You may have noticed – or perhaps not – that it’s a very long time since my last blogpost, but I came across this previously unpublished essay which I wrote several years ago then promptly forgot, so I thought I would share with you. It is really a reflection on the history of storytelling.

New Literacies and the Importance of Narrative

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

Ancient proverb

 

Think of what happens every time you meet a friend in the street, or in a bar, or when you speak on the telephone. You will almost certainly take it in turn to update the story of your life since the last time you met. The story may be embellished, or you may want to emphasise the more glamorous and exciting parts of it, but essentially you are updating the story of your life’s journey, and it is as much for your own benefit as that of the listener.

Will Eisner, the great American comic book writer puts it more eloquently when he says:

“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.”

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. Australian Aborigines did not have written languages until well into the 20th century but their songs, chants, legends, and stories constituted a rich oral literature, and, since the Aboriginal tribes had no common language, these creations were enormously diverse. Long unavailable to or misunderstood by non-Aboriginals, recent studies have suggested that this oral tradition was both subtle and complex.

Additionally, the oral literature of the Aborigines, as with other ancient cultures, is associated with non-verbal performance. Traditional song is very often associated with dance, and storytelling with gesture and mime. Stories are acted out in dramatic fashion; storytellers will traditionally announce who they are, where they come from, and what their relation to the story is, as though they are integral to the story as well as its messenger. They use the common devices of oral literature such as repetition and enumeration and formulaic expression. But they always take care with their songs and stories; they are as careful with imagery and symbolism, with the figures of speech, as they are with other aspects of ceremony.

 

Narrative IN learning/Narrative AS Learning

As teachers – and perhaps especially as English teachers – we are already aware of the importance of narrative, or storytelling, IN learning, but what I would like you to consider in the course of these few pages is the importance of narrative AS learning, the idea that all learning takes place through the creation and analysis of narrative, and that narrative is the vehicle by which we move towards an understanding of the world and attempt to explain it to each other, because after all, what is learning but an attempt to understand the world and all its mysteries?  If you accept this premise then you realise that every time you step into a classroom you are constructing a particular narrative for learning, a narrative which has infinite possibilities, and which will be understood to a greater or lesser degree by those young people for whose learning you have some responsibility. The extent to which they relate to, and understand that narrative, will depend on a number of factors, including the effectiveness of your communication skills, your ability to engage and to motivate them, and their own prior knowledge and experience, as well as cultural and family differences. In developing this understanding, you will also be supporting and nurturing their ability to construct and share their own stories with each other and with the rest of the world, as competently, as  confidently, and as creatively as possible.

The History of ‘Literature’

Before we consider the kinds of narrative and narrative media which are engaging us today, it is worth looking at the ways in which storytelling has developed through the ages, and whether in fact there is a limited number of story ‘types’. In his fascinating study of stories and storytelling, The Seven Basic Plots, the English journalist and author Christopher Booker sets out to examine a theory which had been suggested many times before, that there is a limited number of storylines in all of literature and that every story is a variation on one or more of these themes. Where Booker differs from many who had gone before him however, is that in examining his theory – and in a work that takes him over thirty years to complete – he reads extensively from literature covering several hundred years, and his texts include everything from the Greek classics and Shakespeare to the popular films of the late 20th Century, making very  little distinction between them in terms of quality or significance. In the introduction to this comprehensive study Booker talks about the significance of stories in our everyday lives:

“We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories: telling them; listening to them; reading them; watching them being acted out on the television screen or in films or on a stage. They are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence….Not only do fictional stories play such a significant role in our lives, as novels or plays, film or operas, comic strips or TV ‘soaps’. Through newspapers or television, our news is presented to us in the form of ‘stories’. Our history books are largely made up of stories. Even much of our conversation is taken up with recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. These structured sequences of imagery are in fact the most natural way we know to describe almost everything which happens in our lives.”

Had The Seven Basic Plots been published even five years later than it was (it was published in 2004) the author might have added social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as the rapidly increasing number of blogs and bloggers, to his list of news sources,  as one of the consequences of the evolution of Web 2.0 technologies in the first decade of the 21st century was the phenomenon sometimes known as ‘citizen journalism’, whereby news events were being reported in ‘real time’ by anyone who happened to be present and had access to a smartphone and the internet. At the same time a decreasing number  people was content with passively receiving their ‘news’ from what had previously been regarded as reliable – often state-run –  sources, but were choosing instead to turn to turn to the growing army of online commentators for immediate information, and  becoming more likely to comment on or question the information they were receiving.

Having outlined his theory and named his seven plots, Booker devotes a whole chapter – the fourth and final part of the book, entitled Why We Tell Stories – to an examination of the deep psychological need for narrative in our lives:

“One of the deepest human needs met by our faculty for imagining stories is our desire for an explanatory and descriptive picture of how the world began and how we came to be in it. There is no culture in the world which does not possess at least one great story to account for how the world came into being, and all such stories have certain things in common.”

