How Teaching School Is Different From The Movies

An English teacher I had at school couldn’t stand that Robin Williams movie, Dead Poet’s Society. The ideal of the enthusiastic teacher jumping about on all the desks, monologuing center stage gave him the shits, I was surprised to learn.

Then, when I was at teachers’ college myself, I remember the tutor saying a few times, “Now you may have seen [X] happen on the movies, but don’t ever do that.” If you overthink it, it’s bizarre that teachers’ college students need to be told this, because we’d all spent 13 years in the school system ourselves, so you’d think we’d have known the difference between movies and real life. But no, a few things still needed saying. Especially since university lectures are different again, and in just four years you tend to forget.

Then there are simple details which you see all the time in school stories without really thinking (perhaps until the fridge moment), that doesn’t really happen in schools.

Take for example The History Boys (film or play), written by Alan Bennett.

COMPULSORY PHYSICAL EDUCATION

Bennett went to school a long time before the 1980s, which is when this play is set. He writes in his 2004 diaries of some issues faced when depicting a modern(ish) school.

First he had to take out a gymnasium scene, because by the 1980s sixth formers wouldn’t have been enrolled in physical education.

LOCKERS

As part of his research, Bennett visited the London Nautical School to avoid outdated clangers.

My main impression is how burdened the boys are, humping all their possessions with them wherever they go so that they’re slung round with coats, togs, books and bags, none of them seemingly having their own locker or desk.

This is true in my experience too (both as student and teacher). Students (at least outside America? don’t tend to have allocated lockers anymore. This was to do with theft and vandalism, and no doubt also to do with the tendency for students to leave uneaten food in their lockers, to rot the wood and attract rodents.

The students at our local high school can rent a locker, which costs ten bucks per term. I wondered who paid that (parents, I guess) and according to the local high school girl I know, they’re popular for storing jackets in. It is terribly uncool to wear a jacket around here, but some parents make kids take them anyway. Once at school, the jackets/coats are shoved into the lockers and that’s where they stay.

If you’re wondering how the local youth keep warm, short answer they don’t, but the slightly longer answer is that they wear two jumpers instead.

I wonder how many schools still have lockers, compared to how many fictional students still have lockers. In American school dramas we always see scenes involving lockers. The lockers themselves are often used as a plot device, with plantings of drugs and offensive graffiti emblazoned across them, and love notes pushed through the cracks, and timid boys being locked inside… In fact, everything I know about lockers comes from fiction:

Now, it is possible to slip a note into a locked locker through the vents. Even, with some pushing, a pencil. Once, Tiny Cooper slipped a Happy Bunny book into my locker. But I find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine how Jane, who, after all, is not the world’s strongest individual, managed to stuff an entire winter coat through the tiny slits in my locker.

– from Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan.

But I have no idea how many North American schools still provide lockers for their students. (Perhaps one of you will enlighten me.) In New Zealand, as in England (like Bennett observed), most students lump around a bag full of textbooks all day. This can’t be good for the back. I think at some schools parents are starting to complain about this, and lockers may be making a comeback.

SARCASM

Bennett writes:

Nicholas Hytner has shown the script of The History Boys to one of his former teachers at Manchester Grammar School, who says that teaching these days is so circumscribed that many traditional tools of the trade are now impermissible. Sarcasm, for instance, is out, pupils are never touched and there are often viewing panels in the doors.

Each of these observations is very true, and it does frustrate me when I see sarcastic dialogue from teachers in modern fictional schools. We were taught firmly at teachers’ college that sarcasm is a no-no — and the objection doesn’t just come from above; today’s students detect sarcasm in a second, and will pull you up on it. I remember filling in for another teacher, turning up to anarchy and saying, ‘Some quiet would be nice.’

One of the students was listening, at least. She turned to me and said, ‘Watch the sarcasm, Miss.’

And if I hadn’t been so busy with the humdrum, time-consuming and dreary job of calling a class of unknown students to attention, I might have delivered a lesson on what ‘sarcasm’ actually means, and how it compares to ‘understatement’ but this was a maths lesson. (I also remember later in the hour being asked how to do quadratic equations, and I was of no help whatsoever with that.)

Yet authors of fictional teachers are still making heavy use of sarcasm in lessons, and this lacks authenticity to me… Which is problematic if authenticity is what they are going for.

PHYSICAL CONTACT

Regarding the touchy issue of touching, in every school you’ll probably find at one point in staff history:

  • a teacher who gets away with quite a bit of physical contact because they have a wonderful rapport with all of their students, and it never gets them into trouble
  • at least one teacher who crosses the line, and who seems to get a certain titillation out of mildly through wildly inappropriate touching of students. This is my own experience of schools.

