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The Creation of Visual Metaphors: A Workshop

October 27th, 2009

Workshop 19/10/09Last Monday at NZCER 13 staff members participated in a visual metaphors lunchtime workshop. We looked at deconstructing visual metaphors to interpret their complex meanings, and used this understanding to create our own visual metaphors.

We used the well known sign of Adam and God’s touching fingers from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, which has been reproduced and appropriated in many different contexts to create visual metaphors with a variety of meanings, based on the original value of the sign.

Everyone worked in groups to deconstruct the messages they interpreted from a range of images that used the sign of the two touching fingers. Then each group created their own visual metaphors using the same sign, through either creating their own or reworking the one that their group had been deconstructing. This resulted in a range of different visual metaphors, from an advertisement to an educational visual metaphor (pictured).

If this is of interest to you, you might like to attend the Visual Metaphors workshop and the Shifting Thinking Conference next week (no drawing skills requried), which will explore similar ideas with an educational context.

Conference: November 2009, Shifting literacies , , ,

Beginning to unpack my research assumptions

September 7th, 2009

This learning conversation outlines some of my thinking in undertaking a small, exploratory research project.  Throughout the process of conducting this research, I was forced to consider deeply the contradictory and ambiguous intersections between different research and knowledge traditions in ways that challenged me to push the boundaries of my own thinking about research, my position as a researcher and what research is supposed to look like and to whom. 

Unpacking some of the often hidden assumptions in my own thinking often felt like invasive surgery.  My attempts to hold onto and most importantly to learn to let go of my own limits of not knowing, was at once disruptive, uncomfortable and unsettling – yet in retrospect strangely made sense.  One of the insights that I remember being particularly surprised to learn of was my natural tendency to want to reconcile many of the tensions that I faced so that they would ‘fit’ within my own social and cultural understanding.  I also often felt torn between maintaining a sense of professional loyalty to the organisation alongside a deep seated cultural obligation to provide research that would be useful to the kura and their whänau community. 

Interrogating the many different spaces I held at any one time beyond reflection and adding to my existing experiences and ideas, encouraged me to reconceptualise not only how to change my own practices and thinking about the work that I do and in the questions that I ask, but also to think about how to collectively engage and negotiate in the discourse of research in more different and meaningful ways.  This is because doing what we’ve always done to get us here won’t get us there, so I invite you on a journey to come to the ‘edge’.

Shifting literacies, Shifting research

Malice is in the Eye of the Beholder

July 8th, 2009

We all know the story of Cinderella, the classic fairy tale of rags to riches. But I’m sure most of us have never stopped to think about why this story continues to be read to children around the world, the complexity of the characters, and the social messages that you can extrapolate from it. The illustrations alone in Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story retold by Lynn Roberts and illustrated by David Roberts, tell a compelling story of a battle of class, gender and belief systems.

The social themes underlying the art deco version of Cinderella are important to take note of in analysing the characters, because it is the underlying socio-cultural themes that reveal their complexity. In interpreting the characters motives and actions, it becomes clear that Cinderella and her step-family are far from moral opposites because they are ultimately pursuing the same agenda by the same set of cultural rules and norms.

Briefly speaking, Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story is set in a society in which women are objects whose value is determined by the men in their lives. They are not valued for their hard work or intelligence, but as a physical manifestation of a man’s material wealth. Therefore women are concerned with men, beauty, and fashion, as they play an important role as signs of class distinction and social status. The material objects in the illustrations are important signs of this relationship.

This thinking object evolved out of a previous thinking object based on Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story, titled How much is Cinderella’s father to blame for her situation? which provided students with a framework to analyse the moral ambiguity of the father character.

Because of the complexity of the imagery, it makes rich material for students to analyse as an exercise in visual literacy. The resource we have developed allows them to critically explore the subjective truths we are presented within the story of Cinderella, of a narrative of good vs. evil,  by asking ” How malicious is Cinderella’s stepfamily?” and “How much is Cinderella to blame for the bad situation she finds herself in?

A framework for the analysis of the images is provided. It allows students to address these questions and look at the ambiguity of Cinderella and the stepfamily’s characters – characters whose morality is usually assumed. Life is never as simple as good vs. bad. The question is why and what makes them behave the way they do, and how is this information conveyed in the imagery and constructed through interpretation.

