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IMG_0900The new school year is beginning!  (Or has begun a little while ago for some and will begin in a bit more time for others…)  So here is a new round of resources, concentrating on lesson plans, curriculum development materials, and perspectives concerning a variety of levels in media literacy education.  From the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island, here is a comprehensive page of links to valuable resources.  And you may also want to consult the site for Project Look Sharp, which provides curriculum kits and lesson plans that tend to focus on media literacy for younger grades.

In addition, educators looking for further resources dealing with the type of analytical skills detailed in my previous post about a recent work by artist and storyteller Asaf Hanuka should consult Close Reading of Media Texts by Frank Baker, which provides examples – mostly targeted to middle school contexts – related to advertising, photography, movies, and more.  There is also a link to an excellent article by William Kist, New Literacies and the Common Core.

realist227ENThe most recent installment in the Realist comic blog by Asaf Hanuka, the illustrator for the cover and splash pages of Moving Imagesoffers some great lessons in the range of competencies inherent in media literacy and the expressive potential of visual communication.  In a nine-panel, single page comic, Hanuka, an Israeli native, takes on one of the most challenging, complex, and controversial topics from the news of this past summer: the conflict between Israel and Gaza.  Without ever saying so directly.

From its title, “Spoiler Alert” – which uses the meaning of this phrase as a warning from a critic or other commentator regarding a reveal of the content of a media creation – to the references to a graphic novel (later made into a movie) to the precise use of visual information married to text, the reader must engage in media literate interpretation in order to process this work.  Since the artist puts the reclining figure of the narrator in the same position reading the same book in the first three panels, we instantly know that this is the same person seen over a sequence of years, much like in the examples described in Chapter 1 of Moving Images.  Then, the visually literate reader can also move to more subtle and detailed visual information conveyed to us by the artist: in movie terms, the art direction of the backgrounds (from a student’s room to an army scene to an adult’s comfortable bedroom with framed picture), the costume changes, and finally the cinematography of the lighting and lens changes in the second and third trios of images.  In fact, in the final three panels Hanuka creates the graphic novel equivalent of camera movement or a push in with the concluding images of this comic.  They underline and heighten the drama much like a comparative movement in filmmaking.

alan-moore-watchmenAll of these values serve the story and messages of this creation made up of words and pictures, which uses the narrator’s understanding and interpretation of the themes of the groundbreaking graphic novel Watchmen by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons as they shift and mature over his lifetime to express powerfully the moral dilemmas he sees in the world around him.  It is not a ridiculous leap to see it as a discussion of the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly when one considers the context of The Realist blog which has dealt with related issues in a number of its preceding entries – while through its lack of specifically referring to these events it also calls to mind similarly thorny dilemmas in history and the contemporary world.  This example features a topic that is challenging for any educator to address because of its highly emotional and incendiary subject matter, but it points to the value of precise use of visual communication and the demonstrative impact of image-based media, whether through the sequential art of graphic novels or sequences of shots that make up moving images.

Poet and Story

Dead-poets-society-robin-williams-32089561-500-336This week’s incredible journey of virtual mourning for millions over the tragic death of Robin Williams (and personal, private mourning for his family and friends) has been quite powerful in its breadth and is anchored by this still recent ability to share media – like going down the cellar to take out the boxes of home movies and prepare them for family reminiscing – so quickly, so widely, and so interactively by both professionals and the general public.

One of the movies selected for study with Moving Images is Dead Poets Society, and a picture of Robin Williams as Charles Keating is featured on page 296 in a discussion of casting in the production process.  Interestingly, the first time I personally used the film in a media literacy course – because it is generally used in a sophomore English class at my school – was this past spring.  I had not seen it in a while, and I was struck in particular by Robin Williams’s performance, along with the entire cast.  If one is looking for lessons in directing of actors in a film from the past few decades, the work that Peter Weir did in this movie was extraordinary.  I have found that people tend to focus on the “antics” of Robin Williams’s performance in this role, but if that is the case, they aren’t looking very closely or with an open critical eye.  While general perception of this role has tended to focus on his behavior as a “teacher on stage,” Williams is able to convey the care that his character takes in trying to understand his students and pay attention to them as appropriate to the context of a private academy of the 1950’s.  His is a supporting role – and another great lesson for students learning from this film is to investigate and discuss the core dramatic issues of the screenplay: who is the main character?  when are the turning points of the story?  what are the objectives of all of the characters and where are the conflicts? –  and it is one that is quite subtle and honest; it is often best in the quiet moments, even ones without words.  This is not often enough said of Robin Williams performances, but I find it true here.  I highly recommend giving this movie a fresh viewing and doing it with an open critical mind; the poetry is in more than the book Williams is holding in this picture.