But most teachers never, ever touch students, not even in kindness. So when I see a teacher in a fictional drama touching a student, even on the shoulder, even to gain attention, I notice.

I also notice when a teacher keeps a student behind after class for a talking to. Even if this is innocent — like ‘Where’s your homework?’ — I always think how unlikely it is, that a teacher would keep a student behind after class. Teachers know to keep their classroom doors open, and when speaking to an individual student, keep their friends along too, or just outside the door, within earshot. Isn’t every modern teacher ever-aware of fictional claims of sexual abuse and harassment? Even fictional characters? I get the impression that authors of fictional teachers underestimate this unfortunate and lingering anxiety.

BEFORE THE BELL

So often in American dramas the bell rings; students snap their books shut, stand up, walk out.

I have never seen this scenario (except with one teacher who, it was widely acknowledged, had major problems controlling her classes).

What usually happens is this:

1. The teacher is keeping an eye on the clock about every five minutes. (You don’t see this much in dramatised classrooms either.) The teacher is often more cognizant of the end of class than the students, and it is the teacher who orchestrates the wind-up of a lesson.

2. About ten minutes before the end, a good teacher will ask the class to contribute to a recap of the day’s learning material. There’s usually some boring admin stuff, like homework, but I can forgive a scriptwriter for leaving that stuff out.

3. A tidy teacher will ask students to pick up any litter on the floor, and if it’s the last lesson of the day, the chairs will go up onto the desks. (Can you think of a single time you’ve seen this on the screen?)

4. If students start packing up before they are requested, any teacher with middling management skills still knows to put the kybosh on that, or else students soon learn that they can pack up a good 20 mins before the end of each class and battle for position near the exit, ready to burst out the door with the first tinkle of the bell. Any teacher who lets this happen is not on top of things.

So why, in fiction, do students pack up and leave taking their cue from the bell, not their teachers, with ‘good’ teachers shouting over top of the ruckus in order to finish their sentence?

STUDENT CENTERED LESSONS

In modern classrooms, students have far more to say than in the classrooms of yesteryear. The teacher is no longer a lecturer; rather a facilitator. Students are frequently divided into groups, set to work on a task (often on a computer), then present to their peers.

What I see in fictional classrooms: The teacher yaks. Students listen. This is a particularly vexing scenario when the class is supposed to be ‘difficult’.

I can tell you for a fact, modern students have little tolerance for lengthy lectures. There are still lessons during which teachers do a goodly proportion of the talking, but they are not met with the bright and alert faces which are seen so often on TV and movies. What you definitely get during a high school lecture lesson is a teacher who is telling Amy to stop talking, Corey to refrain from tapping the desk with his pencil, Riley to quit rustling with whatever is in that plastic bag yadda yadda yadda.

The most realistic depiction of a fictional classroom that I have seen is Summer Heights High (Australia), closely followed by Seven Periods With Mr Gormsby (New Zealand). Matt Lucas as Vicky Pollard and Catherine Tate’s ‘am I bovvered’ are also scarily accurate. That, of course, is exactly why they’re funny. These are all parodies, yet they achieve a realism that serious drama can’t seem to match.

These depictions get a bit closer to what really happens in a modern high school lesson, at least in Australia, NZ and England. The Catherine Tate sketch is scarily accurate… A VERY similar thing happened when I went to teach English to the English with a New Zealand accent. I almost think Catherine Tate was a fly on the wall that day, especially since my main sparring partner was called Lauren.

Related Links:

High School Hierarchy in YA Fiction

The Most Realistic TV Shows About High School, like, ever, from Flavorwire.

What Is Transmedia?

Cat Flippen explains:

Transmedia Storytelling references the process of using various parts and elements of a topic that are shared periodically via multiple means of delivery (transmedia) for the explicit purpose of drawing in, intriguing and entertaining those who are targeted to receive the transmedia.

And gives an example using The Matrix:

Parts of the entire story were spread out and portrayed through a variety of media: three films, two comic books, many video games, and animated short films. In order to grasp the entire story, you had to partake of the entire “universe” of The Matrix. The mix of the old media (the television show, the movie) with the new media (split story experience, fan-driven participation) is seen often.

 

Teach Kids That Their Brain Is Malleable

The best resource I’ve found for brain research in regard to education is by Judy Willis. A neurologist turned teacher, Willis makes understanding all this stuff really relatable to the classroom. One of the most important points she makes is that people are not born at a certain intelligence level and stay that way. Intelligence is not gifted at birth, unalterable; and when students realize that they can alter their brain, it is absolutely empowering.

