An Independent Media for Scotland?

One of the interesting aspects of the – temporarily derailed – Scottish campaign for independence has been the exposure of institutionalised bias in the UK mainstream media and the consequent flourishing of citizen journalism, a trend which looks set to continue worldwide. Here, Bella Caledonia, one of the more successful online news channels, outlines the ways in which we, as citizens, can now write and broadcast the news rather than simply consume it.

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Visual Literacy – No Longer a Luxury

We are fast approaching that time of year when we gather together to celebrate the birth of the moving image. More television – and especially films on television – will be watched in the next three weeks than at any other time of the year. Living, as we do, in a predominantly visual age, surrounded by moving image texts, one would think it almost perverse for schools to ignore the extent to which these texts shape and influence our daily lives. Yet teachers still often find it difficult to justify using film as a medium in the classroom when they should be concentrating on raising ‘traditional’ literacy standards, and this despite the fact that various studies have recognised that working with moving image texts can improve those very skills. Digital Beginnings, an extensive study carried out by Jackie Marsh and colleagues at Sheffield University in 2005 concluded that in England “the introduction of popular culture, media and/or new technologies into the communications, language and literacy curriculum has a positive effect on the motivation and engagement of children in learning”, that “practitioners report that it has a positive impact on children’s progress in speaking and listening….”, that “parents feel that media education should be included in the school curriculum” and  that “this should be so from when children are very young.” In 2006, an independent evaluation of Scottish Screen‘s MIE (Moving Image Education) project in Brechin, conducted by the University of Glasgow, reported that ‘all teachers were aware of a significant impact of MIE on pupils’ listening and talking skills….by the second round of interviews, teachers reported significant developments in writing skills.’

Cartoon by deleuran at www.toonpool.com

Cartoon by deleuran at http://www.toonpool.com

Most young people have watched countless hours of film and television before they enter pre-school education, and already they have set about building, in their heads, a rich audio-visual library. Unfortunately, it is most often a library – to extend the metaphor –  in which the texts are simply piled up in a disorderly heap in the middle of the floor. Rarely do they have any understanding that what they are watching and listening to is a sophisticated text which has been painstakingly constructed and edited, and not simply the result of pointing a camera at real-life and real-time events.

In order to illustrate this point, in the course of preparing this post I contacted the Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok De Wit, creator of the hauntingly beautiful animation Father and Daughter, which won the Academy Award for Best Short Film in 2000, and asked him how long it took to make (the film itself is eight and a half minutes long and not a single frame is wasted.) This was his response:-

“It’s exactly as you say, animated films like these belie their complexity. It was a challenge to make the final result look simple and whole, but this challenge was enjoyable and very motivating. I worked on the film about four years on and off; I interrupted the production to teach and to do some commercial work. Altogether it took me about two years to make the film (writing, direction, most of the animation and all the backgrounds). I had one animator helping me for roughly four months and one assistant animator for two-three months. Two technical experts did the scanning, colouring, camera movements and compositing (combining all the different layers) for about three-four months altogether. The music composer and sound person each worked for about week, and finally, the film had two producers (for international funding reasons) who altogether devoted several weeks of their time each. One could say that if one person would have done everything alone, the film would have taken three years to make.”

With best wishes,

Michael

Since it is unlikely that children are going to be taught to ‘read’ moving image texts at home any time soon, it seems to me that teachers responsible for the development of literacy therefore have a responsibility, not only to use moving image texts in their classrooms, but to teach film literacy as part of the mainstream curriculum. In order to do this, teachers themselves need to be familiar with some basic concepts relating to films and filmmaking, including a vocabulary which allows them to discuss – and possibly create – moving image texts with their students.

