans. Built many pyramids, possibly for sacrifices. Worshipped the sun god who they believed started the civilization. Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui was believed to have set down the practice in which rulers were prevented from inheriting the possessions of their predecessors, thereby ensuring that successive leaders would conquer new lands and accumulate new wealth. He also focused his efforts on strengthening Cusco, the center of the empire, he expanded Sacsahuaman, the giant fortress that guarded the city. He also embarked on an expansive irrigation project by channeling rivers and creating intricate agricultural terraces.
With the arrival of the Conquistadors (Specifically Francisco Pizarro) in 1532, the last emperor ,Atahualpa, was kidnapped and held for ransom. After paying a release fee of $50 million in gold in today’s money. Atahualpa, who was promised to be set free, was strangled to death by the Spaniards who then marched straight for Cuzco and its riches. Much of the conquest was accomplished without battles or warfare as the initial contact Europeans made in the New World resulted in rampant disease. So many of the incas died from Smallpox, and the superior warfare of the Spanish were able to defeat even the mighty army of the Incas.
While this attempt to faithfully summarize and retell facts from research was definitely the level of detail I’d hoped for when I came up with the idea, I found some of these ideas from research weren’t exactly lending themselves well to emoji form. Avan’s idea-for-idea story wasn’t that easy or fun to follow, even with the explanation.
Interestingly, Avan moved past this style and, apparently realizing that in trying to use emoji in such complex ways he wasn’t taking advantage of their strengths, he suddenly emerged with an austere and mature style, summarizing the entire colonial relationship without any phonetic shortcuts or numbers or algebraic operators, just a simple story told in a series of nine pictures. Avan had, in two hours, invented an entire language for expressing his research, and he had told his story in baffling but thoughtful detail, but then he went a step further. He came up with this artistic, brief, but meaningful distillation of his knowledge:
That is to say, if I may dare paraphrase a masterpiece, that the Spanish traveled across the globe with steel weapons, guns and horses, and took back all the gold that would fit in their ships – to build palaces with.
I’ve described this all in a mock-grandiose way, but it really was exhilarating to watch this evolution (which not just Avan but several other students went through extremely rapidly), from playing around with phonetic ideas and puns, to trying to express complex (and research-based) concepts, to tweaking, summarizing and revising their stories in order to make them more impactful as visual stories.
By the end of just two periods or so the entire class had learned each others’ visual glossary and were borrowing from each other (“az-tech”, “ink-a” and “cone-kiss-ta-door” being three of the favorite phonetic creations, “sheep+camel=llama” being one of the most commonly used pictographic shortcuts), and almost everyone managed to post their main “story”. Most of them were recognizable as a more elaborate version of Avan’s simple summary above, with beginning, middle, and end (the looting of resources and heading back on boats). At some point, to my excitement, emoji versions of native myths began to be appended to the beginnings of the stories, and the conversion to Christianity started to become a consistent element of the ends. The Columbian exchange became a big part of many stories once we noticed that there were emoji for tomatoes, potatoes, etc., and the Japanese facemask emoji and the skull emoji started to tell the grim story of European diseases’ decimation of the American peoples.
As examples of the more mature and complete story which I saw from many students at the end of our second full period working on these, I’d like to use Uku, Aman, and finally Jiwon’s stories. Uku didn’t have time to finish his English explanation paragraph to accompany his emoji story, but by this time he almost didn’t have to. I projected it on the screen, and the class nodded in appreciation. He didn’t use any phonetic shortcuts, just a more complex version of the shared pictographic and sequential storytelling techniques the class built up over the preceding periods.
Aman’s story, similarly, was so clear (or at least it seemed to the class and me at this point) that we didn’t ask for an English translation when he posted it. We just scanned it visually, nodded, and appreciated it. It’s hard to describe, but I feel like we’d actually created a collective visual language for telling stories about history within a few hours, and that by the end of the last period students were all able to read this language. Aman had one of the more memorable descriptions of Aztec human sacrifice at the start of his story:
Jiwon’s was also one of the later efflorescence of more “complete” stories, and I think she struck a good stylistic balance between use of phonetic shortcuts and the extremely effective repetition-for-emphasis of pictographic or ideographic symbols. The horrors of disease, war, forced conversion and colonial profiteering were never so starkly shown. An emoji “Heart of Darkness”.