This myth that the brain is unalterable feeds into the insecure world of a middle schooler. To take from them that false burden of “that’s just the way it is,” is liberating. Anything you can do to help a ‘tween feel more secure in their abilities and possibilities will potentially improve their achievement in your classroom. Anything you can do to make a ‘tween feel more in control becomes a powerful tool for you and for them.

Edutopia

Tuurngait: An award winning short film

An Inuit child wanders away from his village, fascinated by a wild bird. His father follow his trail, dertermined to find him before he gets lost on the ice floe.

Here is the link on Vimeo. (6 minutes)

The title of the short film makes us of unusual font. This is reminiscent of the Inuikitut syllabary.

QUESTIONS FOR YOUNG VIEWERS

  1. Where is this short film set? How can you tell?
  2. Describe how the boy’s (Nanuk’s) clothing differs from the clothing of his father. What does this contrast represent?
  3. There is no dialogue throughout this story, yet the viewer understands something of Nanuk’s character through his body language and facial expressions. What sort of character is Nanuk?
  4. Describe how the father’s body language and facial expressions contrast with those of his son.
  5. The lighting outside is blue and bright. Describe the lighting and atmosphere inside the hut.
  6. The Tuurngait is a creature in Inuit mythology, but the Wikipedia entry points out that this form of ‘mythology’ is slightly different from other definitions. Explain in your own words.
  7. Why does Nanuk follow the bird?
  8. In fantasy fiction there is often a ‘portal’, in which the main character enters a magical realm. In this case the portal is hidden under the ice floe, accessed via a break in the ice. Think of other fantasy stories you have read. What else is used as a ‘portal’?
  9. As Nanuk enters the reflective icy cave, the viewer sees a kaleidoscopic effect, with multiple birds and multiple Nanuks. What is the significance of this?
  10. Inside the cave, what kind of sound effects are used to portray an eerie environment?
  11. The cave becomes scarier and scarier. How has the color scheme changed?
  12. In the spooky under-ice-floe world, animals are gigantic. In fantasy, size is often exaggerated as a technique. What is the effect of this technique? And can you think of any other stories in which large animals featured?
  13. At the end, the huge bear morphs into an image of the father. Why?

 

Genres In Children’s Literature: Lecture 19: More On Children’s Poetry

Many wonderful poets are writing for children in the UK. However, if you go searching for children’s poetry in a UK library or bookshop, you’ll find it on a shelf labelled ‘Children’s Poetry and Joke Books’. Children deserve access to the same range of subjects and styles as adults. What public art gallery would fill its children’s’ section with cartoons only? Yes we love cartoons, yes we love humour, but perhaps adult insecurity (about poetry we don’t immediately ‘get’) has narrowed this market to a sub-genre of joke books.” 

Manchester Children’s Book Festival

 

The following are notes from David Beagley, La Trobe University, available on iTunes U.

Hehe

Poetry is spread through cultures all throughout the world. But children’s poetry is not necessarily a distinct thing — it goes hand in hand with cultures which consider the child different from the adult. What exactly is it that distinguishes children’s poetry from the rest of society’s poetry?

Of all the things I wish I were I wish I were a sparrow

References: 

The Little Book Room by Eleanor Farjeon

Rebecca Lukens, A Critical Handbook Of Children’s Literature

A chapter out of a book by Maureen Nimon and Ern Finnis. (This one?)

Stephen Herrick is an Australian poet who have set styles in place that are being followed all around the world e.g. the verse novel, Love That Dog, where the story is told through a sequence of poems.

Websites useful for finding poems:

Poemhunter.com 

Searchpoetry.com is a search engine

Those two allow you to search by poet’s name/titles/individual lines. Many of the poems are out of copyright, so older poems.

Bartleby reprints texts out of copyright — old encyclopedias, magazines, classic poems etc.

What Makes For Good Poetry?

Rebecca Lukens (of A Critical Handbook Of Children’s Literature): Simple rhyming and construction of words into a pattern may have a long history, but this is not poetry. Greeting card limericks, advertising jingles etc. are not poems. They are verse, they are games, rhymes, wordplay… but not poetry. Lukens says that poetry as a definition has very specific boundaries. T.S. Eliot also took up this issue: If you’re just playing with structure then you’re not writing poetry. There must be sensitivity of thought that is worth conveying to others. While Lukens does make a case for a continuum, with ‘doggerel’ at one end and ‘high art’ at the other, Eliot is very particular. He says poetry is only at the high art end. Eliot’s own poetry fits at that end — it’s easy to wonder what the hell his poems are about, until you’ve really studied it. That sort of poetry was very popular in the 20th century.

