The Sad Story of Kid B

Mary Berry, CBE , is an English food writer who has become quite a national celebrity recently as co-presenter of the unexpectedly popular BBC television programme, The Great British Bake-Off. However, unlike many of today’s media celebrities, Random_House_Mary_Berryrather than being famous simply for being a television presenter, she is celebrated for having considerable other talents – among them the ability to turn out near-perfect baking at the drop of the proverbial hat, and with apparent ease. The apparent ease comes after many years of dedication to her chosen profession, having moved to France at the age of 27 to study at Le Cordon Bleu school, before working in a number of cooking-related jobs. She has published over 70 cookery books and hosted several television series. How fitting then, that her own life story would be the subject of a BBC documentary this week, and how sadly predictable that the story of her time at school would be such an unhappy one – “I can never remember, in all my life, having any praise from Miss Blackburn (the Headmistress)”. At the age of 14, she had the opportunity to study what was then called ‘domestic science’ and the rest, as they say, is history, but listen to the language she uses to describe herself, over sixty years later, despite the accumulated weight of evidence pointing to a hugely successful life and career:-

“When you reached 14, there were two options; you either took Latin and maths – that was for the clever ones – or if you were a pupil like me – it was domestic science.”

As long ago as November 2007 I wrote an article for TESS arguing that if Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence was to succeed, there would need to be a major shift in attitudes to what I called the ‘hierarchy of subjects’, a kind of intellectual elitism which prevailed in the last century and which led, among other things, to the false dichotomy between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ pathways in schools. Scotland as a nation had always taken pride in the concept of the ‘lad o’ pairts’ which developed in the 19th Century, the ideal that a boy should strive to be an all-rounder, a pioneer, broad in knowledge but at the same time practical (Note: girls had not yet been invented in 19th Century Scotland). In the TESS article I set readers a challenge – to stop the first ten people over the age of sixteen that they met in the street, and ask them to write down – in order of importance – the subjects they studied at school. They knew, as well as I did, what the results would be; maths and English at the top, science and languages somewhere in the middle, the arts and ‘practical’ subjects towards the bottom. As I said at the time, the origins of this emphasis on a particular set of skills in preference to all others are not too difficult to trace. In Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century Howard Gardner puts it like this:

“Having a blend of linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is no doubt a blessing for students and for anyone who must take tests regularly. Indeed, the fact that most psychologists and most other academics exhibit a reasonable amalgam of linguistic and logical intelligence made it almost inevitable that those faculties would dominate tests of intelligence. I often wonder whether a different set of faculties would have been isolated if the test developers had been business people, politicians, entertainers, or military personnel.”

“I have no objection if one speaks about eight or nine talents or abilities but I do object when an analyst calls some abilities (like languages) intelligences, and others (like music) “mere” talents. All should be called either intelligences or talents: an unwarranted hierarchy among the capacities must be avoided.”

Howard Gardner, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century

The debate about the very purposes of a broad education continue to rage of course – and rightly so – and nowhere more so than in England at the present moment, where Education Secretary Michael Gove‘s plans for an English Baccalaureate have not met with universal acclaim. One London teacher decided to respond by making this short but powerful video, which tells the story of Kidb, and of all the kids we write off if our definition of education, or intelligence, or literacy, becomes too narrow to fit everyone in, and if the pursuit of better test scores takes precedence over the development of better people.

Kidb from darren bartholomew on Vimeo.

Related Posts:-

Testing Times

No More Curriculum for Excellence

Multiple Intelligence Revisited

The Tyranny of the Test


Getting Serious With Comics

journalismIf there is any doubt in your mind that comics is a serious literary genre, I would recommend that you have a look at the remarkable collection of stories which is Journalism by the Maltese-American comics writer Joe Sacco, a volume which gathers together his previously-published reports from conflict zones around the world, including the illegal war in Iraq, the underground war in Gaza and the struggle for progressive independence in Chechnya. In his own preface to the book, Sacco acknowledges that there will be those who find it difficult to take seriously a journalist whose preferred medium is the comic strip:-

“There will always exist, when presenting journalism in the comics form, a tension between those things that can be verified, like a quote caught on a tape, and those things that defy verification, such as a drawing purporting to represent a specific episode. Drawings are interpretive even when they are slavish renditions of photographs, which are generally perceived to capture a real moment literally. But there is nothing literal about a drawing. A cartoonist assembles elements deliberately and places them with intent on a page. There is none of the photographer’s luck at snapping a picture at precisely the right moment. A cartoonist ‘snaps’ his drawing at any moment he or she chooses. It is the choosing that makes cartooning an inherently subjective medium. This does not let the cartoonist who aspires to journalism off the hook. The journalist’s standard obligations – to report accurately, to get quotes right, and to check claims – still pertain.”