If you are thinking of introducing moving image texts into the classroom the key to success, as with printed texts, is to begin with short films. A full-length feature film is a hugely complex piece of work and can be quite daunting to a teacher and students hoping to engage in critical analysis, while at the same time there are many advantages to using short films in the classroom. Shorts can be played in their entirety within one lesson while longer films lose their impact by being viewed over a number of lessons or by being screened only in extract form; the short running time of the films makes it possible for repeated viewings, allowing teachers and pupils to become quickly familiar with the texts and to explore them in more detail. Short films, like short stories, are not governed by the same conventions as longer films, and often provoke stronger responses from their audience. Finally, film and print, while different in many ways, are also very closely allied, so that the study of film can be used as a vehicle to improve the traditional literacies of reading, writing, talking and listening, and, importantly, film is an inclusive medium, often accessible to pupils who are more visual learners and who otherwise may feel that they have little to contribute. But don’t just take my word for it. Here is the celebrated film director Martin Scorsese talking about the importance of visual literacy.

See also my Ten Tools for Reading Film

See previous post for the best sites to find short films for free

Find some amazing resources at The Literacy Shed

Further Reading: Download a copy of Moving Image Education in Scotland here.

Responsible Citizens in the Digital Age

One of the four key aims of the Scottish Curriculum is to develop ‘responsible citizens’, ‘with respect for others’ and ‘ a commitment to participate responsibly in political, economic, social and cultural life’. One’s immediate thoughts are perhaps drawn to the life of the community, or the country, and the challenges of encouraging young people to engage in the democratic process at a time when trust in politicians is at an all-time low, but in an increasingly connected world, we have to think of responsible citizenship in global terms, especially in relation to the internet and social networks.

I learned the other day that YouTube is now the number one source of music for most young people. What happened to Top of the Pops while I looked away? Is it still on at seven o’clock on a Thursday? In reality, what is happening here is that the media which were once produced by the few and consumed by the many (and all at the same time), are now being produced by the many and shared by the many, at a time of their own choosing. To paraphrase transmedia guru Henry Jenkins, sharing is the new form of distribution. The implications of all of this are still emerging, but range from the ethical issues surrounding ownership, through digital literacy to e-safety and carbon footprints. How do parents and teachers begin to understand the issues, never mind teach the social responsibility which is such an essential part of the curriculum? Well appropriately enough, the answer may lie in the internet itself, and particularly in Google, which has developed an interactive curriculum on YouTube to support teachers in educating students on how to be safe, engaged and confident model ‘netizens’.

The initiative is aimed at students aged 13 to 17 and will help them to develop digital literacy skills on YouTube that would be applicable across the web. A list of 10 lessons has been devised, in which students can learn about YouTube’s policies, how to report content, how to protect their own privacy, and how to be responsible YouTube community members and, in the broader picture, digital citizens. The curriculum helps educate students on topics like:

  • YouTube’s policies
  • How to report content on YouTube
  • How to protect their privacy online
  • How to be responsible YouTube community members
  • How to be responsible digital citizens

Each lesson comes with guidelines for teachers and ready-made slides for presentation. There’s also a YouTube Curriculum channel where videos related to the project will be posted. Get started today by downloading your free Teachers’ Guide here.

Literacy and the New Media Landscape

I have seen it argued recently that the term ‘media literacy’ is already redundant and that media literacy IS literacy. I have some sympathy with that view, given the new media landscape and the infinite possibilities it provides for the creation of narrative, so it seems reasonable to suggest that we need to re-think our definition of ‘literacy’. Imagine if you were to walk down your local main street today and stop the first ten adults you meet. Ask them what they understand by the term ‘literacy’ and I suspect their answers will include – and possibly not extend beyond – notions of reading (print), writing (continuous prose), spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting. Of course, no one would argue that all of these skills, or ‘traditional literacies’ as they are often described, would have to be included when we talk about literacy today (and in another age would have been the sole focus of a literacy or English teacher’s efforts) but are they sufficient in themselves to enable a person to live a productive and fulfilled life in the modern world? I suspect not.