I’m aware that is this is a visual analysis thinking object – without the illustrations – (for some reason copyright prohibits me putting the book online). But due to the pervasiveness of the story of Cinderella I hope that it provides you with an interesting idea of how to critically analyse imagery with students, in encouraging a subjective interpretative process.

Please feel free to post any feedback you may have regarding this thinking object as a resource. And if your work at NZCER you are welcome to borrow a copy to look over with the thinking object.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ambiguous

May 12th, 2009

For a long time I’ve been thinking about the fiction read in primary classrooms – in particular about characterisation. Overwhelmingly, if characters are morally ambiguous in any way they tend to have come right by the end of the story – “I used to think my brother was a bit of a loser but now I realise he’s kinda cool” sort of thing. But what is there to say about a character like this? The “reformed character” theme has been spelt out for the reader; there’s no work left for them to do because any indeterminacy present at the beginning has been neatly removed by the end – presumably because the writer and/or publisher thinks kids can’t handle moral ambiguity. Our research, in contrast, suggests not only can kids handle indeterminacy, but their thinking becomes deeper and more complex as a result of engaging with it.

Our research (The Lifelong Literacy project funded by the Cognition Education Research Trust) includes an exploration of kids’ meaning making of morally ambiguous characters. One of the teachers we are working with chose the father in Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story because in this version of the story he doesn’t just have “goody” or “baddy” status – he has both. We have provided a brief outline of the teacher’s first lesson in the Thinking Object: How much is Cinderella’s father to blame for her situation? In this resource we briefly describe the support given to the teacher prior to the lesson, and the teacher’s and researchers’ thinking about why the lesson was so successful.

It’s our hope that you will take a look at the Thinking Object and leave comments about how useful you think a resource like this might be for classroom teachers and teacher educators. In effect, your comments will provide an informal review and will help us to refine the design of future resources of this type.

Click here for a pdf version of the Thinking Object.

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Lost or Shakespeare?

April 15th, 2009

Lost or Shakespeare, that is the question. I watched my first episode on Wednesday 8th April and it started well. A bald and sweaty man, looking a fair bit like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, was lowered down a well. Aha, I thought, as he descended into the gloom, an allusion: into the heart of darkness. A light flared and the well closed up. A bit of grief resulted, then headaches stopped and noses stopped bleeding. The well re-appeared but was full of dirt.

A kind of wicker man was briefly seen. Mr Kurtz had apparently successfully turned a wheel underground to stop the headaches. Above ground, by the well, a man named Jim seemed to be suffering the most volubly, in a terse kind of way, staking a strong early claim as the main character.

Half an hour later we’d been back and forth in time by three years twice, two men had been shot, a woman had given birth, someone had got drunk and blown up some dynamite. There were sore heads again.

Jim was the central character in this episode. Talking in two sentence bursts, he is hairy, sweaty and disgruntled. His character is further characterised by using quaint words like, doozy, boss and chief. Jim and a blonde named Juliet watch each others’ backs. She’s a good shot, kills two men from 30 metres with a rifle, two men who put a hood over a struggling woman.

The best scene for me: the woman in the hood, who was saved by Jim’s yelling and the Juliet’s good shooting, leads her saviours through a sonic fence. They fall about with sore heads again and she blithely removes ear plugs. Is she a criminal? That might explain the hood. Some ambiguity and mystery, then, but it was hard for me to care if anyone got up from their sore heads this time. Still, it takes a while to be drawn into anything.

After the ads came a section which lost me, which seemed uniquely Lostian and a point of difference from other shows, the part of it which makes it worthy of study. There were puzzling references to earlier episodes. A long haired man in grey overalls talked about a fence. A dark haired man in blue overalls called Richard wanted the two dead bodies dug up for some reason. A cymbal bonged. The name John Locke was said ominously, as was The Dharma Initiative. There must be justice for the dead men. There was tension music. Time was mentioned. News came that a sub was leaving the island. French horns, strings.

Juliet told Jim (she calls him James) that she will leave in two weeks on the sub (after three years on the island). No more bloody noses. But who will keep Jim’s back? He needs two more weeks! Piano, strings, moonlight on the water. She granted his request.

Three years later: sun, fresh shirts, fresh veggies, combed hair, Jim walking into domestic bliss. Strings strengthened. The blonde and he embraced, complimented each other tersely as they held a sunflower. “I love you.” “I love you, too.”