fool and flying shipOn the solely verbal side, I would like to recommend another Robin Williams performance that is not among his most famous: his narration of The Fool and the Flying Shipa children’s story for Rabbit Ears Records back in the 1980’s.  All of his voice gifts are there, along with the one-liners, the accents, the infectious energy, but as opposed to the ping-ponging, zipping here and there qualities of his stand-up work, here he is grounded by story.  And since he is narrating, the voices of individual characters have time to stay with us, come back into view, and form a distinct presence in the life of a narrative, which is a bit different than the quick blips of caricature that he would use in comedy performances, talk shows, and similar work.  He also narrated Pecos Bill, which is more well-known and is excellent as well in different ways, but I would encourage anyone interested to seek out the brilliant creation The Fool and the Flying Ship.  I must add a personal note that was rather unbelievable to my family and I: we listened to this story precisely four days ago.  This past Monday morning, the day of Robin Williams’s death, we had to drive to Boston for a medical appointment for two of our children.  On a whim, I grabbed a CD that we hadn’t listened to in many years, The Fool and the Flying Ship.  It was the first thing we listened to during our drive, and I remarked to my wife, “I think this is one of the best things Robin Williams has ever done.  It really brings together so many of his best qualities and he is just so on here.  It’s right up there with his most distinctive, natural performances.”  We just couldn’t believe it when we got the news that evening when we arrived home, which is clearly still the case across the globe.

As one final comment, in discussions of Williams’s work this week, I have not heard mention of Moscow on the Hudson, directed by Paul Mazursky.  It was his most acclaimed performance of his early feature film work and one that appeared to be very important to him.  It should certainly be listed among the defining titles of his filmography along with some of the later more famous, and perhaps not as distinctive, performances.

Animated Canada

nfb animationA quick note that there is a superb exhibit on animation in Quebec City at one of the most innovative and inspiring museums one can find, the Musee de la Civilisation.  The exhibit, Image X Image, leads the viewer through the key technical and creative aspects of animation as it also traces its history in Canada, particularly the groundbreaking work of the National Film Board and such important figures as Norman McLaren, Ryan Larkin, Co Hoedeman, and Caroline Leaf.  It also provides numerous fully interactive areas for kids (and grownups too!) in which they can work at all aspects of creating moving images through objects, drawings, and playing with light frame by frame.  An interesting aspect of the exhibit is that it features a number of spots where one can watch numerous short animated movies — yes, just sit down and take the time to see some of the finest animated shorts of the past century or so.  Finally, I bring this up on this blog because it can lead us to a resource that is available even if you can’t get to Quebec City: the NFB site which features a wealth of information and links to many of their best movies.  One recommendation: The Sand Castle, a classic, truly amazing stop-motion short by Co Hoedeman.

5371v1076If you are looking to review media literacy analytical resources that might be useful for the upcoming school year, this hour-long Frontline piece from this past semester can provide useful perspectives on the generation in our classrooms today, christened “Generation Like” in the title to this PBS documentary.  Hosted by author and mediamaker Douglas Rushkoff who writes, “Generation Like explores how the perennial teen quest for identity and connection has migrated to social media — and exposes the game of cat-and-mouse that corporations are playing with these young consumers.”  Also take a look at my earlier post which includes a lesson plan created for the Frontline exposés Merchants of Cool and Digital Nation and may provide guidance or ideas for similar lessons with Generation Like.  

boyhood_xlgThe relationship between movies and time is integral to the medium’s essence: film itself is a succession of still images moving so quickly that we feel they are existing in front of us like our experience of the world and of time itself.  In fact, the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky used the description of “Sculpting in Time” to distill the nature of what filmmaking was to him.