According to James Paul Gee,Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, there are at least two reasons why we should consider literacy in broader terms than the traditional notion of literacy as the ability to read and write. First, in our world today, language is by no means the only communication system available. Many types of visual images and symbols have specific significances, and so ‘visual literacies’ and literacies of other modes are also included in Gee’s concept of new literacies. Second, Gee proposes that reading and writing are not such obvious ideas as they first appear. “After all,” he states, “we never just read or write; rather, we always read or write something in some way”.In other words, even if we are talking about traditional print-based literacy, it should be conceived as being multiple, since we need different types of literacies to read different kinds of texts in ways that meet our particular purposes for reading them. So what must our broader understanding of ‘literacy’ now include? One of the most forward-thinking definitions is to be found in the aims of the Literacy strand of  the Australian (ACARA) English curriculum:

to develop students’ ability to interpret and create texts with appropriateness, accuracy, confidence, fluency and efficacy for learning in and out of school, and for participating in Australian life more generally. Texts chosen include media texts, everyday texts and workplace texts from increasingly complex and unfamiliar settings, ranging from the everyday language of personal experience to more abstract, specialised and technical language, including the language of schooling and academic study. Students learn to adapt language to meet the demands of more general or more specialised purposes, audiences and contexts. They learn about the different ways in which knowledge and opinion are represented and developed in texts, and about how more or less abstraction and complexity can be shown through language and through multimodal representations. This means that print and digital contexts are included, and that listening, viewing, reading, speaking, writing and creating are all developed systematically and concurrently.”

This shift from traditional literacies to a broader understanding of literacy not only reflects the reality of the digital age, but is an important declaration in the face of opposition from those who would wish to maintain a narrow, rigid curriculum, in which a diet of reading from print-only texts is considered the norm, and superior to all other forms of reading.  However, a declaration is one thing, a shift in attitudes quite another. As if to illustrate the scale of the challenge, the Scottish writer, activist and intellectual Pat Kane, describing his ‘manifesto for a different way of living’ in the critically-acclaimed The Play Ethic, suggests that the way literacy is currently taught actually militates against a better understanding of electronic media. Citing the Australian educational thinkers Allen and Carmen Luke, he describes the current public perceptions of literacy, and prevailing attitudes to the study of digital texts:

“This is not to deny traditional literacy as a necessary skill – but it is to reduce its overbearing emphasis in early education. We must decouple early literacy from the neo-Calvinist morality that currently grips it – casting it as a vital ‘inoculation’ against the seductive world of images, dialogue, simulations and all other kinds of semiotic promiscuity. The Lukes note that we have elaborate and useful diagnostic tools for assessing if children are succeeding or failing in their reading, whether in terms of comprehension or critical judgement. But why don’t we similarly identify “failure” at watching films, “poor” or “uncritical” television watching, deficiency at Web surfing and emailing’? Of course, this is exactly the role that media and cultural studies has tried to play in the Western education system over the last twenty-odd years – and never has a subject been more vilified, mostly by the remaining representatives of an industrial-age mindset.”

There is more than a hint of irony here in the fact that media texts, especially in the form of moving image, have been with us for more than a hundred years, yet despite their place in our everyday lives  they have generally struggled to find a place in the mainstream of the school curriculum, instead being consigned to specialist subject areas such as media studies, or – at the other end of the scale – regarded as unfit for serious study. Nevertheless, recent  attempts to provide a more modern and relevant definition of literacy and of ‘texts’ reflects a trend across most of the developed world, as education authorities struggle to ensure their curricula keep pace with the changes brought about by universal access to the internet and rapidly developing technologies. Not an easy task when you consider that they were designed largely for another age, when a major function of the school system was to prepare young people for a life in the factory or the office.

Aussie Adventures 2: Launceston, Tasmania

To Launceston, Tasmania, and the purpose of my visit. I had been invited to deliver the final keynote speech at the New Literacies, Digital Multimedia and Classroom Teaching Conference, a collaboration between the Faculty of Education and the HIT Lab Australia (Human Interface Technology) at the University of Tasmania’s School of Computing and Information Systems. The conference was beautifully organised by Angela Thomas (@anyaixchel). Angela is a senior lecturer in English and Literacies Education at UTAS, whose research interests include children’s multimodal authoring, social semiotics and new media literacies. As well as making sure the event was running smoothly, Angela found time to present a workshop on Virtual Macbeth, the Shakespeare classic reimagined in Second Life, where participants could ‘explore the potential of virtual worlds for immersive, experiential and student-centred learning.’