Jim sat by the bed of the man in grey overalls who was letting off dynamite previously. What was Jim reading? The man woke up and Jim told him he’s a daddy! Strings. He explained the reason why he got drunk. Something about a dead man (I missed this bit because the phone rang). Jim spoke (to string accompaniment) about regret, about a girl. Memories, he said, meaningfully, they fade.

Jim and Juliet were in bed, spooning rigidly, when the phone rang. Jim answered and was disconcerted. He drove a blue jeep to a peninsula and met a blue combi driven by blue clothed people. Strings. Jim’s hair wafted. He removed spectacles he had not worn once until this scene. Evangeline Lily (I know my Woman’s Day), wearing a singlet, looked meaningfully at him. Credits.

If you’re still reading this blog, you will know that I found Lost pretty silly, from the characterisation down to the over lush soundtrack which sounded portentous and pretentious to me because the two-dimensional characters don’t elicit empathy. The banks of violins were like a canned laugh track in an unfunny comedy, drawing attention to exactly what was missing: in this case emotional drama.

I think that the reason characters like these become engaging is because we watch them unselfconsciously so much − more than we watch the people we know in real life. Over the years we come to know these characters physically in quite an intimate way. Their mannerisms, the way they move and the way they speak are wired into our bodies. In this way their appeal basically works on the same level as people on reality TV (except people on reality TV are more animated and interact in a more fluid way).

Lost is not reality TV. Inexplicable and impossible things happen and people act woodenly. And it’s been running for five years. The result of all the esoteric knowledge abut Lost on the internet seems to be largely a result of the show’s long run and the natural accruement of events which can be recalled. The knowledge being generated here says things about Lost rather than life. This is the difference between Shakespeare (or any other classic literature) and Lost. Great literature says something about life (as well as having special qualities in itself which make it literature), but Lost is just saying things about itself.

Lost may be groundbreaking in its self reflexivity, or intratextuality, but I seriously question the coherence or significance of what it says about itself. The pieces of the jigsaw (though fun) often seem arbitrary and essentially trivial. It is of interest in what it is rather than what it says.

I’m making a lot of claims after watching one episode, but I think that if Lost is to be studied it should be from a cultural/technological angle. The TV series is notable as the generator of a new kind of interactive cyber puzzling community. But could someone do it better than this, harness this new internet interaction? What’s David Lynch doing? A sudden thought! Have I completely missed the point? Is the corniness in Lost intentional and celebrated by its fans, like at a strange movie festival?

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Shakespeare or LOST?

April 2nd, 2009

An interesting question, Rachel! I’ve haven’t yet watched LOST so I’ll have to deal in generalisations here until I do watch it.

Perhaps I could compare and contrast The Tempest to a series of LOST (both feature shipwrecks on a magical island, romance, nastiness)? At first glance it seems like comparing apples and oranges, though.

We can apply criticism to anything, of course, and the act of criticism has to be good for your mind in that it entails complicated mental processes including the articulation of ideas not consciously realised. But is studying LOST as rewarding for you as studying Shakespeare? It all depends on the quality of LOST, I think. Is it worthy of close examination? Is it complicated, nuanced, intelligent, dramatic (and so on) enough? To be brief, is LOST of very high quality?

Looking at the link you provided, Rachel, http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/This_Place_is_Death I have some doubts. I’ve quoted from the site below.

Recurring Themes

Ben drives a van with the name ‘Canton-Rainier.’ This is an anagram for ‘reincarnation.’ (Life and Death) (Rebirth)

Ben previously told Jack the last time he saw Locke was three years ago on the Island; he has however seen him since then. (Deceptions and cons)

Danielle tells Jin that her team departed for their expedition on 15 November 1988. (The Numbers)

Montand’s arm is ripped off. Later, Jin sees it somewhat decayed after a flash. (Missing body parts)

And my favourite theme (yes, it’s time to throw out the classics!) :

Sawyer refers to Charlotte as ‘Red.’ (Nicknames)

A couple of these might be motifs, at best. Anyway, at first glance I’m worried about the nature of the analysis going on here.

I think the best answer to your question is that we study both Shakespeare and LOST (or any high quality contemporary TV series). We’d be missing something if we studied only one at the expense of the other. Maybe start with LOST then graduate to Shakespeare? Or vice versa?!  I’ll watch the next episode!

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On Reading Trash

February 26th, 2009

It all depends on how you define “trash”, of course. On a bad day I’d probably define it as anything I don’t read. But on a better day, when I’m trying on my post-structuralist hat (I’ve got a lot of hats but I’m not actually convinced I suit any of them), I’d tell you there was no such thing. I’d say that literature and trash may often be set against one another but that there’s no real reason why they should be.