To put it simply, according to Booker the overriding desire for sharing stories, common to every culture across the globe and across the centuries, is the desire to find an explanation for the conundrum that is human existence. How did we come to be here, and what is our purpose? At least until the answers to these questions are found, the need for stories and storytelling will never diminish.

More than One Way to Tell a Story

Very few people would dispute that there are some 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.

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.

Many educators still believe that there is a body of texts which are recognised as being at the core of our educational and cultural development, and which ideally should have been read by every child by the time they leave school, a principle implied by the expression ‘texts recognised as having enduring social and artistic value’ in the Literacy strand of the Australian curriculum. However, if the texts which ‘are chosen because they are judged to have potential for enriching the lives of students’ are to be chosen by the students as well as the teacher, which I believe they should be, then we also have to accept that they will not always fit our own particular definition of ‘literature’, so perhaps that is a definition which is also going to have to change over time, as we broaden our definition of ‘texts’. The issue is further complicated by the fact that in a rapidly-changing media environment, it becomes more difficult to predict which texts will have enduring social and artistic value, and the inclusion of ‘multimodal representations’ and ‘print and digital contexts’ recognises  that the shift from printed to electronic texts is irreversible. How long traditional (i.e. paper) books will survive is a matter of conjecture and, for some, of great concern. David Shields, writer-in-residence at the University of Washington, and author of the award-winning Reality Hunger, is unequivocal:

“The only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire texts in to this (the universal) library. The reign of the copy is no match for the bias of technology. All new works will be born digital, and they will flow into the library as you might add more words to a long story. In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail. On this screen, now visible to a billion people, the technology of search will transform isolated books with the universal library of all human knowledge.”

Concerns about the shift from print to online and on-screen reading have been voiced since access to the internet became commonplace, and a leading voice of those most concerned is Nicholas Carr, whose influential essay ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ appeared in Atlantic magazine in August 2008. Ironically, its influence was largely thanks to the power of the world wide web, and Google in particular. Carr writes: ‘For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded…But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.’

Carr’s concerns were not new, even in 2008. A year earlier, in the remarkable Proust and the Squid – The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Professor Maryann Wolf compared the current seismic shift from a largely written culture to one dominated by visual images and massive streams of digital information, to a similar cultural upheaval just over two thousand years ago, when Socrates warned that the creation of the Greek alphabet, and subsequently the written word, would have disastrous consequences for learning, as he firmly believed that it was through spoken discourse and the exercise of memory that real learning took place and knowledge was acquired.

Socrates’ concerns had three aspects. First, he contended that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual’s intellectual life. Second, he regarded the fact that the written word reduced the importance of memory as nothing short of catastrophic; and finally he warned that oral language had a unique role in the development of morality and virtue in society. In other words, he felt that writing was just plain bad and likely to lead to corruption, especially of the youth of Athens. (It is interesting to note that at the same time he was seen by the city elders as corrupting the minds of the wealthy aristocrats’ sons with his revolutionary views and unorthodox ethics.) It should also be remembered of course that we wouldn’t know any of this, but for the fact that Socrates’ words were being recorded in writing by that young rascal Plato, who obviously knew a thing or two about the future.

Wolf draws parallels between Socrates’ fears for the consequences of writing, and the effect of these ‘endless streams of digital information’ on the evolution of the reading brain, and like Carr, wonders whether ‘the rapid, almost instantaneous presentation of expansive information threatens the more time-demanding formation of in-depth knowledge.’ However, having examined the evidence in some detail she reaches the more optimistic conclusion that the two are not mutually exclusive, that one will not replace the other, but rather the brain will adapt and learn a new set of skills to add to our intellectual repertoire. In other words, our definition of reading doesn’t so much need to change, as it needs to expand to take account of the changing nature of our texts.

Comics and Picture Books

Maryann Wolf’s ‘culture dominated by visual images’, while undoubtedly accurate, is hardly a new phenomenon. The use of pictures to tell stories 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, combine 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.

The success of most of the early comic strips, and many of those still popular today, lay in their use of humour, yet still we underestimate the need for humour in our lives and the search for humour in our stories. One of the earliest forms of storytelling which young people learn about is through the medium of jokes, something which many carry through into adulthood but which is often frowned upon as a distraction from the serious business of learning and ‘growing up’. In the telling of jokes we have the perfect context in which to develop young people’s awareness of the key ingredients of successful narratives and the skills required to deliver them effectively.

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.”

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 film 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 as inferior and  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. By now, however, the moving image, in the form of television or film was becoming all-pervasive.

