A Novel Approach To Reading

Italia.jpg

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

E-Books and Beyond: The Future of Children’s Literature.

Alice in Australia Story Six – Game Play

Last week I had the pleasure of introducing Inanimate Alice to the 12th Annual E-Books Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland’s ‘largest annual ebooks discussion for librarians’, a presentation which I began by pointing out that IA is not in fact an e-book, in the sense that it is not an existing product which has been digitised for reading from a screen, but that it is a born-digital, transmedia text for younger readers, combining conventional written text with images, sound and games. Incidentally, one of the amusing aspects of the conference was the ongoing discussion about whether the term ‘e-books’ should have a hyphen or not, a debate which to my knowledge has not yet been resolved! The distinction between the e-book and the digital narrative is an important one to make, not least because of the implications for the development of literacy skills, where traditionally we have focused on reading (words) or reading (pictures) as separate entities, rather than developing a proper understanding of their interconnectedness.

For those of you who have not yet met Inanimate Alice, please visit the website and explore its many possibilities for use in the classroom. If you are already an IA fan, you will be excited by the latest developments, which include a mini-series set in Australia between Episodes 1 and 2. As the first story begins, Alice has moved to Melbourne with her parents and is having to adjust to living in yet another new country. Brad – her beloved digital friend – has gone missing from her device (she thinks perhaps she left him behind in China!), and the buzzing beehive in the neighbour’s garden is making her very nervous. Has Brad disappeared for good? And will those bees escape?!

Alice in Australia Story Two – Buried Treasure

Alice in Australia introduces a young audience to whole new levels of inventiveness, with stories by award-winning writer Kate Pullinger, stunning imagery by the pioneering digital artist Chris Joseph, and the whole thing brought to life by creative developer Andy Campbell. Uniquely as far as I can tell (please correct me if I’m wrong) the series offers teachers and students the digital assets from each of the episodes, completely free, which allows them to re-create the narratives with strikingly professional results. The stories can be downloaded as comic books, with ‘words only’ allowing readers to create their own images, or as picture stories to which dialogue can be added by the student. Add in the fact that the soundtrack and sound effects are also downloadable as MP3 files, and you have a complete set of materials with which to introduce young learners to the world of digital narrative and transmedia storytelling, where the only limits are the limits of their imagination.

New on Storify: Teaching – An Academic Career?

Given my conviction that storytelling is at the heart of learning, I was always going to be intrigued by a new curation tool and website which makes the creation of stories simple and intuitive. Alerted to Storify through my Twitter PLN (Personal Learning Network) where so much of my learning comes from these days, I decided to experiment with it and effectively write this latest blogpost using it as an alternative platform. To stimulate some discussion around a topic I posed the question ‘What is an academic?’ on Twitter and followed it up with ‘Do teachers regard themselves as academics, and would they choose to do so anyway?’. The responses were intriguing. I saved the tweets to my ‘Storypad’ (see notes on how to do this at the end of the blogpost), added some text and quotes from other sources, and published my story under the Education section. Unfortunately, because this is not a self-hosted blog, I am unable to embed the story here in its original format but I have added a screenshot of the introduction to let you see what it looks like. If you want to read the whole story just follow this link to My Storify

To create a story using Storify, just follow these simple steps:-

  1. Decide on a topic or theme
  2. Decide which media to include in your search (available sources include Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Google, YouTube and others)
  3. Search media
  4. Save chosen media items to Storypad
  5. Click and drag selected items to story template
  6. Re-arrange structure as required
  7. Add text and commentary
  8. Publish to Storify

To save tweets to the Storypad (or desktop):-

  1. Open selected tweet
  2. Click on the day or time tag at the top left (this opens the tweet in a new window)
  3. Click on the ‘Storify’ symbol below the tweet
  4. Save to Storypad or an existing story (text or comment can be added at this stage if you want it)

As storytelling and essay writing become more digitally based, I think Storify provides an attractive platform for learners and teachers to experiment with new formats, It also gives the teacher a context in which to discuss issues such as plagiarism, cut and paste, ‘value added’, creativity, effective internet searching, essay structure and effective storytelling. What do you think?

 

[View the story “Getting started” on Storify]

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.

More Than One Way to Tell a Story

“All stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”

Jean-Luc Godard

Queneau's iconic Exercises in Style

Very few people would dispute that there are some literary texts which are universally recognised as ‘classics’, some of the works of Shakespeare being obvious examples. What educated person could regard their education as complete without some experience of the works of the greatest writer in the history of the English language, whose lines have entertained, enlightened and moved us to tears for over four hundred years? Yet no other writer in history has had their texts re-worked in so many ways, from stage to film, musical to rap, ballet to opera, film to graphic novel. In 2010, members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in association with Mudlark, an internet and TV production company, presented a version of the play Romeo and Juliet entitled Such Tweet Sorrow as an improvised real-time series of tweets on the micro-blogging site Twitter, during which the performers engaged with the audience as well as each other, using YouTube to communicate images and video text.

