A Teachable Moment: “Drop the I Word”

I’m currently at a fascinating keynote at the National Council of Teachers of Education: Assembly of Research. Dr. Mariana Souto-Manning is talking about language, identity, and Latin@s. She showed us a powerful video from Drop the I Word. Language can be powerful, and hate speech can kill. This video could spark a very important discussion with your students.


Mixing modalities (also known as “I kinda love Mo Willems”)

This week, I’ve spent several happy moments listening to a father read Mo Willems‘ books to his two little munchkins, and I was struck at just how fun those books are. For the kids, the “funnest” part is the story, and at times, finding the Pigeon who hides in every story not about him (yeah, trickster figure, I’m thinking!). For him, it’s the sardonic wit that Willems brings to his books. For me, though, the best part, not surprisingly, is the semiotics. The way that Willems combines image with words is, well, extraordinary. But the images themselves are also fascinating. Take the drawings in the Knuffle Bunny books, for instance. In these, the animation is drawn over photographs of real places. The drawings live in “real life,” in other words. The blending of the everyday, urban landscape with the drawings makes it feel like the drawings themselves live in “real life.”  There’s something magical about it. That’s what it feels like anyway. We know, of course, that the magic lies in the juxtaposition of the two images: one photographed, one drawn. It’s jarring, and we have to make meaning by combining the two into one coherent whole. That’s what makes it pop out to us. That seems totally appropriate for a guy who claims he wants his books “to be played more than they are read” (see the full interview here).

p.s. Check out the teaching guides, too, if you’re interested.

(Source: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast; Art copyright © 2007 by Mo Willems from Knuffle Bunny Too)

What is multimodality?

I’ll admit it: I’m a nerd. I love to think about semiotics, especially multimodality. Multimodality (also known as social semiotics), at its most basic level, is descriptive—it describes how people use language to create meanings and explores potential meanings that people could have created if they had used different meanings or if they had been in different social settings.  In other words, multimodality researchers and educators are concerned both with what was taken up as possible and what could have been taken up as possible but wasn’t in any given social interaction.  mural showing men in suits with tvs as headsTake a look at this mural I saw this summer at the University of Antioch in Medellin, Colombia, for instance. Why depict their heads as TVs? Why are TV heads wearing suits? What are the other symbols representing? Why the other symbols placed above the heads? Why is the radio tower literally towering over the TV heads? Why is one of them reading a newspaper? Why are the TV heads looking directly at us, the viewers?

This type of analysis is incredibly useful in accomplishing the two main goals in my research.  The first is to find a way to describe what is occurring with all the different modes (visual, oral, written) in youth produced media.  There have been some attempts to describe these processes in youth video, many of them quite good (see Burn & Parker’s Analysing Texts (2003), for example), but we can go further in our understanding of how to describe just what is going on in youth videos and in the pedagogy that is used to teach it.

Answering these questions is just one part of what multimodal analysis would hope to accomplish. But, there are more questions: Why paint this at a university? How does it factor in that this university is known in Colombia for activism and that this is just one of many murals on their campus? Understanding how signs are put together is one thing. Understanding how people are using them to express thoughts, identities, and their places in the world, well, that’s another thing entirely. That’s what multimodality is to me.

Multimodality is a collection of theories that helps me to accomplish both goals.  In multimodality, it is language itself that creates learning.  With multimodality, though, the analysis goes beyond linguistic analysis:  language use not only constructs learning, it also constructs how relationships are created and maintained.  This is vital because often marginalization is classified under the general categories of race, class, gender, and disability, and learning is classified under those categories as well. This is understandably difficult to trace.  However, with multimodality, I can understand how relationships are created and how learning is happening by tracing how language is used (in all its modes) by the adults and the children as the youth learn media literacy.  Multimodality helps me to answer some of the difficult questions around marginalization and empowerment by seeing what voice is allowed and what voice is expressed.

All of these are things I think about all the time. So, in this blog, I will post some of my musings about multimodality and ethics. Some of it will relate to my work. Some of it really will be musings. I welcome conversations, so feel free to comment on anything written: to add, to wrestle with the ideas, to laugh. Think of this as another set of signs put out by someone trying to make some sense of the world and the people in it. Now, let’s get started….

Teachable Moment: What is a mode?

The concept of “modes” is often a difficult one to explain. Often we describe a “mode” as something visual, auditory, gestural, written, or said (Burn & Parker, 2003; Curwood & Gibbons, 2010; Gibbons, 2010; Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006). This definition seems to suffice….right up until someone asks us to elaborate.

So, how do we show this concept to our students?

The Inspiration

Thanks to my partner, today I found out about an amazing interactive video that brings Van Gogh’s Starry Night to life, meaning that it adds modes by animating the painting, setting to music, and turning into a video.

Starry Night (interactive animation) from Petros Vrellis on Vimeo.

The Lesson Idea

If possible, I would bring in a print of Starry Night and begin the discussion by talking about how the print copy differs from the original painting and what that means. Then, I would have the students watch Petros Vrellis’ version and ask them questions, such as the following:

  • Which modes were used in the painting? Which modes are used in the video?
  • How does the addition of modes change the effect? Why?
  • What is gained and lost by adding modes in general? What is gained and lost by adding modes in this way in the video?

This lesson could be a wonderful introduction to modes and modality. It helps to broaden the mind as well as help the concept of mode to sink in more deeply than a written definition. Big thanks to Petros Vrellis for sharing this with all of us.