Moving Image Education

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. The viewing is almost always unregulated, and rarely do they have any understanding  that what they are watching and listen to is a sophisticated piece of work, something which has been painstakingly constructed and edited, not simply the result of pointing a camera at real-life events. Since it is unlikely that children are going to be taught to ‘read’ moving image texts at home any time soon, it seems that as teachers responsible for the development of literacy, we have a moral obligation not only to use moving image texts in our 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.

Living in a predominantly visual age, surrounded by moving image texts, it would be almost perverse to ignore the power these texts shape and influence our daily lives. Yet teachers still feel it difficult to justify to themselves and others why they should spend time watching films in the classroom when they should be concentrating on raising traditional literacy standards – despite the fact that it has long been 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 reported 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 “many think this should be so from when children are very young.”

Film is already commonly used in lessons of course, but often it does not extend beyond showing ‘the film of the book’ in order to supplement the study of the printed text, or it is used as an end-of-term reward for hard work or good behaviour. While there is nothing desperately wrong with this in principle, it reinforces the notion that film is not a ‘real text’ in the way that, for example, the novel is. Another of the traps into which even the most enthusiastic teachers often fall when introducing moving image texts into the classroom, is the temptation to focus on the current popular box office hit or full-length classic, since these are the texts with which children are already familiar, when in fact, as with printed texts, the key to success 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. On the other hand, there are many advantages to using short films in the classroom: a short film can be played in its 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. 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.

Born Digital

Despite the ubiquitous nature of film and television, it is the novel which has been the mainstay of narrative in English classrooms for over a century, reflecting its significance as the main vehicle for literary prose fiction, and the close reading of a novel still has a central place in the examination syllabus of most formal educational establishments. So what is to become of the novel in the 21st century? The good news is that the development of new technologies, specifically in the form of electronic ‘readers’, has generated a revival in reading in general, and novels in particular. Where once it was common to carry a novel in your bag, it is now possible to carry around a library in your pocket.

At the same time, the availability of new media platforms and free computer applications has encouraged writers to develop new literary forms, of which the digital novel Inanimate Alice is a prime example.  Written  (interestingly, as many of the earliest novels were written) as a series of episodes, it tells the story of a young girl’s journey, both physical and metaphorical, as she develops through adolescence into adulthood. Over four increasingly complex and interactive episodes  – six more episodes are in development – we accompany Alice from the age of eight in China, where her father works in the oil industry and has just mysteriously disappeared, to her maturity at twenty-something as the ultimate games designer on a mission to save the world. In the words of her creator Ian Harper, Alice was ‘born digital’. In other words, it has never appeared in print, nor is it an e-book in the now commonly accepted understanding of the term, but a new concept in reading which combines elements of the written word, digital still photography, moving image, drawing, painting, puzzles, music, sound effects and elements of computer gaming. Unlike many computer game, however, it does have the linear progression of a book, and the reader ‘turns the page’ – by clicking on a double arrow icon which appears on screen – when he or she is ready to move on.

In educational terms, Inanimate Alice provides a hugely rich context for learners and teachers, with as many opportunities to stretch the imagination and challenge the intellect of the most academic student, as it does to engage reluctant readers at the other end of the educational spectrum. Put simply, from a literacy teacher’s point of view, the text can be used in a number of different ways, in a range of subject contexts, and on a number of different levels, with students from junior school through to university undergraduates. The immediate effect on most young people when introduced to the text is that they want to create their own episode, peopled by their own characters and in their own setting.

The creation of this new kind of digital text – and surely more will follow – would appear  to signal a further merging of traditional narrative genres and the arrival of a new form of storytelling for the digital age. If comics and film were multi-modal, then according to Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture, new texts like Inanimate Alice are the early arrivals in the world of ‘transmedia storytelling’, which Jenkins describes as ‘storytelling by a number of decentralised authors who share and create content for distribution across multiple forms of media.’ In considering the shift which new technologies have brought to the way we think of our relationship with media, and how the skills we acquire initially through play may have implications for how we learn, work, participate in the political process and connect with other people around the world, he dismisses talk of a ‘digital revolution’, and prefers that we think instead of a ‘digital evolution’.  In this new age of transmedia texts, popular storytelling increasingly takes place across different media platforms and passive consumers have been replaced by active  participants or ‘players’:

“Welcome to convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways. Convergence culture is the future, but it is taking shape now. Consumers will be more powerful within convergence culture – but only if they recognise and use that power as both consumers and citizens, as full participants in our culture.”

