“Fantastic Mr. Fox, and other heroes”

Martin Stack (my co-conspirator at the University of Shiga Prefecture), Shiho Matsumi (one of our brilliant students) and I will be presenting “Fantastic Mr. Fox, and other heroes” at the national convention of the Association for Teaching English through Movies (Kyoto Women’s University, 7th August 2015).

The keynote presentation at the convention will be “Bi-language Simultaneous Learning with the Aid of Movies” by Professor Takahiro Ono, a longtime friend of the legendary Noam Chomsky. We’re also really looking forward to “Character Speech in the Movies: A Sound Design Perspective” by our Shiga neighbour, the amazing Dr Carl Boland.


“Fantastic Mr. Fox, and other heroes”

In 1949 Joseph Campbell published “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, in which he aimed to “uncover some of the truths disguised for us under the figures of religion and mythology by bringing together a multitude of not-too-difficult examples and letting the ancient meaning become apparent of itself. The old teachers knew what they were saying.” Campbell identified the fundamental stages in “the adventure of the hero”, and his work has been a huge influence on story-tellers – and movie-makers in particular – ever since.

In this presentation we will explain why we think the Hero’s Journey is a powerful model for the adventure of learning a foreign language. We will also explain how, with very kind support from the writer, director and producer Wes Anderson, we have gone about applying it.

We are involved in two projects that use movies and games as way to develop a range of “21st-century skills”. One of these projects is SkypeRead, which brings non-native speakers from all over the world together, via Skype, to do read-throughs of movie scripts; the other is the WoW-EPIC, which takes students into the language-rich world of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (see “Developing Language and Cross-Cultural Communication Skills via Movie Read-Throughs and MMORPGs”, ATEM Journal, Vol 20).

This year we have re-designed these projects around the framework of the Hero’s Journey, using a 12-point cycle that begins and ends in “the ordinary world”, and crosses over into “the special world”. The 12 points of the cycle are: status quo; call to and refusal of adventure; assistance; departure; trials; approach; crisis; treasure; result; return; new life; resolution.

We are also very fortunate to have received support from Wes Anderson, who has given us the script for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) to use as part of the project. Based on the Roald Dahl children’s story, this stop-motion animation movie takes a uniquely fun and thought-provoking approach to the Hero’s Journey.

FOX: Who am I, Kylie?
KYLIE: Who how? What, now?
FOX: Why a fox? Why not a horse or a beetle or a bald eagle? I’m saying this more like as existentialism, you know? Who am I, and how can a fox ever be happy without a — forgive the expression — chicken in its teeth?
KYLIE: I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it sounds illegal.
FOX: Here, put this bandit hat on.


From the chemistry of rocket fuel to the ethics of space exploration

Our exciting collaboration with Alma College (in Michigan, USA) and Omi Brotherhood High School (in Shiga, Japan) came to a wonderful finish today, with our four groups of students making their final presentations.

The project kicked off three weeks ago with a cross-border read-through of “Europa Report”. Since then, each group has been working on formulating a question related to the movie, and preparing a response. Today, the students came together on Skype for a final time to watch each other’s presentations.

As this splendid post on the Omi Brotherhood High School web site notes, the students had to overcome time differences, language barriers AND a typhoon that is currently lashing western Japan…

The questions that our four groups came up with were as follows. (Anyone who has watched “Europa Report” will understand the relevance of the first question…)

(A) Is there an alternative to using hydrazine as rocket fuel?

(B) Do you think that life exists somewhere other than Earth?

(C) Manned vs. unmanned space exploration: which is better?

(D) Do the scientific discoveries from space outweigh the need for humanitarian missions on Earth?

I would like to say a very, very big and sincere ‘thank you’ to all the students and teaching staff who made this project an outstanding success.

“Wow, we made it!”


Congratulations to the incredible students at Omi Brotherhood High School in Shiga, Japan, and the Co-Operative Research Experience summer camp currently taking place at Alma College in Michigan, USA.

At 6 o’clock Friday morning in Shiga / 5 o’clock Thursday afternoon in Alma, four US-Japanese groups of students came together over Skype and read the entire 90-page script of the movie “Europa Report”.

  • Click here to read “Alma CollegeとのSkypeReadプロジェクト” on the Omi Brotherhood High School blog – “Wow, we made it!”

It was the start of a 3-week cross-border project that will see the students collaborate on questions related to the movie. The objective is to enable high-school students to experience the fun – and the challenge – of working in remote, multi-cultural teams. It’s also an opportunity to think about one of the biggest ‘unknowns’ in science: are we alone in the universe?

Helping STEM students thrive in a multipolar world

The latest issue of “Education in Science” features a one-page article about our latest SkypeRead project – an exciting collaboration between Alma College in Michigan, USA, and Omi Brotherhood High School in Shiga, Japan.