Professor Len Unsworth of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, and well-respected author of several texts on new literacies, opened the conference with a fascinating insight into the ways in which the point of view of the reader/viewer changes between picture books and their animated versions, using the Oscar-winning animation of Shaun Tan’s picture book The Lost Thing as the focus. The point was well made that while the books and their moving image versions ostensibly tell the same story, there are often important interpretative differences arising from the position and actions of the camera.

Later in the day, Martin Waller (@MultiMartin), a primary teacher and researcher from Holy Trinity Rosehill Primary School in England, shared via his keynote the ways in which social media have fundamentally changed young people’s engagement with literacy and meaning making in the real world. The great thing about this inspirational speaker and teacher is that he isn’t just talking about it, he’s doing it in the classroom, where his Year 2 class (that’s age 6) have their own Twitter presence. Martin is also fascinated by children’s popular culture and how this can impact on learning, and is responsible for the famous @ClassroomTweets. Definitely a name to follow if you aren’t already doing so.

Day Two of the conference and the opening speaker makes an immediate impact. Lalitha Vasudevan (@elemveee) is Associate Professor of Technology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and her stated interest is in how young people craft stories, represent themselves and enact ways of knowing through their engagement with literacies, technologies and media. Drawing on her experiences in New York with court-involved adolescents, and through the moving personal story of a young man expressing himself through rap music, she made a very powerful argument for the case that in order to move towards greater enactment of multimodal pedagogies, such that adolescents’ literacies cease to be seen as barriers to educational participation, we need to provide teachers with access to what the research findings tell us and with opportunities to engage, explore and enact these pedagogies in the teachers’ own contexts.

Given the quality of the speakers and workshop presenters, being asked to close the conference with my own talk, ‘New Narratives for NewTimes’ was an honour and a pleasure. The feedback was incredibly generous and there are already plans to develop the conference themes into a book for publication next autumn. I would like to thank publicly Dr Angela Thomas, Robert Ceperkovic for making all the travel arrangements, the lovely Damon Thomas (@DamonPThomas) for chauffeuring us around and showing us the beautiful Tasmanian countryside, and all the other great people we met during our stay, including Annemaree O’Brien (@AnnemareeOBrien), Paul Chandler (@pauldchandler) and the irrepressible James Riggall (@jamesriggall).

If you are on Twitter you can catch a flavour of the conference at the hashtag #UTASNewLits, and if and when the presentations become available online I’ll post the links. Next time: Aussie Adventures 3 – Postcard from Sydney.

Tall Ships and Fast Cars

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that for the month of July I will be living, working and playing on the Isle of Arran, a

One of the impressive Tall Ships which called in on Arran this week

place which I never tire of visiting. Already this week I have made some small gains in the fitness stakes by getting back on my bike and taking to the hills, we have been barbecuing on the beach every other night, the Tall Ships have looked in on their way to Greenock from Wexford in Ireland, and the Lamlash Maritime Festival gave me the chance to try my hand at sea kayaking, something which has been on my ‘to do’ list for some time. All this among some of the most magnificent scenery in Western Europe.

To make sure we don’t miss out on what might be happening across the island I picked up a copy of The Arran Banner, which indeed provided a wealth of information – and the most bizarre editorial in a week of bizarre happenings in the press. OK, it wasn’t on the scale of the crash at News International, but the intemperate language might have been straight out of the Murdoch school of journalism. It began:

“Summer finally arrived at the weekend and with it came a swarm – not of midges – but of that other dreaded multitude, the cyclists. I think most island motorists will admit that, apart from the blood-sucking insects that plague Arran in the summer months, their other most reviled horde is cyclists.”

Now, I’m not entirely convinced that there is a group of people whose identity can be so easily encapsulated in the phrase ‘Arran motorist’, but if there is, I would have thought that tourists – a large percentage of whom are cyclists – provide much of their income, and that far from being reviled, they should be welcomed with open arms.

Arran is almost the perfect place for cycling: the roads are still relatively quiet; there are some excellent off-road tracks; the hills provide enough challenge for even the most competitive riders and it is easily accessible from the mainland.