In the chapter entitled Why Heather Can Write, Jenkins examines the phenomenon known as ‘fan fiction’, and the ways in which it exemplifies the new media landscape. On fan fiction websites like Fiction Alley for example, the largest of a number of websites dedicated to fans of Harry Potter, young writers come together to write, collaborate and share stories about their favourite characters, and sometimes to invent new characters of their own. New writers are mentored by an army of unpaid volunteers known a ‘beta readers’ – a term derived from the world of technology where ‘beta’ means ‘in development’ – and criticism, while it is always positive and constructive, is also focused and direct, dealing with issues of grammar and style as well as plotlines. The beta readers are also contributing authors, and what all the writers have in common is that they are looking to improve their work, not simply to have it praised. This relationship between learner and mentor, based on the trust of peers on what is effectively a shared journey is, by definition, quite different from the formal teacher-pupil relationship found in school and allows the young writers to experiment with their craft within the safe confines of a pre-existing fictional world. For many of the writers who contribute to the fan community, the journey begins by simply reading the efforts of others, before they are comfortable enough to submit their own stories. Once they are committed however, the feedback provides the incentive for them to develop and improve. They quickly come to regard themselves as real ‘authors’.

Critics of fan fiction argue that it is unoriginal and imitative, but as Jenkins points out, this kind of ‘apprenticeship’ model is common in other cultural spheres, and historically young artists learned their craft by initially imitating the great masters, sometimes contributing to their work, before establishing styles, techniques and content of their own. Whether the same conditions for writing can be created within a formal school setting, is a different matter. Again, as Jenkins points out:

“Schools have less flexibility to support writers at very different stages of their development. Even the most progressive schools set limits on what students can write compared to the freedom they enjoy on their own. Certainly, teens may receive harsh critical responses to their more controversial stories when they publish them online, but the teens themselves are deciding what risks they want to take and facing the consequences of those decisions.”

Armed with this knowledge, it might be tempting for teachers either to write off fan fiction entirely as inferior or worthless (despite its massive popularity), or to encourage their students wholeheartedly to become involved, but the growth in such online communities and the collaborative nature of this new form of storytelling creates a challenge for those teachers who have always regarded it as an individual pursuit. One thing seems clear, and that is that unless teachers are able to provide young writers with a real and critical audience – possibly through blogging and online forums such as wiki-spaces – they may well decide that telling their stories elsewhere is a more fruitful alternative.

Although much of what I have written has been about the importance of narrative fiction, I believe that everything which holds true for fiction is equally true for non-fiction. Learning through narrative applies no matter the subject. Take the example of a friend of mine whose responsibility is to teach geography. The topic is ‘Landscape’ and he wants his students to come to a better understanding of how landscapes are formed. He has tried everything to make the topic interesting, but in his own words it’s the dullest part of the course. Then he is inspired. He asks his students to think of themselves as a river, and to tell the story of their lives from birth to death, or their journey from source to sea (employing Eisner’s central notion of empathy). The stories are written, digitally recorded using their own devices, and finally uploaded to the class wiki as a series of podcasts.  The topic is transformed and learning is much more successful, a good example of the effectiveness of learning through narrative.

Definitions of Literacy and New Meaning of Text

Given this new media landscape, and the infinite possibilities it provides for the creation of narrative, 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 focus of the 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 concept 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 notion 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? Perhaps we should begin by looking at the stated aims of the ‘Literacy’ strand of  Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority’s  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 text 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 that 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 these 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.

Games-Based Learning

Just as a key feature of Henry Jenkins’ convergence culture is participation, Kane argues that not only should we regard new media consumers as ‘players’ but that we need to re-examine the purpose of education to reflect the realities of a post-industrial age:

“We need a new way to look at the complexity of the educational experience – one that regards the apparent ‘messiness’ and ‘imprecision’ of play as a deep resource for understanding, rather than something which has to be squeezed out of curricula tailored to deliver better performance statistics for short-termist politicians. I suggest that scholars might unite around a new notion of literacy – a ‘multi-literacy that ties together the deep humanism of the teaching profession with the ludic realities that face their pupils in the new century.”

If play is as fundamental to human nature as Kane suggests, then games-based learning may be the natural new home for learning through narrative – computer games designers are increasingly alert to the fact that in addition to the problem-solving characteristic which marked the early video and arcade games, a strong narrative element is necessary if a game is going to be commercially viable.

In Scotland, where research has already shown the positive impact of games-based learning through the work of Derek Robertson and others at Education Scotland, games like Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Pheonix Wright and Hotel Dusk Room 215 have been used successfully in the development of literacy in schools. There, the new Curriculum for Excellence, which re-defines ‘texts’ as ‘the medium through which ideas and experiences, opinions and information can be communicated’, ensures that teachers have the freedom to interpret the word ‘text’ more widely and gives them the opportunity to use a broader range of contexts within which to develop the literacy skills of their pupils. In many classes, even in lower primary school, youngsters are learning how to construct games using programmes like Scratch and Kodu. So not only do the games provide what Howard Gardner would describe as an “entry point” to learning, and a context in which traditional literacy skills may be developed, they are of course perfectly valid texts in themselves.