It’s what you do with a text that matters. Readers can engage with a complexly crafted text as well as a much simpler one on the same sort of intellectual level: I can make use of Mills and Boon to think about aspiration; I can make use of Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife to do the same thing. From this perspective we are less likely to see “literature” and “trash” as opposites, and instead of spending time distinguishing between two extremes, we are more likely to spend it critically exploring the themes a text represents: what is important is the level of thinking generated. I should have used this argument when I was asked, “Wouldn’t you be far more intellectually stimulated if you taught secondary?” I wish I’d had the wit to point out that, for the teacher, intellectual stimulation is not derived from the complexity of student thinking. It comes from the process of working out what to do in response to student thinking – complex and simple.

I can easily convince myself of this “there is no such thing as trash” argument as long as I’ve got the right hat on. But something always makes me take it off.

Hatless, it occurs to me that I’ve just implied Mills and Boon is on a par with Emily Perkins, that no novel is of more worth to us culturally or aesthetically than any other. The trouble is nothing will convince me this is true. So I’m stuck in an argument with myself where trash does, and does not, exist; stuck spinning around in an argument neither of my two selves can win. Sticking the hat back on helps.

Now I can remind myself of my main point: Mills and Boon and Novel About My Wife can be read at the same intellectual level. Yes, got that. But in saying this I haven’t said they are equally well written and that they have equal cultural or aesthetic significance. Just because a novel can be put to intellectual use doesn’t mean it will necessarily be one of those texts that live inside all of us (whether we are conscious of them or not). Sometimes written hundreds of years ago, these are the texts our current conversations and actions can be traced back to; the ones that show us the historical weight of narrative on present events – they show us the agency of texts. Who knows, Novel about My Wife might one day have this kind of place in our culture. I doubt anything from Mills and Boon will.

But I’m left asking myself if I think Mills and Boon could be a useful part of secondary English classes even though its usefulness will be transitory. And the hat comes off again.

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Shakespeare for my birthday

February 25th, 2009

I’ve just been given the Complete Works of Shakespeare for my 40th birthday (along with a bottle of whiskey, a magnificent stainless steel coffee plunger, a second-hand TV and DVD player, and I won’t go on…) which has got me thinking (again, in the light of recent media headlines) about the Bard of Avon, this long dead bourgeois Englishman whose oeuvre has become a secular bible in the West (and to a certain extent an instrument of oppression and cultural demolition – though that’s not his fault!). And I’ve begun thinking about my twenty-five year relationship to his plays and poems.

Where did this relationship begin? If you believe the (popularly) critically acclaimed study by Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: the inventor of the human, Shakespeare’s texts had a key role in constructing my personality before I was born. I was born into the world Shakespeare had a large part in creating. Bloom claims that Shakespeare constructed through his characters, most notably Falstaff and Hamlet, the blueprint for the human personality, that Shakespeare expanded and defined the possibilities of personality and character, and drew attention to all the facets and shades of personality we value as a society. In other words, he showed us how to be – whether or not each one us has experienced one of the plays directly. It’s a bold claim and theoretically unfashionable in its claims of universals which include the placement of Shakespeare at the top of a canon – and not only of Western literature but of world literature.

Perhaps a good place to start (though still problematic) is with the question: what’s so good about Shakespeare? Bloom, like others before him, points to the ‘unparalleled range’ of Shakespeare’s characters and the ‘incomparable vitality’ of his writing. People have objections to making comparisons and some people object to Shakespeare (Tolstoy being a famous example), but if you’re prepared to address the question of who has the greatest range of characterisation in literature, there aren’t many convincing arguments against him. Is characterisation important, or the most important aspect of literature? Again, it’s hard to argue (if you’re prepared to) against such an assertion (in the ‘realist’ tradition). It seems to be fairly widely accepted these days in creative writing classes, for example, that character is the engine of literature. Another aspect of Shakespeare that seems unsurpassable is the variety of interpretations that can be brought to his plays. When I first studied English Lit at Victoria University, The Taming of the Shrew was banned for being offensive to women; however, Bloom reads the play as proof of the superiority of women over men in the ‘battle of the sexes’. He insists that Katherina genuinely loves Petruchio; she learns how to control him by simply pretending to agree with him, and her famous submissive speech at the end of the play is obviously ironical and comical. Bloom says (paraphrasing Auden) that our interpretations show how Shakespeare reads us.