However, in my own travels round the island this week I did notice that the number of cars on the roads is increasing, especially those massively fashionable 4 x 4s, and many of them are being driven too fast for roads which are narrow and twisting and full of blind summits and bends. They are wider than half the width of the roads, and for many of their drivers the white line down the middle serves only as a rough guide to the best racing line.

So I would like to offer an alternative manifesto for those looking to build the economy of Arran while preserving its unique beauty and tranquillity, which is what most of those tourist hordes are looking for:

Arran - a cyclists' paradise

  • Prohibit the movement of motor cars, apart from emergency vehicles, between the hours of 10.00am and 4.00pm in the summer months
  • Provide a more regular bus service, but limit their speed to 30 mph on all roads
  • Invest in re-surfacing the 56 miles of main road round the perimeter of the island
  • Promote the island as a Mecca for cyclists and encourage all cycling-related businesses with preferential business rates.
  • Encourage hotels to offer cycling packages for large groups or clubs looking for that special cycling experience.

With few exceptions, we are all motorists, but how on earth did we get to a situation where the motor car was so revered that there are people who define themselves as ‘motorists’ first and above all else, and where drivers expect to have right of way over cyclists and pedestrians. It isn’t so on mainland Europe, and it doesn’t have to be that way here.

Literacy, Film and the Scottish Survey

Moving image texts, in the form of cinema, and later, television, have been with us for a long time. So much so that it is difficult to imagine a world without them. And moving image texts have been used in education since the middle of the last century. I still vaguely remember trooping in to our school dining hall in the mid-1960s to watch Peter Brook’s wonderful black and white adaptation of Lord of the Flies (not to be confused with the awful 1990 remake which has the English public school boys replaced with American marine cadets). In those days, however, and to a great extent today still, the film or the television programme in class was used to enhance or supplement the ‘real’ text ie the book, or simply as an alternative means of communicating the lesson – a substitute teacher. The idea that moving image texts were valid in themselves, and were worthy of study, was reserved to a few enthusiasts and placed in the box marked ‘Media Studies’.

Not any more. In a bold move, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), working on behalf of the Scottish Government, has been engaged over the past eighteen months in developing reading tasks based on moving image texts, for inclusion in the new-look Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy. The SSLN replaces the old  Scottish Survey of Achievement and assumes a much more significant role in the post 5-14 landscape. A small, random sample of pupils from EVERY school in the country in P4, P7 and S2 will be assigned a series of short tasks, the results of which should provide a snapshot of literacy levels across the country. Crucially, however, the anonymous nature of the survey and the size of the sample (no more than twelve pupils per school in S2 and much fewer in primary) will make it impossible to compare schools or compile the much-vilified ‘league tables’ of old. The tasks will assess performance in literacy using a wide variety of texts, including moving image texts, as defined by Curriculum for Excellence:-

texts not only include those presented in traditional written or print form, but also orally, electronically or on film

The moving image tasks have been written by experienced and enthusiastic practitioners – thereby exposing another myth, that national assessments are written by SQA staff – and they have already been piloted  with great success. Feedback from pupils and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. Having worked with the development team, the SQA granted me exclusive permission to publish a sample task which was developed for early trials but which will NOT be used in the actual survey. This Level 1 task (P4, age eight) is based on the short extract from the film ‘Babe’. As you will see from the task booklet, the ability to ‘read’ the extract depends on some awareness of the language and grammar of moving image, but does not require any kind of specialist vocabulary. Download the task booklet here.

Further Resources

For some excellent teaching materials and short films to use in the classroom check out the following websites:

Moving Image Education www.movingimageeducation.org

Film Education www.filmeducation.org

Scotland on Screen www.scotlandonscreen.co.uk

Languages on Screen www.languagesonscreen.org.uk

Open Culture www.openculture.com

Film Studies for Free www.filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com

Movie Clips and Movie Scenes www.movieclips.com

Docscene – Scottish Documentary www.scottishdocinstitute.com

BBC Film Network www.bbc.co.uk/filmnetwork

BBC Learning Zone Scotland www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/learning/learningzone

National Film Board of Canada www.nfb.ca

Vimeo www.vimeo.com

Scottish Screen www.scottishscreen.com

British Film Institute www.bfi.org.uk