Tom Chatfield, gaming expert and author of Fun Inc., Why Games are the 21st Century’s Most Serious Business, contends that ‘narrative immersion’ is central to the appeal of gaming, and in language which sounds strikingly like that of the Quest, the third of Christopher  Booker’s seven basic plots, Chatfield suggests that it’s in the desire to become whoever we want to be, and the need for a happy ending, that the secret of the perfect gaming recipe can be found:

“It’s a strange, poetic idea, and yet it gets to the heart of something quite radical about gaming as a medium: its hold on the human imagination, and its ability to make you into a hero of any number of astounding – or modest – stories. The appeal is the sense of wonder that is conjured, but also the need for a kind of security: for, like any myth, the well-designed game always works out in the end, and will always remain there should you feel the urge to return.”

In education, as in life, we will always find new ways to create and to share our stories, but the need for storytelling itself is timeless. Every time you enter the classroom you have choices to make about the texts you use and the contexts for learning, but remember that you are co-constructing a ‘narrative for learning’ – be sure to consider all the options at your disposal.

 

Advertisements

Assessing The Past, Predicting The Future #edcmooc

Flying MachinesThis is the final week of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, so it is a time to look back and to look forward. What have I learned over the past five weeks, not only about the topic, but about the nature of the MOOC itself, and are MOOCs the way forward for education, or simply the latest fad? First, the reflection. I have really enjoyed engaging with the course materials and with the other course participants, through the discussion forums, Twitter conversations, Google Hangouts and other channels, but then I have become used to this way of learning over the past five or six years, so I was reasonably comfortable with it from the start. It could also be said that since I am no longer looking for full-time employment I have no more need for paper qualifications, and therefore my approach to the course, and to learning in general, has changed.

However, it would be easy to infer from all of the above that because of the very nature of the MOOC – free entry, high dropout rate, no formal qualification – that it is more ‘casual’ than traditional college or university courses. Not a bit of it. The course is highly-structured, deadlines are quite rigid, materials are well chosen and challenging, and tutor support is of the highest order. The standard of teaching is of a very high quality, at least on this MOOC, but unlike that in many conventional settings, it is highly focused and responsive to the needs of individual learners; feedback is more or less instant. There are no group lectures, but an introductory video to each block of study sets out clearly the themes and expectations for the week ahead. Whether these things are true of all MOOCs I have no idea, but for two very different takes on online learning I would recommend that you read this article, All Hail MOOCs. Just Don’t Ask If They actually Work, from Time magazine September 2013, and this post from the Learning with ‘e’s blog, The persistence of distance(learning) by Steve Wheeler.

“But what about assessment?”, I hear you ask, because while the internet has opened up the possibility of learning in all sorts of new ways, assessment still dominates much of our thinking and much of our conversation when it comes to education. Bear in mind that the course is only five weeks long, with a recommended study time of 5-7 hours per week, but since you asked, to ‘complete the course’ we have to submit a ‘digital artefact’ and evaluate the work of at least three other participants in the course, using agreed criteria – real peer assessment in action! The following notes are from the course guidance on the final assignment.

What do you mean by digital artefact?
We mean something that is designed to be experienced on and through the medbotium of the web. It will have the following characteristics:

  • it will contain a mixture of two or more of: text, image, sound, video, links.
  • it will be easy to access and view online.
  • it will be stable enough to be assessed for at least two weeks.

Try to have fun with this and use it as a chance to think broadly and creatively: anything goes in terms of the form of this assignment. As long as you keep the assessment criteria in mind you can be as experimental as you wish.

(Have FUN with this assessment? Doesn’t sound like an exam to me.)

Why do you want me to make a digital artefact?
Text is the dominant mode of expressing academic knowledge, but digital environments are multimodal by nature – they contain a mixture of text, images, sound, hyperlinks and so on. To express ourselves well on the web, we need to be able to communicate in ways that are ‘born digital’ – that work with, not against, the possibilities of the medium. This can be challenging when what we want to communicate is complex, especially for those who are used to more traditional forms of academic writing. Nevertheless, there are fantastic possibilities in digital environments for rethinking what it means to make an academic argument, to express understanding of complex concepts, and to interpret and evaluate digital work. In EDCMOOC, we have an opportunity to explore and experiment in a supportive and relatively low-stakes context. That’s why we want you to make an assignment that makes the most of the web – a digital artefact.

What topic should I choose?
There is a lot of flexibility in this assignment. You can choose to focus on the theme of ‘utopias and dystopias’, or on the theme of ‘being human’. You should use your artefact to express a question, an idea, a problem, a hope, a worry or a provocation that the course has raised for you. Consider how you can express something of your own context as an educator, student and/or technologist. What has the impact of this course been on your understanding of e- learning?