“The blessing of an inherently interpretive medium like comics is that it hasn’t allowed me to…make a virtue of dispassion. For good or for ill, the comics medium is adamant, and it has forced me to make choices. In my view, that is part of its message.”

Joe Sacco, from Preface to Journalism

The use of pictures to tell stories, however, is as old as man himself, as evidenced by the discovery of cave paintings in Western Europe dating back up to 35,000 years. From 113 AD, Rome’s Trajan’s Column is an early surviving example of a narrative told through pictures in sequence, while Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek friezes and medieval tapestries such as the famous Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066, are all examples of combining sequential images and words to tell a story. The invention of the printing press in the 15th Century meant the temporary separation of words and images once more as they required separate printing techniques, but a mass medium had been born and the form could be delivered to a wide audience. As printing techniques developed, due to the technological advances of the industrial revolution, magazines and newspapers were established. By the middle of the 19th Century these publications were including illustrations – soon to be known as ‘cartoons’ – as a means of commenting on political and social issues of the day. Before long, many more artists were experimenting with establishing a sequence of images to create a narrative, and the comic strip was born.

From its origins in the daily newspaper strips in the USA in the first half of the twentieth century, publishers recognised the popularity and the potential of the comics genre, and comic strips began to appear in booklet form, first as reprints and then as original stories. Their popularity spread rapidly across the globe in a variety of new forms and formats, as readers began to identify with the cartoon characters and look forward eagerly to the next instalment of their adventures. This identification with character is key to the success of comics, as it is with other  narrative media, and lies, according to Will Eisner, in the peculiarly human need to step into another’s shoes, or to imagine oneself in another’s position:

“Perhaps the most basic of human characteristics is empathy. This trait can be used as a major conduit in the delivery of a story. Its exploitation can be counted upon as one of the storyteller’s tools…………..Empathy is a visceral reaction of one human being to the plight of another. The ability to ‘feel’ the pain, fear or joy of someone else enables the storyteller to evoke an emotional contact with the reader. We see ample evidence of this in movie theatre where people weep over the grief of an actor who is pretending, while in an event that is not really happening.”

Will Eisner, Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative

Eisner recognises here the similarities between the comics genre and film, although as he points out elsewhere in his 1996 study Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, they also have their – fairly obvious – differences. While both comics and maus.jpgfilm rely on the interplay between words and pictures, film has the additional element of sound and the illusion of real moving action, whereas comics has to generate the same effects from a series of static images on the page.
Comics and picture books have long been associated with storytelling, and some of the comics of my own youth in the 1960s consisted of  a combination of comic strips and text-only narratives. In many ways they were a bridge between early reading and the ‘serious’ reading of adolescence and adulthood, but since comics were apparently easy to read and consisted predominantly of drawings, for a long time they were regarded not only as inferior, but as a serious threat to literacy. Eisner believes that this reputation was partly justified, as for decades many writers in the comics genre pandered to the lowest common denominator in terms of the intellectual demands of their content, but it would be interesting to consider a philosophical question here – whether reading anything ever made a person less literate than they were before they read it.

By the end of the 20th Century comics had become something of a niche market, as they found themselves competing with more sophisticated media, though paradoxically the evolution of the graphic novel  had also revived the genre to the point where it became accepted as a literary medium worthy of discussion and study. When Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman  won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first graphic novel ever to do so, the comics genre had truly arrived back in the mainstream.

See also previous post The Wonderful World of Comics

For some notes on understanding how comics work, see my summary of Scott McCloud’s seminal work Understanding Comics 

Don’t miss 26 Ways to Use Comics in the Classroom and 5 Free Tools for Creating Comics at Free Technology for Teachers

Another must-read: Malcolm Wilson‘s excellent blogpost Comics in the Classroom – Online Tools

You Want Extra Books With That?