What endures through all of these re-workings are two things: the beauty of the language and engagement with the narrative. But while the poetry and the flowing prose is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s, the story almost always isn’t. Versions of the tale of ‘star-crossed lovers’ for example had been entertaining readers and audiences for centuries before Shakespeare ‘borrowed’ it from Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem – itself translated from the original Italian – and embellished it for the Elizabethan stage to mixed reviews (the diarist Samuel Pepys called it ‘a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life”).

The attraction of the narrative of course isn’t simply that we find it entertaining or ‘dramatic’, but that we are able to recognise in it some universal truths about the world and about ourselves, whether that truth is about age, death, love, lust, family obligations, gender roles, loyalty, or any of the narrative’s numerous other themes. To put it simply, it has many lessons to teach us about the meaning of life.

The narrative of Romeo and Juliet itself dates back at least as far as Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe in the first century AD, a story of forbidden love which contains parallels to Shakespeare’s story: the lovers’ parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the 3rd century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion that induces a deathlike sleep, but the earliest known version of the Romeo and Juliet tale which we might recognise from the events of  Shakespeare’s play is the story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, in the 33rd novel of his Il Novellino published in 1476. As Christopher Brooker would have it, Romeo and Juliet ‘unfolds precisely through the five stages of the tragic cycle’ and thereby fulfils the criteria for one of the seven basic plots.

As the example of Romeo and Juliet amply demonstrates, there is more than one way to tell a story, but how many are there exactly? In 1947 the French poet, novelist and mathematician Raymond Queneau made a humorous attempt to answer the question in Exercises in Style, a collection of short narratives in which the author retells an apparently unremarkable story in 99 different ways. Standing on a crowded bus at midday, somewhere in Paris, the narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him. When a seat becomes vacant, the first man takes it. Later, the same man is observed in another part of the city with a friend who is advising him on the style of his overcoat.

A page from Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story

Using a variety of styles ranging from the sonnet form through Cockney rhyming slang to mathematical formulae, Queneau’s work is both comical and experimental, a tour of literary forms and a demonstration of playful invention. The text became a cult classic and was the inspiration behind a similar experiment more than half a century later, when the graphic novelist and comic illustrator Matt Madden, in homage to Queneau, set out to explore the same idea using visual narratives in 99 Ways to Tell a Story. In a fascinating series of drawings which questions the very definition of narrative, Madden stretches the limits of the comics genre by telling the same story from different narrative perspectives and in a range of styles including maps, graphs, ‘Public Service Announcement’ and even ‘Paranoid Religious Tract’.

Experimenting with very short stories in the way that Queneau and Madden have done is a fun and engaging way to teach young  learners about narrative, and because the basic plot has to be as simple as possible, it is an inclusive exercise – everyone can try it. Similar success can also be found in setting young people challenges such as the Six-Word Story (where the writer has to compose a powerful story in only six words), the Six-Picture Story (the same exercise using six randomly selected pictures) and the 50-word mini-saga, in which writers have to compose a story of epic proportions in exactly fifty words, not a word more and not a word less.

For more on this topic see previous posts Every Picture Tells a Story and Stornoway Saga.

Storytelling in the Classroom

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”

Ancient proverb

It is likely that oral storytelling has been around for as long as there has been human language, as ancient communities were  maintained and strengthened through stories that connected the past with the present and the future.  Writing (and drawing) in his indispensable study of the history of the comic book – Graphic Storytelling and Visual Art – the great American comic book writer Will Eisner considers the importance of storytelling in any medium:-

“The telling of a story lies deep in the social behaviour of human groups – ancient and modern. Stories are used to teach behaviour, to discuss morals and values, or to satisfy curiosity. They dramatize social relations and the problems of living, convey ideas or act out fantasies. The telling of a story requires skill.”

Here is Roger Hurn’s ‘take’ on teachers as the inheritors of the storyteller’s tradition, presented by Brainpop‘s famous duo, Tim and Moby.

Teachers, of course, have long recognised the power of storytelling, and now it appears that the introduction in Scotland of new curriculum guidelines has encouraged a revival in story-based pedagogy in the classroom, as witnessed by a growing interest in the Storyline approach which originated in Scotland but has lain dormant for a number of years, and the exciting work being done at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

To try to establish whether this renaissance is random and coincidental, or whether there is a systematic story movement growing across the country, former primary teacher-turned researcher Fiona McGarry is collecting data via an e-survey to inform a research project on the use of story in the primary classroom. The survey forms part of a national study on the use of story in the primary classroom by the University of Dundee, in association with Scottish Youth Theatre and The Scottish Storytelling Centre. It takes about 5 minutes to complete, and as a “thank you”, teachers completing the survey will be entered into a prize draw for a 15- book Roald Dahl Collection.  The results of the survey, and the implications for practice arising from these will be shared via Glow when the data analysis has been completed. So if you are a primary teacher in Scotland, or if you know any primary teachers in Scotland……….you know the rest!