Actually, I am proposing to submit this series of blogposts as my digital artefact, but just for a bit of fun, I thought I would also try creating a short video clip which reflects a couple of the themes of the past month or so. The clip was created in iMovie, using the Trailer feature which allows you to choose which genre of film you are going to release (and makes things easier for beginners like me). It is also a very useful tool in the classroom if you are introducing young people to filmmaking, Thanks to a fortuitous tweet from one of my PLN, Kenny Pieper, I found these great templates for Planning a Better iMovie Trailer, which means you can spend some time working out what text to include – a good exercise in précis, since the more words you include the harder it is to read – and select your images in an appropriate sequence.

commonsThe images I used are from the Creative Commons, except the first three, which appear courtesy of my friends at Dreaming Methods and Inanimate Alice. The little running man was filmed on my phone at a street crossing in Girona, simply because it made me smile. I cropped it in iMovie itself using the cropping tool before inserting into the clip. The reason for creating the trailer was to encourage me to learn something about iMovie, which I had never used, and to express one or two of the course themes in a short timeframe.

One of these was what seemed to be the view of many technological determinists, that increasing technological advances will inevitably lead to a dystopian future, and the other was the fascinating idea that our use of metaphor tends to shape as well as reflect our view of the world. The green man on the ‘information highway’ is a very simple metaphor for the feeling that many people have when trying to navigate the world wide web – that they are in a very busy and potentially dangerous place – and he may also represent those ‘eco-warriors’ amongst us who are concerned that advances in technology are not made at the expense of the sustainability of the planet. I hope you find it interesting and amusing, and please feel free to evaluate it using the agreed criteria below.

Assessment criteria

These are the elements peer markers will be asked to consider as they engage with your artefact. You should make sure you know how your work will be judged by reading these criteria carefully before you begin.

  1. The artefact addresses one or more themes clearly relevant to the course
  2. The artefact demonstrates an understanding of one or more key concept from the course
  3. The artefact has something to say about education
  4. The choice of media is appropriate for the message
  5. The artefact stimulates a reaction in you, as its audience, e.g. emotion, thinking, action

So what of the future of MOOCs themselves? What I liked about taking part in the MOOC was the collaborative aspect of the learning – the sharing of ideas, the conversations around the key topics, and to some extent the random nature of some of the interactions. We were advised from the start that it would be impossible to contribute to every forum, to respond to every text, and to keep track of everything which was going on. This is an aspect of MOOCs which I imagine many people will find difficult. Similarly, if everything is conducted online, you could argue that the ‘human element’ is lost, and that there is no substitute for meeting people face-to-face, but one of the advantages of MOOCs is that they bring together (virtually) people from all over the world. The fact that the MOOC is free is important, allowing access to people regardless of their means, but what I find particularly appealing is this key message – when the focus of education is on the taking part, everyone’s a winner.

Alice Is Coming Home

Good news for fans of the wonderful Inanimate Alice series. The long-awaited Episode 5 will be released on 1st December along with a newly re-vamped website, access to designer’s journals and a gallery of student-created content. If you haven’t met Alice before, now is the time to catch up!

alice

 

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Regular readers of the blog will know of my admiration for Inanimate Alice, the digital novel which has captured the imagination of teachers and young readers around the world, and many of you have already introduced your own students to the story, as well as making full use of the literacy resources which accompany the four episodes currently on the website. (You can catch up with my previous posts on Alice here, here and here). After reading about Alice and her travels, young people love to write their own version of the next episode, setting it in their own locations and introducing new characters, but their most frequently asked question is, When are we going to see Episode 5? Recently I caught up with producer Ian Harper of The Bradfield Company at his Vancouver Island base and asked him that very question, as well as what readers might expect as our eponymous heroine develops into young adulthood.

Bradfield.jpg

TLA. It has been a long time since Episode 4 appeared online. When can fans expect to see Episode 5 and can you give us any clues as to what it might look like?

Ian Harper. Yes it has been a while since Episode 4 appeared. Way too long in fact. We haven’t been entirely idle in the meantime and have been concentrating our efforts on establishing relationships with partnerships that will grow the title for the long term. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the relationship we have established with Education Services Australia, the government organisation that has been responsible for the development of the curriculum across the country. We are delighted that Inanimate Alice was the first digital text chosen to be adopted into that national curriculum. That feels like a landmark moment. Education Services Australia has invested in both the development of new content and in the title’s discoverability across all of the nations education platforms and websites. Quite a commitment. It has certainly put Australia firmly on Alice’s map. This year we are developing interactive journals and translating the first four episodes of the series into Japanese and Indonesian for ESA’s Language Learning Space. We must be doing something right!