ObeseThe literacy story of the past week surely has to be the news that the fast-food chain McDonald’s is planning to give away 15 million book vouchers instead of toys with their ‘Happy Meals’ for children in the UK over the course of the next two years. The scheme, which has the backing of the National Literacy Trust in England and Wales, will provide customers with a £1 ‘Happy Reading’ voucher, redeemable at the high street store WH Smith, and follows on from a successful pilot scheme last year, in which 9 million copies of children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo’s books for younger children were dispensed along with the French Fries and Coke.

“This is a good thing. Books are expensive, and too many kids simply don’t have access to them at home. Anything (and you can bet the usual suspects will be along shortly to denigrate the very idea that anything positive should be said about a corporation like McDonald’s) that gets kids better access to books should be applauded.”

(Guardian Reader Comment)

A spokesman for McDonald’s said that a key aspect of the campaign was to encourage parents and children to read together, and that the ‘family-friendly restaurant environment’ would encourage this, an irony not lost on those in the UK who have been campaigning to protect their local libraries from cuts in local authority spending. The NLT welcomed the move, expressing the view that any attempt to address the fact that one child in three in Britain doesn’t own a book of their own has to be a good thing. Not everyone was convinced, however, with many seeing it simply as a cynical ploy on the part of the corporation to expand its business, burnish its image and attract more followers to the brand. Others went as far as to be morally outraged by the association of reading and learning with what they regard as a company which peddles ‘junk’ food to vulnerable consumers.

A quick look at the story on The Guardian’s website, and in particular the comments below the story, as well as the reaction on the social networking site Twitter, revealed the polarised nature of the reactions to the news, but whether you see the ‘free’ book scheme as a genuine attempt to improve the literacy of the nation’s children, or the latest move to expand the empire of the evil dictator Ronald McDonald, the story reinforces the close relationship between literacy and good health, the former in my opinion being a pre-requisite of the latter. Compare  for example these outcomes from the First Level of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, the first from the Health and Wellbeing framework and the other from Literacy and English. Note also, incidentally, the expectation that these outcomes are achievable by most young people by the end of P4 (age 8 approximately!!).

‘I am discovering the different ways that advertising and the media can affect my choices.’

Curriculum for Excellence, Health and Wellbeing (Food and Health) Outcome 1-37a

‘To help me develop an informed view I can recognise the difference between fact and opinion.”

Curriculum for Excellence, Literacy and English (Reading – Understanding, Analysing and Evaluating) Outcome 1-18a

There can be little doubt that, just as reading habits are formed early and have a long-term effect on the future prospects and prosperity of the reader, the same can be said of eating habits, so the sooner that young people are equipped with the skills and the knowledge to make informed decisions about the choices they have, the better.

Opportunities for Teachers

Most of the young people in your class will have been to McDonald’s, and some of them will be regular visitors. Use the book promotion story to help them towards the two outcomes above. There are a number of ways in which you might do that:-

  • Ask them whether they think the book voucher scheme is a good idea, and to write down the advantages as well as the potential criticisms. They WILL come up with them, including some which you had not imagined.
  • Ask them to come up with any questions they might ask of McDonald’s about their food and about their business generally.
  • Provide a selection of statements from the newspaper articles relating to the literacy promotion and ask the kids to sort them into two columns headed ‘FACT’ and ‘OPINION’. Many of these will be quite clearcut but others will involve some debate (which is a GOOD THING).
  • Visit the McDonald’s website where many of their questions will already have been answered. Discuss whether they think the answers are satisfactory or not.
  • Ask them to select those words and phrases which are particularly chosen to tempt you into buying the product, and which words are repeated. eg Why is the word ‘Happy’ used so often? (I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether to teach your eight-year-olds that ‘Happy Meal’ is a transferred epithet!)
  • Look at the use of imagery on the website and in the company branding generally. Discuss the use of logos, and the ‘character’ of Ronald McDonald. What kind of character is he and what is his purpose?

Alternatively, you could address all of the same issues by putting the kids into groups, providing them with the necessary tools, giving them a deadline, and asking them to create an advertising campaign for their own new (healthy) addition to the McDonald’s range. I’m lovin’ it already, so I’d better stop there. Have fun.

See also: Web-Deprived Study at McDonald’s in the US