Again, while I realize I’ve used a mock-grandiose style to appraise some of these creations, I’m doing it with sincerity. I was very impressed by the students’ creativity, speed, sharing of ideas, and ingenuity during these two or three periods. I really do think a lot of the students, and the class as a whole, went through several stages in the evolution of their use of this new language in mere minutes, and it was incredibly fun to watch the process.
By the way, I promised the “answer” to Jiwon’s tweet above at the start of the post. It seems almost unnecessary to share it, since I hope by this point you’ll have recognized most of what’s going on in there, but here it is:
“The conquistadors heard that the Incas had a lot of resources so they sailed to the Incas which triggered a war between them. The Spanish fought with horses and pistols but the Incas only had wooden weapons and llamas on their side. Also the conquistadors carried an alien disease which killed most of the population. Due to the influence of the conquistadors, most of the Incas culture switched to Christianity. The Spanish easily won the war even with smaller number of people and returned to their country with money/resources.”
A nice summary paragraph, but I’m glad we’ve got the emoji version, aren’t you?
🍔🍟Takeaways – What we learned
- I think this assignment was a success. My students summarized and shared their learning publicly in a way that was not only fun, but also forced them, thanks to the space and intelligibility restrictions of the medium, to make very clear decisions about the biggest themes and most crucial events in our unit. In just a few class periods they used their notes and knowledge from research to create an interesting, engaging creative product – a small product, but a product nonetheless.
- From a broader perspective, I think this shows that emoji is/are a language as flexible and able to convey meaning as any other language, and could definitely be used as a component of an academic assessment. I could easily see using assignments or small projects like this not only for history, but to summarize or retell fiction in English class, for example.
- We learned that some students are very motivated by the idea of posting their work publicly on a forum like Twitter. Two or three people kept trying to drum up interest in our emoji tweets from a strange assortment of celebrities including Oprah and Jimmy Fallon, and I was surprised to see the rise in their level of interest once it became theoretically possible that Oprah was watching.
- We learned that the best emoji style might need to evolve after trial and error within a group. We started with no shared vocabulary and ended up with many stories featuring a nice balance of phonetic cleverness and pictographic directness, using the glossary terms we invented together. This part of the assignment might not have been directly connected to Individuals & Societies, but I think studying, defining and codifying a group’s evolving use of a new language could definitely be part of a meaningful English project.
- Similarly, we learned that some of the best emoji storytelling techniques might parallel good persuasive writing. Students noticed the value of stylistic approaches like brevity, repetition, metaphor, and logical progression of ideas.
- We learned that Year 8 students could manage a Twitter account jointly without any incidents of vandalism or misuse. I tried two models of Twitter access, appointing two gatekeepers who tweeted for everyone after they submitted their ideas on a Google Doc during the first period, then on the second day moving to whole-class simultaneous posting, and since nothing major seemed to go wrong, I’m still not sure which model I think worked best. If the project lasted for a longer time, particularly if students had more access to the account outside of school hours, I would guess that the first “gatekeeper” model might work better, perhaps even with me as the gatekeeper. But for a project of this brevity, we had no problem all using the account together at the same time.
- We learned that student interest in this topic is high. There was some actual clapping when I described the basic idea. Several students worked obsessively on several versions of their “masterpiece”, refining bits here and there. A lot of students typed the emoji very quickly on their phone (I hadn’t anticipated this) and sent the phrases to their computers, trying out new combinations. It seemed to me that a lot of the students thought the idea was as fun as I did, which definitely made it even more fun for me!
What do you think? Is there any place you could imagine emoji storytelling in your curriculum?