Movellas: Reading and Writing on the Move.

First there were novels. Then there were novellas. So what else would you call an online publishing house, a meeting place for aspiring  young adult writers, dedicated to the writing of extended prose pieces and aimed at the mobile generation? A place where you can pick up the latest writing tips, practise your skills by emulating your writing heroes and share your work with a sympathetic audience? I have written before about the hugely popular, but largely ignored – in educational terms – world of fan fiction (see Harry Potter and the Fan Fiction Factory). Now there’s a new kid on the block in the shape of Movellas, and it is causing quite a stir in the literacy world. Writing in this week’s Guardian newspaper, the editor of book review website Omnivore, Anna Baddeley, explains how the ‘startup’ has attracted the support of The Reading Agency and the innovation charity Nesta as a result of its ‘dedication to boosting creative thinking, team working and literacy skills’. The site, which was set up in 2012, already has in excess of 200,000 users, 75% of whom are girls, an imbalance the founders hope to shift as they move into the world of ‘story games’. As it becomes more difficult for teachers to motivate young people to write, is this perhaps the trick that they are missing?

“Taking to heart the maxim that reading for pleasure is vital to a child’s educational attainment, the company’s founders believe that encouraging young people to write about their passions and share those stories with others can have a positive effect on literacy.”

A Novel Approach To Reading

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Contains more than recipes. Art, geography, history, photography, folklore and classical culture are all covered.

Since acquiring an eReader last year, my reading habits seem to be developing into a new pattern, whereby I tend to download and read novels from the screen, but continue to buy non-fiction titles, graphic novels and – an increasing obsession – cookery books, in paper format. I suppose the most obvious reason is the tactile quality of many of these latter texts – I’m thinking of titles like Shaun Tan’s The Arrivals or Chris Ware’s Building Stories which is literally a book in three dimensions – but there is often, too, something about the physical weight or heft of a book in your hand which, in the case of many cookery books for example, suggests bounty or treasure – you feel as if you are getting something for your money. These are the texts for which the word ‘book’ now seems a bit inadequate, for often they are indeed artefacts or works of art.

However, sticking with novels for the moment, once you have become a fiction addict you are always on the lookout for that next fix, and I recently enjoyed a great novel called Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk by Ben Fountain. As it happens I was on Twitter when I spotted this tweet from Jamie Byng of Canongate, who published the book, and was intrigued enough to favourite it for later reference. A quick look at the reviews on Amazon confirmed that it was  ‘my kind of book’, so I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and was reading it within minutes. How the magic of technology has improved and enhanced our reading habits in recent years, particularly that facility to read a sample before we decide whether we want to read the whole text or not.

None of that would have happened though, I guess, if I wasn’t already a reader. How I  became a regular reader is a long story – much longer than any novel – which started way back in primary school, when the Friday afternoon ‘treat’ of silent reading wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but suited me just fine, thank you very much. The generous class library, which comprised most of Enid Blyton’s prodigious output, Just William in every imaginable situation, a smattering of Jennings and Derbyshire and W.E. John’s handlebar-moustached hero Captain Biggles, held a seductive enough range of material with which to escape the classroom for a couple of otherwise dreary hours. For a boy growing up in a semi-rural working-class West of Scotland community, the main attraction of the stories was the excitement of exploring other worlds, a virtual travel agency if you like, which is exactly what reading does.

Just William

Just William

It is through reading, and especially through fiction, that we are able to journey, for a while, alongside people who are not like us.

You can perhaps understand then why my heart sinks every time I hear teachers discussing which novel (often  singular) they will be ‘teaching’ students this year. I don’t blame them (I was that teacher once), but the exam-driven system which has brought them to this state of affairs. I too spent many hours in the classroom – this time as a teacher – pulling apart some  great novels to look at how you might squeeze them into the straitjacket of a particular essay question. It was a system designed for a minority of students who would study literature at university, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Imagine an education system where young people read an increasing number of books year on year, and keep on doing so long after they leave school, rather than, in many cases, abandoning the practice as soon as they are no longer ‘made to read’. Imagine if the culmination of your efforts as a teacher, and the measure of your success was not exam results but the number of lifelong readers you had helped to create. Imagine, if in their final year, the task you set the class was not to write a ‘critical essay’, which in all likelihood most of them will never have to do again, but to complete a group investigation something like the one below. Imagine the opportunities that would present, the reading that could be done, the fun you could have together, and the gift you could pass on to future generations.