Is this an elitist view? Is this why for a lot of people poetry is meaningless, to be avoided like the plague? You get meaning a lot more quickly from a novel or a movie, or even dance.

According to Lukens and Eliot’s definition of poetry, verse is inferior to poetry.

Poems need to say something about our state of living/human beings/the natural world which adds to our sense of living. What’s more important in poetry: How something is said or what is actually said? It’s insulting to children to say that poetry has to be some elevated form and that they need something different and that children’s verse is somehow inferior.

See Give Them Wings, ed. Maurice Saxby

So those are two opposing views about what makes poetry.

Very often, children’s first introduction to literature (constructed literary works) is rhyme — Round and round the garden, This little piggy etc. Even when the child does not understand the words, they learn the rhythm, they learn that it is comforting, they learn about their relationships with the important people in their lives.

Although nursery rhymes are passed orally from generation to generation, someone must have constructed them. But we have no idea who. (Though we do know who wrote Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – Jane Taylor.)

After a while the child starts to memorise these rhymes and join in. It becomes a shared activity. Actions accompany the rhymes (e.g. Incy Wincy Spider).  This is children’s literature. So how can one say that this is lesser literature than T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets? To the child, this is the complete, greatest thing. Mastering the movements that go along with rhymes is a major achievement.

The very first Simpsons cartoon (a Tracy Ulman show skit) depicts Homer and Marge saying goodnight to the three children. ‘Night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.’ Lisa is mortified, wondering about the bedbugs. ‘Rock a bye baby…. when the bough breaks the cradle will fall….’ Maggie is imagining herself falling from the top of the tree. Homer and Marge go off to bed and say to each other ‘Aren’t we wonderful parents.’ This skit shows that if children actually understood the words in some famous sayings and lullabies, they’d probably be disturbed. It’s not about the words, it’s about the rhythm and song.

Is it meant to be ‘read’ or is it meant to be ‘said’? This is the question that defines children’s literature.

We’re Going On A Bear Hunt is a very old poetry game. Probably the best known version these days comes via Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s book published by Walker Books. Publishing can fix a piece of children’s literature into one well-known form, whereas before publishing, rhymes evolved in the playground.

THE IMPACT OF TV

People who study playground lore have found that, despite worries, TV hasn’t replaced rhymes, chasing, skipping and singing games etc., instead, T.V. has simply added content.

It’s unlikely TV or screens would ever lead to the demise of this kind of play, because playground rhymes offer a safeish space to use taboo language. [Demonstrated in the Australian book series edited by Peter and Virginia Ferguson Durkin.) The rhymes might be about putting someone else down/teasing, or deflates authority and establishes hierarchies. There’s a lot about inclusion and exclusion.

LET 'ER RIP, POTATO CHIP! A Fresh…

There is quite deliberate parody e.g. Felicia Hemans looking back on the Battle of the Nile, writing the poem Casabianca. The poem was a very didactic one about dying nobly. So the poem had its words replaced in the playground. [We did the same at school with the New Zealand national anthem: Hear our voices tweet tweet tweet/God defend the toilet seat. I remember the joyous terror of singing this in assembly, looking at the teachers trying to work out who was singing it.]

Shirley Hughes’ book is full of things that adults would like, and compared to what the children are using in the playground, it’s not especially memorable.

Walter De La Mare’s poems are deceptively simple and have therefore mainly been published for children. As I Was Walking is a good example of a serious poem which has been hijacked (personalised) by children.

 

WORDPLAY

Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Spike Milligan all wrote poems which made playthings out of words. Some of the words from these famous poets have since entered the English language. (Lear’s ‘chortle’, for instance.)

Sound is very important. Rhyme helps new generations of children to remember the chants.

Picturebook Study: Colour Analysis

THE IDEATIONAL ROLE OF COLOUR

In its most basic role, colour is used to represent the hue of things as they appear in the real world.

  • Grass is green
  • Sky is blue (or not)
  • Cows on small farms are black and white
  • Brick houses are red
  • American barns are red
  • Suns are yellow or white in the West, red in Japan
  • and so on

 

THE TEXTUAL ROLE OF COLOUR

  • The same colour might be used over and over to mean something symbolic, like the colour red in the film Sixth Sense (a color motif)
  • Colour may be used contrastively to highlight or foreground some element within a composition to make it especially salient to the viewer.

 

THE INTERPERSONAL ROLE OF COLOUR

This is about the emotional effect colour has on the viewer. This refers to the visceral response we have, independent of the actual story being told. Other useful words are: ambience, mood, atmosphere.

