Michael J. Cripps, University of New England
Animated characters reflect on the potential uses of Xtranormal’s text to speech software in the freshman composition classroom. Also, a sample assignment is provided.
Review of Xtranormal:
Xtranormal is an animated movie-making tool that converts script text to speech. It offers a simple drag-and-drop user interface for adjusting camera angles, character motions, background music and sound, and more. This animated Tool Tip reviews the educator version of Xtranormal and its use in the writing classroom. Acknowledging the validity of both Kathleen Blake Yancey’s and Cynthia Selfe’s ideas about the importance of new media in the composition class, the review considers how Xtranormal may help students explore both the possibilities and limitations of video as a medium for advancing their ideas.
Sample Xtranormal Assignment and Rubric (First Year Writing)
Our first animation is a collaborative project to help get us comfortable with the Xtranormal text-to-speech animation tool and to get us thinking hard about putting texts into conversation. Working in pairs, we’ll try to advance the kinds of ideas we engaged in paper one.
Rules of the game:
- Animations must run from 3-5 minutes long.
- With the exception of introductions and closing remarks, each line of dialog must include a brief quote or keyword from at least one of our texts. (While this rule will help ensure that the texts come into conversation, it leaves plenty of flexibility to add our own text throughout the animation.)
- Animations must open with a “Title Bubble” that contains a title for the movie and close with a credit “Title Bubble” that names the contributors.
- Choice of Collection, Set, Actors, and Sounds will help establish the context for both the content and style of the dialog in the animation. (A group that chooses the SuperZeroes Collection, for example, would find a way to work the hero idea into the dialog and/or content of the analysis.)
- Story will make generous (and appropriate) use of the various Cameras, Motions, Points, Faces, Look-ats, Pauses, and Sounds. (Witty dialog is only one element of a well-developed Xtranormal dialog.)
- Animation will develop a perspective or viewpoint on the issues that emerge from bringing the texts into conversation. (Students will either settle on a viewpoint articulated in one student’s first paper or will consider a perspective that brings together ideas from each group member’s paper.)
- Go to Xtranormal.com and click the Log In tab (upper right corner)
- You are a student with a token.
- In “Don’t have an account?” (right half of screen), find “Are you a student with a token? Sign up here” and click it.
- Enter your token and create your account.
- Try out Xtranormal by playing with one of the Testing Xtranormal assignments before taking on the actual assignment.
* Clearly follows the first three Rules of the Game;
* Selection of quotes and keywords reveals careful thought and shows a keen awareness of opportunities to connect ideas in the readings;
* Demonstrates great care in the selection of a Collection, Set, and Actors as evidenced by the integration of those elements into the dialog itself;
* Uses a variety of camera angles throughout the dialog and limits lengthy “monologues” in order to create a conversation;
* Employs Motions, Points, Faces, Look-ats, Pauses, and Sounds in ways that greatly enhance the actors’ dialog, expressions, and interactions;
* Advances a compelling perspective or viewpoint on the topic taken up in Paper 1.
* Clearly follows the first three Rules of the Game;
* Selection of quotes and keywords reveals thought and shows an awareness of opportunities to connect ideas in the readings;
* Demonstrates care in the selection of a Collection, Set, and Actors as evidenced by the integration of those elements into the dialog itself;
* Uses a variety of camera angles and limits lengthy “monologues” in order to create a conversation;
* Employs Motions, Points, Faces, Look-ats, Pauses, and Sounds in ways that generally enhance the actors’ dialog, expressions, and interactions;
* Advances a series of ideas for connection that are developed and explained in the dialog, though the overall animation may not advance an overarching perspective or viewpoint on the topic taken up in Paper 1.
An A-level project earns a B if contributors do not submit a complete first draft.
* Mostly follows the first three Rules of the Game;
* Selection of quotes and keywords reveals some awareness of opportunities to connect ideas in the readings;
* Demonstrates a basic level of care in the selection of a Collection, Set, and Actors as evidenced by thin integration of those elements into the dialog itself;
* Uses some camera angles (though not many) and may have several relatively lengthy “monologues” within the dialog;
* Uses Motions, Points, Faces, Look-ats, Pauses, and Sounds in ways that occasionally enhance the actors’ dialog, expressions, and interactions;
* Advances some ideas for connection, but those ideas are somewhat underdeveloped or go unexplained at key moments in the dialog.
A B-level project earns a C if contributors do not submit a complete first draft.
