Education as art form: Winners of the ‘What’s Your Story?’ contest

With these winners, art doesn’t imitate life, hopefully it steers and enriches both the online and offline parts of it.

By Anne Collier

The grand-prize-winning video – produced by Mark Eshleman and performed by Tyler Joseph – is a visual poem about a real-life choice we all continually need to make online.

On a spare set with a black line of electrical tape laid down the center of the concrete floor, and with a taped plus sign on one side of the line and a minus sign on the other, Tyler performs his poem, which reads in part:

“This is a line, and this line is mine. You’ll kindly find my feet and spine are perfectly aligned. You’ll also find that on either side there’s a plus and a minus sign. Right now I’m on this line and – minus ‘this’ – now I’m online…. I will not pretend that there are no consequences of saying something offensive online….” And he concludes, “You will kindly find my feet and my spine are on the plus sign. And I’m not moving. Where are you?”

A little poem says it all

As one of the judges for Trend Micro’s contest, I was struck by two things about Mark and Tyler’s video:

1. How powerful Mark and Tyler’s artistry – poetry, acting, videography, and video editing – made that simple call to action, or rather call to a decision, which I hope a lot of people of all ages will hear, think about, and make often, and…
2. How a few words, chosen from the heart and artistically presented, can sum up years of research.

I’ve been following developments in youth tech use and online safety for 14 years and can tell you that Mark and Tyler nailed it. They got what the research shows, that our safety and well-being online, just like offline, depend greatly on the choices we make: who we choose to be, how we choose to treat ourselves and others, and what we choose to make of our experiences, wherever we have them. And beyond words, Tyler’s performance expresses the powerful, continual demand this social, or behavioral, medium is now making on all of us – especially every single Net user, but also humanity as a whole.

Deadlines are good

The interesting thing is how quickly this little piece came together. Mark told me on the phone this morning that he came upon the “What’s Your Story?” page around 3 a.m. the morning before the submission deadline, as he was searching the Web for video equipment. He and Tyler are housemates, so he showed the Web page to Tyler and asked him if he was interested in submitting something too. “An hour later, Tyler had the poem written and we discovered some visual meanings from the rhymes,” Mark later told Trend Micro.

Tyler was heading to a meeting in Nashville that afternoon, so the two made a “pit stop” at their studio location on the way from home base in Columbus, Ohio, Mark told me on the phone. He shot the video with both steady and handheld cameras in “no more than 10 takes that took two to two-and-a-half hours to completely finish,” he said. Then, while Tyler drove on to Nashville, he did the editing, including carefully choosing the font, sizes, and colors for the on-screen text. The editing took “about three to four hours. I posted it a couple of hours before the deadline,” Mark added. “The next morning, he picked me up on his way back to Columbus. It felt like a secret military mission.” [Here’s an interview Mark and Tyler gave Fox TV in Columbus. I think it barely scratches the surface, but it gives you a little feel for what they’re like.]

A fantastic runner-up

I also loved “The Wrong Hands,” by Emmett Fraser, winner of the online-privacy category (4th one down on the winners page). This one’s funny – clever in a different way. But I also loved it because, like Mark and Tyler’s, it honors young people’s intelligence. Note what Emmett said about that in describing his process: “I had watched many of the other videos and decided early on that I wanted to steer clear of the tendency to focus on predation and kidnapping. I think most kids are aware of blatant requests for information or real-life meetings. I wanted to highlight the more subtle ways that people can find and use our online information.” He went on to say that, “in terms of production, I focused very heavily on keeping the video fast-paced, funny and entertaining…. I had been hoping to try out some sort of paper-cut-out effect for a while, and although it didn’t really make sense, I convinced myself that no one would mind.… I performed opposite Daniel Bothen, who is an old friend and an easy actor to work with. It was a lot of fun and I’m very pleased with the way the paper-effect turned out. That took a lot of patience and hard work.”

Check these winners out and share them with your kids. You and they will benefit from the wisdom of these artists – and all the winners, both individual and school-based (don’t miss “Be Respectful Keep Your Comments to Yourself,” by Nancy DeSalvo’s 3rd grade class, in Bronx, N.Y.!). Wish I could be a fly on the wall during class and dinner-table discussions that might follow!

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