2 machinema project from the facilitator and the learner point of view

In October Gizmo and me presented in the Slanguages Conference some reflection on our experience with the machinema projects of Italianiamo from the point of view of the facilitator (me) and the learner (Gizmo).

For me, to sit down with one of my learner and to examine what we did and achieved (or not achieved) together was a very enriching and interesting experience.

The presentation itself… well, was as well a good learing experience :D. I’ve learned that I really have problems with slides (this time was lag, i was unable to see almost anything and to move, so it was impossible for me to show the slides that illustrated our talk) and that it’s better for me not to give presenatation in English: my level is not enough to feel confortable speaking in front of people, even if they are only avatar.

You can check yourself here, if you do not believe me 🙂

or if you prefer, you can read the text that we prepared.

Anna: Hi everybody and thank you for coming. The title of this presentation is Learning by machinima: reflection on pros and cons and we will analyse, from the point of view of the facilitator and of the participant, our experience with an Italian learning activity that involved making a short film in SL, a machinema.
But let’s first introduce ourselves.

Gizmo: I’m Gizmo, In RL I teach Spanish in Adult learning centres in the South  of England. In SL I am 3 years old and have been trying to improve my Italian in SL for probably about half that time. I have attended all three stages of Anna’s Italianiamo project.

Anna: I teach Italian in RL at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in SL and at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya. In SL, I’m almost 4 years old, and I explore the possibilities that this tool offers for informal learning of languages.

Italianiamo, is an Italian informal learning project for learners of level A2 onwards. It started as weekly, stand alone activities. I used the SL environment to stimulate learners oral production. I used this formula for almost a year, trying different variations, and I learnt a lot from it.

I also saw that, the typical SL language learner, that is the learner you already find in SL (not the students you can bring in virtual worlds yourself) is a sort of a casual learner, more interested in communication than in accuracy (At least  this was what I observed with the my Italian learners in SL). It’s someone who comes to the language activity, participate with enthusiasm and interest, but is not going to study or work on his own afterwards. Therefore I felt that this approach was not the best one because it did not offer the occasion to repeat, in a natural way, the expressions, vocabulary and structures seen in the previous activities.

So I wanted to try something new, to try to focus on accuracy as well, without making a “class”.

I finished Italianiamo first phase and invited people who usually came to italianiamo to participate in a new project, if they felt like: to make a short film together.
Of all the things I wanted to try in SL, this was the easiest from the point of view of the learner: it did not require any technical skill from their part. But it required commitment. It was not anymore something you drop into when you feel like chatting in Italian. It was a project and for projects you need a group.

There were 3 people who came regularly to the first Italianiamo, and other who came from time to time, some more other less often. Italianiamo, being an activity open to everyone, also included native speakers who participated in our activities. 3 people came to the 1st meeting of Italianiamo-the movie: Gizmo Karelia and Paloma. One week later arrived Lluis and a native speaker, Marino.
Let’s look at the composition of this group, because it will be important to understand many things later.

Gizmo: yes, Karelia , Lluis and I were good friends, did other things together in SL, and had a strong interest in improving their oral Italian. Marino was developing a strong friendship with Karelia and me. Paloma came quite regularly for a couple of months, then would disappear,  for work reasons, then turn up again for another couple of months. But basically, most of  the participants in the first film were regular and committed attendees who had also been through the first stage of Italianiamo together.
When we say committed , what I mean was committed to the group. Some of us, myself included, are learning Italian in order to keep up conversationally with Italian friends. I can’t pretend that I do homework or serious study of the language – but the first stage activities of Italianiamo gave me a kick start to where I am now, when I speak Italian nearly every day with friends that I  have made on SL.

The whys and the wherefores

Anna: the idea underlying italianiamo-the movie was… to make them talk again and again about the same topic without boring them. The film was an excuse, a little trick, the purpose for doing everything in the middle. I wanted them to use and reuse the same vocabulary, structures, sentences, but in a natural way. And I wanted to be able to work on pronunciation too.  And I wanted them to be actively involved in the project in all its phases: it had to be their film, they had to feel they had the complete control of it. I was the one taking care of all the technical, difficult bits, like the settings, organising how to work, and the actual filming and editing

Deciding the story

Gizmo: We started to decide what  the central topic was going to be, brainstorming ideas and discussing them, and we decided the story would take place in an hairdresser’s shop. The ideas were quite simple, nothing too deep, with well worn themes and some good action in the end.

Anna: We started choosing a broad subject and a setting. The participants decided who they wanted to be in the story. I help them thinking up their character, made them reflect on the relationship with the other characters, how they felt etc, just to get them in their roles.
Only then, starting from the relationship between characters, we created a plot.
This part was a creative mess. Many idea sprung up, many were discarded, we were naturally forced to summarise again and again our story. You see? Repetition, same vocabulary coming up again and again, same structures… but without getting bored or feeling that they were “repeating it”.
My role here was to put some order, to keep them on track, to avoid changing the story over and over again, give little pushes form time to time when they got stuck.

