Introducing Meridian Stories

Nine finalists will present their ideas for new ventures at the We Media NYC conference on April 6, 2011. A panel of judges will select two winners – and each will receive $25,000 and access to a network of mentors to help them launch. Meridian Stories is one of the finalists. To register for the conference, click here.

Meridian Stories
– Operations based out of: Freeport, Maine, USA
– Presented at WeMedia NYC, 2011 by Brett Pierce
– Company: Steel River Productions, Inc. (although I will need to start a non-profit subsidiary for Meridian Stories)
– Contact Information:

Brett Pierce
24 Cunningham Road
Freeport, ME 04032

– Company URL:

Brett Pierce has unique professional expertise and passion which sits at the intersection of two worlds: education and entertainment media. He is an experienced program developer, producer and educator who has spent over 25 years working in media production that aims to address defined educational curricula objectives by engaging audiences through entertainment.

Brett is currently the Co-Executive Producer of Salam Shabab, a TV series (funded by the US Institute of Peace – USIP) for Iraqi youth that showcases youth’s stories, in film and in word, in a competitive environment, with the aim of empowering Iraqi youth to be confident, responsible and participatory citizens. (The series will premiere in April of 2011 in Iraq and a promotional video can be found at

Brett recently completed four years as the Executive Director of Panwapa, an initiative from Sesame Workshop, the creators of Sesame Street, where Brett spent twenty years of his professional life. Panwapa, designed to inspire and empower young children to become responsible global citizens, was produced as a print, video and web initiative in five languages: Arabic, English, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish. Prior to his role on Panwapa, Brett served as an Executive Producer on media projects about topics including math, science, public health and conflict-resolution, for youth in countries including China, Macedonia, Indonesia, Poland, Cyprus and Ecuador.

Brett graduated from Kenyon College and holds Master Degrees from both Middlebury College (MA) and Columbia University (Ed.M). Brett lives in Maine with his wife, Kerry Michaels, and two children.

The Idea – Summary
Meridian Stories is a digital media platform that will work at the crossroads of two powerful trends: the rising co-creation of digital content by today’s youth and a vital social issue: education reform. To harness the massive power of digital media to help address education reform, Meridian Stories is designed as a YouTube-like environment, driven by regularly scheduled, global competitions between schools, around short-form storytelling using image, words, film and music. The goal is to help teachers creatively engage students with the curriculum through competitive/collaborative storytelling that capitalizes on the technological and co-creative tools of this generation’s culture.

The Idea – Elaboration
Meridian Stories will create a digital community that offers Middle and High School classrooms (and secondarily, after-school settings) in the US and around the world a wide range of opportunities to participate in story competitions that carry universal resonance and correlate to curricular guidelines.

Every week, Meridian Stories will post a range of new competitive and collaborative opportunities in which classrooms can participate. From an international film competition (90 seconds) around gender identity – what’s it like to be a boy/girl in your culture? — to an intra-national word slam about the aesthetics of the Fibonacci Sequence; from a mural competition about what peace looks like, to a mobile phone competition about 1960’s fashion and politics, as told by parents/grandparents in a three minute podcast. The result is a YouTube-like destination that is framed by socially responsible, reflective and globally engaged content.

Winners are chosen based on a vote by the site’s users and select experts in the field.

Some of the basic architectural pieces informing this idea include:

– Two areas of the site: one for 11 – 14 year olds and one for 15 – 18 year olds.
– New competitions/collaborations are posted every week. Each competition/collaboration can last between 2 and 4 weeks, depending on the nature of the task.
– Each competition has a social media component to it that allows the competing youth to engage in a dialogue with each other while developing their entries.
– Winners are determined by the vote of the site’s audience and by select experts in the field.
– The competitions will follow a variety of local, national and international tournament structures. Some examples include the following:
o International competitions modeled after the World Cup whereby students need to qualify for entry and then advance by rounds to the semis and finals.
o Smaller, more locally-based competitions which serve to train kids, classes and schools in the art of storytelling through film, imagery, poetry/performance and music.
o Collaborative competitions where schools from across the globe are paired together on topics which delve into issues of language, clothing, food, music, local politics or the environment.
– There is a section of the site with tools, templates and practice models for how to develop, storyboard and write a short film; prepare a poetry slam; write a song; or create a poster or photo montage that has impact.
– Finally, there is a non-competitive section where students are regularly invited to create pieces in response to that week’s current events.