  • A picture book filled with bright, light colours might feel childlike and joyous
  • A picture book done in monochrome might make us feel melancholy or reflective or sombre.
  • Sepia tones put us in mind of an historicised story.
  • Colour and texture can be either infused or defused (I’ve also heard the term ‘diffused’ or we might say ‘drained’.)
  • Lighting effects can make a picture seem either dramatized (e.g. arte noir) or flat
  • We can speak in terms of vibrancy, which is another term for saturation (lots of colour, or tending more towards monochrome). Vibrancy creates excitement whereas muted choices create gentle, restrained feelings, or perhaps flat feelings. Note that ‘muted’ can refer to either light or dark images. Rosie’s Walk is muted but light, whereas Wolves In The Walls is muted but dark.
  • Vibrancy/saturation is tied directly to the variable of ‘value’ — the lights and darks — imagine the illustration blocked out in grey scale. That’s its value. (Illustrators often do a values picture first, and digital illustrators often work by doing the values and only adding colour on separate layers after all the value details have been finalised. This allows hue and vibrancy to be changed easily at any stage of the publishing process.)
  • We can speak in terms of warmth, according to how yellow/blue a picture is.
  • Warm colours and cool colours can signal the temperature of the environment but also the emotion of the characters, or both.
  • And something not seen in digital art software: we can also speak in terms of ‘familiarity’. Familiar illustrations will have more colour differentiation whereas ‘removed’ illustrations will have less.
  • A ‘familiar’ ambience is made up of lots of ‘colour differentiation’. (Lots of different colours.) The reason it’s called ‘familiar’ is because the real world is also made up of lots of different colours, and we are familiar with the real world.
  • When illustrators make use of a reduced palette they are making the conscious decision to move readers away from the familiar and into the strange. There will be a reason for wanting to move us away from reality and it’s just a matter of working out what that reason is when analysing an illustration.
  • This removal from reality needn’t be in the literal sense — it might be
  • Vibrancy, warmth and familiarity are all active simultaneously — they don’t cancel each other out.
  • An opposite of the ‘familiar’ colour scheme might be described as ‘saudade’, from Portuguese.

saudade

  • Saudade Pinterest Boards
  • A mixture of familiar and saudade colour palettes in the same book can show the difference between, say, characters who are enjoying life and a part of their environment and those who are removed. (As an example see Anthony Browne’s Piggyback – the father is depicted in vibrant colours while the mother is removed. Another is Cooke and Oxenbury’s So Much.)
  • In picturebooks you often see a page sans setting — a part of the scene has been pulled out and placed on a white background. This is done to draw the reader’s attention to the emotion in the picture rather than to encourage a focus on the ambience.
  • Splashes of colour within generally dark pictures usually mean something in the story, too. For example, a bright splash of colour that runs through a book might foreshadow a happy ending.
  • Another kind of colour contrast used in picturebooks: A coloured frame or margin that carries the ambience. Try dividing the picture into parts according to light and dark, in shadow or in light, warm or cool, and see how the composition looks now.
  • White margins don’t mean much in picture books because they’re neutral but black margins do have an effect. We’re less inclined to react emotionally to a picture when framed in black. (Art students are told to avoid black straight out of the tube altogether, presumably for this reason.)
  • When a children’s picture book is entirely black and white the decision has been made to forego the opportunity for ambience, or at least downplay it. Even in black and white pictures you still get the full continuum between simple black and white line drawings with no ambience to drawings that include shading and hatching and dotting to create texture and then there are those that emphasise lighting effects to create a greater sense of atmosphere. (These last kind have infused ambience rather than ‘defused’. Another word for ‘defused’ is ‘flat’.)
  • Black and white is not the typical choice for picturebooks but you’ll find it anyway. (Why the black and white?)

Notes from Reading Visual Narratives (2013) by Painter, Martin and Unsworth

FURTHER READING

Here’s a very nice resource for anyone who would like to know about the History and Science of Colour Temperature, at a website called Filmmaker IQ.

Film School Rejects shared a program which averages the colour of films and comes out with a single hue. It would be interesting to apply this to picturebooks. Meantime, there are plans to use it on Disney films.

Why not just do everything like Scandinavians?

If you’re fond of charts and rankings and read a bit about quality of life and inequalities of various kinds, you’re probably well-aware that Scandinavian countries come out on top in almost every area. My own political views are formed partly by wondering, Well, what would a Scandinavian do?

Here’s another thing the Fins in particular are doing right: Education.

Teacher Training In Finland: Reflections From A Recent Graduate is an interesting insight into the way in which teachers are revered in cultures which do better in almost everything. It’s from a blog called Taught By Finland. If you’re involved in education, I highly recommend a look.