Gizmo: the story in a nutshell is that the hairdresser, the character Alessandro,  has been having an affair with a client , Venus.  They have been planning to start a new life together when Alessandro gets cold feet when Venus tries to push him to act.  There is a big argument with his wife, Venus is enraged and tries to steal Alessandro’s savings but is stopped in her tracks by an all seeing black cat  who also speaks Italian.


Anna: Once the plot was finished and we had it written, we could start with the dialogues. I first thought that everybody could prepare simultaneously their dialogues, improvising them, and then we would write them down, correcting the language when needed, so that they had their script.
But i saw immediately that it did not work. if you have been studying a foreign language you will have noticed it. When the teacher asks you to prepare a dialogue, improvising, and then present it to the class, the “original” one, the one you are improvising, is always better, more spontaneous, witty, fresh, that the one you are representing in front of the class.
This is because to us, to the people representing it, that dialogue, it’s not so meaningful anymore. I mean, when we talk to someone, we react to what he/she says. We do not know beforehand what this person will say.

So we had to work in another way: I had to write down what they said when they were saying it, the first time.
At the end, I copied everything on a notecard, read it again, corrected grammar mistakes and some vocabulary, but trying to change as little as possible of their language. If some sentence was not clear, we discussed it, I made some proposal, but they always had the last word. Above all, they had to feel comfortable reading it. the language had to be their level. It was them who spoke, not me.

The notecard then was given to the people involved in the scene . they read it again, loud, acting the scene. Here we corrected pronunciation and made little changes when necessary.

Gizmo: I’d like to talk about  my experience of creating my part in the story . It was easy for me to invent the character of a speaking cat as I am a great cat lover anyway. In our story the cat introduces the other characters with a monologue, and later has a dialogue with Andrea, played by Marino. This dialogue influenced later parts of the story because of material that came up and was taken up later. The monologue came to me fairly quickly and was then written down by Anna. The dialogue was a joint effort between Marino and me. We created it whilst Anna was recording another part of the story. So bits of the story were developing independently and we had to edit some details later so that the story flowed and made sense. In the dialogue Marino did suggest a few of the Italian phrases I used, but  it was a good dialogue exercise because we were really trying to invent something new, add a new twist to the story, not just put together a collection of phrases. We then acted it out again for Anna, who transcribed it, and did 3 or 4 takes for the final filming. Even after a few times of repeating it it was still enjoyable to do.

Gizmo preparing her monologue

Anna: For me, to have a native speaker with me (Marino) was an help. Let me say that I had to “educate” him a bit, since he is not teacher, and he is italian (Italians love to speak). They like to speak a lot… because it’s natural and easy for them, and for non native speakers it can be difficult to understand everything and to participate in a conversation with a native speaker. Or for instance, in dialogue, they tend to suggest too much, try to put their words into the learners mouth, because of course their Italian is stylistically better.
But having another native speaker who could help a couple rehearsing their dialogue was wonderful, a big help.
Of course it was not everything went smoothly. We had problems. Let’s see them.

  • I was the only Italian person who typed quick enough to transcribe dialogues. So when I was writing what a couple said, the others often had nothing to do.
  • Paloma disappeared without notice, and we had to find someone who substituted her. Luckily my colleague Cvetcka Nackt convinced one of her student to participate.
  • The day we had to shoot the scene in a bar our barman could not come. So we were stuck. But in this case, the difficulty gave us the opportunity of practicing some more Italian: everybody was scanning his/her friend list looking for Italian speaking people (often native speakers) who could come to help. They had to wrote many IM in Italian before we found someone who agreed on being our barman.

Cvetkca "lent" us a student

The whole process took quite a long time: we started at the beginning of December and the “premiere” was at the beginning of March, but we were proud of our work, we were proud of having overcome the various difficulties, and to have a little film to show to our friends.
Because of it, we decided then to go for a second one.

This time we decided to use a real SL setting, and Alice Mastroianni offered WDT planet, a wonderful Italian Sim.

WDT Planet


Let’s see who were the people in the group this time
Gizmo, Karelia, Marino, Claudio, Grinta.

Then Claudio and Grinta got some misunderstanding SL and Grinta stopped coming. And Gwen Arrived.

Then Marino fell in love in RL and he disappeared (and we understood it) but we had to look for a substitute. And Bea arrived.

Later on Donatuccio and Kalyan arrived, Donatuccio disappeared, Bernard arrived and Bea disappeared.

Gizmo: the story line that we first mooted was about Greek gods who turn out to be the opposite from what one would think , like the huntress Diana becoming a vegetarian. However as more participants joined us after the start , the plot turned out to be too complicated because a greater number of contributors wanted their say  and other story lines became added.   Indeed it was difficult to remember what the plot was and perhaps that put off some people from returning.

There was fairly frequent change in the composition of the group with some avatars from the first film leaving the group  or not turning up for the rehearsals and then the arrival of some competent speakers with many  new ideas.