Where do I, a contemporary reader, come into this? (other than being born into it…) I first held a play by Shakespeare in my hand at Newlands College, in English class in year 10 or 11. I had seen or heard only fragments of his plays at that time, enough to know that the language was hard to follow. However, in English class, with the text in my hand, I knew I could go slowly and concentrate and engage with this mythical figure.

This introduction to Shakespeare is one of three lonely memories of class work from school which I still carry with me to this day. I remember the room and where I was sitting with unusual clarity (at the back left). Our teacher, a black woman from Guyana, had a cardboard box from which she produced small, light blue books, hard covered, durable and old.  I took the tough little book and opened it with a rare feeling of significance. It was almost momentous: my first one-on-one meeting with the greatest writer ever (which seemed to spill into ‘greatest human’, somehow) – which was how everyone had described him on TV and radio and in books and in conversation for as long as I could remember. People and the media talked about other people as well, of course, but Shakespeare was unique in the unanimous reverence he attracted. He occupied a special place in the culture. So, I opened the blue book Mrs Williams gave me and found… people talking – oddly. They spoke gracefully, powerfully, intelligently, incomprehensibly. No light illuminated my mind. The class didn’t stir from its usual apathy. Memory over.

You may be wondering if I was I happy to get The Complete Works for my birthday, whether I threw it out the window with a cry of rage; whether I immediately put it on a prominent place in the bookshelf, next to the bible, where it will remain unopened but noticed; or if I opened the book at random, found someone talking in Romeo and Juliet  – and my jaw dropped open in surprise.

A person begins engaging with the world Shakespeare helped create long before they get into year 11 or 12 – on a day when a certain tension creeps into their teacher’s voice… Whether or not ‘axing’ Shakespeare is only a media beat-up, I find myself worried about the creation of special schools which are selectively excluded from looking at such a pervasive and unique cultural figure. The students will know they’ve been marginalised. They’ll know they’ve been picked out, identified as being unable or unwilling to engage with the highest (or thereabouts) level of Western art. To paraphrase Bloom, they’ll be told they’re not worthy of being read by Shakespeare.

Is Bloom overstating Shakespeare’s influence here? (Plato comes to mind as another secular figure to whom similar seminal cultural influence is attributed.) I’d love to hear about young peoples’ attitudes to this cultural behemoth we call Shakespeare – before and after they study him.

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Shifting literacies

February 10th, 2009

What reading is meant to be

Two steps inside the door and I either had to veer to the left or stop at the “here’s the new stuff we expect will sell pretty well” table. I opened the first page of the first book I saw whose title was in bigger font than the author’s name. It’s worked in the past, but not this time. What I read was held together by poetic references I just didn’t get.

When you’re drowning in text, it’s probably natural to think you’re the problem – if only I knew a bit more stuff, I’d recognise the references. I suppose you could try to fix your inadequate self by enrolling in some kind of course but there might be ways around the problem that rely less on deficit thinking:

1. Ignore all obscure references

Simply read right over the top of them and go hunting for bits you do get. This is all very well but doesn’t quite fit if you think reading is about taking risks, about facing and experiencing the unfamiliar.

2. Make sense of them in your way, even if you think it may not be the author’s way.

This kind of behaviour will get you into trouble with some literary theorists, though – the ones who insist that any allusion understood in a way not intended by the author is a misreading (but you’re probably safe to practise this kind of subversion in the privacy of your own head). And besides, there are plenty of theorists who say texts can be read at various levels, so missing a few of the author’s intended meanings doesn’t result in the text being unintelligible to the reader.

3. Think of Anton.

Chekhov, that is: cherry orchards … “Is that it?” endings. He knew what reading was all about: “When I write I rely fully on the reader, on the assumption that he himself will add the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” Here was a man who actually thought something was missing until a reader comes along with all their subjectivity, their fabulous “baggage” (a middle child with a fear of rats, an inclination towards sugar, an aversion to obsequious shop assistants …) and uses it to help make sense of the text.

Remind yourself of Chekhov, then, whenever you get to a really dense bit – a bit that makes you suspect you’re not quite smart enough. He’ll reassure you that the writer’s job is to put the text out there in the world so readers will add themselves to the mix and make some kind of sense of the whole thing. This is what reading is meant to be.

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