This month, Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking movie Boyhood, starring Ellar Coltrane, is released in theaters.  In this film, director Linklater has taken a bold approach in the depiction of a boy growing to manhood: He recorded  the feature over a number of years as Ellar Coltrane ages from 6 to 18 over the course of the story.  There have been movies that deal in a variety of ways with aging characters, such as the Up documentary series by director Michael Apted, or fiction series such as François Truffaut’s Antoine Doisnel movies or Linklater’s own Before… movies with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, but none have adapted as determined, lengthy, and particular approach to periodically filming the development of a young person and crafting it into a fictional world.

EllarColtraneBoyhoodThis article in the New York Times features a slide show titled “12 Years a Boy” in which one can view the physical transformations of actor Ellar Coltrane over the years during which this movie was made.  This article and topics discussed in Moving Images related to time and the relationships of reality to fiction in chapters 5 and 6 can be useful starting points in examining this movie.  Boyhood‘s content, moviemaking techniques, and media literacy-related discussion points can be a natural topical fit for students who are at the edge of adulthood, like the main character of Boyhood at the end of the movie (while it is important to note that this movie is rated R for language and teen alcohol and drug use).

As a final point, I find particular delight in one detail to this story: one of the links between father and son in the movie Boyhood concerns the ties that can be shared through music and time, and this manifests itself in the compilation of a Black Album of the Beatles (related to their “White Album” of 1968, actually titled simply The Beatles) made up of songs from after the group’s breakup and created by the father of the movie for his son (Ethan Hawke plays the father to Ellar Coltrane’s Mason).  The father writes, “Mason, I wanted to give you something for your birthday that money couldn’t buy, something that only a father could give a son, like a family heirloom.  This is the best I could do. Apologies in advance. I present to you: THE BEATLES’ BLACK ALBUM.”  Linklater and Hawke shared the 3-CD track list that they came up with (and which had originated as a real gift from Hawke to his oldest daughter).  Since every time my family and I get in the car my kids ask to put a Beatles CD on (and I can’t believe that I’m the one saying “could we try something else for a change”), I think it’s time that I made up our own family version of The Black Album, and I think I’ll have to make it a 4-CD package.

A few days ago, my daughter, who just finished 5th grade, called me over to the computer to show me “something neat.”  “Look at this animal, isn’t it amazing?  I hope they can save it,” she said.  I scratched my head at the pictures and descriptions of the tree octopus on this sharp, very official and scientific looking site, and responded to her, “Ummm, Lucie, who made this site?  It looks pretty cool and all, but I’m not so sure about this.  I think we should check on this.”

“Oh, yeah, I know,” she answered with a smile.  “Mrs. P showed us all about this stuff and how you need to really check on sources you find, like these other three…”  She was testing me.  Very deadpan, very funny.  Good job, elementary school teachers and kids!  I should add that I am looking forward to sharing this post with my daughter (and sons too) because she used my mediateacher.net site this year for a research project she did on stop-motion animation, which led to me sharing a number of books, other resources, and my input with her.

World Cup 1So as we review our previous school year’s work and look to the next cycle, it is imperative to look back at media literacy developments that might inform our ongoing work in the classroom and beyond.  Right now, the enormous media event known as the World Cup is going on, and what we quickly interpret as “reality” is often the one that is selected by the camera angles and lenses chosen for us.  Did we really see that?  Who was editing?  Did they cut out part of the whole story?  What might seem like a clear witnessing of an event could just be part of the story, and a distorted one at that.  Or not.

Twerk gone badFrom this past year, there was a media story that should enter right into any educator’s playbook: the viral event generated by the “twerking gone bad” clip with a woman in her room who falls over and catches fire.  As it turns out, this YouTube phenomenon was orchestrated by Jimmy Kimmel with a professional stunt woman (Daphne Avalon, using a pseudonym in the video) for his late-night show.  The piece from Jimmy Kimmel Live is really quite exceptional and can be used quite well in investigating authenticity and other issues associated with moving images and their role in society today.   In particular, the degree to which television shows reported the phenomenon as real, as shown in the clip from the show.

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