* Is too short (under 3 minutes) or too long (well over 5 minutes);
* Fails to include quotes or keywords at each moment in the dialog;
* Demonstrates a hasty and haphazard approach in selection of a Collection, Set, and Actors;
* Very basic use of camera angles;
* Motions, Points, Faces, Look-ats, Pauses, and Sounds are not used to enhance the actors’ dialog, expressions, and interactions;
* Advances some ideas for connection, but those ideas are underdeveloped or go unexplained as the dialog progresses.
A C-level project earns an F if contributors do not submit a complete first draft.
Transcript of above video animation:
Quirk: Hi. I’m Captain James Dee Quirk. On this episode of Tool Tips we’ll boldly go where no one has gone before. Today, we’ll review the educational version of Xtranormal.
Scotty: Captain! Xtranormal is one of those text-to-speech animation tools, isn’t it?
Title Bubble: Tool Tip: Xtranormal for Educators, by Michael J. Cripps, University of New England
Quirk: I am on a continuing mission to explore the potential for students to present their academic writing in new media projects.
Scotty: Aye. Back in 2004, Kathleen Yancey challenged writing teachers to help students “think explicitly about what they might transfer” as they communicate in print, through images, and in video.
Quirk: And Cynthia Selfe has argued that a focus on print texts works to deprive students of “valuable semiotic resources for making meaning.” I want students to use a range of tools to advance ideas. But I have been reluctant to bring much new media into the first year writing course. I see a tension between those tools and the goals of that course.
Scotty: Aye, Captain! They often require instruction.
Quirk: I worry that embedding movie projects into freshman writing can distract from the emphasis on writing.
Scotty: But you’re using Xtranormal in the writing class. What changed your mind?
Quirk: Two things, really. First, Xtranormal is simple to use. The character sets are ready-made. Camera angles, motions, and sounds are added through a drag-and-drop interface.
Scotty: The educator account has a dashboard for managing student projects, and it includes all of Xtranormal’s sets and characters.
Quirk: Second, the medium frees students up from some constraints of academic writing. Some of the projects are less formal presentations of ideas students engage in their papers.
Scotty: Aye. But what have you done with Xtranormal in the writing classroom? Isn’t that what matters?
Quirk: I’ve used Xtranormal for two kinds of projects. The first requires students to put ideas from multiple readings together in a conversation. In papers, students connect texts to develop and support their ideas. Video helps them explore ways to use scripted dialog, facial expressions, and gestures to advance ideas.
Scotty: So the animations help students use those semiotic resources to demonstrate their understanding of the readings and advance ideas?
Quirk: By using brief quotes and key words from the readings in their animations, they really put the texts into conversation. And they can consider the benefits and limitations of the medium.
Scotty: What does this look like?
Quirk: I see three basic approaches. Some students use the characters as the authors, creating a text-to-text conversation. For example, students have placed two authors in a dinner conversation to explore how their ideas intersect. Others establish a scene with two characters discussing the readings. These scenes often involve two students talking about the readings or exploring ideas for the paper. One group last term put the authors’ fictional pets into a discussion of their owners’ ideas. It was a cute scene that dug into the texts. Others set up an interview that brings in an expert. For example, in a project that critically examined Tricia Rose’s book Hip Hop Wars, two students put Rev Run from Run DMC at the table with James Scott in a Larry King-type interview. Rev Run and Scott explored how Scott’s ideas about power and social relations apply to hip hop.
Scotty: That sounds very promising. What’s the other project?
Quirk: We create animated grammar or writing lessons. Think of it as an updated Schoolhouse Rock. Plural vs. possessive, comma splices, and usage errors are some of the projects students have taken up.
Scotty: That sounds like Schoolhouse Rock!
Quirk: Beginning with a self-diagnostic, students identify grammar and usage issues that trouble them. They work in groups to develop an animation that teaches one of these issues.
Scotty: Xtranormal sounds like a great technology for the freshman writing class.
Quirk: It’s not perfect. The cloud-based versions limit you to two characters. The characters are stationary, so they don’t make much use of the set. And there is no way to add text to the bottom of the screen, what the industry calls “lower thirds.”
Scotty: Lower thirds would be a useful feature in a writing class. But you are just introducing video in your course. If students have too many options, the technology can get in the way. That’s one of the reasons you have avoided video production in the freshman writing class. Kathleen Yancey has charged writing teachers to help students think about what gets left out and what gets added as we compose in new writing spaces. Does Xtranormal help students consider what a video presentation of academic ideas might do that a textual presentation doesn’t?
Scotty: Perhaps the student’s viewpoint is precisely what risks getting left out.
Quirk: Perhaps. Or perhaps I have to work harder to help students find ways to present arguments through animated dialog.
Selfe, Cynthia L., “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” College Composition and Communication 60 (2009): 616-663.
Yancey, Kathleen Blake, “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication 56 (2004): 297-328.