As a student entering the site – which can only be done through the auspices of their school, in order to insure quality control – they will have the option to create content, or view and vote on content.

This latter experience – viewing and voting — is a critical part of the Meridian Stories experience. Part of what makes YouTube so phenomenally successful with youth is the idea that it represents a digital shared experience. If there is a popular video on YouTube, everyone wants to see it and everyone wants to talk about it. Meridian Stories seeks to inspire a similar experience…but with an added, participatory feature: the vote. If there is a provocative video about Roma culture, the value of censorship, immigration or wind energy, we want the site’s users to view, vote and then talk about this shared experience.

What Problem is Meridian Stories Solving and how?
The problem is this: How do we get youth, ages 11 – 18, to channel the massive, daily energy that is expended online away from simple extensions of their social lives and toward deeper explorations of their identities and the critical issues that surround them? The digital resources at their disposal to explore personal, communal, global and educational topics are without precedent in the history of education.

John Seeley Brown, Co-Chair, Deloitte Center for the Edge, USC, believes that this plethora of digital media is altering the very objective of education:

“Probably the most important thing for kids growing up today is the love of embracing change. In a world of rapid change, the need to memorize something is a 20th century skill. [But if you can learn] to navigate in a buzz of confusion … then the world is yours. ”

This is a beautifully sweeping statement about how technology and media are creating new living and learning conditions for today’s youth. But are schools teaching them how to navigate through the ‘confusion’?

Generally speaking, …no. Youth is not being guided, on a consistent and sustained basis, in ways to use these inimitable resources toward ends that advance social responsibility, global awareness, communal participation and educational mastery.

Why? Because the generation ahead of them – their educators and parents – don’t know how. Christopher Lehmann, Principal, Science Leadership Academy, Philadelphia, PA, asks: “How can we leverage media in schools? We can stop being driven by fear. ”

Meridian Stories is a potentially vital tool that addresses schools’ fears about embracing media and technology in a non-threatening way that combines the world’s oldest form of literacy – storytelling – with the world’s newest form of literacy: digital media.

What’s the Big Innovation?
Meridian Stories is innovative by providing a unique, common place where both teachers and students can excel. Teachers can apply their curricular and pedagogical expertise inside of the new digital literacies. Students can work in a language and way that is consistent with their generational expectations and cultural norms.

MacArthur Foundation Education Director Connie Yowell, who runs the program for Digital Media and Learning, recently spoke about the importance of intergenerational learning. She talks about how the older generation is vital in communicating questions around ethics, civic engagement and morality to the younger generation while they can educate the older generations about digital media .

Meridian Stories was partially developed as a response to the realization that there aren’t many vehicles out there whereby youth are directed in digital media by adults who are experienced in learning methodologies. This is because the adults don’t have the experience in digital media. But they do have the experience in questions around ‘ethics, civic engagement and morality’, and they do have experience with the power of traditional narrative. With that expertise, they can help students craft their digital skill set to address the issues that will allow them to ‘navigate in a buzz of confusion’. And the primary vehicle is the story…

One of the reasons why The Diary of Anne Frank is such a seminal book in education is because her personal story gives us access to an experience that is otherwise inaccessible. Stories, so often, open the door to understanding

Today’s kids have stories to tell as well. But they want to tell them in a way which is consistent with the tools of their generation. Meridian Stories allows them to do that.

The other critical element that distinguishes this approach is competition. In Salam Shabab, we consistently found that competition can bring out the best in kids. It was the friendly, competitive nature of that program – which challenged Iraqi kids to create short performances and films around select themes, which were voted on by a studio audience of their peers – that inspired such exciting and provocative stories. It is competition that makes events like Science Olympiad, Odyssey of the Mind and the Model UN such deeply memorable experiences for the participants. Competition, when crafted inside of a friendly spirit, can motivate kids to excel and this notion is an integral part of the innovation that drives Meridian Stories.

