Aurora Magazine

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Published in Nov-Dec 2019

The Alpha Squad Has Arrived

A group of superheroes have been rebooted: The League of Extraordinary Spellers

It seems to be the season of reboots. In the last year or so, several popular TV shows and cartoons have been rebooted, be it Charmed, Dynasty, Roswell and She-ra, with more in the offing, including Gossip Girl and He-Man.

Closer to home in Pakistan, a group of superheroes have been rebooted: The League of Extraordinary Spellers (superheroes featured in the DAWN In Education National Spelling Bee’s communications since 2012) have been re-imagined; they are now called The Alpha Squad.

The DAWN Spelling Bee is part of the DAWN In Education programme which was established in 1998. Overseas, most newspapers have an education programme which aims to inculcate newspaper reading habits among children; in Pakistan, DAWN is the only newspaper to have such a programme. Niloufer Patel, Director Circulation, The Dawn Media Group, who passed away on October 24 this year (see Transition on page 121) was the moving force behind these initiatives.

It is due to the force of her determination that the Spelling Bee has grown year-on-year; the first edition, held in January/February 2005 in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, attracted participation from 1,569 students from nearly 250 schools. In 2005, The DAWN In Education National Spelling Bee was cited by the International News Media Association (INMA) as being among “the industry’s best recent ideas for increasing youth newspaper readership.” Now in its 15th year, and the numbers of participants and schools has increased exponentially to 8,100 and 900 respectively; the event is now held in eight cities in Pakistan: Faisalabad, Hyderabad, Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Skardu and Sukkur.

Although the Spelling Bee is undoubtedly one of the most successful and widespread initiatives of the DAWN In Education programme, it has several others to its credit; these include The DAWN Reading Programme, which encouraged teachers to use DAWN as a classroom resource, DAWN phonetics workshops (which provide training to school teachers and which has been an annual event since 2005 and is held in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore) and more recently, the Math Challenge (2018), a mathematics-based competition for schools across Pakistan.

It is with the thought of widening the scope of DAWN In Education that this ‘rebooting’ has come into being. As Nazafreen Saigol Lakhani, Deputy Chief Executive, The Dawn Media Group, explains, “over the years, we have been building the Dawn In Education brand and it is an asset for The Dawn Media Group. It is almost a CSR activity, because we have not really profited financially from it. Despite this we have continued with it because the education of our future generations is very important for us.”

She adds: “We have always wanted to scale up the Spelling Bee further, but were unable to, due to a lack of funds. Despite this, we decided to do so this year.”

The first step was the transformation of the League of Extraordinary Spellers into The Alpha Squad. The former consisted of four characters: Loquacious Leila, Mnemonic Nadya, Phonetic Faisal and Spell-Casting Samir; their names have been changed to Fizza (wind in Urdu), Arza (earth), Daryab (river) and Aatish (fire) respectively. Similarly, the names of the two villains, Spell-Jumbling Jamshid and Sound-Distorting Sarah have changed to Nero and Frysta. The reason for this was because the initial names were specifically linked with spelling, and now, they are more generic to ensure that they can serve as the ‘face’ of all forthcoming initiatives undertaken by the DAWN in Education Programme, in addition to the Spelling Bee.

Although the personalities of the characters remain more or less the same, they have been redesigned in order to be more contemporary in appearance (they were initially designed by Creative Unit). This project has been undertaken by Lucid Studios, a production company specialising in film production, visual effects, animation and content development. According to Nadir H. Shah, Founder and Director, Lucid Studios, the experience has been a rewarding one.

“We have taken fictional characters created by the DAWN team and are helping evolve their narrative as well as their visual execution. The goal is to build appeal across a wider demographic, using modern techniques (such as 3D animation) and a wider digital distribution. We are pretty happy with the response so far, and are excited to see how this integrates with the DAWN in Education platform in the future.”

In line with the objective to increase the reach of the Spelling Bee to an even wider audience, well beyond participating schools and participants (and their parents), the event is being promoted much more heavily on mediums other than print (which was the case before).

In addition to increased emphasis on digital (via social media and a new website), several episodes for television will be produced and aired on Dawn News (previously, only the final round of the event was televised). These will centre on the previous winners of the Spelling Bee, the quarter finals and the semi-final, as well as several from the final which will be held on November 29. More emphasis has also been placed on the set design and production values.

“We wanted to make the Spelling Bee a lot more exciting for kids, even those who are not participating this year, and perhaps even encourage parents to help their children improve their spelling, as well as a home-based activity,” says Lakhani.

In addition to these ‘regular’ episodes, animated short films will be televised and be available on digital.

“We are working on a series of ‘animated shorts’ – short narrative instalments – that will introduce this year’s storyline. Next year we plan to build upon this and enhance the scope of the narrative,” adds Shah.

So far, one significant ‘education partner’ (sponsor) has come on board – MCB; to this end, Z2C Pakistan is, accordingly to Lakhani, “helping us with sponsorships and are mediating with other brands.” She adds that they are also assisting them in terms of strategy for content for digital platforms. Oxford University Press, as was the case in previous years, remain responsible for selecting the judges and providing the prizes.

Lakhani adds that next year will be even “bigger” in terms of content centring on the Alpha Squad; merchandise, action figures and perhaps an animated series may come into being.

In a way, all these efforts bring to life the words of Patel; in Aurora’s March-April 2005 edition, speaking about the forthcoming edition of the Spelling Bee, she said: “We hope to make the event even bigger and better...”