Final Year Reading Task

What is the origin of the novel as a storytelling form, and why does it remain popular today?

What novels would you say every young person should read?

What features would you say are common to all the novels you (as a group) have read?

What distinguishes a successful novel from an unsuccessful novel, and is ‘successful’ the same as good?

Why should we read novels written in previous centuries?

Further Reading:

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller

Study: Reading Novels Makes Us Better Thinkers

Related Posts:

Sticking to the Plot

Lighting a Spark for Reading

Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

The Power of Fiction and the Storytelling Animal

Reading by Numbers

The Power of Fiction and The Storytelling Animal

As a former English teacher, I have often argued on the blog and elsewhere that the English curriculum in schools offers a distorted syllabus, in which non-fiction is heavily outweighed by fiction texts – no doubt reflecting the fact that most practitioners have degrees in English Literature – and that there needs to be a re-balancing to reflect more accurately the texts with which we are surrounded in daily life. Time and again however, my attention is drawn to the importance of storytelling and the need to understand ourselves and the world through the medium of story.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College in the USA, explains how stories shape and define us as human beings, arguing that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems, just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. The theory is that storytelling has evolved, like other behaviours, to ensure our survival.

“The constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skilful negotiation of life’s problems. From this point of view, we are attracted to fiction, not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice (sic) reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”

But isn’t fiction our ‘escapism’, you might argue. Surely it’s in fiction, whether it be in a good novel or the latest Dr Who series, that we find our escape from the problems of everyday life? Well yes, and no. According to Gottschall the nature of the stories we tell betrays their true purpose.

“There is a paradox in fiction that was first noticed by Aristotle in The Poetics. We are drawn to fiction because fiction gives us pleasure. But most of what is in fiction is deeply unpleasant: threat, death, despair, anxiety, Sturm and Drang. Take a look at the carnage on the fiction bestseller lists – the massacres, murders, and rapes. Look at classic literature: Oedipus stabbing out his eyes in disgust; Medea slaughtering her children; Shakespeare’s stage strewn with runny corpses. Heavy stuff. But even the lighter stuff is organised around problems, and readers are riveted by their concern over how it will all turn out.”

On the morality of stories, or whether stories have a moral purpose, Gottschall is adamant. When addressing the dire warnings of social commentators from Plato onwards that fiction corrodes

The good guy usually wins

morality, especially in the young, his conviction is that they were entirely wrong, and he prefers to accept that, with some exceptions, the most popular story forms are still structured around ‘poetic justice’: the good guy usually does win out in the end.

“As with sacred myths, ordinary stories – from TV shows to fairy tales – steep us all in the same powerful norms and values. They relentlessly stigmatise antisocial behaviour and just as relentlessly celebrate prosocial behaviour. We learn by association that if we are more like protagonists, we will be more apt to reap the typical rewards of protagonists (for instance, love, social advancement, and other happy endings) and less likely to reap the rewards of antagonists (for instance, death and disastrous loss of social standing). Humans live great chunks of their lives inside fictional stories – in worlds where goodness is generally endorsed and rewarded and badness is condemned and punished. These patterns don’t just reflect a moralistic bias in human psychology, they seem to reinforce it.”

Developing this theme, Gottschall cites the Dutch scholar Jemeljan Hakemulder, who in his book The Moral Laboratory, reviewed dozens of scientific studies which indicated that fiction has positive effects on the reader’s moral development and sense of empathy. Other studies show that fiction reinforces our belief that life rewards the virtuous and punishes the vicious. Even though this is patently not the case, for a society to function at all it is necessary for people to believe in justice.

The notion of empathy, a core feature of works of fiction, is taken up in this TED talk by Jessica Wise, who argues that the importance of fiction is that it has the power ‘to change a person’s point of view’. I think the short film would make a perfect starter for discussion in any English classroom.

