Learning from Ed Zed Omega: TPT’s Leap into “Authentic Fiction” | Part I

The Twin Cities Public Television’s (TPT) Ed Zed Omega project, in collaboration with Localore, is part of the larger American Graduate initiative through NCME’s American Graduate Engagement Grant program. The American Graduate initiative seeks to address and offer solutions to the high school dropout crisis.

By Jessica Clark, Association of Independents in Radio

The semester is ending for Ed Zed Omega (EZO)—Localore’s “collaborative thought experiment” at Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) exploring education reform. But lead producer Ken Eklund and his team at TPT are still rounding up the lessons from the groundbreaking project.

In this video, see the six fictional high-schoolers who have been crowdsourcing advice on whether they should drop out: Edwina, Nicole, Xavier, Lizzie, Clare, and Jeremy. Played by actors, these central characters are joined by two others who provide context and commentary: guidance counselor Mary Johnson, who assigned the teens this semester of independent study to explore their educational options, and Nora Rose, a home-schooler who is considering her own future.

Blending on-air promotion with digital, mobile, and face-to-face engagement, EZO is one of 10 Localore projects that AIR is producing across the country to increase stations’ capacity to innovate. The project has given TPT staffers a chance to work with bleeding-edge platforms and storytelling strategies.

I spoke with Eklund, TPT Interactive Producer Andi McDaniel, and EZO writer/producer Maggie Ryan Sanford about what they’ve learned along the way. In this blog post (Part I) we explore the project’s concept and evolution; and Part II looks at how other stations might take such a leap.

Lesson 1: It’s easier to play than to explain”—Eklund

Ken Eklund

EZO’s design reflects its goal of surfacing real issues encountered by today’s youth. The students’ stories are not scripted. They’ve evolved organically, shaped by the actors (aged 16-26) through feedback from participants, conversations with Eklund’s team, and experiences from their own lives.

A game and experience designer known for an earlier participatory public media project, World Without Oil, Eklund has coined a new term for this fluid storytelling genre: “authentic fiction.”  Such projects, he explains, create a safe space for participants to grapple with and play through thorny issues in a way that traditional reporting or community forums don’t.

The team discovered, however, that such conceptual explanations often fell flat. Instead, what brought EZO to life was direct interaction with the characters.

This dynamic surfaced early on, explains McDaniel, at a small TPT staff lunch. A discussion led by Jeremy and Nicole led to a “tense and interesting conversation about where our education system isn’t delivering,” she says. “The energy in the room was electric,” and the encounter led to a similarly engaged all-staff meeting.

Online and via phone, participants also stepped into the fray. Ray Kimball, who identified himself as a career army officer pursuing a graduate degree in educational tech, urged the students via email to consider the economic consequences of dropping out. Via Twitter, Shauna contacted Clare with a detailed list of suggestions for presenting her “unschooling” plans to her parents, which led to a lively exchange. Linda wrote in to express sympathy, noting that “high school was the worst experience in my life.”

Routinely, such exchanges elicited personal responses—which in turn led to talk about the role of education in work, society, and personal development.  These complex discussions challenge facile assumptions about who drops out and why.

Lesson 2: “The golden rule is: listen to the kids.”—Sanford

Unlike many explorations of the drop-out issue, The project focuses on a set of voices that often gets lost in the cacophony that pervades the education discussion: the voices of those most directly affected by our education systems, the people currently subject to the state of ‘being educated,’ “observes Brandie Minchew in Wired.

 

For the EZO team, that meant allowing the young actors to drive the narrative. Sanford was tasked with talking them through plot twists. While working without a script can be scary sometimes, she says, “the project is supposed to be giving voice to teenagers, and we have to walk the talk.”

As a result, the characters’ storylines took some unexpected turns. “We think we have one thing,” Sanford explains, “and then something better comes out of the kid’s mouth.” This loose structure allowed them to explore other educational alternatives freely. While the characters began “zed omega”— a slang term for “so over”— about their high school experiences, they eagerly sought out information on charter schools, “rising out,” online coursework and GEDs.

Visits to local high schools for conversations with real students also pushed the actors to deepen their characters. In one exchange between students from the High School for Recording Arts and Zed Omegas Nicole and Xavier, the students reject Nicole’s complaints about bullying as a reason to leave school. “If you give into it, then basically you let them win,” one tells her.

“They read her the riot act,” says Sanford. “You can see her sitting there, the gears turning like crazy…and she brings it up in her exit video.” Ultimately, Nicole decided to go back to school.

Read more about EZO’s evolution in the next post for lessons on working with partners, navigating social media, and taking productive risks. This post is one in a series offering insights from the Localore initiative, produced by AIR with support from CPB.

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