I digress. These developments, though, have encouraged our creative team to proceed with the development of that long-awaited Episode 5. It is in production now with a planned completion date of the end of May 2014. We are seeking promotion of the episode in similar way to the launch of Episode 3 in the Guardian newspaper. Readers of the series will see familiar scenes in Episode 5 as this episode is set in the same town, the same school as Episode 4. However, Alice is two years older and trying out her storytelling skills using the Unity game engine for the very first time. So those readers may well be surprised to see 3D effects within a 2D linear storyline. This episode provides the transition to the full-on 3D explorable environment we are anticipating for Episode 6 when Alice is “off to college.”

I’m hopeful that long-standing friends of Alice will be pleasantly surprised by developments. There has been much more going on behind the scenes than can be gained from viewing the website. For example, the new Australian project will form part of Season 5: Gap Year where Alice takes up travelling once again, this time without her parents or the Aunt who accompanies her around Europe as part of Season 4. With Japan and Indonesia on the itinerary it is shaping up to be quite a year. Tasters, at least, of each of these Seasons will appear during the year and we will open up windows on Japanese and Indonesian culture in the same way that we have done with Alice’s Australian adventures. Expect to hit the ‘Japan’ button and find yourself in Hiroshima. ‘Indonesia’ will lead to Jakarta and the gateway to a country that doesn’t know how many islands it comprises.

alice-5-grab-1

Work in Progress. A screenshot from Inanimate Alice episode 5. The bird silhouettes, like the cat and the nightclub in the following two shots, are animated and move gently, creating a sense of depth.

TLA. You have said often that IA was written as entertainment rather than education. Have you been surprised by the uptake from teachers around the world, and how do you account for its tremendous popularity in classrooms?
Ian Harper. For sure, teachers have taken us by surprise on many occasions and continue to do so, after all this time. The first surprise came quite early on when we noticed, from the website statistics, that most of the site users were teachers and, importantly, they represented almost all of those returning to the site time after time. It was then we decided to switch tactics and actively support teachers in their endeavours.
As the numbers grew, we were able to detect trends in usage and saw that in addition to literacy objectives teachers were using it right across the curriculum with high-spots naturally in literacy and ICT education. What was at first a surprise and continues to be a joy is the uptake in the language learning community. Around the world, British Council teachers of English are among the title’s strongest supporters. We see usage at international schools particularly across the Pacific Rim. The translations, too, have served to widen uptake with Spanish being by far the most popular at this time. This interest is from the Spanish speaking Americas as much as Spain itself. There are multiple factors at play when it comes to its popularity, the strongest of which must surely come under the heading of engagement. Students are immediately gripped by the dramatic storyline and teachers can rely on having the attention of everyone in the classroom. This is a primary consideration whether students are high performers or reluctant learners. It has turned into a bit of a mantra but one of the beauties of the title is that is suitable for deep-reading and re-reading, The story bears revisiting and viewers are often delighted when they experience something fresh on each occasion.
alice-5-grab-2

TLA. How many episodes are planned in total, and how fully developed are they?

Ian Harper. We have long held on to the vision that there will be ten episodes in all, spanning Alice’s life from an 8 year old through to her mid-twenties, when we see that she has achieved her ambition to work as a computer game designer. One of the first tasks undertaken, by the writers Kate Pullinger and Chris Joseph, was to develop a story bible that not only described the arc of the narrative but also delved into the multimedia guidance we needed to understand her circumstances at each juncture. This document keeps us generally on track in managing her ever-improving skills as a digital creative, yet affords the flexibility for us to learn both from feedback gained and the improving technologies that help us better present the story. Beyond Episode 6 which has an established format, we have not developed the later episodes in any detail. The shift to 3D graphics and the provision of interactive journals that will run alongside and in-between episodes allow great opportunities to discuss challenges and intended outcomes with partners.

TLA. Are you prepared to give away the ending of the story?

