The Magic of Moving Image

I’m still buzzing after spending the weekend in the company of some very creative, interesting and really decent folk at Scottish Screen’s headquarters in West George Street, Glasgow. The occasion was a two-day training session for new lead practitioners, expertly hosted by Scott and Adam, as the organisation continues to build a nationwide team of facilitators who are able to support schools, teachers, trainers, or anyone with an interest in developing Moving Image Education. The case for MIE is easily made, as it is the medium with which all young people are most familiar, even before they enter nursery school, and which continues to engage us throughout our lives -when did you last hear anyone say they don’t ever watch film or indeed like it? – and the publication this week of the new Literacy and English framework in the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence redefines “text” in a way which recognises that the primary texts in most people’s lives are visual rather than printed text;-

“Pupils bring to school a wide range of ways in which they make sense of the world and interact with others. They are surrounded by a text-rich environment where many of the texts they encounter will be multimodal. Multimodal texts are texts that combine print, sound, graphics, moving images and gesture.  Picture books, websites, graphic novels, posters, books, video games, and film can all be classified as texts that require interaction from the reader for the message to be communicated.”

All the more reason that we need to teach young people to watch critically, which can be achieved by supporting them to make their own films and by using film in the classroom to help them develop a basic film literacy, where they have some understanding of how a film is constructed and the choices the filmaker has made.The role of the lead practitioner is to support the teacher or trainer as they introduce the language of film and build the critical capacity of the young people while engaged in making their own film, or as they develop their literacy skills by engaging on a deeper level with moving image texts.This is a key point for me, that MIE is not only about learning about film, but it is an effective means of developing the “traditional” literacy skills of listening, talking, reading and writing, particularly with young people who might otherwise never engage with printed texts. In future posts I would like to explore in more detail some of the best techniques for developing film literacy but for now here are a few tips to keep in mind if you decide to take the plunge with your students:-


Making Your Own Film

Making your own film has become an option for almost everyone nowadays, since most mobile phones have a video button, and it is perfectly possible to make a decent film using only still photographs and Moviemaker or iMovie. There are many examples of films on YouTube which are made on the most basic equipment but which attract thousands or even hundreds of thousands of hits. If you have a restricted budget. Flip cameras are a good option, producing fairly good quality images for under £100. These are easy to use as they plug in directly to your PC via a USB connection.

When setting out with young people to make a film it is worth remembering the following hints, as suggested by screenwriter, producer and Scotland on Screen Project Manager David Griffith;




  • Go with what they want to make, even if it does not work out in the end
  • Don’t impose your ideas, however wonderful they might be
  • Keep it simple and do it well. The simplest ideas often make the best films
  • Always write up (eg on a flipchart) what is discussed. Then you can refer back when necessary
  • Develop a list of key points in the narrative in chronological order. These can later be teased out further
  • Ask them to think of other stories they have seen
  • Remind them that there needs to be an “opposition” or conflict (what gets in the way?)
  • If film has characters, how can you engage the audience? What is there to like about them?
  • Develop basic storyboard/shooting script and take it with you when you shoot
  • You don’t need to be able to draw to produce a storyboard


  • Begin filming scenes even before you have decided the ending
  • Don’t move the camera unless there’s a good reason. Put it on a tripod if possible
  • Don’t use zoom unless there’s a good reason
  • Don’t pan (move camera horizontally) unless you want to reveal something
  • If you use dialogue, don’t learn lines but say, “I want you to say something like………”


  • Edit scenes as you go and repeat process
  • Finally, remember that every film has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order!

An excellent screenwriting guide and other useful information can be found on the First Light website. Further resources can be found at, and



Before long your students could be making films like this one, which was produced by the young people of Islay, supported by the Strangeboat Film Company, and was nominated for a “Best Documentary” in the First Light Movies awards 2008.


 And its Goodbye to Care from First Light Movies on Vimeo.


Reading in the Digital Age

The term “digital literacy” is freely tossed around in educational circles at the moment, and there is an assumption that its meaning is abundantly clear – it’s the ability to use computers and watch films and switch on an iPod and upload a video to YouTube and things – isn’t it?  Well, not really, I don’t think. In Proust and the Squid, Professor Maryanne Wolf quotes the contemporary scholar John Mc Eneaney who contends that,

 “….the dynamic agency of online literacy challenges the traditional roles of reader and author, as well as the authority of the text. Such reading requires new cognitive skills that neither Socrates nor modern educators totally understand. We are only at the beginning of analysing the cognitive implications of using, for instance, the browser “back” button, URL syntax, “cookies”, and “pedagogical tags” for enhancing comprehension and memory.”

In other words, while as language and literacy teachers we have always felt uncomfortable about separating listening and talking, preferring to think of them as part and parcel of the same interactive process, it may be that moving into the age of the internet, and particularly with the advent of Web 2.0, we will have to think of reading and writing, not as two discrete activities, one passive and the other active, but as two elements of the same creative process. Not only that, but the development of reading itself takes on a whole new, non-linear meaning, as the learner moves back and forth through the text, flicking from one text to another making connections, or interacts with several texts simultaneously.

This amazing video from Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University, captures in 5 minutes the full implications of Web 2.0 for learning and teaching in general, and the way in which we are now learning to read in particular.


The Wordle is Out!

This is a simple application I’ve discovered recently, and already it’s being used by a great number of people. Like most of the new technology available to us now it’s also entirely free and easy to access and use. A wordle is a graphic representation of a piece of text; I have even heard it described as “word art”. The one at the bottom of the next column is a snapshot of my blog – the more often a word appears in the blog the bigger and more prominent the word in the picture. You get the idea. You key into a box a piece of text or the URL of your blog or web page and a “word cloud” is generated, which can then be downloaded, printed or shared with others. The colour, font and layout of the wordle can be altered with a click of the mouse!

