Word Clouds

Many teachers are already familiar with the delights of Wordle, the online tool for creating tag clouds. Its uses in the classroom are numerous, from creating poems and posters to analysing text, summarising key points or revising for exams. Recently however, I was introduced to Tagxedo, where you have the added advantage of being able to create your word cloud in a pre-determined shape. With this simple-to-use tool you can help young people build their vocabulary on a whole range of topics. The more words they come up with, the more secure the shape. For added fun you can ‘respin’ the colours, layout and fonts for an endless variety of looks. Set it as a group challenge and watch that word bank take off. Here’s an example I created by way of illustration on the subject of ‘Dogs’.

The Wonderful World of Comics

For those of us of a certain vintage, comics played a huge part in our childhood and early adolescence, and in our reading development. I have vivid memories of Roy of the Rovers, who rattled in the goals for Melchester in the original Tiger comic, and Alf Tupper, the ‘tough of the track’, whose races in The Victor against more privileged opponents I looked forward to with eager anticipation.

I knew that Alf, the original working-class hero, would always win out in the end of course, despite arriving at the track straight from a heavy shift at the welding yard where he worked, carbo loading with a massive portion of fish and chips, just as the starting pistol was going off.

Changing out of his hob-nailed boots and into his running spikes as the race progressed, he always caught the (posh) early leader right on the finishing tape, chest out, the beads of sweat flying from his brow testimony to the superhuman effort he had put in to emerge victorious yet again.

I must confess also at this point to sneaking a read every week at my sisters’ Bunty comic, since a story was a story after all, and my addiction had no room for gender discrimination.  One of the greatest pleasures of all was when a kindly neighbour or friend of the family passed on a stack of second-hand comics, a veritable feast of goodies.

I have often wondered therefore why comics and their more sophisticated sibling, the graphic novel, don’t play a more significant role in school literacy or reading programmes. Why is it that, in the words of Scott McCloud in his  definitive study Understanding Comics – The Invisible Art, that “for much of this century the word ‘comics’ has had such negative connotations that many of comics’ most devoted practitioners have preferred to be known as ‘illustrators’, ‘commercial artists’ or, at best, ‘cartoonists’!”?

In a fascinating exploration of its past, present and future, McCloud examines and explains how the comic art form, although centuries old, is still perceived as a recent invention and suffers the curse of all new media. Traditional thinking, he claims, has held that truly great works of art and literature are only possible when the two are kept at arm’s length, but ‘TOGETHER, WORDS AND PICTURES CAN WORK MIRACLES.’

Cartoons, comic strips, picture books and graphic novels are perfectly legitimate texts in their own right. They are very much part of our cultural heritage, and should not be regarded as easier, inferior or less important than print-only texts. Nor should they be kept in the special cupboard to be read as a treat when the serious reading is finished. Rather, they should be celebrated and studied, and they should have their rightful place in the mainstream of literacy development.

Further Reading

I have summarised some of the key points from Understanding Comics on a separate page here

Dr Mel Gibson of Northumbria University has an excellent website devoted to comics and visual literacy here

Read more on comics at Comics Worth Reading

Find lists of the best comics and graphic novels for the classroom on this blog and at The Graphic Classroom

Read Ollie Bray’s blog on Classical Comics here

Find more excellent resources on graphic novels, including a free downloadable poster at Scottish Book Trust


No Ordinary Genius

This weekend sees the 100th anniversary of the birth of Norman MacCaig, arguably Scotland’s greatest poet since Robert Burns.

To recognise this landmark in Scottish cultural history, a number of events are taking place across the country, many of them low-key affairs in keeping with the modesty of the man himself.

I had the great pleasure of meeting the poet towards the end of his life, an experience which had a profound effect on my personal and professional outlook on life.

The Scottish Review has generously allowed me to reminisce in the pages of their online magazine. You can read the article here.