Ian Harper. The straightforward answer to this question is NO! However, I can tell you that the complexity and interactivity increases exponentially with each episode and that by the end of the series the last episode will have the look and feel of a AAA computer game title. That ambition brings great challenges and we hope to surprise and delight ‘Friends of Alice’ many times along the way. It is no secret that the Inanimate Alice series was developed from a theatrical movie screenplay. The ambition holds that folks, having met Alice through all 10 episodes, 3 hours of screen-time, but never having seen her face, will want to visit the Tokyo Games Show and meet her together with Brad for the first time.
TLA. One of the features which makes IA unique is that, in your own words, it was ‘born digital’. Do you think that the era of the paper book is over?
Ian Harper. By no means. The printed word remains just as fascinating, just as gripping as it always did. People still love to get their hands on a book. I’m sure that that desire will remain, but the sorts of books that consumers will buy in paper form will certainly change. The revolution we are now experiencing centres on content, words with audio-visual accompaniment, appearing in multiple forms, often concurrently. Formerly, readers would have the single option of getting their hands on a paper book. Now they can read and experience on myriad devices. They can browse now or download for later reading. They have the choice of ‘read only’ or selecting an enhanced version that offers the prospect of venturing outside of the linear narrative. This enhanced narrative experience is in its formative stages and its an exciting time to see this unfold.
From our perspective, one of the great advantages of having the title ‘born digital’ is the prospect of simply being able to take the title in any direction. It’s just as easy to anticipate smartphone delivery as it is to imagine what Inanimate Alice looks like in print formats. Ease of translation and switching between translations suggests far greater reach than the mere option of “do you want the paperback or PDF on an e-reader?” and thinking beyond “how much is it?” What fascinates me is the challenge of delivering stories and translations for example in print to students in Australia, while offering a mobile version of the stories directly to kids in Japan, China and Indonesia. This kind of reach was the sole domain of the world’s largest publishers until digital came along.
alice-5-grab-3
If you haven’t already joined Alice’s growing band of supporters you can do so in a number of ways. Here are a few of them.
Follow Alice on Twitter
Like Alice on Facebook 
Follow Kenny Pieper and his English class as they engage with Alice here
Find out more about Alice on Wikipedia
Read the latest Alice news at Scoop.it!
Collect Alice images and pin them at Pinterest
See how other teachers are using the Alice stories on Edmodo
Download and re-mix the the digital assets from ‘Alice in Australia’
 

Comic Genius. Not Just for Kids.

batman.jpg

An enduring superhero makes the transition from page to screen.

As we enter another festive season, books remain one of the most popular of Christmas gifts, but in the age of digital, with its ever-increasing choice and variety of reading formats, there is one statistic which may come as a surprise to many. Nearly one in four adult comic readers is 65 years of age or older, according to a report from US media analysts Simba Information. One of the leading authorities on market intelligence and forecasts in the media and publishing industry, the company believes that the market for comics has been driven by a series of successful film adaptations in recent years, most notably Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight, which stands as one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Yet, as Overview of the U.S. Comic Book and Graphic Novel Market 2009-2010 clearly shows, the industry remains misunderstood at best.

“Despite notable efforts from many in the industry, comics and graphic novels continue to be repeatedly mislabeled as just another children’s book category,” said Warren Pawlowski, online publishing manager for Simba Information and an analyst within the company’s Trade Books Group. “With nearly a quarter of the comic reading audience beyond the age of retirement, there is a misconception that needs to be corrected.”

The report, which delves deeper into the persona of the modern-day comic reader, with detailed demographic comparisons to book buyers and the general population, also provides bestseller analysis of the three major segments within the comic industry—comic books, graphic novels and manga—featuring multiple listings of the top titles and publishers by both title output and total dollar sales, as well as sales forecasts for the coming year. Until the last few years, the comics industry, particularly the graphic novel segment, has been a market largely untapped by traditional book publishers. However, a growing number have come to embrace it, with both publishers and retailers realising the numerous and significant opportunities offered by this diverse market.

War

A landmark work. Joe Sacco’s The Great War.

Sure to be top of many ‘best books’ lists for 2013, especially as thoughts turn towards the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I next year, is the latest work of art and possible magnum opus from the American journalist and comics writer Joe Sacco. In an extraordinary, 24-foot-long wordless panorama, The Great War depicts the events of a single day – the launch of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July, 1916. It is a day which has come to epitomise the madness of the First World War. Almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 were wounded that first day, and there were more than one million casualties by the time the offensive halted a few months later. From the riding exercises of General Douglas Haig to the massive artillery positions and marshalling areas behind the trench lines, to the legions of British soldiers going ‘over the top’ and being cut down in No-Man’s-Land, to the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers retreating and the dead being buried en masse, The Great War is a landmark work in Sacco’s illustrious career, and ‘makes visceral one of the bloodiest days in history.’

The Great War seems to work in slow motion. The reader’s eye doesn’t dart quickly over the pages, pulled along by a sense of narrative; rather, we are invited to look closely at every inch of every page, and it’s only in this intense inspection that the horror hits. Over there, an officer quietly vomits. Over here, a horse is put out of its misery. And in this corner, a soldier twists on a stretcher, his arms thrown out in front of him as if he wants nothing more than to embrace death. Most of the time there are so many men in Sacco’s trenches – at the Somme, soldiers were forced to spend the night before the beginning of the offensive on their feet – that all we can see from our position behind the lines are the massed ranks of their helmets, piled and gently curved as if they were just counters in a particularly heinous form of tiddlywinks. So when a face or a gesture is visible, you’re pulled up, caught out, remembrance suddenly sour and fierce rather than merely mournful.”

Rachel Cooke, The Observer, Sunday 8 September 2013

Click here to see my full list of recommended picture books, comics and graphic novels for all ages.

See also:

The 13 Best Children’s, Illustrated and Picture Books of 2013

Related Posts:

Getting Serious with Comics

The Wonderful World of Comics

Understanding Comics

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.

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.