Transmedia and Education – Living Lab Madrid 2012

Just catching my breath after a great conference in Madrid where I had the privilege of sharing a platform with some very impressive speakers and activists from the emerging world of transmedia, including a truly inspirational masterclass from the master of transmedia himself, Henry Jenkins. The three-day event was perhaps the most professional and well-organised event I have ever attended, thanks to the tireless efforts of the organiser Fernando Carrion, and the sponsors Fundacion Telefonica of Spain, who hosted the conference in their new state-of-the-art auditorium in central Madrid. One of the key themes of the conference was of course literacy, and the implications for formal systems of education of the developing culture of transmedia.

You can watch all the presentations from the conference, including Henry Jenkins, here.

“What skills do children need to become full participants in convergence culture? Across this book, we have identified a number – the ability to pool knowledge with others in a collaborative enterprise (as in Survivor spoiling), the ability to share and compare value systems by evaluating ethical dramas (as occurs in the gossip surrounding reality television), the ability to make connections across scattered pieces of information (as occurs when we consume The Matrix, 1999, or Pokemon, 1998), the ability to express your interpretations and feelings toward popular fictions through your own folk culture (as occurs in Star Wars fan cinema), and the ability to circulate what you create via the Internet so that it can be shared with others (again as in fan cinema). The example of The Daily Prophet (a web-based ‘school newspaper’ for the fictional Hogwarts) suggests yet another cultural competency: role-playing both as a means of exploring a fictional realm and as a means of developing a richer understanding of yourself and the culture around you. These kids come to understand Harry Potter by occupying a space within Hogwarts; occupying such a space helped them to map more fully the rules of this fictional world and the roles that various characters played within it. Much as an actor builds up a character by combining things discovered through research with things learned through personal introspection, these kids were drawing on their own experiences to flesh out various aspects of Rowling’s fiction. This is a kind of intellectual mastery that comes only through active participation. At the same time, role-playing was providing an inspiration for them to expand other kinds of literacy skills – those already valued within traditional education.”

HenryJenkins, Convergence Culture, 2006

The American-inspired Telefonica building on Madrid’s Gran Via

It strikes me that if schooling is to continue to be relevant in the modern world some fundamental changes have to be made. We need to have a much broader approach to literacy and literacy development than we do at the moment. In Scotland, as in many other countries, the curriculum narrows as young people develop into their mid-teens, and their formal education ends with the study of perhaps five or six subjects, one of which is English, which consists of the analysis of printed text (usually prose) and the ‘critical evaluation’ of one or two works of ‘literature’ (usually historic and too often repeating long-established interpretations of the text). The students’ success or failure in this endeavour often determines their future career pathway, as Higher English or its equivalent is the benchmark of acceptable intelligence. I have in fact often heard it referred to, with some affection in educational establishments, as ‘the gold standard’.

But think about it for a moment. Wouldn’t a more appropriate measure of literacy for the mainstream school leaver be an awareness of popular cultural media and an ability to make critical comment on their creation, distribution and effect? And shouldn’t a key aspect of that assessment be of the student’s ability to create and share such texts? Let’s call it Transmedia Studies.

See my photos from the Living Lab Conference here.

See previous post on Henry Jenkins and Convergence Culture here.

On Board the Fiction Express

I don’t normally do commercial on the blog, or endorse products beyond the occasional book review. The whole point of the blogis that it represents my ‘life’s work’ to a great extent, and I’m happy to share it for free. The payback is that it sometimes leads to other projects and even paid contracts. However, I’m going to make an exception for something which came to my attention recently via Twitter (doesn’t everything?).

Fiction Express for Schools is an exciting new website that combines literacy and IT. A 21st century take on the ever-popular ‘Choose-your-own-adventure’ books, Fiction Express allows the readers to vote each week to decide where the plot goes next. Each e-book runs for 5 weeks and chapters are published every Friday. At the end of each cliffhanging chapter the readers are given options as to where the plot goes next. They vote online by 3 pm on Tuesday for the one they like best. The votes are counted and the option with the most votes is then conveyed to the author, who writes the next chapter in ‘real time’ for publication at the end of the week. There is also a blog on the website where students can interact with the authors and Fiction Express editors.
A subscription to Fiction Express for Schools normally costs £199+VAT for whole school use, but you can get 10% off this price with discount code BOYD10. So, for a cost of £180+VAT, you will receive 12 e-books (4 per term at different reading levels) throughout the year, which can be read by all of your pupils, both at home and in school. Fiction Express also provides comprehensive weekly teacher resources to accompany each chapter.
PS. There really is nothing in it for me!