Helping STEM students thrive in a multipolar world

A project called SkypeRead is taking an unusual approach to improving cross-border communication and teamwork within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

By Graham Jones

Copernicus was Polish; Gilbert, English; Kepler, German; Galileo, Italian; Descartes, French; Huygens, Dutch. There is not much that connects these giants, upon whose shoulders Newton famously stood. One of the few things that does, however, is that most of their key works were written in Latin, the language of science in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the language that connects scientists across the world is English. But English plays an even more important role today than Latin did 400 years ago, because science has become significantly more collaborative.

A 2011 report* by the Royal Society describes “an increasingly multipolar scientific world”. The same report highlights the growing importance of “informal connections” between scientists: “Motivated by the bottom-up exchange of scientific insight, knowledge and skills, they are changing the focus of science from the national to the global level.”

We recently launched an initiative to give students experience of working in remote, multinational teams, using English as a common language. It is a three-way collaboration between Alma College in Michigan, USA; Omi Brotherhood High School in Shiga, Japan; and SkypeRead, an online programme that uses movie read-throughs as a way to develop language, communication and remote teamworking skills.

Alma College has received a $5 million grant from The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation for improving education within STEM. As part of this, the College is running a four-week summer camp for high-school students called the Cooperative Research Experience (CORE). Our project will add an international dimension to CORE by connecting the American students at the camp with Japanese students located 6,500 miles – and 13 time zones – away.

A-still-from-Europa-ReportImage: Start Motion Pictures

The first phase of the project will be a team-building exercise. Small, cross-border groups of students will do read-throughs, via Skype, of the script for “Europa Report”, an intelligent and exciting science-fiction film about an international mission to search for evidence of life on Europa. This builds on research I have done into how movie read-throughs can bring remote, multicultural teams closer together. (This research has been supported by Start Motion Pictures, a film-production company, who provided the final draft of the “Europa Report” script.)

In the second phase, the cross-border groups will formulate a question related to the movie, and then devise ways of working together remotely to prepare a response. Potential questions could be along the lines of “How would a crew be selected and trained for a deep-space mission?” or “What, in theory, might life on Europa look like?”

English will be used as the working language throughout both phases of the project – something that will create challenges for all the students. “The most important part of this is the opportunity it gives both sides,” says Takeshi Taniguchi, who teaches in the English department at Omi Brotherhood High School, near Kyoto. “We’re bringing native and non-native speakers together, not only to think about how the universe works, but to understand more about working with each other.”

John Davis, principal investigator and the Charles A. Dana Professor of Integrative Physiology and Health Science at Alma College, thinks that focussing on “real-world” collaboration and research can help attract students into the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “For many reasons, schools and colleges haven’t been able to prepare students in STEM fields at the rate of need, and the need is tremendous,” he notes. “Here in the US, it has been predicted that an additional one million STEM graduates will be needed over the next decade.”

Looking ahead, the potential for using movie read-throughs as a way to improve cross-border teamwork within STEM is not limited to science-fiction films. For example, the acclaimed director, writer and producer Wes Anderson has given SkypeRead the script of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” for a project based on ‘the Hero’s Journey’, a model for narratives that can also be applied to the challenges of working across cultures.

“Communication challenges are part and parcel of working in STEM,” says Martin Stack, an Alma alumnus now at the University of Shiga Prefecture, who set up the collaboration between Alma College, Omi Brotherhood High School and SkypeRead. “Teaching STEM without enhancing students’ communication skills produces very capable people who are missing out on the opportunities available through international cooperation. For me, that is what this project is all about: communication, collaboration and cooperation.”

Graham Jones is an astrophysics graduate who has run English-language courses in Argentina, the Congo, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, Turkey and the UK. He  launched SkypeRead in 2013.

* “Knowledge, networks and nations: Global scientific collaboration in the 21st century.” The Royal Society, 2011.

ASE blue logo left w strapline

Education in Science (the magazine of the Association for Science Education). May 2015.

BRAIN-CALL collaboration

Is this the way forward in an increasingly multidisciplinary world…? I took part in an eye-opening BRAIN-CALL joint forum at the JALT PanSIG Conference in Kobe last weekend.

JALT stands for Japan Association for Language Teaching; SIG stands for Special Interest Group. BRAIN is the Mind, Brain, and Education SIG – it’s ‘the new kid on the block’. CALL is Computer Assisted Language Learning – it’s one of ‘the biggies’ within JALT.

The aim of the collaborative forum was to combine educational neuroscientific principles with concrete examples of technology. Or as Curtis Kelly, the coordinator of the BRAIN SIG, put it: “Neuroscience brings new information to the table, but does not tell us how to use it. Let’s solve that problem through roundtable discussions, and by hearing about a few technological implementations presented by the CALL SIG.”