Some participants who were near beginners, joined relatively late on in the process of the ‘script writing’. It was difficult to cope with this as a group when we also had native speakers who could sometimes introduce idioms which were unknown to us or a few who would come along for the camaraderie but did not want to take part in the film. That said, I did like the mixture of  both learners and native speakers in the group . They were mostly friends of Gizmo and Karelia anyway! Perhaps there was the need for firmer boundaries, but in the SL environment that is difficult.

And…Was there ever a title? The first film had a title which encapsulated the main point.

Anna: You are right Gizmo, but every time I tried to discuss the possible title, the conversation went somewhere else….(sigh)
With all this coming and going of people, I was starting to feel that it was impossible to introduce ourselves, explain the story, how we worked, to the newcomers as I would have liked to.
On the one hand, to work together you have to create bonds among people, and people to collaborate in something so complex, have to feel commitment towards the group. They as well need to understand what is involved in participating in this kind of activities, and decide if they want to join in or not. They also have to understand how everything works, and why it works in this way.
On the other hand, I could not ask people who were in the project from the start to introduce themselves each time, to repeat the story we had thought of, to change it to let the newcomers participate, or to try to find a substitute for those who disappeared and where playing a central role. And do it over and over again.

We started at the end of March and at end of July I had to admit that we were stuck. So I decided to finish it.

Gizmo: Personally I felt a bit disappointed at the sudden ending of the project, which was done unilaterally, without discussion. If people start something together it is better to end it together whatever the ending might be. This brings the process to a cleaner end and allows everyone to reflect on the process and extract the learning points for themselves. Anna probably got fed up with the whole thing in the end, but I do think she can sometimes be quite impetuous ( well she is Italian!!!)

Anna: yes, it was like finishing a love affair with a sms. You are right.

After a couple of months of reflection, we want to share with you we learnt

  • In the first italianiamo-the movie we had a group, people knew each other and had had time to develop bonds.

comparing the two groups

In the second Italianiamo-the movie, the group started with some bonds, but then due to RL issue, new inclusions and drop off, we did not have a group anymore.

  • In the first italianiamo-the movie I knew well my people, how they are, who is more shy, who is more dominant, and had my trick to balance the situation. In the second italianiamo-the movie sometimes I did not even had time to understand the language level of each newcomer, and I lost control of the situation, above all with native speakers who tended to monopolise the conversation.
  • In the first italianiamo-the movie, almost everybody had time to understand the process, and many, being themselves language teachers, understood as well why I was doing it this way.
  • In the fist italianiamo-the movie, we all knew it was an experiment, and we all knew it was risky and difficult, but wanted to give a try, because if it worked, it was going to be great.

In the second italianiamo-the movie, many came because saw the result, the movie we proudly showed in our premiere, other just to practice Italian, other just for curiosity.
Since they did not live the fist experience, where we all learnt together how to do it (me included, I’d never done anything similar in my life) and since we did not spend much time with each new comer explaining it  they did not get it. Many, for instance, did not understand why we spent so much time talking about the character and the relations among characters. They would have preferred to have me telling them, deciding for them. But if they have to create a story and above all play their character, this is a fundamental step.
However, there were some good learning moments and some unique moments. I will explain just one. Gwen Gwasi, who had to try to play aloud her monologue, said “i will stand up to say it”. And we all were expecting her avatar to stand. But not, her avatar stayed sit. The one standing was Gwen, in RL. She was so involved in what she was doing, that she needed to stand up in RL to say her monologue.

Gizmo: now a few memories of mine

  • As the character of  Diana the huntress, I spent a lot of time  shooting rabbits which I had rezzed and cloned, with a bow and arrow , whilst others were going through their scenes.
  • And  Karelia as Juno having to change her avatar shape to become more Juno-esque ( that is,  curvy and well endowed).
  • And i won’t forget the verb bisbigliare  to whisper .- Claudio often had to speak in a whisper because he was online when members of his family were asleep.. Claudio bisbiglia…

good moments

  • Anna: to conclude, some advice to those who want to try this out themselves:
  • It’s a very exciting, satisfying learning experience. But to be successful it has to be done with people who know each other quite well.
  • Keep the group small, be sure they understand what is involved in the task and ask commitment from the start.
  • If you can, try to involve native speakers, but remember that you will have to restrain them from talking too much.
  • Don’t be afraid of learning yourself
  • Be ready to become a builder (but you can find many ready to use settings and things), a personal shopper, a location finder, a film director and of course, a machinima maker and editor and many other things. Your task is to make their task easier, to that their only concern will be the language.

And enjoy the process, because the film, the result, it’s only and excuse. It’s all the other part that’s important.

Gizmo …….Well, Ok the second film didn’t ever come to light – but the result of the different stages of Italianiamo was that some of us have been enthused to take our learning and develop it outside the virtual environment in forming real friendships  with people from different parts of Italy. That must be encouraging for any language teacher!


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Filed under learning, presentation, Second Life, task based learning

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