Murder Most Fatal

Every Tuesday in July here on Arran, the Whiting Bay Club of Drama and Music presents in the Village Hall the wonderfully entitled ‘The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery’. But as it happens, one hundred and twenty-two years ago today there began a real-life story to match anything by the great Victorian crime novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, when a young builder’s clerk from London, Edwin Rose, met a violent death near the summit of Goatfell, Arran’s highest peak. Just over two weeks later, his badly decomposed body was to be found in a stone shelter, where it had been deliberately hidden, his skull shattered and his spine broken.

Goatfell on Arran. Beautiful and dangerous

Rose had been on a walking trip to Scotland with several companions, and was in Rothesay on Bute when he had a chance encounter with John Laurie, a pattern-maker at the Atlas Iron Works in Glasgow’s Springburn. The two men struck up a friendship despite the misgivings of Rose’s friends, and spent the next few days walking on Bute before deciding, on the afternoon of the 15th of July, 1889, to take a ferry to Arran and climb Goatfell, a mountain which remains as popular with walkers today. Easily accessible in both summer and winter, it can be treacherous in bad weather.

The discovery of Rose’s body sparked a manhunt which led to the eventual arrest of Laurie in his home town of Coatbridge. In the subsequent trial, one of the most eagerly followed in Scots legal history, Laurie admitted to robbing the Englishman but denied the charge of murder, claiming that Rose had in fact met two others on the summit and descended with them.

Conan Doyle's famous hero Sherlock Holmes wrestles his arch-enemy Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls. Art by Sidney Paget

The ultimately successful prosecution case rested on circumstantial evidence relating to the nature of Rose’s injuries and behavioural reports, which convinced the jury of Laurie’s murderous intentions. The only suspect had been seen drinking in the Corrie Bar in Brodick at 10pm on the evening of the tragedy and had checked out of his lodgings the next day without paying. Yet there was never any of Rose’s blood found on Laurie’s clothing, and the victim’s cap and walking stick had been found lying in the vicinity of the body. There had been no attempt to hide them.

Laurie was convicted of murdering the 32-year old Rose and handed a death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He protested his innocence until his death 40 years later in what was then known as the ‘lunatic division’ of Perth prison. It remains the longest prison term served in the country to this day. But was there a miscarriage of justice? Was Rose pushed or did he fall? Unlike even the best fictional tales, in this case we will probably never know.

Alice in Multimedialand

You’ve read the book, you may have seen the film. Now read/watch the “vook”. The digitisation of books began with the advent of e-readers like Kindle and Sony, which can hold dozens of books in one hand-held device, but which largely reproduced the format of a traditional, print-based book with occasional illustrations. All of that is about to change, however, as publishers increasingly look to attract new readers with the “vook”, which is effectively a combination or “mash-up” of text, video and web-based media for a more interactive experience. Responses to the new format have so far been very mixed, reminiscent of the old book versus film debates, with advocates of the book arguing that it is always preferable to create your own images than to have someone else create them for you. The advantages of the mult-modal format may be more obvious for non-fiction texts, such as cookery or fitness books,but does it really work for fiction, or in an educational context?

To read more about vooks and the debates surrounding them click on this link to the full article in The New York Times.

One group of people who are thoroughly convinced that multimedia texts are the way ahead are the ciTeach Inanimate Alicereators of Inanimate Alice, a digi-novel in ten episodes, each one of them a self-contained chapter in the life of Alice and her digital friend Brad. The narrative takes Alice as an eight-year-old who lives with her parents in remote Northern China, and brings her through various global adventures to the point where, in her twenties, she is an animator with the biggest games company in the world. Increasing in difficulty and interactivity as the reader progresses, it is claimed that the story appeals to a wide range of readers, and it comes with an impressive educational support pack, free to teachers. Click on the image for more details, and please let them, and me, know what you think.