How Did You Come up with This Idea?
For the past five years, I have been working both as the Executive Director of Sesame Workshop’s Panwapa, and as the Co-Executive Producer of USIP’s Salam Shabab

I thought that these two uncommon experiences, taken together, might yield a fresh perspective on learning and media. I set out to excavate the key successes in each of these enterprises and ended up with this list of elements that I believe are critical to educational success:
– Educating inside of a global perspective;
– Integrating digital tools on a consistent basis;
– Utilizing narrative structures as a basis for exploration, connection and engagement; and
– Valuing competition as an educational catalyst, when used responsibly.

Meridian Stories is the idea that resulted from mixing these elements together.

Can I Pull This Off?
I have extensive skills and experience in four areas that are critical to the success of Meridian Stories:
1. Hands-on understanding of schools and the classroom – Trained as an educator, I taught high school for three years and continue to teach college courses around Media and Social Change (Fordham University, Colby College, University of Southern Maine and Maine Media Workshops)
2. Global media applied for educational purposes – I have supervised creative and curricular development of television series and websites around the world for over 20 years.
3. Outcomes-oriented development and production – All of the projects on which I work have built-in formative and summative components that require setting clear and measureable objectives.
4. Team management – With budgets ranging from $500,000 to $5,000,000, I have led projects with teams of thirty or more.

What’s the Current Status?
Meridian Stories is still in the formative stages. The encouragement I have gotten from being a Finalist in the WeMedia Pitch It! Competition has been an important step which has allowed me to take this idea out to my colleagues to get their input, as well as explore their desire for further involvement. The project needs partners that can help with schools distribution, curriculum development, digital design and business planning. To date, I have begun discussions with:

o Joan Ganz Cooney Center (NYC) – Advancing Children’s Learning in a Digital Age
o The Telling Room (Portland, ME) – The Place Where Stories Grow
o Maine International Center for Digital Learning (Portland, ME)
o Bowdoin College (Brunswick, ME)
o Simmons School of Management (Boston, MA)

In addition, my network includes exciting and innovative players at Sesame Workshop, the Games for Change community, and the US Institute of Peace (USIP), as well as international educators and producers in countries that include Mexico, Iraq, Jordan, the UK, Canada, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Jamaica and Macedonia.

I am also beginning to flesh out a two year business plan which will broadly outline the objectives, processes, and costs/revenues that I can conservatively expect during that period.

How will it earn money/be sustained?
Meridian Stories will be a non-profit 501(c)(3) whose aim is to fully sustain operations through revenue generation after two years.

Primary Income Source – Meridian Stories is designed as a subscription-based service. Schools, school districts or after-school groups (YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, etc.) can subscribe on annual basis, which will provide them with access to all of the competitions and training tools. Or, individual classrooms can pay a fee to enter a select competition.

Secondary Income Source – Meridian Stories will sell curricular packages that would be comprised of the user-generated content from our competitions.

Imagine taking the best entries about, say, ‘immigration,’ and placing them together to form a youth-inspired, globally vetted, visual Wikipedia of what the idea of ‘immigration’ means. Those select entries could include stories form relocated refugees, anti-immigration advocates, illegal immigrants and second generation immigrants. Collectively, they will comprise a fascinating unit that reflects a mosaic of subjective truths about a very complex issue. In short, a primary source, thirty minute collection of youth-generated stories on immigration that allows students visceral access to a mind-boggling and multi-faceted issue – content that is not available to teachers from anywhere.
Tertiary Source of Income – Advertising and Sponsorship.
Advertising: By the end of two years, Meridian Stories would evolve into a destination site in its own right. The concept is designed to perpetually build and showcase content assets. The select display of those assets will make Meridian Stories a destination site for non-subscribers. For example, the home page will serve as a 1) digital gallery for youth to go to see the best work; 2) place to vote on the current submissions; and 3) a site to hear what youth from around the world are saying/seeing/singing about the planet’s current events.

Sponsorship: We would invite companies to sponsor competitions around topics that promote their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) objectives.

Market Overview, Competitive Analysis
There are two kinds of general players in this arena. The first includes organizations that sponsor annual one-off media competitions. They include Techsoup’s Digital Storytelling Event; the Plural + Youth Video Festival; and UNICEF’s One Minute Jrs, which asks kids to create sixty second films as part of a yearly festival. They are annual contests that find an audience in the sponsor’s cluster of partner organizations and field offices. Often the process is that kids get trained; they create and produce; they see their videos on the web; they lose or they win.