The four major BRAIN topics – together with the examples of CALL solutions – were as follows:

  • Attention and Anticipation (Jason Lowes’s Posse) / Zondle (Jon Gorham)
  • Identifying Learning Disabilities (Glenn Magee) / Dyslexic fonts (Michael Iwane-Salovaara & Maki Ho)
  • Embodied Cognition and Language (Caroline Handley) / SkypeRead (that was me!)
  • Immediate and Working Memory in L2 Reading (Amanda Gillis-Furutaka) / Branch Narratives & Reading Apps (Tom Gorham)

There were also some brilliant shorts, kicking off with Ai Murphy on “The Second Brain”, and some awesome energy breaks conducted by Steve Jugovic.


Narratives: Raising the Happiness Quotient


The PanSIG 2015 Conference of the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) will be taking place next weekend (May 16-17) at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies. (SIG stands for Special Interest Group – there are 27 SIGs in JALT, based on various academic, research and pedagogical interests.)

Working alongside with Tom Gorham, who runs the Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) SIG, I’m the program co-chair for the conference. The theme of the conference is “Narratives: Raising the Happiness Quotient” – and Tom and I have tried to put together a programme that provides a narrative structure to the weekend.

“Our creative team has planned a different type of program on Day 1 with the two plenaries scheduled directly after lunch followed by an extended Q & A session,” write Donna Tatsuki and Donna Fujimoto, the conference chairs for PanSIG2015. “We will first hear from Liliana Landolfi from the University of Naples in Italy and then from Curtis Kelly from Kansai University. On Day 2 after Kim Horne’s talk, there will be an interactive session with all three speakers. We hope conference goers will share their thoughts and stories there as well.”

If you are interested in attending the conference, you can go to the registration page here.


EFL Magazine: The magazine for English language teachers

This week saw the launch of EFL Magazine, founded by Philip Pound, and edited by Sean Newton.  “The aims of EFL Magazine are simple yet ambitious,” says Philip. “To be the world’s number one magazine for English language teachers, to improve teachers’ lives by supplying the best content and access to the best people to the reader, and to be an arena for change and innovation in how English is taught in an era of massive change in education.”


My favourite article in the first issue is “One-to-one: Managing Time”, by Olga Samsonova (who describes herself as a “One-to-one tutor. Teaching Unplugged fan. Personal growth nerd”):

Several months ago I started taking private classes in Spanish. My teacher Alexandra treats her job very seriously. Our first few lessons were packed with grammar exercises and lexical sets which were not quite what I was willing or ready to work with in each particular lesson. Then I asked Alexandra not to prepare any materials for our lessons and just go with the flow of where our communication would take us. She was taken aback but complied despite her reservations. Since then, our work has been based on natural conversation. My teacher helps me with my immediate linguistic needs that emerge in the process, be it work on systems or skills.

Alexandra has expressed her surprise at how well this approach seems to be working. A remark that touched me was “I feel a bit guilty charging you for lessons – I’m not really doing anything!” In fact, by being flexible, not imposing a curriculum on me and following my learning process rather than dragging me along, she is doing much more than many other teachers who look like they are “working harder” but don’t really listen and respond to their learners’ needs.

I have a monthly column in the magazine called “Copernicus”:

In the global village of the 21st century, students are generally not learning English because they want to talk to British people, or Americans, or other native speakers. Instead, they are learning English because they want to talk to Chinese people, and Germans, and Brazilians, and the rest of the world’s non-native speakers – who outnumber native speakers by three to one.


“Developing Language and Cross-Cultural Communication Skills via Movie Read-Throughs and MMORPGs”


“Our principal goals in this project were to (a) inspire students to have fun with English, (b) enable students to communicate and connect with people from other cultures, and (c) improve students’ English abilities and develop a range of other ’21st-century skills’ (skills that are generally regarded as being important in the information age).”

ATEM Journal: Teaching English Through Movies (Volume 20, March 2015) includes a paper by Walter Klinger and Martin Stack (both at the University of Shiga Prefecture) and me. We present the results of a semester-long project that engaged students in “language and cross-cultural communication skill development through a combination of a movie script read-through, and task- and project-based learning activities in both a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) and in real life.”

Our MMORPG was World of Warcraft, “where players create personal online avatars to explore and interact with the game environment and with other players from around the world.” Our movie was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). The connection between the two was that “the entire high-fantasy game genre, of which World of Warcraft is a part, traces its roots back to Tolkien’s celebrated work”.

Thank you to Wes Anderson

We would like to say a colossal ‘thank you’ to the director, writer and producer Wes Anderson, who has given us the script for “Fantastic Mr. Fox”.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris – © WireImage.com

We’ll be using the script for a forthcoming SkypeRead project based on the theme of ‘the Hero’s Journey’. Developed in the 1940s by the scholar Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey is a model that can be used to explain the structure of stories throughout history, from ancient myths to modern-day movies. We think it is also a model that can be applied to the adventure of learning a foreign language and working across borders…

“Fantastic Mr. Fox”, based on the book by Roald Dahl, is a movie that adds an unusual twist to the Hero’s Journey. It is also incredibly good fun, and the language is wonderfully authentic.

To give you a flavour of the movie, this was Wes Anderson’s acceptance speech when he received a Special Achievement Award from the National Board of Review in 2010.