Thanks to digitalmaverick for the presentation below which illustrates the potential of Wordle.

Immediately I can think of a number of uses for this simple device in the classroom. For example:-

  • Summarise a discussion by noting the key words, typing them into Wordle and displaying the result on screen
  • Create your own poem in Wordle and print out in colour for display in the classroom
  • Preview the main themes of a short story or novel by copying and pasting an extract into Wordle and discussing the resulting picture
  • Copy and paste a complex examination piece into Wordle to create an immediate summary of the text before looking at the questions in more detail

 I’m sure you can think of more uses of your own. Please share them so that we can build a really useful tool for teachers. Then go create your own at

Redefining Literacy

The National Literacy Conference in the Glasgow Hilton Hotel  today was a great opportunity for many people with influence in Scottish education to hear some clear messages about the issues confronting literacy teachers in the new age, particularly in the keynote speech from Professor David Booth, Chair of Literacy at Nipissing University (no smirking!), and Professor Emeritus and Scholar in Residence at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto- isn’t that the longest job title you’ve ever seen?david-booth2

Professor Booth, the author of many significant teacher reference books and texts in all areas of language development, had the audience hanging on his every word, with a combination of sardonic humour, knowledge, awareness and pragmatism. I am sure the video will be put online at Learning and Teaching Scotland’s Literacy website in due course, but in the meantime I will try to summarise the key points of the presentation:-

  • For many students, comprehension has become a question and answer activity with no time to enter into a dialogue with others to construct meaning
  • We need to think again about the definition of  “illiterate” – would it apply to someone who can’t read sheet music? charts? knitting patterns?
  • Effective teachers enrich their courses with texts that are new to the students while at the same time building opportunities and respect for the students’ own texts
  • As teachers and librarians we have magical powers to ensure that young people experience texts that can change their lives in different ways
  • All of us need to think about the text we have experienced by interacting with others. We change ourselves as we rethink, retell, or re-imagine the original text
  • We need to teach our students what an act of literacy means, and we model our own attitudes and behaviours as we work alongside them
  • The page form may be replaced by text that rolls vertically but the image has not replaced the alphabetical code
  • There is not one definition of literacy since literacy practices are multiple, and shift according to context, speaker, text, and the function of the literacy event
  • Our traditional way of thinking about and defining literacy will be insufficient if we hope to provide youngsters with what they will need to be full participants in the world of the future
  • Most of us in education spend hours each day reading and writing on a computer while celebrating the book as the most important learning tool in the students’ world
  • The disparities between the plugged-in or wireless electronic bedroom and the traditional school contribute to the alienation many students feel about what goes on in their classroom
  • Many people are confused about the difference between literacy and literature. Too many parents and teachers regard only novels, poetry and so-called literary non-fiction as literature
  • We need to move towards supporting readers’ decisions about the print resources they select – their newspapers, magazines, their work and organisational materials, and what they read for fun and games
  • The literature canon has not altered much over the last forty or fifty years. The same novels are used without much awareness of gender or equality issues, and are often read and analysed chapter by chapter
  • Literacy is a foundation of citizenry in any language, a right of freedom
  • We want to encourage critical thinking in our classrooms, to create situations with the texts we offer that require students to engage in critical and co-operative conversations
  • We want to encourage our students to become more critical in their use of all media, including the internet
  • Critical literacies ask us to examine how particular texts work, what choices the author made, the intent of the publisher, the point of view expressed, the omissions and the biases
  • What many students value as literacy texts can unintentionally be dismissed or demeaned in school. And yet their deep involvement with and dedication to computers, magazines, CDs, videos, card collections and hobbies can offer us entry points into their lives as readers and writers

I hope that has given you a flavour of some of the key issues under discussion today. The good news is that the re-definition of literacy (or literacies) and texts, is the foundation of the new Literacy and English framework in Curriculum for Excellence, an excellent place from which to start.

Watch and listen to Professor David Booth talking about literacy education here.

See also Engagement in Reading: Lessons Learned from Three PISA Countries in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.

It Was a Dark And Stormy Night

“Though her beloved Roger had departed hours ago, Lila remained in her rumpled bed, daydreaming about his strong arms, soulful eyes, and how, when he first fell asleep, his snoring sounded not unlike two grizzly bears fighting over a picnic basket full of sandwiches, but as he drifted off into deeper slumber, his snoring became softer, perhaps as if the bears had decided to rock-paper-scissors for it instead.”

Thus began one of last year’s runners-up in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Run as an annual event since 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University, the aim of the competition is for entrants to compose the worst possible opening line to a work of fiction. The competition was founded in honour of the minor Victorian novelist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who was responsible for coining phrases such as “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the great unwashed”, and whose novel Paul Clifford opened with the line – since immortalised in parody by Shulz’s famous cartoon beagle Snoopy – “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents -except at occasional intervals when it was checked by a violent gust of wind…………..”

The rules of the competition are very simple. Each entry must consist of a single sentence but you may submit as many entries as you wish. Since its inception, tens of thousands of submissions have been made to the competition, resulting in the publication of five collections of the best of the worst. Sadly, however, all are now out of print.

Try your hand also at Literacy Adviser’s “Dark and Stormy Night Competition” with a difference! Using Twitter, the challenge is made more difficult by restricting the opening line to 140 characters. In this case the entries have to be on the theme of education and you should send your entries to @literacyadviser using the hashtag #DSN ie simply put #DSN before your opening line. For some inspiration, here is another entry from last year’s Bulwer-Lytton:-

“The pancake batter looked almost perfect, like the morning sun shining on the cream-colored pale shoulder of a gorgeous young blonde driving 30 miles over the speed limit down a rural Nebraska highway with the rental car’s sunroof off, except it had a few lumps.”