Meridian Stories is more comprehensive because it views substantive media creation as a sustained and normative activity. It is not a one-off: a special event. It is, in fact, a new literacy that needs regular nurturing, guidance and analysis.

The second category is significantly broader in its overlap with Meridian Stories. It includes players that are heavily invested in the successful marriage of digital technology and education. They include content providers like iEARN, Brainpop, and Curriki; and digital platform providers like ePALS and Gaggle. Of all of those, iEARN is the closest to Meridian Stories. iEARN’s focus is on the use of technology to connect schools globally, offering registered schools access to a huge swath of cross-cultural projects in which they can become involved. So, for example, participating schools from Belgium, Peru, the US and Pakistan can connect around a project that involves creating a booklet about local heroes, real and mythical.

Meridian Stories is both different and complementary to these organizations. In fact, Meridian Stories might approach a few as partners to help access the school markets in which they already have a significant presence.

Financial/Budget Overview
The two year plan for Meridian Stories involves a focus on four main areas:

– Curriculum development
– Pilot projects
– Digital platform research and development
– Domestic and global financial/distribution partnerships

Curriculum Development
The team would begin by investigating the organizations that use storytelling as an effective educational vehicle. We would work with teachers (who would become part of an Advisory Group) – in the US and overseas — to develop the site’s objectives, as well as specific curricular thru-lines, around which we would develop a range of competitions.

We would work with artists in the fields of film, video, language arts, the visual arts and music (who would also become part of an Advisory Board) to develop tool kits for teachers and students, as well as explore creative approaches to their respective medium.

School Pilots
The most critical time would be spent testing out several strains of competitions (intra-national, international, film only, poetry only, etc.) in select schools around the world.

Digital Platform Research and Development
Technical specifications required to support this idea, as well as the start-up and on-going costs, need to be determined. However, I am optimistic that the costs to develop this are not overwhelming because 80% of the content will be crafted by the users. But, having said that, I strongly believe in the power of design and will fight hard to make Meridian Stories beautiful and efficient

Domestic and Global Financial/Distribution Partnerships
For Meridian Stories to succeed, teachers need to know about it. We will need partners to promote it; to incorporate it into their own programs; and/or to sponsor its use in a country or language.

This could involve the Department of Education or the US Institute of Peace, in connection with their projects in the Middle East We could approach ePALS, which is in over 500,000 classrooms in over 200 countries, or begin a dialogue with a UN agency like UNICEF or UNESCO.

To be successful and sustainable, Meridian Stories will need partnerships that can offer both marketing and financial support. Creating a viable network for that support will be one of the key objectives for this two year period.

I am currently estimating the annual costs at between $200,000 – $300,000, for the first two years. I will apply to foundations and grant-making organizations for these start-up costs, after which the goal is to be self-sustaining.

If I win the Challenge, how will I use the $25,000 to help me further?
The $25,000 will help me do all of the above…but in miniature. The general breakdown is as follows:

o 10K – Website BETA development and production.
o 3K – Content and Curriculum Development
o 2K – Legal and Misc. Business Costs
o 5K – Business Development, Marketing, Partnerships and Grant Writing
o 5K – Run the pilot and assess the results

This money will allow Meridian Stories to a) assemble a team; b) assemble an Advisory Board; C) look for funders, sponsors and partners; and d) Run a pilot program. The basic assumptions for the pilot are as follows:

o Focus on High School only and on one curricular area: Language Arts.
o Create the content for a minimum of four competitions, which will include both domestic and international schools.
o Design objectives and assessment tools.
o Run the competitions in the Fall of 2011.

Final Words
Meridian Stories is a big idea. It is premised on taking the creative, digital energy of kids and providing them with a thoughtfully scaffolded, global framework to release that energy. That’s pretty big and I fully recognize that. There is a lot I have to learn, understand and develop in order to bring the idea to a reasonable and practical place, with aspiring, but reachable (and measureable) objectives. But ‘big’ often means complicated and enigmatic, and Meridian Stories isn’t that kind of ‘big’. I’d like to believe that this is ‘realistic big’.

This investment, very simply, will allow this big idea to take flight.

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